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|Living in the Lightning
Let me start of by saying that in an advanced democracy like the United States, political violence must never be tolerated. We have institutions and courts and elections expressly to manage our differences and debates. That isn’t simply how things are, that is how things should be. The ban on political violence is entrenched in both our norms and our laws and is the foundation of not simply our Constitution or our civilization, but of civilization itself. Anyone who encourages otherwise should rot.
Many have compared the events of the January 6 Capitol riots with the violence which occurred concurrently with the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. The idea cannot simply be dismissed out of hand. But not being correct isn’t the same as being right. During the 2020 protests, some figures in national leadership encouraged people to do more than simply march, and cheerfully paid their bail after their arrests. AOC comes to mind. That is indeed crassly irresponsible. Damaging. Stupid.
But we expect different things from different people. We hold four-year-olds to different standards than college students, much less parents of four. That’s life.
So, while I am the polar opposite of impressed when folks like AOC engage in dubious political acts and grandstanding, I can’t say that I’m shocked or offended or mourning for the future of my country. I expect that sort of crap from young, first term Congresspeople and I weigh it against some of the less-than-wise things I did in my 20s. Yes, from time to time they besmirch their office and their place in history, but they are rabble-rousers. It’s their schtick. It isn’t like they are leaders.
In contrast, Trump is the president. He is the leader of the free world. The presidential standard is higher than the standard for a 31-year-old-until-recently-bartender-now-first-term-Congresswomen.
Even if the standard were the same, Trump has surrounded himself with people seeped in law & order conservatism and respect for American institutions like Reince Priebus, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, John Kelly, Nikki Haley, and HR McMaster. Even folks on TeamTrump that I might personally disagree with more often – such as John Bolton, Jeff Sessions and Gary Cohn – are hardly what I would call fascists or anarchists. Even if you hate any or all these men and women on ideological grounds, you must admit that they are adults and that they realize spending a month of your time encouraging the most violent portions of American society to descend on the capital to lay siege to the Capital complex isn’t a good call. I have zero doubt that all of them warned Trump against similar actions on multiple occasions.
I have zero doubt such warnings were the proximate reasons all no longer serve in the White House.
Trump knew exactly what he was doing. He was deliberately assembling a mob over the course of weeks. He deliberately encouraged them to march on the Capitol. He wasn’t shocked when they stormed the People’s House, but instead the opposite; leaks from the White House are rife with details about how he was overjoyed. Trump’s problem is he just couldn’t fathom that what he did was…wrong. Ethically, morally, institutionally, civilizationally, democratically, legally, criminally wrong.
Geopolitics has two speeds.
The first is glacial. The immutable features of land and ocean, mountain and plain, jungle and river, shape who we are, what we dream, what we can attain, what we must try, how we succeed and how we fail. But not necessarily today. The forces of geography and demography rarely play out in years. It is more often decades. We always live in the shadow of geopolitics, but we can and do and always will mold the short-term to our will.
The second speed is lightning. We can live. We can build. We can fly. We can fight. We can rage against the dying of the light. But no matter who we are or what we believe, the forces of geography and demography will always win out in the end. Germany was destined by geopolitics to soar in a century-long rise, and then history sped up and Germany crashed in a six-year cataclysmic war. The Soviet Union was similarly destined to dominate, just as history was destined to speed up with the Soviet collapse. I’d argue we are approaching the end of China’s time in the sun, and very soon history will speed up and plunge the Chinese into a long, horrible dark.
The world is a messy, often violent place. Wars over this or that patch of land, or this or that resource, have dominated all of recorded history…until recently. After World War II the Americans crafted the world’s first true global Order, wielding their unparalleled military in a manner that enabled all countries to participate in global trade without needing to protect their production, their citizens, or the ebb and flow of materials and goods shipments. We did it to purchase the loyalty of the allies to fight the Cold War, but the American rationale hardly prevented the strategy from transforming our world.
This Order is all most of us know. It is responsible for everything from peace in Europe to mass immunizations to the device you are reading this series on. But make no mistake. Our world is new. Our world is fragile. But above all our world is artificial and it bears absolutely no resemblance to the rest of the six-thousand-year saga of human history. We are able to live in our world because the Americans have been holding back the glacier, preventing the world from reverting to its long norm. But for the Americans, the globalized world is little more than a side effect of a war that ended thirty years ago. And holding back the glacier is hard.
Geopolitics always wins in the end. The glacier always lurches forward into lightning. The longer we hold back the glacier, the more furious the lightning – and the Americans have been holding back the glacier for seventy-five years.
I…I’m not sure precisely what I’m expecting to achieve with this series. An end? A beginning? A mourning for what once was? Hope for what might still be? A bit of schadenfreude? Maybe. Certainly, a double fistful of commiseration. I freely admit I’m horrified at what has transpired in DC. I’m still in a bit of shock.
What I know for certain is that globalization is over. Politically, each president who took office after the Berlin Wall fell has demonstrated ever-less interest in holding it together. In that, Trump was no outlier, but simply the next step down the road. There is no globalization without the United States providing global safety, and the globalized world has grown to the point that the United States lacks the economic and military capacity to sustain the system. Certainly, in the aftermath of January 6, the Americans no longer have the cultural capacity to even try to hold the center.
What I know for certain is that there was a coup on January 6, but it didn’t happen when the guy in paramilitary dress with a fistful of zip ties managed to break into the Gallery, or when the guy wearing the swastika shirt emblazoned with SMNE (six million is not enough) walked into the Speaker’s office, or when the guy in the Chewbacca bikini trapsed through the Capitol Rotunda where just two years ago the last president with global ambitions and a global conscience – George HW Bush – lay in state. It occurred when the acting Secretary of Defense and the Vice President called in the National Guard to eject the rioters from the Capitol complex over Trump’s express refusals. It happened January 7 when the office of the Attorney General began a criminal investigation of the President of the United States. At the time of this writing, on January 10, the United States does not have a leader.
What I know for certain is that Trump’s fall from grace has changed us a nation. If there is one thing that both diehard Trumpists and Trump’s staunchest opponents agree on, it is that the United States needs to change. The year 2021 will be the year we debate what must change, and maybe even how. This year will be about groping our way forward. About deciding what we want our political parties to be. About the role of technology in society. About law enforcement. About disease. About (in)equality. This is the year we debate both what America is and what it should be. That’s a big plate of stuff to chew through. I have little confidence we’ll finish it this year. Which means the United States is utterly incapable of dealing with the world in any meaningful way.
What I know for certain is that I’m going to try to keep my personal politics out of this series. I’m going to attempt to avoid dancing on graves or crying in corners. I’m going to attempt to avoid falling down rabbit holes on topics ranging from violence in society to the First Amendment to Congress to the American political system. I’ll try to point out when analysis veers into opinion. I’m pretty sure I’m going to fail here and there. I will try to act like I’m not on Twitter. I’m pretty sure I won’t bat a thousand on that either.
And that’s because I know one more thing for certain:
We are not simply in a time of transition. From globalization to something newer (or older). From Trump to Biden. From calm to chaos. The glacier of history has broken free. We are living in the lightning.
|Searching for Truth in a Flood of Freedom
Starting within minutes of the January 6 riots, a variety of tech platforms began blocking posts by President Donald Trump. Within three days nearly all platforms – a list which includes Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Twitch, Shopify, Spotify, Google, YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat, TikTok, Discord, even Pinterest – had enacted restrictions, in many cases, lifetime bans, on multiple members of Trump’s inner circle’s communication capabilities and/or product sales. The one exception – Parler – was instead blocked from being offered on the Apple store and purged from Amazon Web Service’s server systems, functionally killing Parler as a company. Parler’s site went down January 11. Perhaps for good.
Techworld’s stated logic for the bans is pretty straightforward. All publicly declared they had monitored planning for the violence January 6 on their platforms, and so had cooperated with federal law enforcement to counter it. When the violence happened anyway, techworld took another look and saw follow-on plans to deepen and broaden the violence and in many cases, use said platforms to organize and communicate about said violence. In techworld’s mind, the bans were the only logical action they could take.
Outrage from those of the hard Right was expectedly fierce, with charges of censorship echoing throughout the media, both traditional and new. It is difficult for me to sympathize, and not simply because of what happened January 6: Within minutes of AWS’ announcement, folks on Parler were using the platform to plot attacks on AWS server farms. I’d have shut it down too.
Free speech in the United States is not absolute. There are many carve-outs, but three are relevant when evaluating the aftereffects of the events of January 6.
First, and perhaps least importantly, while you have the right to speak your mind, you do not have the right to be listened to or respected, nor the right to speak on someone else’s place or time. The first enables me to utterly ignore most of what Bernie Sanders says (except for its entertainment value), and the second enables techworld to block Trump and folks like him from their platforms. Neither Sanders nor Trump have legal recourse here as neither immunity from my laughter nor platform access are Constitutional rights.
Second, and far more importantly, you do not have the right to incite violence. Way back when in 1919 the Supreme Court ruled that speech either designed to cause violence or speech that could be reasonably expected to lead to violence is flat-out illegal and punishable with jail time. It’s called the Clear and Present Danger principle.
Rudy Giuliani’s “trial by combat”, Donald Trump Jr’s “we’re coming for you”, and Trump’s weeks-long encouragement of his supporters to show up in DC January 6 to disrupt the election certification are all very nearly textbook examples of non-protected – in fact, criminal – speech. So much so that all will likely be included into future law-courses as actual textbook examples. (Fun fact: The Clear and Present Danger principle was first manifested by the Supreme Court to codify the punishment of a socialist. Trump is in some weird historical company.)
Third, you do not have the right to publish falsehoods that you know are falsehoods, especially should such falsehoods cause reputational or economic harm. Such actions come under a mix of libel, slander, and defamation laws. Trump is very familiar with slander laws as in his pre-presidential days he sued pretty much everyone he did business with under their umbrella.
It appears to me that Sidney Powell, part of TeamTrump’s efforts to overturn the election, is less familiar. She has done a bang-up job of crafting assertions about what happened in the elections. Her (catastrophic) mistake was to segue from general delusions about the election being ruined by foreign Communists and rogue Republicans and a Venezuelan ghost and lizardmen and aliens from Tau Ceti e to specifically asserting Dominion Voting Systems has knowingly tampered with voting. (Fun fact: only one of the above is hyperbole.) She did so without producing a single shred of proof. That obviously is slander and obviously causes reputational and economic harm. So, Dominion sued her on January 8 for $1.3 billion in damages. I expect Dominion to (very easily) win the case, most likely resulting in Powell’s permanent disbarring and most likely reducing her to permanent penury. (Unless of course the Tau Cetians pick her up and take her home.)
