On Trade By Scott Lincicome
Last year, economic, legal, and geopolitical calamity lurked in the shadows of almost every trade-policy promise made by presidential candidate Donald Trump. Eight months into the Trump presidency, those problems have—thankfully—not yet materialized. Instead, Trump trade policy has been a mixture of bluster, disappointment, relief, and uncertainty. This last category warrants close attention: In the coming months, Trump’s dangerous trade ambitions could remain in check, thus keeping a global trade system alive. Or politics, legal ambiguity, and Trump’s own emotional impulses could deal that system a fatal blow.
There is no doubt that President Trump has already done serious damage to the United States’ longstanding position as a world leader on trade policy, the American political consensus in favor of trade liberalization, and Republican views of trade and globalization. His constant vituperation has offended U.S. allies and trading partners, causing them to turn to Europe, Asia, or Latin America in search of alternatives to the once-welcoming and predictable U.S. market. He has accelerated (not started) the American retreat from the World Trade Organization, further wounding a multilateral trading system that was a U.S. invention—an invention that has, contrary to popular belief, served U.S. economic and foreign-policy interests well since the 1940s.
Trump’s day-one withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the flawed-yet-deserving Asia-Pacific trade agreement started by President Bush and ultimately signed by President Obama—has left vacuums in both Asia-Pacific trade and international economic law. TPP was far from perfect, but it was widely supported by U.S. trade and foreign-policy experts because of its economic and geopolitical benefits. The deal contained important new rules for 21st-century issues such as e-commerce, GMOs, and state-owned enterprises. Moreover, it would have provided small but significant benefits for U.S. workers and the economy, while cementing the United States’s influence in a region increasingly covered by China’s shadow. Now, TPP parties are working to complete a “TPP-11” deal that excludes the United States, while China is negotiating its own version of the TPP—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And many of TPP’s novel provisions are being relitigated in contentious NAFTA renegotiations with Canada and Mexico (both TPP parties).
All of this is disappointing, but it’s probably survivable and hardly the fire and brimstone of the Trump campaign trail (hence, the relief). Trump has repeatedly threatened tariffs and other forms of dangerous unilateral protectionism, but economic, legal, and political realities have intervened. For example, when Trump promised new “national security” tariffs on steel and aluminum under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962, the opposition from Congress, business groups, strategic allies, NGOs, and even members of Trump’s administration was unrelenting. As a result, planned tariffs have quietly been shelved (for now). Other presidential threats have similarly come and gone without major action, giving market participants some heartburn but little long-term pain. Only in the opaque area of trade remedies—antidumping, countervailing duty, and safeguard measures—has there been a marked uptick in U.S. protectionism. But this is the result of long and technical administrative proceedings initiated by U.S. industries or unions that formally petitioned the government under relevant domestic law—hardly the wave-of-the-hand actions that Trump promised.
Some measure of relief is warranted, but we’re not out of the woods just yet. Indeed, in the last eight months, Trump has publicly threatened to
- block steel and aluminum imports for national-security reasons or bring new cases against semiconductors and ships, under the aforementioned Section 232;
- withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the U.S.-Korea FTA;
- slap tariffs on Chinese imports under Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974 because of alleged Chinese intellectual-property-rights violations; and
- impose onerous new “Buy American” requirements on U.S. pipelines and government-funded infrastructure projects.
And those are just the public threats. Behind closed doors, Trump has reportedly considered enacting sweeping import restrictions under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The president reportedly yelled, “I want tariffs. Bring me some tariffs!” when told by his “globalist” advisers that legal and economic realities prevent him from imposing broad-based protectionism on a whim.
None of the threats on Trump’s wish list is officially off the table, and any one of them would have serious economic consequences: Steel tariffs alone would put more than 1.3 million American jobs at risk; NAFTA withdrawal could destroy 250,000 more; and several nations have promised immediate retaliation against American goods, services, or investment in response to Trumpian protectionism. Trump’s actions would also raise major legal issues. For example, the World Trade Organization’s broad, subjective “national security” exception wasn’t intended to be used as a get-out-of-jail free-card for steel tariffs, and a dispute over a member’s right to invoke it could imperil the multilateral trading system. Meanwhile, Trump’s withdrawal from a free-trade agreement without congressional consent would raise major constitutional questions as to whether the president had that authority and what would happen to the myriad U.S. tariffs and other commitments that were embedded in legislation and passed into law. Lawsuits over these and other issues surrounding presidential trade powers would throw billions of dollars of cross-border trade and investments into legal limbo.
The president’s unpredictability, political weakness, and clear affinity for protectionism, combined with ample (though ambiguous) legal authority to act unilaterally, mean that any one of his trade threats could still materialize in the coming months. The White House’s internationalists may have won the early battles, but the war will rage for as long as Trump is president. Continued vigilance and advocacy for the benefits of freer trade remain critical.
And congressional legislation clarifying and limiting the president’s trade powers might not be a bad idea either…just in case.
Click here to read what Scott Lincicome wrote about Candidate Trump and trade last year.
Scott Lincicome is an international trade attorney, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and visiting lecturer at Duke University Law School. The views expressed herein are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.
On Taxes By James Pethokoukis
At some point in his first term, President Donald Trump will likely sign legislation that cuts taxes by some amount for somebody. This modest prediction is based less on reading the political tea leaves than understanding conservative politics. If any issue made the modern Republican Party, it was tax cuts. Not surprising, then, that candidate Trump promised big cuts for individuals and businesses. And with the GOP now holding the White House and Congress, failure to deliver is almost unimaginable.
Of course it’s almost equally unimaginable that the Trump tax cuts will at all resemble the ambitious plans devised by Trump advisers during the campaign. There were two of those blueprints. The first, rolled out September 2015, proposed lowering the top personal rate to 25 percent from the current 39.6 percent, and cutting the corporate rate to 15 percent from the current 35 percent. Along with other changes, including eliminating the alternative minimum tax and estate tax, this initial plan might have lowered annual government revenue by a whopping $1 trillion a year or more (even if one assumes much faster economic growth).
This was, in other words, more a fantasy proposal cooked up by Reagan-era supply-siders than a serious effort to reform the tax code without worsening our historically high federal debt. Indeed, Trump’s sole purpose in signing on to the plan may have been to win over that very same group, still influential among base voters. Trump himself talked little about the plan while on the hustings, especially compared with immigration, trade, and The Wall.
The Trump campaign’s second bite at the apple a year later was a scaled-back plan, but still a colossal one. Instead of losing a trillion bucks a year, maybe the government would be out just a half trillion or so. Again, since the plan was unaccompanied by spending cuts elsewhere in the budget, it was more a set of glorified campaign talking points than a serious proposal. And like the first, Trump didn’t talk much about it.
So after Trump’s shock election, there really was no realistic Trump tax plan. No worries, however, since there was a House Republican tax plan all ready to go, with an enthusiastic House Speaker Paul Ryan ready to push it hard through the lower chamber. It was an ambitious proposal but one within reality, especially with a bit of fiscal tweaking. That plan called for, among other things, lowering the top personal rate to 33 percent and the corporate rate to 20 percent, immediately expensing new capital investment, and expanding the child tax credit.
