The Economic Dimensions of Democratic Politics

In an op-ed last week, The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt, advised voting for a Democratic Party candidate for president based on the enthusiasm he or she excites in you, but also on how well the candidate’s program appeals to economic populism.  “A substantial majority of Americans favor a populist agenda — higher taxes on the rich, better federal health insurance, more government action to create good-paying jobs and so on. The Democrats did so well in the midterms partly because of the populist campaign many of them ran…I think their best chance of winning in 2020 involves a campaign centered on fighting for working families.”

Over the next few blogs and reviews of several recent books on contemporary economics, I want to put forth an argument that, whatever the value of the first criterion for casting a vote to select a Democratic Party candidate, I suggest that, while fighting for working families is certainly legitimate, and both sides make a claim to do so, that should not be done on the back of populist economics. For what you sow, so shall you reap.

Republicans say their program of reduced taxes not only helps the rich but benefits the working individual by creating more jobs, creating a need for workers and a need to compete for workers which in turn will lead to higher wages for them. Democrats who follow Leonhardt’s lead think in terms of minimum wages, rules to strengthen collective bargaining, taxation policy that redistributes wealth rather than offering incentives for accumulating it and sometimes protectionism. Republicans supposedly support a balanced budget and then run up deficits their Democratic opponents are afraid of lest they be accused of ruining the economy. Republicans, therefore, set aside PAYGO, the congressional rule that increases in spending be matched by cuts elsewhere, when it suits them. The G.O.P. 2017 budget did precisely this.

Projecting an image of a Democratic Party in fear of budget deficits places restrictions on righting the wrongs of the past through increased benefits and laws to redistribute income. This was the position of Nancy Pelosi’s critics when she ran to be speaker of the House of Representatives. Pelosi, however, resisted their criticism and resolved to abide by PAYGO. However, economists like Paul Krugman argue that austerity and budget restrictions impede economic growth and lead to economic stagnation by ignoring or setting back the need to invest in infrastructure and in human resource development for example. I want to question whether either approach is better or worse, or even whether a choice has to be made in the face of the globalizing technological economic forces driving modern economies.

This Central debate within America has to be set within what is taking place on the global level. Richard Haas, and many others, look upon what is happening with an apocalyptic lens. The liberal world order, which began in the seventeenth century and was greatly expanded and refined after WWII with a set of institutions, is at the beginning stages of disintegration. That order was based on an idea of promoting the economic well-being of everyone on this planet by constructing an international system based on the rule of law and respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each country within a world order.

One factor that has contributed to the disintegration has been the very instruments seen to be the culmination of integrating the whole planet, namely the internet and, more specifically, social media. For what set out to enhance worldwide communications has created a crisis for open societies and the freedom of the mind that was the pillar of the liberal world order. George Soros as Cassandra has written that, “The current moment in world history is a painful one. Open societies are in crisis, and various forms of dictatorships and mafia states, exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are on the rise. In the United States, President Donald Trump would like to establish his own mafia-style state but cannot, because the Constitution, other institutions, and a vibrant civil society won’t allow it. Not only is the survival of open society in question; the survival of our entire civilization is at stake. The rise of leaders such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Trump in the US have much to do with this. Both seem willing to risk a nuclear war in order to keep themselves in power. But the root cause goes even deeper. Mankind’s ability to harness the forces of nature, both for constructive and destructive purposes, continues to grow, while our ability to govern ourselves properly fluctuates, and is now at a low ebb.”

Soros is far from alone. Who would know better than John MacWilliams, who heads the Department of Energy where the internet was invented? He insisted that whenever we interact on a telecommunications device, someone not invited is listening. In fact, many are listening. Michael Lewis in The Fifth Risk, which I will review, dubs this the first risk. When married to the fifth risk, the failure to manage this (and other risks) by denigrating management in favour of ideology, by denigrating knowledge in favour of ignorance, offers the anti-intellectual tools to destroy the modern liberal order.

Why the increase in quasi-fascist and fascist states? Because the policeman (America) of the world has given way and surrendered the responsibility of regulation. Democratic values were viewed initially as being protected by military interventions and crusades. That resulted in a propensity to concentrate power in hegemonic states, unfortunately.  International institutions were created to foster a world of interdependence that could counteract that propensity. The result, as Joseph Nye and others argue, was an unprecedented level “of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers. USsis leadership helped to create this system, and US leadership has long been critical for its success.”

However, in our digital age, giant, mostly American, platform companies have turned the greatest political power ever seen on this earth into an impotent giant as companies, that initially played an enormous role in innovation and liberalization, have fallen into the hands of interests which are primarily transactional, focused on promoting consumption rather than liberty in what Yanis Varoufakis dubs “the relentless commodification of privacy.” That, they argue, has made privacy and individual autonomy no longer possible. Innovators, like Mark Zuckerberg, have lost control of the Frankenstein they created.

Pseudo-knowledge – actual false claims – become the headlines people absorb and think of as knowledge. The weighing and evaluating of conclusions are set aside in favour of mass appeal. Sound bites are the clowns of this pseudo-cognitive world, sweeping minds and feelings into mass hysteria. Stop the merry-go-round. I want to, I need to, get off.

However, when it comes to the real world, our material world, our world as understood through economic science, the conclusion that the world is going to hell in a handbasket is offset by the cheery remarks of a leader that the country has the lowest unemployment levels and extraordinary rates of growth of that economy, blissfully ignoring the forces building up. Many if not most analysts see a collapse on the horizon. The volatile Wall Street stock market is just the foreplay for a 2020 depression that will make 2008 look like a blip on a screen and even the mode of management in 1929 seem like a cakewalk.

The fiscal policies of the U.S. are viewed as unsustainable. The period of sustained and synchronized growth has lost steam and is nearing a collapse, Unlike 2008 and 1939, governments no longer have the tools to reverse course according to Nouriel Roubini and Brunello Rosa.

2019 is supposed to be the tipping point with the U.S. running up unprecedented deficits, China has responded to the American-initiated trade war with even looser fiscal and credit policies as Europe limps badly as it still tries to recover from the centrifugal fragmenting forces threatening to throw a united but fragile unity into dozens of pieces. The protective devices of banking unification are proceeding too slowly and are too weak. Fiscal policy coordination is inadequate as political rifts and schisms grow exponentially. Political uncertainty across Europe, especially in the mainstays, France and Germany, grows as the domestic drivers of economic growth weaken and exports suffer because of the American-led trade war with China on a macro scale and the cancellation of the American decision to lift sanctions on Iran decrease trade on a more modest level.

Why? For many, the new communications system and the digital age are not the primary villains. Neoliberal ideology and “public choice” theory emphasizing the reversal of the regulations introduced following the 2008 crisis, are. The dominant economic model is becoming totally incongruent with the actual historical patterns on the ground which demand and need much greater intervention and management of the economy rather than greater anarchy. In spite of many efforts in place, the policy direction is working in reverse even though, in Europe, there is at least a plan in place to counter these trends and to maximize economy strengths in ingenuity and high-end manufacturing.

We have a communications crisis. We have a fiscal crisis. We have a governance crisis. In a globalized economic world with a pressing need for global management of a natural climate crisis of unprecedented proportions coming at us, we need more integration, not less, more governance not less, more regulation not less. But the signs of an emerging system of global governance are all pointing in the wrong direction. The tide of increased global trade that has contributed so much to rising worldwide prosperity is in retreat as the global trade game has shifted from free trade to increasing reliance on mercantilism, that is, regulation and intervention precisely in a way it is not only not needed, but is destructive to the international order. And central banks can no longer cope with the variety and size of the challenges that states face.

The startling part of it all is that we are just on the edge of vast improvements in productivity resulting from the digital age as machines not only replace the need for our muscle. Artificial intelligence is on the brink of displacing many levels of decision-making that can be better managed by electronic rather than by human intelligence. Look at how out of synch economic policies are. Tax policies in the U.S. and elsewhere increase inflation and impede investment just when more intelligent management of the economy is needed, not less. Most of all, there is public discord that grows as economic inequality grows and as the graduates of even our universities no longer see a route to owning their own homes unassisted by inherited family wealth.

In other words, the problem is not just economic disruption, but an earthquake taking place in our institutions of governance both domestically and internationally. On the macro scale, even as Democrats re-energize themselves in America, the institutions of liberalism and democracy appear to have weakened so much that salvation appears almost impossible. On the micro level, our youth face a housing crisis and young families face an eviction crisis as they face mortgage renewals at rising rates that they cannot support. At the same time, all my moves, all my plans – for travel, for work, for leisure – to eat, sleep and be merry – are being tracked as advertisers both monitor and target our desires. The surreptitious mapping of our habits and desires work to erode autonomy and individuality. Freedom then becomes reinvented as celebrity. Glitz and glamour displace gravitas and critical reflection. And opinion displaces fact as a foundation for decisions.

On a more mundane, but the most painful level, debt is punted down the line to future generations. Further, the problem is not only the exploding federal debt, but, as Carmen Reinhart has written, the high issuance of corporate collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), the new temptress on the financial runway that has pushed corporate bonds aside. High-yield corporate debt instruments are the emerging market within the U.S. economy, but the rapid rise is even greater in Europe where yields are even higher. Of course, these are of very different order of magnitude than in 2008, but they hit the productivity rather than consumer side of the market. Thus, these could be the equivalents of the high-interest poorly secured bundling of mortgage obligations in the first decade of this century that led to the 2008 financial crisis as the money is borrowed by weaker corporations and with more questionable valuation of the collaterals. And the debt is arranged through third tier lightly regulated banks. Do all capital surges end badly?

Unprecedented unemployment levels, owing almost entirely to the rapid increase in the service sector, in the atomized environment of outsourcing, does not produce increased income resulting from increased competition for workers. Expected increases in income have not been forthcoming. Thus the rise of Trump in America, of the Brexit fiasco in Britain, of Macron as a fleeting shooting star, not to count the quasi-dictatorships in Russia, China, Poland, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines and Brazil, to list some of the major ones which still exclude totalitarian oppressive regimes such as North Korea or Myanmar, and imploding governments such as that of Venezuela, are all part of this trajectory towards disaster.

The rise of populist political parties and leaders with increasing influence almost everywhere threatens economies that depend on facts, on analysis, on knowledge-based decisions instead of whims and ignorance. Trump and other leaders on the right avoid comprehensive and coherent policy platforms for they are impossible to come by in an era dominated by ignorance and impulse, lies and braggadocio. Agility declines. Rigidity sets in.

Other Cassandras, such as George Brown, appear as optimists, for they still believe that steps can be taken to save the world from the collapse of a liberal globalization and a planet destroyed by climate change. How appealing then are the corrective measures promoted by The New York Times editor, David Leonhardt? There are two: based on enthusiasm in a candidate for public office who excites you; and choosing on the basis of how well thought out a program the candidate offers that simply appeals to economic populism. I will argue that they feed the beast rather than stopping it in its tracks.

Reviews of economic books follow.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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The Competition for Recognition Part V The Moral Compass: Division on the Political Right

Is Donald Trump a by-product of the failure of liberalism which sold out to identity politics and the politics of resentment in accordance with the views of Jordan Peterson? Is Donald Trump, as Dummitt declares, the most triumphant exponent of “Be true to oneself” and representative of those who feel unrecognized and who are willing to defy social convention from the right? Dummitt declared that the moral compass in the modern world on the left as well as on the right, was rooted in the authentic self – “to thine own self be true” – rather than, say, custom or religious edicts. Is this accurate?

Whether or not the above is true, will the winner in this competition be the side which invokes the morally superior identity? If conservatives favour market and individual freedoms versus excessive bureaucracy and taxes, while the left liberals attack social and religious conventions that impose restrictions on sexuality, gender and race, is the present polarization simply a fundamentalist evangelical conflict between two definitions of moral purity and the claim that each is the real outsider, the real excluded, while each should provide the moral compass for the modern world?

If this depiction of the core of current polarization is accurate, can that polarization be overcome by avoiding the dichotomy of left and right and giving priority to traditional liberal and/or conservative references, say citizenship or to an overarching social order, that is, making a strong shared identity more basic than the identity quests that divide us? Such a solution would once again prioritize our customs and shared values that emphasize the rule of law, free speech, the right of self-expression and public civility. Or do we have to reach back further in our history, into the biblical narrative, a narrative of constant tension between ethical imperatives and historical propensities?

As I see the American political battleground, a four-way fight is underway. On the right, for now, the populists have won. On the left, the Left Liberals remain in charge, but the democratic socialists are in the process of mounting stronger and stronger challenges.

The overall battle can be represented by the following chart:

 

  Democratic socialist Left Liberal Conservative Populist
Substance Benefits Protections Markets Identity Wars
  Group rights Civil rights Human rights Foetal rights
Process Challenge incumbents Defend Incumbents Surrender

Incumbency

Challenge incumbents
  Voter registration Voter registration Voter Suppression Voter Suppression
Overview Class war Common membership Common membership Cultural War
  Resentment – Identity Politics Appreciation Appreciation Resentment – Identity Politics

Tomorrow, I will focus on the battle on the left. Today, attention is focused on the victory of right-wing populism over traditional conservatism in the internecine war on the right.

I begin with modernity and the moral purity of the economic right as best expressed by Friedrich A. Hayek. (See Individualism and Economic Order.) One type of individualism [economic] leads to freedom and spontaneous order. The other type of individualism [cultural] leads to a controlled economy and imposed order rooted in collectivism according to Hayek. For many, this implies that the only collectivist challenge comes from the left. However, there is a collectivist, a nationalist, challenge that comes from the right.

