Am retired. With my wife Josée I Iive in Tampa, and go often to Paris. There's not yet a bridge between the two cities and we have to fly. These two cities are far apart, but I'm working hard at finding real connections between them. Tampa is America, the best and the worst of it. Paris, well, Paris is Paris.
I think I’m experiencing democracy grief, and this issue is real.
Seeing what Trump is doing to America, I and many find it hard to fight off despair.
The despair felt by climate scientists and environmentalists watching helplessly as something precious and irreplaceable is destroyed is sometimes described as “climate grief.” Those who pay close attention to the ecological calamity that civilization is inflicting upon itself frequently describe feelings of rage, anxiety and bottomless loss, all of which are amplified by the right’s willful denial. The young activist Greta Thunberg, Time magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year, has described falling into a deep depression after grasping the ramifications of climate change and the utter refusal of people in power to rise to the occasion: “If burning fossil fuels was so bad that it threatened our very existence, how could we just continue like before?”
Lately, I think I’m experiencing democracy grief. For anyone who was, like me, born after the civil rights movement finally made democracy in America real, liberal democracy has always been part of the climate, as easy to take for granted as clean air or the changing of the seasons. When I contemplate the sort of illiberal oligarchy that would await my children should Donald Trump win another term, the scale of the loss feels so vast that I can barely process it.
After Trump’s election, a number of historians and political scientists rushed out with books explaining, as one title put it, “How Democracies Die.” In the years since, it’s breathtaking how much is dead already. Though the president will almost certainly be impeached for extorting Ukraine to aid his re-election, he is equally certain to be acquitted in the Senate, a tacit confirmation that he is, indeed, above the law. His attorney general is a shameless partisan enforcer. Professional civil servants are purged, replaced by apparatchiks. The courts are filling up with young, hard-right ideologues. One recently confirmed judge, 40-year-old Steven Menashi, has written approvingly of ethnonationalism.
“How Democracies Die,” Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard describe how, in failing democracies, “the referees of the democratic game were brought over to the government’s side, providing the incumbent with both a shield against constitutional challenges and a powerful — and ‘legal’ — weapon with which to assault its opponents.” This is happening before our eyes.
The entire Trump presidency has been marked, for many of us who are part of the plurality that despises it, by anxiety and anger. But lately I’ve noticed, and not just in myself, a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression. ..
Kimberly Grocher, a psychotherapist who works in both New York and South Florida, and whose clients are primarily women of color, told me that during her sessions, the political situation “is always in the room. It’s always in the room.” Trump, she said, has made bigotry more open and acceptable, something her patients feel in their daily lives. “When you’re dealing with people of color’s mental health, systemic racism is a big part of that,” she said.
In April 2017, I traveled to suburban Atlanta to cover the special election in the Sixth Congressional District. Meeting women there who had been shocked by Trump’s election into ceaseless political action made me optimistic for the first time that year. These women were ultimately the reason that the district, once represented by Newt Gingrich, is now represented by a Democrat, Lucy McBath. Recently, I got back in touch with a woman I’d met there, an army veteran and mother of three named Katie Landsman. She was in a dark place.
It’s like watching someone you love die of a wasting disease,” she said, speaking of our country. “Each day, you still have that little hope no matter what happens, you’re always going to have that little hope that everything’s going to turn out O.K., but every day it seems like we get hit by something else.” Some mornings, she said, it’s hard to get out of bed. “It doesn’t feel like depression,” she said. “It really does feel more like grief.”
Obviously, this is hardly the first time that America has failed to live up to its ideals. But the ideals themselves used to be a nearly universal lodestar. The civil rights movement, and freedom movements that came after it, succeeded because the country could be shamed by the distance between its democratic promises and its reality. That is no longer true….
Trump’s political movement is pro-authoritarian and pro-oligarch. It has no interest in preserving pluralism, free and fair elections or any version of the rule of law that applies to the powerful as well as the powerless. It’s contemptuous of the notion of America as a lofty idea rather than a blood-and-soil nation. Russia, which has long wanted to prove that liberal democracy is a hypocritical sham, is the natural friend of the Trumpist Republican Party….
The nemeses of the Trumpist movement are liberals — in both the classical and American sense of the world — not America’s traditional geopolitical foes. This is something new in our lifetime. Despite right-wing persecution fantasies about Barack Obama, we’ve never before had a president who treats half the country like enemies, subjecting them to an unending barrage of dehumanization and hostile propaganda. Opponents in a liberal political system share at least some overlapping language. They have some shared values to orient debates. With those things gone, words lose their meaning and political exchange becomes impossible and irrelevant.
Thus we have a total breakdown in epistemological solidarity. In the impeachment committee hearings, Republicans insist with straight faces that Trump was deeply concerned about corruption in Ukraine. Republican senators like Ted Cruz of Texas, who is smart enough to know better, repeat Russian propaganda accusing Ukraine of interfering in the 2016 election. The Department of Justice’s inspector general’s report refutes years of Republican deep state conspiracy theories about an F.B.I. plot to subvert Trump’s campaign, and it makes no difference whatsoever to the promoters of those theories, who pronounce themselves totally vindicated.
To those who recognize the Trump administration’s official lies as such, the scale of dishonesty can be destabilizing. It’s a psychic tax on the population, who must parse an avalanche of untruths to understand current events. “What’s going on in the government is so extreme, that people who have no history of overwhelming psychological trauma still feel crazed by this,” said Stephanie Engel, a psychiatrist in Cambridge, Mass., who said Trump comes up “very frequently” in her sessions.
Like several therapists I spoke to, Engel said she’s had to rethink how she practices, because she has no clinical distance from the things that are terrifying her patients. “If we continue to present a facade — that we know how to manage this ourselves, and we’re not worried about our grandchildren, or we’re not worried about how we’re going to live our lives if he wins the next election — we’re not doing our patients a service,” she said.This kind of political suffering is uncomfortable to write about, because liberal misery is the raison d’être of the MAGA movement. When Trumpists mock their enemies for being “triggered,” it’s just a quasi-adult version of the playground bully’s jeer: “What are you going to do, cry?” Anyone who has ever been bullied knows how important it is, at that moment, to choke back tears….
But despair is worth discussing, because it’s something that organizers and Democratic candidates should be addressing head on. Left to fester, it can lead to apathy and withdrawal. Channeled properly, it can fuel an uprising. I was relieved to hear that despite her sometimes overwhelming sense of civic sadness, Landsman’s activism hasn’t let up. She’s been spending a bit less than 20 hours a week on political organizing, and expects to go back to 40 or more after the holidays. “The only other option is to quit and accept it, and I’m not ready to go there yet,” she said. Democracy grief isn’t like regular grief. Acceptance isn’t how you move on from it. Acceptance is itself a kind of death.
That’s Biden’s central message and the core, urgent issue of our time …
the moral unfitness of Donald Trump to be president of the United States.
A really unexpected thing happened to me this week. I felt a slight but measurable twinge of hope. For the first time, I heard a speech that, while measured and well-balanced, homed in relentlessly — and with passion and authority — on the core moral unfitness of Donald Trump to be president of the United States. Joe Biden’s Iowa address, of August 9th. of this year, finally did what needs to be done, said what needs ti be said:: Leaving questions of policy aside for a moment, it framed next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns as a battle for the soul of America.
Trump’s inability to grasp this country as an idea ultimately beyond race and territory and religion, his despicable moral character and incendiary rhetoric, and his constant threats to Constitutional order and civil peace render him unfit for the office he holds. That’s Biden’s central message and the core, urgent issue of our time — because it relates to all the others: the costs and insecurity of health care, the intensifying climate crisis, the crumbling of liberal democracy in the West, the corruption of the American right, the rise of white supremacist terror, and the pressures of absorbing the biggest wave of immigration in a century, and, in absolute numbers, the biggest wave in American history. With Trump reelected, all of this gets fathomlessly worse. With him gone, there’s a chance to recover. But while he’s there, the danger never ends.
The speech should reassure people — as it reassured me — that the Democratic primary base is not wrong or cowardly or sexist for consistently putting Biden at the top of their preferences. These rank-and-file voters want to defeat Trump and think they’ve found the best candidate for the job available. And if Biden can sustain both his focus and the powerful argument he laid out this week, he may well prove them right.
This is not to say that Biden isn’t showing some signs of aging. He was composed, but he does appear a little frail; there were times his speech seemed a little slurred, and he had several minor slipups. This is not to fault him: At 76, he has enviable sharpness and physical fitness. But at 76, there are limits. And somehow, at 73, Trump’s psychological sickness gives him an edge: a gob-smacking drive to keep going and going and going, with no signs of flagging at all, and many signs of mania. Who in their 70s is crazy enough to keep up? Even as he claimed he was seeking healing and unity this week, Trump was still tweeting insults, filming a shameless campaign video, and comparing crowd sizes with Beto O’Rourke’s. The sheer sociopathic narcissism in the face of such grief and trauma beggars belief. But it sure makes Trump seem younger than he is.
But I don’t think Biden’s age matters that much, or that “Sleepy Joe” is an apposite nickname. In fact, his age and political longevity help him deliver the moral case against Trump more convincingly. Yes, I know that smart analysts insist that the election will be won on policy issues, like health care, jobs, or immigration — and that most voters are bored by the tweet-driven drama Trump revels in. Ignore the wannabe Caesar, we’re told, and you can beat him on policy grounds. Attack his record, not his depraved and corrosive threat to our entire constitutional system. Remember how the Dems won the midterms, that’s how you do it. Offer tangible policy contrasts: a public option in Obamacare as opposed to abolishing it altogether; a program for green investment against Trump’s burn-the-planet-down swagger; taking back the super-wealthy’s tax breaks and redirecting the money to the middle class, so far as possible; restoring America’s traditional alliances, rather than tearing them up. You know the drill.
And I certainly don’t think you should ignore policy contrasts. I’d make health-care security a central message. If I were Biden, I’d also defend and embrace Obama’s record on immigration enforcement without the slightest apology — and ridicule Trump for letting illegal immigration soar under his watch. I’d also emphasize how I had shifted on trade, and how acutely I was hearing the concerns of the white working class in the Rust Belt.