And more so than the Trump campaign plans, the House plan intended to reform the tax code, not just cut taxes. For example, it eliminated all personal itemized deductions other than mortgage interest and charitable contributions. The House plan also made a stronger attempt to pay for the tax through a border-adjustment tax and limiting business-interest deductibility. All in all, the plan cost a couple of trillion dollars over a decade, not assuming economic feedback. On such a dynamic basis, according to Tax Foundation modeling, the House plan would reduce 10-year revenues by just under $200 billion.
So if Republicans really wanted to make their plan revenue neutral, it was certainly doable through relatively minor changes, such as less dramatic corporate or personal rate cuts. Yet the plan would still be a massive improvement over the status quo, both in terms of encouraging more domestic investment and providing middle-class tax relief.
With a detailed plan at the ready and Republicans running Washington, it is easy to understand why many in the GOP thought it reasonable to predict that Trump would be signing a mega tax bill by August of this year, just as Ronald Reagan did in the first year of his first term. Reagan did it from his ranch in Santa Barbara, California. Maybe Trump would repeat the feat from his Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan.
But that did not happen. Then again, very little of Trump’s ambitious domestic agenda has happened as planned. Repeal and replace was promised by Easter, leaving plenty of time to hash out the fine details of tax reform and move legislation through the House and Senate. But the GOP health reform was a long slog consuming valuable time, attention, and political capital. Also deserving blame was Trump’s inability to focus on pushing policy priorities rather than pounding political opponents on Twitter. As of now, it seems highly unlikely that significant tax reform will occur in 2017. And 2018 looks challenging as well.
Yes, Trump has provided more distraction than leadership on this issue. And trying to pass major legislation in a midterm year only adds to the political difficulties. But the biggest problem is that there is no tax-reform plan for Republicans to push.
What happened to the ready-to-serve House plan? It suffered from not being a fantasy. It acknowledged both political and policy constraints, something the populist president almost never does. For instance: the House plan tried to pay for the tax cuts—a political necessity to placate debt-hawk Republicans. That requires making somebody somewhere unhappy. Ryan knew that without such an effort, it would be extraordinarily difficult to reduce the corporate tax rate to anywhere close to 20 percent. But while exporters supported the border tax, importers hated it, complaining that it would raise costs. Nor was the Trump White House happy about axing business-interest deductibility.
Still, as problematic as those pay-fors were, the alternatives—limiting tax breaks for mortgages, 401(k)s, and state and local taxes—are equally if not more so. The state and local tax deduction is a case in point. Pushed hard by Republican leaders as the primary revenue generator to replace border adjustment, it seems unlikely to survive criticism from blue-state Republicans. Eventual legislation is likely to be a far smaller and less comprehensive bill than first envisioned—more cut than reform—with some temporary parts designed to satisfy congressional budget rules. Indeed, Senate budget writers cleared room for just a $1.5 trillion tax cut, and even that might be overly ambitious. Expect Trump and his people to call whatever passes a “down payment” on true tax reform. Pro-growth conservatives should call it a missed opportunity.
Click here to read what James Pethokoukis wrote about Candidate Trump and taxes last year.
James Pethokoukis is the DeWitt Wallace Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also an official CNBC contributor.
‘The Wall’ By Linda Chavez
“We’re going to build a wall. That wall will go up so fast, your head will spin.” Donald Trump made this promise on August 23, 2016, repeated it throughout his presidential campaign, and has reiterated it in tweets and at press conferences and rallies ever since. But the only spinning going on lately has been the president’s own efforts to assure his base that he will eventually build a wall, or a fence, or some barrier along the U.S. border with Mexico, except maybe for those areas that don’t need one or already have one. Oh, and someone will pay for it—preferably Mexico, as he promised—but if not, Congress, unless Democrats or even Republicans refuse to go along. A year after winning the presidency, Trump’s most ubiquitous pledge, The Great Wall separating the U.S. from Mexico, remains largely a figment of his imagination and evidence of his supporters’ gullibility.
No issue defined Trump’s campaign more viscerally than immigration, and on none was his position less ambiguous. Trump’s presidential record on immigration enforcement and policy, however, is decidedly more mixed. He continues to promise that construction of the wall is going to start soon: “Way ahead of schedule. Way ahead of schedule. Way, way, way ahead of schedule,” he said in February. But the cost, with estimates as high as $70 billion, and the sheer impracticality of erecting a solid barrier along 1,900 miles make little sense in light of recent trends in illegal immigration. Illegal immigration is at historically low levels today (roughly the same, in absolute numbers, as it was in the early 1970s) and has been falling more or less consistently since the peak in 2000, mostly because fewer people are crossing the border from Mexico. Apprehensions of Mexicans are at a 50-year low, as are all apprehensions along the southern border. Year-to-date in 2017, apprehensions at the Mexican border have dropped 24 percent compared with those in 2016, when a slight uptick occurred as more people tried to cross in advance of a feared Trump victory and border crackdown. The population of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. is down as well and now stands at roughly 11 million, from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007; and two-thirds of these unauthorized immigrants have lived here a decade or longer. More Mexicans—whom Trump described as “bringing drugs. . . crime. They’re rapists”—are now leaving the U.S. than arriving. In 2013, for the first time since the 1960s, Mexico fell as the top source of immigrants to the U.S., behind both China and India.
Trump’s pledge to build a wall, of course, wasn’t his only promise on immigration, but he hasn’t lived up to his own hype in other areas either, which is a good thing. He said he’d end on day one the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that provided temporary protection from removal for young people who arrived here illegally before age 16. Instead, Trump waited until September 5 to send his beleaguered Attorney General Jeff Sessions out to announce that DACA would end in six months unless Congress acted. Trump then almost immediately backtracked in a series of tweets and offhand statements. Polls show that large majorities of Americans, including some two-thirds of Trump voters, have no interest in deporting so-called Dreamers, half of whom came before they were seven years old and 90 percent of whom are employed and paying taxes. Trump’s own misgivings and the backlash over the policy’s announcement led him into a tentative deal with Democratic leaders Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer in September to support legislation granting legal status for Dreamers who complete school, get jobs, or join the military. Trump’s most nativist supporters have already dubbed him “Amnesty Don” for even suggesting that Dreamers should be allowed to remain and gain temporary legal status, much less earn a path toward citizenship. But whether such legislation will make it through Congress is still uncertain. Similar bills have repeatedly passed one chamber and died in the other over the past 10 years, but the potential threat that the administration might begin deporting many of the 800,000 young adults who signed up for DACA should concentrate the minds of the Republican leadership to allow legislation to move forward. One of the complications in the House is the “Hastert Rule,” named after former Speaker Dennis Hastert, an informal agreement that binds the speaker from bringing a bill to the floor unless a majority of the majority party supports it.