The Trump presidency is a case of deliberate inauthenticity, a case of wearing the mantle of market freedom, but organizing a takeover by collectivists who are nationalists, that is, by a group identified by their common loyalties. Order is imposed by a singular leader claimed to embody the nationalist spirit even if the actual spirit consists of lies, degradation of customs, racism, degenerate language and de facto narcissism. The playbook and the philosophy of fascism has not fundamentally changed since Giovanni Gentile, the Italian philosopher, set down the tenets of fascism in the book, The Doctrine of Fascism that he ghostwrote for Benito Mussolini.

Gentile misinterpreted Hegel and put forth what he called a neo-Hegelian view that extolled collectivism and denigrated individualism. There was no objective reality or reference points external to the self. Hence, this variation of the proposition, “To thine own self be true.” The true subject was not an abstract “I,” an individual postulated as an abstraction in an ideal world where that “I” enjoyed a full panoply of protections. The true subject was embodied, was an actual individual, a concrete rather than abstract individual. There was no true manifold objective world and no true abstract individuality. Truth was to be located in the subject, the heroic subject that asserted agency on behalf and in the name of the national collectivity. The objective world was only a projection of that individuality. Experience is only a product of what is projected; objectivity does not provide boundaries for this narcissism in the name of the collective.

There are no lies since the only truth that exists is that projected by the mind of the “wise” leader as the divine is conceived of as immanent in such projections. The leader is the “truest” believer in himself. The objective world must conform to this form of subjective Being.

Let me make these abstractions concrete. Ryan Costello lost his seat (the 6th Congressional District in Pennsylvania) in the House of Representatives in the midterm elections (see The New Yorker, 12 November 2018). He is an example of a traditional or moderate Republican, a conservative centrist. He was willing, even eager, to have government catch up with technical advances in renewable energy. He was willing to work with the Democratic opposition across the aisle to improve health-care delivery and introduce reasonable immigration controls.

“And then Trump gets elected. And the norms of politics all just blow up and you’re trying to figure out how to orient yourself when the rules don’t apply anymore, and you’re allowed to say and do things which used to be disqualifying.” Trump lied. Repeatedly! Often! Daily! Without due process, Trump banned entry to persons from seven Muslim countries. Without due process, Trump took away the White House press pass of CNN’s Jim Acosta. Costello wanted the Mueller investigation into election collusion with the Russians to go forward without any political interference. But the leader of his party, the president, denounced the FBI as corrupt, denounced the press for spreading fake news, insulted black female reporters while insisting on decorum at White House press briefings.

Costello faced a choice. Complicity with Trump or disloyalty to the Republican Party that had been taken over by Trump and his followers. He chose to walk a tightrope, generally ignoring the depths of degradation of his party’s leader, occasionally publishing on Facebook his own dissent towards Trump’s latest malfeasance when it became too extreme, but expressing no interest in condemning or censoring the president in the House. He chose not to accompany Jeff Flake of Arizona into the political wilderness. He allowed fear to determine his choices.

However, he faced chaos from the left as well as the right and barely escaped being shot by a Bernie Sanders supporter who critically wounded the Majority Whip, Steve Scalise of Louisiana, at a Republican charity baseball game. However, the bulk of artillery aimed his way came from the right even as he tried to sidestep Trump’s racism and Trump’s ignoring and ignorance of the Constitution and the rule of law. Costello faced either the ire of the voters in Pennsylvania or the ire of the President who would back an alternative Republican candidate in the primaries in Pennsylvania’s sixth district. He avoided the latter only to see his political career destroyed (at least for now) by the former. His principles of balanced budgets, free trade, upholding the Constitution, the rule of law and the separation of powers had all crashed and burned much earlier as prudential silence morphed into the “habitual muteness of the acquiescent.”

The politics of total war against party dissidents and politicians with backbone and character meant that reasonable compromise was no longer the language of politics. Extremism, zealotry and populism were. Conspiracy theories were floated in the air like hundreds of sky lanterns, even though everyone knew they were fire hazards. Republicans moved from being the upholders of institutions and their values to participating in the destruction of norms and institutions and engaging in voter suppression and gerrymandering. Shock value and publicity seekers usurped the role of thoughtful and reflective independent minded politicians.

But the roots lay in those same institutions. For the core issue of getting a foothold on the race to power depended most on the commitment of a core group of party members in a district and/or actually recruiting those members for the nomination. In a far less democratic Canada, constituency nominations depended, in most suburban ridings, on getting one ethnic group, or an alliance of two ethnic groups, who could deliver the signatures to party membership and their votes on nomination day. 1-2% of eligible voters could choose the candidate for their party, and, depending on the national race, could coast to victory.

In the USA, the nomination depended less on getting the support of a core of party members in a constituency party meeting (as in Canada) than on winning a popularity contest in a political primary, that is, in electioneering that never stopped and depended on the energizer batteries of politics – money and human time. The kind of publicity adopted depended on the intellectual, policy and publicity silos of your side. Decency, rationality, objectivity and a primary concern with truth had largely been shovelled into the ashbin of history, though to different degrees and with respect to different key issues. Core support came from two sometimes overlapping sources: evangelical Christians who had already subscribed to surrendering the individual self to a higher “divine” self, who appeared immanently in history; and resentful white Americans who felt they had lost their place in history.

Totally contrary to Christopher Dummitt, the core reference point has been neither authenticity nor moral purity, but expediency, opportunism and ambition. People’s rule had replaced party rule and the people were no longer an aggregate of individual voters, but an ideological tribe in which the members demonstrating the greatest zealotry won over the mob. Rallies, not debates, became the central focus of an election campaign by both the socialist left and the populist right.

However, on the right the collectivists, the nationalists, emerged victorious. Each day that passed witnessed the defeat of another compromiser, of another compromise, of another part of objective reality. Climate change impelled by human activity, according to Trump, was not a major contributing cause to the tremendously destructive fires that so recently laid waste to enormous tracts of land and even a whole city in California. The fact that these were not forest fires but largely shrub lands, the fact that, in any case, forests were not managed primarily by the State of California but by the federal government that owned the majority of forest tracts, the fact that “sweeping forests” was not an idea passed on by the Finnish Prime Minister as a forest management tool or that it was even a useful one, did not matter. Trump, as usual, mouthed off in ignorance and pronounced that there would be no more such fires. More than that, he pronounced his own personal view of nature as simply an extension of his own wishes rather than an independent reality.

“I have a strong opinion. I want great climate, and we’re going to have a forest that is very safe.”

 

 

 

 

Descent into Hell: Parshat VaYeitzei (Genesis 28:10-32:3)

The problem with old age is that we spend far too much time seeing doctors and trying to keep an old and decrepit chassis working. Ignoring times spent in labs for various blood and urine tests, for x-rays and Dopplers, echograms and neurological tests, this week alone I saw my general practitioner, my heart doctor and my sleep doctor. And today I head to the Toronto Western Hospital to have my eye measured to prepare for surgery and the removal of cataracts.

Not only do these visits take time, but when I meet old friends, we spend too much time reciting and comparing our ills. But it is not only with friends. Yesterday, I was on the phone talking with my youngest son for about two hours – he lives in Vancouver – and he was upset that I had not kept him up to date on my health and my treatments. And then there are the visits – to friends who have really serious health issues. I miss them. I want to see them. I want them to keep going even as I tire of the effort to keep going myself. Illness consumes time.

Why then bore you with such issues? Because I could use some help. I visited my sleep doctor yesterday – or perhaps it was the day before. I, to my surprise, had not seen her for quite awhile. I went to check whether my CPAP breathing mechanism that I use at night was set at the correct pressure. I made the appointment before I found out that taking a diuretic pill once a day got rid of the excess water in my legs and lungs that evidently accounted for why I had been feeling so tired. Hence, the breathlessness I had been experiencing. Perhaps that is why I was even more cheerful when seeing her than I perhaps usually am.

She told me that she likes to see me and missed me. How often does a doctor tell you that? Patients with sleeping problems are normally grumpy and melancholic. They feel sleep deprived and wish they could sleep more. In contrast, she said, I seem to be the rare – very rare evidently – a patient who comes to see her who is upbeat, tries to tell funny stories and cheers her up. I do not complain about lack of sleep for the fact that I need much less sleep pleases me enormously as it allows me normally to get my blog written before breakfast.

However, this time I had a real problem. I had a horrible nightmare early in the week. I had watched the news and the frightening fires in California where flames skipped over three football fields in minutes. I watched on television as families in cars escaped through walls of flames when they could barely make out whether they were fleeing the fire or getting into it. The children in the car were panicky as a father tried to reassure them that they should calm down. They would escape, he insisted. They evidently did so; that is why we could watch their car video that they had made.  Unfortunately, perhaps 200-300 did not escape.

I had gone to sleep about 10:30 p.m. and instead of waking up around 3:30 a.m., I woke at 11:45 p.m. I woke shaking. I could not get back to sleep. I also could not write. This is very unusual for me when I can be sitting at my desk writing within 60 seconds of waking up. I also do not usually remember my dreams. My sleep rhythm is unusual since I enter a deep sleep almost as soon as I put my head on my pillow – perhaps it can take as much as 30 seconds. And when I wake up, I am not drowsy but fully awake. But this past week, I could not write for two mornings in the aftermath of that nightmare. I missed writing two blogs.

However, this dream – or, rather, nightmare – was vivid in my memory. I was shaking when I awoke. In that dream, I had been in Africa working when I received a phone call that there was an enormous fire in the region where we lived back home – and home seemed to be California rather than Toronto. The caller told me that they had not been able to locate my wife and my two youngest children. In the dream, they were 6 and 9 years old at the time – so the dream was set almost 25 years ago.

I immediately flew home and began looking for them. The dream consisted almost entirely of that search – a futile search for I never found them. I passed houses with flames 30-40’ in the air. I passed cars engulfed in flames and tried to peer into them to see if my missing wife and two youngest children were in those cars. The dream went on and on, searching and searching but finding nothing. But the most peculiar part of the dream is that when I walked endlessly among these flames, I was freezing cold. I felt like an iceberg – assuming an iceberg can feel. I was frozen and never warmed up.

I told my sleep doctor that the dream had stayed with me all week, not only because it had been so horrific and because it had shaken me up so much, but because I could not figure out what it might mean. I usually find I can find an interpretation that seems to make sense. However, in this dream, the only thing that seems to have been clear was that the videos of the flames and the children in the escaping cars had probably set off the dream. Nothing else.

Of course, my sleep doctor was not a dream doctor. Her expertise was in the mechanics of sleep and not its imaginary content. I did not expect her to help me interpret the dream. I merely wanted to explain my physical tiredness succeeded by relief via a diuretic and then my mental tiredness brought on by a dream. I welcome any efforts at interpretation. In this there remains hope. For my readership offers me the opportunity and the audience to try to understand that dream.

But it is not my dream that I want to write about, but Jacob’s.

 

10 And Jacob left Beer sheba, and he went to Haran.   י

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה:

11 And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.   יא

וַיִּפְגַּ֨ע בַּמָּק֜וֹם וַיָּ֤לֶן שָׁם֙ כִּי־בָ֣א הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ וַיִּקַּח֙ מֵֽאַבְנֵ֣י הַמָּק֔וֹם וַיָּ֖שֶׂם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֑יו וַיִּשְׁכַּ֖ב בַּמָּק֥וֹם הַהֽוּא:

12 And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.   יב

וַיַּֽחֲלֹ֗ם וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה וְהִנֵּה֙ מַלְאֲכֵ֣י אֱלֹהִ֔ים עֹלִ֥ים וְיֹֽרְדִ֖ים בּֽוֹ:

13 And behold, the Lord was standing over him, and He said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed.   יג

וְהִנֵּ֨ה יְהֹוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב עָלָיו֘ וַיֹּאמַר֒ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֗ה אֱלֹהֵי֙ אַבְרָהָ֣ם אָבִ֔יךָ וֵֽאלֹהֵ֖י יִצְחָ֑ק הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר אַתָּה֙ שֹׁכֵ֣ב עָלֶ֔יהָ לְךָ֥ אֶתְּנֶ֖נָּה וּלְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

14 And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall gain strength westward and eastward and northward and southward; and through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth and through your seed.   יד

וְהָיָ֤ה זַרְעֲךָ֙ כַּֽעֲפַ֣ר הָאָ֔רֶץ וּפָֽרַצְתָּ֛ יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה וְנִבְרְכ֥וּ בְךָ֛ כָּל־מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה וּבְזַרְעֶֽךָ:

15 And behold, I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go, and I will restore you to this land, for I will not forsake you until I have done what I have spoken concerning you.”   טו

וְהִנֵּ֨ה אָֽנֹכִ֜י עִמָּ֗ךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּ֨יךָ֙ בְּכֹ֣ל אֲשֶׁר־תֵּלֵ֔ךְ וַֽהֲשִׁ֣בֹתִ֔יךָ אֶל־הָֽאֲדָמָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את כִּ֚י לֹ֣א אֶֽעֱזָבְךָ֔ עַ֚ד אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִם־עָשִׂ֔יתִי אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבַּ֖רְתִּי לָֽךְ:

16 And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, “Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know [it].”   טז

וַיִּיקַ֣ץ יַֽעֲקֹב֘ מִשְּׁנָתוֹ֒ וַיֹּ֗אמֶר אָכֵן֙ יֵ֣שׁ יְהֹוָ֔ה בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וְאָֽנֹכִ֖י לֹ֥א יָדָֽעְתִּי:

17 And he was frightened, and he said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”   יז

וַיִּירָא֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְזֶ֖ה שַׁ֥עַר הַשָּׁמָֽיִם:

18 And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.   יח

וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֨ם יַֽעֲקֹ֜ב בַּבֹּ֗קֶר וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־הָאֶ֨בֶן֙ אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֣ם מְרַֽאֲשֹׁתָ֔יו וַיָּ֥שֶׂם אֹתָ֖הּ מַצֵּבָ֑ה וַיִּצֹ֥ק שֶׁ֖מֶן עַל־רֹאשָֽׁהּ:

19 And he named the place Beth El, but Luz was originally the name of the city.   יט

וַיִּקְרָ֛א אֶת־שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא בֵּֽית־אֵ֑ל וְאוּלָ֛ם ל֥וּז שֵֽׁם־הָעִ֖יר לָרִֽאשֹׁנָֽה:

20 And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;   כ

וַיִּדַּ֥ר יַֽעֲקֹ֖ב נֶ֣דֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִם־יִֽהְיֶ֨ה אֱלֹהִ֜ים עִמָּדִ֗י וּשְׁמָרַ֨נִי֙ בַּדֶּ֤רֶךְ הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָֽנֹכִ֣י הוֹלֵ֔ךְ וְנָֽתַן־לִ֥י לֶ֛חֶם לֶֽאֱכֹ֖ל וּבֶ֥גֶד לִלְבֹּֽשׁ:

21 And if I return in peace to my father’s house, and the Lord will be my God;   כא

וְשַׁבְתִּ֥י בְשָׁל֖וֹם אֶל־בֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑י וְהָיָ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה לִ֖י לֵֽאלֹהִֽים:

22 Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.   כב

וְהָאֶ֣בֶן הַזֹּ֗את אֲשֶׁר־שַׂ֨מְתִּי֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה יִֽהְיֶ֖ה בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכֹל֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י עַשֵּׂ֖ר אֲעַשְּׂרֶ֥נּוּ לָֽךְ:

Jacob had his dream while lying on the ground with his head on a rock. I was in bed with my head on a pillow. In Jacob’s dream, there is a ladder connecting heaven and earth. In my dream, earth has become a fiery hell. In Jacob’s dream, angels skip up and down the ladder; it is a sulam with the same numerical value as Sinai that adumbrates Moses’ encounter with God at Sinai. Jacob wakes from his dream in amazement. I woke from mine in anguish, despondent, dejected and wretched.

In my dream, I plod along horizontally. There is no skipping, just despair. If God stood over Jacob in his dream revealing himself to Jacob and promising that the land on which he rested his head will be given to him and his progeny, there was no God in my dream. No angels and not even Satan. I was alone in my dream, very much alone. And I walked in a landscape that no one would want to inherit.

Jacob flees his life of cheating his brother and wrestling away Esau’s birthright and blessing. Finally, between his home and that of his uncle, he is able to lie down and have a dream. But in my dream, I can only wander endlessly and aimlessly. I cannot even look forward to wrestling with God at the ford of the Jabbok River.

When Jacob awoke from his dream, he entered into a covenant with God, namely that, as long as God was with him and protected him and guided him, as long as he gave Jacob food to eat and a garment to wear, Jacob would remain His loyal servant. There was no one in my dream protecting my wife and children. There was no one guiding me as I trudged along amongst the flames and through the smoke without direction. And I felt only cold. Where Jacob had seen the house of God and the gate of heaven, I wandered the streets of hell.

The next morning after the dream, I went to synagogue and recited the kaddish. It was my mother’s Yahrzeit, the anniversary of her death eighteen years ago. It was morning and I recited the Shaharit prayer, the morning prayer that Abraham had supposedly established. Though I went through the motions and had amiable conversations with my friends, my heart was not in it. And it was a prayer for my mother. I felt more like Isaac, but in a paved over field with burning houses and cars on all sides. But in my dream, there was neither any prayer that poured out of me, nor conversation either. I saw no one. I asked no one. I searched, but the streets were deserted. It was certainly not Jacob’s evening prayer for there were no encounters at all.

In fact, the smoke was so thick, I could not tell whether it was morning, noon or night. It was true hell for the different times of the day had been obliterated. And I did not ask God to take me out of the darkness of that day into the light. Was this a world that God would inhabit, for it was truly a scorched earth unsuited to bring forth food, for sustaining animals and allowing beautiful yellow and purple flowers to grow. It was a world of gray on gray except for the brilliant red of the flames. It was a world that no one owned and no one would even want to own. The world was indeed illuminated, but not by the sun’s light, not by God’s light, but by the darkness and the flames that make up hell.

The celestial spheres, the sun and the moon, were blocked out by billowing black and grey smoke. And there was no one in charge of a world headed towards hell. God had abdicated. God had also fled the flames and abandoned His responsibilities. And I could not find my wife or my youngest children. Instead of the darkness providing an ambience for intimacy, there was nothing. There was nothingness. There was no God to embrace me in my fear, in my terror. There was no God with whom I could even make a deal, draw up a covenant, one in which we could exchange mutual promises and obligations. I did not feel, as I usually felt, when I awake in the very early hours of the morning and would write until I saw the light of day beginning to form outside of my picture windows in my study. I was not merely insecure, tired and wary as Isaac always seemed to be. I was petrified and identified with Jacob who loved bright colours and innocent jokes to cover up his profound terror. Deep down, he felt hopeless and was in despair, for a night of intimacy with his God had been lost. It was a night in which, except for the flames, all cows were both black and dead.

There was no progress in that dream, from hope to worry and trepidation. Instead of God turning on the lights, the flames were subsiding and left only burned out collapsed homes and frames of vehicles in a bleak landscape. Would the lights come on again? Would I see my wife and two youngest children again? I was so obsessed that I could not even thank an unknown God that my older children were safe and living elsewhere.

I pray every day that God renews His creation if there is a God and if God is still working at His job. I pray that each day will be a brand new day, a day full of creativity, a day of renewal when the world is always experienced anew. But the world had died. It had been torched.

I have never been concerned with whether God existed or not. The issue was never for me whether I believed or did not believe God existed. The issue had always been whether I believed that if God existed, that I was worthy of His faith in me. But in that bleak landscape, I feared that I had lost the faith in myself, the real faith that sustained me, that the world was and would be born anew every morning with a different pattern even though the elements were identical, that at night the angels ascended and descended the ladder in continuous motion, like elves, to renew the world for another day even though fascists and Nazis driven by the politics of resentment were in pursuit.

Will my family, will all families, be so blessed as I have been blessed? Will they even have a ladder to climb?

From Is to Ought

Ben Rhodes The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, New York: Random House, 2018.

In the Prologue of Ben Rhodes memoir, he describes how, in his last meeting with any head of state, Barack Obama passed the torch onto Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada. “You’re going to have to speak out when values are threatened.” Trudeau promised that he would “with a smile on my face. That is the only way to win.” Obama was an American, a liberal American, who believed that morality framed coercion and military might. “American leadership depended on our military, but was rooted not just in our strength but also in our goodness.” (25) And that goodness was built into institutions and laws but backed up, if need be, by force. (48)

A smile would not do the job. Yet Obama, flummoxed in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump and emergence of autocrats around the world, conscious that his best ally, Angela Merkel, had been severely wounded, could only reach out to a Canadian leader who led with a smile and not even a soft voice. Further, and more importantly, Canada did not carry a big stick.

The real mantle of leadership had been stolen by Donald Trump, a would-be autocrat. He was willing to meet with other autocrats around the world – without any preconditions – North Korean, Russian, Turkish, even Iranian. Trump was blasted in the liberal press for doing so. Yet, when Ben Rhodes joined the Obama presidential campaign, his Democratic contender also had promised to meet US adversaries without conditions. As Rhodes wrote, “[T]he reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is somehow punishment to them, which has been a guiding diplomatic principle of this [the Bush] administration, is ridiculous.” (12) Hillary Clinton, Obama’s opponent for the Democratic nomination, disagreed. She called Barack Obama naïve. Republicans, the same ones who as sycophants and toadies, defended Donald Trump when he did it, called Obama much worse.

Diplomacy without preconditions was not the only tactic Trump stole from Obama. “Turn defense into offense.” (18) “Restore America’s standing around the world.” (22) When Trump ran on a version of the latter, Obama made fun of the slogan, “Make America great again.” “America had always been great,” insisted Obama.

There is, of course, a difference between Obama and Trump. For the latter, such diplomatic meetings are simply transactional and the Donald believed that he was and is master of the deal. Obama believed, and his legacy – the Iran nuclear deal, the opening to Cuba, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement for which leadership had been passed to China and Xi Jinping, the negotiations with the military junta in Myanmar – proved it, that diplomacy rather than inter-personal deals work. But a diplomacy capable of setting aside mindblinding and politically binding assumptions. In every single case, Donald Trump in his first two years in office proved that he was the master of and replacing professional diplomacy with personal transactional gestures.

The destruction of many of Obama’s overseas achievements had as much to do with personal animosity as Trump’s propensity for demolition, and both certainly more than the absence of any substance in his foreign policy. Donald Trump had been a leader in the blatantly racist “birther” movement, the false claim that Barack Obama had not been born in the US. Obama had folded before the media onslaught and finally acceded to releasing his longform birth certificate. That quieted but did not close down the flow of fake news. More importantly, a few days later after the birth certificate release, Barack Obama had his revenge at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner. In a series of spot-on jokes, he humiliated Donald Trump in the media and before the American public. “No one is happier, no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than the Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter – like, did we fake the moon landing.” (132-133) Trump’s unwinding of Obama’s many successes was Trump’s revenge.

The Obama administration did have its own share of failures – dealing with Russia over Georgia (inherited from Bush), Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, as well as Syria itself and, of course, the disastrous Libyan initiative, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the incoherence of the US policy towards Egypt, and the fiasco of Afghanistan that I wrote about in the Farrow book review. What is worse, Obama and Rhodes knew that, “the Taliban could not be defeated so long as it had political support in Afghanistan and a safe haven in Pakistan.” (73)

Obama had kept Robert M. Gates on as Secretary of Defence and initially backed the failed strategy of counter-insurgency in an arena in which it could not and did not work. Vice-President Joe Biden was the only individual in the administration who consistently and persistently opposed a troop surge and argued that the US military was jamming Obama. (65-6) So what was Obama’s rationale if America was not going to defeat the Taliban? “We need to knock them back to give us space to go after al Qaeda.” (75) The troop surge was approved.

But perhaps Egypt was even more telling than Afghanistan. Obama and Rhodes knew that in a repressive society like Egypt’s, a democratic election would probably lead to the victory of an Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood. (54) Yet the Obama administration backed the removal of Mubarak and fell back on the position that America would “judge any political movement by whether they choose to act and govern in a way that is consistent with democratic principles.” (55) But what if that political movement, though noisy in its demonstrations, was marginal in its political depth and the real choice was between two other movements – one rooted in the military and the other in the religious establishment? How should America act when faced with a Hobson’s choice when, in the end, military coercion was the real and only power? That same effort to achieve a balance between two incompatible political perspectives would prove to be the root of the Obama administration’s enormous but fruitless efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It would also be at the root of Rhodes’s failure to comprehend the limitations of the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Rhodes expends few words on the doctrine and I cannot elaborate n it here, but it is clear that he aligned with Samantha Power (82) and, to some extent, Susan Rice, who believed that the R2P had to be a bedrock of American foreign policy – that is, liberal state had the right to intervene with force when a state persecuted its own citizens or could not protect them from other s bent on destruction. Obama never bought into it. Rhodes in his book never explains why except to suggest that Obama was more a realist than the small idealist cohort he had working for and with him.

However, R2P was fundamentally flawed. This doctrine had originated as a Canadian initiative. It advocated the right of any foreign power to intervene when the government of a state targeted its own people. Within a very short time after its formulation, it was adopted by a unanimous vote of the United Nations. Except the vote was only unanimous because the heart of the doctrine had been cut out. Humanitarian intervention would only be permitted with the approval of the state being targeted. Once again, sovereignty trumped moral principles.

Further, it could and never would be applied in the Chinese mistreatment of the Uyguars or even the military junta mistreatment of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Sanctions certainly. But not coercive intervention. In the easiest situation possible, with a UN peacekeeping force on location and the government perpetrators on the ropes in its fight with a Tutsi-led military force, the world had failed to intercede and stop the genocide in Rwanda. Diplomatic exhortation and lofty principles were no substitute for action on the ground.

Perhaps Obama’s greatest success in the domestic arena – not the Affordable Care Act, but the salvaging of the world economy – was also his greatest failure and paved the way for the rise of Trump. This was in the domestic arena and not foreign affairs to which Ben Rhodes had dedicated his talents. The 2008 economic crash was a direct product of President Bush and, to some degree, his predecessors. Obama inherited an economic mess.

Ben Rhodes wrote the following words for Barack Obama. “Jobs have disappeared, and people’s life savings have been put at risk. Millions of families face foreclosure, and millions more have seen their home values plummet…So let’s be clear: What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed.” (33) Ben made Obama sound like a Marxist. Talk about hyperbole! The 2008 economic crash, the greatest since the depression, was the final epitaph for capitalism, not just for a failure in banking regulation. Capitalism had completely failed. This is how the statement sounded.

