Trump's Rebellion

Samuel Freeman, in the latest number of “The New York Review of Books”, gives an adequate but hardly inspired presentation of the Frankfurt School, that group of German intellectuals which advocated a cultural Marxism that became very popular in this country during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, but which seems less and less relevant to contemporary concerns. Why could we have believed that Madison Avenue was the arch-enemy of all that was holy, when all it was out to do was sell deodorant? “Madmen” was very good at parodying the supposed insights of advertising men into the American psyche, which was more interested in moving to the suburbs and putting their kids into college than in whether Doris Day played a virgin just once too often. Freeman, however, insists on making what has become almost an obligatory reference these days in “The New York Review of Books” to the Trump election. He says that the Frankfurt School got the hang of the kind of authoritarian leader Trump is: an enemy of reason tied up with demagoguery and capitalism both at once. But that is to take just the wrong reading of Trump, who is neither an ideologue nor the prisoner of capitalism but is out there on his own, hardly even aware of the radical right forces he has empowered to do their own bidding rather than his.

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What the Future Holds

Let us construct a plausible narrative for the future of the Trump Administration, that being possible because narratives can be predictive. They are not just the conventions through which stories are told but also discoveries about chains of causation as those apply in human endeavor, sometimes a story coming back upon itself and sometimes just enlarging upon itself. Werther just can’t let go of Charlotte and devote his life to translating Ossian, and neither can Raskolnikov let go of his guilt, while Dickens is filled with new beginnings, and Jane Austen’s new beginnings are always with the same people rediscovering their ties to one another.

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The Almost State of the Union Address

President Trump’s address to Congress last night was a dull affair. That is because he was trying to sound Presidential and so gave his standard stump speech without the insults and so came across as a dullard, the speech without any rousing rhetoric or programmatic weight. The talking heads that afterwards opined on the speech caught its gist quickly. Trump had drawn back from the offer of legalization to undocumented immigrants that he had hinted at earlier in the day and had pinched some of Paul Ryan’s talking points about what the bill to repeal and replace Obamacare would look like, but was hardly committed to that. Nor had Trump specified how to pay for an infrastructure program when the key issue there is whether to fund it through what would be very low interest bonds, which the Democrats would support, or through tax breaks to financiers, which the Democrats would not support. Trump could not bring himself to avoid telling lies, as when he said that the money from the European countries to pay for their own defense is just rolling in, because such money would not be payments to the United States but increases in their own defense budgets. Maybe Trump, as is his wont, was just speaking loosely, and so was not so much lying as misunderstanding the issue. Commentators mistake him by thinking there is much more there than there is. Chuck Schumer says Trump says one thing, his Populist message, and delivers another, which is a right wing program, but that is to mistake him as having a message at all rather than just a set of slogans that he endlessly repeats, those tied together only by Trump’s own meanness, not any ideological cogency. That’s all there is, folks. Stop expecting more.

The Mass Deportation

Well, we had to wait a month into his term for President Trump to do something really outlandish, and he finally has. He has issued deportation orders that could affect a majority of the eleven million or so illegal aliens in our midst because it seems that he is willing to deport even those who have engaged in such minor infractions as lying to an employer about their immigration status, and so the President is going far beyond the deportation of serious felons that was government policy when Obama was President. Trump also wants to scale up the number of agents available to do the job so that it can indeed be done. So much for those who said it would be impossible to deport all those people. It can be done. If you want to do something terrible, you can find a way, and also believe them when they say they are going to do it. Millions and millions of people are going to have their lives disrupted, perhaps irreparably, by being dumped into Mexico, even if they originally come from nations in Central America, Mexico not wanting them and perhaps not providing them with resettlement services unless the United States pays for those. Fat chance. So we are facing a major catastrophe. Rescinding the Obama doctrine on people using the bathroom of the sex with which they identify is a bad and inhumane policy, but it affects very few people while the deportation orders affect, as I say, up to ten million people.


The only ones spared by the Trump deportation orders are the DACA children, though they might lose their parents to deportation. In retrospect, which means a few years time, this entire episode will be seen as inhumane as Andrew Jackson moving the Cherokees west, but in the meantime, arguments are made that Trump is, after all, just keeping a campaign promise, and that nations, after all, have to defend their borders. Well, he also promised to move the capital of Israel to Jerusalem but better judgment prevailed. Why create problems where there are none? And the idea of carefully protecting our borders against immigrants is less than a century old. Immigrants entering through Castle Garden, which was the entry point to New York before Ellis Island was established, just signed in and went on their way to local hotels and rooming houses. And at Ellis Island the main concern was communicable disease. Vetting of immigrants did not start until after the First World War. Americans should be proud of their tradition of open borders even if we do need to vet against Islamic terrorists, but we already do that, so what is the problem?


