Just saying…

Last week I said that the longer Trump stays in office the worse it will be for his reputation, for the Republican party, and for the United States.

It should be clear to everyone now that Trump lacks the emotional, judgmental, and intellectual qualities needed to lead the United States as President.

In the last few weeks, Trump has (1) arm-twisted House Republicans into passing a Health Care bill that was worse for most Americans than the bill that previously failed to pass, so that he could claim a win in an area in which he is so ignorant that he described health insurance in terms that only apply to life-insurance; (2) he fired his FBI Director, who was in the process of expanding a federal probe into Russian intervention in the US election and potential ties to the Trump campaign, in a callous and unconsidered fashion, expecting everyone to embrace this, having his staff lie about Comey’s status with his own FBI employees and then fabricate a false story about the firing that he then abandoned the next day; (3) he has threatened to wipe out protection for federal lands and national monuments; (4) has embraced heinous dictators and congratulated them on doing a great job; (5) has — along with his daughter and son-in-law, both of whom he appointed to high-level posts in his administration — continued to financially benefit from business dealings both overseas and at home that he promotes while in office; (5) invited the Russian foreign minister and Ambassador to the U.S. (the latter a known spymaster) into the Oval Office, giving Russian state media access to the event but excluding all U.S. press; and (6) apparently gave the Russians sensitive information derived from secret sources, either without grasping the significance of this or recklessly disregarding any consequences.  He also had his cabinet members issue blanket denials, then tweeted, less than 12 hours later, that he had in fact shared terrorist information with the Russians during that meeting.

Let’s be frank — if a fictional story was written that had a U.S. President acting in this way, it would be dismissed as not credible.   No one would expect behavior like this to be tolerated, much less defended, by other GOP and political and societal leaders.  If such behavior ever occurred, one might expect that such a president would be bundled off by his handlers for obvious defects in judgement and reckless and dangerous behavior.

But what are we in fact seeing?  No one is impeding this President, who continues to generate ever more egregious and frightening grounds for his removal from office.

Eventually, this will lead to Trump’s departure from the White House.  The only questions are how long it will take, and how much damage he will to do to himself and our country before that happens.  It certainly appears that the longer it takes, the worse it will get.

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Trump should resign now

It should now be clear to everyone, including Trump supporters in Congress and throughout the Republican party and even Fox news, that Donald Trump has something important to hide.

If he was confident that there was nothing that the FBI could discover, why not let FBI Director Comey go on with his wild goose chase?   If he wanted to change the leadership at the FBI, why not do it in an orderly manner, with a solid justification?

Instead, Trump fired Comey as dramatically and insultingly as possible, with no warning or preparation to the Bureau or most of the White House Staff.   Moreover, his reasoning was so poorly contrived that the person who was first offered as the official responsible for the decision — Deputy Attorney General Robert Rosenstein — threatened to quit over being fingered as the responsible party. 

The lie that Comey was fired for his mishandling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails was so embarrassingly and obviously wrong that most news organizations and commentators dismissed it out of hand.  So one has to ask — why would Trump lie so baldly about a major action, if not to cover-up the real reason that he dared not say out loud?  That is, that Comey was fired because he was closing in on the dangerous truth about relations between Trump’s staff and Russian intelligence during and after the election campaign.

We know that Trump and his surrogates have constantly downplayed the Russian interference in the U.S. election that U.S. intelligence services all agreed did take place.  We know that Michael Flynn lied to everyone, including Vice-President Mike Pence, about the substance of his meetings with the Russian ambassador.  We know that Attorney General Jeff Sessions misled a Congressional Committee — and possibly lied under oath — about his meetings with Russian ambassador.

Why would so many people take actions that threaten to undermine their own careers if simply speaking the truth would have been harmless, which would be the case if — as Trump insists — there is nothing there?  Firing Comey, and the explanation for that firing, simply continue a consistent pattern of hiding, dissembling, misleading, and lying about relations between the Trump team and Russian intelligence that has been going on since the election.

