It’s not what the progressive left is talking about.
Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both campaigned for, and won, the White House on the watchword “hope.” What watchword will it take for a Democrat to win this time?
My suggestion: soap.
Nearly three years into Donald Trump’s presidency, America needs a hard scrub and a deep cleanse. It needs to wash out the grime and grease of an administration that every day does something to make the country feel soiled.
Soiled by a president who, Castro-like, delivered a two-hour rant at a rally in Michigan the night he was impeached. Who described his shakedown of Ukraine as “perfect.” Who extolled the world’s cruelest tyrant as someone who “wrote me beautiful letters. … We fell in love.” Who abandoned vulnerable allies in Syria, then opted to maintain troops in the country “only for oil.” Who, barely a year before the El Paso massacre, demonized illegal immigrants who “pour into and infest our Country.”
The list goes on, and most everyone feels it. In June, the Pew Research Center published a survey on how the country sees the state of public discourse. The most striking finding: “A 59 percent majority of Republicans and Republican leaners say they often or sometimes feel concerned by what Trump says. About half also say they are at least sometimes embarrassed (53 percent) and confused (47 percent) by Trump’s statements.”
What’s true of Republicans is far more so of the rest of the United States. Pew found that overwhelming majorities of Americans were “concerned” (76 percent), “confused” (70 percent), “embarrassed” (69 percent), “angry” (65 percent), “insulted” (62 percent) and “frightened” (56 percent) by the things Trump says.
These numbers should devastate Trump’s chances of re-election. They don’t, for three reasons.
- First, 76 percent of Americans rate economic conditions positively, up from 48 percent at the time of Trump’s election.
- Second, the progressive left’s values seem increasingly hostile to mainstream ones, as suggested by the titanic row over J.K. Rowling’s recent tweet defending a woman who was fired over her outspoken views on transgenderism.
- Third, the more the left rages about Trump and predicts nothing but catastrophe and conspiracy from him, the more out of touch it seems when the catastrophes don’t happen and the conspiracy theories come up short.
No wonder Trump’s average approval ratings have steadily ticked up since the end of October. In the view of middle-of-the-road America, the president may be bad, but he’s nowhere near as bad as his critics say.
In that same view, while Trump’s critics might be partly right about him, they’re a lot less right than they believe. In a contest between the unapologetic jerk in the White House and the self-styled saints seeking to unseat him, the jerk might just win.
How to avoid that outcome?
The most obvious point is not to promise a wrenching overhaul of the economy when it shows no signs of needing such an overhaul. There are plenty of serious long-term risks to our prosperity, including a declining birthrate, national debt north of $23 trillion, the erosion of the global free-trade consensus, threats to the political independence of the Federal Reserve, and the popularization of preposterous economic notions such as Modern Monetary Theory.
But anyone who thinks blowout government spending, partly financed by an unconstitutional and ineffective wealth tax, is going to be an electoral winner should look at the fate of Britain’s hapless Jeremy Corbyn.
What would work? Smart infrastructure spending. New taxes on carbon offset by tax cuts on income and saving. Modest increases in taxes on the wealthy matched to the promise of a balanced budget.
What these proposals lack in progressive ambition, they make up in political plausibility and the inherent appeal of modesty. They also defeat Trump’s most potent re-election argument, which is that, no matter who opposes him, he’s running against the crazy left.
Hence the second point. Too much of today’s left is too busy pointing out the ugliness of the Trumpian right to notice its own ugliness: its censoriousness, nastiness and complacent self-righteousness. But millions of ordinary Americans see it, and they won’t vote for a candidate who emboldens and empowers woke culture. The Democrat who breaks with that culture, as Clinton did in 1992 over Sister Souljah and Obama did in October over “cancel culture,” is the one likeliest to beat Trump.
Finally, the winning Democrat will need to make Trump’s presidency seem insignificant rather than monumental — an unsightly pimple on our long republican experiment, not a fatal cancer within it. Mike Bloomberg has the financial wherewithal to make Trump’s wealth seem nearly trivial. Joe Biden has the life experience to make Trump’s attacks seem petty. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar have the rhetorical skills to turn Trump’s taunts against him.
As with most bullies, the key to beating Trump is to treat him as the nonentity he fundamentally is. Wouldn’t it be something if his political opponents and obsessed media critics resolved, for 2020, to talk about him a little less and past him a lot more?