However, the philosophy referred to was not capitalism but one version of it – trickle-down economics and deregulation. Further, even on that there was no final verdict. In fact, Barack Obama in part made possible the restoration of that capitalistic ideology to pre-eminence after two years of his presidency and totally cleared the road from any blockage to it by contributing to the election of Donald Trump. How? Precisely by overstating the failure and understating the consequences of the 2008 economic crash. Not just jobs, but hundreds of thoUSnds of them were wiped out. Millions of families not only faced foreclosure but were, in fact foreclosed upon when Obama bailed out the banks without helping those who bought homes that were now financially under water.

Ben Rhodes was a foreign policy speechwriter and adviser and was not up on domestic policy let alone economic policy. There is an enormous problem with trickle-down economics, but that was NOT the issue in the 2008 economic crash. Rhodes not only failed to hit the target, but grossly understated the effects on the average American just as he overstated the implications of the crash for capitalism. In his memoir, he never seemed to notice this oversight.

Unfortunately, the same disposition applied to foreign policy. When North Korea tested a ballistic missile in the very beginning of Obama’s presidency when he was in The Czech Republic, Ben Rhodes added a few sentences to Obama’s address to the Czech people. “I sat at my computer inserting a strongly worded warning to the North Koreans about the isolation they’d face for continued nuclear and missile tests.” (42)

When Trump was in the same position, he threatened fire and brimstone and then met with Kim and called him a wonderful guy who likes me. Greater isolation! North Korea had survived for years, though barely, against the greatest international deep freeze applied to any foreign state in the post-WWII period. And the country still persisted in its nuclear and missile development program. Rhodes’s and Obama’s threat rang totally hollow at the time. More significantly, eight years later, Ben Rhodes failed to notice let alone be self-critical of such a shortcoming. And this in spite of the deep faith of liberals, like Barack Obama, who held a progressive view of American history and “the capacity for self-correction” (43) to which Obama (and Rhodes) attributed America’s purported exceptionalism. But what if this purported exceptionalism rested as much on the failure of America to be deeply self-critical and to truly engage in self-correction at a fundamental level?

Louis Menard wrote a review of Rhodes’s book and claimed it traced the evolution of a political junky from an idealist to a realist. Unlike Farrow’s book, Rhode’s memoir is indeed a book in which observation and self-reflection are woven together by a fine writing style, but one which only records faces and clothes and settings when they are directly pertinent to the narrative. But Menard is wrong. The shock is that Rhodes never became disillusioned about his ideals. Tired, certainly. Sometimes depressed. At other times simply resigned. But he is indefatigable in holding onto his ideals. That is perhaps why Obama loved him. That is certainly why Rhodes worshipped Barack Obama.

As with his previous co-authored book with a former congressman, Lee Hamilton, (Without Precedent: Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission), Rhodes’s book is a very inside story, but of the day-to-day crises and pro-active stances of the Obama regime from the campaign through eight years in the White House. During that time, Ben Rhodes began working as a speechwriter and foreign policy advisor for Obama in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President and ended up serving for eight years as deputy national security advisor with oversight over speechwriting, public communications and relations as well as undertaking specific diplomatic missions himself.

During that time, according to Rhodes’s reflections on his service and the Obama administration, the arc of history did not move from idealism to realism but, rather, a realization that “the world (w)as (and is) a place that could – in some incremental way – change.” (421) As he ends his memoir, at “I was a man, no longer young, who – in the zigzag of history – still believed the end of his service to Obama, to the American nation and to his own ideals, in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be.” The book is not about the decline of his ideals, but increasingly focuses on the actual challenges to those ideals and the efforts made to overcome those challenges.

Holbrooke, with his idiosyncratic personal characteristics for a diplomat and his pursuit of realism in the conduct of foreign relations, was Farrow’s flawed hero. Barack Obama is Rhodes’s idol, an idol he did not worship from afar, nor even merely up close to reveal the crevices that began to appear on Obama’s boyish good looks, but one whose mind and heart and guts Rhodes entered into wholly and without reservation, even in the odd moments when he disagreed with his leadership on a particular issue.  Rhodes learned to focus on a small portion of the grains of sand on the earth than on the even greater number of stars in the sky.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump: Part III – The Beginning of the Slide

Some people remember great events vividly – where they were when they heard the news, how they heard it, what they did immediately afterwards. The assassination of Jack Kennedy was one such event. My propensity has been to remember when I first encountered an intellectual presentation that shook me up – the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn lecturing in Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto when he presented his study of five different cultures in Texas who organized their conception of change and the passage of events into five distinct time frameworks. I was in my first year of medical school at the University of Toronto sitting in a balcony seat in a packed auditorium holding 1,600 in 1956. I raced home and wrote an essay on the “Carnie Sense of Time” based on my experiences as a summer carnival worker and my experiences with old time carnies. They were not so much lying to me as operating within a totally different time frame for organizing their experiences in life. Using Margaret Mead’s methods, I wrote the essay for my anthropology class and earned my first A+.

I also remember when I first read Elisabeth Kűbler-Ross’ 1969 book on Death and Dying. I was living on Highland Avenue in Toronto, dealing with American draft dodgers and deserters in addition to my teaching. I had also gone through the death of someone close. I was mesmerized by the book. Whether her theory did or did not stand up to theoretical verification, I have used it since to understand a number of experiences which go through different phases.

Based on her work in Chicago counselling patients diagnosed with a terminal illness, she presented the five stages of death that these individuals normally go through – 1: Denial; 2: Anger; 3: Depression; 4: Bargaining; and 5: Acceptance. The characterization of each stage was not intended to tuck each response into a small, neatly packaged emotion. Nor were the stages depicted as necessarily following one after the other. They did not depict a linear and predictable progression. Rather, the work identified the fact that many dying patients go through different states when they learn they are about to die and that, more often than not, they seem to experience those emotions in the order she depicted. Later, she would expand her research in collaboration with David Kessler to identify parallel stages of people in grief dealing with a dying loved one.

No matter how often the authors indicated that not everyone goes through any or all of these stages or does so in the prescribed order, many took up the taxonomy of dying and grief as a cookie cutter to depict stages of dying or grief for everyone. I want to repeat their warning. I have discerned what I believe are the ten stages of self-destruction that tyrants go through before they implode. There are ten stages, not five. They were outlined in this blog in the depiction of the self-destruction of Pharaoh when he tried to hold onto his Hebrew slaves before they got their freedom, a freedom which they developed in phases and first experienced very equivocally because the troubles encountered were at first overwhelming and bleak and the taste of freedom itself so bitter that they questioned the original decision.

In moving from slavery to freedom, the Israelites likely went through many stages and those stages may typify the experiences of other peoples. But my concern here is with tyrants who bring self-destruction upon themselves in the exercise of their tyranny. Like Ross and Kessler, I do not want to make any claim that tyrants such as King Charles I or King George III or any other tyrant went through the stages I propose and did so in the order I offer as if that order were prescriptive. Rather, this is simply a manner of depicting the process by which the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened in dealing with the Israelites and how, I believe. Trump has been behaving since he was elected President of the U.S.A.

I am convinced that Trump did not expect to become president when he threw his hat into the ring with other Republicans seeking the nomination and even when he was running against Hillary Clinton in the general election. He sought the post because of the transactional benefits it brought and might continue to bring to the Trump brand. Then, even though he did not expect to win, he wanted the post because he likes being a winner. But the election results were as much of a surprise to him as it was for most of the rest of us. It is very easy to see how his narcissism, his unswerving dedication to advertisements for himself, turned into a divine complex where he was not only the chosen one, but the one who did the choosing.

When elected president and confronted by others who challenged his assumptions of divine power, Trump, like Pharaoh, adopted a dismissive stance towards his critics. His attitude clearly revealed his indifference towards both facts and the law in dealing with the asylum seekers requesting the protection of the U.S. government.

The first two stages that I have already outlined might be considered the two faces of denial in the first stage of death and dying. Stage I, as I depicted it for both Pharaoh and for Donald Trump, emerged in DT’s effort to control who entered America. For that policy and practice was the most critical one in determining the character of a society. Most interesting, in the opening days of his presidency, his initial exclusionist propensities targeted Muslims at the same time as he expressed his indifference to the principle of equality for all citizens, especially women. He had openly labeled women as pussies when it was he who was in the process of revealing how much of a pussy he was in dealing with Putin and Russia. Ignorance of the law and indifference to those unfairly treated by his application of his power characterized the first stage of his self-destruction.

The second stage was characterized by unequivocal denials. The denial shifted in shape and colour through each successive stage as it became a constituent part of the next stage. “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.” That was February of 2017. The qualification “to the best of my knowledge” would be dropped subsequently as the denial evolved and shifted until it came back to, “I never said that no one in my administration colluded with the Russians. Only I did not.” Co-terminous with the denial stage that succeeded the dismissive stage with its characteristic indifference to others and the law, was Trump’s differentiation in the third phase into “us” and “them”. The differentiation was at a more general level than the earlier one aimed specifically at women and Muslims. Evidence of Trump’s ignorance and ignoring of reality piled up.

The shift in his posture from indifference to overt denial turned passivity into outright aggression.

This was not the denial in the Kűbler-Ross sense of dropping into a survival mode by denying what is happening, but a denial, outright and absolute, of what we later learned had actually happened. Rather than the world becoming meaningless and overwhelming, as in the first stage of death or grieving, denial entailed laying the foundations for an alternate reality that was meaningless to anyone who looked on with any degree of objectivity. That alternate reality was necessary to give the would-be tyrant a mental framework from which he could operate. Trump was not numb, just dumb. Rather than a postponement in facing the end, the end was denied in a process that itself brought that end closer. Instead of denial being part of healing, it was part of a process of self-inflicted violence that detached the pain from himself and projected it onto others.

On 2 March 2017, Jeff Sessions recused himself from supervising any inquiry into the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with the Russians. Trump never forgave him and repeatedly regarded the act as a betrayal. It was anger that never dissipated but simply went deep under the skin. It grew over time to the point where it became embarrassing. Sessions was one of the best cabinet members he had – if the measure was delivery on the promises The Donald had made. Sessions vigorously pursued and implemented Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

The anger was not driven by reason, but by the deep pain of what Trump took to be betrayals. It was not like his initial indifference to and disconnect from others. Instead, and, ironically, it was the way he connected, ensuring that Sessions remained the puppet at his side ready at any and all times to take a verbal beating. In the meanwhile, Trump experienced the anger as an expression of strength and ruthlessness to the first Senator who had pledged his loyalty to him. For Trump, and as it would turn out in reality, Sessions’ act of recusing himself was a betrayal, even though the action was one obviously called for under the rule of law. The anger covered the sense of loss and absence Trump felt within his own chest.

But Trump also gave the game away. Somehow, he knew that the FBI was after him, for he accused Obama of ordering a tap on his phone. Though he did not feel secure enough to fire Sessions, he allowed his National Security Adviser, LT. General H.R. McMaster who replaced Mike Flynn, to remove the chief strategist and architect of his election victory, Steve Bannon, from his position on the National Security Committee. Displacement was the order of the day, displacement from himself onto others and then displacement of others closest to him who had been critical to his victory. Trump, the super magician, turned loyalists into lice whom he felt he had to pick off himself and flick away

However, lice are not swarms of flies or scarabs that seemingly come from nowhere to attack you. Lice cannot fly. They are wingless insects with barbed legs that live on your scalp. Sessions and Bannon were parasites living on the monarch’s head and proved very difficult to kill as Trump tried to wash them out of his hair. Sessions and Bannon gradually became itches that Trump raged against but it took a great deal of time for him to remove them. But remove them he eventually did. However, the swarms of agents that really began to assault him had not begun. And they were turned into a swarm by his own actions.

 

To be continued

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump: Part IIC – The Beginning of the Slippery Slope

In Donald Trump’s first press conference of his presidency, the first question, as expected, was about the firing of Mike Flynn. This was his answer: “Mike Flynn is a fine person…I asked for his resignation…I was not happy with the way that information was given [to Mike Pence]. He didn’t have to do that, because what he did wasn’t wrong. [my italics]…What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally.”

Mike Flynn’s talking to Ambassador Kislyak about relaxing sanctions was classified, according to Trump, but lying to the FBI, communicating with a foreign power that had intervened in democratic elections, perhaps making the promise of relaxing sanctions in return for that interference, was what had been really hidden. Trump continued: “That’s the real problem. And, you know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a, you know, fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it. In fact, I saw a couple of the people that were supposedly involved with all of this — that they know nothing about it; they weren’t in Russia; they never made a phone call to Russia; they never received a phone call. It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news.” We now know for certain that these were all lies, but we still had to learn whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russians or even actually colluded.

Later in the press conference, Trump was asked, “Can you tell us in determining what Lieutenant General Flynn did — whether there was no wrongdoing in your mind, what evidence was weighed? Did you ask for transcripts of these telephone intercepts with Russian officials, particularly the Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who he was communicating with? What– what evidence did you weigh to determine that there was no wrongdoing? Further to that, Sir, you said on a couple of locations this morning, you are going to aggressively pursue the source of these leaks.” Trump affirmed the latter question and ignored the much longer and entire list of questions that led to it.

In another follow-up question about whether anyone on the Trump team had talked to Russian officials, Trump replied that Mr. Manafort “said he never spoke to Russia; never received a call. Look at his phone records, et cetera, et cetera… people knew that he represented various countries, but I don’t think he represented Russia, but knew that he represented various countries. That’s what he does. I mean, people know that.” Most of the press conference was spent on Trump speaking about fake news and insulting the press as well as on Flynn and the Russia issue. Trump repeatedly claimed, “I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge no person that I deal with does.”

