Oct 4th 2020

The Next Civil War? 

WASHINGTON, DC – America’s capital is more on edge now than at perhaps any other time since the eve of the Civil War in 1860. The city was tense during Watergate, of course. But as much as Richard Nixon tested the constitutional system, as a lawyer who had served in government for decades, he recognized that there are limits that even a president dares not transgress. And now, with President Donald Trump, the First Lady, and a top aide all testing positive for COVID-19, there is more uncertainty in Washington, DC that at any time in living memory. 

The non-medical crisis now facing the United States is that Trump doesn’t recognize limits. There is scant indication that he even understands, let alone respects, America’s constitutional order, the survival of which depends on whether those to whom power has been entrusted exercise restraint.

Trump, recklessly breaking precedents and norms, has consistently attempted to disable any checks on his behavior. He insists that Article II of the Constitution “gives me the right to do whatever I want to do.” And he is buttressed in his view by Attorney General William Barr, who is the kind of fealty-first law-enforcement chief that Trump has craved.

A critical part of Trump’s effort to undermine confidence in the election outcome, if it goes against him, is his attempt to discredit millions of ballots preemptively. The assumption is that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that Trump has allowed to get out of hand, more Americans than ever before will vote by mail, and that most of those who do will be Democrats.

Earlier, misreading public opinion as he so often does, Trump sought to slow mail deliveries in order to disqualify millions of mail-in ballots. After a public backlash, these activities were supposedly suspended, yet mail delivery remains slower than before. 

Then, in September, Trump started saying that the election aftermath will be peaceful as long as “we … get rid of the ballots” – whatever that means. He and his campaign team are now casting about for more ways to shape or otherwise invalidate the election’s outcome if necessary.

Allies of Trump’s challenger Joe Biden are discussing how to forestall Republican meddling with the outcome, and force the president from the White House if he loses the election but refuses to leave. The need to take this astonishing possibility seriously is a sign of how far things have deteriorated.

And so, the legal guns are being readied. With luck, real weapons won’t be used. But Trump has been encouraging violence since he first ran for office, and he doesn’t convincingly eschew it now. His calling at the first presidential debate on the Proud Boys, a violent right-wing white-supremacy group, to “stand back and stand by” has embroiled the White House in efforts to sanitize this ominous statement.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ recent  exposé has made clear why Trump has frantically sought to keep his tax returns secret: he paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, and nothing for many years before that. The revelations about Trump’s dicey tax record and business dealings offers one explanation for his desperation to win another term in office. The Times’ reporting has scraped away Trump’s populist façade and revealed that the underlying rationale for his presidency – that he was a savvy billionaire who would apply his amazing business acumen to running the country – was entirely bogus.

The Times report also showed that, as was widely suspected, Trump had received financial help from authoritarian countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And Trump reportedly has voiced his own assumption that he has benefited from Russian oligarchs at the behest of Vladimir Putin. Numerous observers warn that Trump’s indebtedness to foreign countries makes him a national-security threat. As it is, Trump owes over $400 million in debts that will come due in the next few years; there’s no knowing where he’ll find the money.

Trump’s performance in the first presidential debate was the latest demonstration of the threat he poses to democracy. His thuggish behavior – serial interruptions, nasty wisecracks, and bltant distortions – were an extension of his persistent effort to destroy any means of holding him accountable. The debates are another democratic practice that Trump seeks to destroy. But despite all the lamentations over what a miserable event the debate was, the tens of millions of Americans who loathe him should celebrate his performance, displaying as it did the unvarnished Trump.

The so-called debate didn’t ease Trump’s political predicament. He can scarcely afford to lose support at this point. His unwillingness to denounce white supremacists unambiguously, his apparent incitement of violence, and his threats – “This is not going to end well” – were as alarming as they were norm-shattering. Even some of Trump’s Senate Republican lackeys openly expressed unease. 

Though Biden provided some substance and obviously didn’t stoop to Trump’s level, he wasn’t at his best. He occasionally appeared thrown off by Trump’s behavior, and failed to convey the stature and sense of command that people desire in a president. By calling Trump a “clown” and telling him to “shut up,” Biden may have been trying to show that he, too, can play a tough guy. But is this how Americans want a president to talk?

Some semblance of a coherent argument could be glimpsed in Trump’s attempt to ram through the Republican-controlled Senate the nomination of the right-wing judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat vacated by the death of the liberal hero Ruth Bader Ginsburg. By trying to have her confirmed and seated in a few weeks, Trump is again going against democratic assumptions, and also public opinion. Trump openly states that he wants Barrett on the bench to improve his chances if a case involving the election outcome reaches the Court. Republican senators seem unwilling to insist that Barrett recuse herself to avoid such a flagrant conflict of interest. 