To be sure, Trump’s rhetoric and his appointment of hard-line immigration restrictionists to posts in his administration have led to fear among immigrants, as have the administration’s erratic, irrational enforcement policies. Previous administrations, including Barack Obama’s, gave priority to detaining and deporting aliens convicted of serious crimes, but in one of his first executive orders and Department of Homeland Security memoranda, Trump broadened the priorities for detention and removal to include anyone even suspected of committing a crime, with or without charges or conviction. As a result, arrests for immigration offenses have increased under Trump and have swept up hundreds of individuals who pose no threat to safety or security, some picked up outside their children’s schools or when seeking court orders against domestic abuse. Actual deportations, on the other hand, are down slightly in Trump’s first eight months compared with the same period in Obama’s last year. This is largely because the overloaded system isn’t equipped for mass deportation. Trump promised to rid the country of a greatly exaggerated 2 million criminal aliens and “a vast number of additional criminal illegal immigrants who have fled or evaded justice.” But his boasting that “their days on the run will soon be over” has always been aimed less at promoting sensible immigration policy than at stoking nativist anger in pursuit of his own brand of identity politics. Trump’s America will be a less welcoming place for immigrants—legal as well as illegal—if Trump gets his way on proposed legislation to reduce legal immigration by half over the next decade. But labor shortages and an aging population make it unlikely that Trump’s efforts will succeed. The simple fact is that we need more, not fewer, immigrants if the economy is to grow. Building walls and deporting workers is exactly the wrong way to go about needed immigration reform, whether Trump and his hard-core base can admit it or not.
Click here to read what Linda Chavez wrote about Candidate Trump and ‘The Wall’ last year.
Linda Chavez is the president of the Becoming American Institute and a frequent contributor to Commentary.
On Infrastructure By Philip Klein
A massive infrastructure bill was supposed to be one of the early triumphs of President Trump’s administration. Instead, Trump’s inability to advance the ball on one of his signature issues has highlighted the lack of focus, inattention to detail, and difficulties working with Congress that are emblematic of his presidency to date.
The idea of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, though overshadowed by daily controversies during the wild 2016 campaign, wove together several elements of the Trump phenomenon.
His experience in building projects such as luxury hotels, resorts, skyscrapers, and golf courses became central to his argument that he had the skills required to get things done in Washington. By touting the economic benefits of infrastructure during his campaign, Trump also signaled that he was an unorthodox Republican, breaking with decades of conservative critiques of Keynesian stimulus projects. Trump also spoke of infrastructure in nationalist terms, integrating it into riffs about how the United States was constantly losing to China. “They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” he said during the campaign. “We have trains that go: Chug. Chug. Chug.”
When Trump pulled off his election-victory upset, Washington insiders quickly focused on infrastructure as one issue on which he could get a legislative win and box Democrats into a corner. After all, could Democrats really resist passing a major policy priority that had eluded them when one of their own was in the White House?
In his Inaugural Address, Trump threw a jab at Bush-era Republicanism, declaring that the U.S. “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.” Going forward, he said, “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” He promised: “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”
Now in the fall of the first year of his presidency, any effort to advance infrastructure legislation has been drowned out by daily controversies involving White House intrigue, the investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, and Trump’s raucous Twitter feed. Congress, meanwhile, spent much of the year focused on repealing and replacing Obamacare.
This isn’t to say that the Trump administration didn’t try, in fits and starts, to push infrastructure. In May, with the release of his first budget, Trump included $200 billion in funding for infrastructure as the first step in his $1 trillion infrastructure initiative. He also released a six-page fact sheet outlining his vision for infrastructure, which remains the most detailed resource on his infrastructure goals.
The document, broadly speaking, argues that current infrastructure money is spent inefficiently. It proposes greater selectivity in using federal dollars for infrastructure investments that are in the national interest and recommends giving state and local governments more leeway over their own projects. It also calls for more public-private partnerships.
Specifically, the proposal would create a nongovernment entity to manage the nation’s air-traffic-control system. It would also support private rest stops, give states the ability to work with private companies to manage their toll roads, and streamline the environmental-review process. The proposal received little attention, as it was rolled out during a week when Russia hearings took center stage in Congress and Trump was traveling in Europe and the Middle East.
Such inattention was supposed to end in early June, when White House officials announced “Infrastructure Week.” This was a carefully orchestrated campaign in which Trump was supposed to deliver speeches and lead staged events to highlight different aspects of his infrastructure initiative. But during this week, Washington was captivated by testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey, and Trump veered way off message in his speeches and on his favorite social-media platform.
He went on a Twitter tear. Trump attacked his own Justice Department for pursuing a “watered down” travel ban, took a shot at the mayor of London in the wake of a terrorist attack, unloaded on “fake news” outlets, and hit Comey as a liar. During a speech meant to make the case for both parties to get behind his infrastructure effort, Trump went off on a tangent, blasting Democrats as “obstructionists” on health care.
In truth, any hope of getting Democrats on board for the Trump infrastructure push had been fading even before this implosion. Liberals had already pressured lawmakers to pursue a policy of total resistance to Trump. But during Trump’s big policy push, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared overtly that Democrats had no appetite for his infrastructure initiative due to its reliance on privatization.
Before long, the phrase “Infrastructure Week” had become a punch line—an ironic metaphor for a presidency gone off the rails.
Trump has made little progress on infrastructure since then, beyond issuing an executive order in August aimed at making the permitting process for building roads, bridges, and pipelines more efficient. But again, this announcement was overshadowed, as it came during the same news conference in which he blamed “both sides” for the violence in Charlottesville and complained about the slippery slope of removing the Robert E. Lee statue.
On the other hand, by striking a deal with Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling and negotiating with them on immigration, Trump has revived talk about the possibility that he could be ready to compromise with them to get infrastructure legislation passed as well. It is important to note, however, that in both cases—DACA and the debt ceiling—there was a ticking-time-bomb element that forced action. No such urgency exists when it comes to infrastructure.
From the perspective of a limited-government conservative, Trump’s inability thus far to negotiate a trillion-dollar federal infrastructure package with Democrats is nothing to shed tears about. But if we’re looking at the issue through the broader lens of whether or not Trump has been able to deliver on his ambitious campaign promises and make the transition from being a bombastic reality-television star to governing, it’s a case study in failure.
Click here to read what Philip Klein wrote about Candidate Trump and infrastructure last year.
Philip Klein is managing editor of the Washington Examiner.
On NATO By Tod Lindberg
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump was unsparing in his disparagement of U.S. alliances. In a word, allies were freeloaders—complacent in their reliance on the United States to provide them security, contributing nothing like their “fair share” of the cost of their defense, and lavishing the dividend on their domestic needs. Maybe that was acceptable when they were flat on their backs after a war that left the United States on top, but now that they are prospering and the United States has pressing needs of its own, it’s time for the allies to pay up. He also mused about NATO being “obsolete.”
This was alarming (to put it mildly) to most American foreign-policy specialists—to say nothing of the reaction of U.S. allies. The postwar alliance structure in Europe has been the backbone of security on a continent where the United States fought two wars. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization underpinned the postwar revival of Western Europe and subsequently, after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the demise of the Soviet Union, of Central and Eastern Europe. The relevance of the alliance has gained renewed salience with Russia’s aggression against its neighbors, first in Georgia in 2008, then in Ukraine in 2014.
