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Happy Bastille Day

Today is Bastille Day in France, and it’s a big deal over there. The holiday celebrates the date in 1789 when French revolutionaries stormed the notorious Bastille prison where political dissidents were being held, which proved a turning point in the civil war that toppled the despotic monarchy of Louis XVI, and July 14 still stirs a feeling of liberte, egalite and fraternite in French hearts in much the same way the Fourth of July makes Americans feel proud of their revolution.
The French Revolution didn’t work out quite so well as the American one, however, what with the Reign of Terror that shortly followed and the dictatorial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte that quickly ensued and all the wars that inevitably resulted. We can well understand why the French are still relieved to be rid that Louis XVI fellow, who really was a particularly despotic monarch, but we’re harder pressed to see how they think it all worked out well enough to celebrate. The French eventually settled into a reasonably peaceable and productive democracy, with scientists who pasteurized milk and painters who created that awesome Impressionist stuff and a military that maintained a profitable empire in Africa and Asia, but they had a bad 20th century. At this point in the 21st century they’ve arrived at a Bastille Day with French President Emmanuel Macron sharing the stage with American President Donald Trump.
Trump was ostensibly given the seat of honor because this Bastille Day coincides with the centennial of America’s entry into World War I, one of the two times in the 20th century when America’s military might came to France’s rescue, but we assume there were other reasons as well. Franco-American relations have been complicated as far back as the XYZ Affair, and in the age of Macron and Trump it’s all the more complicated. At first glance the two leaders seem polar opposites of one another, but on closer inspection bear some unsettling similarities.
Trump ran on a nationalist and isolationist and protectionist platform, Macron on a platform of cosmopolitanism and international cooperation and free trade. On the campaign trail Trump frequently cited France as an example of what America shouldn’t be doing with its immigration policy, usually citing a friend “Jim” who had ceased his annual vacations to the country because “Paris isn’t Paris anymore,” and Macron has been one of the European leaders frankly talking about the need for a post-American world order. During Macron’s race Trump “tweeted” some friendly words about Macron’s opponent, who was from a Vichy-derived nationalist and isolationist and protectionist party that was also backed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and we’re sure Macron would have preferred Trump’s opponent, whose myriad flaws are surely well known to our American readership. They’ve also clashed over the Paris Climate Accord, with Trump ending America’s support because “I was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” and Macron quickly exploiting the European backlash by promising to “Make the planet great again.”
Trump’s a 71-year-old political neophyte with a 47-year-old photography model wife, Macron’s a 39-year-old career civil service technocrat with a 64-year-old school teacher wife, the former is more quintessentially American than we’d like to admit, and the latter is Frenchier than any self-respecting Frenchman would want to admit, so it does seem an unlikely pairing on a Bastille Day stage. Still, as the dined together with their spouses at a reputedly swank restaurant beneath the Eiffel Tower the two leaders probably found they had much in common.
Macron won election as the leader of his own newly-created and defiantly disruptive party, much as Trump did, and he prides himself on a pragmatism unmoored from any coherent political ideology, much as Trump does. Both are friendly to business interests and averse to needless government regulations, except for some disagreements on immigration policy they both take the same tough-on-terrorism stands, and we guess they’re both equally eager to make sort of deal about something or another. Macron shares Trump’s tastes for fancy dinners and big military parades, too, as well as the same distaste for all the constitutional restraints and constant press criticisms that stand in their way of getting things done. Macron has recently proposed doing away with a third of the French Parliament’s deputies, which is bold even by Trump’s standards, and the French press has likened him to “Sun King” Louis XVI by calling him the “Sun President,” which is about as harsh as anything the American press has yet come up with against Trump.
The two leaders agreed to disagree about the Paris Climate Accord, which will probably help both with their domestic political audiences, but didn’t announce any noteworthy agreements. Nothing was expected for the old Franco-American relationship celebrating Bastille Day and the centennial of America’s entry into World War I and world leadership, though, and the two leaders got along well enough that something good might come of it. Our guess is that Macron is pragmatic and unprincipled enough that he’s trying to find a sweet spot between an increasingly isolated but still significant America and the post-American European alliance he’ll be talking up again tomorrow, and our faint hope is that the savvy real estate developer Trump will hold his own in the negotiations.
The trip obliged Trump to take a couple of questions from the American press, and naturally one of them was about those e-mails his son released about a meeting he and Trump’s son-in-law and campaign manager had with someone they understood to be a Russian lawyer offering help in the election from the Russian government. Trump’s rambling reply described his son as a “good boy” and “young man” who didn’t do anything that wasn’t usual in American politics, but Trump’s son is the same age as the French President, whose leadership Trump had just effusively praised, so it was a bad setting for the argument. Macron declined the opportunity to gripe Russia’s meddling in his country’s past election, and although that was a characteristically shrewd French diplomatic move we’ll leave it to our Francophile friends to guess how that plays with his domestic political audience.
Both Trump and Macron will be back at the mercy of their domestic political audiences by Monday, if not sooner, and we expect the mobs of both countries will eventually grab the metaphorical pitchforks and storm the metaphorical Bastille against the both of them. Although we admit that both of them were arguably preferable to the people they ran against, we still don’t have much regard for either of them, and at this point we’re only rooting for France and America.