When your goal is to wash your hands of something bad, you don’t need a sword. Soap will do.
Now the United States must establish a balance of hope and fear in the Middle East.
Reasonable people will debate the likeliest ramifications of President Trump’s decision to order the killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the Revolutionary Guards Corps commander whose power in Iran was second only to that of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — and whose power in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq was arguably second to none.
What shouldn’t be in doubt is the justice.
By far the best account of Suleimani’s life was written by Dexter Filkins for The New Yorker in 2013. It’s worth reprising some of the details.
In 1998, Suleimani assumed command of the Quds Force — the Guards’ extraterritorial terrorist wing — whose prior exploits included a role in the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
In 2003, Filkins wrote, “Americans received intelligence that Al Qaeda fighters in Iran,” operating with Tehran’s protection and consent, “were preparing an attack on Western targets in Saudi Arabia.” Despite U.S. warnings to Iran, terrorists “bombed three residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including 9 Americans.”
In 2004, Suleimani “began flooding Iraq with lethal roadside bombs” known as explosively formed projectiles, which, according to retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “killed hundreds of Americans.”
In 2005, the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, and 21 others were killed in a massive car bombing in Beirut, carried out by Hezbollah. “There were Iranians on the phones directing the attack,” one former C.I.A. official told Filkins. “If indeed Iran was involved, Suleimani was undoubtedly at the center of this.”
In 2006, Hezbollah operatives abducted and killed Israeli soldiers in an operation that, according to Filkins, was “carried out with Suleimani’s help.” It sparked a monthlong war in which thousands of people were killed.
There’s a great deal more of this. And that was just the preamble to his central role in rescuing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and sustaining Yemen’s Houthi militia in power, goals pursued through policies of unrestricted brutality. As an agent of international mayhem, Suleimani’s peers were Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. To think of him as a worthy adversary — an Iranian Erwin Rommel — is wrong. He was an evil man who died as he had killed so many others.
The proximate reason for Suleimani’s killing, according to a Defense Department statement, is that he “was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.” If so — and it hardly stretches credulity that he was — the strike was an act of pre-emption. No U.S. president, of any party, should ever convey to an enemy the impression it can plot attacks against Americans with impunity. To do otherwise is to invite worse.
Trump’s problem is that, until Thursday, that’s what he had done. For almost a year, an escalating series of Iranian attacks on U.S. and allied assets were met by a conspicuous failure to respond militarily. Trump also kept signaling his desire to withdraw U.S. forces from the region.
The result was to embolden the Iranians to hit harder. Instead of a calibrated cycle of escalation matched to a tacit sense of limits, the Iranians reached until they overreached. On Wednesday, Khamenei taunted Trump with the message that “there is no damn thing you can do.” The supreme leader is now a publicly humiliated man. That is enormously satisfying — and immensely dangerous. Rashness often springs from wounded pride.
One possible outcome is that a spooked Iranian leadership, already reeling from devastating sanctions and mass demonstrations, will prefer to tread lightly, at least for the time being. “Suleimani’s death could bring a sense of realism to the Islamic Republic’s thinking,” says the Iranian-American journalist Masih Alinejad. For 40 years, the regime has succeeded abroad because it’s been willing to play dirty games against generally feckless opponents. It may now take its time to reassess that view.
The alternative? Iran could mount a global campaign of terrorist strikes, deploying foreign proxies like Hezbollah for political deniability. It could try to take hostages at the American Embassy in Baghdad, much as it did at the embassy in Tehran in 1979. It could use its influence in Iraq to demand the expulsion of U.S. troops — “accomplishing in the wake of his death what Suleimani long tried to accomplish in life,” as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies observes. And it could accelerate its nuclear program, forcing Trump into a major military confrontation he has been eager to avoid, especially in an election year.
The next days will be decisive. The best course for the United States is to spell out clearly to Iran what the paths of escalation — and de-escalation — hold. On the de-escalatory side, a return to the status quo ante and a willingness to explore negotiations over the full range of Iran’s malign activities, including its regional aggression and expanding nuclear program, in exchange for the easing of oil and other economic sanctions. On the escalatory side, a policy of deliberately disproportionate retaliation to any Iranian aggression, no matter whether it’s carried out by Iran or its proxies, and no matter whether it aims at us or our allies.