At the heart of the alliance is Article 5 of the Washington Treaty of 1949—the commitment of each member to regard an armed attack on any as an attack on all. In practical terms, the meaning of Article 5 is that American power provides a security guarantee for Europe, a commitment upheld and explicitly reiterated by U.S. presidents since Harry S. Truman. The treaty is binding, yet equally in practical terms, it is the
American president whose commander-in-chief powers will dictate the response of the U.S. military to any attack—and by extension, the sincerity of his commitment determines the deterrent value of Article 5 against potential aggressors. Would a President Trump abrogate the U.S. commitment? Or hold it hostage to defense-spending increases by allies—perhaps even by demanding the payment of a much larger past-due bill, as the candidate suggested on at least one occasion?
In Asia, the biggest long-term challenge is the rise of China; the U.S. alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines (as well as the more complicated commitment enshrined in the Taiwan Relations Act) represent the underpinning of Pacific security. Would this, too, be up for grabs under Trump? Was “America First” shorthand for an isolationist retooling of U.S. relations with the rest of the world? The short answer to these questions turns out to be no. Trump has no apparent intention to do away with U.S. alliance relationships, however cumbersome and expensive he perceives them to be, and he evinces no intention to try to replace the postwar security architecture with something new and different, whatever that might be. So what happened? Were his many critics sounding the alarm therefore wrong about his intentions? Did he change his mind? Is the question of alliances now settled? Since Trump has taken office, alliance policy seems to have operated on two tracks within the U.S. government. The first track is the president’s own. He has continued to warn allies that they need to pay up—though his demands have moderated considerably, coalescing around the 2 percent of GDP that allies have pledged to spend on defense (though very few do). And although he has reaffirmed the U.S. Article 5 commitment on some occasions, on others when it would have been appropriate for him to do so, he has declined, apparently intentionally. Still, he has never repudiated the commitment. There seem to be two possibilities here: either a deliberate exercise in ambiguity, or incompetence and confusion of the kind his critics have long diagnosed.
I think the evidence points distinctly toward the former. That evidence is the second track of policy within the government. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis—as well as officials junior to them—have been on something close to a nonstop reassurance tour of U.S. allies and partners since the beginning of the administration. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has joined the chorus since he stepped in to replace the ousted Michael Flynn. Their message has been unambiguous: The United States stands by its security and alliance commitments, and allies must contribute more to collective defense. True, some allies continue to harbor doubts centered on the persona of Trump. Yet—therefore?—many are moving to spend more on defense.
Now, the simple fact is that Trump could order his Cabinet members and senior staff to desist from repeating the first half of their message—the reassurance. Trump might have had some resignations to cope with, but it is well within his power to issue such an edict, and he hasn’t done so. The most likely reason he hasn’t is that he has concluded that too much is riding on these alliances. To continue in this speculative vein, what Trump knew to be true about U.S. allies during the campaign season was that they weren’t contributing enough; that’s a message that Washington has been sending with little effect for decades. What he didn’t know on the campaign trail and has since determined is how central these alliances are to U.S. national security. U.S. alliances aren’t quite so fragile as some feared. The case for them, competently made by the likes of Mattis, must be compelling, including to the skeptic in chief.
It’s here that we may be getting a little lesson in the cunning of history. From his skeptical premise, Trump sparked a very broad debate over alliances. Senior officials of his administration have probably devoted more time and energy to making the public case for NATO and our Pacific alliances during his first 10 months in office than their predecessors did in the previous 10 years. The latter had taken the utility of alliances to U.S. national security as a given.
All this attention has had an effect on public opinion. But the effect has not been, as many feared, a groundswell of support for isolationist or anti-alliance sentiment. Just the opposite. For the past three years, the Chicago Council Survey has asked, “How effective do you think [maintaining effective alliances is] to achieving the foreign-policy goals of the United States?” In 2015, 32 percent of all respondents responded “very effective.” In 2016, the figure was 40 percent. In 2017? Forty-nine percent. Specifically on NATO, 69 percent say the alliance is “essential” to U.S. security, a slight increase from 65 percent in 2016 and well above the 57 percent who said the same when the Chicago Council first asked the question in 2002.
For the first time in the history of the survey, a majority of Americans, 52 percent, say they would support “the use of U.S. troops…if Russia invades a NATO ally like Latvia, Lithuania, or Estonia.” The Trump administration has had little to say about the Russian threat to the Baltics but a great deal to say about the danger of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program. A year ago, 47 percent said they would favor “the use of U.S. troops…if North Korea invaded South Korea.” That was the view of 26 percent of Americans in 1990. Today, it’s what 62 percent think.
Finally, on the question of allies paying up, the survey asked which comes closer to the respondent’s views: “The United States should encourage greater allied defense spending through persuasion and diplomatic means” or “The United States should withhold its commitment to defend NATO members” until they actually spend more. Overall, 59 percent said persuasion and diplomacy; 38 percent (including 51 percent of Republicans) would put Article 5 at risk. Maybe I’m hearing things, but that sounds to me more like a warning to our allies to take seriously American insistence that they spend more on defense starting now than it does an abrogation of the commitments at the center of U.S. national-security strategy for 70 years.
Click here to read what Tod Lindberg wrote about Candidate Trump and NATO last year.
Tod Lindberg is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a member of the Chicago Council Survey’s foreign policy advisory board.
On Asia By Michael Auslin
Despite continued Russian threats in Eastern Europe and the lurking danger of an Iranian race to a nuclear bomb, it is Asia that has vaulted to the top of the national-security agenda. Barack Obama had warned Donald Trump that North Korea would be the major national-security threat he would face, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has proved him right. Kim is on the threshold of fielding a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach U.S. territory in the Pacific and even the American homeland. He is within striking distance of achieving his family’s long-held dream of possessing the ultimate weapon. Not since 1994, when Bill Clinton initially ordered and then called back an air strike on Pyongyang’s nascent nuclear facilities, has the region seemed so close to war.
Beyond the Korean peninsula, Asia has arguably been Trump’s central foreign preoccupation since his entry into politics. He talked during his campaign about a 45 percent tariff on Chinese goods. And despite his noninterventionist affect, he began his transition phase by getting tough on China for its increasingly assertive actions during the Obama years, including the successful building and militarization of islands in contested waters in the South China Sea.
Then Trump retreated from his tough stance toward Beijing, initiating a period of seesawing between cooperation and confrontation and mixing together trade and economic concerns with security and diplomatic issues. His explicit linkage of the two, carefully separated by previous presidents, has been particularly unnerving to Beijing. China’s regime has warned of the risks of a larger trade war if Trump continues to threaten economic retaliation for disagreement on security issues. Of equal concern to Beijing has been his recent willingness to permit more frequent freedom-of-navigation operations by the U.S. Navy in the disputed South China Sea waters off the Spratly and Paracel Islands.
