The Trump administration’s decision to launch a missile attack against Syria was, for the moment, a triumph of the President’s desire to appear tougher than his famously cautious predecessor over Trump’s wish to have the US less involved in the rest of the world and more sympathetic to Moscow. Since the early days of his campaign Trump’s foreign policy positions have reflected these two different, and seemingly contradictory ideas. The President’s belief that the US should focus on domestic concerns and no longer seek to be so deeply involved in politics, conflicts, crisis response and state building in virtually every corner of the world has long been in tension with his view that that the US should be stronger, less afraid to use force and should “win” more, whatever that means.
An administration that within its first three months in power, has become concerned largely about simply staying in power is capable of all kinds of things when a difficult election approaches. Based on what similar regimes have done, this likely does not mean overt election fraud, but a combination of misinformation, legal shenanigans and intimidation to ensure reelection. This may seem like an extraordinary assertion. However, given the enthusiasm with which this administration has already broken from many democratic norms, sought to undermine various institutions and question the veracity of any information that does not portray the President in a positive light, ignoring this concern altogether would be a mistake.
It is not hard to imagine a scenario where Trumpcare does not make it through congress and investigations continue on several fronts, leaving the administration frustrated, but still without the competence or expertise to pass new laws or even engage maturely in the legislative process. Should that happen, the administration will, metaphorically speaking, hunker down and rely on executive orders, administrative policy changes in various agencies and Trump’s madcap and dangerous words and Tweets to set policy and, for lack of a better word, govern. In the short run, that strategy will, given the current political environment, be enough to keep Trump and people in office and out of trouble with the law, but over the long term the impact on American democracy could be devastating.
It is important for universities to both expose students to a range of ideas and to be an arena where scholars can discuss their ideas freely. When I was a professor I frequently invited speakers with whose views I disagreed. I have appeared on many panels with other speakers who do not share my views. This is part of the give and take of academia that is beneficial for students and scholars alike. This also has very little to do with events at Middlebury because Charles Murray is not a conservative scholar or rigorous academic thinker. He is a discredited racial theorist who, most notably in The Bell Curve, sought to tart up 19th century racist thinking with flawed methodological pyrotechnics.
The biggest threat to Donald Trump for now will not come from the Democratic Party, as they simply do not have enough power in Congress or anywhere else at the moment. The President and his powerful supporters in Congress also have significant leverage over Republicans like Lindsay Graham who occasionally seem to be aware of the President’s conflicts of interests and disturbing relationship with Russia. The President is clearly rattled by critical media and massive demonstrations, but, at least for now, neither is going to bring him down. Instead, the biggest threat to the President could be the one person, any one person, who is both a senior figure in his administration and can plausibly claim to have not been involved with Russia.
The central lessons of the Trump administration have been that it is as bad as we thought it would be and that illusions of normalcy are just that-illusions. The odd decent speech, rational appointment or presidential gesture must be understood as ephemeral and frequently a deliberate attempt to deceive. We would be foolish to expect anything else from a regime committed to rolling back our democratic rights. Sadly, we are also learning that too many who have spent their lives in and around politics at the highest levels, even if they are generally critical of Trump, are too deep inside that world to understand this.
The WBC, unlike the World Cup or the Olympics is not run by an international governing body, but by Major League Baseball (MLB) a for profit American corporation that is immensely popular among American Jews. MLB uses what they call a “heritage rule” to allow players who are eligible for citizenship in any country to play for that team. The primary reason for this is to dilute American talent so that the tournament proves more competitive. Accordingly, some Italian Americans can play for Italy, some German Americans for Germany and the like. Israel is a big beneficiary, because all Jews anywhere are eligible to become citizens of Israel. MLB, for its part, has encouraged American Jews to play for Israel, because, unlike many international organizations, it recognizes the organic connection between all Jews and the state of Israel.
The ongoing failure of congressional Republicans to investigate Donald Trump’s financial conduct or his relationship with Russia is strong evidence that the GOP is not going to emerge as a force for democracy or the constitution. Instead, it is increasingly clear that in the next few years the Republican will either evolve into the governing party of a non-democratic regime or collapse entirely. With each passing day, the middle ground between these two outcomes becomes even smaller.
What makes this scandal unique in American history is that, while it is an offense that is impeachable, and that makes both Watergate and the Clinton scandals that brought about his impeachment, but not his conviction, look like a day at the beach, it all occurred and was known before the election. Other presidents committed offenses that drew attention, scrutiny and even impeachment once they were in office. Trump did it all in the year preceding the election. This has brought him immunity of a sort, because if he is impeached, it will be very easy to bring down much of the Republican Party with him. This is the Faustian, and poorly thought out, that the Republicans made when they nominated and then rallied behind this more than slightly unhinged kleptocrat with authoritarian, and perhaps treasonous tendencies.
We are now at a place politically where if the President goes a few days following a legal decision without sending an abusive Tweet, we see it as a victory for democracy, but we should be a little cautious here as well. The White House has suggested there will be another executive order that will reflect the court’s decision. While this order is being crafted, Trump will continue to rally his base, the 35 or so percent of the population that matter for Trump’s short term political future, by saying that if the courts continue to rule against him, it is proof of the liberal conspiracy against him and, implicitly, for the terrorists.
When Netanyahu consistently aligns himself with the Republican congress, and gratuitously attacked President Obama — a man who despite right-wing talking points remains extremely popular with American Jews — and most egregiously embraces a new President whose campaign associated itself with anti-Semites, he sends a clear message that he cares little about the majority of American Jews.