— Bud Norman

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And So It Begins

The presidency of Donald Trump got off to a predictably contentious start on Friday, and we expect that will continue for a while.
Trump commenced his administration with a characteristically pugnacious inauguration speech, and pretty much everything in it promised a lot of fussing and fighting and back-and-forth-“tweeting” over the next few years. He did give the obligatory shout out to the past presidents in attendance, and thanked President Barack Obama and his wife for their “gracious” and “magnificent” help during the transition, but he seemed to have all of them in mind when he immediately launched into the part about “For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the costs,” and “The establishment protected itself, but not the people.” He assured the country “That all changes — starting right here, and right now,” and although he explained that is because “this moment is your moment, it belongs to you” he seemed as always to regard the moment as being all about him. He described his election as “part of a historic movement the likes of which the world has never seen before,” and painted a very dark picture of what America was like before it came to the rescue.
America’s infrastructure “has fallen into disrepair and decay,” “the wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the world,” “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation,” and an education system “which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.” He summed it all with the phrase “American Carnage,” which sounds like the title of a graphic novel soon to be made into a major motion picture, but again promised that it “stops right here and right now.”
We’ve been peddling our gloomy accounts of American decline since Trump was busy firing people on “The Apprentice,” and we’re not about to stop now, but even we thought Trump’s diagnosis a bit overwrought, and to the extent we glean them his prescriptions seemed likely to do more harm than good.
America’s infrastructure is always in need of repair, but that usually happens at the state and local level, and judging by all the orange cones and ditches being dug around here the country seems as busy with the task as always, and our old-fashioned Republican principles as just opposed to a pork-laden trillion dollar spending program as we were Obama was proposing one. The part about the prosperity of the American middle class being redistributed to the rest of the world suggests that Trump regards the global economy as a zero-sum game, with any gain in another country’s standard of living somehow being directly billed to the home of some Rust Belt opioid addict in a “Make America Great Again” ball cap, and Trump’s promise to “protect” us from such looting smacks of the protectionism that has always left all the world poorer. Some of those tombstone factories used to manufacture Kodak film and Betamax videocassette recorders and celluloid collars and other products that are no longer in demand, others were simply no longer any more viable than Trump Steaks or Trump University or Trump Mortgage or the Trump Taj Mahal casino and strip club or any of the other countless businesses that come and go in a competitive and creatively destructive economy, and we fear that any attempts to revive them will not prove fruitful. We’re more convinced than ever than America’s educational system is awful, but have an American president who writes a sentence about “our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge” does not make us any less pessimistic about it.
The foreign policy portion was all about “America First,” another pithy and movie-title phrase that sounds good, unless you were educated early enough to know about the last “America First” movement, which argued in the years leading up to World War II that an isolationist America would do just fine in world otherwise dominated by the worst sorts of totalitarianism. Ever since that proved tragically untenable there’s a bi-partisan consensus that international military alliances and economic cooperation between the more democratic and humane countries is needed to sustain peace and prosperity and ward off the ever present bad guys, but apparently that also ends right here and right now.
To our old-fashioned Republican and conservative ears it was probably the worst inaugural address ever, and we can only imagine how harsh it must have sounded to a Democrat and any other sort liberal. Some of them were literally rioting in the streets even as Trump delivered it, with the Starbucks shops seeming to get the usual worst of it, and many thousands more were already in the streets protesting more peacefully. By the next day the Washington Mall and its surrounding streets were filled with anti-Trump protestors, hundreds of thousands more took to the streets of many other American cities, and when you throw in a fair guesstimate of the turn-out in cities from Europe to South America to Australia there were more than a million of them. That’s a lot of angry opposition, far more than the usual newly-inaugurated president provokes, and it’s hard to imagine Trump either overwhelming them with his popularity or charming them into submission, so we expect that should last a while.
Trump had a pretty good turnout of his own, by the standards of the usual newly-inaugurated president, but of course he felt obliged to overstate that. His press secretary had a press conference that allowed no questions but instead merely castigated the assembled media for broadcasting their footing and publishing their photographs that sure did seem to suggest a smaller crowd than the one that assembled for Obama’s ’09 inauguration, and he huffily noted that there were no official numbers, as the Interior Department wisely bowed out out of the crowd-estimating business decades ago, and he went on to boast that Trump of course had the biggest numbers ever, and he flat-out lied about the ridership numbers on the District of Columbia’s subway and the security precautions that might have kept out some the people he insisted were there. When Trump spoke before a group of Central Intelligence Agency employees on Saturday he also groused about the media, and insisted that he could clearly see up to a million and a half people hanging on his every word, and we doubt that a group of CIA analysts bought a single word of it. Inauguration audiences are mostly drawn from D.C. and its surrounding counties, where Trump got tiny percentages of the vote and Obama was a landslide winner, and Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters surely had more pressing chores than traveling a long distance and coughing up the $800 a night for a stay at Trump’s hotel, and despite Trump’s apparent insecurities about such things size doesn’t really mean all that much in any case, so with all the fights yet to come it seemed hardly worth fighting.
Trump also took the occasion of his visit to the CIA to reiterate his belief in wars of pillage, wistfully remark that we might yet get another chance to appropriate Iraq’s oil reserves, and promised the spooks that “you’re gonna get so much backing, maybe you’re gonna say, ‘Please, don’t give us so much backing, Mr. President, please, we don’t need that much backing.” After “tweeting” that the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s meddling in the past election made him feel that he was living in Nazi Germany, Trump assured the audience that any impression he was not a big fan of the intelligence community was entirely due to that lying media, which allowed him to segue into the longer rant about the huge turnout for his inauguration.
All in all, we did not find it an encouraging start.