Trump’s initial hard line, including an unprecedented transition-period phone call to Taiwan’s president, put Beijing on its back foot. But his subsequent inconstancy has led to a reassertion of Chinese activism on economic and diplomatic issues. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and general anti-free-trade stance have allowed Chinese President Xi Jinping to claim the mantle of global economic leadership—promoting free-trade alternatives and grandiose policies such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” in which Xi has promised more than $1 trillion of infrastructure investment to link the world in a trading network centered in China.
In contrast, Trump’s relations with America’s Asian allies, particularly Japan and South Korea, have been surprisingly smooth. Again backing down from campaign rhetoric, Trump early on reaffirmed the importance of both alliances, and buried talk of making the two pay more for hosting U.S. forces on their territory. His bond with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been particularly close, and his conversations with South Korea’s new left-leaning president, Moon Jae In, have gone better than some expected. Far from scaling back the alliances, Trump and his top officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have put them at the center of American strategy in the Pacific, especially with respect to North Korea.
It is North Korea, however, that remains the first great test of the Trump administration. Trump clearly inherited a failed policy, stretching over past Democratic and Republican administrations alike, and was doubly cursed in coming to office on the eve of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and ICBM breakout.
Yet despite Trump’s heated rhetoric, he and his team have actually moved cautiously on North Korea. Like its predecessors, the administration has combined shows of force, such as flying B-1 bombers over the peninsula, with appeals to the United Nations for further sanctions on Pyongyang. Two new rounds of sanctions, in July and September, may indeed have been harder than those previously levied, but, just as in the past, the administration had to settle for less than it wanted. More worrying, Trump appears to be adopting the long-held goal of presidents past: North Korean denuclearization. This is a strategic mistake that threatens to lock him into an unending series of negotiations that have served over the past quarter-century to buy time for Pyongyang to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities. I believe it would be a far more realistic move for Trump to drop the chimera of denuclearization and instead tacitly acknowledge that North Korea is a nuclear-weapons-capable state. This would free up the administration to focus on the far more important job of deterring and containing a nuclear North Korea. Since Trump is almost certainly sure to avoid a preventive war to remove Kim’s nuclear weapons, given the associated military and political risks, he will be forced in the end to accept them. That then mandates a credible and comprehensive policy to restrict North Korea’s actions abroad while making clear that any nuclear use will result in a devastating counterstrike. Washington has been deterring North Korea ever since the end of the Korean War. This new approach explicitly makes deterrence the center of U.S. policy, dropping the unobtainable goal of denuclearization or the imprudent goal of normalizing relations with North Korea. To be successful, Trump will need to get the support of both Seoul and Tokyo, which is a tall order. The alternative, however, is another round of Kabuki negotiations and the diversion of U.S. attention from the far more necessary task of ensuring that Kim Jong Un is kept in his nuclear box.
Click here to read what Michael Auslin wrote about Candidate Trump and Asia last year.
Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis Fellow in Contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The End of the Asian Century (Yale).
On Israel By Daniella J. Greenbaum
As a candidate, Donald Trump’s positions on Israel were a blend of incoherence and inconsistency. He was an isolationist, except he was also Israel’s biggest supporter; he would enforce the Iran deal, except he wanted to rip it up on day one; he was the most pro- Israel candidate on the stage, except that he wanted to be “the neutral guy”; he wouldn’t commit to a policy on Jerusalem, except he declared his plan to immediately move the American Embassy to Israel’s eternal and undivided capital.
Words—especially a president’s—matter, but until Trump took office, it was impossible to predict how his administration would treat the Jewish state. Some Israel advocates became convinced that Trump’s victory would lead to the fulfillment of their bucket list of Middle East dreams—in particular, resolution of the long-simmering issue involving the location of the U.S. Embassy in Israel. The Jerusalem Embassy Act, which became law in 1995, recognized that “each sovereign nation, under international law and custom, may designate its own capital” and that “since 1950, the city of Jerusalem has been the capital of the State of Israel.” It ordered that “the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
And yet, despite all that, the American Embassy has remained in Tel Aviv. (Presidents were given the power to push the date back on national-security grounds.) Much like then-candidates Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Trump pledged to move the embassy if elected president. In a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s Policy Conference, Trump said unequivocally: “We will move the American Embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.”
The American Embassy belongs in Jerusalem, and Trump’s evolution on the issue was, for the most part, encouraging. (Early on in his candidacy, he was booed at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual meeting after refusing to take a position on Jerusalem’s status.) But for Israelis, who face myriad threats on a daily basis—both physically, from their many hostile neighbors, and economically, through an international boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign—the location of the embassy ranks low on the list of urgent political matters. Even the most ardent proponents of this policy shift acknowledge it has the potential to inflame tensions in the region. Like his predecessors, Trump signed the waiver and suspended the move.
Next on the bucket list: discarding Barack Obama’s cataclysmic Iran deal. When Trump was a candidate, his intentions for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) were anything but clear. He told AIPAC, “My number-one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran.” But he also said, “We will enforce it like you’ve never seen a contract enforced before folks, believe me.” It’s hard to know which part of his schizophrenic speech the audience—and the country—was supposed to believe. The schizophrenia has continued during his tenure, with Trump certifying the Iran deal twice before announcing in October his decision not to recertify a third time. Despite signaling his extreme displeasure with the deal, Trump has so far opted not to terminate it. But, by refusing to recertify, he has instead left to Congress the decision whether or not to reimpose sanctions.
Most important, perhaps, to pro-Israel forces was Trump’s choice of foreign-policy team. While Jared Kushner’s lack of political experience made him an odd choice for Middle East maven—Trump exclaimed at an inauguration event: “if [he] can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can”—there is no denying that Kushner is a Zionist. Along with Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to the Israeli–Palestinian peace process, Kushner visited Israel this summer to determine whether restarting peace talks was a viable course of action. The duo have articulated their desire to refrain from repeating the mistakes of previous administrations: “It is no secret that our approach to these discussions departs from some of the usual orthodoxy. … Instead of working to impose a solution from the outside, we are giving the parties space to make their own decisions about the future,” Greenblatt explained. Maybe that’s why Benjamin Netanyahu seems so elated. Bibi’s friction with Obama was well documented, and the prime minister has expressed his jubilation at the changed nature of his relationship to Washington. During the United Nations General Assembly, he tweeted: “Under your leadership, @realDonaldTrump, the alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”
During the campaign, it was hard to imagine that might be the case. Trump’s repeated use of the phrase “America First,” a classic isolationist trope with anti-Semitic overtones, was deeply concerning to pro- Israel voters. He continually insisted that foreign governments were a drain on the American economy: “I want to help all of our allies, but we are losing billions and billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world. We cannot protect countries all over the world…where they’re not paying us what we need.” According to a 2016 report from the Congressional Research Service, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II.” The report calculates that the United States has, over the years, provided Israel with more than $127 billion in bilateral assistance. If words and campaign promises meant anything to Trump, the candidate who insisted that Israel could pay “big league” would have metamorphosed into the president who ensured that it did.
But Trump’s campaign promises seem to have had no bearing on his actions. In an appropriations bill, Congress pledged an extra $75 million in aid to Israel, on top of the annual $3.1 billion already promised for this year. As part of negotiations for the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, the Israeli government promised to return any funds that surpassed the pre-negotiated aid package. In what was doubtlessly a major disappointment to Trump’s America-first base, the State Department confirmed it will not be asking the Israelis to return the additional funds.