The White House is working to ensure the 2020 election will be unlike any other in American history and a step backwards for American democracy. A Jeff Sessions led Justice Department will enable, and indeed probably encourage, Republican controlled states to further limit voting rights through requiring identification, limiting the number of polling places, scaling back polling hours and other shenanigans. Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch will join the Supreme Court and give a solid five votes to the conservative position on any challenge to these laws. His impressive Ivy League credentials will no doubt be very comforting to those Americans who will be unable to vote in 2020 because of the laws he will undoubtedly vote to uphold from his new position.
It is apparent from the first few weeks of the Trump administration that many fears of what this would look like were well founded. This administration has been vitriolic, angry, reactionary, patently dishonest, unconcerned about democratic norms, rarely competent and very dangerous. The bad news is that this is not likely to stop soon. The Republicans in congress have shown no interest in checking executive power or probing Trump’s financial conduct, the role of Russia in our election or anything else. Those hoping to impeach President Trump misunderstand this political environment where that is almost impossible. Others, promising that the President will soon snap and lose all contact with reality thus forcing somebody’s hand, are missing the key fact that Donald Trump snapped months ago.
Most significantly, the drumbeat to celebrate the peaceful, but not quite democratic, transition is an effort to stifle dissent. It is a way tell people who are still upset because the election was not what should be expected from a democratic country in 2016 to shut up. In the last few days when progressive pundits, analysts and protestors have raised these concerns, they have been told to simply focus on the peaceful transition. When a Republican tells somebody to focus on the peaceful transition or respect the dignity of the office of the presidency, and to stop presenting all the evidence that there is something very amiss in our democracy, it is is the political equivalent of Charlie Brown telling Linus “Tell your statistics to shut up!”
Some of the most important issues in the Trump Russia mess are in danger of being lost in waters now muddied by unproven stories about prostitutes, less than plausible assertions that Trump is some kind of semi-sleeper agent and what amounts to little more than kvetching by the DNI about RT. The first of these is that Trump benefited from a Russian effort to swing the election, not by having their state run media support him, but through Russia breaking into the DNC emails and leaking damaging information about Hilary Clinton. The second is that there is reason to believe, not least because of Donald Trump’s steady refusal to dispel concern by releasing his tax records, that the Trump Organization has a financial relationship with Russia that will lead to conflicts of interest once he becomes president. Moreover, these potential conflicts of interest may drive US policy towards Russia. These are the two issues that raise deep concerns for the country and that any congress, regardless of party, that understood its role in our system of checks and balances as central to our democracy, would have begun investigating already.
Putin did not create Trump; nor did he create a situation in the US where a candidate like Trump could get so much traction. Rather, in an election that was won on the margins, Russia was deeply and undeniably active in those margins; and that was enough to influence the outcome. That much should be clear to anybody who has spent time around campaigns, appreciates how close this race was or simply can do long division, or frankly, addition and subtraction.
Significantly, most of the strategies employed by civil society such as mobilizing people for elections, seeking to put pressure on members of congress, lawsuits and the like, rely upon functioning, and sometimes even sympathetic, political institutions. In the US, civil society has drawn much of its strength precisely from being able to operate in relationship to consistent and rational government institutions. After January 20th, the political space for this will continue to shrink. We already see a Republican congress that is extremely reluctant to look into conflicts of interests, and the ties between Trump and Moscow that would, in previous eras, be major and enduring scandals. Because of Republicans in the Senate who refused to do their constitutional duty and hold hearings and a confirmation vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court appointee last year, Trump will inherit a vacancy on the court. It is all but certain he will fill that vacancy with a very conservative judge, thus making it more difficult for civil society organizations to win cases in front of the country’s highest court. Lastly, that court will very likely support GOP efforts in key states to pass more voter suppression laws, making electoral strategies less likely so succeed.
The scope and unprecedented nature of this development has raised challenges for both parties. It is clear now that President Obama should have risked accusations of playing politics and more aggressively drawn attention to Russia’s hacking in October when the intelligence agencies became more certain that Russia was, indeed, doing the hacking. The Republicans, with a few exceptions, have made the mistake of simply denying the findings of the intelligence agencies and of supporting Donald Trump, the beneficiary of this hacking, as he tries to distract and bully his way out of this scandal. For both parties, and all Americans, the question of what to do now is not an easy one to answer.
Treating Trump like any other President is exactly what is needed for Donald Trump to gain initial successes in his efforts to rollback American democracy, follow through on his threats to limit constitutional rights and to make sure nobody looks to hard at that Russia issue. However, to cover these, and other issues properly, journalists and others in the political class will need an entirely new way of thinking about politics. Understanding what terms like democratic elections, election fraud, international democratic standards, conflict of interest, kleptocracy and democratic rollback, semi-authoritarianism really mean, and what they look like in the American context is absolutely essential to understanding, and properly covering, the coming Trump presidency. These are the concepts that will provide the best guidance for understanding the Trump presidency.
The revelations about Russia’s role in our recent election confirm what many suspected during the campaign. The revelations answer some questions that have been raised in recent days. For example, it is now clear that Jill Stein, who is also cozy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, took such an active role in calling for recounts to take attention away from the real story. Similarly, we now know that people like Senator Bob Corker and Mitt Romney, whose views on Russia are firmly in the mainstream of Republican foreign policy opinion, were never really in the running for Secretary of State, but were fodder for media speculation before President-elect Trump decided upon Rex Tillerson, a man with a close relationship with Putin, for that key position.