Memoirs of the Addams Administration 8.

From the New Deal through the Seventies, the “closed shop” provided a major source of union membership.[1] Union membership has declined from 20.1 percent of workers in 1983 to 10.7 percent in 2016.  Now, a majority (28/50) of states are “right to work” states where compulsory membership in unions is outlawed.[2]  President Trump has further undermined union sympathy by calling for heavy spending on long-overdue infrastructure projects, by promising to revise trade agreements, and by adopting a stance of “America First.”  All these are things that Democrats or Republicans might have done, but did not do, in years gone by.

There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.[3]  The vast majority are Mexicans who fled their failing-state homeland for the opportunity to work in the United States.  They perform many tasks—and perform them well–that other Americans do not desire to perform.  To put it mildly.  That reality argues for allowing the illegals to remain as legal workers, if not as candidates for citizenship.  On the other hand, the obvious presence of the illegals drives a lot of Americans wild.  OK, the illegals cluster in the places—farm fields in Georgia or Arizona, hardware store parking lots, landscaping businesses, the kitchens of restaurants, faculty office buildings—or at the times—early in the morning or late at night–where high-income, highly educated people would not notice them.  Some native-born Americans feel that their culture is being swamped by a foreign culture.  Some of them think that the laws are being flouted by Republican businessmen avid for cheap labor and by Democratic politicians—who insist upon a “path to citizenship” for the “undocumented”–avid for potential voters.  Both of the latter headings play into a feeling that the system is rigged by the “elites” for their own benefit.  Senator Bernie Sanders caught part of that feeling.  That feeling is part of what brought Donald Trump to the White House.

The Republicans have embraced “repeal and replace” for the Affordable Care Act.  Replace with what?  That’s where things are getting tricky.  Republicans who dare to think about the nuts and bolts favor market-based solutions.  They believe that “consumers” who approach medical care as a “commodity” will be bargain-hunters.[4]  That, in turn, will hold health care costs in check.  How to make people into cost-conscious consumers?  At the moment, an expanded system of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) is being much caressed.  The HSAs allow people to divert pre-tax income to an individual fund that can be used to pay for things like deductibles and co-pays.  Usually, such HSAs run with a high-deductible health insurance policy.  About 30 percent of employers now offer high deductible + HSA insurance to their workers.  Republicans propose to raise the current caps on annual contributions ($3,400 individual/$6,750 family) to at least the maximums set by the insurance policy for out-of-pocket and deductible costs.

Given Americans’ reluctance to save for predictable calamities like old age, it’s a little much to expect them to save for unpredictable calamities like medical problems.[5]  One solution might be to make such contributions mandatory, or at least require an Opt-Out decision.   Thus, even Republicans are being driven by realities toward a form of the nanny-state.

[1] See:

[2] “Issue of the week: Labor’s diminishing clout,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 38.  In “right to work” states, employees are not required to pay union dues or belong to a union to get a job.

[3] “Deportations: Immigration crackdown begins,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 16.

[4] “Health insurance: Can HSAs replace Obamacare?” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 36.

[5] Half of Americans have no retirement account.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 7.

Democrats are unhappy with the outcome of the November 2016 presidential election.  It is easy to understand why.  With the House and the Senate already in Republican hands, winning the White House offered the only way for Democrats to check potential Republican legislation and to prevent Republican control of judicial appointments that will control the interpretation of laws for a generation.  So, their fallback positions have been to allege that Trump is an authoritarian and to raise the possibility of impeachment.[1]  Democrats have been quick to characterize President Trump’s behavior as “crazy.”[2]

In a recent Twitter post, President Donald Trump called the mainstream media (MSM) “the enemy of the people!”  One journalist quickly analogized Trump to Hitler, Mao, and Lenin, who all used the same phrase.[3]  (He left out the noted Scandinavian tyrant Henrik Ibsen, who seems to have originated the phrase.)  Another journalist argued that Trump seeks a country where “there is no such thing as truth.”  Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who has eclipsed David Brooks as the Republican-Democrats-love-to-quote, said that attacking the press is “how dictatorships get started.”  Picking up on Senator McCain’s line, one journalist argued that President Trump’s long-running and now-escalated criticisms of the MSM constitute “something new and potentially dangerous for our democracy.”[4]  How so?  Is journalism a bulwark of democracy that—like Joe Friday—is committed to placing “just the facts” before voters?  Are journalists going to bend before the broken wind of criticism emerging from the White House?  Is the MSM going to lose credibility in the eyes of the Americans who have been fleeing from the MSM’s print and digital formats in immense numbers for two decades?  A recent Gallup Poll reported that less than one-third (32 percent) of Americans have “a great deal” or a “fair” amount of confidence in the media.  This seems to be the lowest level since whenever they began tracking this issue.[5]

