Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 October 2017

Emperor Trump, or Why Tillerson and the Generals Must Stay


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    “Still, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” — Paul Simon of Simon & Garfunkel, “The Boxer”

    “Let them eat cake!” Marie Antionette, on being told French subjects were starving for lack of bread.
The remains of the ancient Forum in Rome hold many statues on stone pedestals. They depict great emperors, generals and orators. But not all are what they first appear to be.

A good guide can tell you. Once alerted, you can see for yourself: chisel marks still visible in the stone after two millennia. Long ago, the names below some of the stone figures were scratched out and written over with the name of a later leader. Some stonecutters even changed the facial features or the clothing.

Sometimes you can tell without a guide just because things don’t look right. The basic idea was simple and direct: the later leader wanted to erase the earlier from history and immortalize his own name on the cheap.

So far, that seems to have been President Trump’s primary aim. His first and most pressing legislative priority was to “repeal and replace” his predecessor’s signal legislative achievement: expanded, affordable health insurance. The tipoff was that all the supposed “replacements” were absent, slipshod and/or downright harmful.

That seems to have been Trump’s party’s aim, too. Together, he, McConnell and Ryan tried three times to deprive millions of decent health insurance, just so they could erase our first black president’s big achievement. Small men, big chisels.

Now, under the pretext of delay, they are halfway to erasing DACA and depriving hundreds of thousands of innocent undocumented immigrants of life in the only country they have known well. Their efforts continue with a long regulatory push to bring back coal—a nineteenth-century fuel and the dirtiest known to science—just as global warming reaches its inflection point and goes exponential.

What’s the difference between empire and democracy? Does the answer differ for great powers like the United States and minor powers like England and France? When a great nation’s leaders seem to serve a single man’s boundless ego, and not the people’s welfare, how do you tell the difference? These are questions that every American citizen and pol ought to be asking.

We Americans always thought we were immune from the torments of empire. Our institutions and the “brilliance” of our Founders would protect us. Our Constitution would be our shield. After all, we are “exceptional.” Or so we thought.

Yet look again. Once we thought that our marvelous system would shield us from bad rulers like France’s Louis XIV, whom monarchy and the vagaries of heredity foisted upon the French people. Then we elected a man who could easily fit the mold of a bad monarch. Most of his acts and nearly all his public statements have had a single primary goal: feeding his planet-sized ego. As we pass the three-quarter mark of his first of four years, he has had few “achievements.” Virtually all he has done is try to erase his predecessor’s legacy. Doesn’t that sound a lot like empire?

At the same time, we have minority rule. Our current president won his office with a minority of the popular vote. To undermine public appreciation of that fact, he told the big lie that “millions” voted fraudulently. A majority of Republicans and over a third of Democrats believe his lie, despite all assertions of academics, investigators and news media to the contrary.

We also have minority rule in the Senate, with filibusters and Senate “holds,” and minority rule in the House under the so-called “Hastert rule.”

This is democracy? A recent, careful academic study of 1779 public issues showed that, insofar as concerns matters as important to ordinary people as single-payer health insurance and renewable energy, our government does what the elite and businesses want, not the people. Democracy in the sense of popular rule is down for the count in America.

As we contemplate our increasingly dismal future, we must look at two historical analogies for guidance. The first is the runup to the French Revolution. A society based on landed aristocracy preserved itself, in the face of increasing popular misery and unrest, by increasing its wealth and economic inequality and strengthening its boundless privilege. Marie Antionette’s famous quip, quoted above, reflects the attitude among the then-ruling class—an attitude for which she eventually lost her head.

Today, we Americans have our 1%. Our 0.1% are rich enough to control our pols, or at least their dominant party, with “contributions” for electoral “campaigns” of lies and massive propaganda. Those of us, including me, who would like to preserve our democracy receive dozens of daily requests for money to counter what the rich can put up.

Their power and privilege increase daily, but to what end? Do they work to increase the “general welfare,” suppress instability, and promote world peace? No, they work tirelessly to entrench their already boundless power and influence. And where insouciant foreigners impede them, they work to assert America’s unmatched military power to crush them.

And what about their “trickle-down” myth—the lie that increasing their own wealth and power will give the people good jobs? They use it to justify everything from taking away people’s health insurance to giving themselves massive tax breaks.

In the end, is “trickle-down” far from “let them eat cake”? The only real differences lie in the level of dismissiveness and today’s relentless effort to tell this lie with a straight face and support it with shill “research” by so-called “think tanks.”

