The president is looking for a dangerous domestic enemy to fight.
Some presidents, when they get into trouble before an election, try to “wag the dog” by starting a war abroad. Donald Trump seems ready to wag the dog by starting a war at home. Be afraid — he just might get his wish.
How did we get here? Well, when historians summarize the Trump team’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus, it will take only a few paragraphs:
“They talked as if they were locking down like China. They acted as if they were going for herd immunity like Sweden. They prepared for neither. And they claimed to be superior to both. In the end, they got the worst of all worlds — uncontrolled viral spread and an unemployment catastrophe.
“And then the story turned really dark.
“As the virus spread, and businesses had to shut down again and schools and universities were paralyzed as to whether to open or stay closed in the fall, Trump’s poll numbers nose-dived. Joe Biden opened up a 15-point lead in a national head-to-head survey.
“So, in a desperate effort to salvage his campaign, Trump turned to the Middle East Dictator’s Official Handbook and found just what he was looking for, the chapter titled, ‘What to Do When Your People Turn Against You?’
“Answer: Turn them against each other and then present yourself as the only source of law and order.”
America blessedly is not Syria, yet, but Trump is adopting the same broad approach that Bashar al-Assad did back in 2011, when peaceful protests broke out in the southern Syrian town of Dara’a, calling for democratic reforms; the protests then spread throughout the country.
Had al-Assad responded with even the mildest offer of more participatory politics, he would have been hailed as a savior by a majority of Syrians. One of their main chants during the demonstrations was, “Silmiya, silmiya” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).
But al-Assad did not want to share power, and so he made sure that the protests were not peaceful. He had his soldiers open fire on and arrest nonviolent demonstrators, many of them Sunni Muslims. Over time, the peaceful, secular elements of the Syrian democracy movement were sidelined, as hardened Islamists began to spearhead the fight against al-Assad. In the process, the uprising was transformed into a naked, rule-or-die sectarian civil war between al-Assad’s Alawite Shiite forces and various Sunni jihadist groups.
Al-Assad got exactly what he wanted — not a war between his dictatorship and his people peacefully asking to have their voices heard, but a war with Islamic radicals in which he could play the law-and-order president, backed by Russia and Iran. In the end, his country was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed or forced to flee. But al-Assad stayed in power. Today, he’s the top dog on a pile of rubble.
I have zero tolerance for any American protesters who resort to violence in any U.S. city, because it damages homes and businesses already hammered by the coronavirus — many of them minority-owned — and because violence will only turn off and repel the majority needed to drive change.
But when I heard Trump suggest, as he did in the Oval Office on Monday, that he was going to send federal forces into U.S. cities, where the local mayors have not invited him, the first word that popped into my head was “Syria.”
Listen to how Trump put it: “I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country.”
These cities, Trump stressed, are “all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left. If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”
This is coming so straight from the Middle East Dictator’s Handbook, it’s chilling. In Syria, al-Assad used plainclothes, pro-regime thugs, known as the shabiha (“the apparitions”) to make protesters disappear. In Portland, Ore., we saw militarized federal forces wearing battle fatigues, but no identifiable markings, arresting people and putting them into unmarked vans. How can this happen in America?
Authoritarian populists — whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, or al-Assad — “win by dividing the people and presenting themselves as the savior of the good and ordinary citizens against the undeserving agents of subversion and ‘cultural pollution,’” explained Stanford’s Larry Diamond, author of “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”
In the face of such a threat, the left needs to be smart. Stop calling for “defunding the police” and then saying that “defunding” doesn’t mean disbanding. If it doesn’t mean that then say what it means: “reform.” Defunding the police, calling police officers “pigs,” taking over whole neighborhoods with barricades — these are terrible messages, not to mention strategies, easily exploitable by Trump.
The scene that The Times’s Mike Baker described from Portland in the early hours of Tuesday — Day 54 of the protests there — is not good: “Some leaders in the Black community, grateful for a reckoning on race, worry that what should be a moment for racial justice could be squandered by violence. Businesses supportive of reforms have been left demoralized by the mayhem the protests have brought. … On Tuesday morning, police said another jewelry store had been looted. As federal agents appeared to try detaining one person, others in the crowd rushed to free the person.”
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, according to The Post, found that a “majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement and a record 69 percent say Black people and other minorities are not treated as equal to white people in the criminal justice system. But the public generally opposes calls to shift some police funding to social services or remove statues of Confederate generals or presidents who enslaved people.”
All of this street violence and defund-the-police rhetoric plays into the only effective Trump ad that I’ve seen on television. It goes like this: A phone rings and a recording begins: “You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call. If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1. To report a murder, press 2. To report a home invasion, press 3. For all other crimes, leave your name and number and someone will get back to you. Our estimated wait time is currently five days. Goodbye.”
