Tag Archives: Trump

America’s ‘Liberalism’ and Other Inhumane Styles of Governance At Home and Internationally  

25 Feb

[Prefatory Note: With apologies for this long post, which attempts to situate the struggle for an ethically and ecologically viable political future for the United States and the world in the overheated preoccupation with Trump and Trumpism, which is itself a distraction from the species challenges confronting the whole of humanity at the present time. Many of us, and I include myself, have allowed the side show to become the main attraction, which is itself a reason for struggle against the enveloping darkness.]


America’s ‘Liberalism’ & Other Inhumane Styles of Governance At Home and Internationally


The Psycho-Politics of Geopolitical Depression


It should not be all about Trump, although his election in 2016 as U.S. president is symptomatic of a menacing national tailspin. This downward political drift in the United States, not only imperils Americans, but threatens the world with multiple catastrophes, the most worrisome of which involves Trump’s double embrace of nuclearism and climate denialism. Unfortunately at present, the U.S. global role cannot be easily replaced, although it always had its serious problematic aspects and should not be sentimentalized, not least of which were associated with its many often crude military and paramilitary efforts to block the tide of progressive empowerment in the post-colonial world: first, as the global guardian of capitalism, and later, as the self-anointed bearer of human rights and democracy for the benefit of the world’s unenlightened and often shackled masses. As disturbing, has been the American leading role in the emergence and evolution of nuclearism and its foot-dragging bipartisan responses to ecological challenges.


During the early post-Cold War presidencies of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, Washington was busy promoting the expansion of ‘market-based constitutionalism’ as supposedly leading the whole world to a bright global future, but such plans backfired badly, especially in the testing grounds of the Middle East, where intervention produced neither democracy nor order, but gave rise to turmoil, violence, and suffering that disrupted the lives of the peoples of the region. These democratizing ‘crusades’ were carried out beneath banners proclaiming ‘enlargement’ (the expansion of democratic forms of governance to additional countries) and ‘democracy promotion’ (induced by regime-changing military interventions and coercive diplomacy). Democracy as a term of art included the affirmation of property rights and market fundamentalism.


Trump comes along, building upon this inherited warrior phase of triumphalist global leadership that was a legacy of the Cold War, dramatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting supposed geopolitical vacuum. The United States sought to fill this vacuum, including an ideological arrogance that underpinned its shameless reliance upon the most powerful military machine in history to gets its way all over the planet, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to strengthen international law and UN as well as eliminate nuclear weaponry. Seemingly more benignly the American leadership role also strongly reflected its globally endorsed popular culture in dress, music, and food as well as appreciated for its encouragement of cooperative arrangements, the constitutional atmosphere of diversity and governmental moderation in the American heartland, and consumerist conceptions of human happiness.


Trump’s diplomacy defiantly turns its back on this softer, gentler (albeit nevertheless deficient) profile of American leadership. The United States is now becoming a country that bargains, intimidates, even bullies to gain every possible advantage in its international dealings, whether at the UN, in trade negotiations, or in an array of bilateral and regional dealings concerning global warming and security policy, with almost every international dealing being converted into a demeaning win/lose transaction. Trump’s antiquated bluster about ‘America, First’ has stripped away the earlier more mellow and selectively constructive win/win claims of ‘America, Liberal Global Leader.” By turning away from this earlier brand of self-interested ‘liberal internationalism’ the U.S. is losing many of these benefits that often accrued from international cooperation and win/win understandings of 21st century statecraft, at least as conducted within the structural and ideological boundaries of neoliberal globalization and the geopolitical management of global security.


More concretely, Trump’s presidency has so far meant a record military budget, relaxed rules of military engagement, geopolitical militarism, irresponsible regional coercive diplomacy, a regressive view that the UN is worthless except as an enemy-bashing venue, a negative assessment of multilateral treaties promoting a cooperative approach to climate change and international trade, as well as a hawkish approach to nuclear weaponry that features bravado, exhibits unilateralism, and in the end, employs on hard power and irresponsible threats to achieve goals formerly often pursued by liberal international global leadership. Without exaggerating the benefits and contributions of liberal internationalism, it did give science and rationality their due, was willing to help at the margins those suffering from slow and uneven economic and social development, and relied on international cooperation through lawmaking and the UN to the extent feasible, which was always less than what was necessary and desirable, but at least, not taking such a cynical and materialist view of the feasible as to create a condition of policy paralysis on urgent issues of global scope (e.g. climate change, nuclearism, migration).


Trump’s ideological prism, which is alarmingly similar to that of the many other leaders throughout the world who have recently been leaning further and further rightwards. The internal politics of many states has turned toward chauvinistic and mean-spirited forms of autocratic nationalism, while cooperation in meeting common global challenges has almost disappeared. Instead of hope and progress, the collective consciousness of humanity is mired in despair and denial, and what is more, the dialectics of history seem to be slumbering, with elites and even counter-elites afraid of utopias on the basis of a widespread (mis)reading of 20th century political experience, seemingly entrapped in cages constructed by predatory capitalism and rapacious militarism, designed to render futile visions of change adapted to the realities of present and emergent historical circumstances. Inside these capitalist and militarist boxes there is no oxygen to sustain liberating moral, political, and cultural imaginings. Trump is not only a distasteful and dangerously dysfunctional leader of the most powerful and influential political actor in the world. He is also a terrifying metaphor of an anachronistic world order stuck in the thick mud of mindlessness when it comes to fashioning transformative responses to fundamental challenges to the ways our political, economic, and spiritual life have been organized in the modern era of territorial sovereign states.



America’s ‘Liberalism’ Observed


In American political discourse the word ‘liberal’ denotes someone who is devoted to humane values, supports such civil society actors as Human Rights Watch and Planned Parenthood, hopes that U.S. foreign policy generaly conforms to international law and be quietly respectful of the UN (while coping skillfully with its alleged anti-Israel bias), is rabidly anti-Trump, but considered Sanders either an unrealistic or undesirable alternative to Clinton, and currently hopes for that the 2020 presidential contender will be chosen from familiar, seasoned sources, which means Joe Biden, or if not, then Sherrod Brown or Corey Booker (Senators from Ohio and New Jersey). This kind of ‘liberal’ thinking scoffs at the idea of Oprah or Michelle Obama as credible candidates supposedly because they lack political experience, but actually because they do not project an identity associated with the Democratic Party organizational nexus. Such liberals support Israel, despite some misgivings about the expansion of settlements and Netanyahu’s style of leadership, and continue to believe that America occupies the high moral ground in international relations due to its support of ‘human rights’ (as understood as limited to social and political rights) and its constitutionalism and relatively open society at home.


In my view, such a conception of liberalism if more correctly understood as ‘illiberal’ in its essence under present world historical circumstances, at least in its American usage. The European usage of ‘liberal’ is centered on affirming a market-based economy of capitalism as preferable to the sort of state-managed economy attributed to socialism, and little else. In this sense, the U.S. remains truly liberal, but this is not the main valence of the term in its American usage, which is as a term of opprobrium in the hands of Republicans who brand their Democratic opponents as ‘liberals,’ which is then falsely conflated with ‘left’ politics, and even ‘socialism.’ Remember that George H.W. Bush resorted to villifying his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, by identifying him with the American Civil Liberties Union, which he associated with being ‘in left field.’


More recently, the Trump base characterizes the Obama presidency as ‘leftist’ and ‘socialist,’ which is inaccurate and confusing. At most, on issue of domestic concern its policies could be characterized as ‘liberal’ or centrist, with no structural critique of capitalism or the American global imperial role. ‘Conservative,’ ‘American,’ ‘Nationalist,’ and ‘Patriotic’ are asserted as alternatives to what is being opposed. Part of this word game is to conflate ‘liberal’ with ‘left’ or ‘socialist,’ thereby depriving either term of any kind of usable meaning.


Such ideological and polemical labeling practices are confusing and wrong, muddling political categories. To be genuinely left in American politics means to care for the poor and homeless, and not be primarily preoccupied with the setbacks endured by the middle classes. It means to be skeptical of the Democratic Party establishment, and to favor ‘outliers’ as challengers on the national level at least as radical as Bernie Sanders or at least as humane and amateurish as Oprah Winfrey. Above all it means to be a harsh critic of Wall Street at home and neoliberal globalization as structurally predatory and ecologically hazardous. It also means anti-militarism, opposition to Washington’s ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a rejection of America’s role as the prime guardian of the established global order on the basis of its military prowess, specifically, its worldwide naval, space, and paramilitary and covert ‘full-spectrum dominance’ as deployed so as to project devastating destructive capabilities throughout the entire planet.


