To know what the Chinese are really up to, read the futuristic novels of Liu Cixin.
“We are in the foothills of a Cold War.” Those were the words of Henry Kissinger when I interviewed him at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Beijing last November.
The observation in itself was not wholly startling. It had seemed obvious to me since early last year that a new Cold War — between the U.S. and China — had begun. This insight wasn’t just based on interviews with elder statesmen. Counterintuitive as it may seem, I had picked up the idea from binge-reading Chinese science fiction.
First, the history. What had started out in early 2018 as a trade war over tariffs and intellectual property theft had by the end of the year metamorphosed into a technology war over the global dominance of the Chinese company Huawei Technologies Co. in 5G network telecommunications; an ideological confrontation in response to Beijing’s treatment of the Uighur minority in China’s Xinjiang region and the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong; and an escalation of old frictions over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, for Kissinger, of all people, to acknowledge that we were in the opening phase of Cold War II was remarkable.
Since his first secret visit to Beijing in 1971, Kissinger has been the master-builder of that policy of U.S.-Chinese engagement which, for 45 years, was a leitmotif of U.S. foreign policy. It fundamentally altered the balance of power at the mid-point of the Cold War, to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union. It created the geopolitical conditions for China’s industrial revolution, the biggest and fastest in history. And it led, after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, to that extraordinary financial symbiosis which Moritz Schularick and I christened “Chimerica” in 2007.
How did relations between Beijing and Washington sour so quickly that even Kissinger now speaks of Cold War?
The conventional answer to that question is that President Donald Trump has swung like a wrecking ball into the “liberal international order” and that Cold War II is only one of the adverse consequences of his “America First” strategy.
Yet that view attaches too much importance to the change in U.S. foreign policy since 2016, and not enough to the change in Chinese foreign policy that came four years earlier, when Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. Future historians will discern that the decline and fall of Chimerica began in the wake of the global financial crisis, as a new Chinese leader drew the conclusion that there was no longer any need to hide the light of China’s ambition under the bushel that Deng Xiaoping had famously recommended.
When Middle America voted for Trump four years ago, it was partly a backlash against the asymmetric payoffs of engagement and its economic corollary, globalization. Not only had the economic benefits of Chimerica gone disproportionately to China, not only had its costs been borne disproportionately by working-class Americans, but now those same Americans saw that their elected leaders in Washington had acted as midwives at the birth of a new strategic superpower — a challenger for global predominance even more formidable, because economically stronger, than the Soviet Union.
It is not only Kissinger who recognizes that the relationship with Beijing has soured. Orville Schell, another long-time believer in engagement, recently conceded that the approach had foundered “because of the CCP’s deep ambivalence about the way engaging in a truly meaningful way might lead to demands for more reform and change and its ultimate demise.”
Conservative critics of engagement, meanwhile, are eager to dance on its grave, urging that the People’s Republic be economically “quarantined,” its role in global supply chains drastically reduced. There is a spring in the step of the more Sinophobic members of the Trump administration, notably Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger and trade adviser Peter Navarro. For the past three and a half years they have been arguing that the single most important thing about Trump’s presidency was that he had changed the course of U.S. policy towards China, a shift from engagement to competition spelled out in the 2017 National Security Strategy. The events of 2020 would seem to have vindicated them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has done more than intensify Cold War II. It has revealed its existence to those who last year doubted it. The Chinese Communist Party caused this disaster — first by covering up how dangerous the new virus SARS-CoV-2 was, then by delaying the measures that might have prevented its worldwide spread.
Yet now China wants to claim the credit for saving the world from the crisis it caused. Liberally exporting cheap and not wholly reliable ventilators, testing kits and face masks, the Chinese government has sought to snatch victory from the jaws of a defeat it inflicted. The deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s information department has gone so far as to endorse a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus originated in the U.S. and retweet an article claiming that an American team had brought the virus with them when they participated in the World Military Games in Wuhan last October.
Just as implausible are Chinese claims that the U.S. is somehow behind the recurrent waves of pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. The current confrontation over the former British colony’s status is unambiguously Made in China. As Pompeo has said, the new National Security LawBeijing imposed on Hong Kong last Tuesday effectively “destroys” the territory’s semi-autonomy and tears up the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration, which guaranteed that Hong Kong would retain its own legal system for 50 years after its handover to People’s Republic in 1997.
In this context, it is not really surprising that American public sentiment towards China has become markedly more hawkish since 2017, especially among older voters. China is one of few subjects these days about which there is a genuine bipartisan consensus. It is a sign of the times that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign clearly intends to portray their man as more hawkish on China than Trump. (Former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s new memoir is grist to their mill.) On Hong Kong, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House, is every bit as indignant as Pompeo.
I have argued that this new Cold War is both inevitable and desirable, not least because it has jolted the U.S. out of complacency and into an earnest effort not to be surpassed by China in artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other strategically crucial technologies. Yet there remains, in academia especially, significant resistance to my viewthat we should stop worrying and learn to love Cold War II.
At a forum last week on World Order after Covid-19, organized by the Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University, a clear majority of speakers warned of the perils of a new Cold War.
Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google, argued instead for a “rivalry-partnership” model of “coop-etition,” in which the two nations would at once compete and cooperate in the way that Samsung and Apple have done for years.
Harvard’s Graham Allison, the author of the bestselling “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”, agreed, giving as another example the 11th-century “frenmity” between the Song Emperor of China and the Liao kingdom on China’s northern border. The pandemic, Allison argued, has made “incandescent the impossibility of identifying China clearly as either foe or friend. Rivalry-partnership may sound complicated, but life is complicated.”
“The establishment of a productive and predictable US/China relationship,” wrote John Lipsky, formerly of the International Monetary Fund, “is a sine qua non for strengthening the institutions of global governance.” The last Cold War had cast a “shadow of a global holocaust for decades,” observed James Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state. “What can be done to create a context to limit the rivalry and create space for cooperation?”
Elizabeth Economy, my colleague at the Hoover Institution, had an answer: “The United States and China could … partner to address a global challenge,” namely climate change. Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution took a similar line: “Focusing only on great power competition while ignoring the need for cooperation will not actually give the United States an enduring strategic advantage over China.”
All this sounds eminently reasonable, apart from one thing. The Chinese Communist Party isn’t Samsung, much less the Liao kingdom. Rather — as was true in Cold War I, when (especially after 1968) academics tended to be doves rather than hawks — today’s proponents of “rivalry-partnership” are overlooking the possibility that the Chinese aren’t interested in being frenemies. They know full well this is a Cold War, because they started it.
To be sure, there are also Chinese scholars who lament the passing of engagement. The economist Yu Yongding recently joined Kevin Gallagher of Boston University to argue for reconciliation between Washington and Beijing. Yet that is no longer the official view in Beijing. When I first began talking publicly about Cold War II at conferences last year, I was surprised that no Chinese delegates contradicted me. In September, I asked one of them — the Chinese head of a major international institution — why that was. “Because I agree with you!” he replied with a smile.
As a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I have seen for myself the ideological turning of the tide under Xi. Academics who study taboo subjects such as the Cultural Revolution find themselves subject to investigations or worse. Those who take a more combative stance toward the West get promoted.
Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua, recently argued that Cold War II, unlike Cold War I, will be a purely technological competition, without proxy wars and nuclear brinkmanship. Yao Yang, dean of the National School of Development at Peking University, was equally candid in an interview with the Beijing Cultural Review, published on April 28.
“To a certain degree we already find ourselves in the situation of a New Cold War,” he said. “There are two basic reasons for this. The first is the need for Western politicians to play the blame game” about the origins of the pandemic. “The next thing,” he added, “is that now Westerners want to make this into a ‘systems’ question, saying that the reason that China could carry out such drastic control measures [in Hubei province] is because China is not a democratic society, and this is where the power and capacity to do this came from.”
This, however, is weak beer compared with the hard stuff regularly served up on Twitter by the pack leader of the “wolf warrior” diplomats, Zhao Lijian. “The Hong Kong Autonomy Act passed by the US Senate is nothing but a piece of scrap paper,” he tweeted on Monday, in response to the congressional retaliation against China’s new Hong Kong security law. By his standards, this was understatement.
