Last night, the promise of Barack Obama’s presidency was fully exhausted.
The president had strived in the wake of his party’s second consecutive midterm drubbing to portray himself as an indefatigable warrior who would not succumb to the same lame duck syndrome that afflicted his two-term predecessors. Disillusioned with the delineation of powers, Obama sought to demonstrate his force of will by expending as much executive authority as he could get away with – even if that meant running afoul of the Constitution he swore to uphold and protect. The climax of Obama’s caudillo act came when he signed a series of “executive actions” – one dare not call them executive orders, for that implies their legitimacy – pertaining to the status of several classes of illegal immigrants. Obama declared his intention to interpret broadly his discretionary authority to enforce existing immigration law and simply insisted that some of those laws were to be ignored. On Monday night, a three-judge panel on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction on those actions. The president, for all his accumulated powers that would surely make the Founders cringe, had been checked by a co-equal branch; his “executive actions” will remain blunted if and until the Supreme Court weighs in on the matter.
Perhaps there remain a handful of holdouts that still believe Obama’s potential might eventually be realized, but most Americans have come to terms with the president’s unmet expectations. Conservatives, even those who were temporarily swayed by the passions of 2008, long ago accepted that the president was no competent steward of American affairs. Progressives who once saw Obama as their savior have now embraced the flesh-and-blood expression of angst that is Bernie Sanders, in part as a vehicle to register their dissatisfaction with Obama and his anointed heir. Only a waning and unwittingly humorous cast of true believers still hope that the president might fulfill their expectancies, but they are only kidding themselves. The court’s thwarting of Obama’s will is a fine example of how his most ballyhooed legacy achievements are being methodically torn down around him. These so-called accomplishments were hard-won, and they left in their wakes substantial acrimony and division. The status quo ante is gone; it will not return. Rather than leave behind him a set of progressive achievements and a nation appreciably more left-of-center than he found it, Barack Obama might end up leaving behind him only the bitterness he roused.
If Obama had hoped to move the cultural needle to the left by cementing the impression for Hispanics that Democrats were the party that would save illegal residents from mandated deportation – itself a bizarre misreading of the priorities of voters of Latin American descent – his efforts have failed. Similarly, Obama probably wanted to be remembered as the president who realized the perennial progressive dream of instilling in Americans the belief that access to health care is both a right and a public good. Increasingly, John Roberts’ Supreme Court, which went to absurd lengths to preserve the Affordable Care Act, looks prescient. Had they taken any of the two opportunities they had to dismantle the law, they might have martyred it. Instead, this structure is collapsing under its own weight.
On Monday, the largest health care co-op in the country, Health Republic of New York, failed. State regulators shuttered the low-cost insurance provider that had insured over 200,000 New Yorkers due to the likelihood that it would soon become financially insolvent. The state informed those who will lose their health care that they have a handful of weeks to now seek coverage on New York’s state health insurance exchange, but few are entirely certain that the state can handle the task. “[O]ther health insurers have no way to identify whether Health Republic’s customers met their 2015 deductible, or how far they are toward the out-of-pocket maximums put in place by the Affordable Care Act,” Politico reported.
This is a problem repeating itself all over the country. Health Republic is just the latest co-op to fold; over half of those insurance cooperatives established under Affordable Care Act have gone under. “Most co-ops that grew the fastest are now ruined — namely, six of the eight that exceeded the enrollment projections in their loan applications,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board observed. “The reason is that they bought customers with discounted premiums below the cost of medical claims.” As the immutable laws of economics take their revenge on the nation’s unsuspecting health insurance consumers, human interest stories focused on the plight of the newly uninsured are filling up the nation’s newspapers. “I am an advocate for the health care law,” the disillusioned 33-year-old Liz Jackson told the New York Times after Republic Health collapsed. “And if I can’t navigate this, who can?”
