President Trump’s Iran policy over the weekend was both erratic and masterful. Doves and isolationists, panicked by what they see as the administration’s inexorable drift toward war, rejoiced when Mr. Trump announced that a military strike had been called back. Hawks criticized him for an Obama-like climb-down, but the announcement of cyberattacks and tightening sanctions helped smooth ruffled feathers.
The result? Mr. Trump more than ever dominates U.S. Iran policy; contending political factions within the administration and outside it must jockey for his support. And the more he talks and tweets about Iran, the less clear anyone is about his ultimate intentions.
None of this should be surprising. Consistently inconsistent on issues from trade with China and immigration from Mexico to Venezuela and North Korea and now Iran, Mr. Trump has been by turns more hawkish than any of his predecessors and dovish enough to thrill Sen. Rand Paul.
This president is first and foremost a showman. From his early real-estate days in 1970s New York through his time in reality television and into his third career in politics, Mr. Trump has understood and shrewdly deployed the power of fame. He has turned American politics into the Donald Trump Show, with the country and the world fixated on his every move, speculating feverishly about what will come next. Whether threatening on Twitter to rain down destruction from the sky, reining in the dogs of war at the last minute, or stage-managing high-stakes summit meetings, he is producing episodes of the most compelling reality show the world has ever seen.
Whether this helps or hurts American foreign policy is another question, but to turn intractable foreign-policy problems like North Korea’s nuclear program into fodder for the Trump publicity machine represents a triumph of marketing ingenuity if not of national strategy. Unresolved foreign-policy crises normally weigh on a president’s popularity; in Mr. Trump’s case, they become plotlines that provide drama and suspense. When Kim Jong Un gives him lemons, Mr. Trump sets up a lemonade stand.
The president’s critics continue to dismiss him as a cable-TV-obsessed, narcissistic know-nothing even as he dominates American and world politics. What they miss is that Mr. Trump not only possesses an instinctive ability to dominate media coverage; he is also a keen judge of power. The fashionable neighborhoods of Los Angeles are filled with world-famous celebrities who yearn for political power; Hollywood hates him so virulently in part because, like Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has transcended show business and transformed celebrity power into the real thing.
The key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power tells him Iran is weaker and the U.S. stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes. President Obama’s nuclear deal, from Mr. Trump’s perspective, was the result of a successful Iranian con game executed by clever Islamic Republic negotiators who ran circles around John Kerry. What Mr. Trump wants is a deal with Iran that matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries.
In pursuit of this goal he is combining two sets of strategies. At the level of public diplomacy he is engaging in his standard mix of dazzle and spin, shifting from bloodcurdling threats to gentle billing and cooing as need be. And at the level of power politics he is steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran: arming its neighbors and assuring them of his support, tightening sanctions, and raising the psychological pressure on the regime.
Mr. Trump well understands the constraints under which his Iran policy is working. Launching a new Middle East war could wreck his presidency. But if Iran starts the war, that’s another matter. A clear Iranian attack on American or even Israeli targets could unite Mr. Trump’s Jacksonian base like the attack on Pearl Harbor united America’s Jacksonians to fight Imperial Japan.
Americans did not want war in 1941. By levying crippling economic sanctions on Japan, President Roosevelt gave Tokyo the choice between retreating in Asia and launching a war against the U.S. Mr. Trump believes he can drive Iran into a similar corner—and that a weakened Iran will choose retreat over war.
Mr. Trump’s approach to American diplomacy horrifies an establishment that believes restraint, predictability and responsibility are the hallmarks of a global hegemon. Lesser powers can indulge in histrionic grandstanding, clownish antics, outrageous claims and public tantrums. The hegemon exhibits power by rising above such tawdry tricks.
What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.
Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.
.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.
.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.
.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.
Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.
.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.
When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.
A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.
.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.
Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt are experts in what makes democracies healthy — and what leads to their collapse. They warn that American democracy is in trouble.
.. And you note that there have been figures in American political history that could be regarded as dangerous demagogues and that they’ve been kept out of major positions of power because we’ve had gatekeepers – people who somehow controlled who got access to the top positions of power – presidential nominations, for example. You want to give us some examples of this?
LEVISKY: Sure. Henry Ford was an extremist, somebody who was actually written about favorably in “Mein Kampf.” He flirted with a presidential bid in 1923, thinking about the 1924 race, and had a lot of support, particularly in the Midwest. Huey Long obviously never had the chance to run for president. He was assassinated before that.
