Let the Age of Pragmatism Begin

by Cinzia Croce

The first round of Senate confirmation hearings for Donald Trump’s nominees is now in the history books, and it is clear that the incoming president intends to make good on his promise to change Washington. Rex Tillerson and Generals James Mattis and Robert Kelly walked away having established themselves as strong, accomplished, serious men with records of success in their individual endeavors.  Even Dr. Ben Carson — who seemed an admittedly odd choice to head HUD — reassured, pledging to bringing a fresh look to programs whose structure has not been examined in decades, despite, in many cases, having failed to meet the expectations of activists.

There was one consistent theme throughout the testimonies: pragmatism over ideology. After decades of ideological warfare paralyzing Washington, the Trump Administration promises to reassess where we are as a country and chart a new, sustainable course both at home and abroad instead of pursuing ideological purity or utopia.

During the campaign, Trump’s opponents warned that his ego was very fragile, making him susceptible to flattery. If elected, we were warned, he would surround himself with lackeys — “yes men” who would indulge his impulsive, reckless, childish behavior, putting the country — no — the entire world at risk. The hearings effectively debunked the caricature. No one can call General Mattis a lackey or fear that he would not stand up to Trump. The same is true of General Kelly, and Tillerson.

Yet instead of being reassured that Trump is not filling the Cabinet with flunkies, his opponents have switched tactics: they point to areas where the nominees diverge from the president-elect and wring their hands about the divisions and tension or whether it will lead to chaos. There will be no honeymoon, it seems: every decision Trump makes will be cast in a negative light. If his nominees had gone before the Senate and agreed with Trump’s views to the letter — especially with respect to Russia — his opponents would have issued dire warnings that the Kremlin is about to take over our government. Continue reading

Farewell to Eight Years of Adriftness

by Alex Knepper

Except in comparison to Donald Trump, I can’t say I’ll miss President Barack Obama. From the very beginning of his first presidential campaign, I was deeply suspicious of what I viewed as a cult of personality: the slick, too-cool cultural phantasmagoria eliciting orgiastic joy from my peers: I was a freshman at American University in 2008, after all. I supported the moderate-but-hawkish Rudy Giuliani in the Republican primary contest (and Hillary Clinton against Obama) and eventually voted in the general election for John McCain, despite serious reservations over his temperament and the Palin pick, simply because I did not trust that someone such as Obama, with so little experience, could really have a successful presidency. Unlike my frightened conservative colleagues, I did not fear he would be a radically anti-war president, a wild-eyed socialist, or what-have-you, once he actually stepped into office and surveyed the tasks at hand. I merely believed that, despite being an intelligent, charismatic, capable man, the scope of the office and its responsibilities are overwhelming, and he had never been in charge of anything other than his campaign. You can have all the potential in the world, but experience counts — it takes more than a vision to force an idea to life. Moreover, hailing from safely blue Illinois and waltzing to his Senate victory, Obama never had to endure the full force of conservative opposition, and had no clue what he was in for.

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Putin: A Convenient Enemy

by Cinzia Croce

A quarter of a century has passed since the United States scored a clear, undisputed foreign policy victory: the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And history did not end, as Francis Fukuyama boldly and erroneously asserted: since then, we have had multiple foreign policy challenges, shed precious American blood, and spent trillions of dollars in search of more victories, only to find stalemate and frustration. Thus, it is very curious that there is such a bipartisan effort to revive the Red Scare and erase the only points we have been able to score in a very long time.

Putin’s foes in DC are careful to couch their motives in noble terms, or in the name of national security, but their arguments don’t hold under the slightest scrutiny. The current bout of Russophobia sweeping Washington has little do with lofty principles or fear of the return of the Soviet empire. No — for pedestrian reasons and widespread intellectual laziness, Putin is simply a convenient enemy for both Republicans and Democrats.