But avoiding the lardaceous orange elephant in the room seems like a defensive dodge to me. It gives the impression of weakness. It cedes too much to Trump and normalizes him. It is not the relentless, epiphanous stare-down of Trump that a successful 2020 opponent needs to muster, and that so much of the country is yearning for. And it misses what is in fact the central issue in 2020: the unique danger this bitter bigot poses to this country’s liberal democracy and civil peace.
Next year will not be a midterm election, after all. It will be a referendum on Trump — as it has to be, and as Trump will insist it be. And so the central task of the Democratic candidate will be not just to explain how dangerous Trump’s rhetoric and behavior is, but how un-American it is, and how a second term could leave behind an unutterably altered America. One term and the stain, however dark, might fade in time. Two terms and it marks us forever.
Biden made this moral case. And he did it with feeling, and a wounded sense of patriotism. He invoked previous presidents, including Republicans, who knew how insidiously evil white supremacy is and wouldn’t give any quarter to it. He reminded us that in politics, words are acts, and they have consequences when uttered by a national leader: “The words of a president … can move markets. They can send our brave men and women to war. They can bring peace. They can calm a nation in turmoil. They can console and confront and comfort in times of tragedy … They can appeal to the better angels of our nature. But they can also unleash the deepest, darkest forces in this nation.” And this, Biden argues, is what Trump has done: tap that dark psychic force, in an act of malignant and nihilist narcissism.
Yes, Biden powerfully argued that Trump was an enabler of “white supremacy” in the sense understood by most people, and not the absurdly broad, new left definition that counts as a white supremacist nearly everyone not actively virtue-signaling on left Twitter. But he went further and explained why America, at its best, is an inversion of that twisted racial identitarianism: “What this president doesn’t understand is that unlike every other nation on earth, we’re unable to define what constitutes ‘American’ by religion, by ethnicity, or by tribe; you can’t do it. America is an idea. An idea stronger than any army, bigger than any ocean, more powerful than any dictator or tyrant. It gives hope to the most desperate people on earth.” Hope, one might add, that has been deeply qualified by this president’s outspoken fondness for dictators like Kim Jong-un.
And although some of this might once have seemed like pabulum, in the Trump era, it comes off as fresh. There was even a nice line designed to get under Trump’s skin, ridiculing the listless condemnation of white supremacy Trump recited in the wake of the El Paso massacre: that “low-energy, vacant-eyed mouthing of the words written for him condemning white supremacists this week.” That’s a poignantly wrought description of that sighing, sniffing, singsongy voice that Trump uses when he’s saying something his heart isn’t into.
And more importantly, Biden was able to express all this with authority. The speech was a defense of American decency against an indecent commander-in-chief — and it echoed loudly because Biden is, so evidently, a decent human. I’ve never been a huge fan of the logorrheic, egotistical grandstanding Biden sometimes engages in; I don’t agree with him on some issues; his treatment of Anita Hill was disgracefully off-key. But I have never doubted Biden’s core decency. Maybe I have a soft spot for a well-meaning Irish-uncle type. But for 25 minutes or so this week, I felt as if I were living in America again, the America I love and chose to live in, a deeply flawed America, to be sure, marked forever by slavery’s stain, and racism’s endurance, but an America that, at its heart, is a decent country, full of decent people.
This is not all Biden needs to say or do. He needs to do much more to prove that he understands why Trump was elected in the first place. He has to recast the Democrats as the tough but humane enforcers of immigration laws, and not the party of open borders, and he has to find a way to boost African-American enthusiasm and turnout. But decency is the heart of his candidacy. And voting for Joe Biden feels like voting for some things we’ve lost and have one last chance to regain. Normalcy, generosity, civility, experience — and a reminder that, in this current darkness, Trump does not define America. “Everyone knows who Donald Trump is,” Biden concluded. “We need to show them who we are. We choose hope over fear. Science over fiction. Unity over division. And, yes — truth over lies.”
On the one side, there is Donald Trump and what he’s fighting for
Himself Mar-a-Lago The length of his member The size of his election win His golf game His golf courses His family His hotels His tweets His rallies His reelection His demagogues, Erdogan et al. His autocrats, Putin et al. …..
On the other side, are the Liberals and what they’re fighting for
Humanity Man and Woman Decency The rule of Law Freedom Pluralism Civil Rights Human rights A free Press Independent Judiciaries Breathable Air The Planet Earth Peace …..
Now would you ever have believed it if I had ever told you that there are almost as many, including US Senators, Congressmen and Supreme Court judges, who take Trump’s side, the side of indecency and illiberality, as there are those on the other side, the liberal side? What a terrible picture this makes of our country, which for most of my life was the home of the free and the brave, not the primary residence of Donald Trump , his family, hotels, and golf courses.
Is he right about what he says below?? In what follows, here and in subsequent blogs, I will respond to a number of Barr’s arguments during the Notre Dame speech, or his rather opinions. Because his opinions come, as most opinions, without evidence.
First what he says about the growing ascendancy of secularism and the doctrine of moral relativism:
“By any honest assessment, the consequences of this moral upheaval have been grim.”
“Virtually every measure of social pathology continues to gain ground. In 1965, the illegitimacy rate was eight percent. In 1992, when I was last Attorney General, it was 25 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. In many of our large urban areas, it is around 70 percent. Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence, and a deadly drug epidemic. As you all know, over 70,000 people die a year from drug overdoses. That is more casualities in a year than we experienced during the entire Vietnam War. I will not dwell on all the bitter results of the new secular age. Suffice it to say that the campaign to destroy the traditional moral order has brought with it immense suffering, wreckage, and misery.“
And in response there is so much we might say, so many things we might ask mighty Bill. What is the evidence for an earlier, or traditional moral order bringing along with it less human suffering? Was it Slavery? Was it any number of genocides, was it the destruction of whole tribes of native peoples, in many cases destruction to the last man? Or later, and almost up to the present time, was it a Southern Jim Crowe society when tens of thousands of Black lynchings were, if not approved, were not stopped by our elected representatives? And on and on. One might as well say that the so-called collapse of the traditional moral order has infinitely improved the quality, the morality of our lives, made us better people. And in spite of Bill’s numbers that’s what I would say. While we always need to better understand what’s happening, by saying that people by no longer attending church, and Barr’s Catholic church at that, brought these ills upon themselves is not going to cut it.
The most interesting and for me the most appropriate response to the candidacy of Donald Trump that I’ve read up until now just has to be this briefing, The Post-Truth World, from the Economist Magazine of September 10, parts of which I’ve taken without permission and posted here below.
It’s probably significant that my very first memorable contact with the Donald was not the Trump Tower, the Casinos, Trump University, those and/or other items bearing his name, but it was what happened during the election of 2012 when Trump suddenly appeared as the lead spokesman for the so-called birther movement, speaking out for those who questioned the legitimacy of President Obama’s birth certificate. Why did he do this? Why does he continue to give us un-truths in our “post-truth” world? Well that’s the answer. This is the un-truth world and it’s par excellence his world, certainly where he’s most comfortable uttering his un-truths. Why, as the poet says, truth’s a dog and must to kennel.
At that time during the Romney campaign (Trump supported Romney for President, and now probably the best thing I can say about Romney is that Romney is not supporting Trump) anyway, during the Trump-led birther movement I put Trump aside as an idiot, a “bloviating ignoramus” as in the always well chosen words of George Will.
Yet now, some four years later, in our “post-truth” world Donald Trump couldn’t be more at home. He’s relaxed, and will say just anything that comes to mind to arouse his dear followers. He clearly doesn’t at all care about what his words mean, even less does he care about what they may have meant at an earlier time, let alone whether there be any connection between his words and the truth.
Wolf Blitzer presented Trump with newspaper announcements of Obama’s birth.
Trump interrupted, “Can you stop defending Obama?”
“Donald, you’re beginning to sound a little ridiculous, I have to tell you,” Blitzer replied.
“You are, Wolf,” Trump fired back. “Let me tell you something, I think you sound ridiculous.”
Trump then alleged that the practice of filing US birth announcements for an overseas birth was commonplace, though he offered no evidence.
Doesn’t this kind of ring like a “post truth,” or un-truth time? Also, isn’t it clear, alas! that we still have at the present time the same Donald Trump as then, no longer a Romney supporter, but a candidate himself. Now as he tells us there’s “lying Hillary,” but there’s also a lying Donald (not to mention “lying Ted”). And given that the two realistic candidates for President are lying Hillary and lying Donald, we will be electing a liar as President of the United States, making us the land par excellence of post- or un-truth.
So here’s the Economist briefing I mention above, considerably abridged. While the lack of truth telling is a great problem among our leaders the author doesn’t say we should despair, even when the lying mosquito is infecting millions of us, and thereby eventually perhaps bringing it about that the truth- tellers in the land of un-truth are no more.
Yes, I’d lie to you. Dishonesty in politics is nothing new; but the manner in which some politicians now lie, and the havoc they may wreak by doing so, are worrying.
WHEN Donald Trump, the Republican presidential hopeful, claimed recently that President Barack Obama “is the founder” of Islamic State and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, the “co-founder”, even some of his supporters were perplexed. Surely he did not mean that literally? Perhaps, suggested Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, he meant that the Obama administration’s rapid pull-out from Iraq “created the vacuum” that the terrorists then filled?
“No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” replied Mr Trump. “He was the most valuable player. I give him the most valuable player award. I give her, too, by the way, Hillary Clinton.”
Mr Hewitt, who detests Mr Obama and has written a book denouncing Mrs Clinton’s “epic ambition”, was not convinced. “But he’s not sympathetic to them. He hates them. He’s trying to kill them,” he pushed back.
Again, Mr Trump did not give an inch: “I don’t care. He was the founder. The way he got out of Iraq was, that, that was the founding of ISIS, OK?”
For many observers, the exchange was yet more proof that the world has entered an era of “post-truth politics”. Mr Trump appears not to care whether his words bear any relation to reality, so long as they fire up voters. PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, has rated more of his statements “pants-on-fire” lies than of any other candidate—for instance his assertion that “inner city crime is reaching record levels”, which plays on unfounded fears that crime rates are rising….