— Bud Norman

The Latest Episode of the Perils of the GOP

The Republican presidential race is quickly becoming our favorite television show, almost to the point that we wish it were already over and we could “binge watch” the entire season to to its cliff-hanging conclusion on Netflix. Tuesday night’s installment was the best yet, with some intriguing plot twists and a refreshing focus on some fascinating but previously minor characters, and some travails of the formerly featured players, as well as much better production qualities.
Our cheapskate ways and aversion to popular culture preclude us from purchasing cable television, so we give thanks to the Fox Business Network, which is obviously the business news affiliate of the notoriously capitalistic and greedy Fox News organization, for making it available for the free on the internet, unlike the previous debate producers at CNBC, where the “C” stands for cable or capitalism and the “NBC” stands for the righteously anti-capitalist and pro-share-the-wealth National Broadcast Company, which insisted that everyone pay for its product. We further thank for them asking actual questions of the candidates, rather than spewing sneering diatribes ended with a question mark, because as much fun as it was to watch the Republicans bash the moderators in the last debate this episode was even better.
Previous episodes had somehow established two political neophytes, blustery real estate billionaire Donald Trump and soft-spoken neurosurgeon Ben Carson, as the frontrunners, but this time both seemed relegated to supporting roles. Another non-office-holder, former high-tech executive Carly Fiorina, seemed to get more air time and to make more of it. When the questions veered from economic issues to foreign affairs, Trump started talking about letting Russian President Vladimir Putin run the Middle East, Carson rambled in his efforts to reconcile his past dovishness in Afghanistan and Iraq with a more popular hawkishness, and Fiorina got the biggest applause of the three with some very tough talk about the need to project American power. Of the three candidates untainted by previous positions in government, which voters suddenly seem to find very attractive, we’d rate her performance the best.
Trump was conspicuously less prominent than in past debates, and his bully boy persona seems to be wearing thin. Much of his ire was aimed at former congressman and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who otherwise would have gone entirely unnoticed, and Trump’s argument that Ohio’s recent economic rebound was merely a matter of “striking oil” was easily rebutted, and his sneer that “I don’t need to listen to this man” was booed by many people who certainly never had any intention of supporting the recently mushy Kasich but feel that his long record of public service at least entitles him to have his say in a Republican debate. His complaint that Fiorina too often interjected herself into the debate was briefly cheered by his supporters with their usual pro-wrestling fan enthusiasm, but it surely gave his feminist and other female critics another reason to hate him, and there were enough old-fashioned chivalrous males and less aggrieved women in the audience at a Republican debate that he endured another round of boos. His best moment came when he criticized the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership boondoggle, emphasizing that he supports free trade but credibly claiming that he could have negotiated a better deal, but even that didn’t get much applause.
Carson’s more polite presentation fared somewhat better. He stumbled badly when the discussion ranged into foreign policy, noting how darned complicated it all seems to be, but he had good moments talking about capitalism and entrepreneurialism and risk-taking and the economic anxieties of the middle class. At not point was he booed for his boorish insults, and the phony-baloney scandals about him that the press have lately concocted went unmentioned even by Trump, and the first wave of punditry raved about his performance, so our guess is that he didn’t suffer so much as Trump.
Among the candidates who are tainted by previous public service, we’d say that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and especially Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas seemed the likely winners. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul had a good moment talking about the Democrats’ hysteria over climate change, as befits a Senator from a coal-mining state, but his isolationist views and stubborn insistence that a hefty military budget is not conservative made him a whipping boy for the rest of the candidates. Cruz got the best of it by noting that the defense of America is expensive but not nearly expensive as not defending it, Rubio got in a couple of good lines about the necessity of America being the world’s greatest military power, Fiorina also got some licks in, and even the most weak-kneed of the candidates made clear that the Republican party and conservatism still stand for a stronger national defense than any Democratic candidate might prefer.
There was some hearteningly radical talk about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and other sensible tax reforms from all the candidates, with Cruz going the furthest, and even Trump was forced to concede that all the plans put forth were preferable to the status quo or any adjustments the Democrats were considering. Another big topic was illegal immigration, and although Trump and the obviously irrelevant Kasich had a sharp exchange about the feasibility of deporting every illegal immigrant it was clearly that even of the mushiest of the lot would be more strident than even the stiffly-spined Democratic on the issue. All the candidates came off more stridently capitalist than any of the Democrats, as well, and still sounded more authentically populist in their opposition to crony-capitalism than even the most ardently socialist can claim to be. On most of the poll-tested push-button issues, the eventual Republican nominee will be positioned.
The latest debate gave more time than the previous ones to Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and they made less of it. Bush’s closing statements had something to do with the Veterans Administration and not much else, according to our admittedly bored notes, and we expect that Kasich’s strong stand as the least strident of the candidates in his opposition to illegal immigration was surely the death knell of his candidacy. There’s no telling how the installment will go, but for now our best guess is that that Bush and Kasich are out, Trump is trending downwards, Carson stays steady, Fiorina retains an outside chance, and that Rubio gains but Cruz does even better, whoever emerges will be better than the Democrat candidate, whose identity remains a mystery, and that there’s no telling how that might turn out.