Let us assume that Trump knew nothing about attempts by the Russians to aid his election.  Even so it now seems crystal clear that Mike Flynn had discussions with Russia about removing Ukraine-related sanctions if Trump was elected, and that such actions were offered in connection with knowledge that Russia desired this and would assist by using its cyberwarfare to undermine Hilary Clinton.    If this was not the case, why would Flynn have lied to everyone about having one such conversation after the election?  Why would Flynn be seeking immunity?  Why would Acting AG Sally Yates have felt it necessary to personally inform the White House that Flynn’s lies opened a path for the National Security Advisor to be blackmailed by Russia?

At the very least, we know that Flynn lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, and that the White House knew this for over two weeks and did not fire him.  What we do not know is why Flynn lied, and why his lies were tolerated by the White House after being detailed by the acting AG.

Mike Flynn may be a patriot, who misguidedly believed that working closely with the Russians, and promising them relief from sanctions, would be the best way to combat radical Islamist terror.  After all, Ronald Reagan’s staff was persuaded that working with the Islamic Republic of Iran to smuggle weapons was the best way to combat communism in Central America.  But in both cases, the actions were criminal.    In Flynn’s case, if he actually promised sanctions relief as a return on help in getting his boss elected, that would be treason.  And if Trump became aware of this, and did not fire Flynn immediately, and in fact has denied anything like this happened, then he is engaged in abetting treason and obstructing the investigation into it.

No doubt, Trump wants all of this to go away, which is why he fired an FBI Director who insisted on pursuing it.  It seems almost certain that while Trump and his team thought they were just engaging in a little smart diplomacy to improve relations with Russia, create a coalition that would destroy terrorism, and assist Trump’s election over Clinton all at one go, they in fact were engaging in treasonous collusion with an enemy of the the United States.  They now (and only now) seem to realize this and are taking whatever measures are necessary to prevent this from becoming known.

There is really no other explanation for the pattern of behavior we have seen from Trump, Flynn, Sessions, and others.  They have something to hide, it is big, and they need to keep it hidden.

Yet the truth will out.  It will eventually be documented that Trump’s staff had continuous contacts with Russian intelligence during the campaign, that the Russian hacking and Wikileaks and other cyberactions designed to undermine Clinton were at the least discussed, and perhaps even coordinated, with Trump staff, and that the Trump team sought to hide such contacts.   It will almost certainly be shown that Russia’s goal in working with the Trump team was not only to deny Clinton the presidency, but also to obtain relief from U.S. sanctions, and that Trump’s team — particularly Mike Flynn — had discussions with Russia of this topic prior to and after the election.  Someone will, at some point, admit that Trump’s team’s discussions suggested that if Trump won, Trump would be silent about the Russian role in his victory, but shift relations in a positive direction and seek to end the sanctions.

All of this is treason, and the cover-up of these actions is support of treason.  Eventually all this will come out, Trump will be forced out of office by one means or another, and he will go down in history as the most humiliated and disastrous, the worst-qualified and most bumbling, President in American history.  The longer this goes on, the worse the cover-up will be,  and the more severe the verdict of history on everyone involved. Trump should save himself the grief and simply resign now.

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Trump ends 100 years of American global leadership in the fight for Freedom

As the strongest power in the world, the U.S. has a responsibility to think of others in its actions.   It should never adopt a simple “America for itself and for itself only” attitude; to do so mirrors the polices of those who oppose the core American values of liberty, equality, opportunity, and security around the world.  Since the end of WWI 100 years ago, all American Presidents have accepted the responsibility of leading global aspirations for freedom.  Today a new American President has announced a sea-change in American policy, proclaiming his intention to put “America first,” imitating the narrowly nationalist strong-man politics we see in China, Russia, and Turkey, among others.

The new President has painted a picture of an America in ruins, destroyed by Washington elites who spent resources abroad while Americans suffered at home. He has promised his policy of “American first” will change that reality.

Yet it is America’s own economic elites who plundered the American middle-class, through misleading mortgages, the financialization of the economy, and their fierce opposition to all the rules and institutions that protected ordinary Americans – from unions and minimum wages to efforts to expand medical care, the funding of public colleges and universities, improved access to voting, and protections for the disabled and minorities. While all of America’s leadership and intelligentsia deserve blame for not seeing this soon enough and not doing enough to stop it, the new President has taken the traditional populist path of blaming our own shortcomings on others – on foreigners and “radical Islam,” who have in fact not been the agents of the loss of middle-class America’s well-being.