Post-truth politics is advancing in many parts of the world. In Europe the best example is Poland’s ultranationalist ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS). Among other strange stories, it peddles lurid tales about Poland’s post-communist leaders plotting with the communist regime to rule the country together. In Turkey the protests at Gezi Park in 2013 and a recent attempted coup have given rise to all kinds of conspiracy theories, some touted by government officials: the first was financed by Lufthansa, a German airline (to stop Turkey from building a new airport which would divert flights from Germany), the second was orchestrated by the CIA.
Then there is Russia, [Perhaps this is what accounts for Trump’s being attracted to his “friend” Putin] Arguably Russia is the country (apart from North Korea) that has moved furthest past truth, both in its foreign policy and internal politics. The Ukraine crisis offers examples aplenty: state-controlled Russian media faked interviews with “witnesses” of alleged atrocities, such as a child being crucified by Ukrainian forces; Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, did not hesitate to say on television that there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, despite abundant proof to the contrary.
Such dezinformatsiya may seem like a mere reversion to Soviet form. But at least the Soviets’ lies were meant to be coherent, argues Peter Pomerantsev, a journalist whose memoir of Mr Putin’s Russia is titled “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible”. In a study in 2014 for the Institute of Modern Russia, a think-tank, he quotes a political consultant for the president saying that in Soviet times, “if they were lying they took care to prove what they were doing was ‘the truth’. Now no one even tries proving ‘the truth’. You can just say anything. Create realities.”
In such creation it helps to keep in mind—as Mr Putin surely does—that humans do not naturally seek truth. In fact, as plenty of research shows, they tend to avoid it. People instinctively accept information to which they are exposed and must work actively to resist believing falsehoods; they tend to think that familiar information is true; and they cherry-pick data to support their existing views. At the root of all these biases seems to be what Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-prizewinning psychologist and author of a bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, calls “cognitive ease”: humans have a tendency to steer clear of facts that would force their brains to work harder….
Given the biases of most peoples, it is somewhat surprising that people can ever agree on facts, particularly in politics. But many societies have developed institutions which allow some level of consensus over what is true: schools, science, the legal system, the media. This truth-producing infrastructure, though, is never close to perfect: it can establish as truth things for which there is little or no evidence; it is constantly prey to abuse by those to whom it grants privileges; and, crucially, it is slow to build but may be quick to break.
Post-truth politics is made possible by two threats to this public sphere: a loss of trust in institutions that support its infrastructure and deep changes in the way knowledge of the world reaches the public. Take trust first. Across the Western world it is at an all-time low, which helps explain why many prefer so-called “authentic” politicians, who “tell it how it is” (ie, say what people feel), to the wonkish type. Britons think that hairdressers and the “man in the street” are twice as trustworthy as business leaders, journalists and government ministers, according to a recent poll by Ipsos MORI. When Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer, said before the referendum that “people in this country have had enough of experts” he may have had a point.
This loss of trust has many roots. In some areas—dietary advice, for example—experts seem to contradict each other more than they used to; governments get things spectacularly wrong, as with their assurances about the wisdom of invading Iraq, trusting in the world financial system and setting up the euro. But it would be a mistake to see the erosion of trust simply as a response to the travails of the world. In some places trust in institutions has been systematically undermined.
Mr Roberts first used the term “post-truth politics” in the context of American climate-change policy. In the 1990s many conservatives became alarmed by the likely economic cost of a serious effort to reduce carbon emissions. Some of the less scrupulous decided to cast doubt on the need for a climate policy by stressing to the point of distortion uncertainties in the underlying science. In a memo Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster, argued: “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.” Challenging—and denigrating—scientists in order to make the truth seem distant and unknowable worked pretty well. One poll found that 43% of Republicans believe climate change is not happening at all, compared to 10% of Democrats.
Visitors in front of a picture of Xi at the Beijing Exhibition Center, September 2019l
Jason Lee / Reuters
In February 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman huddled with his most senior foreign policy advisers, George Marshall and Dean Acheson, and a handful of congressional leaders. The topic was the administration’s plan to aid the Greek government in its fight against a communist insurgency. Marshall and Acheson presented their case for the plan. Arthur Vandenberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, listened closely and then offered his support with a caveat. “The only way you are going to get what you want,” he reportedly told the president, “is to make a speech and scare the hell out of the country.”
Over the next few months, Truman did just that. He turned the civil war in Greece into a test of the United States’ ability to confront international communism. Reflecting on Truman’s expansive rhetoric about aiding democracies anywhere, anytime, Acheson confessed in his memoirs that the administration had made an argument “clearer than truth.”
Something similar is happening today in the American debate about China. A new consensus, encompassing both parties, the military establishment, and key elements of the media, holds that China is now a vital threat to the United States both economically and strategically, that U.S. policy toward China has failed, and that Washington needs a new, much tougher strategy to contain it. This consensus has shifted the public’s stance toward an almost instinctive hostility: according to polling, 60 percent of Americans now have an unfavorable view of the People’s Republic, a record high since the Pew Research Center began asking the question in 2005. But Washington elites have made their case “clearer than truth.” The nature of the challenge from China is different from and far more complex than what the new alarmism portrays. On the single most important foreign policy issue of the next several decades, the United States is setting itself up for an expensive failure.
Let’s be clear: China is a repressive regime that engages in thoroughly illiberal policies, from banning free speech to interning religious minorities. Over the last five years, it has intensified its political control and economic statism at home. Abroad, it has become a competitor and in some places a rival of the United States. But the essential strategic question for Americans today is, Do these facts make China a vital threat, and to the extent that they do, how should that threat be addressed?
The consequences of exaggerating the Soviet threat were vast: gross domestic abuses during the McCarthy era; a dangerous nuclear arms race; a long, futile, and unsuccessful war in Vietnam; and countless other military interventions in various so-called Third World countries. The consequences of not getting the Chinese challenge right today will be vaster still. The United States risks squandering the hard-won gains from four decades of engagement with China, encouraging Beijing to adopt confrontational policies of its own, and leading the world’s two largest economies into a treacherous conflict of unknown scale and scope that will inevitably cause decades of instability and insecurity. A cold war with China is likely to be much longer and more costly than the one with the Soviet Union, with an uncertain outcome.
Henry Kissinger has noted that the United States has entered all its major military engagements since 1945—in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—with great enthusiasm and bipartisan support. “And then, as the war developed,” Kissinger said, “the domestic support for it began to come apart.” Soon, everyone was searching for an exit strategy.
To avoid retreading that path, the United States should take the time to examine closely the assumptions behind the new China consensus. In broad terms, they are the following. First, engagement has failed because it did not “transform China’s internal development and external behavior,” as the former U.S. officials Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner wrote in these pages in 2018. Second, Beijing’s foreign policy is currently the most significant threat to U.S. interests and, by extension, to the rules-based international order that the United States created after 1945. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has gone much further, saying in a 2019 speech at the Hudson Institute that “the Chinese Communist party is a Marxist-Leninist party focused on struggle and international domination.” And third, a policy of active confrontation with China will better counter the threat than a continuation of the previous approach.
This bipartisan consensus has formed in response to significant and in many ways worrying changes in China. Ever since President Xi Jinping became the country’s supreme ruler, China’s economic liberalization has slowed and its political reform—limited in any case—has been reversed. Beijing now combines political repression with nationalist propaganda that harks back to the Mao era. Abroad, China is more ambitious and assertive. These shifts are real and worrying. But how should they alter U.S. policy?
On the most important foreign policy issue of the next decades, Washington is setting itself up for failure.
Formulating an effective response requires starting with a clear understanding of the United States’ China strategy up to this point. What the new consensus misses is that in the almost five decades since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s opening to Beijing, U.S. policy toward China has never been purely one of engagement; it has been a combination of engagement and deterrence. In the late 1970s, U.S. policymakers concluded that integrating China into the global economic and political system was better than having it sit outside it, resentful and disruptive. But Washington coupled that effort with consistent support for other Asian powers—including, of course, continued arms sales to Taiwan. That approach, sometimes described as a “hedging strategy,” ensured that as China rose, its power was checked and its neighbors felt secure.
In the 1990s, with no more Soviet foe to contain, the Pentagon slashed spending, closed bases, and reduced troop numbers around the world—except in Asia. The Pentagon’s 1995 Asia-Pacific strategy, known as the Nye Initiative, warned of China’s military buildup and foreign policy ambitions and announced that the United States would not reduce its military presence in the region. Instead, at least 100,000 American troops would remain in Asia for the foreseeable future. Arms sales to Taiwan would continue in the interest of peace in the Taiwan Strait—that is, to deter Beijing from using force against the self-governing island, which the mainland government considers to be part of China.
This hedging approach was maintained by presidents of both parties. The George W. Bush administration overturned decades of bipartisan policy and embraced India as a nuclear power, in large part to add yet another check on China. Under President Barack Obama, the United States ramped up deterrence, expanding its footprint in Asia with new military agreements with Australia and Japan and nurturing a closer relationship with Vietnam. Such was also the purpose of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, designed to give Asian countries an economic platform that would enable them to resist dominance by the Chinese market. (The Trump administration pulled out of the agreement in early 2017.) Obama personally confronted Xi about Chinese cybertheft and placed tariffs on tire imports to retaliate against China’s unfair trade policies.
To say that hedging failed reflects a lack of historical perspective. In the early 1970s, before Nixon’s opening to China, Beijing was the world’s greatest rogue regime. Mao Zedong was obsessed with the idea that he was at the helm of a revolutionary movement that would destroy the Western capitalist world. There was no measure too extreme for the cause—not even nuclear apocalypse. “If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died,” Mao explained in a speech in Moscow in 1957, “the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist.” Mao’s China funded and fomented anti-Western insurgencies, guerrilla movements, and ideological movements around the world, from Latin America to Southeast Asia. By one estimate, Beijing spent between $170 million and $220 million from 1964 to 1985 in Africa alone, training 20,000 fighters from at least 19 countries.
China has also gone from seeking to undermine the international system to spending large sums to bolster it. Beijing is now the second-largest funder of the United Nations and the UN peacekeeping program. It has deployed 2,500 peacekeepers, more than all the other permanent members of the Security Council combined. Between 2000 and 2018, it supported 182 of 190 Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on nations deemed to have violated international rules or norms. Granted, the principles anchoring Beijing’s foreign policy today—“respect for sovereignty,” “territorial integrity,” and “nonintervention”—are animated in large part by a desire to fend off Western interference. Yet they highlight a remarkable shift from a radical agenda of revolution to a conservative concern for stability. Had someone predicted in 1972 that China would become a guardian of the international status quo, few would have believed it possible.