As National Review’s Rich Lowry observed, premiums are skyrocketing, enrollments are well below projections, and the already unsustainable burdens imposed on Medicare and Medicaid are growing. As the law fails in its primary charge, insuring those who could not afford insurance in the ancien régime, Americans will increasingly be left to conclude that experiments in massive, socialized insurance models cannot work in the United States. When Obama boards Marine One for the final time, he will leave behind him a country bitterly divided over a failing law for which he sacrificed hundreds of Democratic officeholders and national comity. With his signature legislative achievement in tatters, he might also leave behind him a broadly popular mandate for a free market-based alternative health care reform.
This isn’t the only trust that Obama has sacrificed. The president might have had no more pressing mandate when he took office than to extricate the United States from Iraq. The Middle East he inherited was one of such relative passivity when compared with the present state of affairs that Obama was able to fulfill that mission with alacrity. “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq,” Obama averred as the last American troops returned home. Before his final term was out, American soldiers are again returning to Iraqi (and now Syrian) battlefields. What’s more striking is that, as war-weary as the American public is, most have again warmed to the notion that American security and national interests can no longer be guaranteed from afar.
In October of 2014, as the Islamic State rampaged across the region, only 39 percent of respondents in a Pew Research Center survey supported sending U.S. ground troops to combat the threat. By October of 2015, 47 percent backed a renewed presence on the ground in Iraq. By March, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 62 percent of respondents — including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, and all age groups – supported essentially re-invading Iraq. What had Obama accomplished by prematurely withdrawing from the region save for squandering the support of America’s regional allies and augmenting their sense of alienation and mistrust in the United States?
The most plentiful commodity that the next president will inherit from Barack Obama will be the rancor he fostered in order to secure a handful of fleeting and unsustainable notches on his belt. Perhaps no other president in living memory entered office with such grand expectations or has failed so spectacularly to meet them.
All That’s Left Is the Bitterness
Must-Reads from Magazine
With Noah Rothman sadly out of commission for the day, Abe Greenwald and I discuss the president’s speech at the UN (good!), the attacks on it (mostly bad!), why his polls have seen an uptick (less Trump!), who’s crazier about health care (liberals!) and the evils of honey (yes, honey). Give a listen.
Was it all an act?
When Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, took to the lectern on Tuesday, she was speaking to us. Suu Kyi’s silence as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims are driven from their homes amid a campaign of state-sponsored pogroms had been deafening. When Suu Kyi finally addressed the issue, she spoke in perfect English to the international community, but she was not being entirely honest.
Over the space of just weeks, at least 420,000 Rohingya civilians have fled their Rakhine State villages amid cycles of violence and counter-violence. Thousands more are trapped, besieged and surrounded by hostile Rakhine Buddhists and the government has denied their petitions for safe passage out of the area despite claims that supplies of food have dwindled to starvation levels. Hundreds have died either in transit or conflict, and the humanitarian conditions threaten to deteriorate further.
Suu Kyi insisted that it was not the intention of her government “to apportion blame or to abnegate responsibility.” She observed that her regime has not yet been in power for a full 18 months and still has limited control over junta-led ministries like defense and border affairs. “After several months of seemingly quiet and peace, on 25 August, 30 police outposts . . . were attacked by armed groups,” Suu Kyi added, apportioning blame. She bristled with indignation at international monitoring bodies that have focused only on the plight of local Muslims and not smaller minority groups that have also been made refugees and “of whose presence most of the world is totally unaware.”
“Since 5 September, there have been no armed clashes, and there have been no clearance operations,” she insisted, which is an outright lie, according to Suu Kyi’s own information committee. She claimed the Rakhine Muslims have access to all essential and non-essential state services, but they do not. The Rohingya are denied citizenship and are clustered in camps when they are not fleeing to Bangladesh for their lives. “Myanmar does not fear international scrutiny,” Suu Kyi insisted. While a handful of journalists have been allowed access, organizations like Doctors Without Borders say they have not had access to Rakhine State since August. Indeed, NGO staffers are afraid to travel to the region because Myanmar officials have accused humanitarian organizations of colluding with local militant groups.