President Trump added Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster to his team as National Security Adviser to replace Michael Flynn.  McMaster is a highly-regarded-in-some-quarters combat commander, counter-insurgency expert, strategist, and military intellectual.[6]  Although the New York Times has castigated the Trump administration as “packed with radicals and amateurs,” so far as national security goes, the reality is different.  McMaster fits into a larger pattern.  Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were all lauded for their achievements in their previous fields of endeavor. [7]  Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson, and McMaster have all distanced themselves from policies proclaimed by President Trump.[8]  One issue here is whether the settled culture of official Washington can tolerate non-traditional experts—military officers and business executives—as leaders of important agencies.  A second issue is whether only non-traditional experts—military officers and business executives—can make Washington work.

[1] Impeachment would put the conventional—but extremely conservative—Vice President Mike Pence into office.  I’m not sure that it would alter conditions for the better for Democrats.  So, I’m not sure that they are thinking about things in a clear-headed way.

[2] “Trump: the sanity question,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 16.  In any event, see:

[3] At some point, an intrepid researcher is going to have to go back to figure out where the name-calling originated.  Neither side seems able to achieve a degree of objectivity on the relationship.  See: “The War of the Roses” (1989, dir. Danny DeVito).

[4] “The press: Are journalists ‘the enemy of the people’?’ The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 6.

[5] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 17.

[6] To declare a personal interest, I once heard General McMaster speak.  I thought at the time—it was a juvenile response—that I would follow him into the mouth of Hell.  I have not changed my position.  See also: Thomas Ricks, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today (2013) on the tribes within the army.

[7] Really, who would you rather have negotiating on behalf of the United States, the former head of a ferocious oil company or the guy in the pink tie?  See:

[8] As has Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.  King Frederick the Great of Prussia once proclaimed that “I and my people have come to an agreement.  They may say what they want and I may do what I want.”  What if the reverse situation prevails here?

No Terrorism from Yemen.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (1986- ) grew up in Kaduna, Nigeria.  In the early 2000s, simmering Muslim-Christian conflicts boiled over in several destructive and deadly riots.  Perhaps about this time, in his early teens, Abdulmutallab became increasingly pious in his Muslim faith.  Abdulmutallab’s parents were wealthy, so he received an excellent education.  In 2004-2005 he studied Arabic at the San’a Institute for the Arabic Language in San’a, Yemen.[1]  At the same time, he attended lectures at Iman University.[2]  While studying in Britain from 2005 to 2008, his contacts with radical Islamists came to the attention of MI-5, Britain’s internal security organization.  In 2009, he obtained a visa to visit the United States.  When returning from his visit to the United States, however, Abdulmuttalab was denied re-entry into Britain and his name went on a security watch list.[3]

From August to December 2009, Abdulmutallab returned to Yemen.[4]  Soon, he made contact with Anwar al-Awlaki, an American renegade who played an important role in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).[5]  Awlaki carefully assessed Abdulmuttalab in a series of meetings.  Then he persuaded the young man to accept a “martyrdom operation” directed against the United States.[6]  When Abdulmuttalab accepted the mission, Awlaki supervised his preparation.  AQAP’s bomb-makers equipped Abdulmuttalab with an explosive device concealed in his underwear.  Along the way, Abumuttalab shared quarters with Said Kouachi.  At the end of the training, Awlaki advised his protégé to travel by way of an African country to disguise the fact that he had been in Yemen.

On 11 November 2009, the British informed the Americans of a report that an “Umar Farouk” had been in contact with Awlaki.  On 19 November 2009, Abdulmutallab’s father, alarmed at strange messages from his son, contacted the American Embassy in Nigeria.  He warned them about his son Umar Farouk.  Abdulmuttalab’s name went on one terrorist data-base, but not on two others, including the “No Fly List.”  No one noticed his existing American visa.

Abdulmuttalab did as he was told.  Traveling by way of Ethiopia, Ghana, and Nigeria, he reached Amsterdam.  Then he booked a flight on Northwest Airlines flight 253.  By Christmas Day, 2009, the flight was over American soil, bound for Detroit.  So far, so good.

Then something went amiss.  The evidence is that being a martyr is a stressful business.  One tends to sweat a lot while contemplating what one is about to do.  Thus, the “shoe bomber” sweated a lot, soaking the soles of his shoes.  He could not get the charge to ignite before he was wrestled into submission.  So, too, Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab sweated through his clothes.  Starting from the inside out, that meant that his underwear bore the brunt of his pre-Paradise nerves.[7]  When he tried to set off the bomb, it misfired.  Like the “shoe bomber,” the “underwear bomber” then succumbed to superior force.[8]

In addition to Abdulmuttalab, the plane carried 289 passengers and crew.