By comparison, today’s China is a remarkably responsible nation on the geopolitical and military front. It has not gone to war since 1979. It has not used lethal military force abroad since 1988. Nor has it funded or supported proxies or armed insurgents anywhere in the world since the early 1980s. That record of nonintervention is unique among the world’s great powers. All the other permanent members of the UN Security Council have used force many times in many places over the last few decades—a list led, of course, by the United States.
Chinese UN peacekeepers in Juba, South Sudan, May 2017
Samir Bol / Reuters
The new consensus on China’s economic behavior holds that China has forced multinational companies to transfer their technology, has subsidized its “national champions,” and has placed formal and informal barriers in the path of foreign firms seeking to enter its market. Beijing has, in short, used the open international economy to bolster its own statist and mercantilist system.
It is true that these unfair policies demand attention and action from the rest of the world. The Trump administration deserves some credit for tackling this problem—especially in light of Xi’s embrace of statism after decades of liberalization. But how large and permanent is this reversal? How different are China’s practices from those of other emerging market countries today? And again, what is the right American response?
Almost all economists agree that China owes much of its economic success to three fundamental factors: the switch from communist economics to a more market-based approach, a high savings rate that makes possible large capital investments, and rising productivity. Over the last three decades, the country has also opened itself up substantially to foreign investment—more so than many other large emerging markets—allowing capital to pour in. China is one of only two developing countries to have ranked in the top 25 markets for foreign direct investment since 1998. Of the BRICS group of large emerging markets (which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), China is consistently ranked as the most open and competitive economy. As for the effect of mercantilist Chinese policies on the U.S. economy, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers has noted that “it cannot be argued seriously that unfair Chinese trade practices have affected U.S. growth by even 0.1 percent a year.”
It is worth noting that on the economic front, almost every charge leveled at China today—forced technology transfers, unfair trade practices, limited access for foreign firms, regulatory favoritism for locals—was leveled at Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, Clyde Prestowitz’s influential book Trading Places: How America Is Surrendering Its Future to Japan and How to Win It Back explained that the United States had never imagined dealing with a country in which “industry and trade [would be] organized as part of an effort to achieve specific national goals.” Another widely read book of the era was titled The Coming War With Japan. As Japanese growth tapered off, so did these exaggerated fears.
China today presents some new challenges, especially given Xi’s determination to have the state play a leading role in helping the country gain economic dominance in crucial sectors. But in the broad sweep of history, China’s greatest advantage in the global trading system has come not from its willingness to violate the rules but from its sheer size. Countries and companies want access to China and are willing to make concessions to get it. This hardly makes China unusual. Other countries with similar clout often get away with similar behavior or worse—none more so than the United States. A 2015 report by the financial services giant Credit Suisse provides a useful tally of nontariff barriers against foreign goods put in place by major countries between 1990 and 2013. With a total count of almost 450, the United States is in a league of its own. Next is India, then Russia. China comes in at number five, with one-third as many nontariff barriers imposed as the United States. The picture hasn’t changed much in the years since.
On the economic front, almost every charge leveled at China today was once leveled at Japan.
Most of the recent changes in Beijing’s economic policy have been negative, but even that is not the entire story. China is changing along several, sometimes contradictory lines. Even with the return to greater state control under Xi, a wild free market has flourished in vast spheres such as consumer goods and services. There has also been some real regulatory liberalization—even administrative and judicial reform, as the political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang has detailed. Government support for state-owned enterprises is greater than it was a few years ago, but Beijing has abandoned what was once a central part of its mercantilist strategy: using an undervalued currency to boost growth. The economist Nicholas Lardy has calculated that the end of currency mercantilism accounts for “about half of China’s growth slowdown since the global financial crisis.”
Or consider what is, according to Peter Navarro, U.S. President Donald Trump’s top trade adviser, issue number one in the United States’ trade dispute with China: “the theft of our intellectual property.” That China engages in rampant theft of intellectual property is a widely accepted fact—except among U.S. companies doing business in China. In a recent survey of such companies conducted by the U.S.-China Business Council, intellectual property protection ranked sixth on a list of pressing concerns, down from number two in 2014. These companies worry more about state funding for rival companies and delayed approval of licenses for their products. Why this shift from 2014? That year, China created its first specialized courts to handle intellectual property cases. In 2015, foreign plaintiffs brought 63 cases in the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. The court ruled for the foreign firms in all 63.
Of course, reforms such as these are often undertaken only in the face of Western pressure and, even then, because they serve China’s own competitive interests—the largest filer of patents worldwide last year was the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. But it is also true that many Chinese economists and senior policymakers have argued that the country will modernize and grow its economy only if it pursues further reform. Failure to do so, they have warned, will get the country stuck in the “middle-income trap”—the common fate of countries that escape poverty but hit a wall at a GDP of around $10,000 per capita, having failed to modernize their economic, regulatory, and legal systems any further.
As far as China’s political development is concerned, the verdict is unambiguous. China has not opened up its politics to the extent that many anticipated; it has in fact moved toward greater repression and control. Beijing’s gruesome treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, a region in northwestern China, has created a human rights crisis. The state has also begun to use new technologies, such as facial recognition software and artificial intelligence, to create an Orwellian system of social control. These realities are a tragedy for the Chinese people and an obstacle to the country’s participation in global leadership. It would be an exaggeration, however, to adduce them as proof of the failure of U.S. policy. In truth, few U.S. officials ever argued that engagement would lead inexorably to liberal democracy in China. They hoped that it would, even expected it, but their focus was always on moderating China’s external behavior, which they achieved.
CROSSING THE LINE
Under Xi, China’s foreign policy has become more ambitious and assertive, from its pursuit of leadership roles in UN agencies to the vast Belt and Road Initiative and the construction of islands in the South China Sea. These moves mark a break with the country’s erstwhile passivity on the global stage, captured by the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s adage “Hide your strength, bide your time.” China’s military buildup, in particular, has been of a size and designed in a manner that suggest that a long-term plan is being systematically executed. But what would an acceptable level of influence for China be, given its economic weight in the world? If Washington does not first ask this question, it cannot make serious claims about which uses of Chinese power cross the line.
China is, by some measures, already the world’s largest economy. Within ten to 15 years, it will probably take this spot by all measures. Deng offered his advice to “bide your time” when the country’s economy represented roughly one percent of global GDP. Today, it represents over 15 percent. China has indeed bided its time, and now, a much stronger China naturally seeks a larger regional and global role.
At a construction s ite in Shenzhen, C hina, February 2012
Tomas van Houtryve / VII / Red ux
Consider the case of another country that was rising in strength, this one back in the nineteenth century, although not nearly on the scale of China today. The United States in 1823 was what would now be called a developing country—not even among the world’s top five economies—and yet with the Monroe Doctrine, it declared the entire Western Hemisphere off-limits to the great powers of Europe. The American case is an imperfect analogy, but it serves as a reminder that as countries gain economic strength, they seek greater control and influence over their environment. If Washington defines every such effort by China as dangerous, it will be setting the United States up against the natural dynamics of international life and falling into what the scholar Graham Allison has called “the Thucydides trap”—the danger of a war between a rising power and an anxious hegemon.
China hardly qualifies as a mortal danger to the liberal international order.
For the United States, dealing with such a competitor is a new and unique challenge. Since 1945, the major states rising to wealth and prominence have been Washington’s closest allies, if not quasi protectorates: Germany, Japan, and South Korea. A normally disruptive feature of international life—rising new powers—has thus been extraordinarily benign for the United States. China, however, is not only much larger than the rising powers that came before; it has also always been outside the United States’ alliance structures and sphere of influence. As a result, it will inevitably seek a greater measure of independent influence. The challenge for the United States, and the West at large, will be to define a tolerable range for China’s growing influence and accommodate it—so as to have credibility when Beijing’s actions cross the line.
George Santayana. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. … George Santayana (16 December 1863 in Madrid, Spain – 26 September 1952 in Rome, Italy) was a philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist.
So far, the West’s track record on adapting to China’s rise has been poor. Both the United States and Europe have, for example, been reluctant to cede any ground to China in the core institutions of global economic governance, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which remain Euro-American clubs. For years, China sought a larger role in the Asian Development Bank, but the United States resisted. As a result, in 2015, Beijing created its own multilateral financial institution, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (which Washington opposed, fruitlessly).
Pompeo has asserted—in a patronizing statement that would surely infuriate any Chinese citizen—that the United States and its allies must keep China in “its proper place.” China’s sin, according to Pompeo, is that it spends more on its military than it needs to for its own defense. But the same, of course, could be said of the United States—and of France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and most other large countries. In fact, a useful definition of a great power is one that is concerned about more than just its own security.
The old order—in which small European countries act as global heavyweights while behemoths such as China and India are excluded from the first ranks of global institutions—cannot be sustained. China will have to be given a place at the table and genuinely integrated into the structures of decision-making, or it will freelance and unilaterally create its own new structures and systems. China’s ascension to global power is the most significant new factor in the international system in centuries. It must be recognized as such.
NEITHER LIBERAL NOR INTERNATIONAL NOR ORDERLY
To many, Beijing’s rise has sounded the death knell of the liberal international order—the set of policies and institutions, forged largely by the United States after World War II, that compose a rules-based system in which interstate war has waned while free trade and human rights have flourished. China’s domestic political character—a one-party state that brooks no opposition or dissent—and some of its international actions make it an uneasy player in this system.
It is, however, worth remembering that the liberal international order was never as liberal, as international, or as orderly as it is now nostalgically described. From the very beginning, it faced vociferous opposition from the Soviet Union, followed by a series of breakdowns of cooperation among allies (over the Suez crisis in 1956, over Vietnam a decade later) and the partial defection of the United States under Nixon, who in 1971 ended Washington’s practice of underwriting the international monetary order using U.S. gold reserves. A more realistic image is that of a nascent liberal international order, marred from the start by exceptions, discord, and fragility. The United States, for its part, often operated outside the rules of this order, making frequent military interventions with or without UN approval; in the years between 1947 and 1989, when the United States was supposedly building up the liberal international order, it attempted regime change around the world 72 times. It reserved the same right in the economic realm, engaging in protectionism even as it railed against more modest measures adopted by other countries.
