21st Century Institutions: the U.S. Presidency

Donald Trump is not the first U.S. President to be elected in the 21st Century, and the odds are he’s not going to be be the last.* He does seem likely, however, to go down in history as the century’s most characteristic one, at least as things look now, twenty years into the accursed opening maneuvers of its history-making engines.

President Trump himself is undeniably one of those engines, a steam-powered anomaly in an era increasingly lit up at night by the output from solar panels, wind turbines, and lithium ion batteries. It would probably be easier, and it would certainly be more pleasant, to write about the American Presidency without mentioning the Donald, but since he does seem to represent some sort of numinous final stage in the rot that’s been eating away at the office since 1945, there’s no credible way to avoid dealing with him in all his radiantly decadent glory.

Back in 2011, in snarking at the dozen or so GOP presidential candidates of the time, I called Newt Gingrich the Dorian Gray of the Republican Party. By the middle of 2016, as candidate Trump’s arsenal of creepy facial expressions began its final assault on our international media landscape, I realized that Newt had been a mere pretender. Not even Oscar Wilde himself could have imagined the world we were now living in, a world in which the real-life equivalent of his fictional character actually preferred having the evolving portrait of his depravity visible to everyone and his dog.

When January, 20, 2017 finally did arrive, it was even weirder than usual for a Presidential Inauguration Day. Most of the political class and its media pilot fish were still hung over from the excesses of the election in November. To their momentarily everlasting astonishment, it seemed, Trump had actually managed somehow to get himself elected President, and was standing there now, live in front of the assembled cameras, taking the oath of office. Oh. My. God. The nuclear football in the possession of a sociopathic, blowhard hotel developer! Sackcloth and ashes! Baskets of deplorables! Facebook and Russians! Blah, blah, blah.

Trump himself was soon to be busy elsewhere in Washington. Once he’d gotten the rug swapped out in the Oval Office, had more Trump-suitable golden drapes hung above its windows, and settled his very stable genius behind the Resolute desk, he got down at last to the real work: redecorating the American political landscape with a stunning array of bagmen, bootlickers, generals and ex-generals, racist Dixie irredentists, religious fanatics, voodoo economists, firearms fetishists, Fox News ressentimentistes, rust belt coal rollers, libertarians looking for a hill to die on, and his own children. In 2020, I continue to wonder: is there really anyone left in the United States who still believes that this was all some sort of diabolical accident?

No, there isn’t. And no, it definitely wasn’t. Most of the electorate understands very well that this train wreck of an election was no accident, whether they voted for Donald Trump or not. And yet, amazing as it is to contemplate, our luck has held once again. Despite the best efforts of Trump and his merry band of magatrumpistas, the United States seems unlikely to become a failed state during his reign, no matter how diligent its political class is at helping him carve one out of the complex patrimony of the U.S. Constitution.

If we can somehow manage to ignore all the present din and idiocy, what is undeniable about the history which has led us to Trump in the White House is that already by the latter half of the 1970s, the international economic order set up by the western allies following the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was becoming alarmingly unstable. Contrary to the arrogant predictions of our so-called foreign policy experts, the economic restoration of our defeated enemies had not, in fact, bound them in perpetuity to political alliances dominated by the United States. China was not, in fact, going to be permanently denied the economic and political deference due it as a society which embraced more than 18% of the world’s population. Even the lesser nations of the world would not, in fact, continue to fear being denied a place at the trough of American largesse, especially as there came to be less and less in it for them.

The election of Donald Trump is far more, I think, than a macabre trick that the rubes in the MAGA hats have played on themselves. It’s also the clearest demonstration we’re ever likely to get that prominent members of the American political class are not as savvy as they make themselves out to be. Simply put, they’ve failed to prepare the American people for the historical metamorphosis which has brought the postwar Pax Americana to an end. Even more simply put, bearing humiliating witness to a Trump in the White House is the price they’re paying for that failure. Whether they realize it or not, the longer they keep propping up the status quo, the higher that price will be. After four years of the Trump administration, let alone eight years, I’m pretty sure the vig alone will wind up bankrupting them.