In my estimation, not in quantity but in insight, the most important part of the Q&A had nothing to do with Flynn and Russia, but with a statement Trump made about “others.” “You do agree there are bad people out there, right? That not everybody that’s like you. You have some bad people out there.” He could not have meant that the people out there are “not good” like you since he had just spent an enormous amount of time telling reporters and the public how deceitful the press was. The meaning of “not everybody’s like you” came near the end of the press conference soon after this remark when the discussion turned to antisemitism and racism.

When Trump, near the end of the Q&A, was asked about his administration’s policies for inner cities and whether he would include members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the discussions, Trump replied: “Do you want to set up the meeting?” And he repeated the question. The female reporter who asked the question was black. When she was startled and said, “no,” Trump asked a follow-up. “Are they friends of yours?’ The reply: “I’m just a reporter.” Trump: “Well, then, set up the meeting.”

Is it racist to tell a black reporter to set up a meeting with the Black Caucus? Was it demeaning that he was so condescending to a female reporter? I leave it for the readers to decide. However, repeatedly Donald Trump differentiates between those who are “like us” and those who are not.

Because of Mueller, we have been conditioned to believe that the most important issues about the Trump presidency concern his possible collusion with the Russian intervention in the American election and Trump’s corruption – a record of lying and of giving priority to his own transactional agenda. These are certainly the most sensational and are more than likely to be the issues that bring the Trump regime to an ignominious end. But the most substantive issues are still about who to include and exclude, how to do it and the internal, almost unconscious, propensity to treat different communities of America differently – blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and women.

As President Trump began his path of self-destruction with his first step onto the slippery slope, as he ignored what was really happening in the production world, the shift of routine automobile assembly to Mexico with the benefit that the jobs created eased the pressure on the southern border, and as American-based production focused on leading edge self-driving and electric-powered vehicles that entailed a much greater stress on weaving artificial intelligence as well as robotics into transportation, meaning an increased need for highly trained workers who could manage robots and cope with the reality that artificial intelligence could often make much more rational decisions than humans. Trump time and time again proved that he was not only living in a fantasy world of lies of his own making, but that it was a topsy-turvy world of the Mad Hatter and Alice in Wonderland, but without its colour, joy and sheer pleasure in outrageousness.

The clock could not be turned back. History was not about eternal return but about dramatic shifts – from slavery to a system of free individuals, from a rural agricultural society to an industrial one and, more recently, into an electronic communications culture of which the internet is just a part. The movement of peoples and of external governments into domestic politics now had to be managed in radically different ways that did not involve placing one’s total reliance on mediaeval methods such as walls. Trump wanted to preserve the magic world of yesteryear when his magicians proved repeatedly to be losing control and ceding the space of the miraculous to a whole new way of life.

Trump in his head and in his pronouncements wanted to turn defeat into victory, revive the obsolete and dying past so that America once again could become the central force of human history, but Trump increasingly revealed he was living in a land of make believe. The first step onto the slippery slope of the Trump administration began with denial, denial and denial – of that which was true and proved to be increasingly validated. But Donald Trump had shown that he could be untouched by either reality or human suffering at the same time as he was condescending and demeaning to persons he saw as “other.”

David Frum offered a very different picture of nostalgia based on the resurrection of conservatives who can govern responsibly while being “culturally modern, economically inclusive and environmentally responsible.” Though equally unrealistic, Frum’s vision is at least based on truth rather than fabrication, on goodwill to all rather than bad will towards some. But it is nostalgia nevertheless, for a lost world rather than an imagined one.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

On Multiculturalism and Lying Bshalach: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

After the slaying of the first born, Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to go. Not only the Israelites. Last week’s parashat read that “a mixed multitude went up with them” (Exodus 12:38) as they [the Israelites] fled Egypt. There were non-Israelites who also fled. Perhaps others also enslaved. Or still others who accepted the power of the Israeli God and painted blood on their doorframes. Or perhaps those who married a Hebrew and took up Hebraic practices.

לח  וְגַם-עֵרֶב רַב, עָלָה אִתָּם, וְצֹאן וּבָקָר, מִקְנֶה כָּבֵד מְאֹד. 38 And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.

In the beginning of God’s creating heaven and earth, 3) God said, “Let there be light.”; and there was light. 4) God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. 5) God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening (dusk) and morning (dawn) a first day.” The Pharaonic Egyptians were the people of darkness, as Amalek would also prove to be. The Israelites were the children of light. The others who escaped with the Israelites were people of the dusk, of nightfall, and perhaps people of dawn, of the morning. These people of the dusk, of the evening, were the ones who made those in flight into a mixed multitude, gam erev, ְגַם-עֵרֶב.

However, it seems that only the Israelites stripped the Egyptians of their gold bowls and silver candlesticks on the pretext that they were just borrowing them for use in the worship service to their God. The departure was based on a tripod of lies: that the Israelites were leaving only for three days, that they were leaving so that they could worship their God in the desert and that they needed those valuable ornaments for a ceremony appropriate to their God. As powerful as God may have been, it seems He could not (or would not) free the Israelites without Moses telling lies.

If the Israelites wore stolen Egyptian clothing when they fled, was this an issue of self-camouflage and, therefore, of misrepresentation as well as lying and stealing? When the non-Israelites who fled with them had painted their door frames red and then hid amongst the 600,000 who fled, were they also engaged in mis-representation? Or were the people of the dusk distinctly different than the people of light? In Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, the framing metaphor is of a bird that is cruelly painted and then driven out of the flock because of its difference. The irony of this powerful tale of misrepresentation and intolerance was that the story itself was not a memoir of a Jewish survivor and refugee from the Holocaust, but a fictional tale plagiarized from a popular Polish folk tale and an act of willful deception in a double sense, for Kosinski himself had never endured what the boy allegedly experienced as a persecuted painted bird during WWII but was hidden and well cared for by a well-off Catholic family.

The Israelites fled with Egyptian clothing and valuables, but they did not take enough food and drink. Unleavened bread would not sustain them for long. And they were soon complaining that Moses had led them into the wilderness based on a false promise. Why had he turned them into refugees without proper shelter and a secure source of food? They had been misled. The promise of freedom was a hoax. Was this tale of escape from slavery into freedom itself a hoax? Lying and misrepresentation seemed to be the order of the day.

On the one hand, I do not know of a refugee who escaped who has not had to lie to survive. On the other hand, when I lived in Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, made up of 95% Somalis, refugees from Ethiopia surreptitiously approached me to tell me they were Ethiopian and not Somali and that they were being persecuted by Somalis within the camp. The question of who belongs and who does not is not just a matter of states deciding who to admit and who to exclude, who to treat with equality and who not to, but is an issue of any society of humans.

Moses had lied to Pharaoh. Had he also lied to his own people? We are all aware that lying is part of what it is to be human. We tell our children that there are tooth fairies, that Santa Claus brings gifts to every child in all parts of the world, in one night no less. Words are used to misinform as well as inform. As Stendhal wrote in The Red and the Black, “Speech has been given to man to hide his thoughts.” In the novel, using deceit and hypocrisy, Julien Sorel wears the black collar of a cleric even though he seems bereft of any faith, but it serves as a guise to rise from his humble origins into the middle class during the Bourbon Restoration after the Napoleonic period.

Sometimes, instead of lying, people evade. When the interrogators of the Un-American Activities asked Berthold Brecht whether he was or ever had been a member of the Communist Party of America or knowingly associated with members of that party, he did not lie. He dissimulated. He acted outraged and asked in turn, who had developed such a preposterous question. Indignantly and self-righteously he charged the Committee with being infiltrated by communists. As a died-in-the-wool communist he misled them, mirroring their words and their zealotry to mock his inquisitors. But he did not lie. He never said that he was not a member. However, he went further. By mirroring their own fraudulent claims and charges, he not only openly mocked them, but had them eating out of his hand as they apologized profusely for the misunderstanding.

Is dissembling for self-preservation a moral good? Certainly, in nature both plants and animals use camouflage as a self-protection device. I will be travelling to Spain in March and April and have always been fascinated by the Conversos, forced converts to Christianity who may have been baptized, attended church regularly and went to mass and even confession, but in secret continued to practice their Judaism. When caught, they were burned at the stake even though they had formally converted to Christianity. Is dissembling that goes even further than simply self-protection to reveal a moral evil even a virtuous as well as virtuoso performance?

In Wednesday’s Tablet, Majid Rafizadeh wrote an article, “The First Jew I met in Iran: Face to face with the challenges of living a double life under the Iranian theocracy.” (The whole issue includes various articles on Jews in Iran.) Majid tells the story of discovering that one of his students in Iran was Jewish when she started sobbing (quietly) when he mentioned the Holocaust. “Later, I learned that my student, Sara, had relatives on her grandfather’s side who died in the Holocaust. I was saddened and surprised. Many questions raced through my mind: Is she Jewish? The shock of that thought brought on another, important question. Why am I surprised to have met a Jew? Why did I suddenly begin feeling as if I had met a foreigner, someone from another country? Her relatives had actually lived longer than mine in Iran. Why was she hesitant to say that she was Jewish?”

Why did she disguise that she was Jewish? “First, there are systematic and concerted efforts made from the top down by the theocratic regime and several other governments in the region to eliminate Jewish history. There is also a strong push to incite antagonism against the Jewish people. The regime openly encourages debates that revolve around casting doubt on and questioning the authenticity of the Holocaust. They ratchet up anti-Israel slogans, and celebrate national anti-Israel holidays such as Quds Day. They promote and accept Holocaust deniers such as the former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the intricate teachings that may imply that Jews are impure (najis). All of these actions, combined with many more forms of intimidation enacted by the regime, not only create a hostile environment for Jewish communities inside Iran, but also abroad.”

The result: “These policies force many families and individuals to have two different lives in private and public, two different names, and maybe two different religions.”… “Some Jews secretly confess that they are indeed living two separate lives. In their private life they practice their faith, but in public they are extremely cautious, avoiding saying anything about their lives. Out of fear or in order to survive economically, socially, and academically, some may convert to Islam on the surface but continue to practice Judaism at home.” Did Moses, raised as an Egyptian royal who fled to live among and marry a Midianite, feel he was a fraud when he was among his own people?

On CNN every evening as one lie after another of Donald Trump is exposed, behind that journalism lies the claim that “facts matter,” that what is most important to a politician is his integrity. As Trump one day says the opposite of what he said a previous day, he is viewed as betraying the notion that a man’s word is his worth. Does the Exodus story also smell of fraud, of dissimulation, of misrepresentation and outright lies? Perhaps with nowhere near the blatancy of the New York huckster and hustler who got himself elected as president of the United States, but is Exodus a tale of momentous deceit, not simply because it may never have happened in history, but because it is not really a story of a people led from slavery into freedom and self-determination, but a story of refugees who rewrite their tale from a story of victimhood to a story of heroism? Is this not precisely what the United Empire Loyalists did who were driven out of the U.S. following the War of Independence but revised that narrative to one about those who left voluntarily in order to live a life of civility and loyalty under the monarch?

Seymour Hersh in his essay, “The Vice-President’s Men,” tells the largely unknown tale of Bush senior as a Vice-President. Ronald Reagan, though a great hero of Republicans, pioneered in playing a role rather than serving as the leader of the free world. He read scripts beautifully – unlike Donald Trump. But he was terrible at improvisation. Like Trump, he never read his briefing books. But unlike Trump, he was a great leader because he delegated real responsibilities to other men of integrity and wisdom and became renown for his statesmanship and decency.

Ronald Reagan won the candidacy of the Republican Party against the wishes of the whole GOP establishment. George H.W. Bush, who went down in defeat at the end after competing in 33 primaries and winning only 4, nevertheless, doggedly forced Reagan to name him as his running mate, not just because he was needed on the ticket as a balance to Reagan’s right-wing extremism, but because, as a former head of the CIA, he knew how stupid Reagan was. George H.W. Bush pioneered in the practice of an inside coup by a Vice-President that Dick Cheney ironically perfected when he agreed to be VP for Bush Jr.  It was only revealed years later that the key mover and shaker behind the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan era had been George H.W. Bush who ran a secret war of subverting terrorists all over the world under the radar of both Congress and the president, a war hidden by “flack and misinformation.” (See Seymour M. Hersh, “The Vice-President’s Men.”)

For those who believe that clarity and total honesty are prerequisites, are the saving grace, look at Donald Trump who is unequivocally a liar and a fraud. It is almost impossible not to know who he is and how he conducts himself because his lying is so predominant. On the other hand, in the Torah, the exercise of finding one’s way through the dissimulation to arrive at a greater truth is so difficult. It is a real challenge. For myself, I prefer people of the dusk, those who live on the perimeter of any society.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump: Part IIB – The Beginning of the Slippery Slope

In The New York Review of Books 11 months ago (22 February 2018), Michael Tomasky, a former colleague of David Frum at the The Daily Beast, wrote a review of David Frum’s new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic entitled, “The Worst of the Worst.” That review also covered Michael Wolf’s book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House which I reviewed in a blog last year. Tomasky’s review began with two initial remarks:

  • After one year in office, Donald Trump had just offered his one-thousandth lie; a few were old standbys – about how quickly the border wall could be built, about ‘the worst of the worst’ gaining entry to the United States through a visa lottery, and about his wall’s ability to curtail the drug trade.” (including misleading statements as well as lies, the total of anti-facts more than doubled – 2,140; by the end of 18 months, the total increased by 50% again to 4,229; the half-life of the truth for Donald Trump means that the number of lies double every six months.) Donald Trump’s first two outright lies concerned migration and the southern border:
  1. Concerning the first two months of 2017, “there’s never [been] so many apprehensions in our history.” It was a lie. In 2018, there were about 450,000 apprehensions of alleged illegal aliens, the most since 2014, but still well below the numbers in the 1980s, 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century when there were about one million per year on average. More significantly, the numbers from 2014 to 2018 jumped because of a dramatic leap in family apprehensions as the movement north began to include large numbers of women and their children – not the murderers, robbers and gang members Trump portrays.
  2. “When I say Mexico is going to pay for the wall, that’s what I said. Mexico is going to pay. I didn’t say they were going to write me a check for $20 billion or $10 billion.” But that was precisely what he did say.” It is true that most of the 13 ways he suggested Mexico would pay were indirect, but also not feasible. However, on 31 March 2016 he did say, “Mexico would make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion flows to their country every year.”
  • Trump’s never-never land continues day-by-day, repeatedly amplifying lies and mis-directions, driving us crazy in the insane world in which we now live.