What Trump and Powell and others in Trump’s inner circle have done are not political views. These are political lies specifically intended to warp the American system and inflict personal harm upon others. Having things like this melon-scooped out of public life doesn’t bother me one iota. Countering such statements isn’t censorship because what’s being countered isn’t protected speech.
So why has it gotten so bad?
Two reasons. The first has to do with technology.
Back in the 1970s we all watched the same news programs. We obviously interpreted the information provided through different personal, geographic, and ideological lenses and came to different conclusions, but with everyone working from the same information, the splits in American society weren’t very…splitty.
Fast forward to today. The evening news is over half prescription drug commercials. People source their news from Twitter and Facebook. Twitter only gives you what you ask for. Facebook aggressively funnels you to ever more esoteric and focused feeds. Gone is broadcasting. All that’s left is narrowcasting. We are no longer beginning from the same trough of information. Of course, we are disagreeing more. Add in the omnipresence of social media, and of course extremist speech is more common.
The second issue is one of law.
Our pre-existing communication laws as regards things like falsehood and libel were designed for the world of newspaper and television. The singular meaningful update for the Digital Age occurred with the 1996 Telecommunications Decency Act. Of key relevance is something known as Section 230, a clause which indemnifies any provider of digital services from any slander or incitation to violence which occurs on their platforms. Section 230 rules that digital platforms are not publishers like Nightline or the Wall Street Journal, but instead simply platform providers, and so are not legally liable for what their users do.
Put simply, you can lie and scream and plot on Facebook or Twitter and no matter what you say or do, Facebook and Twitter face zero criminal repercussion.
Section 230 was designed for email and discussion blogs. It was written a decade before Facebook and Twitter. Social media of the type that dominates current information exchange wasn’t even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye. Mark Zuckerberg was only 22. Things like libel laws have not caught up. Congress has neglected to even pick up the issue. And since Section 230 is fundamentally about First Amendment rights and legal responsibilities, only Congress has the Constitutional power to decide what is and what is not protected speech, as well as what the platforms should and can and should not and cannot ban.
This puts contemporary society in an uncomfortable place. The shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting has prioritized speed and pizzazz. Broad legal indemnity means no one has a financial or legal interest in context or accuracy. This shift has weakened our critical thinking capacity at the same time making us utterly reliant upon our own internal hooey detectors to determine what is true and what is false, all the while under constant assault from libtards, neckbeards and conspiracy theorists of all flavors.
It’s infuriating. It’s exhausting.
For those of you on the Right, do you believe the election was fraudulent? Because not a single – not one – piece of evidence has been presented in court or the public sphere that has withstood the scrutiny of a third grader. For those of you on the Left, did you think that the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests were huge? Because they weren’t. If you exclude the first week of the protests (and Portland which perpetually exists in a state of societal breakdown) there wasn’t a single day where the total number of people protesting nationwide exceeded 100,000. Rallies in DC regularly top several times that figure.
The shift from broadcasting to narrowcasting has weakened our ability to see the truth of things even when the real facts are right in front of us. And that takes some people down some seriously odd rabbit holes.
Let me give you an example of just how wackadoo things have gotten:
For those of you who don’t follow the more eclectic side of American conspiracy wackiness, the QAnon conspiracy world claims there is a global Satanic cabal of child slavers and molesters that counts Democratic lawmakers as among their chief architects and that only the moral purity of Donald Trump can save us. Some versions claim the leaders of said cabal are in reality lizardmen, while others assert said cabal has engineered coronavirus so that they can use the pretext of vaccination to inject everyone with microchips to better select their child targets. Like I said: wackadoo. QAnon, at the moment, is protected speech. Considering the implications for politics and health and public safety and the reputations of the real lizardmen, it should not be.
Until Congress establishes new guidelines, everything that is said on social media exists in a legal grey area. With the exception of sex trafficking and child pornography, nothing is expressly banned. For the platforms, the result has been to take a very light hand to monitoring. Facebook has been slow at even taking down ISIS beheading videos. And since the standards are legally nonexistent, elected officials have been granted the benefit of the doubt.
Trump and those around him have taken advantage of the leeway, repeatedly ignoring pre-existing norms and laws. Twitter in particular has noted that Trump has violated their Terms of Service many, many times and that the only reason they had not suspended his account before January 6 was that Trump was the sitting president and so his tweets enjoy a different evaluation standard. Twitter further made it clear that should the tone and content of Trump tweets persist after January 20 that they wouldn’t hesitate to ban him. From a certain point of view “all” the events of January 6 did as regards Trump-related bans was to speed up the process and use a slightly larger dragnet than what was already going to kick in the week after Biden’s inauguration. But let’s make this abundantly clear: Twitter is under no legal obligation to do so.
Regardless of what happens to Trump, the people who rioted thinking Trump had their back were not elected to high office and so are far less shielded. The FBI is treating the death of Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick at the hands of the rioters as a murder of one of their own. Yes, murder. His skull was bashed in with a fire extinguisher, and then he was dragged from the Capitol and beaten to death by the crowd in a full-on Fallujah-style horror. One rioter even struck him repeatedly with a pole…that had the American flag on the other end. This. Is. Not. Free. Speech. The bureau has pulled out the stops in hunting them down.
It hasn’t been much of a hunt. The mob’s belief in their immunity led them to film and selfie almost every aspect of their crimes and then post it all on Twitter, Facebook and Parler. Such actions not only pushed Twitter and Facebook over the line into enacting their bans (and prompted Apple and AWS to ban Parler from their systems), but also made it soooooooo eeeeeeasy for the FBI to identify the perpetrators. Or, as the FBI has classified them, terrorists. But, again, let’s make this absolutely clear: the mob’s discussion and posting of assault plans on social media platforms and their subsequent posting of Sicknick’s murder do not themselves constitute illegal acts. The FBI is simply viewing the posts as both announcements of crimes.
I have no problem drawing a line between what is permissible in public discourse and what is not. My problem is not the drawing of the line. What I have a problem with is who draws the line.
So long as Section 230 is in place, it is up to the new media platforms and only the new media platforms to decide when and where and how and if to block any specific post or user. They have become both the providers and the regulators of the public domain. They chose to communicate with federal law enforcement about the rioters descending upon DC. They chose to deplatform those who were inciting general acts of and planning specific acts of violence. They were not legally required to do so, nor would they have been criminally liable had they chosen not to act.
And yet social media is absolutely part of – perhaps even the root of – the problem. Facebook’s own internal research indicates that 64% of the time a user joins an extremist Facebook group, it is because Facebook recommended the group to the user. This is the same Facebook that scrapes every bit of personal data it can get from your computer and phone and then sells that data to scammers, complete with a data analysis of what sorts of scams Facebook thinks you are most likely to fall for. An eager purchaser of said data and analytics is the Russian bot farm. I trust the implications of that are fairly obvious.
Do I think that techworld did the right thing in the aftermath of the January 6 riots? Most definitely. Political violence should have no role whatsoever in American society and I applaud anyone who takes such a stance.
Do I think techworld is getting better? A bit. At the same time Twitter et al was banning Trump, it has also started (timidly) blocking more traditional peddlers of lies. Tweets from Chinese government accounts at how much better China’s genocidal policies have made life for Uighurs have been deleted, as have tweets out of Tehran that US and UK coronavirus vaccines are designed to hurt Iranians. In this Wild West of information, someone needs to be the sheriff, and Twitter seems to be cautiously, reluctantly, baby-stepping forward.
But do I trust techworld to be the guardians of our means of communication, especially when it comes to things like accuracy? Most definitely not. The “truth” is often not a clear line. I recognize we need a line, but drawing that line is neither techworld’s responsibility nor their strength. That responsibility is ours, and that of our elected representatives in Congress. Until Congress acts, this is the reality we are trapped within.
I don’t mean to suggest for one second that a solution is easy. Because no matter what Congress aims for – amending Section 230, breaking up the tech firms, turning their platforms into public utilities, etc. – the core question of who has the power to regulate content remains. Resolving this is the tech issue for the United States for the next few years.
Now normally I’d not bother with this sort of piece. The intersection of media and new media and the First Amendment and regulation are clearly a pot of domestic issues heavy on the hornets. I normally steer well clear of precisely this sort of passion-laden topics. Not this time, and not simply because of what happened January 6.
My concern is that we have been here before.
The last time we were introduced to a new technology that changed our relationship with information, it was the telegraph. In less than two decades, we went from it taking six months to Oregon Trail information across the country to instantaneous tapping via wire. Reporters just started making stuff up to sell papers. Some of it was pretty funny. Until it wasn’t. A particularly ethically unfettered journalist by the name of Joseph Pulitzer decided Spain was a good target. His “reporting” agitated for war, and in April 1898, war he got.
Today, the United States has largely withdrawn its forces from the world. In the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan, America has had years to rest, recover, recruit, and rearm. I’ve recently found myself saying that anyone stupid enough to pick a fight with the United States deserves what they get. I always thought that Americans were smart enough to tell fact from fiction. To know when they are being manipulated. The past few years have proven me wrong again and again and again. I really don’t want the United States to launch a conflict because of social media bullshit. The damage we could do to ourselves and others would be incalculable. Social media isn’t (just) about cat videos and your grandchildren’s pictures. It has become geopolitical.
One final point. There is an assertion among rightest Republicans that techworld is liberal and that the Trump purge from the platforms is a coordinated effort to shape the national conversation. I agree with the first half of the assertion. Most of techworld is based in Silicon Valley. I do not agree with the second. The effort to reshape the conversation is far more diffuse, but also far broader than merely techworld. The entire business community is in play.
Before the day was out January 6 a veritable avalanche of business associations ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers to the American Bankers Association to the American Petroleum Institute to the Business Roundtable had publicly called upon Vice President Mike Pence to use the Constitution’s Article 25 to force Trump from office. And that on top of a raging waterfall of direct condemnations from individual firms and CEOs. All in all, we are talking about tens of thousands of firms representing the majority of the American business community.
American politics have changed. And now America’s political parties are changing with them.
|The End of the Republican Alliance
No political party of consequence in the United States has ever been single-issue. American electoral laws dictate that whoever gets one more vote than the next guy gets the seat, pushing political parties to throw as wide a net as possible to get that extra vote. From time to time third parties erupt, but by splitting the vote with their closest ideological neighbor they all but ensure their ideological foes carry the day. In such times, one of the three parties always collapses. Typically, within just a couple of years.
