Cry, the beloved country

The posting I had drafted on the assumption of a Trump loss began, “We have dodged a bullet.”   Instead, the bullet hit its mark, fired by one-half of our almost perfectly divided country.

This series of blogs was motivated by my strong sense that a Brexit-like revolt was in the making, invisible to the polls, unseen by the pundits, and condescendingly dismissed by the establishment. I wrote that only complacency could open the door for a demagogue in 21st century America, and that is exactly what happened. Millions of Americans of all stripes dithered about whether they trusted Hillary Clinton instead of mobilizing to stop a dangerous demagogue from assuming power.

My basic argument was that Trump’s unprecedented combination of unpreparedness and demagogic populism was a threat that should transcend our normal partisan divisions. It should have, but it didn’t. Instead, the country doubled down on its recent politics where the animating force is angry antipathy directed toward the other team rather than positive ideological conviction or a rational consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of individual candidates.   It turned out, among other surprises, that Christian “values voters” are prepared to overlook values and character; that “movement conservative” voters, who previously had professed dedication to ideological purity, were prepared to support a candidate totally lacking in political ideology; and that white men with well-paying union jobs would embrace a union-busting, “right to work” billionaire. It turned out that what mattered more were the lies and half-truths that reverberate around the Internet, viruses that infected many good Americans with an unreasoning furious conviction that the other team must be defeated.

George Bernard Shaw was correct when he said “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.” America suffers from problems of historic proportions.   Even before Trump, our political culture had collapsed into a hyper-partisanship not seen since the Civil War. The percentage of the population that has lost faith in our government and public institutions is at an all-time high. We are not educating our citizens to the minimum level required to sustain a democracy. The vigorous press we have enjoyed since our founding has withered and the very notion of professional journalism has been undermined, replaced by faith in the un-intermediated drivel bouncing around the web. We have a popular culture that is clueless about history, obsessed with celebrity, addicted to the superficial, bereft of critical thinking, disdainful of learning and expertise, and ignorant of basic civics. And Americans are now segregated, both geographically and in the virtual world, into echo-chambers of shared belief, where falsehoods and pernicious narratives spread at the speed of the web, making us vulnerable to manipulation by advertisers and demagogues alike. We cannot expect better in our politics and government until and unless these underlying conditions are addressed.

The lurid outrageousness of Trump’s campaign fed the media’s appetite for politics as entertainment, and gave him a free platform from which to instill a poisonous sense of angry victimhood in those fearful of demographic change and globalization. It was a campaign that gave voice to the nativism, prejudice, and misogyny that remain in the hearts of some of our fellow citizens, and that shamefully legitimized the conspiracies and stupidities that have long been confined to the fringes of our political life. The question now is whether the themes of his campaign also will be the themes of his government. We can hope they won’t, and Republicans in the administration and Congress will have a special responsibility to ensure that the worst of his ideas are abandoned (banning Muslims, killing terrorist families, mass deportation, etc.). But precedent does not provide cause for optimism. Populists usually try to do the things they said they would do.

I recommend to all of you the recent short book by Jan-Werner Müller, a Professor of Politics at Princeton, titled What is Populism? Professor Müller’s study of historical and contemporary populist regimes around the world suggests that we can expect the following when any populist attains power:

·      The populist demagogue in power continues to polarize the population and escalates his rhetoric to suggest that every political debate is a kind of apocalyptic confrontation between “the people” and their opponents.

·      The populist remains in permanent campaign mode, attempting to maintain almost constant direct communication with “the people.”

·      The populist claims moral authority derived from “the people” which justifies the muzzling of the press and the erosion of civil liberties, a type of “discriminatory legalism” which Professor Müller describes as “for my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law.”

·      Populists in government are unable to actually implement many of their absurd promises, so they blame their failures on vast conspiracies by their opponents. 

·      Eventually and inevitably, even their most ardent supporters understand that they have been betrayed by a con man. 

Taken together, the populist gives us an “illiberal democracy,” meaning a condition just short of full-on authoritarianism. “Illiberal democracy” is characterized by a gradual usurpation of state institutions by the populist and his “movement,” on the basis that the institutions are corrupt tools of the establishment, and that constitutional limits on his power are fundamentally undemocratic because they oppose the will of the people. All of us have two choices:  we can understand the risk to constitutional democracy now or we can face it later once the damage has been done. We can battle to contain its earliest outbreaks; or we can come to our senses years from now and join the much harder fight then. The transition from a constitutional democracy to an “illiberal democracy” is gradual. Many will be inclined to overlook or forgive the first steps taken by Mr. Trump. Republicans have a special moral obligation to oppose their man when he attempts to transcend the limits of the law and the constitution, not to mention the bounds of decency.

