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

16 August 2017

What Awaits Us: the “Prophecy” of Cause and Effect


[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
Introduction
1. Further social disintegration
2. The tides of time
3. Loss of moral suasion
4. Global instability
5. Trump’s personal fate
Conclusion

Introduction

“Mene, mene tekel, upharsin.” (“Your days are numbered, your kingdom and your people.”)—the “writing on the wall” in dissolute King Belshazzar’s palace

King Belshazzar and his epoch had prophecy. Some people could see farther than others, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t ) explain why. Foresight and understanding of cause and effect were rare gifts at that time. So our species attributed them to divine or magical forces. We had “prophets,” not “experts.”

Today we have much greater understanding. We have Science. We have polls. We have historical analogies. We have detailed analysis of five thousand years of recorded history and even more careful scrutiny of recent events.

We have tens of thousands of highly educated people, whom we call “experts,” who make it their business—their careers and their lives—to see around corners and predict the future, not by magic or divinity, but by understanding cause and effect. Some of our pundits, endowed with this facility, print “prophecies” in our daily newspapers. Not all of them strike home, but many of them do. We have Reason.

So it’s not hard to predict the immediate future of these United States. We have enough writing on the wall right now.

We have over six months of President Trump. We can see him clearly as a puerile narcissist, concerned only with his own narrow, immediate personal advantage and self-image. He’s incapable of Reason, delayed gratification (which psychologists tell us is the best predictor of children’s success, even more than intelligence), sustained attention to anything, or empathy. He’s without a doubt the most corrupt and unfit president in our short history. After six months, we can see his trail of utter failure, devoid of solid accomplishment even by his own and his party’s lights, except installing the right-wing ideologue Neil Gorsuch on our Supreme Court.

Unlike the parliamentary democracies that served as our Founders’ models, we have no way of getting rid of Trump without a palace revolt or a drawn-out, contentious legal proceeding, called “impeachment,” for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Our Founders, otherwise brilliant, left us no easy means to correct an obvious electoral mistake.

So what awaits us? The immediate future is not hard to see. There are a few consequences that are obvious and inevitable; to those we first turn. Then there are contingent consequences, which depend on how we, our friends and allies, and our adversaries and enemies, respond to or exploit our current indisposition.

Let’s take them in turn. The first three consequences below are virtually inevitable, at least as long as Trump stays in office. They are the immediate consequences of our vast electoral mistake, plus his self-evident inability to grow, change or learn. The rest of the consequences are contingent on events, but are almost equally inevitable under stated contingencies. Welcome to “prophecy,” twenty-first-century style.

1. Further social disintegration.

Never since our Civil War has social cohesion been so weak among us and social discord so strong. But there’s a difference. Then our discord revolved around two issues only: slavery and preservation of our Union. Today it is multidimensional.

To be sure, the same two issues underlie a lot of our discord today. Slavery is gone, but white supremacy, racism and bossism are not. Trump exploits and relies on them, again and again. They motivate his “base”—those he turns to every day, lacking the vision or self-confidence to reach beyond them.

After vacillating, Trump returned to his “base” in reaction to the unrest and domestic terrorism in Charlottesville, VA. He falsely equated white supremacists and neo-Nazis, on the one hand, with their at times unruly opponents on the other. He thus revealed utter ignorance of the four-century-long struggle of people of color for equal treatment as human beings in America. Equally stunning in ignorance was his falsely equating Washington and Jefferson, who died long before the lead-up to our Civil War, and men like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, who rebelled, seceded and made war against our nation in the lost cause of slavery.

That our supreme leader should be so careless with history is appalling. That a New Yorker should take such an explicitly Confederate stand is the height of geographic and cultural apostasy. Whether out of ignorance or malice, Trump is taking us back 150 years, to themes and attitudes that our nation fought its most bloody war to inter forever. Abraham Lincoln must be turning in his grave.

But our discord today has much greater reach. Today we disagree about almost everything. We disagree about states’ rights, guns, abortion, economics, safety nets, taxes, welfare, health care, and foreign policy, among other things. We disagree about the facts of each others’ lives. We disagree about who won the popular vote and who voted illegally.