The tone of the official Chinese communiqué released after Pompeo’s June 17 meeting in Hawaii with Yang Jiechi, the director of the Communist Party’s Office of Foreign Affairs, was vintage Cold War. On the persecution of the Uighurs, for example, it called on “the US side to respect China’s counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts, stop applying double standards on counter-terrorism issues, and stop using Xinjiang-related issues as a pretext to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”
And this old shrillness, so reminiscent of the Mao Zedong era, is not reserved for the U.S. alone. The Chinese government lashes out at any country that has the temerity to criticize it, from Australia — “gum stuck to the bottom of China’s shoe” according to the editor of the Party-controlled Global Times — to India to the U.K.
Those who hope to revive engagement, or at least establish frenmity with Beijing, underestimate the influence of Wang Huning, a member since 2017 of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, the most powerful body in China, and Xi’s most influential adviser. Back in August 1988, Wang spent six months in the U.S. as a visiting scholar, traveling to more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities. His account of that trip, “America against America,” (published in 1991) is a critique — in places scathing — of American democracy, capitalism and culture (racial division features prominently in the third chapter).
Yet the book that has done the most to educate me about how China views America and the world today is, as I said, not a political text, but a work of science fiction. “The Dark Forest” was Liu Cixin’s 2008 sequel to the hugely successful “Three-Body Problem.” It would be hard to overstate Liu’s influence in contemporary China: He is revered by the Shenzhen and Hangzhou tech companies, and was officially endorsed as one of the faces of 21st-century Chinese creativity by none other than … Wang Huning.
“The Dark Forest,” which continues the story of the invasion of Earth by the ruthless and technologically superior Trisolarans, introduces Liu’s three axioms of “cosmic sociology.”
First, “Survival is the primary need of civilization.” Second, “Civilization continuously grows and expands, but the total matter in the universe remains constant.” Third, “chains of suspicion” and the risk of a “technological explosion” in another civilization mean that in space there can only be the law of the jungle. In the words of the book’s hero, Luo Ji:
The universe is a dark forest. Every civilization is an armed hunter stalking through the trees like a ghost … trying to tread without sound … The hunter has to be careful, because everywhere in the forest are stealthy hunters like him. If he finds other life — another hunter, an angel or a demon, a delicate infant or a tottering old man, a fairy or a demigod — there’s only one thing he can do: open fire and eliminate them. In this forest, hell is other people … any life that exposes its own existence will be swiftly wiped out.
Kissinger is often thought of (in my view, wrongly) as the supreme American exponent of Realpolitik. But this is something much harsher than realism. This is intergalactic Darwinism.
Of course, you may say, it’s just sci-fi. Yes, but “The Dark Forest” gives us an insight into something we think too little about: how Xi’s China thinks. It’s not up to us whether or not we have a Cold War with China, if China has already declared Cold War on us.
Not only are we already in the foothills of that new Cold War; those foothills are also impenetrably covered in a dark forest of China’s devising.
If we’re inclined to glide past the Marxist fingerprints all over America’s current turmoil, assuming its ideas will flare up for a while and then burn out, we’re not paying attention.
American institutions have stoked the coals of Karl Marx’s destructive ideology, fanning its flames until his notions have consumed our cultural pillars.
Far from being forgotten and irrelevant, Marx’s ideas pervade key institutions, from universities and schools, to mass media and popular entertainment, to major corporations and medicine, to the arts and sciences. They’ve even seeped into many churches and seminaries. Of course, they also define the Democratic Party, Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi no less than Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama.
I don’t mean such clunky ideas from “Das Kapital” as the dictatorship of the proletariat, the labor theory of value, or the withering away of the state. No, we’re talking about the substratum of assumptions about how the world works, underlying those discredited notions from bygone days.
The poisoned root of all of it is something called “dialectical materialism,” a concept Marx borrowed from Hegel that describes how material needs create social conflict. The two men saw the material world as distinct and independent from the spirit and mind, and maintained that attempting to combine the material and immaterial bred inconsistencies. For our purposes here, suffice it to say the “materialism” part disallows all things spiritual, and the “dialectical” part disallows all things fixed or permanent or unchanging.
So we’re left with nothing but atoms in endless flux, physical forces violently colliding in a grim world where might makes right and brutal will reigns supreme. If that sounds like the radical autonomous zone in Seattle, it’s no coincidence.
Cultural Marxism is increasingly defining the worldview within which all debates and decision-making take place, even for most of those who rightly fear and despise Marx. This philosophy is on an accelerating trajectory to deconstructing the American way of life from top to bottom, leaving no sphere of our daily lives untouched.
Its deconstruction agenda takes three main forms: Marxism dehumanizes all persons, demoralizes all relationships, and decivilizes all institutions.
Dehumanizing all persons. No one is anything more than his or her DNA and appearance, plus whatever animal instincts he happens to feel at a given time. From this comes identity politics, racial and sexual polarization, group victimhood, and group guilt. This logically results in demoralizing relationships.
Demoralizing all relationships. Since individuals are mere meat in motion, and existence is mere randomness, morality as all the world religions have known it is gone. No two people can interact on the basis of objective right and wrong.
What’s right or good is instead the mere product of quantitative mass (how many persons want it) times qualitative intensity (how much emotion they express). Dignity, property, marital and family ties, marketplace exchanges, contracts and promises, tradition and heritage, vulnerability, duty, love, and life itself — all go to zero.
Decivilizing all institutions. People and relationships having thus been zeroed out. Institutions of whatever sort, including communities or nations, obviously cannot stand either. An institution is but an agreement or understanding entered into by people, meant to outlive them and endure through time, all of which is viewed as absurd and dissolves under the acid of dialectical materialism. All bets are off.
Civis, Latin for city, which gives rise to our ideas of civilization and civility, civics and the citizen, goes on the ash heap of history. Language, the institution enabling people in communities to communicate — even to seek and express truth — gets trashed as well. Truth is whatever one wants it to be. Plain speaking must bow to political correctness, itself a purely Marxist term.
It bears repeating that life is devalued to zero under this nightmare of deconstruction America is now experiencing. One can draw a connection to George Orwell’s anti-Marxist masterpiece “Animal Farm.” All animals are equal, says Napoleon the pig reassuringly. It’s just that some animals are more equal than others.
In the same way, we’re now being told some lives matter more than others by the leaders of a mass movement decivilizing our cities and seeking to incite a race war. It shouldn’t surprise us that one of those leaders has bluntly and proudly said on camera, “We’re trained Marxists.” Hearing that, do we shrug and make excuses for her since, after all, a lot of pain can accompany being black in this country?
Or are we shocked at the cynicism that would so disserve the very people her movement claims to champion? Are we surprised at the gullibility of so many of our fellow citizens of all colors who would trust a Marxist to do anything but defame and damage the United States of America at every opportunity?
If we’re not shocked, angered, and determined to turn back this and every attempt at deconstructing our country by the disciples and dupes of Marx, a hater of humanity and agent of evil, we are unworthy of our forebears’ sacrifices and our descendants’ hopes.
If we’re inclined to glide past the Marxist fingerprints all over America’s current turmoil, chalking it up to “wokeness” or “cancel culture” or “the left” or some other vague fad we assume will flare up for a while and then burn out, we’re not paying attention.
It was specifically Marx’s ideas, according to the “Black Book of Communism,” that took 100 million lives worldwide in the last century. How many more will they take in this one? That’s up to you and me. We can’t say we weren’t warned.
Editor’s Note: This is an edited excerpt, comprising the Introduction and Conclusion, from a longer essay by Mr. Atlas. Titled ‘The Costs Of Regulation And Centralization In Health Care,' it is published by the Hoover Institution as part of a new initiative, "Socialism and Free-Market Capitalism: The Human Prosperity Project."
The overall goal of US health care reform is to broaden access for all Americans to high-quality medical care at lower cost. In response to a large uninsured population and increasing health care costs, the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or “Obamacare”) aimed first and foremost to increase the percentage of Americans with health insurance. It did so by broadening government insurance eligibility, adding extensive regulations and subsidies to health care delivery and payment, and imposing dozens of new taxes. The ACA was projected to spend approximately $2 trillion over the first decade on its two central components: expanding government insurance and subsidizing heavily regulated private insurance.