As tempting as it is, I hope that the Democratic leadership in Congress does not repeat Mitch McConnell’s immoral and un-American error of announcing, when President Obama first assumed the presidency, that the entire GOP would be mobilized to oppose everything that emerged from the White House. Instead, Democrats should take their clue from Secretary Clinton, who graciously told the country – including the man who unforgivably said he would accept the election results only if he won -- that the people had spoken, we must all respect the result, and moreover, that we owe him “an open mind and the chance to lead.” Can you imagine what Mr. Trump would be saying if, like Hillary, he had won the national popular vote by almost 200,000 votes but lost in the Electoral College? Resisting the urge to descend to Mr. Trump’s level will be the hardest but most important thing for the half of of the country that is appalled and terrified by his election.

This blog made the case against Mr. Trump based not on policy or ideology, but solely on the basis of his narcissistic personality disorder and the lessons that history teaches us about demagogic populism. Nonetheless, I cannot end the series without acknowledging my despair at what we face with Trump in the White House and both houses of Congress in Republican hands, even if his proposals that are plainly illegal or impractical are blocked. Among other things, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan will be revoked, and the Paris Agreement on climate will collapse. Environmental regulation will be gutted. Cancellation of trade deals will send the global economy into a tailspin and devastate American business and workers. With a doctrinaire conservative majority on the Supreme Court, abortion rights, civil rights, and separation of church and state all will be eroded with drastic consequences for those living in red states. Read my novel Christian Nation if you want to know what that will look like. State gerrymandering, voter suppression, and campaign finance laws will be approved by the Supreme Court, ensuring another generation of GOP competitiveness without the party having to move to the center. I won’t go on.

I would like to close by saying that American democracy is strong and will survive Mr. Trump. I cannot. It is frayed and very much still an experiment that could fail. I would like to say that civilization is enduring, but we have been reminded again that the forces of darkness churn just below the surface. All I can ask is that you not take refuge in despair, or allow yourselves the luxury of disengagement. History provides few clear lessons, but one of them is that individual conviction and action is what changes the world. We all must do what we can.

*   *   *

It is now time to resume work on my next book, a novel that explores the moral challenges of the most disruptive technology humanity has yet encountered, genetic engineering, which, by giving us the power to create and edit DNA, will allow us to hack evolution and shape the future of all living things on the planet. The book explores whether humanity is ready to wield this power.



It's personal

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend who immigrated (legally) with his family from a mainly Muslim nation many years ago. To protect his privacy I will say only this: He is a learned man, a global leader in his field who has risen to the top of his profession, where he makes huge contributions to his adopted country. He has a wide circle of admiring acquaintances in both the public and private sectors. 

I was astonished therefore when he shared with me his concern that bringing his family to the United States decades ago may have been the biggest mistake of his life. I was astonished to learn that this prominent man was scared: scared for the physical safety of his family, scared that he might not be able to freely practice the religion of his birth, scared that because of his religion he might have to leave America, and -- even worse -- scared that he might wait too long before leaving. I could not believe that I was hearing these things in a restaurant in lower Manhattan in the second decade of the 21st century. It shocked me profoundly.

In the days following that lunch, I realized that I had made a fundamental omission in my consideration of Trumpism. I was writing about it in terms of history, law, politics, and morality.   But I had failed to understand that it also has a profoundly personal dimension. I had failed to consider Trump from the perspective of millions of Muslim citizens, and from the perspective of hard-working immigrants of all national origins. For them, the fact that a bigoted nativist had received the nomination of a major party already has betrayed their belief in the promise of America. Many moved their families to America to escape fear, and now they find themselves in fear’s acidic grip. All the things that we observe as merely political, they experience as personal. 

These people are our neighbors and friends. They are the people who mow your lawn, clean your house and look after your children. They are the people who are researching the medical breakthrough that might save your life. Let’s remember on November 8 that for these people, it’s personal. Defeating Mr. Trump is only the first thing we need to do to restore faith with those who came here seeking to redeem the great promise of America. 