Suu Kyi’s prickliness amid allegations of brutality, prejudice, and ethnic cleansing is a bitter pill to swallow. Burma’s democratization, culminating in Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest and, eventually, her free election to serve as the head of a quasi-civilian government seemed like a genuine move toward liberalism.
That country’s thaw appeared such a bright spot that Hillary Clinton cited her successful efforts to open Naypyidaw frequently in her quest for the Democratic nomination. “While the Arab Spring was losing its luster in the Middle East, Burma was giving the world new hope that it is indeed possible to transition peacefully from dictatorship to democracy,” Clinton wrote in the chapter she dedicated to Myanmar’s transition in her 2014 book, Hard Choices.
In 2011, Clinton traveled to Burma where she appeared beside Suu Kyi. “It was incredibly emotional and gratifying to see her free from the many years of house arrest,” she said. For her part, Suu Kyi played the part of non-violent democratic resistance figure and pledged that “there will be no turning back from the road to democracy.” Following a landslide victory for Suu Kyi and her democratic opposition in 2015, Clinton took her share of credit. “It was also an affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress,” she said in a statement.
Clinton was in very good company in praising Suu Kyi as a leading light for the cause of freedom. “This is a fitting tribute to a courageous woman who speaks for freedom for all the people of Burma, and who speaks in such a way that she’s a powerful voice in contrast to the junta that currently rules the country,” President George W. Bush said signing a bipartisan bill awarding Suu Kyi the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008.
In 1991, she won the Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.” Following her release from house arrest, she traveled the world lecturing as a Nobel laureate on the primacy of the rule of law and the necessity of democracy “for the guarantee of human rights.” Today, she presides over what a Yale University Law School study claims amounts to genocide.
Maybe the pressures and political realities of running a democratizing state alongside a tenacious junta have been underappreciated, both by Suu Kyi and her detractors. Perhaps the facts on the ground tie her hands, and she must meekly defend the actions of her military as it commits atrocities against oppressed minorities. Either way, Aung San Suu Kyi is a crushing disappointment.
A different president; a normal foreign policy.
President Trump delivered his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, and it was a triumph.
The speech offered the clearest sign yet that the administration has parted with Steve Bannon and other Breitbart types who wanted to use Trump as a bulldozer against liberal order. At Turtle Bay, Trump recommitted Washington to the defense of a U.S.-led world order. He also called out forcefully the rogue states that seek “to collapse the values, the systems and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom.”
Trump praised the founding of the U.N. and the Marshall Plan, based on the “noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent and free” and the “vision that diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.” Robert Kagan couldn’t have said it better.
Turning to specific global security challenges, Trump similarly telegraphed a return to the GOP’s postwar foreign-policy traditions.
- On Iran: “We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities [in Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen] while building dangerous missiles. And we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program . . . Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever. The day will come when the people will face a choice: Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a center of civilization, culture, and wealth, where their people can be happy and prosperous?”
- On socialism in Venezuela and beyond: “The problem in Venezuela isn’t that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba, to Venezuela; wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”
- On U.N. reform: “Too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process. In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble ends have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
- On the threat from revanchist regimes in Moscow and Beijing: “We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
And so on. This wasn’t the rhetoric of a pinched, narrow nationalism a la Marine Le Pen. She and other European illiberals loathe American leadership. They see it as American imperialism disguised as rules-based world order. For all their talk of sovereignty, they don’t want to see Washington confront Moscow’s bullying in Eastern Europe or Tehran’s in the Middle East. And Trump’s talk of upholding postwar “systems and alliances” can’t have gone down well at the Front National’s base in Nanterre—or at Breitbart HQ.