If you want to understand America’s political system, you have to understand the factions that maneuver within the parties.
Populists are most certainly the flavor of the day.
In decades past the Republican Party has treated them like undesirable relations. Working to keep them bottled up in a shack in the woods, and only letting them see the light of day when voting time rolls around.
The reality is of course more nuanced. Populism exists in all societies at multiple points of the ideological spectrum. From to time issues political or cultural or economic generate flares of support or participation. Rightist populists have enjoyed moments in sun under Barry Goldwater, Pat Buchanan, and Ross Perot, but by and large the more establishment bits of the party have done what they can to keep the populists out of national elected positions specifically, and out of the party machinery in general. Once every four years the populists roll into the Republican convention and try to nail things into the formal party charter, but most ideas get slapped down quickly and firmly. The populists were never organized, and any “leaders” of the faction tended to be at each other’s throats, so the more “respectable” Republicans had little difficulty keeping them out of the limelight.
Social media ended that state of affairs. The same technologies which enable me to keep tabs on the world while keeping in touch with friends and family while I’m bouncing around the globe, have enabled the rightist populists to speak directly with one another on a national scale. Regular contact generated connections. Regular connections generated opinion leaders. Opinion leaders generated a political movement. The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party emerged as a major and growing force. And Donald J. Trump took center stage.
Some on the Left are hopeful that the recent purgeof Trump, his inner circle, and violent extremists from social media will push the rightist populists back into the shadows. That fundamentally misreads both the movement and purge’s targets. Techworld is blocking and banning one very specific strain of one very specific faction of conservatism: the rightist populists willing to incite or apply violence.
The vast, vast bulk of the rightist populist movement have not grabbed a can of bear spray and marched on the Capitol. The crowd estimates for the January 6 protest-turned-riot range from only 3,000 to 20,000, with no more than 2,000 actually attacking the Capitol. Techworld’s bans target no one else within the broader population of rightist populism, and for the political opponents of rightist populism to think otherwise is nothing more than a mix of arrogance and denial.
(Fun fact: If you are of a member of the violent group and you’ve threatened me via email or other methods, the FBI already has your information. Thanks for playing.)
Non-violent rightist populists are not simply a part of America’s cultural fabric, they can still communicate and are undeniably in charge of the current iteration of the Republican Party. When Trump mobilized them, voter rolls increased by at least ten million. Some estimates put the number closer to 20 million. In comparison, the entire voting roll for all unionized workers is less than 15 million. There certainly are more rightist populists in the Republican Party today than any other Republican faction. It is likely they are the largest single political faction in the United States. Even if the populists break with Trump, that is hardly the same as saying they would break from Trumpism, which is hardly the same as saying they will simply fade into the background.
The second major faction are the evangelicals. Stretching back to the 1990s, America’s evangelical community has become ever more wound up in the search for political power. The Conservative Coalition, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, even Newt Gingrich’s Contract of America had some religious overtones. President George W Bush quite successfully brought evangelicals – and their millions of votes – into the heart of the Republican Party, catapulting them into governance.
This faction crafted a long-term goal of reshaping American law – especially via judicial decisions – to achieve a broad set of socially conservative policies. In that they’ve experienced more successes than failures. Their biggest wins occurred in the Supreme Court, which now has a 6-3 conservative majority, with three of the six conservative justices evangelical fan favorites. Whether you think this is disastrous or wondrous is of course up to your personal ideological persuasions. Regardless, the evangelicals treated Trump as an investment, and from their point of view – at least until January 5 – it has paid handsome dividends.
The Catholic community of late has experienced a split, for which the 2016 election of Donald Trump is only half responsible. The other cause is the 2013 inauguration of Pope Francis. The two men are polar opposites. Francis is as quiet, humble, kind, tolerant and welcoming as Trump is loud, bombastic, demeaning, exclusionary and bigoted. Their worldviews are similarly opposed, and that tore the American Catholic community right down the middle.
Roughly half of American Catholics followed Francis to a newer, different sort of religious approach that to be perfectly blunt we’ve not seen in Catholicism since the 1800s. The other half broadly followed the evangelical path and started mixing religion and politics, with religion taking the back seat when things started getting morally complicated. Add in (or more accurately, subtract out) the Catholics who became disillusioned and went secular, and what’s left of the politicized Catholic community is a smaller chunk. It is probably a plurality of what existed before, but they are as diehard Trump supporters as the most evangelical of the evangelicals.
This new Catholic core – along with the evangelicals – made their peace with Trump’s version of ethics and morality years ago, deciding to pledge idolatrous commitment to a man who has had an affair with a porn star in order to achieve temporal power in this world. My understanding of their beliefs is that this commitment will have lasting consequences on the other side of this mortal coil, but I’ll leave discussions of such to those more qualified. The bottom line – in the geography that I do understand – is that the religious-driven factions of the Republican Party are unlikely to have a crisis of faith due to the evolving Republican Party structure. Or at least not soon enough to change Congressional voting patterns as regards Trump’s impeachment trial. Add in that the populists tend to define evaluate morals and ethics and responsibility somewhat differently, and it is no surprise that only ten Republicans joined the Democrats in the January 13 vote to impeach the president.
These three factions – the populists, the evangelicals, and the conservative Catholics – collectively own the Republican Party today. This is not how it has traditionally been.
If we dial back to 2010, the Republican Party was a fundamentally different beast. Traditionally speaking, conservatism at its core is driven by fear of the mob. Fear of instability. Fear of threats to civilization. Fear for public safety. Critics say this has made the Republicans the party of the stodgy, and there might be something to that. But it also means old-style Republicans view themselves as the guardians of the institutions and norms and bedrock of modern society. They provide reality-checks on the more liberal and/or wild factions in American politics, doing so with an understanding of the long arm of history and a grounding in economics and a deeper view of the world that is often lacking in the more ideologically focused factions that make up America. Collectively, I think of this old-guard as the math-and-maps crowd of American politics.
It is pretty easy to break these old-style Republicans into three dominant factions.
Let’s start with the really easy one. Fiscal conservatives only care about one thing: making sure the country doesn’t spend more than it earns. In their view excessive budget deficits lead to economic distortions and inflation, knocking all of society out of kilter.
Fiscal conservatives have had a rough time of late. George W Bush ran the biggest post-war deficits in the country’s history, only to be outdone by Obama, only to be outdone by Trump. Then came coronavirus; the new batches of deficit spending nearly sent fiscal voters into straightjackets. They’ve not had a friend in the Republican Party at the national level for a while now and are clearly the weakest of the three old-guard Republican factions. Trump viewed their accounting-inspired fuddy-duddyness as a check on his power. They were among the first groups of traditional Republicans that he sidelined. Trump completely purged them from his administration and the Republican Party apparatus, and even campaigned against them – successfully – in the 2018 midterms. The few that are left in public office spend most of their time looking for beer to cry into.
A far larger and more powerful faction are the national security conservatives.
This faction is particularly sick from the events of January 6. What went down at the Capitol complex is not what they have fought and bled and sacrificed for, and to have a sitting president be the cause of the riot is so far past disgusting the entire military is likely to be in a state of shock and rage for some time. The breach between the national security establishment and the Trump administration is deep and bitter and likely permanent.
For me, the single biggest takeaway is that on January 6 the Pentagon did not insist that the order to mobilize the National Guard come from the president. The military acted despite Trump’s obvious objections. Then, on January 12, the Joint Chiefs released a statement condemning the riots and anyone playing a role in them, supporting the election process and expressly noting that Biden won, and making very clear they would not respond to illegal orders. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to understand what they think about Trump. You can read the Joint Chief’s statement for yourself here. Functionally speaking, the military stopped recognizing Trump as Commander in Chief.
The bad blood hardly began on January 6.
Trump relied heavily upon “my generals” to staff his cabinet, with James Mattis, HR McMaster, and John Kelly being the three most prominent (and respected) to serve. All three (and many others across the national security community) acted to educate and inform a president who had little desire to be educated or informed. All three (and many others across the national security community) worked to rein in Trump’s darker impulses, and all three (and many others across the national security community) were dismissed for their diligence and integrity.
Trump has used the military as a political prop since the beginning of his presidency. Trump has berated any intelligence official who dares do their job, which is to present the country’s leadership with the truth, no matter how personally, politically, or ideologically inconvenient that might be. Federal law enforcement’s job is to…enforce the country’s laws. Even applying them to the President’s allies. And inner circle. And the President himself.
Trump’s casual – and in some cases, caustic – dismissal of everything the national security community has been trained to do and molded to stand for reverberated throughout the services. Once Trump realized the community wasn’t simply going to unquestioningly carry out his will, he began a thorough (if erratic) campaign to root out the national security community from positions of influence within his administration, then within Congress, and finally within the Republican Party. For all intents and purposes, national security conservatives are no longer Republicans. And in the aftermath of January 6, it is likely they will not rejoin.
The final leg in the Republican old-guard triad is the business community.
The relationship started out smashingly. Right out of the gate Trump slashed corporate tax rates, began a bonfire of the regulations, and formed a series of advisory councils of business leaders to advise him on every aspect of the economy. Businesses loved that. (Fun fact: I loved it too! Several of my clients snuck copies of my books onto the Resolute desk. No photos unfortunately. V sad.)
The affair cooled quickly. Recommendations were met with ideological, even nonsensical, rhetoric and personal insults. More than one captain of industry was called a “f**king fag” to his face. Disagreements, no matter how delicately or respectfully presented, were rewarded with expulsion and isolation. In less than six months, Trump had disbanded all the advisory councils. Then came the harangues on supply chains. And the trade wars. And the demands for campaign funding that bordered on the threatening.
When COVID struck in early 2020 the business community had loads of ideas about what the federal government could and could not and should and should not do. But on everything from the possibility of building a domestic supply chain for personal protective gear to how to prepare the logistics of vaccine distribution, the responses from the Trump administration ranged from bewilderingly obtuse to outright hostile. Businesspeople felt like they did…during the Obama administration: under rhetorical siege and facing a hermetically sealed White House that they could neither penetrate nor understand. The business community lays most of the blame for America’s poor coronavirus management at the feet of the man charged to do the managing: the president.
And then we had the Capitol riots on January 6.
All Republicans say they value law and order in society, and arguably all do. But just as all of us internally rank-order what’s important, so too does the business community. For them, law & order is always near the very top. They have facilities, staff, reputations. If law & order breaks down, nothing else that they do matters. To see the president summon and rally the rioters and launch them against the Capitol complex was simply too much to bear. The bulk of the American business community – up to and including the American Chamber of Commerce – condemned the President that day and called upon Vice President Mike Pence to remove him from office.