While it may be true that even in the hands of a Donald Trump the U.S. Presidency remains as remarkable an institution as it ever has been, it’s also true that it’s never been a less transparent one, especially with respect to the exact nature of its formal and informal powers. To give just one example, there are 17 agencies in the so-called United States Intelligence Community, which, according to the latest figures available to the public, have granted top secret security clearances to a total of over 900,000 people. Meanwhile, President Trump is reported to have restricted his daily security briefing to two pages, while supposedly watching four hours of Fox News a day. How could anybody reasonably believe that he’s actually in charge of what is going on in these agencies, or what impact it will have on our national security, or our foreign policy in general. Certainly someone is in charge — many someones more likely — but I wonder if any of them are really any more accountable to the President, at least on a day-to-day basis, than they are to the public at large.

Admittedly it’s hard enough to run an effective federal administration with a full complement of politically competent policy experts, and a chain of responsibility that extends to the lowest level of the executive branch. You certainly can’t run one effectively with a staff consisting of your daughter, your son-in-law, Sean Hannity, Sheldon Adelson, a rota of retired generals, lobbyists and golf partners, and an assortment of idiot yes-people whose only significant achievement is the byzantine complexity of their self-abasement. The country is too large, its political and economic infrastructure too complex, to be managed entirely from the top down; the responsibilities of the Federal Government are too extensive, and its interlocking bureaucracies too encrusted with decades of turf wars, interagency rivalries, and deviant ideological agendas to respond competently to even the most intelligently conceived policy directives.

The bottom line, I’m afraid, is that the U.S. Constitution is showing its age, and so is the U.S. Presidency. I think it’s significant that both President Trump and three of his Democratic Party challengers for the office in 2020 are over 70 years old. I remember when we used to laugh at the infirmities of the gerontocracy under Brezhnev in the Soviet Union, and Mao in China. These days, it looks as though the laugh is on us.

*YMMV. I have say, though, that if I were a bookie, I’d be reluctant to offer the current Vegas line on that bet, especially if I had to lay off any significant amount of it. That’s the kind of move that might just wind up getting you your legs broken — or worse — even when most of your ordinary day-to-day tormentors would be running around shrieking and waving their hands, looking for a window to jump out of.

If We Can Somehow Bring Ourselves To Take the Long View, We Probably Should….

Revised from a recent comment of mine on this Crooked Timber thread:

A sort of Marxist point about our present distempers: the conditions of existence have changed, probably irrevocably, for the Scots-Irish coal miners of West Virginia, the libertarian ranchers of the West, and the industrial workers of Ohio and Pennsylvania, and they’re not happy about it. Should Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, or Elon Musk feel any more sympathy for them than their own ancestors felt for Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, or Geronimo? A similar observation could be made about our lack of sympathy for the Taliban and the Salafists.

One difference is striking, though, about our current last-ditch defenders of traditions outmaneuvered by modernity. They’re more widely distributed, and they’re also much better armed. The consolations of Whatever happens — we have got — the Maxim gun — and they have not have succumbed in their own fashion to a modernity not even the Moderns themselves seem to understand. Not yet, anyway.

Marx thought that once the conditions of existence had changed sufficiently, the past would be, or could be, swept away by revolutionaries with their eyes on the future. Seen up close, from the vantage point of an individual life, the process is far uglier, no matter what subsequent theoretical revisions from the foundries of Marxist ideology, or cheerleading from neoliberal think tanks promise us. Somewhere between Faulkner’s The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past, and Gibson’s The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed, there’s a place to stand that won’t offend either our conscience or our common sense. Maybe. One hopes. YMMV.

From 2008: A House Divided

This was written at the invitation of the founder of a Web site which unfortunately never saw the light of day. Waste not, want not, right?

 

A House Divided: Can Independent Thinking Flourish in the No-man’s Land of the American Culture Wars?

When I was asked recently if I thought that our increasingly vicious culture wars were stifling independent thinking in the United States, my answer was an immediate and unqualified no. Now that I’ve had time to consider the question a little more thoroughly, my answer is still no, but I no longer believe in dismissing out of hand the concerns which originally prompted it.