Tomasky’s review highlighted the issue of ingress and egress from membership in the U.S. and building a wall to control access discussed in Monday’s blog. Frum also put that issue within a conservative policy framework. Frum promoted “a conservativism that can not only win elections but also govern responsibly, a conservativism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive and environmentally responsible,” in contrast to the mad world of lies and distortions of Trump who “has contaminated thousands of careers and millions of minds. He has ripped the conscience out of half of the political spectrum and left a moral void where American conservatism used to be.” Where once the disruption of governance had been stealthy, it has now taken a leap forward with the longest government closure in American history.

I have argued that, in this mad world of tweets and lies that is driving us nuts, we can and we must not only re-establish rational control, but do so by tracing the pattern and the path of Trump’s self-destruction since he became president. If we return almost two years back to the second month of his presidency, February 2017, then the presidency took a step further towards the abyss, though the abyss was still too far away to be visible at the time. Decisions on membership in a state split into two open tracks, Previously, the foreign government influence issue had been hidden beneath the exclusion policy. The influence of a foreign and alien government on the ability of Americans to freely and knowledgeably choose their leaders provided one track. Secondly, the first open display of racism towards Americans by Donald Trump since he assumed the presidency offered the other track.

On 9 February 2017, The Washington Post cited nine sources verifying that Michael Flynn had discussed lifting sanctions from Russia prior to Donald Trump becoming president. On 13 February 2017, Donald Trump fired Michael Flynn as his National Security Advisor, not because he had discussed anything substantive with the Russian ambassador during or after the election campaign, but ostensibly because Flynn had lied about his conversations to Vice-President Mike Pence. Flynn and Pence met a day after The Washington Post published a story a month earlier, before Donald Trump was inaugurated. By mid-February, Trump had known for three weeks that Flynn had lied. Just three days before the firing, Trump openly lied and said that he had been unaware that Flynn had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions.

News reports claimed that on 29 December 2015, Flynn, had several  discussions with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. The White House Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus, echoed Pence’s assurance that nothing of substance had been discussed. While possibly offering sanctions relief, White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, repeatedly denied that sanctions were discussed and insisted that only the logistics of the inauguration constituted the gist of the conversation.

Within less than a month following his inauguration, Trump had fired his acting Attorney General and his National Security Adviser. He waited with his most important firing of FBI Director James Comey until 9 May 2017. Trump had met Comey on Valentine’s day, 14 February, a day after he had fired Flynn. Trump learned that Comey would be unlikely to accede to his request that, “I hope you can go easy on him (Flynn).” Further, it was highly unlikely that Comey would stop an FBI probe into possible collusion of Russians and Americans regarding the conduct of the elections. Trump did not fire Comey in mid-February because he felt he needed more time (three more months as it turned out) to try to undermine the credibility, not only of Comey, but of the FBI.

Recall that Sally Yates, five days before she was fired in January, had met with White House counsel Don McGahn and told him that, contrary to Flynn’s claims to White House officials, intelligence agencies had definite information that sanctions had been discussed in the calls of Flynn with Kisylak and that Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on the subject. She also warned that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail.

All the while, in the last two weeks of February, another controversy was beginning to sprout out of Donald Trump’s indifference to the largest protest march in American history. In a press conference on 16 February, just two days after Trump had met Comey in that critical meeting that set the stage for an eventual charge of obstruction of justice, Donald Trump held a 77-minute press conference. During that press conference, he announced his nominee for Secretary of Labor, celebrated the confirmation of Mick Mulvaney as head of the Office of Management and Budget and, very ironically as it turned out, boasted, “I don’t think there’s ever been a president elected who in this short period of time has done what we’ve done.”

His statement in that press conference that his government had placed “a lifetime ban on lobbying for a foreign government” was most ironic.  He did not say that you would not need such lobbying if the head of that government was in the pocket of America’s oldest enemy. Trump lauded his own withdrawal from the Transpacific Partnership, his first salvo into the trade wars that would mark the first two years of his presidency and that proved to be the greatest economic threat to his presidency. Trump announced that we “are now in the process of beginning to build a promised wall on the southern border,” an announcement that would be repeated many times over the next two years.

Trump cited a discredited polling service, Rasmussen, to prove he was supported by 55% of Americans. When fifteen pollsters’ results were analyzed – by FiveThirtyEight in 2018 – Rasmussen was slotted in the bottom one-third of polls noted for their inaccuracies. Nate Silver, America’s best pollster, described Rasmussen as “biased and inaccurate”; the 105 polls released in Senate and gubernatorial races by Rasmussen/Pulse Opinion Research missed the final margin between the candidates by 5.8 points in Senate and gubernatorial races. In the 2018 midterms, according to Nate Silver, Rasmussen “badly missed the margin in many states, and also exhibited a considerable bias toward Republican candidates.”

“In 2018, Rassmussen Reports predicted that Republicans would win the generic ballot by 1 percentage point while the actual election results had Democrats winning by approximately 8 percentage points. The 9 percentage point error was the largest polling error out of major firms who polled the national generic ballot.  It should be no surprise that Trump repeatedly cites only the Rasmussen poll.

In February 2017, the stock market continued to rise, but the mention of continuity in that rise was omitted by Trump. Factories and plants, whose relocations had been planned for years before him, were already, Trump declared, moving back to America. He announced that, “Since my election, Ford announced it will abandon its plans to build a new factory in Mexico, and will instead invest $700 million in Michigan.” Not “instead”!

The plant in Mexico was slated to cost $1.6 billion while the investment in Flat Rock would total less than 45% of that amount. However, the reality of the Ford decision was quite different than the one portrayed by Trump. Ford continued its plans to move production of its compact Ford model to Mexico, but to an existing plant in Hermosillo rather than a new one. The plan to invest in the Flat Rock plant in Michigan had been part of another plan of Ford, to use Flat Rock as a base to build electric and self-driving vehicles. Trump’s blather had zero effect on the Ford decision, except perhaps in the way it was framed.

“This administration,” Trump asserted, “is running like a fine- tuned machine, despite the fact that I can’t get my cabinet approved.” He could have added, but did not, “by a Republican dominated Congress.” Yet, at the very same time as he was making these declarations, he noted that the press had become very dishonest, that “many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you [the American public] the truth” because the media in Washington, New York and Los Angeles speak “not for the people, but for the special interests and those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.”

As it turned out, Flynn’s lies, and Trump’s lies about Flynn, and Trump’s lies about the resurrection of the American manufacturing system, were part of the same fraud. In the pure rarified air of the GOP, governance is an extra, an extravagance we can do without. In reality, governance is the core of government. And the two most important issues of governance are – who is accepted into membership (and how they are accepted) and how those who already have membership are treated.

 

To be continued.

 

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump: Part I – The Beginning of the Presidency

 

Last evening at dinner with friends I was asked how I thought the Trump presidency would now unfold in light of the latest purported revelations in the New York Times that, after the James Comey firing, the FBI had begun to examine the possibility that Donald Trump had been an asset of Russia and that he was possibly compromised. As usual, prophecy easily set aside analysis and an examination of the evolving pattern; we ended up discussing the now almost certain self-destruction of Donald Trump as president rather than the process by which it had come about.

One of my companions had also circulated an op-ed in this past Friday’s New York Times by Benjamin Wittes, a former editorial writer for The Washington Post, called, “What if the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell.” It was a more condensed version of positions that Witte, a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, previously published in the blog he co-edits, Lawfare, put out by the Lawfare Institute in cooperation with Brookings. The blog covers national security issues and was initially written by and for legal nerds.

The blog became part of the public debate over Trump when the president himself, at the beginning of his administration, after the courts blocked his ban on Muslim entry into the country, cited the blog in a tweet as supporting his position on exclusion. Trump clearly indicated that he had not read the piece nor likely could have understood it if he had read it. The reaction signaled that he had added ignorance to his indifference to both law and its requirements to treat persons without discrimination. But more on this in my next blog.

Witte’s op-ed argued that, “The public understanding of and debate over the Mueller investigation rests on several discrete premises that I believe should be re-examined. The first is the sharp line between the investigation of ‘collusion’ and the investigation of obstruction of justice. The second is the sharp line between the counter-intelligence components of the investigation and the criminal components. The third and most fundamental is the notion that the investigation was, in the first place, an investigation of the Trump campaign and figures associated with it.”

In this series of blogs, I will argue that:

  1. there never was a sharp line between collusion and the issue of obstruction of justice;
  2. there never was a sharp line between a counter-intelligence investigation and one of criminality;
  3. in the first place, the investigation did not begin with the Trump administration and associated figures;
  4. the overlaps began well before Comey was fired;
  5. the focus on law and the distinctions concerning law, though very important, are side issues since the fate of Donald Trump will be determined by politics and the court of public opinion where the above fine distinctions do not matter one whit; what happens in a court of law on these issues will be an after effect and not the main event.
  6. Most importantly, the central issue is not the legal one, whether of collusion or corruption, but the political issue and core values of the American republic concerning who can become members of that republic and how its various members are treated.

The most important decisions any state makes are NOT about the security of its citizens, as many believe, but who those citizens are, whether they have part or full citizenship and who else can become citizens. The rules of inclusion and exclusion re citizenship and the equality of status or lack of it of those included are central. Who can and cannot become members? What is the status of members of different communities who are members?

In pre-bellum America, blacks were included in membership in the state, but many or even most did not have citizenship or even mobility rights. They were slaves. At the same time, as America expanded westward, aboriginal peoples were driven off their land in exercises of ethnic cleansing. At the same time, entry to the U.S. was overwhelmingly restricted to Europeans. The picture in Canada was better, but not by as much as Canadians believe. After all, as late as before and even immediately after WWII, Canadian policy towards admission of Jews was governed by the principle that “None Is Too Many.” And Canadian policy towards aboriginal peoples was based on a combination of discrimination and forcible “conversion.”

Sometimes, as in the case of Pharaoh in Egypt according to the Torah, the ruler retained slavery and restricted exit. In contemporary America, the central and major focus of the current president has not been restricting exit but restricting entry into America and, more subtly, reinforcing old stereotypes that limit access to equal citizenship. As I did with Pharaoh in the ancient world, I will track the self-destruction of the American president as he tried to prevent the intake of some and continue inegalitarian policies towards others in the record of that self-destruction right up to the present, culminating in closing down a large portion of the government in order to get funds to build a wall on the southern border of the U.S. to keep out Mexicans and Central Americans.

History is easily forgotten. We tell and repeat stories so that the lessons may seep into our unconscious and undergird our thoughts. Those tales also tell where we have been and where we may be going. Although everything in here is, or should be, mostly familiar, retelling the tale as a single recovered narrative, in installments of course, will, I believe, also reveal a pattern as well as help recall parts of the story we so easily forget. In order to gain a better grasp on where the Trump regime will end up, I thought it would be useful to trace the steps in its self-destruction based on the stages Donald Trump has taken to restrict entry and to limit egalitarianism to those who are already members.

I will do this retracing in terms of the institutions of governance systematically undermined, the techniques for doing so, the rising resistance and the situation in which the president now finds himself with his tough stance on building a wall to curtail unwanted and illegal immigration, a critical cornerstone of his candidacy and an important factor influencing his election victory.

The trend I outline is characteristic of autocratic impulses on display in many established democracies, but not as prolonged as what happens in actual autocratic regimes as in Iran or North Korea. As the U.S. presidency implodes and Theresa May’s British effort itself hits a wall over both exclusion as well as the permeability between Northern Ireland and the Republic to the south, and the Macron world stumbles simply over the issue of the degree of egalitarianism, the Trump democratic monarchical regime has its own self-identity and its own self-destructive path even when the stages seem identical.

The central concept that distinguishes liberal democracy from the arbitrary whims of mobs and monarchs is the rule of law versus the rule of one individual, the latter especially problematic for any politician who claims to embody and channel the spirit and will of “the people.” That is as it should be. “To secure the public good and private rights,” James Madison wrote in the tenth of the Federalist Papers, majority factions “must be rendered … unable to conduct and carry into effect schemes of oppression.” A lack of institutional checks on the exercise of government power is precisely why “pure” democracies of the past “have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Setting aside how Donald Trump won his position as the candidate for the Republican Party and how he won the majority support of the Electoral College, Trump began his presidency in January of 2017 with both lies about the extent of his support and the numbers at his inauguration, and an overt indifference to the recognition of women as anything more than pussies. One day after his inauguration, women in America carried out the largest single protest march in American history. Trump never ever recovered from that lack of support from women. In the current controversy over the government shutdown over funding the wall, women blame Trump (and Republicans) by a margin of 35 points. (The margin for men is only 13 points.)