We could barely decide whether or not to throw 23 million people out on the street, without practical access to medical care, in the richest nation on Earth. We can’t decide whether Kim Jong Un is just a misguided youth who can be reformed, or a dangerous Hitler clone who threatens nuclear destruction and world peace. We can’t even agree that the foreign nation that helped give us Trump as president—Russia—bears watching, even though it (as its own Rush Limbaugh clone said recently [set timer at 2:20]) is the only nation on Earth that (at least right now) could reduce us to radioactive ash.

How can we be sure that social disintegration will increase? Because our president encourages and promotes it at every turn. Maybe not every Tweet, but the vast majority of them, contains clear insults expressed or implied. Like clockwork, Trump regularly insults minorities, his political adversaries, and the journalists who try to report accurately what he does and says. The insults appear in the language of a five-year-old, using words like “bad people,” “losers” and “sad.”

Have we forgotten that people don’t respond well to insults? Isn’t that diplomacy and politics 1A? The consequences are legion. Our people don’t like each other, don’t trust each other, and won’t give each other a chance. They have divided into cliques and clans like gangs in a dysfunctional high school. The disease infects our voters, our Congress and even our leading industrial competitors.

We are a nation falling apart at our many seams, unable to cooperate. And we will continue to fall apart at least as long as the primary source of infection, our own president, stays where and who he is. (Our GOP and our vicious propaganda organs, such as Fox and Rush, are also to blame; but they’re a longer-term problem.)

2. The tides of time.

There is an intrinsic inertia in human affairs and in history. The world is a big place, with many people and many cross-currents. The tides come in, and they go out. Like tides in the ocean, all big changes take time.

Physicists call it “hysteresis,” at least when speaking of ferromagnetism. President Obama likened it to turning a huge ocean liner around. But whatever simple analogy you use, one thing is constant: major trends in human affairs take time to change.

The GOP exploited this simple fact of life brilliantly to disparage Obama and win political power. They knew that the Crash of 2008 and its aftermath were severe body blows to our economy, our political cohesion, and our national self-image. They knew it would take about a decade for us to recover, which it has.

So they blamed it all on Obama, although he tried hard to fix it, and although most of it arose from the GOP’s own negligent and pernicious policies. They relied on racism, distrust of our first “black” president, and current attribution to the guy in power to make the blame stick.

But notwithstanding the blame, President Obama’s policies were good, steady and sound. Over the near-decade of his presidency, he turned the ocean liner around. He and the Fed curbed the banks that had caused it all. He bailed out our auto industry, a mainstay of our national economy, saving millions of jobs. The bailouts of banks and car companies may have been contrary to every tenet of capitalism, human morality and moral hazard, but they had a salubrious practical effect: no second Great Depression came. Our and the global economy slowly, laboriously and painfully recovered, as and when most economists expected.

Only recently, with slow, steady and slowly increasing economic growth, has this fact become self-evident. But guess who gets credit? Guess who takes credit, with self-serving propaganda repeated endlessly by Fox and Rush? Trump does.

But taking credit for the tides is a losing proposition when you don’t control them and don’t have a clue what drives them. Trump’s policies all point in the wrong direction. He’s destroying what little remains of our social cohesion. He’s exacerbating industrial and financial concentration, economic inequality, and abuse of power. He’s allowing the bosses needlessly and carelessly to pollute our air, water, soil and food. He’s aggrandizing the power and influence of clueless, selfish people like the Koch Brothers. He’s increasing the risk of international conflict, especially with Russia, North Korea and China, with inconsistent and incompetent responses to real threats.

Under Trump, the upward force of the rocket engines that Obama’s policies fueled is spent. The forces of gravity are augmented. What goes up must come down, for all we have now is upward momentum to counter gravity. Without a change in leadership, gravity will take over, sooner rather than later.

Our Yankee global leadership, much of which already has passed to Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping, will vanish utterly. The world will pass by our gasoline-driven cars and fossil-fuel dependent, dilapidated infrastructure. Our excellent companies’ upward trajectory will stall in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion. Our stock market will crash. Unemployment will increase. Exports will slow.

We will be left behind in a world engaged in massive energy conversion, without us, and tiring of our simplistic ideology. More practical, less ideological nations like Brazil, China, Germany and India will replace us as the motive forces of human progress.