If your default vision of liberal order looks like Barack Obama- and Angela Merkel-style transnationalism, you were probably disappointed with Trump’s speech. The features of the Obama/Merkel model are endless diplomatic processes for their own sake; the expansion of transnational “norms” and institutions, usually at the expense of democratic self-government; and a general disdain for anything redolent of nationhood and nationalism and particularity. It has angered voters–think of Trump’s election and Brexit–and triggered a crisis of liberal-democratic legitimacy across much of the developed world.
There are other, more humble ways of conceiving international order. It can be liberal—that is, rules-based and tending toward liberty—without setting itself up against nationalism. The nation-state isn’t going away anytime soon and, indeed, “remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” as Trump noted.
Liberal order can acknowledge that the vast majority of the world’s people are religious believers. Therefore, the effort to force every nation to follow the Netherlands on gender and sexuality is both wrong and likely to invite a backlash. And it can recognize that evil is a root fact of the life of individuals and nations, and therefore sometimes diplomacy and multilateralism must give way to the sword.
This alternative vision of liberal order would have looked familiar to a Ronald Reagan or a Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Judging by his best foreign-policy speeches—in Riyadh, Warsaw, and now New York—it is also the vision the administration has adopted. Those of us who worried about Bannon’s themes should cheer, and give credit where it is due.
"Drummed in your dear little ear."
America is lurching toward a civic crisis. The symptoms are most evident in America’s youth who, in their rash intemperance, are apt to say aloud what their elders are clever enough to imply. Subtly or overtly, the message is the same: Violence is coming.
The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell provides only the latest evidence that the next generation is eagerly discarding the standards of civil decency that have kept us from lunging at each other’s throats. She reports on a a survey of undergraduate college students at four-year colleges, conducted by University of California, Los Angeles professor and Brookings Institution Fellow John Villasenor and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation, that offers no reason for optimism.
The survey found that a plurality of students, 44 percent, believe the First Amendment does not protect “hate speech,” whatever that is. It revealed that a majority—51 percent—believe it is acceptable to shout down and drown out “a very controversial speaker” who is “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” The definitions of controversial, hurtful, and offensive are subjective. Understanding that, however, is indicative of a bygone era when one utilized self-awareness to prevent even the most censorious Americans from overreaching. Finally, and most disturbing, the survey revealed that nearly one-fifth of college students believe it is acceptable to engage in violence to silence a speaker with whom they disagreed.
These sentiments are not novel. A 2015 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found that 71 percent of freshmen believed that colleges should “prohibit racist/sexist speech” and 43 percent of incoming freshmen agreed colleges should “have the right to ban extreme speakers.” Those ideas trickle down. A 2011 poll of faculty conducted by that institution revealed that nearly 70 percent of female college staff and almost half of their male counterparts thought universities should “prohibit” speech deemed racist or sexist.
“Here’s the problem with suggesting that upsetting speech warrants ‘safe spaces,’ or otherwise conflating mere words with physical assault: If speech is violence, then violence becomes a justifiable response to speech,” Rampell writes. Indeed, this observation has been proposed by those who have watched the storm clouds on the horizon for years now (cough). Rampell should, however, not limit her critique to colleges. These authoritarian ideas didn’t dawn on these teenagers like an epiphany ex nihilo. They were imparted.
In the modern age, the intellectual foundations needed to transform even murderous violence as an understandable, if not entirely acceptable, response to provocation were laid years ago by a frustrated class of activists trapped in ivy-covered cages on campuses. It was an impulse that began to seep out into the national consciousness when the editors and cartoonists of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were slaughtered by the Islamist terrorists they deliberately offended. We were treated to a series of hand-wringing treatise from earnest liberals lamenting the effects of a society that “perversely” “valorizes free speech for its own sake.”
Even former Secretary of State John Kerry gave credence to this ideal. Following the bloody November 2015 attack on various locations in Paris, Kerry called the violence senseless—unlike the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. The Charlie Hebdo murderers, he said, had “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’” That same logic can been seen today in the cowardice of adult men and women who scold their young charges for inviting the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter, Condoleezza Rice, Christina Hoff Sommers, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Charles Murray, or any number of pop culture figures, intellectuals, and conservative authors onto campus. Don’t they know they’re just asking for it?
