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 this fascinating look at the “alpha male,” primatologist Frans de Waal explores the privileges and costs of power while drawing surprising parallels between how humans and primates choose their leaders. His research reveals some of the unexpected capacities of alpha males — generosity, empathy, even peacekeeping — and sheds light on the power struggles of human politicians. “Someone who is big and strong and intimidates and insults everyone is not necessarily an alpha male,” de Waal says.
On his recent visit to Europe, he managed to convey once again his contempt for America’s European allies, and to demonstrate that he places more value on his own personal comfort than on the sacrifices that US soldiers have made in the past.
The trip itself cost millions of taxpayer dollars, yet Trump chose to skip a key ceremony honoring US war dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because it was raining.
The White House offered up a cloud of unconvincing excuses for Trump’s absence, but other world leaders were not deterred by the fear of a few raindrops, and neither were past presidents Obama, Clinton, Bush, or Kennedy back in their day.
By choosing to stay warm and dry in his hotel room while other world leaders acknowledged the heroism of those who fought and died for freedom, Trump gave the concept of “American exceptionalism” a whole new meaning.And then, instead of marching with other European leaders at a ceremony marking the end of World War I, Trump showed up lateand on his own and even missed the symbolic tolling of a bell marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice. (In a revealing coincidence, Vladimir Putin arrived on his own as well.)
Overall, Trump seemed intent on proving that while the obligations of being president might force him to go on such trips, he doesn’t have to behave himself while he’s there.
For example, Trump is correct to accuse China of engaging in a variety of predatory trade practices and of failing to live up to its World Trade Organization commitments. He is also right when he complains that Europe has neglected its own defenses and relies too much on American protection (though he still seems to think NATO is a club with membership dues)..
He is hardly the first US official to criticize European defense preparations but being unoriginal doesn’t make it wrong.
Trump is also correct in his belief that Europe, Russia, and the United States would be better off if the divisions that presently divide them could be bridged or at least alleviated.
It would be better for Europe if Russia withdrew from Ukraine, stopped trying to intimidate the Baltic states, and stopped murdering former spies in foreign countries.
It would be good for Russia if Western sanctions were lifted and it no longer had to worry about open-ended NATO expansion. And it would be good for the United States if Russia could be pulled away from its increasingly close partnership with China.
For that matter, Trump wasn’t wrong to see North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs as a serious problem that called for creative diplomacy.
The real problem is that Trump has no idea what to do about any of these issues, and he seems incapable of formulating a coherent approach to any of them. To the extent that he does have an actual policy toward Europe, for example, it is the exact opposite of what the United States ought to be doing.
Trump’s broad approach to Europe is one of “divide and rule.” He’s called the European Union a “foe” of the United States, and he has backed a number of the political forces that are now roiling the Continent and threatening the EU’s long-term future.
He endorsed Brexit, expressed his support for Marine Le Pen in France, and thinks well of illiberal leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary and Andrzej Duda of Poland. Why? Because he thinks dividing Europe into contending national states will allow the larger and more powerful United States to bargain with each European state separately rather than face all of them together, and thus secure better deals for itself.
This approach might be termed “Neanderthal realism.” Playing “divide and rule” is a good idea when dealing with real enemies, but it makes no sense to sow division among countries with whom one has generally friendly relations and close economic ties, and when their collective support might be needed in other contexts.
This approach also runs counter to Trump’s stated desire to reduce US security commitments to Europe and to get Europe to take on greater responsibility for its own defense.
If you really want the United States to get out of the business of protecting Europe, you should also want Europe to be tranquil, capable, prosperous, and united after the United States withdraws. Why? So that Washington doesn’t have to worry about developments there and can focus its attention on other regions, such as Asia.
A Europe roiled by xenophobia, resurgent hyper-nationalism, and persistent internal wrangling wouldn’t be to America’s advantage; it would be just another problem area we’d have to keep an eye on.
Nor would a divided Europe be of much use in addressing any of the other problems on America’s foreign-policy agenda.
Why doesn’t Trump see this? Possibly because he is reflexively relying on the same tactics that brought him to the White House.Trump’s political success in the United States rests on his skill at picking fights with others, whether it is rival Republican candidates, Democrats of all kinds, the media, Meryl Streep, Jeff Bezos, or anybody else who disagrees with him. His goal is either to bully opponents into backing down or use the spat to rev up his base.It has worked tolerably well here in the United States, because a lot of Americans are still angry or fearful and Trump is both shameless and adept at fueling those emotions. This same instinct leads him to behave abominably abroad: Insulting British Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, deriding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada as “Very dishonest & weak” or derisively tossing Starburst candies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting of G-7 leaders.
.. The problem, of course, is that the boorish behavior and conflict-stoking policies tend to backfire on the world stage.
.. Trump’s bullying bluster didn’t win big trade concessions from Canada, Mexico, or South Korea; the shiny “new” trade deals Trump negotiated with them were nearly identical to the old arrangements and in some ways inferior to them.
And given how Trump has treated America’s allies, why would May, Merkel, Macron, Abe, or Trudeau do him (or the United States) any favors? The declining US image abroad compounds this problem, as foreign leaders know their own popularity will suffer if they help Trump in any way.
.. Trump’s personal conduct is not even the biggest problem. Arguably, an even bigger issue is the strategic incoherence of his entire transactional approach. His overarching objective is to try to screw the best possible deal out of every interaction, but this approach instead makes it more difficult for the United States to achieve its most important foreign-policy goals.
.. Threatening trade wars with allies in Europe or Canada makes little sense from a purely economic perspective, for example, and it has made it harder for the United States to address the more serious challenge of China’s trade policies.