Through its extensive regulations on private insurance, including coverage mandates, payout requirements, co-payment limits, premium subsidies, and restrictions on medical savings accounts, the ACA counterproductively encouraged more widespread adoption of bloated insurance and furthered the construct that insurance should minimize out-of-pocket payment for all medical care. Patients in such plans do not perceive themselves as paying for these services, and neither do physicians and other providers. Because patients have little incentive to consider value, prices as well as quality indicators, such as doctor qualifications or hospital experience, remain invisible, and providers do not need to compete. The natural results are overuse of health care services and unrestrained costs.
In response to the failures of the ACA, superimposed on decades of misguided incentives in the system and the considerable health care challenges facing the country, US voters at the time of this writing are being presented with two fundamentally different visions of health care reform: (1) a single-payer, government-centralized system, including Medicare for All, the extreme model of government regulation and authority over health care and insurance, which is intended to broaden health care availability to everyone while eliminating patient concern for price; or (2) a competitive, consumer-driven system based on removing regulations that shield patients from considering price, increasing competition among providers, and empowering patients with control of the money. This model is intended to incentivize patients to consider price and value, in order to reduce the costs of medical care while enhancing its value, thereby providing broader availability of high-quality care.
Outside a discussion of the role of private versus public health insurance are two realities. First, America’s main government insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid, are already unsustainable without reforms. The 2019 Medicare Trustees report projects that the Hospitalization Insurance Trust Fund will face depletion in 2026. Most hospitals, nursing facilities, and in-home providers lose money per Medicare patient. Dire warnings about the closure of hospitals and care provider practices are already projected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid due to the continued payment for services by government insurance below the cost of delivery of those services. Regardless of trust fund depletion, Medicare and Medicaid must compete with other spending in the federal budget. America’s national health expenditures now total more than $3.8 trillion per year, or 17.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and they are projected to reach 19.4 percent of GDP by 2027. In 1965, at the start of Medicare, workers paying taxes for the program numbered 4.6 per beneficiary; that number will decline to 2.3 in 2030 with the aging of the baby boomer generation. Unless the current system is reformed, federal expenditures for health care and social security are projected to consume all federal revenues by 2049, eliminating the capacity for national defense, interest on the national debt, or any other domestic program.
Second, beyond the growing burden from lifestyle-induced diseases, including obesity and smoking, that will require medical care at an unprecedented level, America’s aging population means more heart disease, cancer, stroke, and dementia—diseases that depend most on specialists, complex technology, and innovative drugs for diagnosis and treatment. The current trajectory of the system is fiscally unsustainable, and millions are already excluded from the excellence of America’s medical care.
In most nations, heavy regulation of the supply of health care goods and services care is coupled with marked centralization of payment for medical care. The United States has a far less centralized but still highly regulated system in which health expenditures are roughly equal from public and private insurance. The system is characterized by its unique private components: more than 200 million Americans, including most seniors on Medicare, use private insurance. The US system is the world’s most effective by literature-based, objective measures of access, quality, and innovation, but US health care demands reform. Health care costs are high and increasing, and the projected demand for medical care by an aging population and the future burden of lifestyle-related disease threaten the sustainability of the system.
Although the regulatory expansion under the Affordable Care Act reduced the uninsured population, it generated increased private insurance premiums, a withdrawal of insurers from the market, and sector-wide consolidation that is historically associated with higher prices and reduced choices of medical care. In its wake, American voters are now presented with two fundamentally different visions for reform that have a diametrically opposed reliance on regulation and centralization: (1) the Democrats’ single-payer proposals, including Medicare-for-All, based on the most extreme level of government regulation and authority over health care and health insurance; or (2) the Trump administration’s consumer-driven system that relies on strategic deregulation to increase market-based competition among providers and empowering patients with control of the money. Both pathways are intended to contain overall expenditures on health care and broaden access.
Intuitively, a single-payer model of health care represents a simplification, but the reality is that such centralized systems impose overwhelming restrictions on both demand and supply. Government-centralized single-payer systems actively hold down health care expenditures mainly by sweeping restrictions on the utilization and payment for medical procedures, drugs, and technology under the single authority of the central government. The overall costs of this false simplification are enormous, creating societal costs that extend beyond calculated tax payments that are required to support such a system.
The alternative approach involves rule elimination and decentralization, that is, strategic deregulation, to induce competition for value-seeking patients. Reducing the price of health care by competition, instead of more regulation, generates lower insurance premiums, reduces outlays from government programs, and broadens access to quality care. Broadly available options for cheaper, high-deductible coverage less burdened by regulations; markedly expanded health savings accounts; and tax reforms to unleash consumer power are keys to achieving price sensitivity for health care. Reforms to increase the supply of medical care by breaking down long-standing anti-consumer barriers to competition, such as archaic certificates‐of‐need for technology, unnecessary state‐based licensure of physicians, and overly regulated pathways to drug development, while facilitating transparency of price and quality among doctors and hospitals, would generate further competition and reduce the price of health care. Preliminary results from such deregulatory actions demonstrate promising results and offer an evidence-based context for the broader discussion of the role and reach of government regulation in socialism compared with free-market systems.
I remember this one teacher. To me, he was the greatest teacher, a real sage of my time. He had such wisdom. We were reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and he walked over. Mr. Lasswell was his name….He said:
“I’ve been listening to you boys and girls recite the Pledge of Allegiance all semester and it seems as though it is becoming monotonous to you. If I may, may I recite it and try to explain to you the meaning of each word:
I – me, an individual, a committee of one.
PLEDGE – dedicate all of my worldly goods to give without self-pity.
ALLEGIANCE – my love and my devotion.
TO THE FLAG – our standard, Old Glory, a symbol of freedom. Wherever she waves, there is respect because your loyalty has given her dignity that shouts freedom is everybody’s job.
OF THE UNITED – that means that we have all come together.
STATES OF AMERICA – individual communities that have united into [our] great states. . . individual communities with pride and dignity and purpose, all divided with imaginary boundaries, yet united to a common purpose, and that’s love for country.
AND TO THE REPUBLIC – a state in which sovereign power is invested in representatives chosen by the people to govern. And government is the people and it’s from the people to the leaders, not from the leaders to the people.
FOR WHICH IT STANDS.
ONE NATION – meaning, so blessed by God.
INDIVISIBLE – incapable of being divided.
WITH LIBERTY – which is freedom and the right of power to live one’s own life without threats or fear or some sort of retaliation.
AND JUSTICE – the principle or quality of dealing fairly with others.
FOR ALL – which means it’s as much your country as it is mine.”
Since I was a small boy, two states have been added to our country and two words have been added to the Pledge of Allegiance – “under God”.
Wouldn’t it be a pity if someone said, “That’s a prayer” and that would be eliminated from schools, too?
With the anniversary of our independence from Britain just around the corner, the social strife now appearing ubiquitously on social media has many of us questioning what is happening to America. From those whose lineage goes back to the original European settlers to those who earned their citizenship in just the last few years, we’re wondering, some of us, if the nation as we’ve known it can survive.
It can—and it will. We’ve been through worse and come out the better for it. We are not perfect and never have been. We are, however, still what Lincoln called “the last, best hope of earth.”
Are there inequities? Sure, just as there are in any country. Here we have freedoms guaranteed to us by our Founding documents that allow us wide latitude—some would say too wide, these days—to express our concerns about our leaders and about the policies that shape the nation. This is not the case in China, Somalia, Cuba, Venezuela or any of the other dictatorships that many of the young Americans now protesting only know as dots on a globe or listings on Wikipedia. Yet few of them, given the chance, would swap our system of government, the rights we enjoy and the economic realities of living in those countries for life in the United States.
Some are nonetheless cheering on those who’ve chosen violence. Most of us still abhor the rioting and looting and the assaults and murders of police officers and others seeking to keep the peace. We can see no justification for it, no matter how serious the perceived injury might be. That speaks well of the majority. We are not yet the kind of animals those who would bring the entire system crashing down, though some would like to get us there on the fast train.Ads by scrollerads.com
Some of them believe, and they’ve made this abundantly clear, that the social contract has been broken. That the government we have now lacks the consent of the governed and, according to Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers, the people have the right to seek a replacement by any means necessary.