In effect, by this critique, the American liberal is more accurately regarded and sensitively perceived as mainly ‘illiberal.’ Why? Because insisting on swimming in the mainstream when it comes to political choices, reluctant to criticize Wall Street or world trade and investment arrangements, and above all else, reducing ‘human rights’ to civil and political rights, while disregarding ‘economic, social, and cultural rights,’ is to endorse, at least tacitly, an illegitimate status quo if assessed on the basis of widely shared ethical principles.


Such self-induced partial blindness allows ‘liberals’ to view Israel as ‘the only democratic state’ in the Middle East or to regard the United States to be the embodiment of democracy (with Trump and Trumpism viewed as a pathological and temporary deviation) despite millions mired in extreme poverty and homelessness, that is, by treating economic, social, and cultural rights as if they do not exist. Such ‘liberals’ continue to complain invidiously about the lack of freedom of expression and dissent in such countries as China, Vietnam, and Turkey while overlooking the extraordinary achievements of these countries if social and economic rights are taken into account, especially with respect to lifting tens of millions from poverty by deliberate action and in a short time. In other words, addressing the needs of the poor is excluded from relevance when viewing the human rights record of a country, which makes a country likeTurkey that has done a great deal to alleviate mass poverty of its bottom 30% no different from Egypt than has next to nothing when it comes to human rights. It is not a matter of ignoring failures with regard to political and civil rights, but rather of disregarding success and failure when it comes to economic, social, and cultural rights. It might also be noted that the practical benefits of achievements in civil and political rights are of primary benefit to no more that 10% of the population, while economic, social, and cultural rights, even in the most affluent countries, are of relevance to at least a majority of the population, and generally an even larger proportion.


Even if this discriminatory treatment of human rights were to be overcome, and the economic deprivations endured by the poor were to be included in templates of appraisal, I would still not be willing to join the ranks of American liberals, at least not ideologically, although lots of opportunity for common cause might exist on matters of race, gender, and governmental abridgement of citizen rights. Liberalism is structure-blind when it comes to transformative change for either of two reasons: the conviction that the American political system can only get things done by working within the established order or the firm belief that the established order in the country (and the world) is to be preferred over any plausible alternative. This reminds me of the person who drops a diamond ring in the middle of a dark street and then confines his search to the irrelevant corner where there the light happens to be shining brightly.


In my view, we cannot hope to address challenges of class, militarism, and sustainability without structural change, and the emergence of a truly radical humanism dedicated to the emergence of an ecological civilization that evolves on the basis of the equal dignity and entitlement of individuals and groups throughout the entire world. In other words, given the historical situation, the alternative to this kind of planetary radicalism is denial and despair. That is why I would not be an America liberal even if liberals were to shed their current ‘illiberal’ ways of seeing and being. At the same time, such a refocusing of political outlook entails the replacement of balance of power or Westphalian realism with some version of what Jerry Brown decades ago called ‘planetary realism.’


Yet progressives have their own blind spots. To denote the rise of Trump and Trumpism as ‘fascism’ is premature, at best, and alarmist at worst. There are plenty of reasons to complain about the failure of the leadership to denounce white supremists or to show respect for dissenting views, but to equate such behavior with fascism is not too much different from branding the Obama presidency as ‘socialist.’ There are tendencies on the right and left that if continued and intensified, could lead in these feared directions, but there are many reasons to doubt that such political extremism is the real objective of the varying forces vying for political control in the United States at the present time. The two sets of concerns are not symmetrical. A socialist future for the country seems desirable, if feasible, while for fascism, even its current glimmerings are undesirable. Of course, this is an expression of opinion reflecting an acceptance of a humanist ethos of being-in-the-world.



The End of American Democracy


There is a rather prescient article in the current issue of The Atlantic (March 2018, 80-87) written by Yascha Mounk, bearing the provocative title “America is Not a Democracy.” Mounk relies on recent empirical surveys of political effectiveness in political arenas to suggest results that are ‘shocking’ if appraised by reference to democratic myths about government of, by, and for the people of the country. What counts, according to Mounk, are “economic elites and special interest groups” (82) that can get what they want at least half of the time and stop what they don’t want nearly always. In contrast, the people, including mass-based public interest groups, have virtually zero influence on the policy process, and hence the conclusion, America is no longer democratic.


In Mounk’s words: ”across a range of issues, public policy does not reflect the preferences of the majority of Americans. If it did, the country would look radically different: Marijuana would be legal and campaign contributions more tightly regulated; paid parental leave would be the law of the land and public colleges free; the minimum wage would be higher and gun control much stricter; abortions would be more accessible in the early stages of pregnancy and illegal in the third trimester.”(82) All in all, such a listing of issues does make the case, especially if combined with the commodification of the electoral process, that America should no longer be considered a democratic states even if it maintains the rituals, and some of the practices of a genuine democracy—elections, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression.


Many, including Mounk, acknowledge that from the beginning the distinctive American undertaking was to establish a ‘republic,’ not a ‘democracy.’ As we all know, the founders were protective of slavery and property holders, opposed to women’s suffrage, and fearful of political majorities and special interests, degraded as ‘the mob’ and ‘factionalism.’ Yet little by little, with the American Civil War as one turning point and the New Deal as another, the legitimating foundation of the American system changed its foundational identity, increasingly resting its credibility on the quality of its ‘democractic’ credentials. Reforms associated with ending slavery and later challenging ‘Jim Crow’ racisim, through the support of civil rights, by giving women the vote and more recently validating claims to equality and accepting the need for adequate protection against harassment, and moving toward a safety net for the very poor and vulnerable were undertaken in the spirit of fulfilling the democratic mandate.


When it comes to social, economic, and cultural concerns, the U.S. leadership, personified by Trump and reinforced by the Trumpism of the Republican Party, the situation is even more grim than frustrating what Rousseau called ‘the general will.’ Anti-immigrant and anit-Muslim policies are openly espoused and enacted by the Executive Branch and Congress to the outer limits of what the courts, themselves being transformed to endorse the agenda of the right-leaning authoritarian state. Perhaps, even more revealing is the resolve of the Trump administration to save federal monies by cutting programs associated with the very poor. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), lending necessary food assistance to as many as 49 million Americans, known popularly as ‘food stamps’ is illustrative.

Although the government spent about $70 billion on SNAP in 2017 this was less than 2% of the $4 trillion federal budget on SNAP, and yet the Trump administration wants to cut coverage by nearly 30% over the course of the next decade and reconstitute the program in ways that harm the self-esteem and dignity of recipients.


The overseas record of the United States has inflicted death on millions of vulnerable people since the end of World War II, as well as sacrificed hundreds of thousands American on various foreign killing fields, including those maimed, inwardly militarized and suicidal, and otherwise damaged mentally and physically. And for what? The Vietnam War experience should have enabled the Pentagon planners to learn from failure and defeat that military intervention in the non-Western world has lost most of its agency in the post-colonial world. This American learning disability is exhibited by the repetition of failure and defeat, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the human losses were great and the strategic outcome eroded further American legitimacy as global leader and manager of global security.


In a notable article, Matthew Stevenson summarizes the persisting significance of the Vietnam War in the period since 1945: “The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America’s persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we are not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own.” [“Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning,” Counterpunch, Feb. 23, 2018, the first of an eight-part article, highly recommended.]


Where Next?

For those seeking justice, a hopeful future, humane governance, and the cultural worldview of an ecological civilization globally, nationally, and locally, it is vital to acknowledge and recognize that we currently living in a lamentable period in human history with storm clouds hovering over every horizon in sight.

The American scene has hardly ever been worse. A president that bluffs about engaging in nuclear war and seems never more comfortable than busy bullying yesterday’s associate or getting high on a string of belligerent tweets. And if Trump would mercifully move on, we are left with Pence, a sober evangelical who will walk the plank to enact the Republican miscreant agenda. And if Pence would also favor us with disappearance, the stage is left free for Paul Ryan to walk upon, a dour architect of a meanly reconstituted American reality along the dystopian lines of hierarchy and domination that Ayn Rand depicted in Fountainhead. There is a there there where angels fear to tread.

Maybe there is enough wakefulness in the country that the Republicans will suffer a humbling defeat in the 2018 midterm elections. Maybe the youth of the country will march and issue demands, and not get tired, insisting on a Democratic Party that can be trusted with the nation’s future, and is not beholden to Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel. Symbolically and substantively this means a rejection of Joe Biden and Corey Booker as Democratic standard bearers. If fresh faces with fresh ideas do not take over the reins of power in Washington, we will do not better that gain a brief respite from Trump and Trumpish but the Doomsday Clock will keep clicking!