All this will happen within the next decade, unless we change soon and hard.

3. Loss of moral suasion

Throughout our short history, we Yanks have claimed the moral high ground. We call ourselves “exceptional” and think of ourselves as morally superior. But how can we square that self-image with the constant stream of insults and lies coming out of our White House?

In the remarkable movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a retired man drifts away from his long-time wife, telling her “All you give out is this endless negativity . . .” Isn’t that just what Trump does? It certainly seems so.

No nation can capture the moral high ground when its supreme leader exudes the relentless negativity, accusation, selfishness, arrogance and narcissism of Donald Trump. The world will not take long to see this, and the moral suasion that long underlay our “soft” power will soon disappear.

In the eyes of the world, if not our own, we will become like every other nation on Earth, self-seeking, self-aggrandizing, hypocritical and subject to skepticism, if not fear and distrust. Our “shining city on a hill” will become just another smelly, polluted village.

These three results are consequences of the “leadership” of Donald Trump, his twisted and irremediable character, and the ascendancy of the resentful, surly and hateful hordes whom he represents, his “base.” They will prevail more certainly and more strongly the longer he remains in office.

Already these results are virtually inevitable, at least in the short term. But there are other consequences that depend on unforeseeable contingencies and circumstances. All are different and some are worse. Let’s take a look.

4. Global instability

When a great empire falters and stumbles, all of humanity can suffer. We speak of the “Dark Ages” following the fall of Rome. They lasted about a millennium, from the sacking of Rome by Alaric in 410 to the Renaissance in Europe. That sort of dark age may follow the United States’ decline, depending on how fast and how far it goes.

The inertia and hysteresis inherent in human affairs will not let that happen overnight. There will be a gradual but steady move downward. Precursors may be the continuing dissolution of Europe, after Brexit, in the absence of American protection and support. Other great powers will nibble around the edges of eroding American power. Russia will nibble in Eastern Europe and South Asia. China will nibble in the South China Sea and in South and East Asia.

In the nuclear age, the risk of conflict between nations going nuclear will increase, especially as Russia becomes tempted to undo the Soviet Union’s dissolution and “protect” its expatriates in the Baltics and its “near abroad,” including Ukraine. Kim Jong Un will pose a close second (to Russia) for nuclear conflict, as might Iran if its nuclear deal with the US is abrogated or ends without follow-on. The risk of the nuclear Armageddon that our species narrowly avoided in October 1962 will recur and likely will remain high for the foreseeable future.

China will likely avoid risking nuclear conflict, and perhaps any serious conflict, as it has for the past several decades, since its parts in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. It will expand its influence throughout the underdeveloped world primarily through trade and diplomacy. If it can cure its perennial corruption, Brazil may become the dominant power in Latin America.

These events may not be all bad. If China or Brazil can curb its corruption, or if India can curb its tribalism and democratic dysfunction, one of more of them might some day become a moral leader of a sort—less preachy than us Yanks but perhaps as worthy of emulation.

But one thing is clear and dangerous. As and if our Yankee influence and power recede, the world will grow more unstable. The Pax Americana may yield to regional conflicts, even vicious wars, as the steadying influence of American dominance recedes. Humanity will suffer an uncertain, unstable and worrying time, as the risks of nuclear conflict and the consequences of global warming subsume an humanity that has never faced any risk as grave, let alone both at once.

5. Trump’s personal fate.

Of course much of immediate future history depends on how long Trump stays in the White House. Each additional month of his “leadership” sets America more firmly on the path of decline and deprives the world more irrevocably of America’s traditionally steadfast moral and military leadership.

Despite occasional vacillation, there is no doubt that Trump considers our global leadership, on balance, a burden and a bad bargain. Each additional month of Trump’s presidency also strengthens and hardens the trend toward extreme economic inequality and bossism that ultimately could destroy our economy and even our democracy.

It’s far too early to tell exactly how Trump’s presidency will end. If his distaste for “losing” ever exceeds his narcissistic delusion of “winning,” he might resign. Or he might refuse to run in 2020. But those outcomes are unlikely now and unpredictable.

