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

21 July 2018

Reihan Salam

[For things corporate CEOs can do to help keep the United States from suffering a decline and fall like ancient Rome’s, click here. For a comparison of quality in pols and reasons to recall our recent past, click here. For reasons why Trump’s trade war is headed toward a disastrous defeat, click here. For a brief note on how corporate rule is encroaching on American cities, click here. For our desperate need for voters to focus on good character, click here. For an analysis of facts and Kim’s myth about North Korea, click here. For a second post on training new voters, click here. For links to popular recent posts, click here.]

Rarely does this blog see reasons for optimism in a pundit or media maven, let alone one who styles himself a “conservative.” Most of them fall prey too easily to deliberate distraction, or, in the so-called “conservative” realm, serve as blatant propagandists. The last pundit to inspire my optimism was David Leonhardt, a left-leaning commentator with an incisive mind and extraordinary understanding of quantitative economics, who now runs the New York Times’ opinion page and newsletter.

Yet here I am, writing about a conservative thinker whom I never heard of before this month. His name is Reihan Salam.

Salam sports a long string of writing and thinking accomplishments. I became aware of him when, for the last two weeks, he replaced David Brooks opposite Mark Shields in the PBS News Hour’s weekly review of political events.

I hope the replacement will be permanent.

Don’t get me wrong. I like and admire David Brooks. His “aw shucks” manner makes his sometimes fuzzy conservatism endearing. More endearing still is his open and absolute disdain for Donald Trump and his realistic worry that Trump as president will destroy Brooks’ own political party, if not our democracy.

But disdain is not a solution, and Brooks and Shields have become too cozy and comfortable. They obviously like each other, and their mutual desire to show it belies the ongoing crisis of our presidency and our democracy. Shields has a slight edge on Brooks in specific facts, but I rarely learn much from their dialogue that I didn’t already know, besides occasional reports of the attitudes of important newsmakers. Like the establishments of the two parties they represent, Shields and Brooks resemble tired warhorses who can’t see beyond old struggles to new horizons.

Salam exudes new ideas from his pores. He’s a true libertarian—a man raised in a Muslim household who reportedly supports gay marriage and legalizing prostitution and illegal drugs. Yet at the same time he reportedly favors curbing alcohol abuse with higher taxes, reducing urban gridlock with congestion taxes, and advancing social mobility in cities by means of less restrictive zoning policies.

My admiration for Salam has nothing to do with all this, which I learned only upon investigating his background for this essay. What struck me most was his unique and refreshing view of Donald Trump revealed this Friday.

Salam is a brilliant and articulate speaker well acquainted with nuance. He, too, is appalled (perhaps too facilely) by Trump’s incompetence, inconsistency, and constant blunders. But unlike most establishment figures in both parties (with the GOP mostly off the record), he doesn’t think the sky is falling on our democracy.

Trump’s Helsinki fiasco, Salam believes, has had a useful unintended consequence. It has motivated both paralyzed Democrats and the Republican establishment, which has generally been supine to Trump, to take a much harder line on Russia. As background, Salam noted late-2017 legislation that lets Congress impose sanctions on Russia without the President’s consent, which, Salam said, the president himself signed. Salam didn’t say whether Congress has or ever would use this legislation, but at least it shows that our lie-addled nation is not totally without checks and balances.

There were other ways in which Salam justified faith in the durability of our institutions. Among them was the contrast between Trump’s fawning over the brutal dictator Kim and Kim’s complaint, after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit, of “gangsterish” demands by the US.

Salam’s own personal story is also proof of America’s resilience. His parents were born in Bangladesh, and Salam was born in Brooklyn. Through Stuyvesant High School, Cornell and Harvard (as an undergraduate), Salam worked himself up to the heights of the “conservative”—and therefore now the ruling—establishment in one generation. In a moribund GOP riven by discord, sycophancy to the rich, and blind faith in simplistic ideology, he seems to serve as one of the GOP’s key idea men.

Salam is no superman. Perhaps conscious of his brains, he’s too strident and overbearing, and he needs to tone it down. And he seems to ignore the risk that the bad might drive out the good in Trump’s Administration, as in the cases of most dictators’—a catastrophe I have feared, if not predicted.

But it was refreshing to see a man full of new ideas that our propaganda-war-weary pols and pundits seem incapable of thinking. It was even more comforting to see such a man justify (with facts, not just faith!) confidence in the resilience of our institutions, even (perhaps especially!) in the face of a buffoon-president like Trump.

Only time will tell whether Salam can justify my excitement at the prospect of original analysis. But for now, I want to see and hear more from this guy. He’s a commentator who provokes thought, not just choosing sides. Both his personal story and his new analysis inspire confidence in our national capacity for renewal.

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  • At Monday, July 23, 2018 at 11:20:00 PM EDT, Blogger Far West said…

    I've watched last Friday's discussion between Shields and Salam, and I think you missed just how close Salam comes to being a Trump apologist.

    Salam's insight, put with almost bullying vehemence, is to stop worrying about how Trump behaves and what he says, because the rest of the administration will always revert to a less idiotic or corrupt or unjust policy. There may be some examples of that, but there are just as many examples of the abhorrent policies Trump voices being carried out to the letter.

    Salam is almost saying, "Stop worrying about what the president says and does, the administration will sort it out." That is a horrible place for this country to reach, and Salam--your idea man--espouses a dangerous, perhaps desperately accommodating perspective in flirting with such an idea.

  • At Monday, August 6, 2018 at 6:10:00 AM EDT, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Thank you for your comment, which is well written and well reasoned. I’m sorry I didn’t get to moderating it sooner.

    If there is any real substantive gap between us, it’s the usual gap between the “glass is half full” (my view) and the “glass is half empty” (yours) applied to the Trump presidency. For me, the latter view holds practical dangers because it can lead to despair, hand-wringing and inaction, including failing to vote. That’s a terrible place for the opposition and “resistance” to be.

    I agree that Salam’s “almost bullying vehemence” is off-putting and something he needs to improve, especially if he expects to become a regular on PBS. (That’s definitely not PBS’ style, let alone Brooks’ or Shields’.) Yet I find the substance of what he said both refreshing and important, if you can ignore his style.

    When we have a vile excuse for a human being as our “supreme leader,” it aids both optimism and patriotism to be reminded of reasons for faith in our system and its institutions. Salam gave us that by pointing out how our institutions have neutered Trump, at least insofar as concerns kowtowing to Russia and Putin’s own bullying.

    Whether Salam himself is an apologist, in my view, remains to be seen. In context, and despite his bullying style, I saw his points as reaffirming the durability of our system in a difficult time.

    That durability is a vitally important point. As I have reasoned in another essay, things could get a lot worse if and when the bad in Trump’s administration start to drive out the good. When the generals (Kelly and Mattis), dedicated professionals like Rosenstein, and Pompeo (who seems wicked smart) start leaving, and only vicious and pliable mediocrities like Sessions remain, that (in my view) is when we have to start worrying about the survival of our democracy and analogies to Adolf Hitler. As long as competent, thinking people remain in high places, we have to worry about terrible mistakes, policies and precedents but not, in my view, subversion of our system. That point, which I believe Salam made indirectly, is no small thing.




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