Statements against interest

The rules we follow in the courtroom are designed to help judge and jury ferret out the truth, or something close to it, from a blizzard of often-conflicting evidence.  One of those rules tells us that “statements against interest” – that is, a statement that comes at some cost, disadvantage, or liability to the person testifying - should be accorded a higher degree of credibility. The theory is that the person has nothing to gain, and something to lose, so his main motivation is likely to be simply telling the truth or doing the right thing. On the other hand, when the person has something to gain from making a claim, he might well be telling the truth, but we should probably be skeptical.

Applied to politics, this rule would suggest that it might not be best to form our opinions about a candidate from statements made by his or her opponent or that opponent’s team. Those claims might well be true, but are hardly the most reliable source if we are seeking the truth.

Thoughtful citizens once turned to an independent press, which today largely has been replaced by media sources that act as cheerleader-in-chief in an echo chamber of common belief. Even truly independent and thoughtful sources like PBS Newshour are trapped by the requirement to present “both sides.” So where to turn? 

One approach is to find people making “statements against interest.” Partisans have an enormous interest to see their party take the White House (their interest is defined in terms of jobs, access, influence, power, and money, as well as the prospects for their political agenda). So when party members criticize their own candidate (following the primaries, once he or she is carrying the banner for their side), these are powerful examples of statements against interest and we should afford them a presumption of credibility.

I have been collecting “statements against interest” about Donald Trump made by prominent Republicans after he became their candidate. Here is a selection for your consideration:

50 Former GOP National Security Officials (including former GOP CIA directors, heads of the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security, US Trade Representative, etc.):  Trump “would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security . . .Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President.  . . . He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary.  In addition, Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends . . . He is unable or unwilling to separate truth from falsehood . . . He lacks self-control and acts impetuously. He cannot tolerate personal criticism.  He has alarmed our closest allies with his erratic behavior.  We are convinced that in the Oval Office, he would be the most reckless President in American history.” (August 8, 2016)

Hank Paulson (Treasury Secretary under President Bush):  His “brand of populism [is] rooted in ignorance, prejudice, fear and isolationism . . . Trump is a phony and should not be president . . . . When Trump assures us he’ll do for the United States what he’s done for his businesses, that’s not a promise — it’s a threat . . . In essence, he takes imprudent risks and, when his businesses fail, disavows his debts.  Trump repeatedly, blatantly and knowingly makes up or gravely distorts facts to support his positions or create populist divisions.”  (June 24, 2016)

William D. Ruckelshaus and William K. Reilly (former GOP EPA Administrators): “Donald Trump has shown a profound ignorance of science and of the public health issues embodied in our environmental laws.  He hasn’t a clue about Republicans’ historic contributions to science-driven environmental policy . . .

That Trump would call climate change a hoax—the singular health and environmental threat to the world today—flies in the face of overwhelming international science.”  (August 9, 2016)

David Brooks (Republican columnist): Trump is “a morally untethered, spiritually vacuous man who appears haunted by multiple personality disorders.” (July 29, 2016)

George Will (long-time conservative columnist): Will left the GOP over the Trump nomination.  Before that, he said: “Were he to be nominated, conservatives would have two tasks. One would be to help him lose 50 states—condign punishment for his comprehensive disdain for conservative essentials, including the manners and grace that should lubricate the nation’s civic life.” (April 29, 2016)

Mitt Romney (GOP Presidential nominee 2012): Trump has “a character and temperament unfit for the leader of the free world.” (May 27, 2016)

Karl Rove (Senior Republican strategist): Trump is “a complete idiot” who is “graceless and divisive.”  (June 3, 2016)

Paul Wolfowitz (long-time senior GOP official in various roles, foreign policy advisor to President Bush): Trump “says he admires Putin, that Saddam Hussein was killing terrorists, that the Chinese were impressive because they were tough on Tiananmen Square.  That is pretty disturbing . . .  I certainly think it's important to speak up and say how unacceptable he is. I'm always more than willing to do that. . . .The only way you can be comfortable about Trump's foreign policy is to think he doesn't really mean anything he says. That's a pretty uncomfortable place to be in. Our security depends on having good relationships with our allies. Trump mainly shows contempt for them. And he seems to be unconcerned about the Russian aggression in Ukraine. By doing this he tells them that they can go ahead and do what they are doing. That is dangerous.”  (August 26, 2016)