They’re within their rights to think that and to proclaim it. To most of us, though, this is nonsense. And it will continue to be nonsense as long as peaceful means remain available to bring about change in government.
Are we perfect? No, and we never have been. Are we better than every other country? Many would say yes but, to be fair, let’s agree that we at least consistently rank in the top ten. Rather than feel we are inexorably stained by our slaveholding past—a past not unique to this country, and a practice that still exists in other parts of the world—and that there is no way to overcome it, let us celebrate how far we have come. As Independence Day approaches, let us remember how America has consistently led the world, how we have been a haven for the oppressed, how our sons and daughters have given life and limb in the fight against tyranny in many parts of the world and how we remain a beacon to those longing for freedom and as close to a true meritocracy as any nation that has ever existed.
America is the place where you can rise above the circumstances of your birth to accomplish and acquire. It is also where you can fall from great heights, sometimes spectacularly, and lose everything. Elites and establishments do exist in just about every walk of life, but they are more open and democratic here than in most other parts of the world. Meanwhile, we have become the place where, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said so many years ago, the sons and daughters of former slaves and former slave owners can meet together over the table of brotherhood.
To some, none of that matters. They want to remake America according to what they feel and follow the dictates of largely ill-considered contemporary truths that have failed as governing principles in the other nations that have tried to implement them. They ignore at their peril the eternal truths expressed and refined through thoughtful debate by the Founders who, while not perfect, should be judged by history and by us for the body of their accomplishments and the sum of their lives. “If men were angels,” James Madison said, “no government would be necessary.”
Well, men are not angels and those who conceived and wrote the governing compacts still in force today should be praised for their vision and for their belief that what “this new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” had to offer, has to offer, and will have to offer in the future. It is superior to what any other nation on earth at the time could do. Lincoln Steffens was wrong. The future did not work.
Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. The American story is just as much about the ongoing struggle to secure these for everyone, generation after generation, as it is about anything else. Some things have come easier than have others. The struggle endures but shall not end until those objectives have been achieved. Freedom is the aim and always, God willing, shall be.
U.N. reprimands Tehran amid ongoing nuclear ramp-up, development of missiles
Iran engaged in covert nuclear work that breached international accords as recently as 2019, according to nuclear inspectors who have been blocked from accessing these contested military sites.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) board of governors officially reprimanded Iran on Friday for denying inspectors access to at least two sites now known to have been part of Tehran’s secretive atomic weapons program.
The two locations have remained off limits to the IAEA despite evidence they were used for illicit nuclear operations in the last year. At least one of these sites contained a secret high-explosives testing site that could have been used to advance Tehran’s nuclear know-how.
The resolution was forwarded by France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, all of which are still party to the nuclear accord with Tehran. While these nations have sought to preserve the accord, their willingness to publicly reprimand Iran is a new sign of mounting frustration with the country’s behavior. In addition to blocking IAEA access, Iran has ramped up its development of advanced missiles and enrichment of uranium, the key component in a nuclear weapon, to levels needed for a bomb.
The resolution highlights what these nations described as a “continued lack of clarification regarding Agency questions related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear related activities in Iran.”
The move was met with anger by Iranian officials, who said they will continue to block access until the international community offers greater concessions, particularly relief from biting economic sanctions that have crippled the country’s economy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran’s behavior is proof that it continues to lie to the world about its development of nuclear arms and has no intention of curtailing its nuclear program.
“Iran’s denial of access to IAEA inspectors and refusal to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation is deeply troubling and raises serious questions about what Iran is trying to hide,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Iranian military leaders announced on Thursday the successful test-firing of both short- and long-range cruise missiles, which could be used in a conflict with the United States and allied partners operating in the region. The firing of these missiles runs counter to United Nations restrictions on Iran’s missile program.
The tests were conducted in the Indian Ocean and Sea of Oman, according to reports from Iran’s state-controlled media. Tehran claims the military operation was “more sophisticated” and “more difficult” than previous drills.
The launch marks a significant escalation in Tehran’s ongoing standoff with U.S. military vessels operating in the region. Iranian military boats have routinely harassed American ships and sought to choke off access to key shipping lanes in international waters. The display of new cruise missiles is a warning to the United States that the Iranian regime is ready for a military confrontation.
A United Nations embargo on Iran’s purchase of advanced weaponry is set to lift later this year. If the United States fails to extend the ban, nations will be able to legally sell Iran missiles and other offensive weapons. The Trump administration is currently pressing its allies at the U.N. to extend this embargo, though these efforts are likely to be blocked by Russia and China, Tehran’s top patrons.
If the arms embargo lapses, the United States is likely to push for a so-called snapback, the reimposition of all international sanctions that were lifted as part of the nuclear deal.
An Iran analyst said Tehran’s latest moves are a ploy to stave off international scrutiny.
“All eyes should be on Iran now to see how it will make good on its threats which were intended to scare and prevent the vote on this critical [IAEA] resolution,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think-tank with close ties to the Trump administration. “Tehran often uses such flashpoints to incrementally ratchet up the pressure through expansion of its nuclear program.”
Ben Taleblu said that nations such as France, Germany, and the U.K. will have to get tougher on Iran if they want to change its behavior. Although they backed the IAEA’s latest censure, these nations also have worked to block the reimposition of major sanctions on Tehran.
The Coronavirus Is Emboldening Autocrats the World Over
In late March, Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte rammed a bill through his country’s parliament that granted him vastly expanded emergency powers, ostensibly to fight the novel coronavirus. The bill authorized Duterte to reallocate the national budget as he saw fit and to personally direct hospitals. “Do not challenge the government,” he bellowed in a menacing televised address. “You will lose.” Six days later, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed even more expansive emergency legislation through his rubber-stamp parliament, enabling him to suspend existing laws, decree new ones, and arrest individuals deemed to be peddling “falsehoods” about the pandemic or “obstructing” the government’s efforts to fight it.
Duterte’s and Orban’s COVID-19 power grabs were especially brazen, but they were far from the only attempts by authoritarian leaders or parties to use the current health crisis as an excuse to curtail civil liberties or undermine the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes in Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam have all detained critics, health workers, journalists, and opposition members during the pandemic. Democracies that have lately come under assault, meanwhile, such as Brazil, India, and Poland, have seen populist leaders or ruling parties seize on the crisis to remove checks on their power or weaken the opposition.
It will be some time, probably years, before the pandemic’s full impact on democracy around the world can be judged. The extent of the damage will depend on how long the health crisis lasts and how badly it harms economies and societies. It will also depend on how democracies fare compared with autocracies in containing the health and economic effects of the virus, on who wins the race to a vaccine, and more broadly, on who—China, the United States, or democratic countries collectively—is seen as the most generous and effective provider of global public goods to fight the pandemic. How carefully democracies monitor and circumscribe the enormous increases in governmental power that come with national emergencies will also factor into the equation, as will the ability of established democracies to summon the collective resolve to defend freedom globally in a time of rising danger.
So far, there is little reason to be reassured about the global outlook for democracy and plenty of reason to worry. The pandemic hit during the hardest period for democracy since the end of the Cold War, and authoritarian and would-be authoritarian regimes wasted no time in exploiting it to enlarge and harden their power. More danger could lie on the horizon as democratic governments weigh the dilemmas of using new surveillance technologies to fight the virus and holding regular elections in the midst of a pandemic. The downward democratic spiral can still be reversed, but it will require mobilized civil societies, effective democratic management of the health crisis, and a renewal of American leadership on the global stage.
Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic. For each of the past 14 years, according to Freedom House, more countries experienced an erosion of political rights and civil liberties than strengthened political rights and civil liberties, reversing the pattern of the preceding 15 post-Cold War years. While blunt military and executive coups have become rarer, more and more elected leaders have gradually eviscerated democracies from within. Politicians who initially came to power via democratic elections—such as Orban in Hungary, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh—have packed courts; co-opted other independent institutions; squeezed the press, political opposition, and civil society; and sought to subvert or prevent the elections that might otherwise remove them. As a result, the rate of democratic breakdown worldwide has risen sharply in the last decade to nearly twice that of the preceding two decades. At the same time, fewer countries have transitioned to democracy.
Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic.