And even if the miraculous happened, and the Republican menace was somehow superseded, we would likely be left with the problems posed by the liberal establishment once reinstated in control of governmental practice. There would be no political energy directed toward nuclear disarmament, transforming predatory capitalism, and creating conditions whereby everyone residing in this richest of countries could look forward to a life where health care, education, shelter, and food were universally available, where international law genuinely guided foreign policy on matters of war and peace, and where ecological sensitivity was treated as the essence of 21st sovereignty. To address global migration patterns, walls and harsh exclusion would be replaced by direct attention to the removal of root causes explaining why people take the drastic step of uprooting themselves from what is familiar and usually deeply cherished for reasons of familiarity, memory, and sacred tradition.





































Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem

31 Dec


Trump, the UN, and the Future of Jerusalem


[Prefatory Note: This post is the modified text of an interview on behalf of the Tasnim News Agency in Iran as conducted by Mohammed Hassani. It tries to assess the wider implications of the UN reaction to Trump’s December 6th decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and to follow this by relocating the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.]


Q1: As you know, nearly 130 countries recently voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the US decision to recognize Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the capital of the Israeli regime. What message does the vote signal to the world’ public opinion?

The main message of this overwhelming rejection of the Trump recognition of al-Quds as the capital of Israel by the UN General Assembly is to disclose that the Palestinian national movement continues to enjoy strong support from each and every important country in the world, thereby rejecting the current Israeli approach, supported by the United States, to impose unilaterally a solution of the long struggle over land and rights on the Palestinian people. Such a solution would foreclose both a sovereign Palestine, deny the Palestinian people the most fundamental of all rights, that of self-determination, and preclude any fair and just arrangement of shared sovereignty between the two people.

A secondary message was the consensus in the General Assembly that on this issue of Jerusalem matters of global justice take precedence over geopolitical maneuvers. There can also be read into the vote the growing erosion of global leadership that had been exercised by Washington since the end of World War II. This erosion reflects the rise of China, and its advocacy, along with that of Russia, and maybe also even leading countries in Europe, of a multipolar approach to the formation and implementation of global policy with respect to security issues, environmental policies, and economic governance. The fact that America’s closest allies, including France, United Kingdom, and Japan voted for the resolution condemning the effort of the U.S. Government to legitimize the establishment of Jerusalem (al-Quds) as Israel’s capital is also of considerable significance. What remains to be seen is how the future of Jerusalem will unfold in light of these dramatic developments. There are currently visible two tendencies—first, the handful of negative votes by tiny island countries and a few minor and dependent Central American countries to follow the lead of the U.S. and move their embassy to Jerusalem; secondly, the counter-initiative of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to declare Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, given concrete expression by the Turkish decision to establish its embassy for Palestine in East Jerusalem.

What remains to be seen is whether the Trump presidency softens its stand on these issues or doubles or even triples down by defiantly moving its embassy to Jerusalem, withholding economic assistance from countries that voted for the resolution, and reducing its financial contributions to the UN in a vindictive display of hostility at the various actors viewed as responsible for humiliating the U.S. Government, thereby pleasing those pro-Israeli forces that insist that the UN is primarily a venue for Israel-bashing.

Q2: Prior to the UN vote on Jerusalem, US President Donald Trump had threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that voted in favor of the resolution. It seems that his warning has been ineffective. What do you think?

Yes, the ineffectiveness of such an unprecedented overt threat at the UN, abetted by back channel pressures, is definitely a sign that U.S. soft power leadership in the world is experiencing a sharp decline if measured against its reality in the years after World War II, and extending throughout the Cold War Era. More generally, the failure of Haley’s threats to influence the vote of a single country of stature in the world is also indicative of a parallel decline of geopolitical capabilities to control global policy at least on the key issue of the rights of the Palestinian people, particularly in the context of Jerusalem, which has a strong symbolic significance for many countries. What is unclear is whether this vote exhibits a broader trend among states to pursue foreign policies that exhibit their sovereign independence and distinct views of global policy, rather than as in the past, displaying a strong tendency to defer to the views of a globally dominant state(s). In this context, the radical character of Trump’s presidency may be having the effect of fracturing hegemonic structures of control in contemporary world order that were in any event faced with accumulating skepticism since the end of the Cold War, and the breakdown of the bipolar structure that had shaped much of global policy between 1945 and 1992. What Trump has done is to intensify pre-existing pressures for global restructuring, a dynamic also reinforced by the rejectionist approach taken by the United States on other key issues of global concern, including climate change, the Iran Nuclear Program (5 + 1) Agreement, global migration, ad international trade. The Trump slogan of ‘America, First’ has to be coupled with ‘World, Last,’ to grasp the extent to which the United States invites by its own initiatives a reaction against its outlier policies at odds with strong countervailing views of the international community of states as to desirable forms of global cooperation for the public good. At the very historical moment when the future of humanity depends on unprecedented action on behalf of human, habitat, and global wellbeing, the leading political actor not only withdraws from the effort, but does its best to obstruct constructive behavior. It is as if the United States Government has become a deadly virus attacking the fabric of the global body politic.



Q3: In a speech at the White House on December 6, Trump said his administration would also begin a years-long process of moving the American embassy in Tel Aviv to the holy city of Jerusalem. Do you see any chance that Trump would press ahead with his plan to relocate the embassy given the widespread international opposition? 


My guess at this point is that the U.S. Government will definitely implement its decision to relocate the embassy, but will probably do so in a gradual manner that does not provoke a major subsequent reaction, especially if implementation is entrusted to the State Department. Of course, any steps taken to relocate the American Embassy in Jerusalem will be correctly perceived as a defiant and provocative rejection of the conclusions set forth in the GA Resolution. In this sense, the quality and impact of reactions will depend on the political will of the Palestinian Authority, the OIC, the UN, and world public opinion. At stake, is whether the United States further produces an adverse international reaction to its behavior and whether governments seek to engage further on the issue to preserve the rights of the Palestinian people with respect to Jerusalem. The future interaction with respect to Jerusalem will be very revealing as to both the responsiveness of the United States to the rejection of its approach to the recognition of the Israeli capital at this time and as to the energy of those that supported the resolution to take further steps in the direction of achieving compliance. There is little doubt that a test of wills is likely to emerge in the months ahead that will reveal whether the Jerusalem resolution was a mere gesture or a tipping point.


The fact that the al-Quds resolution was itself based on The Uniting for Peace Resolution (GA Res. 377 A (V), 1950) gives its text a special status, both as the outcome of a rare Emergency Session of the General Assembly and as a truly responsible reaction on behalf of peace and security to an irresponsible use of the veto in the Security Council to block its decision of condemnation backed by a 14-1 vote, that is, all other members. This status gives the General Assembly response on Jerusalem an authoritativeness that should extend far beyond its normal recommendatory capabilities, but as earlier indicated there are few guidelines as to how such an initiative will be implemented if defied.

At stake is the larger issue of whether this path taken to circumvent a P-5 veto in the Security Council might produce a shift in UN authority to the more representative General Assembly.


In any event, it may well be that whatever course of action ensues will exert an important influence on how well the UN in the future can serve the human and global interest, as well as take account of distinct and aggregate national interests as opportunities present themselves. The Trump phenomenon gives a pointedness to fundamental issues of world order viability, especially a capacity to address challenges of global scope in the course of the first biopolitical moment, confronting humanity as such with a prospect of its own mortality.

Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

10 Dec

[Prefatory Note: This post is a slightly modified version of an article published in the global edition of the Italian newspaper, Il Manifesto, on December 8, 2017.]

 Jerusalem Is (Is Not) the Capital of Israel

 Those who speak on behalf of Israel like to defend Donald Trump’s provocative decision of December 6th to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel with this contention: “Israel is the only state in the world that is not allowed to locate its capital in a national city of its choice.” It seems like an innocent enough proclamation, and even accurate pushback against global double standards, until one considers the political, moral, and legal dimensions of the actual situation.


With the benefit of just a moment’s reflection, a more thoughtful formulation of the issue would be: “Israel is the only state in the world whose government dares to locate its capital in a city located beyond its sovereign borders and subject to superior competing claims.” Granted, Israel has declined to date to define its borders for purposes of international law, presumably to leave room for its own further territorial expansion until the whole of the promised land as understood to comprise biblical Israel is effectively made subject to Israeli sovereign control. At stake, in particular, is the West Bank, which is known within Israel by its biblical names of Judea and Samaria, signifying Israel’s outlier belief that the ethnic and religious heritage of the Jewish people takes precedence over modern international law.


