Across the Pond, Part III

What can we say? The news says “President Donald Trump” hundreds of times each day and a neo-fascist and an investment banker are the two choices for president of France. These are the times we live in.

The French election, as with the U.S. election last year, is helpful in that it shows us exactly how scared we should be. And we should be very, very scared. In this corner: Marine Le Pen, A woman who white-washes France’s collaboration with the Nazis in the Holocaust. In the other corner: Emmanuel Macron, an ex-investment banker and ex-minister of the current government with a single-digit approval rating who thinks that the problem with the current oligarchic neo-liberal order is that we have the wrong technocratic manager in charge – instead of the order itself. It’s the 2016 U.S. election with the genders switched and a less mentally ill (scientifically speaking) but more professional rabble-rouser.

Unlike in the U.S., the center-right is not capitulating to its right-wing, which means that the self-styled centrist Macron will most likely win. If he does it will make an interesting case study in political tactics for controlling populism. The center-right’s stampede away from Le Pen, toward Macron, may discredit them even more if Macron proves to be the same abysmal failure that most leaders of his ilk have turned out to be. On the other hand, the French political mainstream may continue to succeed in slamming the door in the reactionary right’s face in perpetuity. Plus, their move, in the moment at least, is much closer to the right thing to do than what Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have done in the U.S.

If Macron wins, I wish him the best of luck managing France, as he is the far lesser of two evils compared to Le Pen and her National Front. But make no mistake, Macron is a shithead. And all the luck in the world may have run out for shitheads like him.

If Le Pen wins, then one of the few things I’ll look forward to is Donald Trump shaking her hand.

Across the Pond, Part II

On April 16, the people of Turkey went to the polls for a referendum. The matter under consideration was a broad set of amendments to the country’s constitution. Most notable among other things, the amendments would abolish the office of the Prime Minister and effectively replace Turkey’s parliamentarian government with a presidential system.

Most every presidential system of government needs a strong executive to function effectively, and the proposed amendments did not claim otherwise. In the process of doing away with the government’s Prime Minister, the amendments would endow the president, a largely ceremonial post with little hard power in the previous system, with the powers of chief executive and head of state. And the actual powers that come with these title bumps are far from trivial – new authority to appoint government ministers, select judges, enact laws by decree, declare states of emergency, and dismiss parliament.

Parliament, which would serve at the pleasure of the president, would also be stripped of its authority to scrutinize ministers as part of their appointment proceedings or conduct thorough investigations of the government. It would retain the ability to impeach the president, however, since the president could dismiss parliament at any time it remains to be seen if that capability has any tangible force behind it.

Though a unique issue in a unique country, like Brexit and the Trump victory, the referendum in Turkey won by a tight margin at the polls: 51.4 to 48.59.

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Across the Pond, Part I

After the electoral tumult of 2016, it is tempting to think of 2017 as a down year of comparable insignificance. That’s certainly true to an extent in the U.S., which, save for a few special elections and the Virginia governor’s contest, is shifting from election mode to policymaking mode (a mode that is not without its own drama).

However, the rest of the Western world, specifically Western Europe, has much to offer in the way of electoral drama. In fact, a pivotal vote has already been cast, with more on the way.

In the Netherlands, a self-branded “Dutch Donald Trump” named Geert Wilders drew much concern from mainstream political actors domestically and internationally. Leading up to the election on March 15, fears of another domino in a successive wave of populist results – from Brexit to Trump to now the Netherlands – abounded. Wilders campaigned on skepticism toward the European Union, a hard-right/restrictive immigration stance, and promises to defend traditional Western values and culture against, in his view, the existential threat of Islam. He made these proclamations with consistently xenophobic and combative rhetoric.

Like Brexit and Donald Trump, voters found much to admire in these populist positions, and the general attitude of Wilders and his supporters. The economic crisis of 2008 was a total disaster for many people, particularly those who rely on physical labor to earn a living, and total disasters have aftershocks. Not only did many lose their jobs in the ensuing downturn, but they, correctly, began to understand what they had sensed for some time: their livelihoods are going out of style in the 21st century global economy with its demand for highly educated and technically proficient laborers. The reality that these people face is that today’s world doesn’t need them much at all and it would prefer to lecture them about self-improvement while stifling their political views it considers improper.

Furthermore, Europe faced deep crises before the Great Recession. Birth rates have long been below replacement rates in many countries, a reflection of a general ennui and lack of confidence in a brighter future. American-style capitalism, dominant in the 1990s following its knockout blow against Communism, rode high for some time, but struggles now to form an optimistic narrative during long-term periods in which living standards are not dramatically improving.