“When someone calls a black person the ‘n’ word out of hatred, he or she is not expressing a new idea or outlining a valuable thought,” read a 2012 editorial in the Harvard Crimson. “They are committing an act of violence.” These sentiments were menacingly echoed by the editors of Wellesley College’s student-run newspaper in 2017. “[I]f people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted,” they wrote, cryptically advocating “appropriate measures” be brought to bear. These and many other misguided students who have used their right to free speech to advocate its repression are merely observing their elders.
In an April 2017 op-ed for the New York Times, New York University vice provost Ulrich Baer put a thin whitewash over rank anti-intellectualism when he claimed that some speech should be suppressed due to the asymmetry between the speaker and offended student. Appropriating the Holocaust to make his claims, he noted that the unduly derided “snowflakes” who display more sensitivity toward their peers’ discomfort than free speech advocates. Pure free expression, he noted “conflicts with the community’s obligation to assure all of its members equal access to public speech.” For some reason, Baer has convinced himself the right of “minorities to participate in public discourse” is under attack. Given that delusional construct, aggression isn’t just warranted but necessary. Denying offensive speakers a “platform,” e.g., preventing invited speakers form honoring their invitation, is a moral imperative.
On Inauguration Day, as agitators set fires and destroyed storefronts in the name of opposing Donald Trump, one of the alt-right’s most vile agitators—the white supremacist organizer Richard Spencer—was hit in the face. The nation was treated to a fatuous display of special pleading typified by media outlets exploring the virtues of this attack as if assault amounted to a weighty philosophical conundrum. “What are the ethics of punching Nazis?” The Guardian asked. “Is it O.K. to punch a Nazi?” the Times pondered. Nine months later, with white supremacists emboldened by the tense climate and a president conspicuously cautious about offending them, Nazis are still appearing in public and getting punched in the face. Why wouldn’t they be when the authors of this violence are getting pats on the head from their elders?
Wearing a Nazi armband, wrote City University of New York Professor Angus Johnston, is “not just a speech act. It’s a test.” Not a test of civic norms, but of the ability of the onlooker to suppress the subconscious checks on the impulse to lash out violently. “It’s street harassment,” he wrote. He rattled off a variety of other situations in which he thought it was okay to perform an act of preemptive violence, made a rough moral equivalency, and implied that anyone who felt differently is a closeted Nazi sympathizer. Modern academic ethics perfectly crystallized.
This litany focuses on the left because leftists offer more material to parse. Cosseted, well-compensated soft revolutionaries are busy penning hagiography to thugs who commit acts of terror in the name of “anti-fascism.” Respectable left-wing journals like the Nation, Mother Jones, and the New Republic have found themselves in the rank agitation business. Right-wing violence is not imaginary, but the legitimization of it in respectable circles—including, arguably, in the White House—is newer. For example: “Several high-profile rallies transformed into brawls between black-clad Antifa and conservatives who sometimes claimed membership in new anti-Antifa organizations, such as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, a wing of the Proud Boys, itself a group founded by Rebel commentator Gavin McInnes,” the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel reported. We’re not talking about National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the professorate at Hillsdale College.
It is tempting to blame young people, who neither understand nor treasure the enlightened values for which generations of Americans have fought and died. But these young men and women are mimicking illiberalism by example. You have to be carefully taught.
Podcast: Exit, stage left.
In John Podhoretz’s absence, Abe Greenwald and Noah Rothman take the helm in the first of the week’s podcasts devoted almost entirely the liberal anxiety at the Emmy Awards. Why are so many Americans tuning out of awards shows, movies, music, and sports programming? Could the answer be divorced from displays of liberal politics? The hosts also discuss the self-deluded antipathy toward “normalizing” a president, which is now inexplicably being directed toward his former press secretary.