Further reflection casts additional doubt on this Trump/Netanyahu approach to the status of Jerusalem. It is helpful to go back at least 70 years to the controversial UN partition proposals set forth in General Assembly Resolution 181. Israel over the years has often congratulated itself on its acceptance of 181, which it contrasts with the Palestinian rejection. Palestinians suffered massive dispossession and expulsion in the war that ensued in 1947, known as the Nakba among Palestinians. Israel has argued over the years that its acceptance of 181 overrides the grievances attributable to the Nakba, including the denial to Palestinians of any right to return to their homes or place of habitation however deep and authentic their connections with the land and regardless of how persuasive their claims of Palestinian identity happen to be. What Israelis want the world to forget in the present setting is the UN treatment of Jerusalem that was integral to the 181 approach. Instead, Israel has sold the false story to the world that 181 was exclusively about the division of territory, and thus the bits about Jerusalem contained in the resolution can be ignored without comment, and deserve to be long forgotten.


What the UN actually proposed in GA Res. 181, and what Israel ‘accepted’ in 1947 was that the city of Jerusalem, in deference to its connections with Palestinians and Jewish national identity, should not be under the sovereign control of either people, but internationalized and subject to UN administration. Beyond the difficulty of reconciling Jewish and Palestinian claims to the city, the symbolic and religious significance of Jerusalem to the three monotheistic religions provided a parallel strong rationale for internationalization that has, if anything, further vindicated with the passage of time.


It can be argued by proponents of Trump’s recognition that even the Palestinians and the Arab World (by virtue of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative) have silently replaced the internationalization of Jerusalem with the so-called ‘two-state solution’ in which the common assumption of both sides is that Jerusalem would be shared in ways that allowed both Israel and Palestine to establish their respective capital within the city limits. Most two-state plans called for the Palestinian capital to be located in East Jerusalem, which Israel has occupied for the past 50 years, that is, ever since the 1967 War. The clarity of this conviction is what explains the view that the thorny question of the relationship of both Israel and Palestine to the disposition of Jerusalem should be addressed at the last stage of peace negotiations. But suppose that the prospect of genuine peace negotiations is postponed indefinitely, then what? The geopolitical effort to fill this vacuum is undertaken at the expense of UN authority, as well as international law and international morality.


Here again we encounter an awkward split between what Israel claims (as reinforced by U.S. foreign policy) and what international law allows. Israel after the war ended in 1967 immediately asserted that the whole of Jerusalem was ‘the eternal capital’ of the Jewish people. Tel Aviv went even further. It expanded by Israeli legal decree the area encompassed by the city of Jerusalem, almost doubling its size and incorporating a series of Palestinian communities in the process. Israel acted unilaterally and unlawfully, against unified opposition within the UN, in defiance of world public opinion, and even in the face of rebuke by such a widely respected moral authority figure as Pope Francis.


East Jerusalem, at least, is ‘Occupied Territory’ according to international humanitarian law, and as such is subject to the Geneva Conventions. The Fourth Geneva Convention governs ‘belligerent occupation,’ and rests on the basic legal norm that an Occupying Power should take no steps, other than those justified by imperative security considerations, to diminish the rights and prospects of a civilian population living under occupation. In this regard, it is hardly surprising that Israel’s actions designed to obliterate East Jerusalem as a distinct ‘occupied’ territory have met with universal legal and political condemnation within the UN. For Trump to depart from this international consensus is not only striking heavy blows against the U.S. role as intermediary in any future peace process, but also mindlessly scrapping the two-state approach as the agreed basis of peace without offering an alternative, leaving the impression that whatever reality Israel imposes the United States will accept, giving scant attention to international concerns or Palestinian rights.


Returning to the burning question as to why Israel should be denied the right to locate its capital wherever it wishes, as other states do, it is clarifying to reformulate the Israeli claim: “Does any state have the right to establish its capital in a city that is ‘occupied’ rather than under the exclusive sovereign authority of the territorial government?” This is especially relevant in this instance, given the general agreement within the international community that the Palestinian right of self-determination includes the right to have its national capital both within its territory and in Jerusalem.


Trump’s initiative tries to ease the pain by the confusing accompanying assertion that the final disposition of Jerusalem’s borders is something for the parties to decide as part of final status negotiations, that is, at the end of the diplomatic endgame. Aside from Israel’s belief that it need not make further concessions for the sake of peace, a geopolitical assertion of support for Israel’s approach to Jerusalem, especially without the backing of the Arab League, the UN, and the European Union is worse than an empty gesture. It uses an iron fist on behalf of the stronger party, where a minimal respect for law, morality, and justice would counsel giving support for the well-grounded claims of the weaker side, or at least staying neutral.


The harm done by the Trump initiative on recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and declared intention to start the process of moving the embassy is impossible to assess fully at this time. Whether there will be an upsurge in resistance violence, political extremism, anti-American terrorism, and wider warfare is now essentially unknowable, although the stage has been recklessly arranged so that these developments seem more likely to occur than earlier, and if they do, will be treated as outcomes of Trump’s faulty diplomacy.


What is already evident on the basis of the decision itself is the severe damage done to the global and regional leadership reputation of the United States. As well, the authority of the United Nations has been shown to be no match for geopolitical resolve, and international law and world public opinion have been pushed aside. For the Trump presidency the special relationship with Israel has been enlarged beyond previous outer limits and the part of the Trump base that wanted these policies has been appeased for the moment. Prospects for a diplomacy based on the equality of rights of Palestinians and Israelis have been reduced to zero, and thus no just end of the Palestinian ordeal can be foreseen. Overall, it is not a pleasant balance sheet of gains and losses if evaluated from the perspective of American grand strategy in the Middle East, and if the wider regional setting of Iran’s spreading influence is taken into account, the situation looks even worse.


Taking Stock: One Year After Trump

20 Nov

[Prefatory Note: This post addresses the need for dialogue with the political, economic, and cultural ‘other,’ that is, those multitudes acutely alienated from and angry with secular globalism and the Enlightenment legacy often equated with ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization.’ At the core is a search for closure on the nature of reality as well as feelings about equity (given many dimensions of inequality) and ethical innovation (revisionist approaches to gender, sexuality, marriage). Does reason or faith or tradition provide greater closure? Can the Thomistic grand synthesis of the 13th Century be repeated under 21st Century condition in the rough waters of controversy generated by Trump and Trumpism? Is this too Western a way of putting the problem? I write as an American, but there are many parallels in other countries. The first step is to admit being out of touch with the ferment below the surface. A second step is a matter of identifying what is to be included, what excluded.]




What is going on? Commentary on the Rise of Populism



Confessions of Political Myopia


To avoid any impression of condescension, I will begin with a humbling root question, “Why have I been so out of touch?” After all, I have become deeply aware in recent years that intellectual elites generally have little understanding of wider public sentiments that animate upheavals and distress in America and several foreign societies. I had big trouble back in the 1970s grasping the grassroots strength of Nixon’s ‘moral majority,’ which I haughtily dismissed as the ‘immoral minority’ (perhaps, my dismissive precursor of Hilary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’). The inspiration for this essay comes not only from personal experience but from a recent reading of Thomas Frank’s non-prophetic, yet deeply illuminating, much discussed, and influential 2005 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.


Frank is non-prophetic because he presupposes that cultural values (family, tradition, flag) rather than material concerns would remain at ‘the heart of America.’ Trump rode to power on a demagogic appeal (foolishly discounted by the media and Beltway wizards as a campaign ploy never meant seriously) mobilizing his base with inflammatory language about jobs, jobs, jobs buttressed by fear-mongering about terrorism, blaming Goldman Sachs capitalism for unfavorable international trade deals (above all with China), illegal and unwanted immigrants (that is, Mexicans and Muslims) who tarnish the American dream, and above all Islam as a menacing threat. By and large, he put the right-wing cultural agenda to one side, while embracing its patriotic tropes, which is hardly surprising given his own freewheeling Manhattan celebrity life style that included powwows with the notorious and lewd sexist Howard Stern, not to mention the tape of his Hollywood conversation. The deeper observation here is a scary confirmation of America’s susceptibility to demagogic appeals, ethnic and religious scapegoating, and strong intimations of racism.


There are two distinct concerns regarding this tendency toward misperceptions of political reality in America, and elsewhere in the world, that overlap: one is being out of touch with the swift currents of right wing opinion that have abruptly risen to the political surface in recent years to sway the multitudes in populist directions; the other is the failure to understand what is at the root of this unexpected particular political swing, which sometimes may turn out in some cases to be nothing more revealing than skillful, imaginative, unscrupulous, persevering marketing and access to major funding sources, but in more serious situation there are disclosed rips in the societal fabric that seem beyond repair, providing a deliriously ready audience for a demagogue intuitively attuned to the harsh rhythms of discontent unnoticed or dismissed by the established political elites. Trump confounded, and continues to confound, conventional wisdom over and over again, by reading the tea leaves of discontent with alarming accuracy.