Throw in a significant terrorist threat and a massive wave of immigration from a region with a vastly different culture, that’s often viewed with suspicion and fear in Europe, and you have ripe conditions for radical politics.

Much to the relief of those in the center-right and center-left Wilders lost by a solid margin. He came far short of winning, with 13.1 percent of vote to the leading center-right party’s 21.3 percent. The makeup of the ruling coalition remains to be seen, but it will most certainly not include Wilders’ party (that would have been the case regardless of the March 15 outcome) and, because of its relatively strong showing, will have solid legitimacy.

So the center won a temporary reprieve in the Netherlands. Congratulations to them I suppose. It’s odd to think of a party “winning” with 21.3 percent of the overall vote. Yes there are so many parties (seven received over five percent of the vote) and yes coalitions are a very reasonable way to govern, in some ways more stable and representative than our winner-take-all two-party system in the U.S. However, often political causes endure not through winning a majority, but rather by gaining a critical mass of followers that are insanely devoted to the cause. A fractured system, such as the Netherlands and many others in Europe, remains vulnerable to zealots and it doesn’t appear the center has a real counter to them. The solution, for now, seems to be to unite against populism and against its vile creeds and false nostalgia, while vaguely appealing to continue the status quo without offering a compelling vision of the future that is fundamentally different in ways better than where we’re at right now. It remains to be seen whether this lukewarm and unimaginative approach will cool or halt the slow boil. The Netherlands has bought time, which is certainly valuable. France and Germany would be lucky to do the same in the coming months. Perhaps things will get better and not long from now we’ll look at this period as a brief scare on an otherwise smooth path of progress. But if populism rears its head once, which it has done, it will do so again. There will always be another economic crisis, there will continue to be massive and disruptive immigrant and refugee migrations, and the populists of tomorrow may yet be smarter and more numerous of today, having learned lessons from their first bout. The biggest lesson of the past year is that the survival of post-Cold War liberalism, once seemingly unstoppable, is far from assured. Especially if feeble, out-of-touch, and corrupt figures (such as Hillary Clinton in the U.S.) remain its standard-bearers.

What a Loss to the Collective Memory

According to HistoryNet.com, by late 1945 over 12 million Americans were in military service. This group represented approximately nine percent of the U.S. population at the time, while including none of the millions of Americans who contributed to the war effort in factories, resource collections, war bond drives, and many other capacities. The conflict is known as a “total war,” because its influence permeated into nearly all major aspects of shared society and individual daily life for those living in the participating countries. (And, as the term “world war” suggests, participating countries included most of those on Earth. Besides which, even the nominally neutral countries experienced dramatic effects as well.)

Throughout the latter half of the 20th century the U.S., and much of the Western world by extension, took for granted the basic assumptions and collective experiences the war etched into their populations. Never has this been more clear than now when, in the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Donald Trump found a large constituency responsive to withering critiques of fundamental aspects of the post-war/early Cold War international order. The necessity of U.S. global leadership – a phrase which here means the need for the U.S. to best approximate a world uber-authority in the anarchic global polity – is now a major question in U.S. politics. And around the world, resurgent nationalist parties and political movements are finding purchase in populations that doubt the value of supranational organizations such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Some of the bafflement of world’s so-called elite leadership – meaning people who are rich, politically engaged and powerful, highly educated, and often aristocratic – at these changes is surely due to their lack of understanding that many people have not inherited the assumptions and collective experiences that were forged in the war and dominated the post-war political and economic landscape. The consequences of this lack of inheritance have been compounded by the astounding arrogance of the Liberal Democratic order – most apparent in numerous ill-conceived and poorly executed military engagements and the total lack of accountability or serious self-reflection following the catastrophic 2008 financial crisis.

Remembrance of the past never remains static. Instead, it changes with the moment and with the state of the world and with those doing the remembering. This is particularly true in large democracies with diffuse media to fracture the transmission of information to voters and politicians. It stands to reason that, with the deaths of those who experienced the trials of World War II and the deaths of those only one generation removed, the past will change as well.