The truth about the liberal international order, as with all such concepts, is that there never really was a golden age, but neither has the order decayed as much as people claim. The core attributes of this order—peace and stability—are still in place, with a marked decline in war and annexation since 1945. (Russia’s behavior in Ukraine is an important exception.) In economic terms, it is a free-trade world. Average tariffs among industrialized countries are below three percent, down from 15 percent before the Kennedy Round of international trade talks, in the 1960s. The last decade has seen backsliding on some measures of globalization but from an extremely high baseline. Globalization since 1990 could be described as having moved three steps forward and only one step back.
China hardly qualifies as a mortal danger to this imperfect order. Compare its actions to those of Russia—a country that in many arenas simply acts as a spoiler, trying to disrupt the Western democratic world and its international objectives, often benefiting directly from instability because it raises oil prices (the Kremlin’s largest source of wealth). China plays no such role. When it does bend the rules and, say, engages in cyberwarfare, it steals military and economic secrets rather than trying to delegitimize democratic elections in the United States or Europe. Beijing fears dissent and opposition and is especially neuralgic on the issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan, using its economic clout to censor Western companies unless they toe the party line. But these are attempts to preserve what Beijing views as its sovereignty—nothing like Moscow’s systematic efforts to disrupt and delegitimize Western democracy in Canada, the United States, and Europe. In short, China has acted in ways that are interventionist, mercantilist, and unilateral—but often far less so than other great powers.
Riot police officers charging toward antigovernment protesters in Hong Kong, December 2019
Leah Millis / Reuters
The rise of a one-party state that continues to reject core concepts of human rights presents a challenge. In certain areas, Beijing’s repressive policies do threaten elements of the liberal international order, such as its efforts to water down global human rights standards and its behavior in the South China Sea and other parts of its “near abroad.” Those cases need to be examined honestly. In the former, little can be said to mitigate the charge. China is keen on defining away its egregious human rights abuses, and that agenda should be exposed and resisted. (The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council achieved the exact opposite by ceding the field to Beijing.)
But the liberal international order has been able to accommodate itself to a variety of regimes—from Nigeria to Saudi Arabia to Vietnam—and still provide a rules-based framework that encourages greater peace, stability, and civilized conduct among states. China’s size and policies present a new challenge to the expansion of human rights that has largely taken place since 1990. But that one area of potential regression should not be viewed as a mortal threat to the much larger project of a rules-based, open, free-trading international system.
CONTAINMENT AND ITS COSTS
The final assumption undergirding the new consensus is that some form of persistent confrontation with China will deter its adventurism abroad and set the stage for an internal transformation. Few embrace the Cold War term “containment,” but many adopt some version of its logic. The theory is that a hard line against China will force it to behave and even reform. Unspoken but clearly central to the hawks’ strategy is the notion that containing China will precipitate the collapse of its regime, just as happened with the Soviets.
But China is not the Soviet Union, an unnatural empire that was built on brutal expansion and military domination. In China, the United States would be confronting a civilization, and a nation, with a strong sense of national unity and pride that has risen to take its place among the great powers of the world. China is becoming an economic peer, indeed a technology leader in some areas. Its population dwarfs that of the United States, and the world’s largest market for almost every good is now in China. It houses some of the planet’s fastest computers and holds the largest foreign exchange reserves on earth. Even if it experienced some kind of regime change, the broader features of its rise and strength would persist.
The Pentagon has embraced the notion of China as the United States’ top “strategic competitor.” From a bureaucratic point of view, this designation makes perfect sense. For the last 20 years, the U.S. military has fought against insurgencies and guerrillas in failed states, and it has time and again had to explain why its expensive machinery has failed against these underequipped, cash-strapped enemies. To make an enemy of China, by contrast, is to return to the halcyon days of the Cold War, when the Pentagon could raise large budgets by conjuring the specter of a war against a rich, sophisticated military with cutting-edge technology of its own. All the while, the logic of nuclear deterrence and the prudence of the great powers ensured that a full-scale war between the two sides would never take place. Yet whatever the advantages for Pentagon budgets, the costs of such a cold war with China would be immense, distorting the United States’ economy and further inflating the military-industrial complex that U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower once warned against.
Add to this the large degree of interdependence between the United States and China. U.S. exports to China are up by 527 percent since 2001, and in 2018, China was the largest supplier of goods to the United States. There is also human interdependence—the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who study in the United States, along with the almost five million U.S. citizens and residents of Chinese descent. The United States has benefited greatly from being the place where the brightest minds gather to do the most cutting-edge research and then apply it to commercial ends. If the United States barred its doors to such talent because it came with the wrong passport, it would quickly lose its privileged place in the world of technology and innovation.
The Trump administration’s current approach to China runs along two distinct and contradictory tracks, at once eschewing interdependence and embracing it. On trade, Washington’s aim is, broadly speaking, integrationist: to get China to buy more from the United States, invest more in the United States, and allow Americans to sell and invest more in China. If successful, this effort would create more interdependence between the two countries. It is a laudable effort, although it bears pointing out that tariffs usually cost the party imposing the tax more than the recipient. By some estimates, the Obama administration’s tire tariffs cost around $1 million for every American job saved. The general approach, however, is wise, even if undertaken in pursuit of a narrow “America first” agenda, as interdependence gives the United States greater leverage over China.
In matters of technology, on the other hand, the Trump administration’s approach is decidedly disintegrationist. The strategy here is to sever ties with China and force the rest of the world to do the same—creating a world split between two camps. The Trump administration’s global campaign against Huawei has followed this logic; the meager results of that campaign indicate the logic’s flaws. The rest of the world is not following the lead of the United States (which lacks an alternative technology to compete with Huawei’s 5G offerings). The Trump administration has asked 61 countries to ban the company. So far, only three have acceded, all three of them close U.S. allies.
This dismal success rate is an early indicator of what a broader “decoupling” strategy would look like. China is the largest trading partner of many countries besides the United States, including key players in the Western Hemisphere, such as Brazil. When asked how they would respond to decoupling, senior leaders around the world almost all offer some version of the answer that one head of government gave me: “Please do not ask us to choose between the United States and China. You will not like the answer you get.” This is not to say that they would necessarily side with China—but they might well prefer to stay nonaligned or play the two powers off against each other. What is more, an isolated China that built its own domestic supply chains and technology would be impervious to U.S. pressure.
Strangely absent from most discussions of U.S. policy toward China is the question of China’s reaction. Beijing, too, has its hard-liners, who have warned for years that the United States seeks to keep China down and that any sign of Chinese ambition would be met with a strategy of containment. More and more, the United States’ posture toward China is allowing those voices to claim vindication, thereby giving them leverage to push exactly the kind of assertive and destabilizing behavior that U.S. policy aims to prevent.
The United States is in competition with China—that is a fact and will remain so for much of this century. The issue is whether the United States should compete within a stable international framework, continuing to try to integrate China rather than attempting to isolate it at all costs. A fractured, bifurcated international order, marked by government restrictions and taxes on trade, technology, and travel, would result in diminished prosperity, persistent instability, and the real prospect of military conflict for all involved.
The breakdown of globalization is, of course, the goal of many of the leading lights of the Trump administration. The president himself has decried “globalism” and considers free trade a way for other countries to loot American industry. He regards the United States’ alliances as obsolete and international institutions and norms as feckless constraints on national sovereignty. Right-wing populists have embraced these views for years. And many of them—especially in the United States—correctly understand that the easiest way to crack the entire liberal international edifice would be to trigger a cold war with China. More puzzling is that those who have spent decades building up that edifice are readily supporting an agenda that will surely destroy it.
AMERICA’S NOT-SO-SECRET STRATEGY
A wiser U.S. policy, geared toward turning China into a “responsible stakeholder,” is still achievable. Washington should encourage Beijing to exert greater influence in its region and beyond as long as it uses this clout to strengthen the international system. Chinese participation in efforts to tackle global warming, nuclear proliferation, money laundering, and terrorism should be encouraged—and appreciated. Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative could be a boon for the developing world if pursued in an open and transparent manner, even in cooperation with Western countries wherever possible. Beijing, for its part, would need to accept U.S. criticism about issues of human rights, freedom of speech, and liberty more generally.
The most dangerous flash points are likely to be Hong Kong and Taiwan, where the status quo is fragile and the balance of power favors Beijing. The Pentagon has reportedly enacted 18 war games against China over Taiwan, and China has prevailed in every one. Washington should make clear that any such victory would be Pyrrhic, resulting in economic collapse in Hong Kong or Taiwan, mass emigration from those islands, and international condemnation. If Beijing acts precipitously in either Hong Kong or Taiwan, a U.S. policy of cooperation will become untenable for years.
Turning China into a “responsible stakeholder” is still possible.
The new consensus on China is rooted in the fear that the country might at some point take over the globe. But there is reason to have faith in American power and purpose. Neither the Soviet Union nor Japan managed to take over the world, despite similar fears about their rise. China is rising but faces a series of internal challenges, from demographic decline to mountains of debt. It has changed before and will be forced to change again if the combined forces of integration and deterrence continue to press on it. Beijing’s elites know that their country has prospered in a stable, open world. They do not want to destroy that world. And despite a decade of political stagnation on the mainland, the connection between the rise of a middle class and demands for greater political openness is real, as is apparent in two Chinese societies watched closely by Beijing—Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Some American observers talk of China’s long view, of its patient, secret plan to dominate the world, consistently executed since 1949, if not before. The scholar and former U.S. Defense Department official Michael Pillsbury has called it China’s “hundred-year marathon,” in a book often praised by the Trump administration. But a more accurate picture is that of a country that has lurched fitfully from a tight alliance with the Soviet Union to the Sino-Soviet split, from the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution to a capitalist success story, and from deep hostility toward the West to close ties with the United States and back to a flirtation with hostility. If this is a marathon, it has taken some strange twists and turns, many of which could have ended it altogether.