If history is any guide, the new President and his administration will enrich themselves while blaming foreigners and other enemies; they will incite conflict and possibly wars with other countries to distract from their own unwillingness to tackle the real root of the problems they denounce.

Already the Trump cabinet appears to be one of the most corrupt and incompetent that has ever been nominated – whether it is the future Treasury secretary “overlooking” $100 million in personal assets that he forgot to declare in his ethics report, or the future Energy secretary who lacks the credentials to even read the resumes of the nuclear experts that will be working under his command.

I know that millions of Americans will fight for a better vision of American responsibility, which we owe both to our own people and to those around the world who share our aspirations to enjoy a life of opportunity and freedom from tyranny.

The fight for freedom, truth and the American way begins today; sadly it must be a fight against the policies and principles of the new President, who appears willing to sacrifice exactly those values while going forth in search of dragons to slay.

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Vladimir Putin’s Wish List

Let us assume that the allegations of links between Russia and the Trump campaign are nonsense.  Grant that all that Donald Trump and his campaign have been doing are wholly motivated by Trump’s own plans and interests.   Can we then come up with some explanation or strategy behind Trump’s actions?

Let’s begin by being clear about Vladimir Putin’s world-view.  Putin’s chief strategic problem is that Russia is pinned between two giant militaries: China and NATO.   The latter is an alliance extending to Russia’s borders that combines the strength of Europe with the U.S. — the nation with the world’s largest and most technologically advanced military, and which is about to embark on a $1 trillion modernization of its nuclear arsenal.  Putin’s chief aim has therefore been to weaken or dissolve NATO by creating divisions within Europe and between Europe and the U.S.  For years, Putin has pressed the case that because the Cold War is over and Russia has no designs on Europe, NATO is now obsolete and should be ended, just as the Warsaw Pact has been.  His main goal is to sow distrust between the U.S. and its NATO partners and to destroy European unity.  If possible, it would also be helpful if the U.S. would back off its plans to update its nuclear arsenal and the extremely expensive competition that would trigger.

What else could Putin wish for to improve Russia’s geopolitical situation?  First would be for the U.S. to lose interest in the Ukraine, accepting the validity of Russia’s claims and actions there.   Second would be for the U.S. to pick a fight with China in the Pacific, to distract both the U.S. and China from Russia’s sphere of interest in the former U.S.S.R and the Middle East.  This is especially important as China’s “new silk road” investments in the Indian Ocean and Central Asia would impinge on Russia’s historical sphere of influence.  Finally, the icing on the cake – though long out of reach – would be if in the Middle East the U.S. would accept Russia’s position that all that matters is stabilizing governments, even if they are authoritarian, corrupt, and criminal human rights violators, and if the U.S. and Israel together would become so blatantly aggressive against Palestinians that it would stir up Arab nations and the U.N. against both Israel and the U.S., giving Russia a situation that it could leverage to gain influence throughout the region.

For its economy, Russia’s major problems are that American and European sanctions are biting, that its energy industries desperately need external financial and technological investments, and that it is being overtaken by the rapid rise of China, which is gaining international influence by its increased investments and trade throughout the world.  The solutions that Putin desperately desires are to have sanctions lifted without having to give up any important strategic or geopolitical gains, and also to get foreign investment to help grow and modernize its oil and gas industry.    Weakening or breaking up the European Union would help to undermine sanctions and weaken the European economy; and if the U.S. and China engaged in a trade war, that would weaken both of their economies as well.

Of course the U.S. remains Putin’s most significant adversary.  It is the richest and most powerful, and its institutions and history – in support of democracy, human rights, political freedoms, leaders accountable to law, an independent press and judiciary – stand in opposition to everything that Putin maintains to remain in power.  Thus Putin needs to weaken the U.S. and undermine its institutions to achieve his goals.  To that end, Putin would like to see disunity among America’s political leaders, its intelligence agencies undermined, and its free media lose their legitimacy and credibility as a source of factual information.  Ideally, the U.S. would adopt policies toward Russia that ignore Russia’s actions toward other nations and the conflict between American values and the Russian political system, and simply seek cooperation on bilateral issues.