Trump’s disinclination – and perhaps inability – to reach beyond his right-wing base, which is insufficient to elect him, also calls into question his political acumen, and is one of many reasons to doubt his basic intelligence (an issue on which he is quite sensitive). But one thing about the president is now clearer than ever: in order to perpetuate his hold on power, Trump is testing the constitution in unprecedented ways. 


Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.
www.project-syndicate.org 

 


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More Current Affairs

Jan 24th 2021
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Jan 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, if cornered, any populist might resort to Trump’s endgame methods: trying to coerce elites into committing fraud to prevent a transfer of power, or deploying right-wing extremists on the ground to intimidate lawmakers. These desperate acts signaled Trump’s weakness. But it is important to note that most Republicans still did not disown Trump even when confronted with his blatant lawlessness on January 6. ... Other right-wing populists may well take notice of this fact. The recent events in the United States have shown that elites who are prepared to collaborate with authoritarians will tolerate quite a lot in the end. This ignominious precedent is especially likely to hold true in other countries where crony capitalism has implicated the business community in illegal behavior."    
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "May, a decent and honest woman, was far outdistanced by her successor and his colleagues in the Trump sycophancy stakes. In January 2017, Johnson’s senior fellow Brexiteer and principal ministerial fixer, Michael Gove (a former journalist with The Times newspaper), conducted an interview with then President-elect Trump that plumbed new depths of oleaginous toadyism. Gove wallowed in Trump’s endorsement of Brexit. It subsequently came to light that Gove’s then-employer, Rupert Murdoch, was in the room while the interview took place. And why not? The owner of Fox News as well as The Times was entitled to keep an eye on his two protégés."
Jan 21st 2021
EXTRACTS: "Does anyone really think that the vast majority of Republican legislators who could not bring themselves to object to the attempted coup at the Capitol — or any of the other outrageous antics Trump has unleashed on America for the past four years — will suddenly experience sleepless nights and pangs of conscience now that he is gone? Au contraire. This band of spineless, morally bankrupt congresspeople and senators are far more likely to follow Trump and carry Trumpism into the 2024 presidential election." ..... "A recent survey of Europeans revealed that the majority believe that America’s political system is hopelessly broken, that President Biden will be unable to halt its decline on the world stage, and that China will become the world’s leading power within a decade. What if they are right? America’s Trump-inspired death spiral has practically ensured any real recovery will likely take decades — and multiple terms with a Democratic president and Congress at the helm — to achieve."
Jan 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "What our polling tells us is that what the peoples of Middle East want is regional unity and investment in the future that can bring peace and prosperity. They’ve had enough of war and want ​stable employment, education, health care, and better future for their children. It’s time we start listening to them."
Jan 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Trump intentionally and directly incited the insurrection of January 6. But he does not bear sole responsibility. Every one of his enablers, and the enablers of his enablers, is guilty. Fox Corp’s hidden backers, especially those who are so fond of touting their piety, must now ask themselves, as the Gospel of Mark instructs: What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? "
Jan 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "What’s astonishing is that the bottom 50% reduced their borrowing over roughly the same period, but their debt servicing costs increased. Over this time, smaller corporations saw their profit margins dip consistently into negative territory. The decades-long fall in interest rates appears to be the only thing that has kept smaller corporations afloat. Smaller corporations thus appear to be caught in a vicious circle. The fact that their debt-servicing burdens have increased sharply despite deleveraging and falling interest rates points toward rapidly deteriorating financial fortunes. This is reaffirmed by the severe losses registered in their negative profit margins."
Jan 11th 2021
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Jan 10th 2021
EXTRACTS: ”Not everyone who mobbed the Capitol on 1/6 was a terrorist, but there were many terrorists among them. Some people came armed, or with ties for taking congressional representatives and senators hostage. Some were desperately looking for Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi in order to assassinate them….” …… ”Although the Capitol police had a major failure when they did not stop the breach of the building by the mob, they were remarkably successful at spiriting the politicians down to the basement and its tunnels that led to nearby offices.” ….. “The goal of the Trump-inspired insurrection was to stop Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president. Trump moved on several levels to accomplish that goal. He conspired with senators to have them object to the Arizona and Pennsylvania vote counts. In fact, he was trying to convince senators to join this effort by telephone even after the Capitol had been breached and senators were being escorted to the basement, according to Mike Lee. He also tried to disrupt the proceedings by encouraging the breach of the Capitol by a flashmob and by cadres. He may have stopped security forces from being deployed, as part of his coup, to ensure that the insurrection was not stopped prematurely.” …… “Significant blows have been dealt to the Trump terrorist network in the past two days, but the vast well of support it has built up among less violent supporters, and among media enablers like Fox, Breitbart and Newsmax, will make it very difficult to root out.”