But no, not a single American has been killed in the United States by a terrorist coming from Yemen.  Multiple lines of defense and sophisticated data bases provide rigorous vetting of potential terrorists.

[1] Much later, Said Kouachi also attended the school.  See:

[2] See:  Iman University’s founder had just been designated a terrorist by the U.S. government.  Among the university’s alums is John Walker Lindh.

[3] In neither case did the British share this information with the Americans.

[4] See:  and  Sorry to reference myself.

[5] See:

[6] Scott Shane, “F.B.I. Interviews Tell of Cleric’s Role in Bomb Plot,” NYT, 23 February 2017.

[7] Perhaps it would make the most sense for the Trump administration to issue a travel ban on sweaty people?  Nah, it would just lead to charges of perspiro-phobia.  OK, back to the drawing board.

[8] One of those applying the force was a Dutch tourist.  I was hoping he would turn out to be a Swede.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 6.

Any way you look at it, President Donald Trump has had a bad couple of weeks.  Democrats glory in every one of his spectacular mis-steps, while mainstream Republicans insist that he has to be just like them to survive.[1]

After President Donald Trump dropped the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) from the National Security Council, America’s intelligence agencies leaked information that compromised the National Security Adviser (NSA), Lt. General (ret.) Michael Flynn.[2]  Apparently, the leaks included actual transcripts of the conversations between Flynn and Soviet–sorry, Russian–ambassador Sergey Kishlyak.[3]  Flynn resigned as NSA.  On the other hand, Steven Mnuchin was confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury.[4]  The Trump administration now has in place the secretaries of Treasury, State, Defense, and Education

Trump is already at the head of the enemies list of a diverse group.  The New York Times, which had criticized the EffaBeeEye for releasing news of a new investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail messages shortly before the election, reported that the national police force had launched an investigation of connections between the Trump campaign and Russian organs of the state.  Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who has been attacked by Trump on many occasions, said that “It’s a dysfunctional White House.”  Fred Kaplan ( said that the scandal “could conceivably oust Donald Trump from power” if further revelations show that he is “secretly beholden to a foreign power.”

All the same, if you leave aside the whole are-we-sliding-toward-a bureaucratic/military-coup issue, the pressing issue of the moment is what course President Trump will adopt on the dollar.[5]  A strong dollar allows American consumer to buy lots of stuff on the cheap.  A strong dollar also makes American products more expensive on foreign markets.     Trump’s “America First:” bumper-sticker doesn’t provide any guidance on the correct policy to follow here.  Consumer America loves a strong dollar; Producer America hates a strong dollar.  “Which will you have?”[6]  It isn’t clear which America is “Consumer America” and which is “Producer America.”  The revolt by tech workers against the “Not-A-Muslim-Ban” suggests that much of the economy of the future is against Trump, while much of the economy of the past is for him.  Of course, the mechanization of manufacturing that has destroyed so many jobs means that manufacturing still needs export opportunities.

The mainstream Democrats found themselves confronted by their own “Tea Party,” in the guise of the “Resistance” movement.[7]  Odds are that this is an authentic revolt by the Democratic equivalents of the Republican idiots of 2009.  Maybe its get-out-the-vote ardor will just help Democrats regain some seats in 2018.  However, the enthusiasm and support for the “Resistance” shown by mainstream Democrats will come back to haunt them if zealots gain the upper hand in party policy-setting.  The question is whether the white working-class voters who abandoned Hillary Clinton in November 2016 can be won back by an emphasis on racism, LGBT issues, and abortion.  (Well, that one answers itself.)

[1] “Trump: Can he regain control of his presidency?” The Week, 24 February 2017, p. 6.

[2] “Flynn resigns amid growing Russia scandal,” The Week, 24 February 2017, p. 4.

[3] JMO, but if this happened in a Third World country, the New York Times would be all over the story of a looming coup.

[4] “Washington: Mnuchin takes top Treasury job,” The Week, 24 February 2017, p. 32.

[5] “Issue of the week: President Trump’s dollar dilemma,” The Week, 24 February 2017, p. 34.

[6] See:

[7] “’The Resistance’: A liberal Tea Party?’ The Week, 24 February 2017, p. 17.