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Memo to Trump Opponents for the Next Four Years

by Alex Knepper

As the dawn of the Trump era tiptoes ever-closer, many Democrats and skeptical Republicans have still not figured out what makes the president-elect ‘tick.’ It is fair to say that we have never known so little about the motives and core beliefs of an incoming president. Nonetheless, we know enough about him to cut through the noise and sketch an outline of what the opposition must note as it prepares for battle. If Trump’s opponents want to effectively combat him, we will need to re-learn a lot of what we thought we already knew:

1. Remember: Trump Is Not an Ideologue, and He Has No Master Plan

Many vain attempts have been made to make sense of Trump by gathering the president-elect’s various statements and attempting to discern a systemized ideology from them. But Trump has no ideology: he is more like former Chinese autocrat Deng Xiaoping, who declared that ‘it does not matter what color a cat is, as long as it catches mice’ — which is not to say that there are not discernible patterns in Trump’s thought, but rather that they are informed more by ‘gut,’ instinct, or prejudice than by a coherent system of abstract principles.

This is a major part of his appeal. He boldly declared earlier in the year that, while he is a conservative, ‘it’s called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.’ He does not attempt to justify his beliefs by appealing to time-honored principles: he defines what is politically good by its immediate practical effect — which is always hand-in-hand with increasing his power — and if existing theories conflict with Trump getting his way, then Trump insists on a new theory, rather than on accommodating his desires to pre-existing principles.

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Kerry and the Two-State Solution Hallucination

by Alex Knepper

John Kerry has let loose against Israel, hot on the heels of American abstention from a United Nations vote condemning its settlements:

The US secretary of state sounded the warning on Wednesday in a final plea outlining the outgoing Obama administration’s vision for peace between Israel and Palestine.

“The settler agenda is defining the future in Israel. And their stated purpose is clear: They believe in one state: Greater Israel,” Kerry said.

“If the choice is one state, Israel can either be Jewish or democratic, it cannot be both, and it won’t ever really be at peace,” he added.

It is as if the events of the last 25 years never occurred. From the days of the original UN partition, Israel has tried again and again to meet the Arabs halfway — two-thirds of the way — and constantly receives nothing but blame in return, ostensibly for not trying hard enough; for not being really serious about peace. The Arabs, meanwhile, are met with the soft bigotry of low expectations — as if everyone just knows that we cannot expect them to be reasonable; that Israel is the adult in the room who has to maturely hold its tongue so as not to inflame the child constantly on the verge of a tantrum.

Let us remember that at the 2000 Camp David summit, Israel variously offered the overwhelming majority of the West Bank and Gaza, the dismantling of existing settlements, a shared capital in Jerusalem, and tens of billions of dollars in aid money to what would be the nascent Palestinian state — and was repeatedly turned down by Yasser Arafat, who refused to put forward a single counter-offer, and launched a new intifada just months later. Today, Gaza is run by a literal jihadist organization — but Netanyahu is held to be the extremist right-winger.

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Peace with people who hold your annihilation as an indispensable goal is neither possible nor desirable — and even those Americans most craving peace must face up to the utter futility of all past attempts at brokering a deal. We really cannot be all that surprised that Israel should finally grow impatient with thousand-times-disproved Western fantasies that it holds the power to make jihadists stop hating Jews so much, if only they would swallow their pride and be magnanimous: nobody wants to forever play Charlie Brown to Lucy with the football. The Jews are hated for who they are, not the particulars of what they do. It is no wonder so many Israelis have come to believe that, since they are going to be hated and held to impossible double-standards anyway, they might as well pursue their own interests with little regard to what the rest of the world might think.

Nothing has changed: it is always easier to blame the Jews — a tiny minority — for their inconvenience than it is to face the depravity of their numerous, relentless antagonists who were equally devoted to the destruction of Israel before, during, and after the rise of the new settler movement. Arab rejection of the legitimacy of any Jewish state is the essential problem, and there will be no chance at peace until this changes.

Reporters’ Russia Remorse Rings Hollow

by Alex Knepper

Although I am glad to finally see the topic receive the acknowledgement it deserved two months ago, I must confess that I find media hyperventilating over the not-news that Russia meddled in our presidential election to be a bit perplexing. Little new information has come to light: it was clear in the fall that Putin was working to disrupt our electoral process — to weaken a likely President Clinton, and to exploit the crisis of faith in our institutions. Both candidates thought the specter of Russian interference was important enough to at least mention — although — alas — predictably, one of them thought it was actually a wonderful thing that Putin’s lackeys could be willing to hack into the private communications of Clinton associates. So it is no great shock that Russia is likely behind the WikiLeaks e-mail leaks.