The democratic downturn has been particularly steep in the last five years (2015 through 2019), the first five-year period since 1975 in which more countries transitioned to autocracy than to democracy—twice as many, in fact. In January 2020, the proportion of countries with populations over one million that qualified as democracies fell below 50 percent for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Just as worrying has been the significant decay of democratic institutions and norms in democracies that were thought to be consolidated, such as India, and also liberal, such as Israel and Poland; the more subtle and little-noticed degradation of democracy in South Korea; the steady decline in the quality of democracy in the United States; and the rise of xenophobic populism and political polarization in Europe’s liberal democracies. According to Freedom House, democracy has declined in 25 of the 41 established democracies since 2006.
In short, COVID-19 attacked a world in which democracy was already under threat. The resulting public health crises enabled some leaders (such as Erdogan and Orban) to consolidate authoritarian powers they had already been accumulating and others (such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India) to intensify their illiberal campaigns against critics, independent news media, and opposition parties. In other words, the pandemic has mostly reinforced existing negative democratic trends, supplying illiberal governments with an incentive and an excuse for repressive tactics. Human rights defenders have paid the price in arrests, killings, and extended jail terms. The virus has cut a particularly deadly swath through prisons, furnishing cynical and murderous autocrats with a perfect weapon to use against indefatigable activists who try to hold them to account.
Still more damage may lie in store for democracy before the pandemic is done. In the name of managing the disease, governments are already implementing surveillance and tracking systems that could result in permanent losses of privacy. The apps generally work by gaining access to a phone’s GPS location and its range of Bluetooth communication. When someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 comes into contact with other people, the software alerts those contacts and advises them to self-isolate. With the proper democratic oversight and restraints, these apps can be powerful weapons in the fight to control the virus. But without such limits, they can be used to spy on private citizens and expand social control.
In India, for instance, many fear that a new tracking app rolled out in April could become a tool of mass surveillance for a government already bent on trampling civil liberties. Since Modi was first elected prime minister in 2014, his government has been assaulting venerated pillars of Indian democracy: press freedom, religious tolerance, judicial independence, and respect for dissent. Most alarming has been the Modi administration’s escalating campaign against India’s Muslim minority, which, at about 180 million, is the second-largest Muslim population of any country in the world after Indonesia. The narrative—pushed most blatantly by Modi’s extremist followers but condoned by the prime minister with the same wink and nod that U.S. President Donald Trump gave to neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville—is that Muslims (and sometimes Christians and other non-Hindu minorities) are “internal enemies” with allegiances to lands and peoples outside India. That narrative has grown only stronger during the pandemic, fueled by a vile stream of disinformation that blames Muslims and Dalits for deliberately spreading the virus. Modi has used the COVID-19 crisis to centralize authority over revenue at the expense of India’s states and parliament and to wrest control of state governments from opposition parties. Many rights activists and cyber experts fear that his government will enlist the disease-tracking app, called Aarogya Setu, to compromise privacy and monitor opponents.
Aarogya Setu was initially voluntary, but as the government eased lockdown restrictions in early May, it made the app mandatory for public- and private-sector employees as well as for people in so-called containment zones, areas with particularly high rates of COVID-19 prevalence. It also required anyone traveling by train to download the app. Later, the government took the positive steps of prohibiting the storage of individual data beyond 180 days and enabling individuals to seek deletion of their data within 30 days. To alleviate concerns about privacy and security, it also eventually opened up the app’s source code to public scrutiny (and improvement). But reasonable suspicion persists, and it may abate only if India does what all democracies should do—appoint an independent ombudsman to ensure that rules on privacy, data gathering, and use are respected.
To comply with international human rights norms, disease-tracking apps and technologies must be grounded in law, publicly deliberated, transparent, limited to the duration of the emergency, and restricted to the specific requirements of combating the virus. The MIT Technology Review has initiated an important effort to study and rate government tracking appsaccording to five criteria, such as whether or not they are voluntary, whether the data they collect can be used only for public heath purposes, how quickly that data is destroyed, and the transparency of the policies and the code that underpin them. By these measures, Aarogya Setu rates only a single star (for data destruction).
Election delays should be limited in time and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.
Privacy is not the only democratic precept under threat in the time of coronavirus: holding regular elections has become a logistical conundrum. Many democracies are left to decide which poses the greater threat: holding elections on schedule, when the opposition cannot campaign, poll workers and monitors may not show up, and large numbers of people don’t feel safe going to the polls; or postponing elections and perpetuating in power unpopular governments that voters might have otherwise ejected. The choice is straightforward in established democracies that have the time and resources to alter election procedures so that voters can vote safely from a distance, ideally by mail, or at least at fully staffed poll stations that have been disinfected and updated to accommodate physical distancing. But even in the United States—five months away from a general election—some Republicans, led by Trump, have turned voting by mail into a fiercely partisan issue, despite convincing evidence that it won’t give either party an advantage. Imagine, then, how much more fraught elections could become in countries with weaker institutions and less widespread postal services.
According to International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization that supports democracy around the world, more than 60 countries and territories have postponed elections at the national or (much more often) subnational level due to the pandemic. In many cases, doing so may have been the least undemocratic course of action. To avoid enabling authoritarian power grabs, the Kofi Annan Foundation has recommendedthat any decision to postpone elections be guided by rules that the government and the opposition agree upon, that are clearly communicated to the public, and that ensure the inclusion of vulnerable groups. As with the use of potentially invasive tracking apps, election delays should be limited in time, grounded in law and technical expertise, and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.
To protect rights, privacy, and the integrity of elections during a pandemic is a daunting task, but it is not impossible. It will require politicians, bureaucrats, and members of civil society to restrain their partisanship, adhere to sound expert advice, and submit all emergency measures to disinterested monitoring and oversight.
Before the pandemic, democracy-minded people in countries that had slid toward electoral autocracy showed that it was still possible to make democratic inroads through organized political campaigns. A campaign of “radical love” carried the opposition to a stunning victory in municipal elections in Turkey last year, and opposition parties won municipal elections in Prague in 2018 and in Budapest last October. Even in the absence of a national electoral upset, similar municipal campaigns that engage practical issues and transcend political divisions can limit the ability of autocrats to consolidate power in the pandemic’s wake. Public opinion can also help defend the frayed boundaries of democracy. The original emergency powers bill that Duterte’s office sent to the Philippine Congress in March would have enabled the president to temporarily take control of any privately owned business or utility. But congressional and public resistance forced Duterte to accept much narrower language, involving only the budget and hospitals.
Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States.
Ultimately, the pandemic’s effect on global democracy will be shaped in large part by its effect on the advanced industrial democracies and most of all, the United States. At a time when China and other autocracies are using the pandemic to trash the efficacy of democratic governance and tout their superior capacity to deal with public emergencies, free governments must show that they are up to the task. Some have already done so. Ironically, the “other” Chinese society—Taiwan—has vividly exposed the lie that competent governance in a pandemic requires the extinction of freedom. Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea have also performed well in containing the virus. The successful governments responded early and vigilantly, with widespread testing and contact tracing, and they communicated with their publics in a transparent, coordinated manner that put health professionals at the forefront. Sadly, few major countries have performed worse than the United States, whose president has routinely flouted such elementary imperatives as wearing masks, respecting science, trusting the public health leadership, and not promoting voodoo cures. The damage has been incalculable—not only to American lives but to global esteem for American democracy and hence, for democracy itself.
Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States. But first, the country must get its own house in order. Fortunately, supplies of ventilators and protective gear have rapidly increased. But national leadership, with discipline and strategic vision, is still lacking. The U.S. government must not only galvanize its people to act responsibly but also spearhead the international effort to distribute protective equipment and—as they become available—vaccines and medicines. Then, when the coronavirus has been vanquished, the United States must resume its leadership of global democracies in defense of liberty and against authoritarianism, corruption, and bullying.
It makes a lot of sense for Republicans to run a unified campaign going into the next election—with the intent to not just hold the White House and the U.S. Senate, but to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives, as well.
Many election forecasters would say that if the election were held today, that’s a bridge too far. And they’d be right. House Republicans under Kevin McCarthy have offered little in the way of meaningful contrasts on most of the major pieces of legislation taken up over the past few months. But establishing a meaningful contrast with the way the other party runs things (or would run them) is a key component of any winning strategy and, thanks to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s considerable overreach in the last coronavirus bill, Republicans now have a chance to make such a contrast.