Meanwhile, since 1949, the United States has patiently put in place structures and policies to create a more stable, open, and integrated world; has helped countries enter that world; and has deterred those that sought to destroy it—all with astonishing success. Washington has been the opposite of vacillating or overly focused on the short term. In 2019, U.S. troops are still on the banks of the Rhine, they are still safeguarding Seoul, and they are still in Okinawa.
China presents a new and large challenge. But if Washington can keep its cool and patiently continue to pursue a policy of engagement plus deterrence, forcing China to adjust while itself adjusting to make space for it, some scholar decades from now might write about the United States’ not-so-secret plan to expand the zone of peace, prosperity, openness, and decent governance across the globe—a marathon strategy that worked.
Whose side am I on, for these two don’t see things in the same way. No doubt here, I’m with Maureen, although in Kevin I see many members of my own family including my father then and brother now. Kevin’s underlying argument is that Trump is protecting his, Kevin’s interests, which mostly means his bank account. On the other hand Maureen is calling Trump out on his lack of decency, his indecent treatment (Tweetment) for example of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, not to mention of the hundreds of others who have been the objects of Trump’s Tweet scorns.
In the left hand column I give you Maureen’s brother Kevin’s words. This op ed piece, takes the place of Maureen’s regular Thanksgiving column on this one day of the year. Perhaps not a fair juxtaposition because this piece is all I have of Kevin in a given year, whereas I’ve been reading for years now the twice or thrice weekly Times columns by Kevin’s sister Maureen. Kevin may do other writing but I’m not aware of it. I only see what I will call his Thanksgiving pieces probably in response to his sister’s request on this one day of the year, when families including that of Maureen and Kevin, get together for turkey, and when possible talk.
Anyway in what follows is Kevin is “talking turkey” and Maureen, whose words I’ve selected for the second column from two of her recent oped pieces in the Times, calling my collection of her words from the two, with my respect and any apologies needed, “chickens and whales.”
No matter how bad your Thanksgiving is, mine will be worse, and I’ll tell you why.
And then there’s Kevin. It has been a crazy year, even by Trump standards. So I asked my brother to tell us, in his annual Thanksgiving column, if he has any regrets.
Kevin, ROCKVILLE, Md. — Over the last three years, Maureen has frequently sent me reader emails demanding to know how I can still support Donald Trump. My short answer is always the same: Have you looked at the alternative?
The liberals still sneer at religious conservatives. I wouldn’t let them come with me to the Knights of Columbus bar. In August, the D.N.C. passed a resolution saying “religiously unaffiliated Americans” are the largest “religious group” in the party and “overwhelmingly” share Democrats’ values. And certain House chairmen are waiving the words “So help me God” from swearing-ins.
God help me.
I support the president for his economy, his jobless rate and the record numbers of the stock market that his deregulation fueled. I applaud his unconditional support of the police at a time when I worry we’re returning to a ’60s-style “police are pigs” mind-set. (Michael Bloomberg should stop apologizing for reducing violent crime in New York City.)
I feel safe in my bed with the way the president is handling Iran and North Korea. Most of all, I support him for saving the Supreme Court from Hillary Clinton.
Trump came from the roughest job training in the world: the New York construction trade. His manners are sometimes missing. He can be coarse and a bully. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised that he has done exactly what he promised despite a hostile press.
The impeachment inquiry is a farce. Ukraine didn’t do the investigation and the aid was released. I think that all aid is quid pro quo. The election is in a year. If Trump is as bad as Democrats say, let the voters impeach him. Adam Schiff has pursued the president with the obsessive zeal of Inspector Javert in “Les Misérables,” but his results have looked more like Inspector Clouseau’s.
His hearings produced a long line of career bureaucrats, disturbed and upset with Trump and brimming with second and thirdhand information. I grew up in Washington with these bureaucrats. It is good to remind them occasionally that the president makes policy and the agencies should carry it out without comment. The mainstream media and Democrats have tried to valorize the bureaucrats as patriots, but if these people were that conflicted, they should have quit.
The hearings ended with a thud and, according to a new Quinnipiac poll, public opinion has even slightly shifted in the president’s favor. There will not be one Republican vote to impeach.
Schiff now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth or seventh husband, who, legend has it, cried, “I know what is expected of me on the wedding night, but how can I possibly make it more interesting?”
Hopefully, the coming I.G. report will be worse than we’ve been led to believe, causing night sweats for Comey, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper and “the lovers.”
The Democrats have never recovered from the 2016 election when they nominated the worst candidate in political history and lost to a political novice. Their horror at Trump conjures Lady Macbeth crying in agony, “Out, damned spot.”
All of the Democratic candidates support Medicaid coverage of abortion and nominating only judges who endorse abortion rights.
As for the best and the brightest the Dems have to offer:
Warren/Sanders: If you combine the support of the two billionaire-bashing socialists, they lead the field. You might consider vacationing in Venezuela before committing to them or they could run together as the End of Days ticket.
Biden/Bloomberg: Like Bloomberg, Biden has been forced to grovel and renounce all past career accomplishments on crime prevention.
Klobuchar/Buttigieg: They are the two least crazy people in the field, which means they have absolutely no chance.
The Martin O’Malley Award to Beto O’Rourke for thinking a vague resemblance to the Kennedys, an Annie Leibovitz Vanity Fair cover and a 214,000-vote loss to Ted Cruz could carry him to the nomination.
The mainstream media has reached a new low. It is not even pretending to be objective as it relentlessly batters the president daily (putting Trump just ahead of Harvey Weinstein and trailing only Satan). Reporters write opinion columns packed with innuendo and anonymous sources — not to mention what Anonymous is cooking up.
Newspapers that once had the most stringent editing rules on sources now appear to have no editors at all. The Washington Post reached a new journalistic low when it described the world’s No. 1 terrorist as an “austere religious scholar,” after our forces cornered him and he blew himself up.
Somewhere, Abe Rosenthal weeps.
The irony is that Trump drives news circulation. Without him, subscription rates would be cut in half.
Finally, one recent HuffPost piece turkey-shamed us all, suggesting that, for this beloved holiday, we consider curbing “the carbon footprint” of our turkeys and travel. These Democrats are a lot of fun.
WASHINGTON — When he was running in 2016, Donald Trump told me that he reminded himself of another presidential candidate — someone, Trump said, who was also tremendously good-looking, a former entertainer and a Democrat-turned-Republican. that he was the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
It is true that, like Reagan, Trump has reshaped his party in his own image, fully inhabiting it. But Reagan’s great mission was to thwart the Evil Empire, taunting that he would put a Star Wars shield in the sky.
Trump’s more sinister and incomprehensible aim is to help the Russians whenever he can….
But G.O.P. pols go along publicly because they are recreants, slavishly trying to hold onto voters who are more intensely aligned with Trump than old-style Republicans.
While the Republicans may be winning the impeachment battle on Fox News but they are getting clobbered by the classy diplomats demonstrating true patriotism in the hearing room. … Nancy Pelosi never spoke truer words than when she chided Trump, “With you, all roads lead to Putin.”…
Despite Republican efforts to throw up a smokescreen, it was clear that the president was putting his own political interests — looking for dirt on Hillary and the Bidens — above national security and using shady henchmen to do it.
Former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had this to say: “Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old corrupt rules sought to remove me. What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador. How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign, corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”
Trump told Ukrainian President Zelensky that Marie was “bad news” and added ominously that “she’s going to go through some things.”
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he tweeted, seemingly blaming her for Black Hawk Down. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him.”
No matter how many decent Americans come forward to expose his sordid behavior, will Trump be hauled out of the White House kicking and screaming while a celebratory Baby Trump balloon flies overhead? The answer to that: Nyet.
WASHINGTON — As Trump himself said last Friday, “A lot of things are a matter with me.” But we do know the name of one severe malady the president has: proditomania. or the feeling or belief that everyone is out to get you….
As we draw closer to Trump getting a lump of coal in his Christmas stocking, with Nancy Pelosi implacably heading toward a holiday impeachment, his proditomania is revving up.
No matter how many experts — including the gloriously bracing Fiona Hill — explain that it is Russia that interfered with our elections and that Russia has been scheming to deflect blame to Ukraine, Trump keeps rambling about something else.
Trying to justify why he had ousted and smeared the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, Trump claimed that she was “an Obama person” who had refused to hang his picture in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
… “This was not an angel, this woman, O.K.?” Trump sneered, adding that when he complained that the dignified and well-respected former ambassador was being treated too gently,…
It was peak Trump pique.
After climbing up in politics by putting down Barack Obama as an illegitimate president, Trump is so terrified of being seen as an illegitimate president that he acts out in ways that cause more people to see him as an illegitimate president.
His presidency began with him obsessing on his inauguration crowd size and carrying around his 2016 electoral map.
He can’t get past it and it’s intensifying, playing out on the world stage with national security implications. It’s debilitating to his presidency, and the rest of us are hostages to his insecurities….
Trump is blustering about impeachment and wanting a Senate trial and calling Pelosi — who has his presidency in a vise grip — “totally incompetent” and “crazy as a bedbug.”
But those who know him believe that he’s genuinely unnerved and even hurt at the prospect of impeachment.
One of his tweets … “I never in my wildest dreams thought my name would in any way be associated with the ugly word, Impeachment!” he wrote….
“If he continues to focus on that white whale,” impeachment, “it’s going to bring him down.”
But, like Ahab, Trump can’t ever let go. He’s hellbent on harpooning himself, chasing that which will sink him.
Now I’d like to say a few additional things. First of all about brother Kevin. Actually my father, a dyed in the wool Republican for years and years, and if alive now would probably be on Kevin’s side. Like Kevin my father was not a thinker. He would simply latch on to the surface of things about him, in particular on ideas and opinions that were not backed up by anything all, appealing most of all to his own prejudices.
Kevin’s statements are really a scatter shot of opinions coming fast and furious with little or nothing in the way of facts or reasonable argument to back them up. Facts and positions based on facts just aren’t there in this piece. And this quality of his writing he shares with the fast and furious tweeting of his boy hero Trump.
I wouldn’t like to have been there with Maureen on Thanksgiving Day when she was probably trying to direct the conversation to the real facts and events recounted by the witnesses at the Impeachment Hearings just a week before, when the Republican representatives and probably Kevin himself, weren’t listening.