It is undoubtedly the case, at least in the U.S., that part of the failure of perception is a combination of self-segregation and the widespread tendency of intellectuals to underestimate the political skills of those whose focus is on emotions, religion, and traditional values rather than reason, science, and evidence. To illustrate, not a single person in my social milieu will own up to being a supporter of Donald Trump. In effect, the insularity of my social networks puts me out of touch with what the Trump constituency feels, thinks, fears, and hopes for. The Trump/Bannon formula for electoral victory a year ago, surely abetted by a dismal Clinton campaign, abandoned several familiar Republican positions—especially mounting a critique of neoliberal globalization, and its core reliance on international trade and unhampered capital flows, as well as taking nasty jabs at the Washington establishment, including the standard Republican Party handlers.



An Egyptian Detour


I was in Cairo meeting friends shortly after the dramatic events in Tahrir Square in February 2011 awaiting UN permission (that never came) to visit Gaza on behalf of the Human Rights Council. Amid the tumult and excitement I was struck by the unanimity of opinion believing that Amr Moussa was sure to be elected Egypt’s next president in the country’s first ever free election scheduled for the following year. Moussa was a non-charismatic high profile civil servant in the Mubarak government and former Secretary General of the Arab League who opportunely welcomed the democratizing movement in Egypt, and quickly became the preferred candidate of the Cairo urban cognoscenti. As it turned out Moussa never made it to the second and deciding round of the presidential elections, receiving less than 12% of the vote in the opening round. The point here is not whether Moussa was good or bad, or whether he might have been the best candidate to serve as leader of Egypt in this fragile period of uncertain transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy. The point is to underscore how out of touch were these most knowledgeable of urban secular Egyptians about the convictions and outlook of the rest of Egyptian. It also became clear that they greatly underrated the organizational strength of the MB and other Islamic oriented political groups that dominated the countryside and much of Egypt other than the middle class and elites of Cairo and Alexandria.


In the Egyptian case this detachment was in large part a reflection of the secular/Islamic split that plagued the region ever since the success of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. My other recollection from 2011-12 visits to Cairo related to the feelings of the seculars about the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Tahrir electoral process. Most Egyptians I had contact with expected and accepted MB full participation in the public life of post-Mubarak Egypt, including the political process, regarding the organization as a religiously oriented and secretive but respectful of law and nonviolent, and this entitled to be dream of an inclusive Egyptian democracy that was the widely shared dream of most Egyptians in the weeks following the successful uprising. These knowledgeable urbanites anticipated at the time that the MB would at most win 25-30% representation in the legislative assembly, and did acknowledge that if they ended up doing much better there would be trouble, all the while strongly doubting that this would not happen. Well, it did, causing an immediate reassessment by Egypt’s urban elites, which expressed itself by way of an instantaneous retreat from the democratizing hopes and expectations that had dominated the Tahrir Square moo, and a switch of allegiance to the Mubarak era presidential alternative. In this spirit, the realigned secularists voted for Ahmad Shafik in the runoff election in June 2012 between the two top vote getters in round one. Round two produced a narrow 52%-48% victory for Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, a result eventually, although reluctantly certified by the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces that was supposed to be the neutral supervisor of the post-Mubarak transition, but more and more leaned toward questioning the legitimacy of a governing process under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood.


The earlier Cairo outlook was not wrong about the other part of its assessment of the political scene, which had insisted that MB leadership of the country, as distinct from its minority participation as part of a democratic opposition, was neither acceptable nor viable. It is notable that even the Brotherhood originally accepted a limited political role for itself in the first months after Mubarak was overthrown, seeming acknowledging that it should not seek control as distinct from participation. On this basis, the MD even made a rather unusual pledge for any political party, committing itself not to compete in certain electoral districts in the country and not to put forward its own candidate for the presidency. It later quietly renounced the pledge, likely sensing its strength and historic opportunity, and did go on to win the presidency, but at a high cost to itself. Before realizing that its victory would set off a chain of events that would turn out to be a crushing defeat, the MB experienced an intense backlash in Egyptian society confirming that it too was dangerously out of touch with the red lines of the urban elites and the balance of forces in the country. The Brotherhood obviously greatly underestimated the leverage and convergence of interests that joined the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Gulf monarchies (excepting Qatar), the governments of the United States and Israel, as well as the segments of the working classes and of course the Coptic minority. This formidable array of opposed forces produced in 2013 a counter-revolution in the form of a seemingly popular military coup, a new leader—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—bloodier and more autocratic and repressive than Mubarak. The new leadership immediately criminalized the elected MB leadership of the country, and labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization with the tacit approval of its allies in the region and beyond, and autocratically denied political space even to secular activists who were unwilling to accept this renunciation of democratic hopes for Egypt.


This extended look at Egypt is descriptive of broader global trends, confirming that being dangerously out of touch is not only an affliction of Western elites stunned by the unexpected and shocking successes of Brexit and Trump. In the Middle East where politics are highly polarized, both sides are out of touch, miscalculating at great cost to society and to themselves, and totally unprepared for the intensity of backlash politics that have so far reflected an anti-democratic balance of forces in the region and beyond.



Trending Toward Illiberal Democracies


In the United States and Europe where polarization is deepening, there remains some respect for the rules of the game set by procedural democracy, that is, political choices determined by generally fair elections and a constitutional framework that institutionalizes checks and balances. In the United States, Trump shook even these structures late in the presidential campaign of 2016 when he apparently thought he was going to lose by contending that the electoral process was ‘rigged’ against him, even equivocating in public about whether he would accept an adverse outcome, a tactical move evidently supported by the Russians. And then later, after he was officially installed in the White House, Trump irresponsibly contested the Clinton margin of victory in the popular vote by contending wildly that several million unlawful immigrants had been fraudulently registered to stack the vote against him in such states as California and New York.


The fact that Trump offered not a scintilla of evidence for either challenge seemed not to bother even slightly his political base. His close advisors were darkly creative, inventing a large arsenal of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘Breitbart news.’ These counter-narratives were invoked brashly to contest such visually clear conclusions as the size of the crowd attending Trump’s presidential inaugural ceremony as compared to the size of the crowd that showed up eight years earlier for Obama. For anti-Trump critics these developments raised foundational issues about whether the constitutional order would be resilient enough to prevail if Trump had lost the election and then were to unleash his followers assigning them the almost unimaginably subversive mission of reversing the outcome. The success of this kind of fact-free discourse also raised the ultimate epistemological question about whether or not an overall respect for truth in the public realm was still expected of politicians, suggesting the possibility that reality was becoming a function of ideology or faith, not fact or evidence.


The Trump victory in 2016 mooted these particular challenges to some extent, shifting the tactical locus of opponents to the wrongdoing of Trump and his entourage, especially such potential impeachment and discrediting issues as ‘collusion with the Russians,’ ‘obstruction of justice,’ and ‘improper financial dealings.’ Implicit in these charges was the concession that blatant and consistent lying if not quite okay, was still not so disqualifying as to challenge Trump’s right to remain president even it placed his victory under a dark cloud due to the evidence that Russian meddling swayed enough votes in a close election. This apparent acceptance of this retreat from an ethos of truthfulness seems misguided in a number of respects. Manifest lying breaks the trust between state and society without which a democracy cannot function properly. As such is far more corrosive for a democratic republic than the several wrongful acts being regarded as grounds for impeachment. In part, the media and the people, and the advertising mentality of a consumer society, are all complicit in this de facto acceptance of a leader who lies consistently and willfully. In other words, it is not just the Brietbart alt-righ, the bevy of outrageous late night talk show hosts, and Trump’s use of a Twitter account that cleared the populist pathways leading to Trumpism, but we the people and our materialist indulgences and indifference to or ignorance of the torments of stagnant wages and growing challenges directed at even middle class living standards due to sharply rising costs of health, education, and housing.


The constitutional order remains under unprecedented pressure not only because of the way Clinton lost or Trump won, but also because the dominant faction in the American deep national security state lost, and lost badly and for the first time since 1945, although it has in 2017 staged a strong comeback spearheaded by the appointment of generals McMaster, Kelley, and Mattes to key posts. It is crucial to distinguish between business/financial establishment interests that were mostly content with a Trump/Republican victory from the national security oriented think tanks and government elites that were earlier deeply worried by Trump’s campaign language questioning the global alliance network and attacks on foreign regime-changing interventions, especially as played out in the Middle East. But on the security agenda Trump has seemed to give way—he upped the military budget, backed off from his earlier promised confrontation with China and expected soft policy toward Russia, escalated tensions with North Korea and Iran, and maintained continuity in the Middle East, throwing even greater support in the direction of Israel and Saudi Arabia than his predecessor.