Now that we know Putin’s goals, we can look more clearly at Trump’s actions and see how they differ from Putin’s agenda.  Since last summer, when Trump had clinched the Republican nomination, here are some of his statements and actions.  To review:

  • Last summer, while the Trump campaign generally stayed out of the drafting of the Republican party platform, they intervened strongly on one and only one issue – they “steam rolled” an attempt to put language in the platform criticizing Russian actions in Ukraine and promising aid to Ukraine’s military. Evidently, getting any mention of Ukraine out of the Republican platform was more important to the campaign than language on taxes, education, or health care.
  • In August, when questioned about Putin’s intentions in Ukraine by George Stephanopoulos, Trump’s response was hyperbolic: “He’s not going into Ukraine, OK, just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down. You can put it down. You can take it anywhere you want.”   Why would Trump make such an extreme and wholly inaccurate defense of Putin’s Ukraine policies?
  • In choosing his foreign policy team, Trump picked a Secretary of State with no prior government or diplomatic experience but whose most notable accomplishments include negotiating energy deals with Russia, and who has long-established relationships with Putin and Igor Sechin, the current CEO of the giant Russian oil firm Rosneft. Trump also chose a national security advisor who was paid to appear on Russia’s propaganda TV network and who has fixated on Islamic terrorism to the exclusion of any wider strategic view.  That advisor’s first policy-related call was to Russia’s ambassador to exchange Christmas greetings and plan a meeting for Trump with Putin.   Trump could hardly have made two major foreign policy appointments more pleasing to Putin if Putin had picked them himself.
  • Trump has repeatedly praised the United Kingdom for its vote to exit the European Union, calling it a great move and saying that he expects other countries to exit as well. Trump has met with and lauded Brexit leader Nigel Farage, and promised to fast-track a US-British trade pact to facilitate a “hard” exit.
  • Trump has sharply criticized the EU as a vehicle for Germany and attacked Germany’s chancellor, calling her policies on refugees a great mistake. He has even said there is no difference in his trust in the leader of Germany – the lynchpin of our NATO alliance – and Putin, and that his trust in the former might not last.  He has called NATO “obsolete” and said the U.S. should not honor its NATO obligations since some NATO members are not paying their fair share.
  • Trump has challenged the one-China policy, which has been the foundation of Sino-U.S. relations for decades. He has also talked about starting a trade war with China, calling them the worst cheaters and threatening massive tariffs, even raising the idea of using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations, something that China rejects as an existential threat.
  • Trump has refrained from any criticism of Russian actions in Ukraine, Syria, the Balkans, or eastern Europe. His nominee for Secretary of State, in his confirmation hearings, said that Trump had not even discussed Russia policy with him.
  • Trump has defended Russia against the conclusions of all U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in U.S. elections.   In doing so, he has impugned and criticized the credibility and objectivity of U.S. intelligence agencies, and has attacked political leaders on both sides of the aisle.
  • Trump and his team have repeatedly criticized mainstream U.S. media, calling them purveyors of fake news, while accepting as truth the propaganda on Clinton and himself put out by the National Enquirer, Breitbart, and other highly politicized media. They have thus undermined the idea that there is any difference between objective reporting and political propaganda, and that the U.S. has any reporting that can be regarded as objective and conveying factual news.
  • Trump appears to be planning a meeting with Putin as one of his first meetings with foreign leaders, with the goal of a deal in which the U.S. would drop sanctions in return for an agreement on reducing nuclear weapons.   Such a deal is remarkable in that it would give Putin two things he desperately wants – ending sanctions for his interventions in Ukraine and the U.S. elections, and ending the prospect of competition with an upgraded U.S. nuclear arsenal.  In return, Russia would have to give up nothing at all on Ukraine, Syria, cybersecurity or any other issue that it cares about.  One might say that it appears as if the goal of a nuclear pact – which is something that Putin desires for his own purposes – is being used as a pretext for the lifting of sanctions.
  • In regard to Israel, Trump has proposed moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and has chosen an ambassador to Israel who supports increasing settlements in Palestinian areas and is skeptical of any peace agreement or two-state solution. These policies promise to escalate Israeli-Palestinian tensions, distracting attention in the Middle East from Russian support for Syria’s dictator Hafez al-Assad, and inviting further condemnations of the U.S. in the United Nations and the Middle East.