— Bud Norman

An Isolationist Moment

The first casualty of war is truth, according to a popular old saw, and in the case of the as-yet-unlaunched Syrian war the second casualty is likely to be America’s formerly robust foreign policy.
There is an isolationist streak in America’s character which reasserts itself from time to time, and we seem to have arrived at once again at one of those times. All the polling indicates a deep skepticism among the American people about any intervention in Syria’s brutal civil war, despite the President Barack Obama’s plausible allegations that the ruling regime there has used chemical weapons against its people, and there’s no mistaking a sense that it reflects a deep skepticism about the very notion of American as the enforcer of international norms.
Such skepticism has always been found on both the left and right of the political spectrum, and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress are now expressing opposition to any action in Syria. The president might yet win Congressional approval for his planned missile strikes, which he promises which will be insignificant nature and done with in a short time, but it looks likely the vote will nonetheless reflect significant opposition within both parties. Naysaying Democrats will cite all the same arguments that candidate Obama made back in’ 07 and ’08 about the Iraq war, citing the folly of trusting unproved intelligence, acting without the consensus approval of the international community, and of course using military power than cultural sensitivity and soothing rhetoric to solve problems, and no amount of assurances of that the war will be barely noticeable will lessen their disappointment that Obama has now tossed aside all that campaign blather. Some Republicans will vote against action because of the promises it will be limited, and thus almost certainly ineffectual, as well as a suspicion that such a bungling administration which can’t line up any allies other than famously feckless France shouldn’t be trust with war powers, but others will vote “no” because of the same weariness with America’s global role found on the left.
The president will also find support on both sides of the aisle, of course. Formerly dovish House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi is among the sudden hawks on the who will support their president no matter how cravenly partisan they might seem, her party’s formidable discipline will force many likeminded Democrats into line, and the party’s numerous internationalists will also vote with Obama despite the lack of allies and international sanction they have usually insisted on. House Speaker John Boehner is among Republicans who plan to vote for an authorization of military action, even though he surely knows it won’t stop Obama from disparaging him and his party as a heartless plutocrats during the upcoming debt-ceiling negotiations, and despite Boehner’s promise not to “whip” his members a principled disregard for international opinion many other internationalists in the party will join him.
No matter how the arguments play out in Congress, the isolationists are likely to win public opinion. Even such a perfunctory war as Obama promises cannot win support from a left that still seethes over an Iraq war that enjoyed more domestic and international support at its outset and was based on more convincing arguments and pursued by a more steadfast president, and most of the right are too reluctant to support yet another ineffectual effort by a president they do no trust. Those in the middle are tired of hearing about wars and the always troublesome rest of the world, and now they’re even reading critical coverage of the president in the big newspapers, and it’s not as if the president and his equally hapless spokesmen are making a compelling case to rebut all the criticisms. With little good likely to come from a few symbolic missiles lobbed at Syria, and with all of the chemical arsenal safely tucked away among the civilian population during the interminable lead-up to the strikes, the case for intervention will be all the harder to make afterwards even if it doesn’t provoke a catastrophic response from the Syrians, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, or any of the other bad actors on the other side.
The public’s displeasure with this mess will provide an opportunity for such conservative isolationists as Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, who has assumed a leading role in the opposition with his aggressive interrogation of Secretary of State John Kerry during Senate hearings on the war. Five years of slow growth and stubborn unemployment have caused many Americans to question if high taxes, huge deficits, and hyper-regulation are the right economic policy, revelations about the Internal Revenue Service and Justice Department and National Security as well as the countless intrusions of Obamacare and other big government schemes have left people feeling less free, and now Syria is the latest foreign fiasco to foster an isolationist mood, and Paul’s brand of pure libertarianism suddenly seems to have all the answers. The isolationism of the left has now been repudiated by Obama himself, and the left is still stuck with the effects of his economic policies and the scandals of his ever-growing government, making Paul or some like-minded outsider the best positioned candidates to run on a platform of staying at home in peace.
Which won’t make the world any less troublesome, or keep it out of our home, but so long as American power is wielded so ineptly has it has been lately the argument will be hard for the public to resist.