DAVIES: He was the governor of Louisiana, right?
LEVISKY: Governor of Louisiana, senator and a major national figure – probably rivaled really only by Roosevelt at the end of his life in terms of popularity. George Wallace in 1968, and again in 1972 before he was shot, had levels of public support and public approval that are not different – not much different from Donald Trump. So throughout the 20th century, we’ve had a number of figures who had 35, 38, 40 percent public support, who were demagogues, who didn’t have a strong commitment to democratic institutions, in some cases were quite antidemocratic, but who were kept out of mainstream politics by the parties themselves.
The parties never even came close to nominating any of these figures for president. What was different about 2016 was not that Trump was new or that he would get a lot of support but that he was nominated by major party. That’s what was new.
.. And so our behavior needs to be guided by informal rules, by norms. And we focus on two of them in particular – what we call mutual toleration, which is really, really fundamental in any democracy, which is simply that among the major parties, there’s an acceptance that their rivals are legitimate, that we may disagree with the other side. We may really dislike the other side. But at the end of the day, we recognize publicly – and we tell this to our followers – that the other side is equally patriotic, and that it can govern legitimately. That’s one.
The other one is what we call forbearance, which is restraint in the exercise of power. And that’s a little bit counterintuitive. We don’t usually think about forbearance in politics, but it’s absolutely central. Think about what the president can do under the Constitution. The president can pardon anybody he wants at any time. The president can pack the Supreme Court. If the president has a majority in Congress – which many presidents do – and the president doesn’t like the makeup of the Supreme Court, he could pass a law expanding the court to 11 or 13 and fill with allies – again, he needs a legislative majority – but can do it. FDR tried.
The president can, in many respects, rule by decree. If Congress is blocking his agenda, he can use a series of proclamations or executive orders to make policy at the margins of Congress. What it takes for those institutions to work properly is restraint on the part of politicians. Politicians have to underutilize their power. And most of our politicians – most of our leaders have done exactly that. That’s not written down in the Constitution.
.. You know, it’s interesting. I think one of the things that people say when people warn that Donald Trump or someone else could undermine American democracy and lead us to an authoritarian state is we’re different from other countries in the strength of our commitment to democratic institutions. And I’m interested to what extent you think that’s true.
.. The creed to which Daniel refers and the initial establishment of strong democratic norms in this country was founded in a homogeneous society, a racially and culturally homogeneous society. It was founded in an era of racial exclusion. And the challenge is that we have now become a much more ethnically, culturally diverse society, taken major steps towards racial equality, and the challenge is making those norms stick in this new context.
.. this is this great paradox – tragic paradox, really – that we recount in the book, which is that the consolidation of these norms, which we think are so important to democratic life of mutual toleration and forbearance, were re-established, really, at the price of racial exclusion. I mean, there was a way in which the end of Reconstruction – when Reconstruction was a great democratic effort and experiment – and it was a moment of democratic breakthrough for the United States where voting rights were extended to African-Americans. At the end of Reconstruction throughout the U.S. South, states implemented a variety of reforms to reduce the right to vote – essentially, to eliminate the right to vote for African-Americans. And so after the 1870s, American democracy was by no means actually really a full democracy. And we really think that American democracy came – really, it was a consolidated democracy really only after 1965.
.. It’s difficult to find a precise date. But we look at the 1990s and, particularly, the rise of the Gingrich Republicans. Newt Gingrich really advocated and taught his fellow Republicans how to use language that begins to sort of call into question mutual toleration, using language like betrayal and sick and pathetic and antifamily and anti-American to describe their rivals.
And Gingrich also introduced an era or helped introduce – it was not just Newt Gingrich – an era of unprecedented, at least during that period in the century, hardball politics. So you saw a couple of major government shutdowns for the first time in the 1990s and, of course, the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton, which was one of the first major acts – I mean, that is not forbearance. That is the failure to use restraint.
.. DAVIES: And did Democrats react in ways that accelerated the erosion of the norms?
LEVISKY: Sure. In Congress, there was a sort of tit-for-tat escalation in which, you know, one party begins to employ the filibuster. For decades, the filibuster was a very, very little-used tool. It was almost never used. It was used, on average, one or two times per Congressional session, per Congressional period – two-year period – so once a year. And then it gradually increased in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s.