Only one week after he was inaugurated, Trump issued, via executive fiat, the first travel ban against Muslims from a number of specific countries, engaged in a temper tantrum with the Prime Minister of Australia over refugee policy, and, at the end of January 2017, fired Sally Yates, the Acting Attorney General, after she refused to defend the travel ban against Muslims. Yates had instructed Justice Department lawyers not to offer legal arguments in defence of Trump’s immigration and refugee executive order. As she stated in her letter defending her actions, “My responsibility is to ensure that the position of the Department of Justice is not only legally defensible, but is informed by our best view of what the law is after consideration of all the facts. In addition, I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right.”

When Trump signed Executive Order 13769 on 27 January 2017 barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States for the next 90 days, suspending the admission of all refugees for 120 days and indefinitely suspending the Syrian refugee program, Yates took it as her statutory duty to represent the United States in legal matters and not the orders of the president. Trump in a tweet argued that Yates had “betrayed the Department of Justice by refusing to enforce a legal order.” But her point was that it was not a legal order, had not been vetted by the Justice Department and would subsequently be declared to be illegal by American Courts.

What became clearer subsequently was that this was not the only reason Trump had fired Yates. Yates had just warned the White House:

  1. that Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, had lied to the White House not just about the extent but also about the content of his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States;
  2. the FBI had recordings to document that lying, though she did not show the White House counsel the evidence.

That was the opening salvo of the Donald Trump presidency – restrictions on entry and an executive order considered to be, and later verified as, unlawful by the acting U.S. Attorney General. Then she was fired by Trump, big news in itself. But the story also was used as a cover for and a distraction from Sally Yates informing President Trump that the FBI had evidence linking Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor, with possible collusion with the Russians who had intervened in the American presidential election. The conversations in December over Flynn’s offer to lift sanctions on Russia immediately linked two streams, the restrictions on entry into America and the collusion with Russia issue, which already involved a criminal activity, lying to the FBI.

What was Trump’s reaction to all of these issues flaring up in the first ten days of his presidency – both ignorance of law and indifference to those appointed to uphold the law, a law dealing both with discrimination and with restricting entry into the United States? Issues of collusion and corruption were conjoined from the beginning and linked to and partially clouding the collusion/criminality investigation already underway. Trump’s attitude was one of disregard and dismissal, dismissal of the core issues and disregard of those responsible for carrying out the law.

 

To be continued

The Self-Destruction of Donald Trump Part IIA – Stage II of his Descent: A Few Sidesteps

When I write of sidesteps, they are mine, not Donald Trump’s. Yesterday evening I went to hear David Frum in conversation with Professor Cliff Orwin speak to a full house in the very large main sanctuary of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto on the subject, “Human Rights in the Age of Nationalism and Populism.”

The sanctuary in which the talk took place is gorgeous, a beautiful melding of opposites – with its mediaeval Romanesque-style narrow entries, round arches, barrel vault for the main sanctuary culminating in the gorgeous rounded recess over the bema, but without the very heavy walls and buttressing of parallel narrower vaults on each side as in its mediaeval predecessors. The original delicate brutalism, as distinct from the heavy (and ugly in my mind) brutalism of the 1970s and 1980s, used a poured concrete building far ahead of its time when it opened in 1938 to provide a very large and very high-ceilinged main place of worship in the Temple.

It was a very appropriate place to hold a discussion that tried to tie very opposite traditions together within a common conceptual structure – republican patronizing elitism and listening to the populace. Preserving and catering to the inherited traditions and institutions, particularly legal ones, while constantly adapting to new challenges. The effort did not work so well on the conceptual level as the structure did on the concrete material level.

Rabbi Yael Splansky introduced the evening with what she presented as a dark story told by Reb Nachman of Bratslav from the beginning of the nineteenth century. A descendent of Baal Shem Tov, he was the founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement. I am always reminded of him whenever one of my friends in Torah study speaks, for the central issue for my friend, as it was for the Rav, is proximity to God in the ordinary daily conduct of life – hitbodedut. There are many simple stories he told. Rabbi Splansky introduced the evening with one about the king and his stargazer, one of his tales that I had never read before.

The story goes as follows:

The king’s star gazer saw that the grain harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would become insane. “What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.” “Perhaps,” said the star gazer, “we should set aside enough grain for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If we do that, we’ll be considered crazy. If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be considered the not normal ones. “Rather,” said the king, “I suggest that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal, we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane, whenever we look at each other, we will remember that we are insane!”

For Rabbi Splansky, the present is a very troubling time suitable to hear a dark tale about public insanity. Do you participate in the insanity and put a mark on your forehead to remind yourself and those who share the mark that you are not insane. Or are the ones who carry that mark the insane ones? Both David Frum and Cliff Orwin wore marks on their forehead to remind each other that they were rational, were reasonable, were prudent and retained their sense and sensibility in the Mad Hatter House of Trump. But were they the insane ones? After all, in 2011, in New York magazine, David had written that, “Some of my Republican friends ask if I’ve gone crazy.” He went on to write, “Look in the mirror.” As Frum and Orwin faced one another, which of the two speakers was the king and which the stargazer?

The latter question is easiest to answer for anyone familiar with their writings and thoughts, particularly in the era of Trump. I knew Barbara and Murray Frum, David Frum’s parents, from university. Barbara became famous across Canada as the host of CBC’s “As It Happens,” a program on world affairs. Murray graduated as a dentist, but morphed into a prominent property developer in Toronto as well as a unique collector of African art. David was born in 1960 three months before my eldest son, Jeremy, who is currently a professor of History at Princeton University. At David’s bar mitzvah, he not only chanted the entire Torah portion (very rare) but, in effect, conducted the whole service as Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld of Temple Emanu-El looked proudly at the wunderkind of his congregation. So I have the advantage of knowing something about his history in addition to reading some of his writings and listening to him yesterday evening.

Just after David completed Grade 13 before he went off to study at Yale University, in 1979, David Frum organized fifty private sponsorships of Indochinese refugees in his relatively small congregation. That was a record in Canada. He also was invited to and joined the board of Operation Lifeline. I tell you these tales because David was not only brilliant and an activist at a very young age, but a very different one than his mother or I. For someone who began as a social democrat at the time he had his bar mitzvah, he turned from a caterpillar into a right-wing butterfly by the end of his teens, but one who always retained his mother’s powerful social conscience. He was the stargazer, but unlike the king’s adviser, always looked down at the plight of the pedestrians below who could not fly.

He went on to become a very high flier. After he got his juris doctor from Harvard Law School, he began his lofty career as a public intellectual. He went from being an associate editor for Saturday Night, an important Canadian magazine, to an editorial position with the Wall Street Journal followed by a stint at Forbes magazine and other conservative papers and journals. He was a mover and shaker in the marriage of the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada, but I do not know whether he was happy when the Reformers assumed control.

Frum was destined to fly higher still. After the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Michael Gerson, currently of CNN fame, hired him as a Bush speechwriter even though he never became an American citizen until 2007. He left that position very shortly after he wrote Bush’s most famous speech that included the phrase “Axis of Evil” which David Frum’s wife, Daniele, boasted to friends was his creation. Whether that possibly indiscrete boast or other factors led to his departure became unimportant as he went on to become a very public intellectual, but one who always remained a gadfly on the body politic of the Republican Party – supporting Medicare in the form of a version of Obamacare, and confessing that he had been wrong as a neo-con who had supported the invasion of Iraq and even co-authored a book in its defense with Richard Perle, An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror.  I do not know whether he also felt he erred when, in 2007, he supported Rudolph Giuliani’s run to become the Republican presidential candidate, but by 2016 he had become a vocal Republican anti-Trumpian and even voted for Hillary Clinton.

In his talk last night, he echoed that confession and said that part of the reason for the rise of populism was that the elites at the beginning of the twenty-first century were flying too high as butterflies and had forgotten to hear and attend to the pedestrians below. In addition to David Frum, others included Bill Kristol, Jennifer Rubin, the late Charles Krauthammer, and Max Boot who just published an important piece in listing 18 possible “high crimes and misdemeanours” which might lead to Trump’s impeachment. (See David Frum’s 2018 book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic and Max Boot, “Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset,” The Washington Post, 14 January 2019.)

In David’s talk, he tried to continue to be a stargazer while also skipping from one beautiful flower on the ground to another and despairing of those Republicans who flew higher and higher on the uplift winds of populism, claiming to be the headwind of that movement, but exploiting it for the most fraudulent purposes. Trump was not the only one who had lost sight of the people as he claimed to speak on their behalf. Republicans, Frum argued, had for a long time feared the people, feared “that the time would soon come, and maybe already had come, when democracy would be turned against those people who regarded themselves as its rightful custodians.”

However, if this was the logical endpoint of modern republicanism, and not an aberration, why was Frum still tilting at windmills and hoping that a proper resurrection of a responsible elite leadership would arise out of the ashes of the Republican Party? His analysis and his hopes seemed so at odds, but consistent with the madness of our times and the madness depicted by Reb Nachman of Bratslav in his tale. How do you recognize who is crazy when the craziest one of all occupies the presidency? As the multiplication of his lies accelerates, we start to shut our eyes and ears at the cacophony to preserve our own sanity, but then are unable to recognize who does and who does not wear a mark on their forehead.

Frum began his talk tracing the emergence of human rights as a direct by-product of the turning away of the St. Louis in 1939 and the Holocaust. Frum in a later response to a question about refugees distinguished between refugees individually targeted for persecution who become asylum seekers under the Geneva Convention, and the mass of humanitarian refugees fleeing war, general oppression, environmentalhardships, gang violence and poverty. In contradiction to the role David played in 1979, he would only take in Convention refugees and would offer funds to resettle humanitarian refugees in first countries of asylum, ignoring that such an effort failed dismally in the case of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.

Are the Rohingya humanitarian refugees or Convention refugees since they face possible genocide? Are the Muslims in North China, if they could escape, victims of cultural genocide and eligible for Convention refugee status? What about the Yazidis and the Christians who are being systematically religiously cleansed from the Middle East? Now that Trump has announced his withdrawal of troops from Syria, will the Kurds be next since they are already being persecuted in Turkey?

David’s simplistic distinction and even simpler division of policy and responsibility for fine tuning a solution seemed to arise from his analysis of Brexit as a direct by-product of the influx of 1.2 million Syrian refugees into Germany, with many of them moving on to larger London to participate in the fastest growing labour market in the world. Little Britain had become frightened and the implication was that the elites had to cater to their fear.

But is that not the real slippery slope to Trumpism? It is certainly true that the ongoing war in Syria that resulted in over five million refugees has rattled the nerves of most countries. It is also true that Canada’s humanitarian effort is akin to trying to stop a fracturing dike holding back flood waters by putting your thumb in the first hole that appears. Certainly, the so-called global laws undergirding the refugee regime and the approach to humanitarian refugees offer a way out by addressing the rights of the few while plying the very many with droplets of humanitarian aid, but it is a way out by using the rule of law, not to protect the vulnerable, but to select an elite among the vulnerable while warehousing the vast majority of the rest under inhuman conditions.

This distinction feeds into Trump’s depoliticization of humanitarian refugees that turns them into products of conditions other than victims of human rights abuses, but, in doing so, covers up and camouflages the construction of the refugee as a threat, as a legal outsider, and ignores the racism and misogyny informing such a frame. The refugee instead of a person with rights becomes a person without rights, a pariah as in Hannah Arendt’s analysis. Taking it one step further, the refugee becomes an object of suspicion. As with Trump, borders, territorial divisions, nations become reified, even if Frum tries to dam up the logical movement of his own argument.

That does not mean we are left with no alternative. One of the brilliant retired practitioners and analysts of the refugee dilemma, Doris Meissner, together with her colleague, Sarah Pierce at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) in Washington D.C., have examined the problems of borders, movements, acculturation and security. They drew conclusions with which I concur from my studies:

  1. One problem is the failure to actually apply the law for asylum seekers fairly by enabling them to actually make a claim, to have legal support to make that claim, to have sufficient numbers of adjudicators to hear that claim, to enable them to have their rights protected while their claim proceeds, etc.
  2. the absence of an orderly and reasonable immigration system that will allow jobs to be filled and families to be re-united;
  3. a global covenant that extends rights protections globally to migrants, as the recent compact undertook to do in an initial aspirational way and which Canada signed, but the U.S. did not, and which Frum mocked because the compact both lacked teeth and many countries on UN human rights bodies were much more famous for their abuse of such rights.

(See: https://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/wall-cannot-fix-problems-border-smart-solutions-asylum-crisis-can)

In Trumpocracy, David, in the third chapter on Appeasers (pp. 35-38), criticized Republicans who betrayed their policy embracing and championing immigration reform, but as I heard David Frum, he was doing the same thing, but on the refugee issue. Is it possible that David suffers from a different version of the autoimmune disease he mentioned in his talk and which forms chapter 9 in his book. There, the main problem is that the administration, because it is incompetent, because it is based on lies, because it is illegitimate in the larger meaning of that word, because the White House is so at odds internally and so dysfunctional, because many of the key appointments are still vacant, turns against itself and becomes self-destructive as the head of the body politic.