The American public is highly dissatisfied with the job Congress is doing. According to Gallup, just 20 percent of those recently surveyed expressed approval of Congress. Even Democrats are unhappy, with just a quarter telling Gallup that things under Pelosi were going well.
Part of this is attributable to the increasing polarization of the American electorate. As veteran electoral analyst Michael Barone has written repeatedly, the number of people who split their vote between the major parties as they move down the ballot has declined steadily since the Bush/Gore election in 2000.Ads by scrollerads.com
Republicans can make polarization work to its benefit, especially in the upcoming election, if they run a campaign based on the idea that the two parties have dramatically different visions of what the nation should be like in the future—a vision clearly defined by what Pelosi and her allies narrowly managed to get through the House in the last COVID-19 relief bill.
That legislation contains lots of wedges issues the GOP can exploit to its benefit. For example, with more people out of work at any time since the Great Depression, it’s highly unlikely most voters would support the distribution of their hard-earned tax dollars to unemployed people here in America who did not go through the legal immigration process. It’s the kind of excess progressives generally favor, but which leaves most Americans probably thinking twice about voting for any member of Congress who supports it.
Likewise, the Pelosi-built bill included an extension of the so-called bonus payment being given to many unemployed workers who now find themselves making more money while out of work than they did while gainfully employed. That’s bad policy, not just because it adds considerably to the annual deficit, but because it is also a perverse incentive to stay out of the labor market just as job openings are once again about to become plentiful.
Throughout the political activities related to COVID-19 relief, the Democrats have insisted on all kinds of new spending, adding to the budgets of agencies that are not involved in fighting the pandemic and liberally passing out money to friends and favored interests. Most everything Democrats have accused President Donald J. Trump of doing for his so-called “billionaire buddies,” they’ve themselves done for the interests that keep them in power.
All this creates a contrast with Republicans, who, at least at one time, used to argue for responsible spending and balanced budgets. Trump was never part of that, but he did take the lead, by cutting the corporate tax rate and deregulating industries, in getting the American economy growing at something like the level it is supposed to during good times.
Pelosi’s plan for America, like Joe Biden’s, is the anthesis of that. Incredibly, the former vice president recently proposed taking the corporate tax rate back up to a level higher than even China’s. So much for global business competitiveness during a time when the pressure will be high on America’s manufacturers to come home to the United States.
A coherent, well conceived and executed plan could get the GOP within striking distance of a House majority. It could even push Republicans over the top if they make the effort to produce the proper policies. The money and the organization are there. If they have ideas to go with it, Pelosi may have to pass the gavel next January—which would be good for America.
Technologies such as the Electromagnetic Launch System (EMALS) support the U.S. military
With the nation’s attention largely focused on the coronavirus, less noticed are threats to our national safety and security that are both long-running and evolving throughout the world — on land, sea, air, and increasingly in cyber and outer space. Losing sight of these threats would be a grave mistake.
Now more than ever, our nation’s leaders must double down on strengthening our military and embracing innovation to protect America and project power when necessary in an unstable, dangerous world. To do so effectively, it is critical that we invest in and equip our men and women in uniform with the most technologically advanced tools and weapons of war available.
Make no mistake, global competitors like China and Russia and rogue states like Iran and North Korea are working diligently to enhance their military capabilities in the hopes of eroding America’s competitive edge.
Fortunately, President Trump has made re-establishing our military strength and global position in the world a national priority after years of neglect during the Obama administration. He has insisted that while the Department of Defense pursues and invests in next-generation technologies, it must do so with taxpayers’ money in mind. And with a defense-wide review underway, expect even more fiscally-minded reforms to materialize over the next several years.
For example, the Ford-class aircraft carriers currently under production are poised to significantly expand our military capabilities, improve the quality of onboard life for our deployed sailors — and exploit the benefits of cutting-edge technologies. The USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), the first of the Ford-class, returned to sea in January and has now completed aircraft compatibility testing, flight deck certification, and other critical milestones in making the carrier battle-ready.
Mr. Trump has paid keen attention to these new carriers — and he has continuously addressed costs associated with their production. In fact, earlier this year, the Trump administration doubled down on its commitment to the Ford-class by convening the “Make Ford Ready” summit to ensure CVN-78 meets its cost targets moving forward.
These modern carriers are equipped with the latest technologies that ensure our troops will be able to protect our nation at a moment’s notice, whether in the Strait of Hormuz or the South China Sea. They are faster, more lethal, more durable and more technologically advanced than any other carrier ever put to sea by any country. And one key advantage which will improve performance, save money and protect American lives (or take the enemy’s when needed) is the carrier’s electromagnetic launch system technology, which was conceived, developed and produced here in the U.S.
The Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System — EMALS — had its initial skeptics, Mr. Trump among them. But its subsequent performance has spoken for itself. Because the system replaces old, steam-based catapult systems developed in the 1950s, the carriers are able to launch the full complement of planes in the Navy’s air wing. This includes the critically important lightweight and heavyweight drones that are increasingly being used in reconnaissance and battlefield operations. And unlike incumbent catapult systems, EMALS is designed to accommodate future aircraft that come into production in the years ahead.
By replacing the complex and large system of steam pipes on the carriers, this new catapult system delivers a 25 percent reduction in the number of crew members needed to operate and maintain the system. The Navy has estimated this will amount to almost $4 billion in savings from operating costs over the ship’s expected 50-year lifespan. And in line with Mr. Trump’s commitment to establishing greater cost discipline for large DOD contracts, more cost savings have been realized through the negotiation of multiple ship production contracts for EMALS.
The second and third Ford-class carriers are already seeing 16 percent to 27 percent production cost savings respectively. Manufacturing, supply chains, production schedules and jobs are becoming stabilized. As the current crisis has put in stark relief, reliable supply chains are critical, and negotiated, multi-carrier contract buys ensure the stability of U.S. jobs and equipment. For taxpayers, this means significant cost savings without compromising our ability to deliver the most modern equipment available to support our warfighters.
Predictably, however, our competitors are now racing to develop similar technologies. For example, China has reportedly commissioned its own electromagnetic catapult system for its aircraft carriers to allow them to launch more advanced planes and other weaponry. Yet, with America’s new carrier class moving further into subsequent production phases, and our allies wanting to benefit from U.S. military innovations like EMALS, we now have a huge advantage that the United States can and should fully embrace to ensure our military supremacy. Any global competitor seeking similar technologies with ill intent will not go unchecked.
These types of cutting-edge and innovative investments are critical in rebuilding our nation’s military. They also are firmly aligned with Mr. Trump’s commitment to ensure that our military professionals receive far more technology at less long-term cost to taxpayers. Our nation cannot afford to fall behind.
Why nothing sticks to Donald Trump or Joe Biden
It was congresswoman Pat Schroeder, Democrat from Colorado, who labeled Ronald Reagan the “Teflon” president in a fit of exasperation in August 1983. What frustrated Schroeder was that nothing “stuck” to Reagan—not the recession, not his misadventures in Lebanon, not his seeming detachment from his own administration. Reagan’s job approval had plunged to a low of 35 percent at the beginning of that year, but his numbers were rising and his personal favorability remained high. “He is just the master of ceremonies at someone else’s dinner,” she said.
Ironically, the one thing that did stick to Reagan was Schroeder’s nickname. The phrase was so catchy that writers applied it to mobsters (“Teflon Don” John Gotti) and to Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Teflon presidents, gangsters, candidates—we have had them all. What we have not experienced until now is a Teflon campaign.
Between March 11, when the coronavirus prompted the NBA to suspend its season, and May 14, some 84,000 Americans died of coronavirus, more than 36 million lost their jobs, and Congress appropriated $3.6 trillion in new spending. It is not foolish to suppose that these world-shaking events would affect the presidential election. On the contrary: One would expect a dramatic swing toward either the incumbent or the challenger. But look at the polls. Not only has there been no big shift. There has been no shift.
On March 11, Joe Biden led Donald Trump by 7 points in the RealClearPolitics average. On May 14, he led Trump by 5 points. “Biden’s advantage,” says Harry Enten of CNN, “is the steadiest in a race with an incumbent running since at least 1944.” He has never been behind. His share of the vote has been impervious to external events.