Trumpism scares the business community for the same reason terrorism and the Black Lives Matters movements scare them. It is disruptive. To laws. To regulations. To taxes. To the workforce. To consumption. To investment. To supply chains. To stability.
What began with Techworld’s deplatforming of TeamTrump has extended across the entire business space. Companies are falling over one another to cut their ties not simply to TeamTrump but to any affiliated politician who participated in efforts to undermine the 2020 general elections. Rex Tillerson, both former Exxon CEO and Trump’s first Secretary of State, has been particularly vocal, laying out how and why the United States is “in a worse place today than we were before he [Trump] came in”.
But if you’re looking for a truly monumental turning point, the names to watch are Koch, Ricketts, Marcus, and Griffin. All are huge business names and massive Republican donors and staunch social conservatives. None were thrilled when Trump took over the Republican Party. All got (very) quiet when Trump turned the party into a cult of personality. All have (very very) quietly signaled in recent days that they are reevaluating…everything about their relationships with politicians, candidates, and the party’s infrastructure, with particularly narrowed eyes on those Congresspeople who after the January 6 riot still chose to vote against certifying the election results. A mass desertion of the business community would be bad enough for what’s left of the Republican Party but should names like these leave – names that have fused business and social conservativism – the breach would be deep and permanent. The Republican Party would no longer be the party of money.
The business and national security communities are having a bit of a dark contest over who is more pissed off at President Trump, because in Washington no one is in charge of the things they care about. The Defense Secretary has been in the big chair only since the week after the election. The Attorney General only since Christmas. The Department of Homeland Security Secretary was the administrator of FEMA until midnight January 12…which left FEMA without a captain. None of them have been Congressionally confirmed, and arguably none of them are sufficiently qualified for the jobs they now hold. Such positions have never been empty at a time of a presidential transition, much less all four at once.
Similar inadequacies and vacancies spill down the staff rosters throughout the federal government – especially at DHS and Commerce – and are at least in part responsible for the lack of law enforcement preparedness at the Capitol on January 6. For these communities, it feels as if for Donald Trump, law & order and national security are not even worthy of consideration.
And yet elections aren’t just about money or numbers of factions, but also about the numbers of voters. Even if the fiscal, national security and business factions fully disconnect from the Republican coalition and none of them ever vote red again, Trump will have still increased the size of the Republican Party simply from mobilizing the populists. This isn’t over.
Not by a long shot.
Now for those of you on the Left who are getting all giddy. Curb your damn enthusiasm. If you think I would wax philosophic for 3000 words about Republicans-changed-this and Republicans-gone-that and not take the Democratic Party through the wringer in the next breath, well, then you don’t know me at all.
|Building a Better Democrat…Maybe
Normally when I give presentations, I arrange my material based on the audience’s cultural norms. Americans are manic-depressive, so I normally start with the good news to snap them away from obsessing about problems that aren’t really problems and get them thinking about the big picture. Then near the end I nail them with the bad news so they leave thinking about the actual problems as opposed to this or that conspiracy theory. With Germans I typically flip it: deepen the dourness up front (Germans are happier when they are dour) and then force them to leave in a good mood. Koreans are an emotional roller coaster from stage-on to stage-off, so for them the order really doesn’t matter.
For those of you who consider yourself Democrats…weeeell, let’s start with the bad, move on to the worse, and end with a likely post-Trump path that most of you are going to absolutely, positively loathe.
The bad: The Democratic coalition has a crack in its chassis and its failure to win the big elections is explainable, understandable, and not about to change.
Most Democrats have taken it as an article of faith for the past couple of generations that they should be the country’s natural ruling party. As the argument goes, there are considerably more registered Democrats than Republicans. Moreover, as the party of the young and the party of minorities, American demographics will steadily shift in the direction of more and more Democratic Party members.
The strategy hasn’t worked out. The Republicans have not only captured the White House about one-third more than the Democrats since the strategy was adopted (despite having about one-third fewer members), but the Democrats also haven’t been able to hold onto both houses of Congress for more than a single session at a time since the early 1900s. The “natural ruling party” has become the “natural opposition party”.
The reason for such outcome is, in a word, infighting.
Like the Republican Party, the Democrats too are a party of factions. But that is where the similarity ends. The bulk of the Republican factions – national security, fiscal, business, pro-life and evangelicals – do not fundamentally object to the pet policy preferences of their allies. That has made for a stable voting bloc.
The Democrats, in contrast, are constantly at one another’s throats. Single mothers disagree with the youth vote on subsidizing college tuition. Greens and unions spar over industrial policy. Gays and Blacks define equal rights very differently. Any candidate the Democrats put forward for office who takes a stance on pretty much any issue is guaranteed to alienate at least one faction. So yes, there may be more Democrat voters than Republican voters, but the nature of the Democratic coalition all but ensures that not all Democrats will actually show up on election day.
For the Democrats to win, they have to have one of two things going for them. First, they need a candidate who doesn’t talk policy. If the campaign can rest on charisma and personal auras, then the Democrats’ superior numbers carry the day. Second, it always helps to have someone to run against. The most successful modern Democratic campaigns have been at times when the incumbent Republican has been unpopular: think Richard Nixon after Watergate, or George W Bush during the second phase of the Iraq War, or Donald Trump in the aftermath of the hell year of 2020.
Yet even in this most recent Democratic presidential win, it was a very near thing. Despite running against the singularly dislikable personality of Donald Trump, the Democrats only won the popular vote 52:48. They lost seats in the House of Representatives. If not for Trump’s conspiracy-riddled ridiculousness in the period between the Georgia run-off elections on January 6, the Republicans would have maintained control of the Senate as well.
Between a misplaced belief in manifest destiny and factional infighting, it shouldn’t come as a massive shock that the Democrats tend to lose over and over and over.
That’s the bad. Here’s the worse: The Democrats are losing the numbers game so badly; the party could soon be kept out of power altogether.
Organized labor has been arguably the most important Democrat voting block for decades, but it isn’t a happy group. Three reasons predominate.
The first – globalization – proves that sometimes in geopolitics the conventional wisdom is true: a lot of low- and mid-skilled manufacturing capacity has decamped America.
The second – technology – is more complicated. In part unionized workers haven’t been able to keep up with relentless technological march of the Digital Age. In part new information technologies, especially more recent developments such as 3D-printing, have enabled production to relocate quickly and easily outside of unionized areas. Marry globalization to tech, and supply chains tend to get broken into many, many small pieces, while simultaneously getting scattered across the world.
For most Americans, digitization and free trade worked out great, enabling access to cheaper goods and while allowing the American workforce to focus on big value-added stuff like product design. No wonder that from 1985 through 2015 most Congressional Democrats stood shoulder-to-shoulder with business-led Republicans in pushing trade deals through Congress. But blue-collar workers? They didn’t do so well. Unemployment and opiates ensued.
Third, is an oft-overlooked cultural aspect. Outside of old-school manufacturing and coal mining, organized labor never penetrated into most of the private sector. Old-school manufacturing and coal mining had their hey-days over a half century ago, when most of the people with the “good” jobs were male and white. No other non-racial, non-gender voting block is as concentrated by race and gender. Which means as old-school manufacturing and coal jobs were lost, they were nearly invariably lost by white men.
Perhaps as important, the sort of work that most private-sector union populations engage in is called “blue collar” for good reason. It tends towards the physically demanding. At the risk of sounding a bit classist, folks who throw rivets or sling trees probably don’t have doctorate degrees or live in high-rise condos. As a rule, such occupations are filled with people (read: white dudes) who have limited experience with other cultures and who are much more grounded in traditional society of church and family. They tend in the general direction of social conservatism. No matter what the Simpsons would have us believe, there are no gay steel mills.
And so union members have been inching Republican for the better part of the past two decades. Trump’s rise presented union workers with a social conservative, anti-trade, anti-tech politician, and they went in whole hog. (I’m speaking here of private sector unions. Public sector unions are mostly white-collar workers and are an entirely different beast.)
Another faction in motion are America’s Hispanics. There’s a persistent belief on both the Left and Right that the Democrats are the party of the minorities, so Hispanic voters must choose blue and therefore the Democrats are pushing to open America’s southern border to unrestricted in-migration in order to help win the numbers game.
The reality is quite different. First-generation Hispanic-Americans and undocumented Hispanics do indeed tilt Left, especially on economic issues, but those who are undocumented cannot vote so an open border generates no immediate gains. As the generations tick by, not only does Hispanic identity become a lot less “sticky” with many Hispanics-Americans even self-identifying as white, but Hispanics’ underlying social conservatism tends to bleed through the more America-established a Hispanic becomes. And regardless of generation, Hispanics are not nearly as pro-blue as other minorities.
Democrats’ problem with this “faction” is a getting-to-know-you issue that is rooted in the very word “Hispanic”. It includes Spanish speakers such as Mexicans, Spaniards, Argentineans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans, but also people of Native descent from throughout Latin America who might have never spoken a word of Spanish in their lives. Even within each of those many categories exists bewildering diversity; for example, Cubans living in New Jersey and Florida are historically, culturally and politically distinct. (There is also something to be said about the insistence of White liberals’ increasing use of the term Latinx as a woke-ism in Hispanic messaging despite its mixed reception within Spanish-speaking communities.)
The incessantly direct mistake the Democrats continually make with this “group” is their political messaging. Pollsters tell us Hispanics regularly list economic issues and health care as their primary concerns, but the Democrats insist upon barraging Hispanics with ads about border issues and immigration. Such a racist approach speaks to what Democrats feel Hispanic-Americans “should” care about and does not go over well. Especially since the issue that Hispanic-Americans tend to be most conservative on is none other than immigration. Doubly so when it comes to the multi-generational Mexican-American communities in Texas and Cuban-American communities in Florida.
The Democratic Party seems completely incapable of accepting any of this. In contrast, Trump embraced it. The day House Democrats voted to impeach Trump (the first time), the president of the AFL-CIO labor federation was in the Oval Office to sing glory to Trump for his successful inclusion of organized labor’s concerns into the NAFTA2 treaty. The Democrats only found out when the press release happened. Just as with the unions, the Democrats have taken Hispanic-Americans for granted, knowing they are blue. Just as with the unions, TeamTrump proved far more capable of speaking to the concerns and fears of Hispanic-Americans. And so Trump captured nearly every county on the U.S.-Mexico border, in addition to increasing the Republicans’ share of Hispanic-American votes in Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia and Ohio.