We should dismiss the notion that Trump or his campaign had links to Russia or any financial or other motivations for his actions.  We are then left with just the list of Trump’s statements and actions to speak for themselves.

The problem then is that Trump’s actions, even before taking office, appear like the fulfillment of a long wish list of Vladimir’s Putin’s most desired goals.  Even Trump’s continued refusal to release his tax returns – which might have made sense during a campaign when his opponents might seek to use them – seems pointless now that he is the President-elect.   Why not end suspicion and criticism by releasing them now, when there is no longer anything to lose?

Unless, of course, there is.  For as Trump’s actions and statements continue, it is harder and harder to see them as anything but the fulfillment of a very lengthy wish list for the Kremlin.  On a wide range of issues, Trump has so far given Putin everything he could have dreamed of.  Trump may be wholly innocent of any links or pressure from Russia.  But it is becoming devilishly difficult to find any explanation of the actions listed above in which such actions are primarily a defense of America’s strategic interests and support American values and goals.

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Fake News, Real News — It’s all news now.

After a campaign in which Donald Trump promised to lock up his opponent for crimes that the FBI now says she never committed, Trump himself is facing an uncomfortable turn of the karmic wheel.

It 2016, Donald Trump and his team did all they could to blur the lines between truth and false news, and to create a cloud over Clinton by mixing smears based on allegations and investigations that proved groundless with wholly fake news of even more serious crimes, tossing the core American principle of “innocent until proven guilty” out the window.

When fake news sites ran stories that Hilary Clinton was involved in a pedophile sex ring being investigated by the FBI, and other stories linking her more generally to sex crimes, some of these were re-tweeted by Trump’s National Security Advisor designate General Michael Flynn and his chief of staff (Flynn’s son).   Breitbart News, which was run by Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon until last summer, ran an essay just three days before the election titled “Hilary Clinton Should be in Jail, not the White House,” giving an extensive list of her “crimes” and asserting that “Clinton would already be in jail as the head of an international crime syndicate if she were not being protected by the media establishment and Obama’s political operatives in the Department of Justice.”

Trump himself said that Clinton would be jailed for her crimes if he was elected, and encouraged his supporters in chants of “lock her up” at political rallies.  After extensive Congressional investigations into her conduct as Secretary of State and FBI investigations into her emails found no evidence of criminal acts, Trump continued to insist on her guilt and claimed that Clinton’s exoneration was evidence of a government conspiracy against him.

Now it is Donald Trump’s turn to be caught in the real/news fake news conundrum and the miasma of allegations vs. facts.   BuzzFeed has released 35 pages of memos that purportedly report on interactions between Trump and Russia that go back many years.  The memos provide details about Russia’s direction of a campaign to release hacked emails through Wikileaks to harm Clinton.  In addition, the memos claim that Russia has material to blackmail Trump, that they have pressured him to adopt pro-Russia policies on Ukraine, and that the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence shared information.

Is this real news or fake news?   The main claim in the memos, dated to July of last year, regarding a top-level Russian effort to use hacked information to promote Trump’s election win, has now been verified in extensive investigations by U.S. intelligence agencies.  Other claims in the memos, regarding contacts between Russian sources and Trump campaign advisors, have in fact been under investigation by the FBI.

While some of the claims in the memos seem fantastic, their overall story is plausible; indeed the main theme of Russian interference in the U.S. election has now been proven.  All that remains is to determine whether there was any collusion between the Russian effort and the Trump campaign.