If Trump were as worried about China’s trade infractions as he claims to be, he would have lined up Europe, Japan, and other major economic actors and confronted China with a united front. Similarly, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and threatening allies with secondary sanctions not only raises doubts about America’s judgment (because the deal was working, and the Europeans know it); it just fuels further resentment at America’s shortsighted bullying.
.. It is increasingly clear that Trump was never the brilliant businessman he claimed to be; he got most of his wealth from his father using various shady tax dodges, and the Trump Organization may have been heavily dependent on illegal activities like money laundering.
.. We should focus less on his personal antics and inadequacies and focus more on his inability to formulate effective policies, even on issues where his instincts are in fact mostly correct.
.. Sadly, the 45th US president possesses a world-class ability to get things wrong, even when he’s right.
As long as I’ve covered politics, Republicans have been trying to scare me.
Sometimes, it has been about gays and transgender people and uppity women looming, but usually it has been about people with darker skin looming.
They’re coming, always coming, to take things and change things and hurt people.
A Democratic president coined the expression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But it was Republicans who flipped the sentiment and turned it into a powerful and remorseless campaign ethos: Make voters fear fear itself.
The president has, after all, put a tremendous effort into the sulfurous stew of lies, racially charged rhetoric and scaremongering that he has been serving up as an election closer. He has been inspired to new depths of delusion, tweeting that “Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not! Vote Republican.”
He has been twinning the words “caravan” and “Kavanaugh” in a mellifluous poem to white male hegemony. Whites should be afraid of the migrant caravan traveling from Central America, especially since “unknown Middle Easterners” were hidden in its midst, an alternative fact that he cheerfully acknowledged was based on nothing.
The word “Kavanaugh” is meant to evoke the fear that aggrieved women will hurtle out of the past to tear down men from their rightful perches of privilege.
Naomi Wolf told Bill Clinton, and later Al Gore, they should present themselves as the Good Father, strong enough to protect the home (America) from invaders.
.. Six years before Trump’s win, the state’s voters elected conservative populist Scott Walker governor. With the help of a Republican-controlled legislature, Walker waged an unprecedented assault on public employee unions in the state and later signed a right to work bill, which undermined private-sector unions.
.. he would go along to these small towns and speak to people about this danger of corporate influence on their lives.
DAVIES: And how far into the 20th century did this sort of progressive trend hold in Wisconsin? And I note that Senator Joe McCarthy – probably the most notorious anti-communist of the century – came from that state.
.. he undertook a pretty radical approach to dealing with public employee unions. What did he propose to do?
KAUFMAN: Well, he proposed to all but strip them of collective bargaining rights, which is their ability to speak as a collective voice around wages, benefits and other workplace concerns, workplace safety, basically, reducing their ability to act as a collective voice. He exempted the police and fire department unions. Some would say that cynically because some of these unions supported him.
.. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democratic state senator – he said, the one thing that was non-negotiable was the automatic dues checkoff.
.. He stoked resentment against the public workers. It was clear in his inaugural address in 2011. He said the public employees can no longer be the haves, and the taxpayers can no longer be the have nots. Privately, he even went further.
There’s a famous recording of him speaking to a billionaire donor where she says when will we become a completely red state? When will we become a right-to-work state? She conflated the two. And he answered, you know, have you seen what we’re going to do with the public employees? And then he went on. He said, you know, because you use divide and conquer. What he meant by that was he was going to first attack the public employees. And then several years later, he instituted a right-to-work law against the private sector employees. Now you have a state that went from 14 percent union density when he was elected to 8 percent.
.. in 2016, the presidential election arrives in Wisconsin, as it does in the rest of the country. The Democratic primary – Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton by 13 points. Why did Hillary Clinton have trouble connecting to Democratic voters in Wisconsin?
.. she has never been a close ally of labor. Wisconsin progressives were deeply wounded by the attacks on labor. She was a former corporate board member of Walmart, a notoriously anti-union company. And she also supported for many, many years free trade agreements, like NAFTA and the China’s membership into the World Trade Organization, that have really impacted the industrial Midwest in such a profound way. People are aware that you can drive by a factory, and they’ll say, oh, this factory moved to Mexico and then went on to Vietnam. They are very keenly aware. Other factors played a role – automation and so on – but these agreements really impacted particularly the industrial Midwest – Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio.
DAVIES: And particularly unionized workers, I think.
.. I think people forget that Donald Trump’s message during the campaign – he also twinned his message of resentment – racial resentment – with a defense of the welfare state. You can look at his speeches. He staged five huge rallies in Wisconsin. He almost always mentioned, we’ve got to protect Social Security and Medicare, and he railed against these free trade agreements. So there was a different kind of Republican message that resonated with a certain sector of the population enough to put him over the top, coupled with Hillary Clinton’s noncampaigning and non-effort in these places, and it really impacted the race.
.. There was frankly a weak Democratic opposition to his message, and there was a stoking of resentment in a time of economic insecurity. That is very powerful. And they weren’t – people weren’t being offered an alternative – a very compelling one anyway.
.. Another example is gerrymandering. In 2012 election, Wisconsin Democrats won an aggregate of almost 200,000 more votes than the Republicans, and yet they lost seats. That…
DAVIES: You’re talking about in the state legislature.
KAUFMAN: In the state legislature in the assembly, and that leads to demoralizing (laughter) of your party. I mean, it’s hard to get candidates to run when they know they’re going to be defeated if the district is just so heavily drawn to favor the Republicans where – and the Democratic seats are – you know, they’ll routinely win more than 70 percent of the vote. So they pack them in. And that case was, you know, brought to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s the first partisan gerrymandering case to go to the Supreme Court in more than three decades because the federal court agreed with the plaintiffs – the Democrats – that their rights had been denied because it was so extreme.