Clinton/Trump Debate

21.05: Wow it’s so weird seeing them shake hands

21.06: Kudos to Lester the moderator from the beginning for talking well about the “two realities” of the 21st century American economy

21.07: Background looks like a Sunday show

21.08: Good work by Clinton talking about her granddaughter right off the bat. And she lays out the different positions she has to, each of which reaches a different interest group among those that comprise the Democratic Party

21.08: She seemed to stumble but recovered well

21.09: Trump’s trade/economic arguments are just true enough to be appealing

21.09: Trump going all in on jobs to start

21.10: Republicans are still faithfully in love with tax cuts

21.12: Clinton still can’t make a good case that tax cuts to the wealthy are not a good or popular idea

21.12: Breaks through a little when she hits Trump’s background in association with his desire to cut taxes

21.13: For instance, as referenced at 21:09, Trump’s right to stress how smart China is

21.16: Really glad Clinton’s willing and able to remind us how awfully the Republicans mismanaged the financial crisis, and oh yeah Donald’s a true-red Republican (he loves tax cuts). Also good that’s she’s effectively talking about his deficits and his craziness. She’s citing experts flagrantly (the establishment way to tell a lie) to support her, then she moves to the environment and talking about the astonishing R climate change denial and how we can create a shitload of jobs through clean energy

21.18: “I’ve tried to be really specific” says Hillary, good line for her

21.19: Here’s what Dems need to say about the deficit “Barack Obama walked into work for the first time as President and was handed a file that detailed the deficit – $1.5 trillion; he’s gotten it down to $300 billion, that’s a pretty big reduction.”

21.25: Hillary endured some vicious and effective attacks from Trump (he’s undoubtedly a Republican because he’s humping tax cuts all over the place), but she finally summoned a good defense of raising taxes on rich people

21.26: Trump just said something weird about ISIS

21.26: Thank you Lester for laying out a few facts. Trump just said the wealthy are going to create more jobs. Is that really what people want to hear?

21.28: Trump kind of has a good point. Why can’t a President just sit down with other powerful people and make a few deals? Has a lot of common sense to it. But the question is – why is Trump the guy who should do it for us?

21.29: Not a good comment from Trump – “why not” blame Hillary for everything. His supporters don’t want to be told they’re behind a candidate who’s running as a joke

21.30: Trump needs to stop being a dick. It works for awhile, but that’s his only setting

21.31: WHAT ABOUT THE WALL DONALD??? THAT’S A BIG FAT LINE AND IT’S NEVER GONNA HAPPEN. SOMEONE PLEASE CALL HIM ON THAT

21.33: Thank you Lester, please remind him again that this auditing reason for not releasing his tax returns is BS. Please someone say something, what is Hillary doing?

21.34: Hillary has to talk

21.36: Glad she said he didn’t have as much money as he says

21.36: Also glad she admitted making a mistake on the emails, it takes her too long to admit mistakes

21.45: Trump seemed to be making big plays, but Hillary stalled his momentum and took a long turn.

21.46: Good answer from Clinton on race

21.47: Trump is a weird patchwork of past Republican figures – law and order, tax cuts tax cuts tax cuts rollback regs rollback regs, with some Buchanan and Wallace thrown in; his contribution to the canon is TV savviness

21.48: Stop and frisk is a serious policy proposal, but great great follow up from Lester – it is unconstitutional

21.51: Glad Clinton is talking about how a lot of black people are pretty impressive and/or live dignified lives

21.53: Criminal justice reform is a good issue for her – and by all means let’s keep slamming private prisons, oh yeah gun safety is also an important thing – and thank you for finally stressing anti-terrorism as a serious reason for doing so

21.55: Trump agreeing with Clinton on anything makes him look weak

21.56: Can Clinton please remind him of all the terrible things he’s said?

21.57: Wish she had said that Bloomberg endorsed her

21.59: Glad Clinton got that line about preparing to be president in as a last word

22.00: Birther stuff! This explanation from Trump is taking too long. Once again, thank you Lester for asking some good follow up questions

22.03: Yes thank you Lord she’s calling him a liar for all the racist birther BS. I thought she should’ve dropped the l-bomb earlier but her waiting longer helped enhance it, then she tied it directly to the Justice Department investigation of his past housing discrimination

22.04: “They go low, we go high.” Great line. Plus Obama actually used to get high

22.05: Donald’s line about how her primary campaign in 2008 against Obama was bitter is lame

22.06: Congrats Donald, you opened an inclusive club in Florida. Really wish Clinton had made fun of him for thinking that that is something that qualifies you to be president

22.08: Cybersecurity is a good area for Hillary to talk and, more importantly, be tough on Russia. Also liked the probing line – good Signs reference. And good work to get the “Donald invited Russia to hack us” (paraphrase) line in.

21.21: Not sure that Sean Hannity is going to resonate as a character witness

22.23: She’s saved her laughing for the end. I like that she used it and I like that she waited until the end to do so. Now she’s doing well to talk about how supportive NATO was after 9/11

22.24: The context on the Iran sanctions is much appreciated. Also “that’s diplomacy” is a good line. “Without firing a shot” is another good point. And thank you God for pointing out that shooting down another country’s soldiers for taunting your soldiers is an idiotic, useless, and dangerous approach

22.25: Wait do you mean the person who wins this election has the power to deploy nukes?