Jan 10th 2021
EXTRACTS:"Trumpism may survive under a different leader. This is what a politician like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas is hoping. His attempt to pander to Trump’s voter base by sabotaging President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is a play for a future presidential run. But Cruz lacks the vulgar charisma of Trump. He is a highly-educated cynic, a ruthless political operator, but not someone who can easily inspire the masses."....... "More than most of his colleagues in the demagogue business, Trump is a creature of show business. His great success was not in real estate; he was in fact a terrible businessman, blundering from one failure to another. What made him was a television show. That is what boosted his brand, which he has used with a truly mammoth talent for self-promotion. Cruz, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, or Marco Rubio – all Republican senators with ambitions to follow in Trump’s footsteps – don’t even come close." ........ "And Trump’s followers will lose their messiah. Without Trump’s bizarre but effective grip on the party, Republicans may well face a period of vicious infighting, which could conceivably tear their party apart. If so, they richly deserve it."
Jan 9th 2021
EXTRACTS: "The world needs an America it can believe in. America needs to invest real time, energy, and resources in re-establishing the pre-eminence of truth and trust. It took generations to build it but just four years to destroy it." ..... "If it can happen in America, it can certainly happen anywhere else. America must now prove to the world that it can pick itself up, dust itself off, and get and stay on a path so many people in the world aspire to be. It will take a Herculean effort on the part of Mr. Biden and the Democrats to do so. If they fail to do so, it is arguable whether America can ever again claim to be exceptional."
Jan 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Congress has a right, but not a duty, to impeach. Sometimes, lawmakers might simply tolerate certain presidential misdeeds, having concluded that the costs of pursuing further action would outweigh the benefits. But this is not one of those times. ... Just as the act of punishing a public official sends a message about a polity’s moral commitments, so, too, does a failure to punish when it is warranted. By voting to acquit Trump last year, after the House of Representatives impeached him over the Ukraine scandal, Senate Republicans signaled that they were sticking with a career criminal, come what may. Trump enablers like Senator Susan Collins of Maine hoped that those proceedings would teach Trump a lesson. And so they did: Trump learned that there were no consequences for illegally coercing others into doing him favors and rigging elections on his behalf. ............ Plenty, like Senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, have bet their political fortunes on genuflecting to America’s burgeoning far-right movement. But others might now be looking for a way out of the Trumpian maw. The storming of the Capitol demonstrated that you cannot have QAnon à la carte; neither Trump nor his Republican collaborators can control the forces they have unleashed. The revolution always devours its own children, and sometimes their fathers, too. If Republicans fail to de-Trumpify fully and immediately, they will learn that for themselves – but not before things get much, much worse."
Jan 2nd 2021
EXTRACTS: "Barack Obama had his flaws as a president, but he always exuded an air of dignity and refinement. Few presidents in history have his gift for English prose. Obama is not only a stylish writer, but a discerning reader. His behavior in office was always impeccable, and he and his wife, Michelle, are the model of a highly civilized couple .... And that is precisely what some of his opponents could never abide. Racists hated the very idea of being governed by a black man. But the fact that he was such a well-educated and cultivated black man made his ascent to the highest office even more intolerable ........ Trump had to erase the image of high civilization that Obama represented. He had to drag it down to his own level. "
Dec 29th 2020
EXTRACTS: "American capitalism is not serving most Americans. While educated elites live longer and more prosperous lives, less-educated Americans – two-thirds of the population – are dying younger and struggling physically, economically, and socially. This growing divide between those with a four-year college degree and those without one is at the heart of our recent book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. The rise in deaths that we describe is concentrated almost entirely among those without a bachelor’s degree, a qualification that also tends to divide people in terms of employment, remuneration, morbidity, marriage, and social esteem – all keys to a good life ....... The US economy has long been experiencing large-scale disruption, owing to changes in production techniques (especially automation) and, to a lesser extent, globalization. The inevitable disturbances to employment, especially among less-educated workers who are most vulnerable to them, have been made vastly worse by the inadequacy of social safety nets and an absurdly expensive health-care system. Because that system is financed largely by employer-based insurance, which varies little with earnings, it places the greatest burden on the least skilled, who are priced out of good jobs."