His behavior toward Israel during his eight months in office has confirmed what was evident throughout the campaign: Donald Trump’s words and actions have, at best, a haphazard relationship to each other. So far Israel has benefited. That may not always be the case.
Click here to read what Jordan Chandler Hirsch wrote about Candidate Trump and Israel last year.
Daniella J. Greenbaum is assistant editor of Commentary.
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Taking President Trump Seriously
Must-Reads from Magazine
Preening doesn't work.
Donald Trump’s demagogic rhetoric on the media is dangerous and un-American. When he describes reporters and editors as “enemies of the people,” or when he chuckles at Rodrigo Duterte’s remark that the media are “spies,” the president wounds the dignity of his office and America’s already-infirm civic health. The question is what the media should do to check the president’s rhetorical excesses.
One answer is for America’s mainstream newsrooms to tell the American people that reporters are not, in fact, the enemy and the president should cut it out with his anti-media crusade. For all the commercial pressures they face today, American journalists are still perched by prominent windows overlooking the national public square, which means they still get a hearing from the people down below when they wish.
I suppose that was the bright idea behind Thursday’s simultaneous publication of pro-media editorials in the editorial pages of 350 newspapers across the country. Participating outlets included national papers like the New York Times (naturally) as well as scores of regional ones, plus a few magazines and professional societies. If you can bring yourself to wade through one dull editorial after another, by all means: CNN has links to all 350.
But our mostly liberal colleagues in the edit-page business are fooling themselves if they imagine that this latest national teach-in will foster greater trust in the media, especially among the millions of Americans who in 2016 registered their discontent with the country’s establishment in toto by sending a vulgarian from Queens to the Oval Office. Those Americans—and not all of them were die-hard Trumpians—had had it with a prestige press that too often saw itself as an adjunct to the liberal cause rather than the cause of truth. They had had it with the subtle and not-so-subtle biases, the servility to liberal politicians, the contempt for their cherished beliefs and condescension for their ways of life.
To regain that trust, it will not do to condemn and condescend some more.
Jesse Brenneman, a New York City radio producer, understands this perfectly. In an ongoing satirical video series posted to Twitter, Brenneman documents his mockumentary-style road trip in “Trump country.” The aim is supposedly to understand the frustrations that led to Trump. But Brenneman mostly ends up yelling at the Trumpians from his driver’s seat, as his car zooms through regions like Central Pennsylvania: “WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU DO IT? WHY DID YOU VOTE FOR HIM? WHY? WHY? WHY? IS IT ABORTION? DO WE NEED TO HAVE FEWER ABORTIONS? WHY DO YOU WATCH FOX NEWS? IT’S NOT TRUE, MUCH OF IT!”
Brenneman is gently chiding his own media comrades. But the 350 editorials amount to a self-serious version of the same thing: Trust us. We’re the media. What’s wrong with you!
Regaining trust requires something else. It requires factually sound reporting and the pursuit of the truth wherever it leads. It calls for reporters who conduct themselves professionally on social media, who don’t give vent to their anti-conservative animosities at every turn. And pundits who don’t change their minds about an issue merely because they find themselves on the same side as Trump. In short, it requires a return to journalism basics.
That’s hard work. Hectoring editorials are easier.
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Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, told a stunned crowd on Wednesday that the United States of America “was never that great.” He followed that flat-footed line with a series of bromides about how America will “reach greatness” when mankind ceases to stereotype, discriminate, and degrade one another, but the damage was done. Cuomo’s primary opponent, the progressive insurgent and former actress Cynthia Nixon, mocked the governor for failing in the attempt to mimic “what a progressive sounds like.” That is a telling admission. Presumably, Nixon’s idealized “progressive” would more adroitly explain why American greatness is overstated.
You might think that President Donald Trump would take the opportunity presented by Cuomo’s faceplant to wrap himself in the flag, but he opted only to mock the Empire State’s executive for “having a total meltdown.” The president’s instincts are equally revealing. After all, the phrase “Make America Great Again” concedes that America is, at present, not all that great. This is an earnest conviction on Trump’s part.
In accepting the GOP presidential nomination, Trump painted a portrait of a country that was weak and failing. Shackled by political correctness, riddled with violent crime, beset by dangerous migrants and violent refugees, subverted by craven politicians, and plagued by a crisis of confidence in its mission; Trump’s vision of the country was best summed in the most memorable line from his first inaugural address: “American carnage.” Just 19 months later, the president insists that the nation has been made whole again, which is more a function of his competence than the national character.
These two provisory expressions of patriotism share more commonalities than distinctions. Everyone has their own definition of patriotism, and love of country should not be blind. Unwavering reverence is an expression of faith, not gratitude. Patriotism must know prudent limits, or it may come to justify venality and violence. But patriotism is distinct from an understanding of what makes the United States a great and exceptional nation.
American greatness is established in its Constitution. The nation’s founding charter endures because of two conditions that prevailed at the close of the 18th Century. First, the collection of sovereign states that hammered out a national government was careful to premise a prospective Union on decentralization and federalism. That diffusion preserves local social and legal customs and, thus, domestic harmony. Second, the Constitution’s framers operated on the assumptions espoused by the Enlightenment’s leading luminaries, among them Lockean notions of legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed. These two assumptions led James Madison to conclude in Federalist 51 that “the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority” even while “all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society.”
It was also in Federalist 51 in which Madison articulated a truth about human nature that has vexed prideful technocrats since the dawn of time: Mankind is flawed. The species cannot be perfected. Thus, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” The revolutionary movements that followed America’s founding held this capitulatory revelation in low esteem. They sought to create “ideal” societies in which mankind’s contradictions and baser impulses would dissolve into a new social consciousness. It is no coincidence that those “ideal” revolutionary societies eventually descended into bloodshed, oppression, and disunion while America endured.
The Constitution’s amendments are equally exceptional. With a few lamentable deviations, the amendments are a set of negative rights that proscribe governmental action rather than establish that which the government can do. That is a paradigmatic triumph; it established as America’s baseline ethos the idea that human freedoms not expressly enumerated in the Constitution are implied. They do not flow from the beneficence of some far-off potentate. They are God-granted. The concept of unenumerated rights is as revolutionary today as it was in the 18th century, and it remains an alien notion outside the Anglophonic world.
America is capable of astonishing violence and repression, but it equally adept at reconciliation and renewal. That capacity is rooted in Americans’ remarkable facility for compromise. The story of the United States is, in many ways, a story of compromise, and not all of those compromises are worthy of celebration. The facility Americans have for negotiation and concession has, however, forged a government and kept it. It is what has made the United States the most successful experiment in cultural intermixing in human history. It is what fortifies its incredible capitalist dynamism. And its commerce remains the greatest vehicle for achieving equality, meritocracy, and human flourishing ever devised.