The truth is that human beings, those at any rate with the spirit and the leisure to work at puzzles or dream dreams, are always going to think what they think, regardless of whose agents are looking over their shoulders, or what orthodoxy of the moment is threatening to vilify or imprison them. The real question is whether or not all this thinking can have any lasting effect, beneficial or otherwise, on the civilization which spawns it.

Despite the several centuries which have passed since the first impact of the Enlightenment on our epistemology, this is still an open question. For all the recent furor which they’ve created in the United States, the culture wars declared by the right have in fact been an epiphenomenon, an engineered distraction acting not so much to prevent independent thinking per se, as to prevent that thinking from entering our political discourse, or finding expression in the policy decisions of our government. In that, of course, the right has until very recently been remarkably successful. Its success, however, has come at a price.

That price is blindness. The enemy of conventional wisdom and the status quo, and of its die-hard defenders, has never been the free-thinker, but reality itself. You can imprison the advocates of inconvenient discoveries, but you can’t imprison events. When the Spanish Inquisition institutionalized the search for heretics, and industrialized the lighting of autos da fé all over the country, smart people found a home in Holland, or England, or in the New World, and Spain entered a long decline which persisted, in one form or another, until the death of Franco. More recently, the fan dancers of unfettered capitalism have held not just the usual rubes in thrall, but our policy makers and soi-disant intellectual elites as well. Then, quite unexpectedly for them, reality turned up the house lights and set fire to the fans. Suddenly, we’re once again talking publicly about the responsibility of governments to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common Defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

Even if you accept, as I do, that politics broadly defined is the only effective instrument for mediating which ideas will become the currency of the realm, and which will be relegated to bric-a-brac in the museums of memory, it’s clear enough that no matter the necessities of human nature which force us to rely on politics for this mediation, there can be no blunter instrument for the purpose, nor any which affords us less comfort in the wielding.

Tyrannies are real enough, after all, and so are the ideologies which give rise to them. Even if you have confidence that they can in the end be overcome, the millions slaughtered and enslaved by them in the 20th century, beginning more than a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, must give an honest person at least some pause to question that confidence. George Orwell understood this, and in 1984 presented us not only with a haunting butcher’s bill for the previous half-century’s devotion to armed isms, but also a warning that by adhering to them, we were flirting with an end to history, and not a happy end at that.

I found 1984 profoundly disturbing, but I remain an optimist nevertheless. Orwell was prescient in many ways, but in the end, his inner Jeremiah outmaneuvered his sense of history. No boot, however determined, however well-funded, can stamp on the human face forever. Other boots may in time come along, but they will always have to take their turn, and then, inevitably, pass into oblivion. There is such a thing as the dialectic, after all, even if, after all these years, its nature is still to a great extent a matter of debate.

That debate has interested me ever since I first discovered it as a young man. Even when I was still a child, the dynamics of my family were such that I quickly developed grave doubts about the sufficiency, if not the necessity, of a rational approach to problems, as well as a perpetually nagging curiosity about why what I was told, both by my elders and my peers, was so frequently at variance with my own experience.

Perhaps that is actually why, more than forty years ago, I went to hear a public lecture by Herbert Marcuse on the campus of UC Berkeley. At the time, it was the hottest ticket in town. Ronald Reagan had already accused Marcuse of trying to make communism safe for undergraduates — in the catechism of the right wing, the moral equivalent of dispensing poisoned candy to children — so of course the lecture amphitheater was packed, and not just with those who’d read his books, but also with the rebellious, the curious; all those passionate advocates of generational solidarity who were already fashioning the Sixties into either a revolutionary epoch or a silly season, depending on how you judged the culture wars which were already underway.

I don’t know what any of us expected, but what we got was an elf — a slight, decidedly unheroic looking man talking to several early arrivals in the pit below the stage. Already nearly seventy, he didn’t look it, except for the almost white hair cropped close over his ears. Very professorial, very European, I thought, yet as informal in dress and manner as his audience. Once the last of the late arrivals had arranged themselves around the edges of the room, and the sponsors had managed, with a flurry of hand waving and restrained begging, to quiet the crowd and make their introductions, the old man skipped up the steps to the stage, walked over to the rickety podium, and started to speak.