Susan Collins (GOP Senator): She noted his “constant stream of cruel comments and his inability to admit error or apologize . . . .  But it was his attacks directed at people who could not respond on an equal footing . . .that revealed Mr. Trump as unworthy of being our president.” (August 9, 2016)

Lindsey Graham (GOP Senator): Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel “is the most un-American thing from a politician since Joe McCarthy.  If anybody was looking for an off-ramp, this is probably it. There’ll come a time when the love of country will trump hatred of Hillary.” (June 7, 2016)

Meg Whitman (CEO Hewlett Packard, former CEO of eBay, GOP candidate for Governor of California): It is time for Republicans “to put country first before party.”  Trump is “a dishonest demagogue,” who could lead the country “on a very dangerous journey . . . . Time and again history has shown that when demagogues have gotten power or come close to getting power, it usually does not end well.”  Trump has already “undermined the character of the nation.”  (August 2, 2016)

Sally Bradshaw (GOP operative and author of GOP post-2012 strategy): “I could not abide the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump and his complete lack of principles.”  (August 1, 2016)

Marc Racicot (Republican National Committee chair, 2001 to 2003): “I cannot and will not support Donald Trump for president.” (August 3, 2016)

Gordon Humphrey (former GOP U.S. Senator from New Hampshire): Trump is “a sociopath, without a conscience or feelings of guilt, shame or remorse.”  (August 4, 2016)

Richard Hanna (GOP Congressman): “For me, it is not enough to simply denounce [Trump’s] comments: He is unfit to serve our party and cannot lead this country.” (August 2, 2016)

Glenn Beck (hard right conservative talk show host):  (The day after the nomination he predicted that because of Trump, the US would not “elect another Republican president ever again.”)  Previously, he had said:  “I don’t want my children to look at that man and say, ‘Yeah, he’s my President.’ I won’t have that. I will not endorse it, I will not tolerate it.”  (May 4, 2016)

George P. Shultz (Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan and Secretary of both Labor and the Treasury under Richard Nixon):  On the prospect of a Trump presidency: “God help us.”  (August 15, 2016)

(Please note that I have given the dates of these statements. Trump was recognized by the RNC as the presumptive nominee on May 3. Statements prior to May 3 made by Trump’s primary opponents or their supporters cannot fairly be considered “statements against interest.” My own collection was supplemented by examples collected by David Graham for The Atlantic’s website.)


When we decided to publish Getting to Green during the 2016 presidential primary season, we anticipated that figures such as Jeb Bush would be serious contenders, leading an effort within the party to frame a GOP platform that included more mainstream positions on climate change and the environment. Despite strong support from many corners of the party for conservatives to pursue a strategy of engagement rather than denial, the Trump revolution destroyed any chance of a serious discussion of environmental policy during the primaries or at the convention.

Following the election, however, Republicans will face the task of shaping the party or parties that emerge from the rubble of Trumpism. Many will advocate that the new GOP reject the voices of the far right that have forced the party to maintain positions on the environment that the party "establishment" has understood for some time now need to be modernized to achieve electoral success in the decades ahead. I believe that the first half of 2017 will present the best opportunity in a generation for conservatives to revisit their anomalous quarter-century of opposition to conservation, and my plan is to resume an ambitious schedule of events and appearances in support of this goal toward the end of the first quarter.

Because my main objective this year has been to promote Getting to Green’s call for bipartisan cooperation on the environment, I have refrained from making comments that could be construed as partisan. The time has come, however, when silence regarding the forthcoming election is no longer a morally supportable option.   

Accordingly, for the balance of this year, this blog will focus on the issues presented by Donald Trump’s candidacy. Many of these comments will be informed by my research and writing of Christian Nation, which anticipated the rise of a populist demagogue on the right, explored the circumstances under which such a candidate could prevail in an election (many of which circumstances are the same ones that have propelled Donald Trump), and then showed why our constitution and courts might not provide the barrier we assume between such a demagogue and the implementation of his or her program. My next book involves a main character with a pathological lack of empathy and explores how our popular and political cultures reflect the current epidemic of narcissism. My research and thinking about these subjects also inform my perspective on the Trump phenomenon. I hope readers of my books will find that this blog does what my books aim to do: offer an independent, historically informed, non-partisan, and pragmatic perspective on topical issues with a moral and political dimension.