The second and most important analogy is old Adolf. People often forget that Germany freely elected him chancellor the first time. How did he morph from a legitimately elected leader to Die Führer, absolute emperor of Nazi Germany? Could something similar happen here?

A moment’s thought reveals four key facilitators of that terrible transformation. First, bad leadership drives out good. Good, competent people find it hard to work with willful and capricious miscreants like Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump. So they leave or are fired. In later stages, the empire imprisons or executes them. Second, as the good depart government, the bad move in to fill the vacuum they leave. If clever, a would-be miscreant emperor doesn’t have to make a deliberate purge. He just has to be himself and wait.

The last two means of facilitating the slide to empire play out in the larger society, outside of government. Together the bad man at the top and the bad men who fill the vacuum whip up a bad, well-armed militia among the populace, prepared to subdue all opposition by threats and violence. In Nazi Germany, the Brown Shirts performed this function. Today in America, every well-armed right-wing militia or band of white supremacists is just waiting for a clear signal.

The final step involves the bankers and industrialists. They turn a blind eye to the terrible transformation as they try to preserve their wealth, power and privilege by cooperating with the tyrant. In so doing, they compromise with evil, as long as it doesn’t directly affect their interests. Often they bury their heads in the sand, pretending not to notice the stench of burning human flesh from the death camps.

How far down this road has Trump gone, and how far have we Americans gone with him?

Fortunately, not yet very far. A lot of bad people have left the Trump Administration at the top. They include Steve Bannon, Tom Price, Kellyanne Conway and Shaun Spicer (an innocent, not-too-bright dupe). But so far the only high-level good person to have been fired is James Comey, the former FBI director. This looks more like Keystone Kops than a Soviet-style purge.

Unfortunately, this unthreatening picture changes dramatically as you look further down the organization chart. There has been a massive exodus of good people from our government, in part voluntary and part involuntary. The exodus has been especially depressing at the career level, among civil-service bureaucrats and scientists, for example, in the State Department, EPA, FDA, NASA and Interior.

As is well known, even the second-level political positions are only about one-third filled. Is this a mere result of the general inexperience and incompetence of Trump and his crew? Is it a sign of dogmatic Republican downsizing of government? Or is it just a delay in filling government with right-wing ideologues once the initial purge is well under way?

The second step of filling the vacuum with sycophants or lackeys may just be getting started. Much remains to be seen.

Who will replace Tom Price at HHS, for example? Will anyone replace Steve Bannon as master strategist? If and when Trump fills the second- and third-level positions in each department or agency, what will the candidates be like? Will they be people of experience and independence? Or will they be sycophants and lackeys who, like Jeff Sessions, owe their national power and prominence to a “bolt of lightning” appointment by Trump?

The third step in slip-sliding toward empire is not yet very far along. We have a whole phalanx of armed groups waiting, watching and hoping for a chance to go active. But they have only small arms. They have some automatic weapons, machine guns and outdated howitzers, but they have no tanks, artillery or military aircraft or helicopters. In all our nation’s craziness about guns, our demagogic leaders have not seen fit to give them that.

In any real conflict, our armed forces—even our national guard—could make short work of the extremists. But there is one caveat. To do so, our legitimate forces would have to remain loyal and not defect.

Our right-wing militias derive much of their training and some of their weaponry from experience in our armed forces, where they have many ongoing contacts and friends. So our generals must keep eternally vigilant to instill loyalty and discipline among our warriors, not to mention fidelity to our nation’s values. Here the recent speech of Lt. Gen. Silveria to his flock at USAFA sets a good example.

Thus in our country, at this time, the final step for slip-sliding into empire is probably the most important. What will our elite and our great businesses do? Will they cooperate, compromise and be co-opted? Or will they use their massive and growing economic and political power to preserve what remains of democracy and popular rule in America?

To answer this question, we divide our businesses into three groups. The private ones (and some public ones) are run like personal or family fiefdoms; they might support the nascent empire for their own misperceived advantage. Among them are the Koch Brothers’ industries, the Mercer family’s, Rupert Murdoch’s media empire (including Fox), and Sheldon Adelson’s mostly-foreign gambling interests. These business leaders have “invested” their great wealth, and much time and energy, in turning our nation ever rightward. Whether through design, inattention, or ignorance, they may mistake Trump and his retinue for friends and give them a forward push in their slide toward empire.

The second group of businesses could be characterized, if they were individuals, as “nouveau riche.” They include the Five Giants of Silicon Valley (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft) and their fellow travelers (Twitter, Uber, etc.), large parts of the entertainment and media industries, and rising entrants in the fields of new energy and transportation, such as Tesla.