What remains to be determined is whether the Rule of Law can hold minimally accountable the dual domains of militarism and neoliberal capitalism. Perhaps, the Rule of Law lost out years ago, and we are just now awakening to this somber reality thanks to Trump’s disruptive worldview and modes of governance. Scenarios in this vein are likely to dominate most upcoming episodes of the unfolding Trump tragicomedy. Maybe the center stage contest is not this at all but will be determined by whether the internationalist faction of the deep state remains successful in avoiding the apparent grand strategy revisionism of Trump without necessitating his removal from power. Trump’s real views, especially on global issues, are opaque, and his surface mercurial qualities of contradicting himself make the adaptation scenario more probable than the removal alternative. Either taming or removal both appear to be suitably responsive to the imperatives of the current phase of global capitalism and its dependency ties to the American led global security system. This system consists of a vast costly network of foreign bases, navies in every ocean, the military domination of space, including cyberspace, and assignment of combat units of special forces to carry out armed missions in over 130 countries. Trump was not feared or opposed by the national security establishment because of his pledges to repeal Obamacare or overhaul the tax structure for the benefit of the very wealthy. He was feared and opposed by many Republican hawks because his campaign rhetoric were perceived to raise unacceptable challenges to the stability of the world economy and were interpreted by most deep state aficionados as gesturing toward a possible dismantling of the American global state that had ‘governed’ the world since 1945.



Out of Touch, Out of Contact


Liberals and intellectuals in the United States are generally middle class in life style and outlook, rarely in meaningful existential touch with either the very poor or the very rich, and as a result are not privy to their fears, pain, anger, and agenda, or their affirmations and affiliations. This circumstance of being out of contact contributes to toxic polarization, mirrored in the inability of political parties to cooperate any longer for the sake of the national public good. Among other negative effects, such polarization leads to legislative gridlock and perceptions by the majority of citizens that the institutions of government have become weighted down by lobbyists, special interests, and intense partisanship, and have lost much of their legitimacy. In such a race to the bottom, the winners are business and the military, which is why a pre-fascist depiction of current political life in America, and by indirection, the world, is sadly, not out of touch.


Is the Enlightenment to Blame?


At the root of these developments are deep tensions between the rational and scientific legacies of the European Enlightenment and religious orientations that rely on faith and revealed truth. On the Enlightenment side are secular values and ideals associated with the human equality and respect for scientific evidence. On the religious side are attachments to traditional values of family, flag, and church. Both orientations are rooted in their own dogmas that exclude the belief systems of their opponents, undoubtedly providing the ideational infrastructure of what has now surfacing in many national variations as polarization, and with it disillusionment with the worth and promise of political democracy.


In one respect this is a crude rendition of Hegelianism versus Marxism, with the Hegelians giving priority to the dialectics of the idea whose time has come, while Marxists, in their various schools, in general lend priority to material conditions, class relations, and self-interest. Oddly the right-wing populists are mainly taking a ideational or faith-based posture that emphasizes the purity of the nation, puritan family traditions, an ethos of hard work, good jobs, and religious values, and thus supposedly hostile toward casino capitalists and foreign intruders, advocates of gay rights and legalized drugs, free traders, and secularists. Their liberal antagonists are generally comfortable with global capitalism according to the precepts of Goldman Sachs, free trade, outsourcing, and minimally regulated capital as advocated by the Bretton Woods Institutions (World Bank and IMF) and World Trade Organization, and, of course, sparing no expense to maintain full spectrum military dominance. The two sides converge with respect to militarism, with the Trump right invoking patriotism, arms sales, and national security while the liberal establishment emphasizes the indispensable role of American military superiority in keeping the country and its friends safe and the world more peaceful and global markets more stable than they would otherwise be.


Does making these acknowledgements amount to a nihilistic and solipsistic admission that there is no way to justify prevailing patterns of political alignment beyond their caprice? Not at all. Yet, as Gilad Atzmon persuasively argues in Being in Time, a politics of reason has been thrown disastrously off course by the impact of a liberal discourse infected by the taints of ‘political correctness’ and ‘identity politics,’ which substitutes conformity and allegiance for truth-seeking and acknowledgements of the impurities of social reality. Without a suitable discourse respectful of the contingencies and unevenness of reality we cannot find the pathways to humane political behavior. To be sure, the Mammonite discourse of the Trump brand of right-wing politics is certainly no better, offering a greed-saturated form of materialism that feeds the limitless appetite of the very richest among us while manipulating and repressing the rest of us. As Atzmon provocatively insists, this absence of a trustworthy discourse by which to express grievances and aspirations is why it clears the air to admit that our epoch has become ‘post-political,’ at least for now.


Yet there is even more than ‘discourse,’ a synonym for clear thought, at stake. There is self-esteem, ethical values, and the meaning of life that is jeopardized by the tradition-breaching dogmas of secular elites. Thus controversies surrounding abortion, gay marriage, legalized marijuana, and even gun control are too often being given precedence over considerations bearing on material wellbeing by this American version of populism preaching economic nationalism at Trump rallies. What makes the Trump phenomenon truly populist is its anti-establishment outrage and the high level of susceptibility to demagogic appeals on the part of his followers. This demagoguery blinds adherents to their true material self-interests and misidentified their real social enemies. By rejecting reasoned discourse, including commitments to truth and evidence, the capacity to manipulate mass opinion and play on such repressed emotion as racism and class envy is without limits. Trump is a master of such demagogic politics who has yet to commit definitively to whether in the end he will strike a deal with the anti-populist elites that have been running the system or proceed to wage open revolutionary warfare against the entire edifice of constitutional governance at home and abroad. Of course, a third way is also possible, a condition of no-peace, no-war, in which there ensue a multitude of skirmishes but no open warfare, which may be the most accurate way of portraying Trump’s first year as president.



Concluding Remarks


A wide variety of populisms, other than the American version, have gained control of the governing process of several important countries, and in each case despite widely different national circumstances, bringing to power an autocratic leader adored by the masses more for his style than his substance, and feared and hated by displaced elites who seem unable to generate a mobilizing program of their own or a charismatic alternative leader. Whether it be Putin in Russia, Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt, or Duterte in The Philippines, the leader claims to have a special capacity to interpret the will of the people, entitling the circumvention of the Rule of Law and conventional truth telling, professing an ardent and exclusivist nationalist ideology that pretends, at least, to abhor the cosmopolitanism of elite tastes and the globalization of economic life. Except for Duterte and Trump these popular autocrats have been rather prudently inclined with respect to political risk taking. Putin and Erdoğan have tried to enlarge their regional spheres of influence with mixed results, and have encountered some costly adverse reactions domestically and internationally.


These autocratic leaders in what have become ‘illiberal democracies’ seem more at home when dealing with authoritarian figures in other societies than with counterparts in countries that still qualify as functioning constitutional democracies. Trump seems quite at ease with Xi Jingpin or even Duterte than he does with Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron. What this portends for the future is unknowable at present. Will there emerge a tacit alliance of autocrats that represents the global ideological sequel to the shattered edifice of democratic expectations that had given rise to the Warsaw based, U.S. funded brainchild christened as the ‘Community of Democracies’ with 110 governments signing on at its founding fifteen years ago? As of 2017 neither Poland nor the United States would any longer be welcomed in venues catering to real life democracies!


Instead of the anticipated ‘twilight of the nation state’ we are experiencing its worldwide resurgence, energized by a counter-globalization movement that emphasizes borders and walls rather than fluid boundaries facilitating flows of capital and workers. ISIS (or DAESH) has been a partial outlier, as are the more radical versions of political Islam more generally. Instead of territorial enclaves these movements affirm exclusivist Islamic communities whose extension is not geographically identifiable by boundaries on a map, but rather by allegiances and networks however far flung. By proclaiming its caliphate in 2014 in Iraqi and Syrian territory that it then controlled, ISIS seemed to territorialize its sense of political community, which fortunately turned out to be a huge strategic mistake. By insisting that its rise was ‘the end of Sykes-Picot’ ISIS was also announcing to the world that it was not altogether anti-territorial, but was not beholden to the European state concept crudely imposed on the Middle East by a colonial driven statecraft after World War I.


It is this deterritorializing of community combined with the embrace of militarist and terrorist versions of jihadism, as well as of the equally deterritorialized technologies of the digital age that makes such movements so disruptive of traditional territorially based forms of security. Territorial states win renewed support from their national populations by celebrating patriotic virtues associated with flag and country, identifications that correspond with their primordial sense of community (providing ideas and causes worth dying for) spatially defined by internationally legitimated geographic boundaries.


Finally, it is this collision between antagonistic conceptions of communities in space that define the modern geopolitical landscape. This sense of political engagement is being increasingly itself challenged by communities in time that spring to life in the ecological landscape where the principal preoccupations are with the multiple challenges of global warming toward species sustainability. The ultimate evasion of reality by Trumpism is its willful blindness when it comes to showing respect for the ecological integrity of contemporary human existence. The decision of the Trump White House to refuse participation in the Paris Climate Change Agreement is probably the most destructive blow against sustainable global governance than was the imposition of a punitive peace on Germany after World War I.