The Democratic self-delusion that they have more votes and so are destined to win could permanently disable them very soon. Since everyone in the new Republican Partyis exclusively social conservative, it is even more cohesive than the old Republican Party which was already more cohesive than the Democrats. With the unions and Hispanics adding their voting heft to the new Republican alliance, it could well prove impossible for the new, reduced and blinkered Democrats to win high office ever again.
There are only two ways forward for the Democrats in their quest against electoral irrelevance.
The first possibility is that the Republicans might provide an opening. The old-guard Republicans – business, national security and fiscal conservatives – may attempt to recapture their party from the social conservatives in general, and the rightist populists in specific. Succeed or fail, the populist genie cannot be shoved back in the bottle and we’d see the sort of incessant infighting we’re used to seeing among of the Democrats. For more on the state of the Republican Party, see Part III of this series.
The second possibility is that the Democrats might be able to leverage the internal factional conflicts wracking both the Republicans and themselves to…trade up. This second, intriguing, possibility has three pieces:
First, the ignorant arrogance of the hard Left may prove their undoing.
The Democrats’ long held and misplaced view that they are the natural ruling party has encouraged grassroots activists to insist upon litmus tests for candidates. The idea being that no one should be allowed to run as a Democrat unless they commit publicly to a lengthening list of ideologically liberal purist positions. In most cases, such efforts end in disaster. In the much vaunted “blue wave” of the 2018 midterm elections, hard leftist Democrat candidates failed to flip a single Congressional seat blue. The effort to install correct-minded candidates in the 2020 elections nearly cost the Democrats the House and the Senate and the Presidency.
Even worse for the Democrats, the application of ideological litmus tests has started to be applied not simply to representatives and candidates, but to voters. Case in point from the 2020 election, the woke Left insisted – loudly – that anyone who did not rank-order racial justice as the most important issue of the day was racist. Telling 90+% of the American population that they are racist is a guaranteed way to lose support. Not even Americans of minority groups bought that particular line of crap: Trump received a greater proportion of Black and Hispanic votes than any Republican in modern history. Gays, the Democrat voting block that tends to police their own most vehemently, once again sent roughly a quarter of their votes to Republican candidates. (Exit polls being exit polls, take that figure with some salt. But do keep in mind most who lie to pollsters about their vote do so when they voted for the guy they aren’t “supposed” to.)
Joe Biden has many, many (oh so very many flaws), but being an ideological purist is not one of them. He has done nearly everything in his power to purge the Democratic Party of not simply the concept of wokeness in specific, but of the entire leftist wing of the party.
- In the debates Biden publicly repudiated cherished leftist positions on the Green New Deal and packing the Supreme Court.
- Biden was able to entice his old boss, Barack Obama, out of retirement to denounce wokeness and cancel culture.
- As Biden takes office, any talk of forgiving student debt has evaporated, replaced by a short-term debt payment moratorium which expires about when I expect America’s economic recovery from the coronavirus recession (September 1).
- Rumblings of Biden selecting Elizabeth Warren as Treasury Secretary – which I always found deliciously preposterous – foundered on the rocks of reality as Biden instead nominated former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen. The only way Yellen could be more a member of the Good Ole’ Boys’ Club would be if she were an actual boy.
- Of the hundreds of appointees Biden has nominated, not one is a radical. (Few are what I’d call inspired choices, but none are ideological crackpots.)
Having a pragmatist holding the reins is never a horrible idea, but having a pragmatist holding the reins today provides the Democrats with reorganizational options that couldn’t have existed otherwise.
Which brings us to the second factor of a possible Democrat renaissance: the Republicans have lost a big piece of what made them Republicans.
Donald Trump’s active courting of violent extremists was bad enough. His decision to draw such people to DC on January 6 was particularly wretched judgement. But his hurling them against the Capitol, resulting in the murder of one of his own law enforcement personnel was simply beyond the pale.
Nor has the story ended there. Because Trump brought so many millions of rightest populist voters into mainstream, and because they came in from the cold not for the Republican Party, but for Trump personally, the Republican Party has been loath to expressly condemn and purge the (now-former) President. And it is that refusal to dismantle Trump’s cult of personality which provides the Biden Democrats with an opening, because no longer is the Republican Party the party of law & order.
I need to underline a couple points about political violence in America before continuing. Many – friends, family, colleagues, clients and readers – have asked me of late if what Trump did in the lead-up to the January 6 Capitol riot is any different than what Democrats have done in encouraging protests-cum-riots over the course of 2020. Yes and no.
First, the yes. There is a big difference between a Congressional Democrat urging protestors to “get in the face” of Congressional Republicans, and the president deliberately summoning the country’s most violent people to DC and literally dancing in the West Wing while they storm the Capitol. There is a big difference between sacking a Seven-Eleven and beating a cop to death on the steps of the People’s House. I firmly oppose both, but I didn’t need to rub two brain cells together to rank order them.
Second, the no. Encouraging political violence in the United States isn’t simply morally wrong, it is absolutely, monumentally stupid. Americans respond extraordinarily badly to violent actors.
Does anyone, and I mean anyone, really think dressing in black and throwing bricks at people as Antifa does has encouraged a single person in this country who was non-violent before they’d heard of Antifa to now support liberalism? Does anyone think smearing feces in halls of the Capitol would increase support for Trump? In the United States, violence not only does not generate support, but it also guarantees opposition.
I don’t know many people who deny that racism exists or that police reform isn’t worth considering, but Antifa’s actions almost single-handedly transformed the 2020 general elections from a slam-dunk win for Democrats into a nail-biter. I don’t know many people who were enthusiastic about Joe Biden becoming president, but the events of January 6 made even longtime Trumpian loyalists sigh with relief January 20 when Trump danced his way to Marine One (to the tune YMCA no less) for the last time.
TeamBiden seems to understand that political violence is a dead end. In contrast, the new Republican coalition has failed to make clear they believe the same. With law & order voters up for grabs, the Democrats have a once-a-generation opportunity to shake up the political world.
And that brings us to the final brick in what is shaping up to be the Democrats’ likely post-Trump path. The political faction that is most concerned with law & order issues is the business community…and TeamBiden has noticed.
I realize that to most the very concept of the business community joining the Democratic Party seems insane. Bear with me. Four thoughts:
First, eight years of Obamaesque inaction, four years of Trumpian irregularity, and a never-ending parade of preening, feckless wankers in Congress has prompted American businesses to take a far more active role in topics we all until recently thought of as the exclusive province of government. Civic planning. The environment. Immigration. Education. Income inequality. Racial inequality. Boardrooms across all sectors now regularly bear witness to discussions of all. The social chasm between business and the Democrats isn’t nearly as wide as it once was.
Second, the ideological chasm has similarly narrowed. One reason why the business community has been solidly Republican is because the unions and socialists have been solidly Democrat. Business leaders’ social consciousnesses may be evolving, but it would be a stretch to expect them to purposely reach for a unionized workforce or the nationalization of private property. Recent evolutions – specifically the unions taking flight for the new Republican coalition and TeamBiden’s isolation of the socialists – means the business community could become the Democratic faction that is in charge of, among other things, the party’s economic policies.
Third, it is natural for politics to evolve. The world has changed with the end of the Cold War and the dawn of the Digital Revolution and the rise (and now fall) of globalization. It would be truly weird to expect politics to be the singular thing to remain as it was. This political reshuffling isn’t America’s first, but instead its seventh. And sometimes, politics evolve back. The previous reshuffling occurred in the aftermath of the Great Depression. Before then, business leaders were…Democrats.
In my opinion, the greatest challenge to a business-Democrat merger is simple entrenched ideology. Even with the unions gone and socialists purged, there are plenty of folks on the Left who would reflexively oppose such an alliance. Nor does the age of the Democratic leadership suggest much enthusiasm for the idea. Not only Biden, but the Speaker of the House and the incoming Senate Majority Leader are all over 70. That’s a bit late in life for intellectual contortions.
But that actually brings me to my final point, and the reason I think the businesses community joining the Democratic Party faces better than even odds: Biden has no personal ideology. Throughout his career he has reinvented his views based on whatever political winds have been blowing at the time. That makes him free of principles, but heavy on pragmatism. The business community is too important to not participate in a political party, and they are more than willing to pay their way. Money alone cannot solve most problems, but there are precious few problems that money cannot at least help ameliorate. Admitting as much is about as pragmatic as one can get.
I don’t know if Biden is what the country needs. He utterly lacks leadership or management experience, so I have even less upon which to base a forecast than I did for Trump four years ago. We’ll find out soon enough. But I’m pretty sure that if the Democrats’ goal is to actually stay in power, Biden’s pragmatism is exactly what his party needs.
|The Opening Roster
My original plan (such as it was) for this series was to use Part V to break down the foreign crises the Biden administration will face in his freshman year. We’ll still get to that (stay tuned for Part VI), but after going down Biden’s looooong list of political appointees I figured it’d be best to set the stage with the sorts of folks who will be laboring within the new administration.
I think the best way launch into my thoughts about the players is to echo a recent statement by Senator Marco Rubio (R, Fl) who blithely quipped they “will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline.”
A bit rude? Sure. Pithy? Certainly. But that doesn’t make Rubio completely off base.
Biden’s picks are deliberately banal. I can see why. Biden is attempting to hold together the ungainly, dissatisfied coalition that brought him to power. Biden knows the only thing today’s Democrats agree on is that Trump is bad. As Biden saw up close during the Obama administration, if your entire raison-d’etre is merely to continue campaigning against your predecessor, you’ll never get much done. Biden needs his coalition to hold together if he is to take any action on domestic affairs, and that means he needs his foreign policy team to stay out of the spotlight. The best way to do that? Make sure they’re boring.
Even if Biden felt secure enough to spice things up, there’s little to draw upon. In recent decades the Democrats have experienced an utter collapse in foreign policy expertise. The Democrats were in opposition under W and Trump. Clinton was famously disinterested in the world, while Obama did nothing for eight years (going so far as to leave talented folks like John Kerry out to dry when they attempted to take strong stances). There is no one in the Democratic Party’s apparatus who has any meaningful experience doing anything outside of the United States.
Most of those who matter have only had professional lives of advising Biden either in the Senate or while he was VP. They’ve never advised someone who actually had decision-making capacity. So while they may know a lot and are generally sane and reasonable, they’ve never done very much.
There are exceptions of course. I’d like to call attention to the four who matter.
The first is the most straightforward: William Burns, a career diplomat with extensive bipartisan experience including lengthy and disturbing eventful stints in the Middle East and Russia. He’s a diplomats’ diplomat. Polite, yet firm, and known for speaking truth to power without being a jerk about it. He particularly excels at backchannel diplomacy with countries that loathe the United States. Considering the general mess of the world in the aftermath of Trump and Obama, America should count itself lucky that someone like Burns is even interested in government service.