The clearer we are in limning the courses of hope and fear, the likelier we are to achieve a stable balance between them.
A dictator meets an opponent he can’t co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow or coerce.
The Russian human-rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko once explained to me how Vladimir Putin’s machinery of repression works.
- “It isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail,” she said. “It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected.
- It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message.”
Her conclusion: “Nobody is untouchable.”
That was in 2007, when Putin still cultivated an image as a law-abiding, democratically elected leader. But that fiction vanished long ago.
Boris Nemtsov, the leading opposition figure, was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015. His successor in that role, Alexei Navalny, has been in and out of prison on various trumped-up charges, as well as the victim of repeated attacks by “unknown chemicals.” Others, like the Putin critic and ex-Parliament member Denis Voronenkov, have been gunned down in broad daylight in foreign cities.
So it’s little less than awe-inspiring to read Andrew Higgins’s profile in The Times of opposition activist Lyubov Sobol.
Sobol, 31, is a Moscow lawyer and Navalny associate who has spent years pursuing a graft investigation of Putin intimate Yevgeny Prigozhin, the oligarch indicted by the U.S. last year for sponsoring the troll factory that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Considering that journalists have been killed looking into Prigozhin’s other businesses, Sobol’s doggedness recalls Eliot Ness’s pursuit of Al Capone in “The Untouchables” — except, unlike Ness, she has no knife, no gun, no badge, no law, and no federal government to aid her.
Now she is at the forefront of protests that have rocked Russia this summer after the regime disqualified opposition candidates (including her) from running in Sunday’s municipal elections. Her husband has been poisoned. Assailants have smeared her with black goo. Police dragged her from her office. Only a law forbidding the imprisonment of women with young children has kept her out of jail.
“I am always asked whether I am afraid, and I know that I should say, ‘Yes, I am,’” she tells Higgins. But, she says, “I am a fanatical kind of personality and am not afraid. I have always been a fan of the idea of fairness and, since childhood, have hated to see the strong abuse the weak.”
When regimes like Putin’s realize they cannot co-opt, corrupt, calumniate, cow, or coerce their opponents, what usually comes next is a decision to kill them. The risk that this could happen to Sobol or Navalny is terrifyingly real, not least because Putin has so many underworld friends willing to do his presumptive bidding without asking for explicit orders.
But Putin also needs to beware. Dictatorships fall not only when they have implacable opponents but also exemplary victims: Steve Biko in South Africa, Benigno Aquino in the Philippines, Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. Through their deaths, they awakened the living to the conviction that it was the regime that should die instead.
Today, Nemtsov continues to haunt the Kremlin. So do Sergei Magnitsky, Natalia Estemirova, Alexander Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya, to name just a few of the regime’s murdered adversaries. At some point, a growing list of victims will start to weigh heavily against Putin’s chances of staying in power. The death of a galvanizing opposition figure could be the tipping point.
Especially when the political-survival formula that has worked for Putin so far is coming unstuck. That formula —
- enrich your cronies,
- terrify your foes,
- placate the urban bourgeoisie with a decent standard of living, and
- propagandize everyone else with heavy doses of xenophobic nationalism
— no longer works so well in an era of
- Magnitsky sanctions,
- international ostracism,
- a persistently stagnant economy,
- middling oil prices,
- unpopular pension reforms, and
- dubious foreign adventures.
It works even less well when your domestic foes aren’t so easily terrified. As in Hong Kong, a striking feature of the Russian protests is the extent to which they are youth-driven — a vote of no-confidence in whatever the regime is supposed to offer. One recent survey found that the number of young Russians who “fully trust” Putin fell to 19 percent this year, from 30 percent last year. That’s not a good trend line for a man who aspires to die on his throne.
None of this guarantees that Putin can’t bounce back, not least if Donald Trump gives him the kinds of breaks, like readmission into the G7, he needs. And Robert Mugabe’s death this week at 95 is a reminder that tyrants can endure longer than anyone expects.
Still, for the first time in 20 years, the elements by which Putin falls are coming into place. Core among them is the courage of people like Sobol — a woman who, as Pericles said more than 2,400 years ago, “knows the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible, and then goes out undeterred to meet what is to come.”Related‘I Am Always Asked if I Am Afraid’: Activist Lawyer Takes On Putin’s RussiaHe Played by the Rules of Putin’s Russia, Until He Didn’t: The Story of a Murder