Because he’s just a bully with delusions of grandeur.
International crises often lead, at least initially, to surging support for a country’s leadership. And that’s clearly happening now. Just weeks ago the nation’s leader faced public discontent so intense that his grip on power seemed at risk. Now the assassination of Qassim Suleimani has transformed the situation, generating a wave of patriotism that has greatly bolstered the people in charge.
Unfortunately, this patriotic rallying around the flag is happening not in America, where many are (with good reason) deeply suspicious of Donald Trump’s motives, but in Iran.
In other words, Trump’s latest attempt to bully another country has backfired — just like all his previous attempts.
From his first days in office, Trump has acted on the apparent belief that he could easily intimidate foreign governments — that they would quickly fold and allow themselves to be humiliated. That is, he imagined that he faced a world of Lindsey Grahams, willing to abandon all dignity at the first hint of a challenge.
But this strategy keeps failing; the regimes he threatens are strengthened rather than weakened, and Trump is the one who ends up making humiliating concessions.
Remember, for example, when Trump promised “fire and fury” unless North Korea halted its nuclear weapons program? He claimed triumph after a 2018 summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader. But Kim made no real concessions, and North Korea recently announced that it might resume tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
Or consider the trade war with China, which was supposed to bring the Chinese to their knees. A deal has supposedly been reached, although details remain scarce; what’s clear is that it falls far short of U.S. aims, and that Chinese officials are jubilant about their success in facing Trump down.
Why does Trump’s international strategy, which might be described as winning through intimidation, keep failing? And why does he keep pursuing it anyway?
One answer, I suspect, is that like all too many Americans, Trump has a hard time grasping the fact that other countries are real — that is, that we’re not the only country whose citizens would rather pay a heavy price, in money and even in blood, than make what they see as humiliating concessions.
Ask yourself, how would Americans have reacted if a foreign power had assassinated Dick Cheney, claiming that he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis on his hands? Don’t answer that Suleimani was worse. That’s beside the point. The point is that we don’t accept the right of foreign governments to kill our officials. Why imagine that other countries are different?
Of course, we have many people in the diplomatic corps with a deep knowledge of other nations and their motivations, who understand the limits of intimidation. But anyone with that kind of understanding has been excluded from Trump’s inner circle.
Now, it’s true that for many years America did have a special leadership position, one that sometimes involved playing a role in reshaping other countries’ political systems. But here’s where Trump’s second error comes in: He has never shown any sign of understanding why America used to be special.
Part of the explanation, of course, was raw economic and military power: America used to be just much bigger than everyone else. That is, however, no longer true. For example, by some key measures China’s economy is significantly bigger than that of the United States.
Even more important, however, was the fact that America was something more than a big country throwing its weight around. We always stood for something larger.
That doesn’t mean that we were always a force for good; America did many terrible things during its reign as global hegemon. But we clearly stood for global rule of law, for a system that imposed common rules on everyone, ourselves included. The United States may have been the dominant partner in alliances like NATO and bodies like the World Trade Organization, but we always tried to behave as no more than first among equals.
Oh, and because we were committed to enforcing rules, we were also relatively trustworthy; an alliance with America was meaningful, because we weren’t the kind of country that would betray an ally for the sake of short-term political convenience.
Trump, however, has turned his back on everything that used to make America great. Under his leadership, we’ve become nothing more than a big, self-interested bully — a bully with delusions of grandeur, who isn’t nearly as tough as he thinks. We abruptly
- abandon allies like the Kurds;
- we honor war criminals; we
- slap punitive tariffs on friendly nations like Canada for no good reason. And, of course,
- after more than 15,000 lies, nothing our leader and his minions say can be trusted.
Trump officials seem taken aback by the uniformly negative consequences of the Suleimani killing: The Iranian regime is empowered, Iraq has turned hostile and nobody has stepped up in our support. But that’s what happens when you betray all your friends and squander all your credibility.
Not surprisingly, American billionaires have dismissed recent wealth-tax proposals as an affront to the entrepreneurial spirit to which they attribute their massive wealth. But the ultra-rich never would have their great wealth without legal subsidies from the state and reliable enforcement by the courts.