I’m especially excited that Burns is not going to be part of the diplomatic core at the State Department, but instead will be leading the freakin’ Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA is responsible for the spooky stuff, and Russia is very active in the world of spookiness; I literally cannot think of an American alive who is more qualified to operate Club Cloak & Dagger at this moment in history.
Burns’s personal style also suggests he’ll be able to rebuild that most exotic and fretful of relationships: the one between the Agency and the White House. Clinton (in)famously sidelined the Agency (remember that idiot who tried to land a plane on the White House lawn? The Agency director at the time quipped it was just him trying to get a meeting with his boss). W Bush turned the Agency into a tactical support system for military operations in Iraq, gutting its ability to focus on the long game. Obama…well Obama just hermetically sealed himself in the West Wing and pretended the entire world outside of his personal ideology didn’t exist, government included. Trump screamed at any analyst who dared to refuse manufacturing evidence to support his latest tweet. After 28 years of strained Agency-presidential relations, someone with Burns’ record of bipartisanship, well of patience, topical depth, and easy-going approach is sorely needed.
There are only two things about the Burns appointment that bother me. First, Burns wasn’t Biden’s first choice, but instead his third, suggesting Biden’s talent-detector is in need of a tune-up. Second, Burns’ mustache is hideous and I’m hoping for a freak fireplace accident
Next we have Janet Yellen – former Federal Reserve Chairwoman and now Treasury Secretary.
Like Burns, Yellen may well be just what the doctor ordered. Let’s start by noting that as former Fed Chair she has loads of foreign policy experience. Yellen helped put the pieces of the world back together in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 financial crisis, and in doing so developed not only experience in diplomacy, but also considerable expertise in thinking outside of the box.
Many on the fiscal conservative side not-so-affectionately refer to Yellen in a variety of odious forms, thinking her to be no less than a demonic force seeking to end the modern financial system as we know it. In her term as Fed Chair she greatly expanded a process known as quantitative easing, which is the technical term for expanding the money supply (printing currency) and using that extra cash to buy up government and corporate debt to stabilize bond markets and keep borrowing costs as low as possible. The primary reason for fiscal conservatives’ vitriol is a concern for long-term economic damage, particularly in the form of inflation and warping of the rates of return within bond markets.
I don’t find such criticism entirely fair. For one, it wasn’t Yellen who initiated QE, but instead her predecessor; and it was her successor who massively expanded it. No one is calling them the Devil’s henchpersons.
For two, our collective understanding of economic norms is evolving. Shifts in global trade patterns, demographic collapses, and a mix of compounding technological improvements are challenging everything we think we know about economic theory. While we won’t know the full effects of QE for years to come, what we do know now is after a decade of ever-increasing volumes of monetization, inflation is lower than ever and America’s debt financing costs have gone down. Yellen was…right. For the moment at least.
So let me quote the lady herself: “With interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big.” She’s probably right about that too. Biden’s out-of-the-gate economic plan is for a $1.9 trillion stimulus program. By far the biggest in US history. The fiscal conservative in me throws up in my mouth a little bit whenever I think about it, but fiscal conservative orthodoxy at the moment is clearly not what the doctor ordered. I’m glad a creative thinker who can still do math like Yellen is on the job.
The third appointee of note is to head the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the bureau responsible for enforcing and negotiating all trade deals: Katherine Tai.
Tai is definitely not qualified to be a negotiator. Until mere days ago she was “just” a Congressional staffer. She’s certainly versed in all the relevant trade issues, but she’s never managed a big staff or participated in, much less led, a meaningful negotiation. Normally, I’d say that she – a politically-unwired technocrat – is a horrible choice.
You may have noticed, things aren’t normal these days.
One of the things Biden has made abundantly clear is he has no plans to even think about free trade negotiations until such time as the coronavirus crisis is firmly in the rear-view mirror. That won’t be until the fourth quarter of 2021.
Luckily for Tai, her predecessor – Robert Lighthizer (the same guy who renegotiated NAFTA) – has already done a lot of the heavy lifting for the singular negotiation Tai will be called upon to carry to the finish line: a trade deal with the United Kingdom. Considering the UK’s options for trade with anyone but the United States are so minimal as to be practically nonexistent, Tai shouldn’t face many problems. (Although she will undoubtedly be vilified in the British press for taking the British economy to the cleaners.)
But only having one trade deal on her plate does not mean Tai won’t be extremely busy. She might not have trade talks experience, but she is a trade lawyer. Biden picked her not because he wants a raft of new trade deals, but because he wants his USTR to sue the pants off of anyone who might not be adhering to the spirit and letter of US trade law. That’s pretty much everyone. Tai might be the wrong person for the title, but she is absolutely the right person for the job the new president wants tackled.
Finally, we come to the new National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan.
Sullivan is a super-smart foreign policy generalist who understands the interlinkages of trade and populations and security that bind the world together and threaten to spin it apart. He has also apparently achieved the unthinkable: he is so painfully affable that everyone in DC likes him. He reminds me a lot of…me.
Which is why I’m pretty certain he will fail.
Somewhat contrary to the title, America’s National Security Advisor does a lot more than merely advise the president on foreign policy. He (or she) also has to ride herd on the government’s sprawling foreign policy apparatus. It is ultimately a bureaucratic job akin to riding an angry, rabid octopus.
The quintessential NSA in recent years was John Bolton. Bolton had decades of experience taking charge of this or that aspect of the foreign policy establishment and forcing them to do things his way to achieve his president’s goals. Most of Washington despised him, not because of a lack of competence, but instead because of his I-hate-everyone-because-everyone-is-a-moron personality. Bolton was (in)famous for intimidating and outmaneuvering his way through the entire bureaucracy. In contrast, Sullivan is a congenial brainiac. The very knowledge base that leads Biden to rely upon Sullivan’s thinking is guaranteed to piss off career civil servants convinced that they know more about topics x, y or z. Bottom line? People like Sullivan (and myself) – deep-thinking, purposefully-rounded generalists – tend to do very badly in government.
And even if Sullivan proves me wrong and is indeed the right person for the job, his first task has an Augean Stables stench about it. He’ll need to re-create America’s foreign policy establishment.
Under W, Obama, and Trump the foreign policy apparatus has been badly mismanaged, irresponsibly re-tasked, malignly ignored, intentionally belittled and intellectually castrated. The past 20 years have convinced smart, ambitious, principled people that government work isn’t for them. Sullivan doesn’t have much to draw upon except the clock-punching hangers-on who are holding out for a pension. He’ll need to rebuild many bureaus from scratch and it isn’t clear he has the expertise, mindset or rolodex to even begin. The State Department in particular needs a demo crew more than a superwonk. Sullivan is going to engage in such holistic institutional reconstruction while serving as America’s foreign policy guru? I think not.
I’d be thrilled if Sullivan proves me wrong and instead shines. I’d be thrilled if people like myself could actually be part of the solution. But I’d also be shocked.
Now let’s set the stage for the Biden administration’s opening environment at home.
The coronavirus crisis is epically raging. Daily deaths have exceeded the number of Americans’ killed on September 11, 2001 for a few weeks straight. Total deaths have now exceeded total American deaths in the four years of America’s most deadly war, World War II.
But the numbers are turning. The post-Christmas surge has peaked and new hospitalizations are ebbing. Add in some Biden-related actions such as mask mandates on federal properties, and we should see a very rapid drop off in infections in the month to come. The US already has two vaccines on the market, with another two likely to join them around mid-February, one of which – the Johnson & Johnson formula – can be stored in a normal refrigerator and only requires a single shot. Even better, J&J expects to have 100 million doses distributed by April 1.
Epidemiologically speaking, that puts us in a race between people relaxing their guard as the post-Christmas surge fades, and vaccines getting into arms. If the vaccines win the race, roughly 100,000 fewer people will die and it will appear to the general public that all defeating the vaccine required was Biden in the White House. Before you root for that not to happen, keep in mind the alternate interpretation of Biden failure requires at least another 100,000 deaths.
My point here is not simply that Biden enjoys fortuitous timing, but that coronavirus in general has presented the new president with a very favorable starting conditions. While everyone has different opinions on the specifics, everyone knows we need a new stimulus package to battle the virus and its economic effects. Biden’s singular known skill is that he’s a Senate negotiator. This battle plays directly to his strengths, and he’ll reap the political gains for getting it done.
Between the vaccine rollout, the COVID mitigation package, and some very basic anti-virus measures (that honestly Trump should have done last March), Biden has the opportunity to shine. He has the opportunity to build domestic unity. He has the opportunity to look competent. He has the opportunity to look powerful. And he has the opportunity to look gracious.
These are all very easy carries that will reap mounds of political capital he can use on other projects. But if Biden cannot manage this we will know that he really is incapable, and that the next four years will be just as disconnected as the previous four.
Best of luck to him, because there are already some hefty issues clamoring for presidential attention.
|The Crisis List – Russia
After sketching out what was intended to be the final installment of this series, I realized the world was in a lot more trouble than I had thought. So, the “Crisis List” installment is going to be a whole mini-series of its own. Let’s begin with the country that has experienced the greatest surge in influence under former President Trump: Russia.
Throughout history the Russians have always held a weak hand. Their geography and climate make the basics of life – food and security – devilishly difficult. Their lack of navigable rivers demands huge rafts of artificial infrastructure, but that costs money that Russia’s brutal winters and vast distances simply don’t generate. Painfully short summers limit food production per acre forcing Russians to spread out to farm the necessary calories. Russia has pretty much always held the record for the fewest people per square mile among the world’s populated zones.
Add in wide-open borders that are wretched at blocking marauding Swedes, Germans, Mongols and even Poles, and Russia lives in the worst of pickles. An expensive, low-reward land. Scattered populations who quite reasonably hope that life might be better elsewhere. Looming threats of invasion.
Surviving here requires a big army (at a big cost in economic and cultural terms) and a massive intelligence system finely attuned to every whisper of dissent and every footfall at Russia’s edges.
The Americans created globalization to bribe up an alliance to contain the Soviets, but it also generated an unexpected boon for Moscow. In banding all of Russia’s traditional foes (and then some) into a single coalition, the Americans removed any strategic initiative from all their new allies. The Russians only needed to worry about the Americans. No one else. From 1946 to the Soviet Union’s very end, no one invaded Russia. Such bliss had never occurred. The Russians may have been contained but they were left alone, giving them 45 years to attempt to make their country work.