There is at least some indication that there was. Two days after the election, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that his government had maintained contacts with Trump’s team throughout the campaign: ‘“I cannot say that all, but a number of them maintained contacts with Russian representatives,” Mr. Ryabkov said.” But this was quickly denied by the Foreign Ministry, who said that all that happened was that the Russian ambassador in Washington had reached out to American politicians and supporters of Trump to obtain information on Trump’s positions.

Indeed, the dismissals of any possible election interference and any contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia by both sides have been vehement, if not hysterical.  Russian officials dismiss the very idea that they might have used cyber-attacks to support Trump as too ridiculous to even consider; instead they seek to put the blame on anyone else, even rogue US agencies.   Trump has called BuzzFeed, which released the memos, “a failing pile of garbage”  and called their contents an utter fabrication.  Whenever the subject of Russian hacking is raised, instead of following the time-tested politician’s mode of denial – “I am innocent of these charges and I am confident a full and thorough investigation will completely clear me of any wrongdoing” – Trump or his surrogates insult the messenger, impute the story to spiteful losers, make extreme denials, and urge that the story simply be dropped.

Yet Trump himself spent almost five years pursuing far more weakly supported allegations that President Obama’s birth certificate was falsified.   The FBI spent over a year looking into Hilary Clinton’s emails, and it took almost two years to complete the investigation into Richard Nixon’s cover-up of criminal activity in the Watergate building.   The allegations of Trump-Russia collaboration are no less worthy of thorough investigation.

The principles followed by the Trump team during their campaign – that all allegations of criminal actions should be widely publicized, that guilt should be presumed and pronounced while waiting for supporting evidence to emerge, and that any formal investigations of alleged crimes should be treated as evidence of guilt – may be uncomfortable when turned against them.   However, they have only themselves to blame for setting that standard.  The allegations in the BuzzFeed memos are sufficiently serious that the American people have a right to an independent and thorough investigation as to whether they are falsehoods manufactured simply to damage Trump, or if some portion of them can be verified as accurate.  Such an investigation may be a distraction for the Trump presidency, but it is no less necessary.  Our nation survived the Watergate investigation and it will survive a Kremlingate investigation.

What we may not be able to survive is an environment where fake news is allowed to thrive, on either side of any political divides.  Nor can we survive any effort by the government and especially the U.S. President to chastise news organizations, suppress news investigations, and replace serious investigations into the implications of intelligence findings with simple dismissals.

If President-elect Trump is confident that the BuzzFeed memos are garbage, and that the Russian hacking was both completely unconnected to himself and his campaign and had zero impact on the election, then he should welcome a full and thorough investigation of the matter.  That investigation should seek to understand why Russia thought it could be effective in hacking U.S. political organizations and in utilizing that information to advance their goals.  It should thoroughly search for any links between this Russian effort and anyone connected with any U.S. political party or campaign or other organization that might have enabled or encouraged it.  It should examine how the Russian effort was carried out and why it succeeded.  And it should thoroughly vet the various claims in the BuzzFeed memos or any other plausible explanations for recent events to separate facts from fiction.

If the President-elect is correct in his confidence, then the only possible casualties of such an investigation would be the impunity of Russia in acting against America, and the credulity and influence of false news.   Those are both outcomes that should be welcomed by the administration and by all Americans.

 

 

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Lies, Fights, and Deals

Although Donald Trump has not yet been sworn in as President, we already have a pretty good idea how he will act in office.  This is because he has already begun acting as the leader of the United States, particularly in regard to defense and foreign policy.

What we have learned is that we have elected someone who enjoys being a bull in the delicate china shops of international diplomacy.  So far we have seen Trump antagonize China by taking a phone call from the President of Taiwan; he has suggested that the U.S. needs to increase its nuclear weapons capacity; and he has urged the U.S. to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (which would in practice endorse Israel’s claim that all of Jerusalem is its capital, rather than a matter still to be negotiated with Palestinian leaders).  All three moves would overturn decades of U.S. policy.  Trump has also castigated Boeing for cost over-runs on Air Force One using made-up figures for those costs, and then castigated Lockheed-Martin for cost over-runs on the F-35 fighter plane, threatening to drop the project and seek an alternative fighter plane from – Boeing!  This despite the fact that eight other nations are deeply involved in the planning and contracting for the F-35 fighter.