David Frum is too smart, too honest, too possessed of genuine integrity, too transparently compassionate, too, in other words, rational and prudent to commit the massive Trump administration canniballistic behaviour on its own flesh and blood, to be guilty of the same auto-immune disease that Donald Trump suffers from. But perhaps David suffers from a different variety, one in which his hopes belie his analysis and this immune system is too weak to prevent the cancer already within his body raging on and metastasizing as he makes one fruitless effort after another to stop the Republican Party headed towards a crisis of self-immolation.

Another nostrum, and the main one offered by David Frum in his complaints about the weakness of the global system of laws and norms and his push to repatriate rights into the national legal regime, makes two outright errors:

  1. he ignores the weakness of states in policing the Zuckerbergs of the world; David made the same complaints as George Soros in terms of the privatization of the responsibility for regulating free speech by the leaders of the global communication system; certainly, and much more importantly, states have been unable to tax them properly in order to reverse the process by which they carry a smaller and smaller tax load as states compete for their presence in the name of job growth;
  2. an historical error in tracing the emergence of human rights to the pre- and post-WWII period influenced largely by a dominant consensus about the international system carrying responsibility for enforcing those rights; in fact, that never took place. the state always retained control over rights and delegated very little to the globalized order, certainly virtually no power; further, nothing was done to allow Jewish refugees still in camps in Europe to resettle in Palestine before May 1948,

Let me end by introducing Cliff Orwin who served as the commentator and selector of audience questions to pose to David. An eminent political science professor at the University of Toronto, Cliff is a liberal who was in conversation with an anti-Trump conservative last evening. But Cliff is equally anti-Trump. A year ago in The Globe and Mail, Orwin insisted that “Donald Trump is unimpeachable…not just because a Republican Congress is so unlikely to impeach a Republican President [but] also because of the constitutional stipulation that the only impeachable offences are ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’.”

After playing with the strange juxtaposition of high crimes with misdemeanours, a term connoting very minor infractions, Cliff agreed, in a far more cautious language that Trump had compromised his presidency. He too criticized the Trump loyalists who excused his crazy behaviour by falling back on a defence of some policies with which they agreed. However, Cliff, perhaps too precipitously a year ago, claimed that the “verdict on Mr. Trump is clear: low crimes and misdemeanours.” But, in fact, his crimes may have been very high indeed. He may, in effect, be a traitor, even if only for transactional reasons.

Last evening, Cliff played the king querying, not the tainted harvest resulting from Donald Trump’s election, but whether David Frum was really a liberal disguised as a conservative. Were they both not wearing the same cross on their foreheads? But while Frum was dedicated to saving the elites by catering to the populace to some degree, Cliff came off as a constitutional liberal who thought that it was a fundamental political mistake to distinguish intellectual leaders as members of the elite who have to listen sufficiently to the masses lest they lose their bearings. In a liberal progressive regime, expertise is theirs to serve and work on behalf of the body politic, not to form an elite of any kind. That is the king’s response to his stargazer. For either reason, both the king and the stargazer must put a cross on their foreheads, but for different reasons and with different consequential expectations.

But both seemed resigned to living with the insanity until the next election. Both seemed resigned to wait for next year’s harvest and endure the madness in the interim.  My own suspicion is that earlier action is not only better than later, but it may be an absolute necessity for, as I have suggested, we might otherwise be watching Trump as he pulls the pillars down that support our society. If the harvested grain is tainted, the focus should be on removing the taint, save what you can, distribute what you have left as fairly as you can, find as many substitutes as you can, and recognize that we are all in the same boat together. We must not allow madness to take over the polis. We must drive out the source instead of marking our foreheads and mirroring our own insistence that we are still rational.

That requires returning to what I insisted is the central issue – who can and cannot be members of the polis, how do they become members and how are the rights and privileges of membership distributed.

 

To be continued.

 

The Politics of Resentment Part II Parashat Bo – Exodus 10:1−13:16

In the first of two plagues, water is turned to blood. In a naturalistic explanation, this may signify a red tide or “burgundy blood” (the change in buoyancy explained by autumnal water blooms – Planktothrix rubescens) associated with different natural causes for turning water red. This naturalistic equivalence is insufficient as an explanation since even water in barrels had turned red. In any case, naturalistic explanations do not concern me.

What is described lasts 7 days. Fish die. The river stinks. Hapi, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile, the very rhythm of eternal return, of the notion that what goes round comes round, that time is circular, is one target. But life in that water is also the target. Nun or Nu, the oldest of Egyptian gods, the goddess of tradition, the primeval waters out of which all life emerges, is also attacked.

These are two of the lesser gods. Aaron is sent out to show them up on behalf of YHWH. Moses warns Pharaoh. Aaron applies his magic. And the water indeed turns blood red. How does Pharaoh react? By showing that even these lesser gods of the past and of the cycle of history are not defeated by such magic because his sorcerers can perform the same magic. Defeat is turned into a victory. Pharaoh does not even bother to reject Moses’ warning and demands. He simply ignores them. His heart has been hardened in the sense that it remains unmoved by the suffering of the Israelites.

In the case of the second plague, the focus is on frogs, life that comes out of the water to live on the land. Frogs are not the target but rather the instruments to overrun the land. The male target is the god, Atum, the creator god who, like the frogs who came out of the water, rose from Nun as a mound of earth. In the Torah, when God hovers over the face of the water, God created earth by separating the waters. In the Egyptian divine realm, earth itself is the creator God, that which comes into being and that which allows everything else to come to be. The other target of attack is Heqet, the goddess of fertility. Life in this version is not a product of the divine bringing earth out of the sea, and bringing life forms on earth. Instead, what emerges from the sea are frogs and the croaking Hebrews who rise up out of their deep slumber and cry out against their enslavement to swarm over every corner of the land.

How does the royal court respond? Again, the sorcerers show that they can perform the same feats of magic. But instead of just ignoring Moses and Aaron, Pharaoh takes an opposite tack and summons the two before him to do what his magicians could not do – remove the frogs even though frogs were sacred to Egyptians. Pharaoh begins to deal with Moses and Aaron. This is the first step he takes in dismantling his own pharaonic power. Pharaoh offers to let Moses’ people worship their God in order for God to get rid of the frogs and their rotting carcasses. Moses calls off the plague. However, Pharaoh reneges on the deal once the frogs have been killed, even if it costs a crack in the first of many concrete (as distinct from abstract – the first plague) sacred pillars of his kingdom.

The next two plagues are symbolized by Earth, vermin created from the dust of the earth (plague 3), and swarms of flies. Geb, the god of earth itself is the target of the vermin for he/she was the third divine pharaoh, likely a bisexual divinity who is male but also female. He/she lays eggs and is responsible for rebirth. Four wild geese are released in the name of Geb to celebrate a royal succession and Geb, known as “The Great Cackler” because he/she sounds like a whole flock of Canadian geese.

When lice emerge from the earth rather than life, the clear signal that the continuing life of the monarchy is at risk becomes apparent. However, Pharaoh received no warning. Further, this time the Pharaoh’s courtiers and magicians cannot match the magic of the Hebrew leaders. The magicians cave. But not Pharaoh. He has a powerful will. But the writing is on the wall. He would not be able to name his successor. The end has been adumbrated.

The fourth plague is that of the flies, really more like dung beetles or scarabs that, just as the sun rolls across the sky, roll balls of dung across the desert. One target is Khepri, the god with the head of a fly who represents the rising of the sun and the renewal of the day. Another is Horus, depicted as a falcon or man with the head of a falcon. The first Pharaoh had been the manifestation of Horus through whom Pharaohs were given dominion over the world, including the responsibility for capturing the sun when it fell from the heavens. The current Pharaoh is also targeted. Thus, the attacks are not just aimed at destroying Pharaoh, but at destroying the whole idea of a pharaonic polity. That is what is now really being put at risk.

The stakes become even higher as more powerful gods are attacked and as Pharaoh’s responses become more and more compromising in undermining the regime. It is with the threat of this plague that Moses both ups the ante while engaging in a feint. For he clarifies his request to Pharaoh to let his people go into the wilderness, just for three days so they might worship their own God and offer their own God sacrifices which the Egyptians cannot offer since they are not His people.

What chutzphah! With Kehpri and Horus, everything under the heavens, even the sun, is under the sovereign authority of Egypt. This time, Pharaoh initially accedes to the request, but qualifies his permission; the Hebrews are not to go very far. In return, Moses promises to ask God to wipe out the plague of the dung beetles and flies. God agrees, removes the swarms, only to have Pharaoh renege on the deal.

Pharaoh had moved from first ignoring Moses’ plea, to allowing the sacred frogs to be removed, indeed begging for it to happen, then getting his back up again, but losing the support of his sycophants. With the fourth plague, Pharaoh begins to bargain, but no sooner makes an agreement than he again reneges.

The text next moves from symbols of water and earth to symbols of fire, a disease that will burn up the innards of cattle and livestock (the fifth plague) and then one that, from the ashes of fires, presumably from burning the dead carcasses of cows, land on the body and result in sores and boils. The targets of the fifth plague are Hathor with the head of a cow and Apis, the bull god. Hathor was reborn from a goddess of destruction to become a benevolent goddess of joy, inspiration, celebration, love, health and childbirth, but also of drunkenness. The bull of the cow, Apis, another very ancient god in the Egyptian pantheon, is stubborn and fearsome in contrast to the warmth and upbeat quality of Hathor. Hathor inspires. Apis intimidates. Hathor loves to celebrate, Apis is always furious. Hathor provides health and protection at childbirth, Apis threatens death.

God brought disease and pestilence against both Hathor and Apis, but only against the Egyptian livestock. You would think that such a deed would make Pharaoh fold at last. But Pharaoh becomes even more stubborn and refuses even to bargain with Moses. God attacks Isis, the goddess of medicine and Thoth, the god of intelligence, with sores and boils and what was probably leprosy, then viewed as incurable. By then, Pharaoh had lost any iota of empathy he had for his own people and any intelligent response. His heart has been made harder than ever. It has become frozen in its fury.

Then come the two air plagues, hail and hurricane-force winds on all of Egypt, except Goshen where the Hebrews live. Egyptians could hide and duck for cover if they heeded the warnings. Those who suffer did not listen. This is followed by the plague of locusts. People cannot hide; locusts devour everything in their path. Locusts cover עֵ֣ין כָּל־הָאָרֶץ֮ ʿen kol ha-ʾareṣ, that is, “the eye of the whole land.”

The targets of the hail and hurricane force winds are Nut, the goddess of the sky, and Shu, the wind god. Nut was born alongside Geb (earth) so, as in the Torah, the earth and the heavens came into being on the same day. But they are attacked at different times by YHWH, Geb with the third plague and Nut at the time of the seventh plague. Now, the very fundamentals of the created world viewed through Egyptian eyes are under attack. God declares that He could have erased the Egyptians from the face of the earth but spared them “in order to show you My power and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.” (9:16) God’s intent has now been made crystal clear. The war is a zero-sum game. Only one could emerge from the fight as the God of all the heavens.

Pharaoh’s response to the hail that struck every man, woman, child and beast in the open – except for those in Goshen – after his courtiers begged him to give in, is to give in, but not enough of too little. He says that only the Hebrew men could go to worship their God in the wilderness, not their families. The response, without warning, is the plague of the locusts. The targets now are Seth, the god of storms and disorder, and Nepri, the grain god, for the locusts devour every green thing in the fields. God alone could bring disorder. Vegetation only grows because God allows it to happen.

Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and, on his hands and knees, begs for forgiveness. Pharaoh agrees to let their families go with them. Moses beseeches God. God removes the plague of the locusts. Pharaoh reneges again and becomes more stubborn than ever; no one is allowed to go. One step forward, two steps backward. That is the pattern.

Readers are then carried back to the beginning of the Earth when darkness was over the face of the water, a night in which all cows are black. Pharaoh reverses himself and once again accedes to the terms of the last deal. But Moses ups the ante and insists that the livestock accompany them to the wilderness. That’s not all. Pharaoh must provide the animals to be sacrificed. Pharaoh becomes really furious and threatens death should he ever see Moses again. Moses agrees and replies, “You will never see my face again.”

Then the ultimate plague – the killing of the first born. You would think by now Pharaoh would have recognized God’s power. But Pharaoh digs in his heels even deeper, at least until God carries out His threat. Then Pharaoh agrees to let all the Israelite men and their families leave and not only take their animals with them, but Egyptian gold and silver candlesticks and other valued objects to enhance the worship of the Hebrew God in an appropriate manner. The target now has become Ra, the sun-god himself, and Pharaoh, the representative of the sun-god on earth. Ra on is the most powerful ancient Egyptian god associated with the Pharaoh – so much so, that, by the Fifth Dynasty, almost every ruler has been symbolically hailed as the son of Ra. This Ra, this Pharaoh, still believes that the Hebrews are simply going off into the wilderness for three days to worship their God. After all of this, he only concedes because he thought that the exit would be temporary.

All the key gods had been discredited. On the way, Pharaoh grew more and more stubborn rather than more compliant, though he bargained harder and harder to make a deal, just to renege on each one. He had been totally defeated. His magicians had been cowed. His gods had been forced into submission. As Pharaoh became more and more isolated, his tactics of deceit became wilder and harder. But even when defeated, when he discovers he had been tricked and the Hebrews would not be returning and would be carrying away with them the precious metal objects never to return, even then he risks all and suffers accordingly.

All the key gods of Egypt had been discredited by the God of Israel. When Pharaoh’s first-born, Pharaoh Junior, faces charges both of corruption by a district prosecutor and collusion with the devil before a High Court, we will have the clearest sign, the final clear and unequivocal sign, that the regime is about to implode and collapse around their heads.

To be continued: A Concrete Historical Example