Dec 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "For the sake of comparison, it is worth remembering just how disastrous the 2000-15 period was for US incomes. Whereas the median real (inflation-adjusted) household income in 2000 was $62,500, in 2011 it was a mere $57,000. Only in 2016, President Barack Obama’s last year in office, did the median real household income clear its 2000 peak. And only during the first three years of the Trump presidency did incomes continue growing strongly enough to surpass the previous high tide. In 2019, the median household income was closing in on $69,000, more than 20% above the post-Great Recession nadir, and 10% above the previous Clinton-era peak ............What explains these trends? For starters, between 2001 and 2016, the US government did not emphasize the need to achieve a high-pressure economy that eliminates the economy’s demand shortfall, which is what it takes to deliver large wage increases for typical workers. In 2010, when the Obama administration began its pivot to austerity, it de-prioritized restoring employment to normal levels in the interest of pursuing spending cuts and fiscal consolidation ...........the siren song of austerity can today be heard once again. A growing chorus of commentators is insisting that near-zero interest rates are unnatural, and that the deficit needs to be cut substantially ...........Back in 2012, Lawrence H. Summers, fresh from a stint as Director of the US National Economic Council, and I tried to warn policymakers about the error of this line of thinking. We failed, ........ "
Dec 28th 2020
EXTRACT: "The longer-term consequences of the COVID-19 cycle are likely to be more severe. While mass vaccination points to an end to the pandemic itself (one hopes by late 2021), it does not provide immunity against lasting economic damage. Recent research on the impact of 19 major pandemics dating back to the fourteenth century – each with death counts in excess of 100,000 – highlights the long shadow of the economic carnage. Real rates of return on “safe” European assets – a measure of the interplay between aggregate supply and demand – were found to be depressed for several decades following these earlier horrific outbreaks."
Dec 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "US President-elect Joe Biden’s economic-policy agenda differs markedly from that of President Donald Trump. But Biden’s ability to enact his proposals will depend on three factors: the final composition of the Senate; his ability to learn from past successes and failures (not least the historically anemic Obama-era recovery); and whether the US economy can avoid a growth-sapping shock."
Dec 17th 2020
EXTRACTS: "As is evident by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, many of America’s allies now question some fundamental tenets of American commitment and leadership. China’s willingness and ability to step in and take up some of the slack that has resulted says as much about Washington’s self-imposed weakness as it does about Beijing’s fundamental strength..........Regardless of what overtures the Biden administration makes and which objecrtives it is able to achieve in its first year, the carnage left in the wake of Trump’s exit will take many years – perhaps decades – to reverse..........Many of the world’s people never believed that the outrages that occurred during Trump’s tenure were even possible in America. Trump has proven that it is not only possible, but that it could happen again, as it is widely presumed that Trump will run again in 2024 and again win the Republican nomination for president. That is, perhaps, the most enduring legacy of the Trump era, which makes the debate about whether the world is better off with American or Chinese leadership less easily dismissed."
Dec 15th 2020
EXTRACT: ".....strikingly, exit polls suggest that Trump actually gained support from all of the demographic groups that he had maligned, insulted, and harmed, garnering more black, Hispanic, and Muslim votes than he did in 2016. Asian-Americans also pivoted to Trump, voting for him by a larger margin than they did for him in 2016. And Trump won around 55% of white women in 2020. In two consecutive elections, the majority of white women chose a blatant misogynist over a female presidential or vice-presidential candidate........ Trump’s trade war with China, moreover, had a devastating impact on rural America. But that didn’t stop him from winning Iowa and other farm states by a healthy margin. Likewise, some first-generation Chinese immigrants (with PhDs and Ivy League credentials) are fervent Trump supporters, despite his malicious labeling of COVID-19 as the “China virus.”......... The common foundation supporting this vast Trumpian tent of rural whites, Latinos in Texas, Chinese-American entrepreneurs, white suburban women, and a small but growing share of black men is a deep-seated notion of authority – a more primordial disposition than ethnic tribalism, religious affiliation, and sexual identity. These voters worship power and the powerful, and identify with all exercises of power by their chosen leader."
Dec 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "In 2014, almost one-half of Iranians felt their country “should have the right to a nuclear weapon because it is a major nation.” After the framework agreement was announced in 2015 support for that proposition dropped to 20%. Following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal, the percentage of Iranians who felt they had a right to a nuclear weapon because they are a major nation rose again to 40%. "