These firms have inestimable power by virtue of their market value, their cash hoards, their cultural impact, and their direct or indirect influence on communication and/or product distribution. But they have not yet found their “voice” in politics. So far, they have fallen in, somewhat desultorily, with the right-wing crowd, in search of what every business thinks it wants: less regulation, lower taxes, and a smaller bureaucracy to interfere less with business.

But slowly leaders of these businesses appear to be awakening. They sense the danger in large-scale domestic interracial and inter-religious conflict, in immigration rules that threaten to stop and even reverse the “brain drain” in their favor, and in Bannonist chaos that threatens economic stability and the steady march toward the future, based on real facts. Our political future—and not just the health of our economy—will depend on whether these businesses and their leaders also sense the danger in authoritarian government, suppressing science, and disseminating “fake news” and other propaganda, often using their own products and services. Facebook and Twitter, are you listening?

The third category of businesses comprises the “old-line” giants, such as Boeing, Caterpillar, Exxon, Ford, and GM. With them, the salient question is how quickly and well they adapt to changing circumstances, including global warming. Will they try to revive and enrich themselves by looking to the past, as Exxon so famously did during its long period of global-warming denial? Or will they accept the challenges of the future and seek to bring back the glories of their pasts by reviving a working democracy and a healthy economy in America? In short, will they look to the long term or, like Krupp and Thyssen, seek only short term advantage as their nation slides into empire and perhaps yet more needless wars?

Maybe worrying about the slide is premature today. We have several advantages over Germany in the 1930s. Inflation is under complete control, and deflation now may be structural. Our economy is recovering, albeit slowly, from the second-greatest financier-induced economic collapse in less than a century. Despite its many structural deficiencies, our democracy is stronger and better established than was Germany’s Weimar Republic before the Nazi onslaught. Our businesses have vastly more political and social power—for good or for ill—than Germany’s big industrial combines a century ago.

Nevertheless, much will depend on whether the leaders of our “corporate governance” have the foresight and the will to steer us away from empire. The entire Republican Party appears oblivious to the risk.

Much will also depend on the first step in the slide: the departure of good people from government. No doubt people like Rex Tillerson and Generals Kelly and Mattis think often about leaving. Every day on the job must be an exercise in self-restraint, patience, and anger management.

But make no mistake about it. Every day they stay, they are doing their country and our entire species a great service. However partially, tentatively and incompletely, they are bringing our nation’s basic values—not to mention competence, experience, real facts, and common sense—to bear on the day-to-day operation of our government. There is little fun in what they are doing, but they are doing all of us a great service.

The words of our Constitution are lifeless things. They can’t defend themselves or us without human intervention. Today, under the extreme rule of an utterly inexperienced, clueless and narcissistic “supreme leader,” the good folk who stay aboard are the sole sinews of democracy, tradition and common sense.

But lest we wax too sanguine, consider how quickly it all happened. Exactly one year ago, Trump seemed a caricature of a presidential candidate, destined for a big loss and historical oblivion. Now he is president. Although stymied by a deadlocked Congress and a badly divided nation, he has gone a long way to strike the name of his predecessor from the pedestal and chisel in his own. That act of an emperor could presage many more.

When revolutions come, they happen fast, and not always for the better. Just ask the French or the Russians. All of us must keep that in mind. We can take temporary comfort in the perseverance of men like Tillerson, Kelly and Mattis, who fight the daily battle for rational government. When they start to leave, or to be fired, we must all take notice and act.

If a critical mass of good people leaves without good replacements, the first step in the slide toward empire will be on hand. Under the perculiar circumstances in which we find ourselves, it will then be mostly up to our multinationals to save whatever might be left of American democracy.

Brief Update

Senator Susan Collins (R., Maine) just announced her intention to remain in the Senate, rather than to run for Governor of Maine, as many had expected. Her decision is welcome and in the spirit of the foregoing post. Although in the Senate, not in the Cabinet, Collins’ wisdom and vote have been the people’s shield. Without them, some 23 million fewer people would have health insurance today.

Like Tillerson and the Generals in the Cabinet, Senator Collins is in for a rough ride. She has to oppose the vast majority of her party, which has no idea what it wants to do but, like Steve Bannon, wants somehow to destroy the system in order to improve it.

For the good of the country, Collins will have to work with people she disagrees with and even despises. I hope that Bob Corker (R. Tenn.) makes a similar decision and reconsiders his retirement. In these dark days our nation needs every sane head it can muster, most especially those with experience and savvy. And the Republican Party needs members who understand the aims of our Constitution—forming a more perfect Union and promoting the general welfare—if only to manage the party’s orderly dissolution.

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