Today’s protesters need to trump Trump by taking a page from another foreign leader — a liberal — Ekrem Imamoglu, who managed to win the 2019 election to become the mayor of Istanbul, despite the illiberal Erdogan using every dirty trick possible to steal the election. Imamoglu’s campaign strategy was called “radical love.”
Radical love meant reaching out to the more traditional and religious Erdogan supporters, listening to them, showing them respect and making clear that they were not “the enemy” — that Erdogan was the enemy, because he was the enemy of unity and mutual respect, and there could be no progress without them.
As a recent essay on Imamoglu’s strategy in The Journal of Democracy noted, he overcame Erdogan with a “message of inclusiveness, an attitude of respect toward [Erdogan] supporters, and a focus on bread-and-butter issues that could unite voters across opposing political camps. On June 23, Imamoglu was again elected mayor of Istanbul, but this time with more than 54 percent of the vote — the largest mandate obtained by an Istanbul mayor since 1984 — against 45 percent for his opponent.”
Radical love. Wow. I bet that could work in America, too. It’s the perfect answer to Trump’s politics of division — and it’s the one strategy he’ll never imitate.
In theory, President Trump is in a pitched battle with Joe Biden for the presidency. In reality, Mr. Trump is in a battle with Mr. Trump.
That’s one way to look at the recent round of sliding Trump poll numbers, which the media and Democrats are prematurely hailing as an obituary for the administration, but which also have Republicans nervous. Mr. Trump’s path to re-election rests in painting a sharp contrast between his policies of economic restoration, a transformed judiciary and limited government with those of Mr. Biden’s promise of (at best) a return to the slow growth of the Obama years or (at worst) an embrace of progressive nirvana. Instead, he’s helping Democrats and the media make the race a referendum on his Twitter feed.
“Let Trump be Trump!” cry the president’s supporters. They argue it worked before. But this isn’t 2016. The U.S. is emerging from an unprecedented pandemic lockdown that left millions unemployed or bankrupt, children without education, the social order in shambles. The fury that followed George Floyd’s death has put Americans on the edge. They need calm leadership and a positive vision for the future.
Mr. Trump offers glimpses. His May 30 speech following the historic manned SpaceX launch—which addressed the Floyd killing—was a call for justice and peace as well as a tribute to American aspiration. In a subsequent Rose Garden speech, he deplored Floyd’s “brutal death” and reminded viewers that “America needs creation, not destruction.” A week later, his Rose Garden remarks celebrated a jobs report that defied gloomy predictions, and it showcased the American desire to get back to work.
The Trump campaign makes a compelling case that it is nonsensical to claim Democrats are running away with the race. Democratic pollster Doug Schoen wrote that the recent CNN survey showing Mr. Biden up 14 points nationally was skewed—it underrepresented Republicans and counted registered voters rather than likely ones. Match-ups still look tight in swing states.
Mr. Biden is also grappling with an enthusiasm problem. Mr. Trump this year has set records in primary after primary in voter turnout—even though he is uncontested. A recent ABC poll showed only 34% of Biden supporters were “very enthusiastic” about their nominee, compared with 69% of those backing Mr. Trump. Officials also note that the race—at least the mano-a-mano part of it—has yet to begin.
But there’s no question Mr. Trump’s numbers have eroded, both overall and among key voter subgroups. The latest Gallup poll finds only 47% approval of his handling of the economy, down from 63% in January. Those numbers are bleeding into congressional races, putting Republican control of the Senate at risk and raising the possibility of a rout in the House. If the Trump campaign can’t turn things around, the country could be looking at total Democratic control for the first time since 2010—and a liberal Senate majority that may well eliminate the filibuster for legislation and pack the courts. The stakes are high.
The prospect of a turnaround rests on Mr. Trump’s ability to do more than taunt his competitor as “Sleepy Joe” and rail against the “RADICAL LEFT!!” With an economy in tatters, Mr. Trump has an opening to redefine the election as a choice. Americans can vote again for the policies that revived the economy after the moribund Obama-Biden years and continue transforming the judiciary. Or they can take a chance on a Democrat who has promised to raise taxes on 90% of Americans, kill blue-collar fossil-fuel jobs and ban guns, and a party that is considering demands to “defund the police.”
Democrats want this election to be a simple question of whether Americans want four more years of a chaotic White House. The country has had its fill of chaos, so that could prove a powerful message for Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump has to decide just how much he wants to help him.
A prominent economist faced pressure from others in his field to step down from an editing post because of comments he made criticizing the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements, reflecting some of the turmoil roiling economics and other professions following the recent police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
The sparring this week between critics and defenders of University of Chicago economist Harald Uhlig, the lead editor of the Journal of Political Economy, comes during national protests over police brutality and discussions about racial inequality and policing practices.