NEW YORK – Economic inequality has moved to the top of the political agenda in many countries, including free-market poster children like the United States and the United Kingdom. The issue is mobilizing the left and causing headaches on the right, where wealth has long been viewed as worthy of celebration, not as demanding justification.
But today’s concentrations of wealth do demand justification. In 2018, Forbes listed three billionaires among its top ten most powerful people in the world. Next to the heads of states of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one finds not only the Pope, but also Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and Google co-founder Larry Page. All three owe their power not to public position or spiritual influence but to private wealth.
As contenders in the Democratic primary for the 2020 US presidential election, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have promised to impose new taxes on the super-wealthy. Warren’s wealth-tax proposal – a levy of 2% on every dollar of net worth above $50 million, rising to 6% for fortunes greater than $1 billion – has ruffled billionaires’ feathers. According to Gates, he has paid more in taxes than almost anybody – some $10 billion. And while he would consider it “fine” if that figure had been doubled to $20 billion, he believes a much higher tax would threaten the incentive system that led him (and others) to invest in the first place.
For his part, Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the Bloomberg news empire, a former mayor of New York City, and now a Democratic presidential contender himself, argues that a wealth tax might be unconstitutional, and that it would turn the US into the likes of Venezuela. And not to be outdone, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that taxing billionaires’ wealth would lead to worse outcomes than leaving it where it is, implying that the ultra-wealthy know better than the peoples’ elected representatives how tax revenues should be spent.
Note the sense of entitlement underlying each of these reactions. Each man’s billions, we are told, belong to him; he earned the money and should therefore get to decide how to spend it, be it on philanthropic projects, taxes, or neither. The billionaires tell us that they are willing to pay a fair share of taxes, but that there is some undefined threshold where the incentives to innovate and invest will be thrown into reverse. At that point, apparently, the ultra-wealthy will go on strike, leaving the rest of us worse off.
But this perspective ignores the fact that accumulated wealth is largely a product of law, and by implication of the state and the people who constitute it. As economist Thomas Piketty demonstrates in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the rich today hold most of their wealth in financial assets, which are simply legally protected promises to receive future cash flows. Take away legal enforceability, and all that remains is hope, not a secure asset.
Moreover, the private empires over which today’s billionaires preside are organized as legally chartered corporations, which makes them creatures of the law, not of nature. The corporate form shields the personal wealth of the founders and other shareholders from the corporation’s creditors. It also facilitates the diversification of risk within a company, by allowing discrete pools of assets to be created, each with its own set of creditors who are barred from making claims on another asset pool, even though the parent company’s management controls all of them.
Further, the company’s own shares can be used as currency when acquiring other companies. When Facebook bought WhatsApp, it covered $12 billion of the $16 billion purchase price with its own shares, paying only $4 billion in cash. And, as with Facebook, corporate law can be used to cement control by founders and their affiliates through dual-class share structures that grant them more votes than everyone else. As such, they need not fear elections or takeovers of any kind.
Finally, companies whose assets take the form of intellectual property (IP) and other intangibles tend to rely even more on the helping hand of the law. As of 2018, 84% of the market capitalization of the S&P 500 was held in such intangible assets. It takes a legal intervention to turn ideas, skills, and knowhow – which are free to be shared by anybody – into exclusive property rights that are enforced by the full power of the state. And in recent years, Microsoft and other US tech companies have boosted their earning power significantly by promoting US-style IP rules around the world through the World Trade Organization’s body for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).
To be sure, there are good reasons for states to adopt laws that empower private agents to reap the rewards of organizing businesses and developing new products and services. But let’s call a spade a spade and a (legal) subsidy a subsidy. While Bezos, Bloomberg, Gates, and Zuckerberg may well be savvy entrepreneurs, they also have benefited on a massive scale from the helping hand of legislatures and courts around the world. This hand is more contingent than the invisible one immortalized by Adam Smith, because its vitality depends on a widely shared belief in the rule of law. The erosion of that belief, not a tax, poses the greatest threat to billionaires’ wealth.