Trump also intrudes his bluster in ways that subvert nuclear restraint. His words threatening annihilation of North Korea and confrontation with Iran cast the darkest shadows over the present and future.


At issue is more than Trump. I want to live and die in a world of inclusive political communities. I also regard as imperative forms of ecological inclusiveness that extend to all of nature, animals, plants, soil, air, water, glaciers, mountains, ravines, and valleys.



The Flawed and Corrupted Genius of American Republicanism

15 Oct

Trump as President makes us think as never before about viability of the American version of constitutional democracy, that is, the ‘republic’ that Ben Franklin promised the people at the time of Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.

We often forget that Franklin replied to the question by adding several words, “if you’ll keep it.”

With the election of Trump in 2016 these prophetic cautionary words have come home to haunt the country with a cruel vengeance. Of course, arguably nuclear America had long abandoned the pretense of consensual government, and warmongering American had driven the point home with only a whimper of dissent from Congress, mainstream media, and the citizenry. Imagine currently engaged in bombing six countries and combat operations in many more, and the loudest sound from the citizenry or media is an all-encompassing silence. And then we must not forget about the potent ‘deep state’ that took shape during World War II, maturing and consolidating its hold on elected officials during the long Cold War. Or, I suppose, its more visible presence that Eisenhower warned about in his Farewell Address—the military-industrial complex (as abetted by a corporatized media and a wide array of cheerleading think tanks).


Yet Trump poses the challenge more bluntly, so crudely that many of us feel we can no longer sit back and hope for the best. So far even the deep state has lost some of its aura of invincibility to the Trump onslaught, although it is fighting back, stacking the White House upper echelons with national security state first responders (McMaster, Mattis, Kelly), and may yet have the last word.


The distinctive essence of American republicanism is a distrust of reason on an individual basis combined with a confidence in reason on the level of collective national action. That is the idea of checks and balances, separation of powers, the friction between equal branches of government, the rule of law, and the electoral powers of the citizenry are acknowledgements that the containment and disciplining of individual power and authority are more important than the efficiency of governance. But maybe confusing the efficiency of capital as embodied in the ideology of neoliberal globalization, ideas of restraint in the Executive Branch have gradually been pushed aside as the urgencies of militarism and geopolitics, as well as the preemptive imperatives of security have taken precedence given the time/space features of modern warfare, both in the form of non-state terrorism or in relation to weaponry of mass destruction.


In other words, the country has been stripped of any basis for confidence in the rationality of the system to check the irrationalities of the individual. This is where Trump entered the scene, somewhat unintentionally delivering a message: the end of republicanism is at hand, despite the Republicans having the upper hand in all three branches of government. The gap between republicans and Republicans has never been greater.


The system is now so flawed that even should the Democrats manage to claw their way back to power the gap would not greatly diminish. The system of republican governance will soon collapse unless the nourishing winds of revolutionary renewal soon arrive.


We should not put all the blame, or alternatively, give all the credit to Trump. An insufficient number of American people failed to identify a threat to the virtues of republican government. Neither political party was oriented toward restoring republicanism under 21st century conditions, which would necessitate at a minimum getting rid of nuclear weapons, insisting on Congressional participation in relation to acts of war, safeguarding the national interest by rejecting ‘special relationships’ with Saudi Arabia and Israel, conforming gun control to the true and sensible meaning of the Second Amendment, heeding the call of Black Lives Matter, leading the struggle against global warming, strengthening the UN and respect for international law, relying on ideas of common security, human security, protection of the poor, restorative diplomacy to address threats and disempower adversaries rather than coercive and militarized diplomacy, pursuing global justice by taking the suffering of others seriously, and dealing humanely with the crises of global migration and prolonged refugee status. In other words, the renewal of republicanism requires a new agenda, and undoubtedly requiring a new constitutional convention, and a constitution that might alone give republicanism a second chance.


In the meantime, Trump and Trumpism tell us more vividly than we could possibly have imagined about the collapse of 18th century republicanism, and the inability of the system to evolve to meet fundamental changes associated with a globalizing reality that shrinks time and space while stimulating a reactionary politics of ultra-nationalism, territoriality, and ‘gated national communities.’ We need to ask what are system requirements for 21st rationality in the designing of governance structures at all levels of human endeavor.


In my view, an ethics of human solidarity and empathy has never been more closely correlated with a politics of human survival, which itself is tied to the urgency of ecological sensitivity to our natural surroundings, including a dangerously deferred implementation of animal rights. When the American Constitution was formulated the guidance of reason was an inspired means to construct a durable government that balanced contradictory goals (admittedly incorporating a gross type of moral blindness in the form of slavery and the rights of native Americans), but now the path to a humane and sustainable future must be built on ethical and ecological foundations in which values are given priority over reason and rationality.


The odiousness of Trump’s presidency gives the people of America what might be their last chance to achieve political redemption for themselves, and for others now and in the future who will drawn into the circle of extreme victimization unless this dynamic of renewal suddenly takes hold.          



End of Nuclearism or the End of the World: Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Nightmares

9 Aug


We are living amid contradictions whether we like it or not, driving expectations about the future toward opposite extremes. Increasingly plausible are fears that the ‘sixth extinction’ will encompass the human species, or at least, throw human society back to a technology of sticks and stones, with a habitat limited to caves and forests. This dark vision is countered by gene editing designer promises of virtual immortality and super-wise beings programming super-intelligent machines, enabling a life of leisure, luxury, and security for all. Whether the reality of such a scientistic future would be also dark is a matter of conjecture, but from a survival perspective, it offers an optimistic scenario.


On political levels, a similar set of polar scenarios are gaining ground in the moral imagination, producing national leaders who seem comfortable embracing an apocalyptic telos without a second thought. The peoples of the world, entrapped in a predatory phase of global capitalism, are using their democratic prerogative to shut down dissent, rationality, and science. On one side, 122 governments pledge a legal commitment to the prohibition of nuclear weapons as an unprecedented prelude to the abolition of the weaponry; on the other side, all nine nuclear weapons states, and their closest allies, oppose the prohibition and opt for modernizing their nuclear weapons arsenals even devising strategic plans for their possible use, prompting an urgent search for counter measures.


John Pilger issues a solemn reminder that Nevile Shute’s On the Beach depicting a post-nuclear human future that is now more resonant than when it was published in 1957. Leaders that could bluff their way to shared catastrophe bellow forth in Washington and Pyongyang, each deluded by the belief that military options even with nuclear weapons are the only geopolitical security blanket worth relying upon, projecting a reckless obliviousness to the risk of losing their balance while engaging in inflammatory rhetorical posturing alarmingly close to the nuclear precipice.


As Pilger also points out, the liberal opposition to this right wing populism in the West is also dangerously disposed toward warmongering. Donald Trump is being pilloried by a bipartisan anti-Russian hysteria that imposes harsh sanctions, seemingly intent on driving Putin’s Kremlin into a corner from which there is no retreat except by way of confrontation, and possibly war.


We read of record heat waves, extreme weather events, extended droughts, and wild fires as common as clouds in the sky without blinking. The newspapers report that climate scientists are ready to push the panic button in reaction to the latest studies of grim global warning trends, while the Trump factor renews coal mining and treats denial a political virtue.


While these alarming realities dim the light of hope for many of us, the American stock market, a barometer of capitalist expectations by the shrewdest investors, achieves record heights. At the same time famine warnings have been officially endorsed for a series of long suffering populations: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Gaza. The entire Middle East is being turned into a war and conflict zone, with an anti-Iran warmongering coalition pressuring Iran to choose between nuclear deterrence and sectarian warfare inflamed by militarist Israeli/U.S. grand strategy that appears to be motivated by a regional vision of geopolitical pacification.


How best to endure in the face of such fatalistic dualisms? That may be the question of our time, dodged for the sake of sanity by almost all of us, at least most of the time. Business as usual, while living with therapeutic forms of cultural blindness, the opioids of those fortunate enough to live for now in gated communities, whether on the scale of private dwellings or walled off countries.


Recently a lively young woman told me that many of her friends had decided not to have children because they are so fearful of the storm clouds of the future, and refuse to wait around for liberating rainbows. At the other extreme, today’s International Edition of the New York Times contains a front page ad of enticement encouraging attendance at an International Luxury Conference to be held in Brussels, November 13-14, on the demeaning theme of “What’s Next: Luxury in a Turbulent World.” My somewhat impatient response—‘whatever turns out to be next, it will not be and should not be luxury!’ More likely, those grown accustomed to luxury will shift their residences to those underground homes built by Silicon Valley billionaires on vast tracts of lands in the New Zealand countryside as the ultimate hedge against an imminent global catastrophe. It could be that the NYT conference will devote its attention to this form of post-apocalyptic luxury living! Yet that assumes a quite unlikely focus on how the world of luxury is adapting to the unpleasant realities of the Sixth Extinction. 