.. It was both parties. So one party starts to play by new rules, and the other party response. So it’s a spiraling effect, an escalation in which each party became more and more obstructionist in Congress. Each party did – took additional steps either to block legislation, because it could, or to block appointments, particularly judicial appointments. You know, Harry Reid and the Democrats played a role in this in George W. Bush’s presidency – really sort of stepped up obstructionism.
.. So there’s this kind of spiral, you know, which is really ominous, where one side plays hardball by holding up nominations, holding up legislation in Congress, and there’s a kind of stalemate. And so the other side feels justified in using executive orders and presidential memos and so on. These also are – you know, have been utilized by Barack Obama. So there’s a way in which politicians, on both sides, are confronted with a real dilemma, which is, you know, if one side seems to be breaking the rules, and so why shouldn’t we? If we don’t, we’re kind of being the sucker here.
.. We think that the most egregious sort of pushing of the envelope began with Republicans, particularly in the 1990s and that the most egregious acts of hardball have taken place at the hands of Republicans. I’ll just list four –
- the partisan impeachment of Bill Clinton,
- the 2003 mid-district redistricting in Texas, which was pushed by Tom DeLay,
- the denial – essentially, the theft of a Supreme Court seat with the refusal to even take up the nomination of Merrick Garland in 2016 and
- the so-called legislative coup pulled off by the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina in 2016.
.. there’s two real things that Donald – President Trump has done that make us worry. One is his politicization of the rule of law or of law enforcement intelligence. And so you know, we – in a democracy, law enforcement intelligence have to be neutral. And what he has tried to do with the FBI, with the attorney general’s office is to try to turn law enforcement into a kind of shield to protect him and a weapon to go after his opponents. And this is something that authoritarians always do. They try to transform neutral institutions into their favor. And you know, he’s had some success of it. There’s been lots of resistance as well, though, from – you know, from Congress and from society and media reporting on this and so on. But this is one worrying thing.
A second worrying thing is – that you just described as well is his effort to – his continued effort to delegitimize media and the election process. So he – so one of the things that we worried about a lot in the book was the setting up – and we describe how – the process by which this happened – the setting-up of electoral commission to investigate election fraud.
The big social movements of the past half century were about maximizing freedom of choice.
- Right-wingers wanted to maximize economic choice and
- left-wingers lifestyle choice.
Anything that smacked of restraint came to seem like a bad thing to be eliminated.
We’ll call this worldview — which is all freedom and no covenant — naked liberalism (liberalism in the classic Lockean sense, not the modern progressive sense). The problem with naked liberalism is that it relies on individuals it cannot create.
Naked liberals of right and left assume that if you give people freedom they will use it to care for their neighbors, to have civil conversations, to form opinions after examining the evidence.
But if you weaken family, faith, community and any sense of national obligation, where is that social, emotional and moral formation supposed to come from? How will the virtuous habits form?
.. Freedom without covenant becomes selfishness. And that’s what we see at the top of society, in our politics and the financial crisis. Freedom without connection becomes alienation. And that’s what we see at the bottom of society — frayed communities, broken families, opiate addiction. Freedom without a unifying national narrative becomes distrust, polarization and permanent political war.
- .. Moreover, if you rob people of their good covenantal attachments, they will grab bad ones. First, they will identify themselves according to race. They will become the racial essentialists you see on left and right: The only people who can really know me are in my race. Life is a zero-sum contest between my race and your race, so get out.
- Then they resort to tribalism. This is what Donald Trump provides. As Mark S. Weiner writes on the Niskanen Center’s blog, Trump is constantly making friend/enemy distinctions, exploiting liberalism’s thin conception of community and creating toxic communities based on in-group/out-group rivalry.
Trump offers people cultural solutions to their alienation problem. As history clearly demonstrates, people will prefer fascism to isolation, authoritarianism to moral anarchy.
If we are going to have a decent society we’re going to have to save liberalism from itself. We’re going to have to restore and re-enchant the covenantal relationships that are the foundation for the whole deal. The crucial battleground is cultural and prepolitical.
In my experience, most people under 40 get this.
.. To address it, we’re going to need to confront it with another broad social movement
.. Many people my age and above seem clueless. Our elected leaders were raised in the heyday of naked liberalism and still talk as if it were 1994.
- .. Congressional Republicans think a successful tax bill will thwart populism.
- Mainstream Democrats think the alienation problem will go away if we redistribute the crumbs a bit more widely.