Elite Trump circles
Pitching a gas deal
Backing Giuliani’s efforts
In a Democratic debate last week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that to deal with the migration crisis at the U.S. southern border, “we’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Why are people walking 2,000 miles to a strange country where they don’t know the language?’ ”
It’s a sad day when a septuagenarian U.S. senator can’t grasp the reason for Central American poverty.
The migrants were born in countries that lack rule of law, respect for private property, and economic freedom. The nations of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—instead have pursued Sanders-style social justice as a path to prosperity. It’s hardly a surprise their citizens enjoy neither.
Environmental mobs close down mining projects and chase away investors. Activists block roads to shake down the government; they invade farms and steal electricity with impunity. Well aware that upward economic mobility is nearly impossible, Central Americans vote with their feet.
The prospects for change aren’t promising. Ideas matter, and for generations the global left—mostly from Europe and the U.S.—has treated the region as its sandbox, where it goes to play with policies that don’t sell at home. Central America is macerated in the collectivist bunk of this elite, who promise utopia and deliver special-interest mercantilism and corrupt statism.
This is one reason Guatemalans were freaked out Friday when their Prensa Libre newspaper reported that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would lead a congressional delegation to Guatemala City this week “to meet with civil society, businessmen and other sectors.” Her office declined to comment for security reasons. But if she is going, it is worth asking why she would visit in the week before the Aug. 11 presidential runoff election.
The election is an important milestone in Guatemalan politics, and the deciding factor may be urban turnout. Despite a solid lead in a recent poll, center-right Vamos Party candidate Alejandro Giammattei isn’t a shoo-in. If voters in the big cities stay home, social democrat Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope Party could prevail.
Ms. Torres was first lady during the presidency of Alvaro Colom (2008-12) but divorced him in 2011 in an attempt to circumvent a constitutional prohibition on consecutively following a spouse into the executive office. The high court didn’t buy it, but she did make an unsuccessful run in 2015.
Ms. Torres is a left-wing populist. Her party, which is known as UNE, dominates rural and small-town Guatemala. Pocketbook issues are a priority in these parts and machine politics are the name of the game. By promising things like child and elder subsidies and tin roofs, UNE maintains a solid base.
Mr. Giammattei is by no means the first choice of Guatemalan conservatives. That designation goes to Zury Ríos, daughter of the late Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who held the presidency for less than 17 months after a 1982 coup. Ms. Ríos is a popular politician and made her own run for the presidency in 2015. This time around, the constitutional court blocked her candidacy because of her father’s role as a military dictator.
Yet Mr. Giammattei ran the prison system and pledges a tough-on-crime agenda. He says he will bring investment to the country. With UNE controlling Congress and much of the judicial branch, voters may prefer an executive check on social-democrat power.
Both candidates oppose the immigration-cooperation framework agreement that President Jimmy Morales signed with President Trump in July. The accord is short on detail, but as protocols are added, the expectation is that it will oblige Salvadorans and Hondurans who try to move north to the U.S. to apply for asylum in Guatemala. Speculation was running wild last week that Mrs. Pelosi’s visit was partly aimed at derailing the agreement for domestic American political reasons.
Both candidates promise to fight corruption, but voter apathy implies a high degree of public skepticism. The United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—a k a CICIG—was supposed to bring about the rule of law. But somewhere along the way the left realized it could use CICIG, accountable to no one, to grab power without the fuss of elections. A judicial reign of terror, designed to silence opposition, ended only in January, when President Morales kicked CICIG out of the country.
The media ran news stories for nearly a decade that read like CICIG press releases. But in March the Guatemalan attorney general petitioned the court to arrest CICIG’s closet Guatemalan collaborator, former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, on corruption charges. As the country’s top prosecutor, she ought to have protected civil liberties. Instead she permitted the commission’s abuses while it refused calls to investigate her. Guatemalans are still trying to recover confidence in their justice system.
Ms. Aldana, who had presidential aspirations, says she is being politically persecuted. But she has fled the country rather than face trial. If voters are uninspired by their political class, and afraid of help from Democrats, who could blame them?