Even a military coup is not now beyond the realm of the possible. Generals Kelly and Mattis reportedly agreed, early in Trump’s presidency, never to leave Washington at the same time, probably in order to keep an eye on him. If Trump’s incompetence were to threaten a nuclear war, or were to fail to address a nuclear threat (by the likes of Kim Jong Un, for example), we might see a military coup.

Such a coup would not be entirely without precedent. As Reagan’s White House was lapsing into chaos while he was undergoing surgery after his attempted assassination, General Alexander Haig, then Secretary of State, once claimed briefly to be “in charge here.” There are circumstances under which the assumption of leadership by a rational, thinking general might even be desirable. The questions, course, are how long it would last and how it would end—questions impossible to answer without context in advance.

Barring such unpredictable events, the end of Trump’s presidency—besides the agony and destruction of eight full years—is most likely to come from the pale constitutional processes that our Founders and their successors left us, in lieu of a simple vote of no confidence. They are: (1) impeachment and removal, and (2) removal, whether temporary or permanent, by the Cabinet and Congress, under Amendment 25, for Trump’s being “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office[.]”

At this moment, it’s hard to tell which route to removal is more promising, or which our pols might take first. After six months, many pols who secretly hated or distrusted Trump from the very beginning are slowly coming to understand that their instincts were right. Some are coming to see in Trump a leader as close to clinical insanity as anyone ever to occupy the White House.

But their instincts for self-preservation and saving the nation are at war with their lust for power, which is what led GOP pols to line up behind Trump despite well-founded misgivings. So the question is when the rising curve of self-preservation and patriotism will cross the falling curve of hope for something good and enduring, or at least for more power, from Trump. No one can ever hope to predict that point with any precision.

So the default hope falls to Robert Mueller, the special counsel. He has three strings to his bow: collusion with the Russians, obstruction of justice, and corruption under the Emoluments Clause or otherwise. He is reportedly highly skilled, well respected, dogged, and incorruptible.

At the end of the day, all of Mueller’s careful and diligent work will be a bit of a charade. The House and Senate will indict and remove Trump, respectively—or not—based ultimately on whether they think our nation and our democracy can survive Trump’s presidency. Mueller’s careful work will just give them a pretext and legal basis for removing Trump.

Very few pols take personal responsibility for decisions as big as removing a sitting president. Most prefer to prevaricate, sit on the fence and dodge responsibility. Most would like to disclaim a personal role in making one of the most important decisions in our national history. But Mueller’s careful work could give them a reason and a basis for both dodging responsibility and yet making the hard decision: “the law made me do it!” That would be a vital national service.

Yet in the very, very worst case, we might not get rid of Trump at all. Recent polls suggest that half of Republicans—including his angry base with lots of guns—would not mind if he “postponed” the 2020 elections on account of alleged voter fraud. He might become our de facto president for life, like Putin, Erdogan and El-Sisi. The putative Nero of our time might truly morph into our first American emperor.

Conclusion

At a minimum Mueller’s careful work will take another two or three years, just as bringing down Nixon did. In a way, that’s a good thing. Neither the Congress nor the nation is quite ready to remove Trump now.

They may be in two or three years. But by then we Yanks will have lost industrial leadership in energy transformation irrevocably. We likely will have lost global and scientific leadership to China and Germany or (in the best case) to China and a revived Europe, perhaps with British participation.

Russia may have nibbled away parts of Ukraine, the Baltics and Eastern Europe, re-establishing the old Russian Empire, if not the Soviet Union. Kim Jong Un, if not himself extinguished in nuclear fire, may have put his criminal nation in a position to extinguish ours, at will, with a suicidal surprise attack. And Iran, having been released from its hard bargain by Trump’s improvidence, may be following in the footsteps of Kim’s North Korea.

Our excellent companies—our sole basis for national hope today—will have been battered by a falling stock market, foreign exclusion, robust foreign competition, global privacy and antitrust laws, and a general global distrust of and distaste for the fallen hegemon.

Being a Yank will no longer be a global privilege. Travel and immigration to many places may require visas and months of paperwork. The dollar will no longer be king. Our halos of moral superiority will be tarnished or will have vanished.

We will be poorer, sadder and no wiser. And we will have to prove ourselves all over again, every day, after our collective national fall. This will be the enduring national legacy of the Nero of our time.

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