Here to show you what I mean are a few of Kevin’s unattached, really free-floating opinions from the oped:
Trump’s economy is doing well, the jobless rate is down, the market is up. Kevin attributes this to Trump’s just being there. There are no supporting numbers to what he says. He does say that the good economic news probably is the result of Trump’s tariffs and deregulation, (and, as I would add, perhaps the encouragement and advice Trump may receive from secret calls to his good friends, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, general secretary Xi Jinping, Erdogan and other authoritarian leaders.)
And he says, again without evidence, that the inner city police are doing a great job, and should be allowed to do their job without interference. He doesn’t mention why the police are even in the news. Is it the city authorities interfering with the work of the police. or the often black victims of a police shooting that is that is the source of the news item?
Then according to Kevin’s unfounded opinion Hillary was the worst ever presidential candidate, and the Democrats are now coming up with their own 2020 list of candidates, all of whom seem to be for Kevin, and for Trump, new worst candidates, and in Trump’s gratuitous tweets are called losers.
And we can thank Trump for our conservative Supreme Court (and oh how I know that!), and very likely one that will share Kevin’s own rejection of abortion rights.
Kevin tells us that Trump knows well the construction workers from having spent much time working in the construction industry. And what we see as vulgarity and coarseness may come from this early experience, “making him a man.” But there is little or nothing in Trump’s own experience that would support this gratuitous assertion of Kevin’s. His experience in the construction industry didn’t bring him close to the working classes, only close to his father’s hundreds of millions of dollars until almost no more was left after Trump’s almost total mismanagement of his inheritance.
Kevin says that Trump has done what he promised. Has he? ‘But the wall he promised is not there yet nor has Mexico any intention of paying for it.
Kevin’s statements are really a scatter shot of opinions with little or nothing in the way of evidence to back them up, much like the comments of David Nunes, Jim Jordan and the other Republican representatives during the hearings who had nothing to say about the real evidence being presented by highly respected State department employee after employee who were clearly there to tell the truth to power. Kevin evidently was not listening. Much like his boss he calls the impeachment inquiry a farce.
That’s Kevin. Then there is Maureen.
For the moment let’s just say that for Maureen Trump has no decency. That’s probably enough for Maureen, and enough for me, to condemn President Trump to unending exile from these United States.
IN THE TWO YEARS AND 308 DAYS THAT DONALD Trump has been president, he has constructed zero miles of wall along the southern border of the United States. He has, to be fair, replaced or reinforced 76 miles of existing fence and signed it with a sharpie. A private group has also built a barrier less than a mile long with some help from Steve Bannon and money raised on GoFundMe. But along the 2,000 miles from Texas to California, there is no blockade of unscalable steel slats in heat-retaining matte black, no electrified spikes, no moat and no crocodiles. The animating force of Trump’s entire presidency—the idea that radiated a warning of dangerous bigotry to his opponents and a promise of unapologetic nativism to his supporters—will never be built in the way he imagined.
And it doesn’t matter. In the two years and 308 days that Donald Trump has been president, his administration has constructed far more effective barriers to immigration. No new laws have actually been passed. This transformation has mostly come about through subtle administrative shifts—a phrase that vanishes from an internal manual, a form that gets longer, an unannounced revision to a website, a memo, a footnote in a memo. Among immigration lawyers, the cumulative effect of these procedural changes is known as the invisible wall.
In the two years after Trump took office, denials for H1Bs, the most common form of visa for skilled workers, more than doubled. In the same period, wait times for citizenship also doubled, while average processing times for all kinds of visas jumped by 46 percent, even as the quantity of applications went down. In 2018, the United States added just 200,000 immigrants to the population, a startling 70 percent less than the year before.
Before Trump was elected, there was virtually no support within either party for policies that make it harder for foreigners to come here legally. For decades, the Republican consensus has favored tough border security along with high levels of legal immigration. The party’s small restrictionist wing protested from the margins, but it was no match for a pro-immigration coalition encompassing business interests, unions and minority groups. In 2013, then-Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions introduced an amendment that would have lowered the number of people who qualified for green cards and work visas. It got a single vote in committee—his own. As a former senior official at the Department of Homeland Security observed, “If you told me these guys would be able to change the way the U.S. does immigration in two years, I would have laughed.”
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP REVIEWS PROTOTYPES FOR HIS “IMPENETRABLE, POWERFUL, BEAUTIFUL” WALL. (AP/EVAN VUCCI)
Senior adviser Stephen Miller is usually regarded as the White House’s immigration mastermind, but his maneuvering is only a sliver of the story. The most fine-grained and consequential changes would never have been possible without a group of like-minded figures stationed in relevant parts of the government—particularly the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, the agency within DHS that administers visas. Early in Trump’s presidency, said the former DHS official, there was a “strategic sprinkling” of people who “shared a common vision and were ready to outwork everybody.” They included Gene Hamilton, Miller’s “terrible sword at DHS” (his actual title was senior counselor to the secretary), and Francis Cissna, the soft-spoken former head of USCIS whom colleagues describe as “an encyclopaedia of immigration law” and “a total immigration nerd.” “If you said to him, what’s on page 468, second paragraph” of the Immigration and Nationality Act, another former DHS official marveled, “he would quote it to you.”
The major avenues for legal immigration are via family (including marriage), employment and humanitarian programs for refugees and asylum seekers.
Amidst the chaos at DHS, the restrictionists have already radically scaled back America’s asylum and refugee programs for years to come. But no category of immigrant ( 1 ) has escaped the uptick of denials and delays—not the Palestinian student with a Harvard scholarship who was deported upon landing in Boston, or the Australian business owner forced to leave after building a life here. Not the Bolshoi Ballet stars who somehow failed to meet the criteria of accomplished artists, or the Iraqi translators who risked their lives for the U.S. military and whose annual admissions went from 325 to just two after the change in administration. Then there are the consequences that are harder to capture in headlines or statistics: the couples whose marriages broke down when the foreign spouse was forced to wait far longer than usual in their home country, and the unknown number of people who have abandoned the attempt to stay because of financial hardship or the strain of living with a level of uncertainty that becomes untenable.
“What became clear to me early on was that these guys wanted to shut down every avenue to get into the U.S.,” the first former senior DHS official said. “They wanted to reduce the number of people who could get in under any category: illegals, legals, refugees, asylum seekers—everything. And they wanted to reduce the number of foreigners already here through any means possible.” No government in modern memory has been this dedicated to limiting every form of immigration to the United States. To find one that was, you have to go a long way back, to 1924.
GERMAN-JEWISH REFUGEES ABOARD THE MS ST. LOUIS, WHICH WAS TURNED AWAY FROM THE UNITED STATES AND CUBA IN 1939.
A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS”—THESE FOUR WORDS, ( 2 )genius in their concision, mask the messiest of histories. People like to recall that George Washington wanted America to “be an Asylum to the persecuted of the earth.” Less often praised: Ben Franklin’s contention that immigrants are “the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation.” Americans have been having some version of this argument ever since. And for much of the country’s existence, public opinion towards immigration has ranged from tepid to hostile. As Daniel Tichenor, author of the comprehensive history, “Dividing Lines,” puts it, “We love the immigrant past and dread the immigrant present.”
One rare exception came after the Civil War, when the country was desperate to replace the men who had died on the battlefield. A flourishing postwar confidence revived the idea that the country could absorb a never-ending stream of foreigners and fuse their best characteristics into that superior being, an American.
The turn began in the 1880s. Extremes of wealth had sparked massive labor strikes; out West, people fretted that the land was running out. Now, newcomers were a threat, and the more foreign they seemed, the more threatening they were. An early warning was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first-ever prohibition of all people of a specific race. Over the next decade, a surge of European migrants accounted for 40 percent of population growth. From the 1890s, this wave was dominated not by English, Scandanavians, Germans or Irish, but by poorer southern and eastern Europeans and Russian Jews. As the country slid into a long depression, the new immigrants became the source and the target of a tinderbox anxiety. There were lynchings of Italians in New Orleans; attacks on Jewish farmers by Mississippi nightriders; a riot against Russian Jewish factory workers in New Jersey.
EDITORIAL CARTOONS FROM THE 1880S-1900S (ABOVE: LOUIS DALRUMPLE. BELOW: C.J. TAYLOR/ MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY MUSEUM)
For decades, nativists in Congress tried and failed to translate this hostility into new immigration laws. It wasn’t until the early 1920s, after Warren Harding was elected president on an “America First” platform, that two Republican lawmakers, Representative Albert Johnson and Senator David Reed, finally realized a restrictionist dream: a comprehensive racial quota system devised to keep American bloodlines pure. “[T]he country would never be the same,” wrote John Higham in his definitive account of American nativism, “Strangers in the Land”—“either in its social structure or in its habits of mind.”
Would that the Trump’s Republican enablers had the gumption (courage, spine, balls) to read Carl Sagan’s Book, The Demon Haunted World. Why, if they were to do that they might even become anti-Trumpers themselves, and start us on the way back form Trump’s horror of a presidency. PBWaring
In a chapter titled “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” Sagan reflects on the many types of deception to which we’re susceptible — from psychics to religious zealotry to paid product endorsements by scientists, which he held in especially low regard, noting that they “betray contempt for the intelligence of their customers” and “introduce an insidious corruption of popular attitudes about scientific objectivity.” (Cue in PBS’s Joe Hanson on how to read science news.) But rather than preaching from the ivory tower of self-righteousness, Sagan approaches the subject from the most vulnerable of places — having just lost both of his parents, he reflects on the all too human allure of promises of supernatural reunions in the afterlife, reminding us that falling for such fictions doesn’t make us stupid or bad people, but simply means that we need to equip ourselves with the right tools against them.
Through their training, scientists are equipped with what Sagan calls a “baloney detection kit” — a set of cognitive tools and techniques that fortify the mind against penetration by falsehoods:
The kit is brought out as a matter of course whenever new ideas are offered for consideration. If the new idea survives examination by the tools in our kit, we grant it warm, although tentative, acceptance. If you’re so inclined, if you don’t want to buy baloney even when it’s reassuring to do so, there are precautions that can be taken; there’s a tried-and-true, consumer-tested method.