Betwixt and Between: The Shadowy Politics of Political (In)Correctness

3 Jul


We are all discovering that Donald Trump has Olympic skills when it comes to traversing a minefield, escaping mostly unharmed from high magnitude explosions that would long ago have ended in ignominy almost any other political life. How can we explain the enigma of an American real estate magnate and raunchy entertainment celebrity who gets away with insulting a war hero like John McCain, demeaning a conservative presidential dynasty that gave the country two recent Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, making public fun of Serge Kovaleski a disabled NY Times journalist, rebuking women with extremely vulgar remarks about their bodies and minds, devaluing the service of an American soldier killed in combat who happened to be the son of Iraqi born parents? For such a man to amble into the Oval Office as the electoral choice of the American people confirms many unflattering suspicions about the body politic as it exists and functions today in the United States. And after proposing one cruel measure after another, rebuffing his gracious predecessor every chance he gets, and undermining the reputation of the American government at home and abroad, Trump’s base support holds steady as if this is just what they wanted and expected. Even the Republican Party establishment has so far held its nose, and except on a few occasions, refraining from jumping ship even in the face of Trump’s childish tantrums and utterly disastrous, mean-spirited health and tax proposals.


Explaining the Trump ascendancy is far more complicated than pointing out the electoral weakness of the opposing candidate, or blaming Clinton’s poor tactics at the last stages of the campaign, or attributing Trump’s rise to Russian hacking or the blustering intrusions of the now fired FBI Director, James Comey, shortly before the elections last November. These unsavory realities may have swayed votes here and there, but they do not begin to account for Trump’s overall success or ultra-Teflon sensibility, or the uncanny rapport with his base, those passionate folks that keep showing up at rallies and continue to give him a steady 40% approval rating come what may, give or take a point or two here and there. And it’s really not mainly about jobs, either. Remember a colorless fellow like François Hollande scored around 4% in the last stages of his presidency, and Obama was disliked by close to 80% in Israel despite trying very hard to exhibit unconditional support for every misstep taken by Tel Aviv, probably because his body language revealed some ambivalence and early on he had the ambition of finding a sustainable solution to the conflict with the Palestinians, apparently not aware that Israel was not the least interested in a peace crafted by Washington know-it-alls, no matter how far its framework leaned in Israel’s direction.


What then is Trump’s secret? Is it just that he has been anointed as the savior of the justifiably angry and alienated American underclass, not primarily of its material interests, but of its lost self-esteem that depends on the recovery of a sense of belonging and national rootedness?

Clearly, Trump provided a powerful magnet for some contradictory strivings. Some of those most alienated wanted the established order savagely attacked, and were drawn to the Trump inflammatory rhetoric about ‘draining the swamp’ and ‘locking her up.’ It seems not to matter that he doesn’t really mean it, appointing a cabinet of billionaires and insiders and leaving Hillary Clinton to lick her wounds alone in the Chappaqua woods. His credibility did not even hinge on whether he actually builds that ‘beautiful wall’ along the Mexican border as long as he gets tough with illegal Mexicans living in the country and does his best to keep out visitors from Muslim countries, while vigorously waving the American flag. It seems that if the anti-immigrant rhetoric is politically incorrect enough, inconsistencies will be overlooked if not forgiven.


In this period of alternate facts, outright lies, and fake news, words speak much louder than words, at least some words depending on who is the speaker. During the presidential campaign of a year ago Trump became the media center of attention night after night, with Beltway pundits parsing the broken twisted language of his tweets, acting if nothing other than Trump’s latest outrage was of any public concern. CNN panels consisting of pro and contra Trump watchers tussled, smiled, even laughed, while Syrians perished in the rubble of Raqqa or Aleppo and Yemenis struggled daily with hunger and Saudi bombs. What seemed to count was that cable ratings went through the roof, and objections were mainly mute. It is no surprise the obsessive interest in the daily doings and undoings of Trump has continued, may have even risen, since he became president: Same old panels, same old heated exchanges of antagonistic interpretations, and same disregard of serious news issues so as to give almost total attention to Trump’s frills and frolics, trivia on the surface, yet subverting the constitutional and societal order as never before.


Week after week Trump becomes agitated by this or that media insult. His staff make extraordinary efforts to keep him away from TV and his Twitter account, but to no avail. The latest escapade involves Trump’s response to some minor taunts from ‘Morning Joe,’ with co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski inspiring the mighty leader to tweet “low I.Q. Crazy Mika’ had been “bleeding badly from a Face-Lift’ a few years ago when he excluded her from a New Year’s Eve party at Mar-a-Lago. Responding, a spokesperson for First Lady Melania reminded the public that “..when her husband gets attacked, he will punch back 10 times harder,” a statement that seems a disproportionate response characteristic of the worst locker room bully. Quite incredibly Melania apparently feels that her defense of The Donald does not make a mockery of her supposed campaign against cyber bullies. The White House media deputy, Sarah Huckabee Sanders casually dismissed the whole incident as one of ‘fighting fire with fire.’ Somehow proportionality doesn’t matter when it comes to evaluating Trump’s behavior. We can only wonder what happens to someone flattened by a Trump riposte 10 times more severe than the blow struck to his miniscule ego and massive id.


This endorsement of disproportion by the Trump White House also recalls the much criticized Dahiya Doctrine relied upon in Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War when a leading general affirmed the use of ‘disproportionate power’ to destroy the civilian infrastructure of a neighborhood in south Beirut thought to be sympathetic with Hezbollah. It seems relevant to recall that one of the most hallowed and deeply rooted principles of international humanitarian law is that of proportionality. It would seem even more essential for maintaining an atmosphere of civility in a deeply divided society. It had been assumed that overall an American president, regardless of party or personal values, would throw his weight behind those elements in society who affirmed the relevance of civility to upholding trust and feelings of coherence in a democratic society. But obviously such an assumption no longer holds.


Is this action and reaction mostly about the proper boundaries of discourse in a democratic society? Yes, in part; the liberal insistence that nothing critical should be permitted if it is not respectful of racial minorities or gays currently collides with the Zionist all out push to have Israeli critics condemned and victimized as anti-Semites if they dare attack Israel’s policies and practices. Yet discourse doesn’t explain everything. If Trump were less thin skinned, media assaults would disappear almost as quickly as bubbles blown into the air. As it is, Trump tweets pull scabs off wounds that are not healed. Demeaning the bodies of Mika Brzezinski or Megyn Kelly is more than an insult of a person, it is a slap at the long exploited vulnerabilities of gender, which in the case of women has been endured for centuries.


Whose correctness? The white males that make up the most extreme Trump enthusiasts, clearly celebrate his unabashed revalidation of patriarchy, including even its ribald sexism, with a restorative effect on their self-esteem. The women these men most respect are content with their traditional roles, and do not shake the male ship of state, and further, mostly resent those women who challenge the established order of things human and divine. Sadly many religious institutions back them up. So values and worldviews as well as discourse are at stake.


The hung jury in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault case also seems relevant. Did it reflect some combination of the Trump gender ethos—men can do no wrong in the bedroom—and racial payback—now whites know better how blacks feel when their lethal assailants are repeatedly found not guilty. Of course, we should demand of our justice system the outcomes predicated on the search for the truth of allegations, which tells us why the goddess of justice is always portrayed blindfolded, safeguarding the judicial process from gender, racial, and class bias. But what if the real life experience of ‘justice’ over many decades has reflected mainstream racism toward minorities, is it then ‘unjust’ to return the favor when the rare opportunity arises? Of course, it is individually ‘unjust’ to exonerate Cosby or O.J. Simpson because each serve in a distinct way as a synecdoche for the numerous black men falsely accused of raping white women, and then cruelly punished? It does not lessen the criminality of their apparent errant behavior, but it may jolt the system enough to create a deeper awareness that accountability to be legitimate must apply to all equally regardless of skin color, ethnicity, or class and if it continues to reflect bias favoring the dominant race, nationality, and class then it deserves no respect from those identities being victimized?


Assessing the exploits of Trump, and Cosby, at least raise these difficult issues of individual and collective responsibility that need to be resolved before the country can hope to recover its moral compass, and learn to respect the dignity of all of its citizens in spite of their diversities of experience and background. This may be a more fundamental challenge to those who govern humanely than is the broad latitude accorded when the word ‘security’ is uttered by those in power.