Trump has picked a fight with the U.S. intelligence community by disputing their evidence that Russian government cyber-warriors acted to damage his political opponents.  All this comes on top of his campaign suggestions that NATO members do not automatically deserve full US support.

In sum, it has been a breathtaking run of aggressive changes in U.S. policy in less than 60 days since the election.  What might we see in Trump’s first 100 days when he actually starts operating from the Oval Office?

One measure that seems clear is that Trump will launch an all-out series of trade wars to seek advantages for the U.S., with the immediate goal of reducing the U.S. trade deficit. His appointments for trade and commerce have essentially declared war on China in their published writings.   This too would reverse decades of U.S. trade policy that has treated open international trade as a win-win proposition, instead viewing international trade as a zero-sum game where it is important that the U.S. be the “winner” and never suffer being a “loser.”

If there is a single strategic vision that has been evident in Trump’s campaign and in his post-election actions, it is his oft-voiced view that the world is divided into “winners” and “losers.”   Trump hates losing, and fancies himself a “winner” in business, and now in politics.  Winners get the prerogatives of higher status, and the power to seek further goals while losers deserve to be left behind.  However, being a “winner” means seeking out contests and winning them in order to demonstrate who is a winner and who is not.  And since winning is all-important, the means to achieve a win and then flaunt the victory do not matter.   Lying, misrepresenting one’s acts, taking advantage of help from enemies, abandoning allies, abrogating past agreements, are all perfectly OK if they help achieve a win or can be used to claim a victory.

Not by chance, these are the tactics of authoritarian leaders in general.  They are the tactics used by Vladimir Putin, another “winner” who Trump clearly admires.  We have now entered a new era in world politics, one reminiscent of the 1930s, in which countries have turned to “strong leaders” – Xi Jinping in China, Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, Viktor Orban in Hungary; Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines – to rescue their countries after periods of crisis.   The 2016 election shows that enough Americans judge that the U.S. has also been through a crisis – involving the terrorism and military costs from 9/11 through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria; the bank frauds, corruption, and housing losses in the 2007-2009 Great Recession; the impact of immigration, automation, and globalization on the work and status of the middle class;  and the health care crisis embodied in the surprising decline in U.S. life expectancy and the particularly marked increase in deaths among rural communities and middle-aged whites – to elect a strong leader to rescue the U.S.

What will it be like living in a world of strong leaders all seeking to show that they are winners?  It will likely be a world of lies, fights and deals, with each leader seeking to press their advantages to justify their personal power.   That, as we have seen in the 1930s, is a dangerous world.  At best, it will be a world in which democracy, the rights of minorities, liberal freedoms and truth itself will be under constant assault; at worst it will be a world of constant international confrontations and wars.

What can be done to keep democracy safe from these dangerous tendencies?

First, human rights, democracy, and truth must be defended at home, within the Western democracies, and abroad.  This means that the platforms from which people obtain information – whether it is Twitter, Facebook, and Google or cable news networks – must be held accountable.  Laws should permit state and federal prosecutors and private citizens to sue these actors for disseminating falsehoods as a crime against the public, thus making them responsible for monitoring and correcting the false information spread through their platforms and broadcasts.

Second, when Trump follows his inclination to treat murderous authoritarian leaders as counterparts with whom he will negotiate, he needs to be reminded that he must be careful about giving cover or approval to actions such as the genocidal slaughter of civilians in Aleppo or the seizure of territory by aggression in Ukraine.  He needs to be careful that his deals do not strengthen leaders whose methods and goals challenge the core values of the United States.

Third, Trump needs to be urged to consider the important role of the “loyal opposition” in democracies.  Those who disagree with him – Democrats or technical experts – should not be dismissed as “losers,” because politics is not just like business.  The government is responsible for the welfare of all Americans, and that means lasting success requires taking into account the views and interests of different groups and seeking the broadest possible compromises, not just aiming for narrow victories.  As even the Democrats now know all too well, policy victories (in the environment or trade) in which tens of millions of Americans still regard themselves as “losers” are no victories at all.