In the end it wasn’t enough time. While Soviet engineering was indeed impressive compared to what happened under the tsars, there just weren’t enough resources – human, material, or economic – to fund everything. Developing lands as crappy as Russia’s is expensive. Fighting a global Cold War is expensive.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s leaderships have been forced to make a series of ever-more-damning decisions. What to fund versus what to leave to rot? Food production? The rail lines? The air force? The missile forces? Oil production? The educational system? Everything comes at a cost, and Russia’s resources are limited. With the Russian demography among the world’s fastest aging and arguably the world’s most unhealthy, those resources are shrinking by the year. Everything – and I mean everything – has had its funding cut. Everything but one thing: those mission-critical intelligence services.
And so it is primarily through the intelligence services that the Russians engage the world. The Kremlin realizes every other measure of their power from military force to energy exports to high-tech work is living on borrowed time.
The Russians have good reason to be worried, but to this point they’ve been able to avoid catastrophe. That’s as much due to luck with the Americans as anything else.
The Russians found W Bush intimidating as it was very clear back in 2001 he planned to massively expand the NATO alliance to Russia’s west, and amp up U.S. military tech to prevent any possibility of a Russian revival. But then came 9/11. The Russian transport system became integral to fighting the war in Afghanistan. Bullet dodged. Breath sighed.
The Russians found Obama so willfully disinterested and functionally incompetent in foreign affairs that they called him a “p*ssy” in official internal communications. Once Hillary Clinton left TeamObama in February 2013, there was no one remaining the Russians found even a touch worrisome. Russia invaded Ukraine about a year after H Clinton’s departure.
The Russians found Trump nearly as easy to dismiss. A completely insincere bit of flattery here, a casual dismissal of his political foes there, and Trump just let any matter that bothered the Russians drop. Trump’s staff were a different matter: Rex Tillerson, HR McMaster, John Kelly, and James Mattis caused problems for the Russians over and over and over. But it became clear to Moscow early on that Trump was Trump’s own worst enemy, and Trump disposed of all of his anti-Russian staffers with nary a nudge from the FSB. From the last of those staffer’s departure – John Kelly in January 2019 – the Russians didn’t have to worry about the Trump administration much at all.
So what about Biden?
Biden is not a governor with a record that can be evaluated like W Bush, or a pathologically disengaged figure like Obama, or a simplistic caricature like Trump. Biden is just a fairly normal…guy. An ideologically uncommitted guy; His political views sway with the winds. A guy whose been in politics since the planets first formed, but who has no record of leadership. What in my opinion makes Biden a questionable choice for president makes him precisely what the Russians fear most: an unknown element.
Intelligence services hate unknown elements. Finding out about their new adversary from a press release, such as the one from the State Department Feb 4 after Biden gave a speech to the Foreign Service, is not the way they like to learn things.
And so the Russians are left to fall back upon their intelligence services once again. They will be searching for weaknesses. In the country. In the government. In the president.
They have a fair amount to work with.
The Russians are absolutely thrilled with what went down in Washington DC on January 6. In the Russian mind anything that keeps Americans focused on one another is a win. But having a sitting president egg on a mob against his own law enforcement personnel? That’s a platinum standard the Russians didn’t even realize they could aim for.
Expect Russian state hacking to double its efforts against the U.S. government. In 2020 the Russians penetrated the Texas tech firm SolarWinds and used its update systems to penetrate dozens of government agencies. From what we know to this point the Russians were not expecting such runaway success, and certainly were not sufficiently staffed to chase down all the opportunities the SolarWinds effort had produced. Luckily for the Russians, Trump – like Obama before him – was utterly unenthused with the topic of cyber-security and so the vast bulk of the Russians’ labor-fruit has remained available. The Russians have had months to train and/or reassign staff to the cornucopia of new hacking options. It will be Biden that has to deal with the aftermath.
Nor will the American population get a free pass. The Russians have long been involved in supporting disruptive groups of various ideological backgrounds, from environmentalists to Antifa to peaceniks to white supremacist movements, seeing them as cheap and easy means of keeping American politics off-kilter.
This time around the Russian effort will focus on keeping Trumpism alive.
Those involved in the January 6 riots have found themselves essentially banned from mainstream social media, up to and including the former president himself. Amazon and Apple removed Parler, a censor-free platform that saw heavy usage by the rioters and other extremists, from their systems completely. Now the Russian firm Ddos-Guard, officially unrelated to the Kremlin *rolls eyes*, is providing Parler with denial-of-service-attack protection and traffic monitoring to help it get back up and running. The goal is pretty straightforward: keep America’s most violent citizens as politically active as possible, and limit America’s ability to reach some sort of resolution in the aftermath of Trump’s final days.
It isn’t like Biden lacks tools to strike back. The shale revolution has granted the Americans functional energy independence, while COVID combined with NAFTA2 have concentrated America’s economic interests closer to home. Striking against Russian energy or finances just doesn’t have the propensity for blowback it might have had a decade ago. Since the bulk of Russian state income originates from commodity sales, this is a big problem indeed.
(Please don’t write in about how Biden is going to “kill oil” and “change everything”. Biden’s executive orders on limiting shale work on federal land impact less than 1% of US oil and natural gas production. When Biden does something that will appreciably impact America’s energy mix, it’ll have global consequences and I will write about it. We aren’t anywhere close to that at present.)
The Russians also love nothing more than imprisoning dissidents, and the Feb 2 conviction of Alexei Navalny on corruption charges is a case in point. (Honestly, the only thing Navalny is guilty of is surviving an FSB assassination attempt.) Expect Biden to spin the Navalny conviction well out of proportion in order to use established sanctions tools to hit Russia everywhere under the guise of human rights policy. That’ll cause the Russians no end of trouble. (That’ll likely cause the Germans no end of trouble too, but that is a topic for another day.)
Far worse for the Russians than income losses or sanctions is the fact that Biden has selected someone for the post of CIA Director who knows the Russians very well. William Burns served W Bush as ambassador to Moscow for three years during the Afghan War. There are few Americans alive who know the Russians capacities, foibles, and dark corners better. The Russians respect him…in that special way that you respect a hated rival. Courtesy of Burns, Biden will at a minimum have both forewarning of Russian plots and retaliatory options to choose from.
Russia has tools, many tools, at its disposal. Russia can – Russia will – do a great deal of damage. But for the first time in decades the tables are flipped. This time around the Americans know more about the sitting Russian government than vice versa. For a country whose survival is predicated upon accurate intelligence, that must be terrifying.
|The Crisis List – The Middle East
The second major international issue facing the incoming Joe Biden administration is that never-ending joy, the problem that just keeps on giving: the Middle East.
If there is one thing most Americans agree on in this age of social media screaming, it is that they want the United States to get out of the Persian Gulf. The challenge is finding a way to do so that also avoids sucking America back in in a few years.
There are two general approaches to consider:
The first strategy is the one Biden’s immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, attempted: appoint a strategic successor to manage the region. Trump decided the successor should be Israel. That…that was a poor choice.
Is Israel very militarily competent and blam-heavy for its size? Undeniably. But it is neck deep in managing its own micro-neighborhood of the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. It cannot execute an American-style policy in the Persian Gulf that keeps the oil flowing while preventing Iraq from collapsing while keeping Iran down.
It is clear that at least to a degree TeamTrump grasped that Israel was not up to the task, so the administration worked to rig the game. Trump greatly intensified sanctions on Iran, largely preventing the Iranians from selling…anything internationally. An economic crash resulted. Trump also worked to build a coalition of Arab states to buttress the Israelis. That required Trump convincing the Arabs that they should recognize Israel as something other than the “Zionist entity” and treat it as an actual country that had an actual right to exist.
Trump met with some success and deserves some serious diplomatic kudos, but let’s not get crazy. Consider the countries Trump flipped:
- Morocco – a state that is literally over a continent away from the drama of the Persian Gulf.
- Bahrain – an island statelet that has run out of oil and has but 1.6 million people.
- The United Arab Emirates – a confederation of city states who collectively are Iran’s largest (non-oil) trading partner.
A coalition, yes, but not a strategically effective one. Strategically, Trump’s achievements changed little.
The second option for American extraction from the region is the one selected by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama: establish a regional balance of power so the region’s countries contain one another. Israel aside, consider the other major players:
- Saudi Arabia, as the world’s largest oil exporter and the keeper of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, asserts that it should lead the entire region. That’s an assertion which aggravates everyone, but in particular aggrieves…
- Iran, the country with the largest population on the Persian Gulf, and whose dominant religion – Shia Islam – clashes with that of the Wahhabi Sunni Islam of the Saudis. Problematic for the Saudis, Shia Islam is practiced by the majority of people who live within 100 miles of the Persian Gulf’s shores. Even Saudi Arabia itself has a large Shia minority.
- But neither of these countries are the region’s most powerful. That title goes to Turkey, a country which doesn’t even border the Gulf itself. Turkey has the broader region’s largest and most sophisticated economy, largest and most capable military, and a population slightly larger than even Iran.
The whole point of Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal between the United States and Iran was to bring Iran in from the cold, enable it to economically develop, and re-establish Iran as a formal player in the Middle East space. Then, as the logic goes, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran would all counter one another, leaving the Americans to play an eclectic variety of Middle East-news-driven drinking games.
There was nothing wrong with the idea, but there was plenty wrong with the execution. The nuclear deal was (in)famously light on details of anything beyond the nuclear program itself. It didn’t address Iran’s paramilitary and assassination activities throughout the region, the status of Israel, or the religious splits among the region’s populations the Iranians exploited as a matter of course.
Obama (in)famously found speaking with people – any people – tedious, and so tended to toss out grand ideas and then walk away forever. Establishing a regional balance of power in which you do not plan to actively participate requires a lot of upfront work and a lot of lengthy conversations. Under Obama that just didn’t happen. Far from generating a balance of power, the Obama plan was little more than an unstable deal which made an unstable region even more unstable.
My goal here isn’t to condemn the strategies of both Trump and Obama (that’s more of a side bonus), but instead to highlight that the Middle East is difficult. My point is that for the approaches the pair of American presidents chose, they simply did things wrong.
For the successor strategy to work, Trump should have picked a different country. Israel lacks the military capacity to control its own neighborhood, much less the distant Persian Gulf where the populations are four times as large. Saudi Arabia might look good on paper, but it is broadly militarily incompetent. The only regional power that could even theoretically fill the role would have been Turkey, and America’s relationship with the Turks under Trump (and under Obama) descended into such a deep freeze to the point that the two are no longer even functional allies.