So much of what America’s critics lament about the country’s inherent flaws—its hostility toward collectivism, the ruthlessness of its entrepreneurial spirit, its manic bouts of isolationism and extroversion on the world stage, and the tensions between old and new immigrants—are outgrowths of the traits that make it extraordinary. The nation’s commitment to pluralism, egalitarianism, and unity around shared principles rather than cultural, tribal, or subnational bonds is what makes America unique among nations. It will never stop striving to achieve the ideals of its founding; ideals are, after all, often unattainable. But its shared creed is the North Star toward which the United States has looked for a quarter millennium.
All these things that make America great are hardly immutable traits, and some careless future generation may one day abandon them. But despite America’s weakness for fad and experimentation, those fundamental tenets have proven resistant to change. As Jonah Goldberg observed in Suicide of the West, Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “all men are created equal” cannot be improved upon. Any effort to amend that claim would be a regression to a more primitive state. That and the many other gifts that the founding generation left behind ensured that the United States was a uniquely magnificent nation on day one. Don’t let any politician tell you otherwise.
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The limits of religious liberty.
Jack Phillips once more finds himself on the sharp end of liberal “tolerance.” He was the Colorado baker at the center of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the one who in 2012 refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. A state civil-rights commission censured Phillips and ordered him to undergo ideological retraining. But a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court found that the commission had exhibited such overt hostility to Phillips’s religious views as to have violated the state’s “obligation of religious neutrality” under the First Amendment.
But it appears the commission didn’t get the message. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips in the original case, reports:
On June 26, 2017, the same day that the Supreme Court agreed to take up Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, an attorney asked Phillips to create a cake designed pink on the inside and blue on the outside, which the attorney said was to celebrate a gender transition from male to female. Phillips declined the request because the custom cake would have expressed messages about sex and gender identity that conflict with his religious beliefs. Less than a month after the Supreme Court ruled for Phillips in his first case, the state surprised him by finding probable cause to believe that Colorado law requires him to create the requested gender-transition cake.
This time, however, Phillips and the ADF are taking the fight to the state. On Tuesday, the ADF filed a lawsuit against Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and the members of the commission, alleging anti-religious bullying and harassment of Phillips aimed at ruining his business and livelihood.
Many religious conservatives see this new case as an opportunity to “firm up” the Court’s Masterpiece holding. If it makes it to the Supreme Court, especially one with a Justice Kavanaugh, there is a good chance that Americans will end up with sturdier protections against illiberal liberalism than former Justice Anthony Kennedy’s whimsical jurisprudence permitted.
But by my lights, the renewed persecution of Phillips also reveals the limits of “religious liberty” as a sword and organizing principle for the right. As I predicted when the original decision was handed down,
the inner logic of today’s secular progressivism puts the movement continually on the offensive. A philosophy that rejects all traditional barriers to individual autonomy and self-expression won’t rest until all “thou shalts” are defeated, and those who voice them marginalized. For a transgender woman to fully exercise autonomy, for example, the devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew must recognize her as a woman. People of faith and others who cling to traditional views must publicly assent to what they don’t believe.
And here we are. “Religious freedom,” without a substantive politics that offers a vision of the common good, can easily allow liberalism to frame traditional moral precepts as little more than superstitions best relegated to the private sphere of the mind. Under the banner of liberty, religious conservatives might win procedural victories here and there. But they will be cornered in the long-term.
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Whatever Donald wants, he's gonna get it.
What do Republicans believe? Whatever Donald Trump tells them they should believe, it seems.
In survey after survey, self-described Republicans—admittedly a severely truncated demographic in the Trump era—are surrendering not just principle but common sense to whatever Trump needs them to say at the moment. The positions Republicans adopt to prop up the president are often so outside the American right’s traditional credo that it’s hard to believe they’re being honest.
According to a June Axios-sponsored SurveyMonkey poll, a whopping 92 percent of Republicans believe the conventional press deliberately runs with false or misleading stories. That’s not especially surprising. Republicans have a long-standing grievance with the mainstream media, and nearly three-quarters of all respondents in this survey agree with them. What is unique and, frankly, disturbing is the apparent resolve of GOP voters to do something about it.
A Quinnipiac University survey released last week showed that a majority of Republicans agree with the Trump White House’s determination that the press is the “enemy of the people.” An Ipsos poll released around the same time confirmed that close to a majority of GOP voters believe “the news media is the enemy of the American people.” That same poll showed that a significant plurality of GOP voters—43 to 36 percent—think Trump should have the expressly unconstitutional authority to shutter media outlets with which he disagrees. Or, rather, “news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” whatever that means.
The GOP base also seems generally unfazed by Donald Trump’s bizarre rhetorical deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. An Economist-backed YouGov poll in early July showed 56 percent of the GOP said that “Donald Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin is mostly a good thing for the United States,” while only 40 percent said that the United States should remain a member of the NATO alliance. In 2014, only 22 percent of Republicans thought of Russia as friendly toward or allied with the United States. Today, via Gallup, that’s up to 40 percent of Republicans.
Given that, it’s no surprise that 70 percent of self-identified Republicans broke with the vast majority of the public and gave the president high marks for his press conference alongside Putin, in which he disparaged his own Cabinet and intelligence officials and heaped praise upon the autocrat in the Kremlin.
Donald Trump’s rhetorical servility toward Putin contrasts greatly with his administration’s admirably hawkish posture toward Moscow, but don’t ask Republican voters to reconcile these contradictions. A July Fox News poll found that 57 percent of GOP voters think that Trump’s toughness toward Russia is “about right.” So, which is it?
“An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans,” Donald Trump said to the applause of Republicans as he accepted the party’s presidential nomination. Ever since, the president has occupied his time attacking law enforcement, and Republicans are with him all the way.
Seventy-five percent of Republicans in a recent poll agree with the president that the special counsel’s office established by a Trump-appointed deputy attorney general is conducting a “witch hunt” targeting him and his allies. This position concedes that the 12 Russian nationals, 13 Russian intelligence officers, and five Americans who pleaded guilty to various crimes as a result of Robert Mueller’s work retain the president’s full faith and confidence. But perhaps that conclusion takes the average Republican voter literally and not seriously.
More seriously, six in ten Republicans tell pollsters that they believe the FBI is actively trying to frame the President of the United States for a crime. Logically, then, it stands to reason that most in the GOP believe that law enforcement is a politicized institution that is waging an underhanded campaign to de-legitimize an election and carry out something akin to a coup. In February, Reuters/Ipsos found that 73 percent of Republicans believe just that. But if the coup narrative were true and an existential threat to the foundations of the Republic had been uncovered, would Republicans really behave as they are—placidly allowing Democrats to out-raise, out-organize, and out-campaign GOP candidates consistently for over 18 months?
Even in trifling matters in which the stakes are so low that they hardly merit the effort it takes to lie—like the president’s baseless claim that “between 3 million and 5 million people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election,” thus robbing Trump of a popular vote victory in 2016—a majority of Republican voters are willing to compromise themselves. And only to spare the president from the shame of trivial embarrassment.