Disclaimer: Like all tools, the baloney detection kit can be misused, applied out of context, or even employed as a rote alternative to thinking. But applied judiciously, it can make all the difference in the world — not least in evaluating our own arguments before we present them to others.
But the kit, Sagan argues, isn’t merely a tool of science — rather, it contains invaluable tools of healthy skepticism that apply just as elegantly, and just as necessarily, to everyday life. By adopting the kit, we can all shield ourselves against clueless guile and deliberate manipulation. Sagan shares nine of these tools:
1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well to choose the simpler.
9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.
Just as important as learning these helpful tools, however, is unlearning and avoiding the most common pitfalls of common sense. Reminding us of where society is most vulnerable to those, Sagan writes:
In addition to teaching us what to do when evaluating a claim to knowledge, any good baloney detection kit must also teach us what not to do. It helps us recognize the most common and perilous fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Many good examples can be found in religion and politics, because their practitioners are so often obliged to justify two contradictory propositions.
ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)
argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g., There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or: How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
begging the question, also called assuming the answer (e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)
statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or: “I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g., President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism. Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or: Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons)
meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)
excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)
The Demon-Haunted World is a timelessly fantastic read in its entirety, timelier than ever in a great many ways amidst our present media landscape of propaganda, pseudoscience, and various commercial motives. Complement it with Sagan on science and “God”.
This dispiriting moment was the backdrop, and the impetus, for The Atlantic’s new special issue, what we have called “How to Stop a Civil War.” We don’t believe that conditions in the United States today resemble those of 1850s America. But we worry that the ties that bind us are fraying at alarming speed—we are becoming contemptuous of each other in ways that are both dire and possibly irreversible.
The 45th president of the United States is uniquely unfit for office and poses a multifaceted threat to our country’s democratic institutions. Yet he might not represent the most severe challenge facing our country, these being:
The structural failures in our democratic system that allowed a grifter into the White House in the first place—this might be our gravest challenge. Or perhaps it is the tribalization of our politics, brought about by pathological levels of inequality, technological and demographic upheaval, and the tenacious persistence of racism. Or maybe it is that we as a people no longer seem to know who we are or what our common purpose is.
. Goldberg reminds us that The Atlantic was meant to be the magazine of the American idea. “In November 1857, when our first issue was published, the American idea was besieged by the forces of slavery. The Atlantic, then as now, stood for American unity, but it also stood for the idea that America is by its nature both imperfect and ultimately perfectible. The untiring pursuit of a more perfect union is at the core of the American idea.”
For me the Trumpian period in our history, from Trump’s surprising 2016 election until now, does represent the greatest threat to our democracy that I for certain, and perhaps the entire country, has ever known. What’s happening in Trumpian Washington is making more and more of us question whether our Constitution, and in particular the separation of powers, so dear to our Founding Fathers, will survive intact.
Trump is on a tear to have the raw power of the executive replace what had always been the equal and separate powers of the legislature, judiciary and executive. And so far what were meant to be checks and balances, of the ones on the others, are on life support, and their very survival is in question.
You mention impeachment. Won’t this save us? Maybe. I haven’t lost all hope, and we will see, beginning today at the opeing of the House Impeachment hearings. Doesn’t this mean that the Constitution is at work, is working. as it was meant to?
Well so far Trump’s response has been to give the Democratic members of the House, in particular Adam Shiff and Nancy Pelosi, who are leading the Impeachment effort, the finger. Trump is laughing at Nancy and Adam, and hi Trump’s followers, the tens of millions who voted for him and the tens of thousands who attend his raucous and vulgar rallies are out there laughing right along with their President. The people who attend his rallies expect to be entertained, and Trump, always the entertainer, the performer, doesn’t disappoint them.
Donald Trump himself is without the inner make-up of mind and heart that makes up our humanness. He places the well-being of Trump himself, and the Trump family, before the well being of the country itself. The country? For Trump himself the country is like the lot from which the salesman sells used cars. Trump’s only interest is to move the cars, the cars being what we thought were the essential attributes of our democracy.
And then there are his boot- licking followers always most difficult for me to understand. Where did they come from, suddenly appearing as from nowhere in the hundreds and thousands at the news of his winning the presidency. Who would have ever guessed their presence in the country, in the State governments, not to mention their majority positions in the Senate and until 2018 in the House? That will be for future historians the great question of our time, why were we not strong enough prevent his and their entry into what seems now the ownership of the country
For Jeffrey Goldberg th is a dispiriting time. As he says the ties that have always bound us are fraying (if not breaking up) and we can even imagine another Civil War when as in any war actions rather than words are the primary agenda of both sides of the dispute resulting in mutual destruction.
The untiring pursuit of a more perfect union, which according to Jeffrey Goldberg is at the core of the American idea, is no longer on anyone’s mind let alone the minds of Trump and his cronies. A more perfect union, e pluribus umum, what’s that? Instead, now the players, probably now the players on both sides, actually on the many sides of the present polarization of the country, are out to have things their own way no matter what the cost to themselves and the country.
What’s most missing in Trump’s country? Well what’s missing are all those values that for most of our history have been essential, if not fully realized, to our union and coming together. What’s most missing is perhaps the very value that Trump himself is most without, decency.
speaking with Charles Fried, on MSNBC, October 10, 2019
HAYES: Now Trump generally just seems really nervous about his support buckling. And he certainly cant be pleased with a new statement from a group of 16 esteemed conservative and libertarian lawyers who are now calling for an expeditious impeachment investigation, citing numerous facts that are undisputed they write that it has become clear to any observer of current events, the president is abusing the office of the presidency for personal, political objectives. I`m joined now by Harvard Law Professor Charles Fried, a signatory that statement and who was solicitor general under President Ronald Reagan. Professor Fried, let me start with you. When did you or how did you come to believe that an impeachment inquiry, or an impeachment itself, should be launched against the president?
FRIED: Well, let me back up one moment. I was born in a vibrant democracy, Czechoslovakia, and I fled with my family because of a dictator who invaded it. I came to this country and it took us in, and I`ve had a wonderful life here. I love it, as do my children and my grandchildren. And this man terrifies me.
FRIED: Because of the way he thinks, what he says about himself. He says that the constitution said, and he said this to a bunch of high school students, I can do whatever I want. That`s what Article 2 says. Well, it doesn`t. Any lawyer knows that. Any lawyer except maybe Bill Barr and Mr. Cipollone. Everybody who studied the constitution, which I teach, knows that. Our fidelity is to the law and to the office, not to a man.
HAYES: Professor Fried, you teach constitutional law. You were solicitor general under President Reagan. There are people who use the term “constitution crisis.” And it`s always hard to define precisely what that means. A law professor, Noah Feldman, wrote a piece recently I think justthe other day saying we are in one. Do you see us as in a constitutional crisis at this moment?
FRIED: Yes, because if the president succeeds in stonewalling the lawful, constitutionally provided processes of the House of Representatives, then something will have to be done. The various officials who will not testify, because they have been told not to and they`re scared of this thug, will have to be sanctioned. They are in contempt. Of course he is in contempt…. I would add the second part of theMueller report, which quite dutifully would not say that the president can be indicted for obstruction of justice, because his instructions from the Justice Department said so, but he said I will not exonerate him. That is in another place. But of course, that`s the congress. And Bill Barr lied about what that report said when he thought that we wern`t going to see it.
HAYES: Professor Fried, you`re sort of conservative legal legend, I think it`s fair to say. I mean, you have had many students throughout the years, you are extremely highly regarded. You have been part of American conservatism for a very long time. What are the conversations you have with people that you would consider, you know, for lack of a better word cheekily fellow travelers about what is happening
FRIED: They are horrified. It is the very opposite of the great Republicans, the great Republicans like Ronald Reagan, like Dwight – can you imagine Dwight Eisenhower speaking the way this man speaks? Or Lincoln? Or Teddy Roosevelt? This man is ignorant and foul-mouthed.
Andrew Sullivan writing in the Intelligencer, November 8, 2019 “This man is undermining the core legitimacy of our democracy.”
Let us count the ways in which Trump has attacked and undermined our democracy. He is the only candidate in American history who refused to say that he would abide by the results of the vote. Even after winning the 2016 election, he still claimed that “millions” of voters — undocumented aliens — perpetrated massive electoral fraud in the last election, and voted for his opponent. He has repeatedly and publicly toyed with the idea that he could violate the 22nd Amendment, and get elected for three terms, or more.
He consistently described a perfectly defensible inquiry into Russia’s role in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt” and a “hoax,” demonizing Robert Mueller, even as Mueller, in the end, couldn’t find evidence to support the idea of a conspiracy with Russia (perhaps in part because Trump ordered no cooperation, and refused to testify under oath). Trump then withheld release of the full report, while his pliant attorney general distorted its content and wrongly proclaimed that Trump had been entirely exonerated.
In the current scandal over Ukraine, Trump is insisting that he did “nothing wrong” in demanding that Ukraine announce investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden, or forfeit desperately needed military aid. If that is the president’s position — that he can constitutionally ask any other country to intervene on his behalf in a U.S. election — it represents a view of executive power that is the equivalent of a mob boss’s. It is best summed up in Trump’s own words: Article 2 of the Constitution permits him to do “anything I want.”…
Abuse of Power
Sullivan also has this to say: There are valid criticisms and defenses of Trump’s policy choices, but his policies are irrelevant for an impeachment. I (Sullivan) actually support a humane crackdown on undocumented immigration, a tougher trade stance toward China, and an attempt, at least, to end America’s endless wars. But what matters, and what makes this such a vital moment in American history, is that it has nothing to do with policy. This is simply about Trump’s abuse of power…. Trump seems to think in the Ukraine context that “l’état c’est moi” is the core American truth, rather than a French monarch’s claims to absolute power. He believes in the kind of executive power the Founders designed the U.S. Constitution to prevent. It therefore did not occur to Trump that blackmailing a foreign country to investigate his political opponents is a classic abuse of power, because he is incapable of viewing his own interests and the interests of the United States as in any way distinct. But it is a core premise of our liberal democracy that the powers of the presidency are merely on loan, and that using them to advance a personal interest is a definition of an abuse of power.