So far, the President has been bluster without consequence and I had hoped but not really thought that he would content himself with that. Even the order halting immigration from seven mostly Moslem countries made a certain amount of sense. A President has a great deal of leeway in determining what is and what is not a threat to the country. He can include in his calculations a hunch about where or from where an attack might take place. So it was not unreasonable to think that the seven unstable countries might be the source of attacks even if they had not been so until now, and it was reasonable to exclude Egypt and Saudi Arabia from the ban because those are erstwhile allies, whatever their histories. Consistency in principle is not the most important thing in foreign policy. We enlisted Vichy generals and admirals and made supposed common cause with Stalin all in order to win the Second World War. So why pick an additional fight with Pakistan when we don’t have to. Yes, the ban on immigrants may have made life inconvenient for some people, delaying them in their travels, but not for all that many, and virtually any act of foreign policy is going to inconvenience some people, and that is not enough reason to not go ahead with it. Yes, it was bad policy because some people were indeed inconvenienced and, more than that, frightened that they would never get to this country, but the new version of that travel ban should get rid of the obvious clinkers, like keeping out people who were already holders of green cards. So, all in all, the real problem with the ban was that there was no real point to it, no real danger that it avoided, all of it just the product of Trump’s simplistic imagination to do something no matter how irrelevant it is to the problem at hand so long as it suits his sense of what is right, which means find a way to punish people for what he takes to be the bad behavior of the world.

But this deportation edict is worse than that. It not only addresses a problem that doesn’t exist, which is that illegal immigrants bring crime with them, when in fact they commit crimes less frequently than American citizens, but instead provide workers necessary to the country because they fill jobs American citizens are unwilling to fill, but because the orders bring with them a great deal of real suffering to a great number of real people, all to salve Trump’s conscience that it is just not right for illegals to be here at all. The infliction of gratuitous suffering would seem to be the opposite of justice but it is in fact the substance of justice. Think of the Salem Witch Trials and the Holocaust, both launched in the name of solemn principles and undertaken with the sense of more in sorrow than in anger (look at the Nazi propaganda of the time), but really undertaken to alleviate in draconian manner a problem that did not exist.

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"I Inherited a Mess"

The most startling quote from President Trump’s notably vituperous press conference last week was not his jousting with the press the way Nixon, in his last days, had jousted with the likes of Dan Rather. Instead, it was the remark that provided the New York Times with its headline the next day: “I inherited a mess”. This was not one of Trump’s many lies. Rather, it showed just how bad his judgment is on foreign policy, even if there are many voters who agreed with him about a point he had been making since the Eighties, which is that the government makes disastrous foreign policy choices all the time. For Trump, gloom and doom is a reflex reaction; for the population as a whole, I take it, it is because they have such a short term memory that they forget how bad things have been and also have a very poor imagination for conceiving just how very bad they could become again.

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One or Two States

The self inflicted crises in the still less than one month old Trump Administration keep coming so fast and furious. There was the immigration ban, now pushed out of the news, though there still remains on the table whether the scale of deportations has increased since Trump took over. There was the Flynn resignation, the furor over which suggests that that there is much more to be said about the connection of the Trump campaign and the Trump Cabinet with the Russians than has yet been made public, but that insiders already know there is something to it, for otherwise why care so much that one official proved unsuitable for his job. Then there is Netanyahu coming into town to announce with the President that the time of the two state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is over, to be replaced, possibly, by a one state solution. This, actually, may be a good idea, even though the New York Times dismisses it simply because it is not what has been United States policy for twenty years now. Let us sort out the meaning of the proposal, Netanyahu, we may assume, fully comprehending what this initiative is while the President, as usual, falls for a phrase and can’t look beyond that.

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A Democratic Resurgence

Democrats are down in the dumps that they lost the Presidency to such an unworthy contender. It is one thing for Hillary to have lost the Presidency the first time to Barack Obama, who is so charming that he could have won a third term if he had been allowed to run. After all, the economy is chugging along and foreign affairs are under control, Obama having declared the Middle East a place to stay out of. But it was quite another thing for her to have lost to Donald Trump, the most unqualified candidate in history, who is boorish and inarticulate even if also outspoken. The Donald, all the prognosticators said, would have to pull an inside straight to win, and that is just what he did.

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Compensating Mechanisms

Let us posit the following characteristics of the incoming President. He is mean spirited; he doesn’t know very much about any of the issues he will have to address; his own words and actions will be uncoordinated and arbitrary, subject only to his own whimsy; he will only reluctantly listen to his advisors but will, hopefully, accede to their greater knowledge and judgment. How will his administration, his political allies and adversaries, both foreign and domestic, cope with these facts, given that they want the administration to act rationally if for no other reason than it will serve their interests for it to do so? What are the compensating mechanisms which will settle in so the Trump Administration is not as out of whack as it might be?

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