Some contend that these results are an outgrowth of the fact that voters have deciphered the pollster’s game. Respondents are savvy enough to know when survey-takers are genuinely trying to take the public’s temperature on an issue and when they are merely seeking to exacerbate tensions within the GOP camp. Thus, this line of reasoning goes, respondents who support Trump are more likely to answer questions in a way that demonstrates their fealty toward the president even if they don’t necessarily hold that position. In other words, these are all lies. Maybe that’s true, but it’s cold comfort. The lies we tell ourselves become our truth if we tell them often enough.
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arly in the morning of July 19, after eight hours of debate, the Knesset passed by a vote of 62–55 (with two abstentions) a law codifying Israel’s status as the national home of the Jewish people. First introduced in 2011 by the centrist Kadima Party, the so-called nation-state bill joined more than a dozen “Basic Laws” that now function as Israel’s unwritten constitution. Its 11 paragraphs mostly restate long-operative principles of Israeli democracy: Hebrew is the national language, “Hatikvah” is the national anthem, the menorah is the national emblem, Jerusalem is the nation’s capital, and Israel is where the self-determination of the Jewish nation is exercised.
One might find it surprising that such generalities would provoke a global outcry. Then again, Israel and selective indignation seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly. Criticisms run the gamut from saying the law is unnecessary and provocative to saying it’s racist and anti-democratic. The Israeli left, in alliance with Israel’s minority Arabs and Druze, has marched in the streets. Institutions of the Jewish Diaspora have called for the law’s repeal. They have found themselves, rather uneasily, on the same side of the debate as anti-Zionists and Israel-haters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in Muslim capitals, and in the EU and UN. “The spirit of Hitler, which led the world to a great catastrophe, has found its resurgence among some of Israel’s leaders,” said Turkey’s Recep Tayip Erdogan.
Leaving aside anti-Semites such as Erdogan, reasonable people and friends of Israel may disagree about the necessity and utility of the nation-state law. Such disagreement, however, ought to be based on facts. And facts have been sorely lacking in recent discussions of Israel—thanks to an uninformed, biased, and one-sided media. Major journalistic institutions have become so wedded to a pro-Palestinian, anti–Benjamin Netanyahu narrative, in which Israel is part of a global trend toward nationalist authoritarian populism, that they have abdicated any responsibility for presenting the news in a dispassionate and balanced manner. The shameful result of this inflammatory coverage is the normalization of anti-Israel rhetoric and policies and widening divisions between Israel and the Diaspora.
For example, a July 18, 2018, article in the Los Angeles Times described the nation-state law as “granting an advantageous status to Jewish-only communities.” But that is false: The bill contained no such language. (An earlier version might have been interpreted in this way, but the provision was removed.) Yet, as I write, the Los Angeles Times has not corrected the piece that contained the error.
On July 19, in the New York Times, David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner wrote that the Knesset’s “incendiary move” had been “denounced by centrists and leftists as racist and anti-democratic.” Why? Because the law “omits any mention of democracy or the principle of equality.” But that is because other Basic Laws already have codified the democratic and egalitarian character of Israel, including two laws dealing specifically with human rights.
The nation-state law, the Times continued, also “promotes the development of Jewish communities, possibly aiding those who would seek to advance discriminatory land-allocation policies.” Put the emphasis on possibly, because there’s nothing in the law to provide such aid.
Indeed, the nation-state law contains no additional rights for Jews; nor does it promulgate fewer rights for Arabs. Halbfinger and Kershner went on to say that the law “downgrades Arabic from an official language to one with a ‘special status.’” But then, far into the piece, the writers also acknowledged that “it is largely a symbolic sleight since a subsequent clause says, ‘This clause does not harm the status given to the Arabic language before this law came into effect.’”
A July 22 front-page article in the Times by Max Fisher was headlined “Israel Picks Identity Over Democracy. More Nations May Follow.” This was a funny way to characterize a law that had won majority support, following parliamentary procedure, of a democratically elected legislative body. Such through-the-looking-glass analysis riddled this piece, as well as the additional four news articles and four op-eds the Times has published on the matter at the time of this writing. In these pieces, “democracy” is defined as “results favored by the New York Times editorial board,” and Israel’s national self-understanding is in irrevocable conflict with its democratic form of government.
Fisher’s “Interpreter” column began with an anecdote recalling how David Ben-Gurion “emerged from retirement in July 1967” and “insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered” after repelling the invasion of three Arab armies a month earlier. Unfortunately for Fisher, this dramatic episode seems to be apocryphal. Historian Martin Kramer, after exhaustive research, concluded, “There’s no evidence that Ben-Gurion warned Israelis that their victory ‘had sown the seeds of self-destruction,’ either in July 1967 or later.” Fisher stands by his story.
The questionable claims did not stop there. “The quality of Israeli democracy has been declining steadily since the early 2000s,” Fisher continued, an era that just happens to have coincided with the rise of Israeli statesmen whose politics he and the political scientists he cites find detestable.
Fisher also mentioned a “wave of horrific violence known as the Second Intifada, which killed far more Palestinians than Israelis, [and] included shocking terrorist attacks in previously safe Israeli enclaves.” But where did this violence come from? Who committed the shocking terrorist acts? It’s left unsaid.
Denying Arab agency is a longstanding habit of Israel’s critics. And that is what’s noteworthy about these often-hysterical reactions to the nation-state law: The stories use the legislation merely as a jumping-off point for larger complaints about Israel’s Jewish character. For these writers, this isn’t a debate over the Israeli flag. It’s a debate over Jewish nationalism and a proxy for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.
In a July 24 “Ideas” piece for Time, Ilene Prusher wrote, “It’s not clear that the equality outlined in the founders’ vision statement”—that’s progressive-speak for “Declaration of Independence”—“remains a goal. It’s certainly far from reality.” Prusher continued, “The new law provides legal teeth for discrimination that is currently de facto” and, citing a left-wing law professor at Hebrew University, “essentially makes discrimination constitutional.”
No, it doesn’t, actually. Rather than speculate, the nation-state bill’s opponents might try examining the actual text, which says absolutely nothing about discrimination. As Eugene Kontorovich of Northwestern University said during a recent episode of the Jewish Leadership Conference podcast, “Anything can be perverted—but that does not mean everything is perverse.”
The truth is that democracy is thriving in Israel. So are many of the values one normally associates with (egad!) the New York Times. Last I checked, Israel is the one country in the Middle East where you can attend an LGBT Pride parade. Noah Ephron, a critic of the nation-state law, points out that the proportion of women serving in the Knesset is higher than in the U.S. Congress or average EU parliament. There is universal health care. “Alone among Western democracies,” Ephron adds, “labor unions have grown bigger and stronger in Israel over the past decade.” Minority citizens are guaranteed the same rights as Jewish ones. And it is precisely these achievements that are sustained by Israel’s Jewish character and traditions.
The Times quoted Avi Shilon, a historian at Ben-Gurion University, who said dismissively, “Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues are acting like we are still in the battle of 1948, or in a previous era.” Judging by the fallacious, paranoid, fevered, and at times bigoted reaction to the nation-state bill, however, Bibi may have good reason to believe that Israel is still in the battle of 1948, and still defending itself against assaults on the very idea of a Jewish State.