Neither good nor bad news has an effect. Bernie Sanders ended his campaign on April 8 and endorsed Biden on April 13. Biden received no bump from this display of party unity. Tara Reade accused Biden of sexual assault on March 25, and Biden did not respond directly to the allegation until May 1. His margin over Trump did not shrink. It remained the same.
Why? The incidents of this election cycle are not the reason. Epidemics, depressions, and sex scandals have happened before. What is distinct are the candidates. One in particular.
If this race has been the steadiest in memory, it is because public opinion of the incumbent has been the most consistent in memory. “Trump’s approval rating has the least variation of any post-World War II president,” notes Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight. Whatever is in the headlines matters less than one’s view of the president. And he is a subject on which most people’s views are ironclad.
When the crisis began, Trump’s approval rating was 44 percent in the RealClearPoliticsaverage. On May 14, it is 46 percent. A social and economic calamity befell the country, and Trump’s approval ticked up. Not enough for him to win, necessarily. But enough to keep him in contention.
Americans feel more strongly about Trump, either for or against, than about any other candidate since polling began. His supporters give his approval ratings a floor, and his detractors give his ratings a ceiling. There is not a lot of room in between.
For years, Trump voters have said that they are willing to overlook his faults because they believe the stakes in his victory and success are so high. Heard from less often have been Trump’s opponents, who are so desperate to see him gone that they dismiss the failings and vulnerabilities of whoever happens to be challenging him at the moment.
Recently the feminist author Linda Hirshman wrote in the New York Times that she believes Tara Reade’s story but will vote for Joe Biden anyway. “Better to just own up to what you are doing,” she wrote. “Sacrificing Ms. Reade for the good of the many.” Hirshman is the mirror-image of the Trump supporter who, as the president once said, would not be bothered if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue. Intensifying tribalism makes this election a nonstick surface.
What gives Biden the upper hand is that there are more people who feel negatively than positively about Donald Trump. What gives Trump a chance is the uneven distribution of these people across the country. That was the case before coronavirus. It is still the case today.
Watching the numbers hardly budge over these past months, I have sometimes wondered what could move them. War? Spiritual revival? Space aliens?
Don’t think so. Throw anything at it. Nothing adheres to this Teflon campaign.
Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives may have been stuck in their districts because of the coronavirus but Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been working hard on their behalf. On Tuesday she introduced the next in what’s getting to be a long line of COVID relief bills that, true to form, is loaded with tax and spending increases.
According to a quick but probably not definitive analysis of what she’s calling The Heroes Act by the good folks at Americans for Tax Reform, the Pelosi bill:
The new Pelosi bill also bails out her political allies, whether they be the cashed strapped, heavily indebted blue states like California, New York, and Illinois or cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia or her wealthy coterie of San Francisco sophisticates who probably also have freezers full of designer ice cream.
First off, she’s calling for $500 billion in funding to assist state governments with the fiscal impacts from the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus, followed by $375 billion in funding to assist local governments. Then she wants $20 billion to assist Tribal governments, $20 billion for the governments of the Territories, and an additional $755 million for the District of Columbia.
But the biggest kick of all is the two-year suspension — for 2020 and 2021 — of the elimination of the cap on the deductibility of state and local taxes on federal tax returns. That deduction, called SALT by the tax policy experts, helps ease the burden of living in high cost, high tax states like California while increasing the total burden of the federal budget sitting on the shoulders of low tax and no tax states like South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, and Florida. To put it another way, it’s a way to get the red states to pay for the upgraded standard of living enjoyed by blue voters in blue states.
Congress and President Donald Trump capped the deductibility of SALT in the Tax Cut and Job Acts, making everything fairer to all. Pelosi wants to undo that permanently, which is probably why her proposed suspension lasts two years — which she figures is enough time for a Biden administration to get repeal through a Democratic Congress. What’s especially galling is how no one is going to call her out on how she and her husband will personally benefit if the cap is lifted. The Pelosis stand to save a lot of money if the SALT cap comes off while many of the rest of us end up paying more. Didn’t she recently call a scheme like that where an elected official stood to profit personally from political action they’d proposed or undertaken an impeachable offense?
Not a moment too soon, the reopening of America has begun.
When the coronavirus crisis began, and the nation’s governors began to order the closure of factories, restaurants, parks, beaches and other public accommodations, very few of us thought we’d have to endure an eight-week long period of self-quarantine. Somehow, the impetus to “flatten the curve” to prevent the hospital system from becoming overwhelmed, as the direst forecasts said possible, mutated into a push for continued isolation while the virus was active.
No one signed up for that. Americans are instinctively a free people who, more than less, would rather the government leave them alone. The crackdown on commingling reached levels in Michigan, California, Illinois and other states that made many uncomfortable with the exercises of police powers on display and the threats from elected officials. Hopefully, those who exceeded their authority will face a day of electoral reckoning sometime in the future while the rest of us get busy rebuilding our lives and our savings. We’re not out of the woods, by any means, but some things are getting better.
What’s not getting better is the financial outlook for the U.S. government. Washington has shoveled so much money out the door since the coronavirus pandemic started that it’s hard to imagine it will ever be repaid. It will be, for the most part, just like the outlays from the savings and loan industry bailout of the 1980s and the 2008 TARP bailout were eventually recouped. What matters now is that Congress put the brakes on spending, a message House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t seem to be getting.
Rather than stop and evaluate the effect of what’s already been done, she’s at work putting together a bill with an estimated $2.5 trillion price tag that, among other things, reportedly contains provisions allowing people who are not working to receive a generous stipend from the U.S. government. And that’s on top of a provision in an earlier relief bill that ended up allowing people to draw more in unemployment than they had been making on the job.
As Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and other publications have reported, that’s making it awfully hard to get people to come back to work. And if people are coming back to work with one out of every five Americans out of a job according to the latest figures, the recovery we hoped would take off like a rocket is going to stay on the launchpad for far too long.
Pelosi’s plan to give people even more money is a bad idea. There may be some who need it, perhaps even badly, but their interests do not and cannot be allowed to outweigh the interests of those who kept working during the crisis or who want to get back to work. The government shouldn’t hold people’s hands like mommy walking a child to school on the first day. It should just get out of the way.
A matter of language
Fox News presented a “virtual Town Hall” program last evening featuring President Donald Trump answering videotaped questions for two hours. For those who have been catching the President’s daily news conferences, there was little new information. Apparently, the President’s assumption was that the audience had not been following the daily briefings. For those voters this was a status report on the country’s efforts to recover from the pandemic, both medically and economically.
Rather than attempt to summarize the status report – most of which is already familiar to those who follow the news — we will look here at whether the interview was an overall success of the interview.
The first item on that agenda is the President’s style. On the positive side, he reveals his command of the facts involved on a wide variety of issues. Equally important is his candor in admitting when he does NOT know something. Another characteristic which comes through is his sincerity. He clearly believes what he is saying – and it is this sincerity which allows him to connect with people.
On the other hand, he speaks in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style, which is well suited to his amazingly successful rallies but does not serve him as well when the question requires an authoritative response. His manner of speaking is entirely consistent with his overall approach to many of the issues he deals with. That is to say that he is a transactional thinker. He thinks in terms of negotiating each issue rather than in factual terms.
Thus, in answer to a speculative question like, “when will America return to normal?” his answer will be to list some of the elements of the prediction rather than giving a simple answer like “I think we will be back to normal by January 2021”. Instead, he starts thinking of all the elements which go into such a prediction, like: “Americans really want to get back to work. We are not meant to sit around waiting etc.” After surveying the main elements of the prediction, he finally opines that he expects the third quarter, 2020 to be transitional, the fourth quarter to be very vigorous, with a return to the booming economy by the beginning of 2020.
The effect of this style is frustration on the part of the listener. The President seems to be wandering all around the problem, touching on some points that seem irrelevant before finally stating – or not stating – a simple answer to what seems like a simple question. In his mind, he is reviewing all the possible items that might influence an action; he is “negotiating” with the questioner.
It is for this reason that several results occur: 1) he is hard to listen to when the questions concern results rather than the elements of an answer; 2) he is better judged on the basis of his actions rather than his words; 3) a more effective presentation of his accomplishments is done by others. This latter point was graphically illustrated last evening when Vice President Mike Pence and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin appeared with the President in the last segment and explained the President’s accomplishments more convincingly than did the President himself.