— Bud Norman

The Hagel Show

Confirmation hearings may be dull fare for the average American, but to the dedicated current events enthusiast they often provide some of the best theater that politics has to offer. Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s appearance on Thursday before a Senate committee, for instance, was classic farce.
The former Senator from Nebraska gave such an inept performance that even the most sympathetic media panned it. Politico reluctantly conceded that he “stumbled,” The Hill described him as “shaky,” and The Washington Post went so far as to concede that he “faced withering criticism.” All of the sound bites that found their way into the radio reports gave the same impression, with Hagel stammering lame responses to the most predictable questions.
Because Hagel is a Republican, and with a fairly conservative record on domestic issues, the administration might have hoped that he would be spared a thorough interrogation by the members of his party. If so, the administration has overestimated the opposition’s party loyalty. Hagel is a throwback to the long-ago isolationist era of the Republican party, with a strange affinity for Iran’s brutal theocracy, a suspicious antipathy for Israel’s embattled democracy, a record of wobbliness on the Iraq war, and the “R” behind his name was not enough to shield him from questions about all of it.
Sen. Jim Inhofe asked about the fact that Iran’s government has explicitly endorsed Hagel nomination, and Hagel replied that “I have a difficult enough time with American politics, Senator. I have no idea, but thank you. I’ll be glad to respond further to the record.” In response to a question by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Hagel described Iran’s government as “elected and legitimate” before walking it back during friendlier questioning from a Democratic Senator. Sen. Ted Cruz quoted comments Hagel had made to the terror-friendly Al Jazeera network about America as “the world’s bully,” forcing Hagel to insist that his words did not mean what they clearly did mean, and Sen. Lindsey Graham asked about Hagel’s stated view that the “Israel lobby” “intimidates” the Senate, forcing Hagel to admit that he could not name one Senator who was intimidated by Israel nor one “dumb thing” the American government has done as a result of Israeli influence. Hagel’s distinguished record of service in the Vietnam War might have been expected to earn him some gentle treatment, but no one out-Vietnam vets Sen. John McCain, who grilled Hagel on his opposition to the surge strategy that allowed an American withdrawal from a relatively peaceful Iraq, and after saying that he would “defer to the judgment of history” Hagel seemed to sputter his insistence that he was still right about the surge being “the worst foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.”
It was so embarrassing that the press had no choice but to admit it, but the reluctant criticism was all about how Hagel was simply unprepared, or out of practice after a few years of retirement from politics, and that he’s a Republican after all. This focus on Hagel spared the press from pondering the possibility that the real problem is his world view, clearly shared by the administration that seeks his appointment, which simply can bear such scrutiny no matter the apologist.

— Bud Norman