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It is clear that some would like to take advantage of these non-revelations to promote the belief that Trump’s victory was somehow illegitimate. In my mind there is little doubt that Clinton received a raw deal during the general election, with the e-mail leaks being among the most unfair obstacles she faced.  But our Constitution stipulates when elections are held and how they are conducted, and Trump won — fair and square. Nobody — not the FBI or CIA, not the president, not the press, not the people — can guarantee that the timing of events and fortune will always be simply fair to the nominees. Clinton is embarrassing herself by endorsing the imprudent and unprecedented idea of delivering intelligence briefings to presidential electors regarding Russia in advance of the official presidential vote. Her frustration is palpable. But if the so-called mainstream press is feeling a bit of remorse, they should blame themselves twice for every time they blame Putin: if reporters had treated the WikiLeaks saga as intolerable criminal foreign meddling in the first place rather than as an opportunity to engage in scurrilous gossip about the woman they thought would be the next president, we might not be having the kind of conversation we are having right now.

The View From the Settled Dust

by Alex Knepper

I waited for a month to write anything here. I wanted to give myself time to absorb what happened. At the same time, I have not emerged from the blog-wilderness with any special insights. What is most important for me as a writer and analyst is simply to figure out what my blind spots were, and try to make adjustments.

I will not attempt to falsify history: my election prediction, like just about everyone else’s, was quite bad. I missed the popular vote margin by 3% and gave Clinton an electoral lead of over 100, taking Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania totally for granted. I do not believe it is because I neglected the concerns of the white working-class or ignored the existence of my Big Fat Elite Coastal Bubble — I was berating my ex-party about these concerns during the primary season, and I forecast that primary quite precisely. So I will perform a merciful act today by sparing my readers any new ‘think-pieces’ about these already-exhausted topics.

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I always knew that Hillary was a bad candidate, and I had a few mischievous moments during which I marveled that this crazy saga was actually going to work out for this most flawed and fascinating of candidates. In September, I wrote that Hillary was about to win the presidency by default. I half-jokingly remarked in the summer that I was convinced God wanted her to be president.

Clinton’s loss was so narrow that any one factor could be said to have made the difference for her — so it is misleading to blame it on this-or-that particular. If she has a ‘tragic flaw’ at the bottom of it all, it is probably, as Colin Powell remarked, hubris, which is also the general character flaw for which Washington is being punished. The post-election focus on the white working class, stemming from Trump’s surprise victories in the Rust Belt, is misleading. One could marginally tweak the results in just Michigan and Florida and produce a Clinton victory with a totally different narrative: one about how changing demographics did just enough in Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada to save her from what was otherwise a Republican wave.

The Trump victory represents an important turning point for the republic. It is too soon to speak too much about what it all might mean, but it should serve first of all as a reminder that there is no intrinsic law of history dictating that America is destined to resolve its problems — such as angry, bitter political polarization — in a satisfactory manner. There is also no law stating that the advance of progressivism is guaranteed. I became a bit sanguine about this, and resigned myself to a lot of progressive social ills to try to protect an international arrangement I continue to believe is worth preserving. I underestimated the resilience of the right and failed to anticipate the strength of the rebellion against their being written into the history books as the bad guys of the American story. (That is a pretty good reason to be angry, by the way.) And as Clinton, whom I like as an individual, fades from view, I am reminded why I voted twice for Republicans against President Obama and for various Republicans in 2010 and 2014, and why the Democratic Party — with which I am stubbornly remaining registered, for now — is so unappealing as an alternative to the Republican circus.

There is no way around it: Trump is really bad. But I refuse to spend the next four years in perpetual disappointment, embarrassment, and outrage over what is likely to be a long series of unfortunate events. I will cheer Trump when he succeeds, and I hope he defies expectations in the best way. But I cannot pretend that I see my country the same way I did two months ago: Clinton was right, at least, that we are even more divided than we thought. Our nation is deeply confused about its moral purpose and its place in the world in a post-Cold War, post-Iraq, post-financial crisis era, and we cannot count on History to deliver us a Lincoln. The future of liberalism is up for grabs in a way it has not been in decades. The boundaries of what is politically imaginable today are opening up for the first time since the collapse of the USSR.

I have tried to use this website as my small example of how people who disagree strongly can still try to understand each other, work together, and debate the issues forcefully but honestly, frequently finding common ground. As the Trump era dawns, these are some of the ideals we need most. Take heart, Trump opponents: the republic will endure, and maybe, if God is in a good mood, we will even get to learn something from all this.