The debate over Mr. Uhlig follows several years in which the economics profession has sought to grapple with tensions in its ranks over its lack of racial and gender diversity.
In a Twitter post late Monday, Mr. Uhlig said that Black Lives Matter—a long-running campaign focused on issues of police brutality—had “just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice,” a reference to calls by activists to shift government spending away from police departments. Those calls have increased since Mr. Floyd’s killing.
“Time for sensible adults to enter back into the room and have serious, earnest, respectful conversations about it all,” Mr. Uhlig wrote. “We need more police, we need to pay them more, we need to train them better,” he added.
Backlash grew quickly on Twitter, including demands from prominent and rank-and-file economists for Mr. Uhlig’s resignation from the publication, which describes itself as “one of the oldest and most prestigious journals in economics.”
“He belittled the movement,” said Olugbenga Ajilore, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank, who supports Mr. Uhlig’s resignation.
Mr. Uhlig and the Journal of Political Economy didn’t immediately return requests for comments. Mr. Uhlig apologized Tuesday on Twitter and said his views weren’t pronouncements by the journal or the University of Chicago.
“My tweets in recent days and an old blog post have apparently irritated a lot of people. That was far from my intention: let me apologize for that,” Mr. Uhlig wrote.
Too bad, but #blacklivesmatter per its core organization @Blklivesmatter just torpedoed itself, with its full-fledged support of #defundthepolice : “We call for a national defunding of police.” Suuuure. They knew this is non-starter, and tried a sensible Orwell 1984 of saying,279 people are talking about this
Critics also had flagged past posts on his blog, including one in 2017 that criticized National Football League players for on-field, kneeling protests over police brutality.
Mr. Ajilore said Mr. Uhlig’s comments reflected a failure to recognize that the Black Lives Matter movement has had an impact on policing policy. Mr. Ajilore said the comments were further troubling because of how closely academic economists’ career trajectories are tied to their ability to have editors approve research for publication in top-tier journals, such as the Journal of Political Economy.
“How can you be an objective arbiter of work when you’re not able to recognize actual, tangible, serious, significant movements?” Mr. Ajilore asked.
Maximilian Auffhammer, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, tweeted on Tuesday a link to a letter that called for Mr. Uhlig to step down from his post at the journal, with encouragement for others to sign it.
“Prof. Uhlig is welcome to say whatever he wants. But his comments hurt and marginalize people of color and their allies in the economics profession,” Mr. Auffhammer, who planned to deliver the letter Thursday, said in an email Wednesday.
“I would also argue that they call into question his impartiality in assessing academic work on this and related topics. More broadly they damage the standing of the economics discipline in society,” he said.
Mr. Uhlig’s defenders also circulated their arguments online, saying in a letter he should remain in the journal post.
“We, the undersigned, do not believe political litmus tests should be applied when deciding who receives prominent academic positions. This is bad for economics,” the counterpetition said.
Robin Hanson, associate professor of economics at George Mason University, said he had signed the letter in support of Mr. Uhlig.
“The line is moving here in terms of how enthusiastically you must support a party line,” Mr. Hanson said. “You can’t in any way seem at all critical or you’re threatening our unity or something. That’s a Stalin level of conformity,” he added.
The American Economic Association has said it is working to improve the profession’s culture since a survey released in 2018 found women and minorities felt they were discriminated against in hiring and the publication process at top economics journals.
“We acknowledge the pain of our colleagues and students—and especially our Black colleagues and students—who must once again bear witness to evidence that violent racism has not yet been eradicated from our society,” the AEA’s executive committee said in a June 5 statement on Mr. Floyd’s death.
“We commit ourselves personally and professionally to actions that the economics profession can and should take to contribute to broader social efforts to root out racism,” the statement added.
Several black economists, and others, have called for the profession’s research methods to better address racial disparities.
William Spriggs, chief economist to the AFL-CIO, wrote in a recent open letter to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis that Mr. Floyd’s killing offers the economics profession a chance to reflect on shortcomings in its approach to race-related issues and research.
“The overwhelming majority of explorations of racial disparities in economic outcomes remains deeply tied to that view of race as an exogenous variable,” Mr. Spriggs wrote. That model leads to economic analysis that “assumes that there is something ‘deficient’ about black people.”
Mr. Spriggs, in an interview, said economists should instead be more willing to identify the construct of race itself as the cause of certain unequal outcomes for African-Americans.
“Our theory is that the market rewards everything equally,” Mr. Spriggs said. Sometimes, “somebody is putting their hand on the scale and race is the marker that they put their hand on the scale.”