Most of what he said that evening I no longer remember. I was, in any case, already familiar with much of it from reading Eros and Civilization, and One-Dimensional Man. What I do remember, though, what has in fact stuck in my mind from then until now, was his opening line:

As I often seem to be doing these days, I shall begin with Hegel…and I shall end with…love.

Like Professor Marcuse, I also began with Hegel, and like the good professor, I very much doubt I’ll end up in the promised land. No one should assume, however, that I don’t believe it exists, or that, somehow or other, love will prove the key to getting there. I know very well that independent thinking, and thinkers, aren’t immortal, but they are eternal. All you have to do, if you want confirmation of that seemingly bold assertion, is to stop for a moment and walk away from the megaphones.

The State of Our Democracy

Patrick Gaspard, Executive Director of the Democratic National Committee, sent me an e-mail message yesterday. In order to close the gap with the Republicans, he says, the Democratic National Committee needs to raise another 35 million dollars this month. I can help the cause at all levels across the country by donating $3.00 (or more, of course.) In order to make this more convenient for me, he provides an active link in the body of the message.

Given the economic and political horror show that we’ve been subjected to in the past four years, and the Democratic Party’s collusion in much of it, I find it hard to imagine a more concise or more contemptible example of the cynicism of our political classes than this letter. Patrick Gaspard is clearly beyond irony, beyond shame, beyond, it seems, the reach of historical process. All he appears to know is that This Is What It Takes. All I know is that he isn’t getting my three bucks.

Democrats
William —

Our fundraising numbers from June are in. Along with President Obama’s campaign, we raised $71 million, making this month our biggest yet. That’s something to be proud of.

But we still got beat. Mitt Romney and the Republican Party raised more than $106 million — making it the second month in a row that they outraised us, this time by $35 million.

That’s a big gap. And if we don’t do everything we can to close it now, we risk losing more than just a fundraising race in November

Donate $3 or more today to close the gap.

Donations from Democrats like you are directly helping us at all levels across the country.

Over the last three months, your donations have helped us:

— Continue to open field offices in all 50 states, including our 30th field office in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
— Hold nationwide voter registration drives and register hundreds of thousands of people.
— Organize the National Youth Summit, which gave more than 1,000 young people the tools to organize in neighborhoods and on their college campuses.
— Run a four-day, six-state “Romney Economics: The Middle Class Under the Bus” tour highlighting Romney’s failed economic record and vision — which received an astounding amount of local press coverage, showing that exposing Romney’s record is working.

We’re working hard to make sure Democratic candidates win in November, but we’ve got an uphill battle if Romney and the Republicans continue to outraise us at such a pace. While Mitt Romney and the Republicans rely on mostly big donors to fund their campaigns, in June alone, more than 700,000 donors stepped up to support the DNC and Obama campaign.

We’ve got to do everything we can to put a stop to the Republican momentum — so donate $3 or whatever you can to close the gap. It can’t wait another day:

https://my.democrats.org/Numbers-Gap

Thanks,

Patrick

Patrick Gaspard
Executive Director
Democratic National Committee

PAID FOR BY OBAMA VICTORY FUND 2012, A JOINT FUNDRAISING COMMITTEE AUTHORIZED BY OBAMA FOR AMERICA, THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE, AND THE STATE DEMOCRATIC PARTIES IN THE FOLLOWING STATES: CO, FL, IA, NV, NH, NC, OH, PA, VA, AND WI.

Contributions or gifts to Obama Victory Fund 2012 are not tax deductible.

The first $5,000 of a contribution to OVF 2012 will be allocated to Obama for America (with the first $2,500 designated for the primary election, and the next $2,500 for the general election). The next $30,800 of a contribution will be allocated to the Democratic National Committee. Any additional amounts from a contributor will be divided among the State Democratic Party Committees as follows, up to $10,000 per committee and subject to the biennial aggregate limits: FL (17%); OH (16%); PA (13%); CO (11%); NC (11%); VA (11%); NV (6%); WI (6%); IA (5%); and NH (4%). A contributor may designate his or her contribution for a particular participant. The allocation formula above may change if following it would result in an excessive contribution. Contributions will be used in connection with a Federal election.

Democratic National Committee, 430 S. Capitol St. SE, Washington DC 20003