For a balance of power strategy to work in the Persian Gulf, it must be like all the other successful balances of power throughout human history. It cannot be purely military. There must be excessive entanglement on multiple fronts. There must be an economic angle. A political angle. A diplomatic angle. For Obama’s strategy to work, any Iran “deal” was really only the first baby step. He would then have had to build relationships among the regional players. That’d require some seriously uncomfortable diplomacy not simply with Iran and Turkey, but also Saudi Arabia and Israel. That would require a lot of political capital and even more face time. Considering how much Obama loathed speaking to people, especially about uncomfortable issues, it’s a minor miracle he made it as far as he did in the region.
So now we get to try this again with a new president: Joe Biden.
Believe it or not, there may be some room for progress – in part because of the efforts of Biden’s predecessors.
As part of Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to crush Iran, the Iranian economy has been absolutely devastated. The Iranians cannot even sell pistachios any longer, to say nothing of large-scale oil sales. With Iran proving to be an unreliable oil supplier, traditional customers like Italy, Greece, India, China, Korea, and Japan have all turned elsewhere for crude. Then COVID reduced global oil demand, crushing Iranian finances. No oil income means the Europeans have zero interest in participating in a revised nuclear deal because there is literally nothing in it for them. No oil income also means Iran has proven unable to sustain many of its paramilitary efforts in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Iran hasn’t been this weak since the rise of the ayatollahs in 1979.
America has changed as well. Politically, there is no longer an American faction pushing for deep regional involvement. While the shale revolution was little more than a glimmer in some oilmen’s eyes when Obama stepped into the White House the first time, twelve years later the United States is functionally energy independent. The energy cord has been cut. The Forever Wars are…over. Both America and Americans can tolerate a far higher degree of chaos in the Persian Gulf than they previously could.
Which means TeamBiden might actually have a third option that hasn’t existed since the early days of American involvement in the region in the 1950s. To simply leave.
America will still play at the margins. Just because the United States doesn’t need a stable global oil market doesn’t mean having a knife to the region’s pulse isn’t useful. So, Biden has already announced it is maintaining every speck of the sanctions Trump enacted. If there is to be a new deal, TeamBiden has made it clear they won’t be following the Obama script because Biden’s negotiating power is already far superior to that of any of his predecessors. Nor is Biden playing favorites like Trump did; the new president has already cancelled advanced weapons sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (two states that were supposed to be at the core of Trump’s Israel-coalition).
Consider what this means: The Israelis are appalled Biden is even talking about talking to the Iranians. The Iranians are appalled that Trump’s exit hasn’t ushered them back into the world. The Saudis are appalled they can’t purchase weapons. Just a couple weeks on the job Biden has done something none of his predecessors would have dared: pissed off everyone in the entire region. It’s unclear if this general pissing-off effort is part of a broader plan, or nothing more than a series of tactical decisions TeamBiden believes are unrelated. It is also unclear whether it matters. And if it does matter, it’s unclear if the administration even cares.
Will that have consequences down the road? Certainly. But not for the United States, or at least not for the United States on anything less than a decade time scale. The global superpower has barely been able to keep the region’s many fires on smolder. No one else has within an order of magnitude the necessary power or reach to step in, suggesting flare ups will be the new norm. Fires in the part of the world responsible for the majority of globally traded crude oil will absolutely reverberate.
And for the world’s most vulnerable country, it just adds one more mortal threat to the cavalcade of crises that were already barreling down.
It’s time to talk about China.
|The Crisis List – China
I don’t see China the way most do.
Where others see a rising naval power, I see a trapped coastal fleet incapable of projecting power, much less patrolling its far-flung economic interests.
Where others see the workshop of the world, I see a radically unstable system propped up by Enron-style finance which survives only due to the strategic largesse of increasingly-hostile foreign powers.
Where others see 1.4 billion people, I see one of history’s fastest aging and shrinking demographics in a country that will – in the best-case scenario – see its population shrink by half this century.
Where others see swarms of exports, I see a system faltering from a lack of domestic consumption that could lead to economic ruin at any time, but most certainly this decade.
Where others see the only major economy to grow in 2020, I see a system so broken that most of its “growth” is simply from shoving unsold inventory into warehouses, something I last saw en masse during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis.
But above all, where others see a malevolent, conniving government leadership scrupulously implementing a century-long master plan for global domination, I see a terrified cadre that broadly sees China as I do, and so is instituting a North Korea-style political and information lockdown in the desperate hope of preventing China’s inevitable return to its historical mean of civil war, civil collapse, and mass famine.
In this newsletter, I’m not going to go down the line of reasons why China is doomed. For those of you familiar with my work, you’re probably getting a bit sick of that. For those of you who are new to my work, the full and detailed hit-list is best addressed in Chapters Two through Four of Disunited Nations, the section that deals with what makes for successful countries and empires.
This series is instead about the issues that will be facing the freshman Biden administration, and I’d be remiss if I left China out.
The first and perhaps most important takeaway is that the United States public – regardless of political persuasion – has turned broadly sharply anti-Chinese on issues political, economic and strategic. This isn’t a Trump thing or a Biden thing, but instead a broadscale cultural transformation intertwined with a mix of populist and geopolitical factors that have been unfolding for well over a decade.
Biden is many things, but first and foremost his personal ideologies tack with the winds. In my personal opinion this doesn’t make him leadership material, but for the Chinese it means that the power of the American executive will lean towards doing what the American political mood demands: confrontation.
In Biden’s early days that means not simply leaving in place, but publicly and unapologetically reaffirming, several long-standing Trump-era China policies. Trump’s trade war is now bipartisan. Trump’s anti-China tariffs remain firmly in place. Trump’s anti-China sanctions – most notably ones that include Huawei and the Chinese equivalent of Chevron – aren’t going anywhere. Trump’s ever-tightening sanctions on Iran, once a leading Chinese oil supplier, have been confirmed as the new norm.
Even some of Trump’s on-the-way-out-the-door policy grenades have been openly embraced as founding principles of the new administration.
In Trump’s last month the administration changed policies to enable any federal government official to visit Taiwan at any time in their official capacity as full representatives of the U.S. government. That’s only a baby step away from full diplomatic recognition of Taiwan as an independent nation (because, well, Taiwan is an independent nation). Biden confirmed his agreement with the shift on his first day.
Similarly, in its last days the Trump administration formally recognized the Chinese genocide of Uighurs in the far western Chinese province as an actual genocide (because, well, it is a genocide). Biden put his personal stamp on that recognition as well, also on his first day.
What I found to be one of the late-Trump administration’s more notable inactions was when Iran seized a South Korean vessel in the Persian Gulf, ostensibly for the Koreans abiding by American sanctions against Iran. The Persian Gulf is the source of half of the world’s internationally traded oil. As recently as a decade ago such state piracy in the world’s most strategic waterway would have warranted direct and prolonged American presidential and military attention. Trump did nothing. Biden has done nothing. The Americans no longer give any number of pieces of excrement about global oil market stability. And as the world’s largest oil importer and sporting a navy that cannot project power to the Persian Gulf, the Chinese are and should be exceedingly concerned.
Biden, of course, has come up with a few thoughts of his own. Crackdowns in Hong Kong and human rights in Tibet, two issues that Trump largely ignored, are back in fashion in Washington. So far TeamBiden has only offered rhetoric on the topics, but state policy is likely to be updated up to and including some degree of sanctions within a few weeks.
Trump also tended to play down territorial disputes, particularly as regards the South China Sea – a shallow waterway that Beijing hilariously (and under international law, illegally) claims in its entirety despite nearly all of it being closer to Vietnam, the Philippines or Malaysia than to the Chinese mainland. In his first week Biden ordered nothing less than two aircraft carrier battle groups to sail nice-and-slow through the entire area in mocking defiance of Chinese claims.
But perhaps the bit that has me most interested in the weeks to come is Biden’s new trade negotiator: Katherine Tai. The U.S. Trade Representative typically has few friends. It is his or her job to both enforce and negotiate all trade deals the United States is a party to. Trump’s USTR, Robert Lighthizer, successfully completed deals with the Koreans and Japanese as well as an updating of the NAFTA accords. He is an old trade hand seeped in the fractious world of international negotiations.
Tai is…not. She has never managed a large staff. She has never participated in a meaningful large-scale international negotiation, much less led one. She did work for the USTR’s office under the Obama administration, although doing nothing that would be confused with a leadership role. Until a few weeks ago she was simply a high-ranking Congressional staffer. Knowledgeable about the issues? Absolutely and undeniably. Heavily seasoned in the world of international diplomacy? Absolutely and undeniably not.
What Tai is is America-focused. Until now her job has been to fine-tune Lighthizer’s deals so that when they are brought to the Congressional floors they enjoy as broad and as bipartisan support as is humanly possible. She successfully rode point on NAFTA2’s ratification with House Ways & Means (by far Congress’ most powerful committee). Unlike Lighthizer who had a reputation for intentionally abrasive and supremely dislikable hypercompetence, everyone in Congress apparently loves Katherine Tai. To my knowledge she is the only person in human history that both Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul have said (obliquely) kind things about. Heady stuff.
Tai is not a negotiator, but instead a trade lawyer. And that tells me everything I need to know about Biden’s developing trade agenda. There isn’t one in the traditional sense. Biden hasn’t been shy about noting that he has no interest in signing any trade deals until the coronavirus crisis is firmly in the rear-view mirror. In the United States, accelerated vaccine development suggests the second half of the year is looking up. But the rest of the advanced world isn’t going to achieve mass vaccination until very close to year’s end, and the developing world will take (at minimum) a year more. Aside from a deal with a post-Brexit and increasingly economically desperate United Kingdom, there aren’t likely to be any meaningful deals negotiated during the Biden administration at all.
But, again, Tai is a trade lawyer. She wasn’t brought on to negotiate new deals. She was brought on to sue any country violating the letter or the spirit of U.S. trade law…which is pretty much everyone. If I lived in Europe, I’d be very worried about this (a trade war is imminent), but the foreign power Tai has the most direct experience with is China itself; During Tai’s stint with the USTR, she spent some time as chief council for China trade enforcement. That’s a fancy way of saying she knows how to sue Beijing.
Oh yeah, and one more thing: while Tai is a full-blooded American (born in Connecticut), ethnically, she is Taiwanese. It doesn’t really matter whether Biden meant for his new USTR’s background to matter. It will. The Chinese Communist Party perceives the collective actions and omissions out of the new administration as a full-court press against the interests of the CCP. They aren’t wrong.
And they’ll be looking for ways to push back.
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