Trump’s basic tendencies are clear, but they are also risky.  It will be a Presidency of lies, fights, and deals.  It is up to the rest of us to make sure that America’s key values – democracy, honesty, decency, and respect for all citizens and their needs – what we used to call “the American way” –remain intact.

 

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Cuba and Castro

One of the last great revolutionary leaders of the 20th century has passed away.   One may hesitate to call Fidel Castro “great” – but whether you admire or revile him, no one can deny that he exercised global influence over a generation of revolutionary leaders, from Latin America all the way to Africa, and managed to keep his small nation in defiant opposition to the United States for over half a century.

As an expert on revolutions, I can offer some perspective on Castro as revolutionary leader.  He was not a monster like Stalin or Mao, who blithely embarked on policies that slaughtered or starved tens of millions and dismissed the costs.   Rather, Castro came to power and ruled as an idealist who believed he was rescuing the Cuban people from the harsh exploitation of early 20th century capitalism, in which American companies reaped much of the profit generated by Cuba’s economy, while Cuban men labored like slaves on sugar plantations and women turned to prostitution to support themselves.   Unlike the Russian and Chinese Communists, who fought their way to power in bloody civil wars that tore their countries apart for many years, Castro and his revolutionary guerillas were a small force that played cat and mouse with the army of the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.  Their achievement was to just survive and win popular admiration, until Batista’s own apparent disregard for his people and his nation, and his dependence on his U.S. patrons, led both his army and the Cuban people to abandon him, allowing Castro’s forces to take over the island.

Once in power, Castro was embraced as a nationalist hero.  When Cuban refugees tried to persuade American President John F. Kennedy to support their effort to take back the island, promising that Cubans would rally to their side and desert Castro, the result was one of the unmitigated disasters of U.S. diplomatic history.  The promised defections never materialized, and the invasion forces at the Bay of Pigs were sent packing.  But one of the results was to ensure that Castro would always see the United States as his dire enemy.  Already leaning toward communism as a way to bring equality and hoped-for economic betterment for ordinary Cubans, Castro forged ever stronger-ties with the Soviet Union and became a champion of communist and anti-American guerilla movements and governments around the world.

Of course, Castro’s imposition of a communist system on Cuba strangled rather than strengthened the economy.  Castro’s early policies provided some widely-admired gains, as his barefoot teachers and investments in health care gave Cubans universal literacy and one of the highest levels of doctors per capita in the world.  Unfortunately, both gains were squandered, as Cuba’s socialist economy provided no opportunities for the newly-literate to become successful entrepreneurs, and Cuba’s medical personnel were sent around the world as a way to gain support and earn hard currency.

As the oppressiveness of communist party rule and the stagnation of what had been Latin America’s most advanced economy became apparent, Castro had to deal with rising voices of opposition.   He dealt with them harshly.  Even old comrades were imprisoned, and thousands of opponents were executed.  As in other communist regimes, there was no freedom of press, speech or assembly.  But Castro’s rule was more frustrating than dangerous for ordinary Cubans.  After the years of the murderous Batista regime, which sent death squads throughout the countryside and sold nearly half the economy to American interests, Castro’s regime was seen as a significant improvement.   As one Cuban émigré put it to me – “Castro is like changing a wife-beating husband for one that is kind but lazy and cannot keep a job.  At first, you are grateful just not to be beaten every day.  But eventually, you do start to wonder when your economic situation will ever improve.”

The best hope for such improvement will come from the integration of Cuba into the global economy, with new opportunities for foreign investment, trade, travel, and migration.  This is the path that President Obama and Cuban leader Raoul Castro, Fidel’s brother, are embarking on, however hesitantly on the part of the latter.   Some may hope that such actions will accelerate after Castro’s passing – but it is almost certain that insulting Fidel’s memory and attacking his legacy will have no positive effect on his brother.   What we have learned from the last fifty years is that Cuba’s government will not be forced or bullied into changing its ways; rather it may shift gradually if Cuban are treated with the respect and dignity that they believe Castro’s revolution – even if it did nothing else – earned for their country.

 

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