22.26: Glad she repeated the good convention line about tweets and nuclear weapons. Also she finally interrupted him back!!

22.26: The US is the best-funded Mafia in the history of the world under Trump in 2018 – just one possible future

22.29: Trump’s criticism of Obama’s foreign policy – it didn’t solve every world problem and the Iran Deal has destroyed everything we hold dear

22.30: Hillary really trying to take the high road against Trump here

22.31: “Only secret is that he has no plan” is a good one near the finish

22.34: Hillary is on-point nailing him on the “stamina” BS. She has gone all over the world. And the applause is perfect

22.35: Hey and one last punch for his sexism!! Good for her for not letting him off the stage without answering to that. And his response is some nonsense about commercials and Rosie O’Donnell

22.37: Trump is now whining about negative ads. He’s so tough, so much stamina he has

22.58: Hillary was so well-prepared tonight. That is a cliche about her and it’s a cliche for a reason. Not only was she well-equipped with a good array of facts, which she utilized well, she also paced her speaking (and conversely his speaking) effectively. At first, I thought she let him go on for too long at a time and wasn’t challenging his falsities enough. But that extended talking early wore Donald out a bit (reminder: he’s 70) and got him breathless. From then on he was a little behind on his responses and a little more on edge. Eventually he got more and more incoherent. She saved her best lines for last. Nothing has been well-predicted in this election, but my sense is that she won this round.

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!                                                                                                 –Richard II

There are many things to say as we watch the collapse of one of the world’s great political parties play out in real time. Let’s begin by going back to the last time the U.S. of A. experienced a party realignment comparable to this one. The realignment, like most other relatively recent big social changes in this country, took place in the 1960s.

In the year 1960, the presidential election pitted the incumbent Republican Vice President – Richard Nixon – against a young, handsome, articulate son of one of the nation’s wealthiest families. This particular son was not supposed to be the family’s political standard-bearer (that role belonged to the eldest), but World War II changed a lot of things for a lot of families. The Kennedy’s, even with their great wealth and prestige, were no different.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was optimistic, energetic, and beautiful on screen. Richard Milhous Nixon was unattractive, somewhat creepy, but highly qualified. The result of the contest was one of the closest and most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. Kennedy won, barely, and to this day many are convinced that votes, especially in Chicago, were bought or stolen.

Kennedy’s presidency is a strange one to describe. The beautiful man with his beautiful wife and beautiful children captivated the sentiments of many, but accomplished little tangible domestic reform. Abroad, there was the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also the Bay of Pigs debacle. His administration is remembered more for its captivating rhetoric and great dreams deferred than any legislative or diplomatic accomplishment.

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What a Week It Has Been

Most of the time changes happens slowly. It’s only by looking back at a long stretch of time and reflecting that we recognize substantial differences in our reality. However, there are some weeks, like these past two, when so much seems to happen all at once.

After an outrageous and distinctly American act of terrorism, huge momentum has emerged to remove symbols of treachery and hatred from prominent places in the South. The highest court in the land affirmed President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, ensuring millions continued access to affordable healthcare. And, as the best sequel since Godfather Part II, the same court legalized gay marriage nationwide.

Much of what this means for our country and the legacy of President Obama remains to be understood. But, if anything, it should put to rest forever any ideas that his presidency has been a minor one. Quite the opposite is the case. For too long, too many have been quick to think that the president has failed to deliver. He promised change they say, but too much remains the same. This, quite simply, ignores objective reality. It’s one thing to disagree with what he’s done; it’s lunacy to suggest that he hasn’t done much. That has never been more obvious in any week during his presidency as this one.

Yet for all his tangible actions while in office, his greatest achievement is and always will be the fact of his election. He is, and always will be, the first black president this nation has ever known. That fact is inescapable and never more apparent than it was on Friday when he delivered the eulogy for the slain Reverend Clementa Pinckney. He spoke as only he could. In his oration, he articulated the astonishing and gut-wrenching flaws of our country, baked into it from the founding. But his words did far more than that. They went above and beyond the filler text politicians and leaders too often mumble to pay lip-service to the “conversation about race.” They were real. They were personal. They spoke to his own experience, to the experience of his audience. They lamented the dead. He made us remember what we too often forget and ignore or never even learned. He helped us decipher a small section of the American story, with tales of the past and present. As one of our greatest once wrote, “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.”

Our president has failed in countless ways, but Friday he was there for all of us, carrying the light onward. Leading us with grace and song.

More reactions from James FallowsDavid Remnick, and Greg Howard.