Another aspect of the President’s transactional mode of thinking occurred near the end of the interview when he was asked about his intentions regarding tariffs on China’s imports. He indicated that the question was forcing him to explain his negotiating position prior to opening talks with China on the issue. In other words, like any good trader, he does not want to reveal his “hold card” (his true goals) in advance. It is often the case that only if the opposition is approached with no prior conditions will talks even commence.
I have noted this characteristic many times before, specifically in terms of his press relations. Reporters always want to know the goals of any negotiation before it even starts, obviously so that they can judge the results as success or failure. They don’t realize that such an approach to negotiations constitutes a set of demands rather than a negotiation. After all, prior to engagement, how does anyone know what might be agreed to in the final outcome. But the press just doesn’t get it. The bottom line is that President Trump likes to play his cards close to his vest – and the press hates him for it!
My conclusion is that President Donald Trump is better judged on results than on discussions. Let him tell his story in his own words at rallies and let others tell us about his accomplishments at town halls, virtual or otherwise. After all, in the end what counts is, “Promises made, promises kept!”
How the U.S. telecommunications industry helped America manage and get through the COVID-19 pandemic can be a lesson for other industries and for the U.S. government, which has been hamstrung by a failure of imagination common to those working in bureaucratic institutions. Consider where we’d be if the phone, cable, and satellite companies had been unable to keep us connected.
The migration was rapid and thorough once the closures began. Collegiate and local classrooms moved online. Grocery items started coming into our homes from web sites rather than the mall. Telehealth exploded as doctors began to see patients over webcams instead of in the office. Examples of America’s resilience and resourcefulness were everywhere. The Internet allowed families to visit, for all of us to stay up to date on the latest advisories, and for each of us to remain plugged into civilization while unable to participate in it.
Mobile devices are just as important as the networks that connect them. Our smartphones have become our eyes and ears to the outside world. Their signals go where we now cannot, only because the Internet is an American product, governed largely by American ideals. If it were not, if the Chinese were in charge, for example, the official response to the pandemic would have probably included enforceable restrictions on Internet access or a complete shutdown of the ‘Net to stop the spread of information.
Whether it remains free and open depends on many factors. The People’s Republic of China has an unfair advantage in the global race to 5G. It has developed, through its Huawei subsidiary, technologies it’s trying to force the rest of the world to adopt. If they succeed, as I’ve written before, it would be a clear and present danger to the future of global commerce and the free flow of information.
In recognition of this, the Trump Administration has been right to acknowledge that a threat exists and to take steps to keep China and Huawei from winning. The Commerce Department is finalizing regulations aimed at limiting American firms’ sale of chips to Huawei. The Justice Department has charged them with conspiracy. That’s only a start. A government-wide effort is needed to blunt the impact of Huawei’s efforts to make it the global provider of choice for the world’s 5G needs.
As part of that, American consumers must continue to be allowed to buy smartphones and tablets made by companies other than Huawei. An obscure Irish company called Neodron, which recently filed patent complaints with the U.S. International Trade Commission, could make that difficult.
Neodron, which is backed by some of the same people who brought us the mortgage securities financial crisis, has filed two complaints with the ITC alleging that virtually every non-Chinese smartphone and tablet maker – Apple, Amazon, Motorola, LG, and Samsung, to name but a few – is infringing on patents related to touchscreens.
If the commission agrees finds that to be so the only remedy it can impose would be an exclusion order that would effectively block the importation of any device found to be infringing on the patents at issue. That would include greater than 90 percent of all smartphones and over 90 percent of all tablets currently available in the U.S. market. The only device manufacturers left would pretty much be Chinese companies which could, therefore, control American markets. As we’ve seen over the past several months as the COVID-19 virus has spread, the Chinese cannot be trusted.
The ITC needs to dismiss the Neodron complaint post haste. It’s bad enough the company could lodge a complaint that might paralyze a critical sector of our economy. The U.S. government has no business giving away the kind of strategic advantage we could never get back to a potential enemy. The Chinese operate by their own rules when it suits them – even when it makes them poor global citizens. They’re out to dominate every aspect of the world economy. We’d be foolish to let that happen – and it would if the ITC finds in Neodron’s favor.
Facing the China threat requires new institutions and renewed alliances
You can’t beat something with nothing. But America seems determined to try.
America’s attempt to integrate China into the global economy as a “responsible stakeholder” failed. China’s economy has become more statist, its political system more repressive, its foreign policy more bullying, its ambitions more outsized than they were 20 years ago. China did not challenge American leadership directly. It altered the character of international institutions from within.
The multilateral institutions that comprise the American-led liberal international order have been decaying for some time. Coronavirus has accelerated the deterioration. NATO, the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization—they are unresponsive, unaccountable, divided, demoralized, defunct. The world is a more dangerous place.
We are used to autocratic domination of the U.N. General Assembly and the secretariat’s various commissions. No one bats an eye when Russia or China vetoes a Security Council measure. Less publicized were the concessions made to China as part of the Paris Climate Accord. Or the fact that the World Trade Organization treats the world’s second-largest economy as a “developing” nation. But the way Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the WHO, caviled and covered for Beijing as the coronavirus spread throughout the world is impossible to ignore. Drift, confusion, and chaos result.
There are three options. The first is to work within the system to revitalize the existing structures. The second is to build alternative institutions. The third option is to do nothing.
President Trump has tried a hybrid of options one and three. But with a twist. Where others might try a kind word or some quiet diplomacy to inspire reform and collaboration, he turns against the very institutions America created to force them to live up to their commitments. He browbeats NATO members into spending more on defense. He cheers for Brexit and supports the EU’s internal critics. He cripples the WTO’s arbitration mechanism and threatens to withdraw entirely. He suspends funding for the WHO.
It’s the “America First” foreign policy Trump promised. And the results have been mixed. NAFTA was replaced. NATO budgets are up (for now). Mexico agreed to have asylum-seekers wait on its side of the border while their claims are adjudicated. China signed a “Phase One” trade deal.
But there’s a cost. Allies may accede to your demands, but resentment builds. The foundations of the alliance weaken. Unpredictability inspires fear and caution. If sustained for too long, though, it conveys irresoluteness and fecklessness. Adversaries begin to probe. They buzz flights and collapse the oil price, resume shelling U.S. troops and harassing U.S. naval vessels, begin tailingcontainer ships in the South China Sea.
The democracies look inward. NATO is silent, the EU split, America distracted and distressed. China exploited this strategic vacuum. It launched a global disinformation campaign falsely assigning responsibility for the pandemic to the United States. Its agents pushed scurrilous and panic-inducing messages to U.S. cellphones saying that President Trump was about to impose a national lockdown policed by the National Guard. Its diplomatic “Wolf Warriors” enforce the party line whenever foreign governments challenge Beijing’s preferred narrative.
Chinese propaganda used to amplify achievements and repress criticism. Now it attacks directly overseas enemies of the state. The strategy, writes Laura Rosenberger in Foreign Affairs, “aims not so much to promote a particular idea as to sow doubt, dissension, and disarray—including among Americans—in order to undermine public confidence in information and prevent any common understanding of facts from taking hold.” It’s working.
China isn’t invincible. It is reaping the economic whirlwind of the coronavirus it hid from the world. None of its neighbors are thrilled about the growth of Chinese power. Its internal political situation may be unstable. But the speed with which it has used the pandemic for geopolitical advantage is extraordinary. Look at how it plays favorites with its distribution of pharmaceuticals and personal protective equipment, how it stepped into the breach with a new flow of cash for its friend Dr. Tedros. Confronting China’s rise requires “a common understanding of facts,” and partners with whom to share those facts in common. These days, America is lacking in both.
By all means, punish the World Health Organization for collaborating with China. But also be prepared to stand up another mechanism to do the good work its founders intended. Go ahead, demand allies live up to their commitments. But also recognize that partnerships of like-minded nations were critical to success in the First Cold War. This is the time to build new institutions that reflect the realities of a 21st century that pits liberal democracies against an authoritarian surveillance state. For every moment that passes without American leadership brings us closer to a world where the sun never sets on the five golden stars.