A couple of recent books have high-lighted the big changes that swept over one part of America.[1]  Charles Murray and Brian Alexander[2] have both tried to understand the situation of the folks “I left behind me” when I went East to grad school.  Murray adopted the macro-perspective, while Alexander preferred to flesh-out the story by looking at the home town he had abandoned and to which he later returned.[3]

Once upon a time Lancaster, Ohio, incarnated the prosperous, moderate, conformist America of the golden years that followed the Second World War.  No one in the Boston-Washington corridor would have thought of places like Lancaster as an American Athens.  However, some basic cultural values of the Classical Greeks also then prevailed in Middle America: moderation and self-restraint.  The wealthiest Lancastrians did not live in gated communities; most children went to the public schools; women of all social classes joined in the community initiatives.[4]

Then things went wrong.  Over the last thirty-odd years, Anchor Hocking, a glass-maker and the chief employer in town, got passed around by Wall Street investment firms and the bankruptcy courts.  Along the way Lancaster went from being a town of 29,000, of whom 5,000 worked for Anchor Hocking, to being a town of 39,000, of whom 1,000 worked for that same company.  Production down-shifted from high-skill to lower-skilled products; and workers’ commitment to quality down-shifted with it.  In the process, the company’s pension fund dried up and its’ obligations were passed to the federal insurance program; wages were held down; and the generous fringe-benefits once offered by the company were cut to the bone.  Demoralization spread among the workers.  One worker says his co-workers snort Percocet and Oxy on the job.

Brian Alexander—like everyone else, so far as I can tell—sees the modern economy as the snake in this Garden of Eden.  His rogues’ gallery includes foreign competition, Milton Friedman, the powerful bargaining of big box stores, and companies that put profits for stock-holders ahead of wages for workers.

What seems to be missing is any awareness of the rebounding of foreign economies after the Second World War, which created formidable competitors for American industry; the great labor offensive of the 1970s that led companies to shift production to “right to work” states or over-seas; the huge impact of automation on many industrial processes, which destroyed millions of jobs; the nostalgia for small shops that imposed a quaintness tax on consumers, which many sought to evade by going to Walmart; or the inadaptability of many older workers, which left them languishing in backwaters.

These changes have come in for a lot of attention because of the supposed political consequences.  That is, “Rust Belt” one-time Democrats put Donald Trump into the White House.  Now Democrats and mainstream Republicans are thrashing around trying to figure out what went wrong.  Neglect of/contempt for blue collar workers is an easy explanation.  Certainly, it has been my one.  Is it the right one?

[1] Maybe, just maybe, other people in my social group missed out on them as well?  IDK.

[2] Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012); Brian Alexander, Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town (2016).  See Roger Lowenstein, “Why They Voted For Trump,.” WSJ, 18-19 February 2017.

[3] Alexander is not the first to explore these issues in this fashion.  See also

[4] Many of the early thrillers by John D. MacDonald offer glimpses of this world.  See, for example, Area of Suspicion (1954).


“Chaebol” is a Korean word for “rich clan.”[1]  Probably, in the misty past, that meant families that owned a lot of farm land.  One way or another, they probably had connections to the government.  In the misty present, South Korea has become a major industrial and commercial society.  So long as the Japanese Empire ruled Korea, the country remained a subordinate part of the rough-draft of the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.”  That is, it provided cheap labor and raw materials to Japanese industry.[2]  Then, in 1945, came liberation and national independence, if not national unity.  Then, from 1950 to 1953, came the terrible Korean War.[3]

After the war, the government of the Republic of Korea (aka ROK, aka South Korea) set out to join the modern world.  Those were hard times and there wasn’t much to go around.  The government channeled the scant available resources toward companies that were “bullish” on South Korea.  The government also fended-off foreign competition and stepped down hard on the labor movement.  The government pushed a drive for export-led growth.

Hyundai, Samsung, LG, and Hanjin are among the leading “chaebol.”  Generally, these are conglomerates of related industries within sectors of the economy.  Samsung makes electronics, Hyundai makes cars, and Hanjin is a (now bankrupt) shipping company.  That is, they try not to compete with one another.  Each one has his share of the pie.[4]

A glance at the names of the “chaebol” demonstrates just how successful this effort proved to be.  A further glance north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the Peoples’ Republic of Drudge,[5] shows an alternative strategy for development.  In any event, the “chaebol” have molted into families that own a lot of companies.  One way or another, they probably have connections to the government.  That is, rich people finance the election or re-election of pawns.

One “tarantula on a piece of Angel food cake” in this success story is the deep resentment felt by ordinary South Koreans.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the “chaebol” got scarce resources in very hard times.  Ordinary people had to do without.  That has become a folk memory.  Today, the “chaebol” continue to pile up wealth when South Korea no longer needs to fight for survival.  Ordinary people resent that selfishness.  The problem for the “chaebol” is that, in the 1980s, South Korea made the shift from a military-industrial complex government to something approaching a real democracy.  In these circumstances, no longer can every scandal involving the “chaebol” be swept under the rug.[6]

A second “tarantula” appears in the series of scandals and errors plaguing the “chaebol.”  The Asian financial crisis of the 1990s; Samsung phones catching fire; and the sinking of the ferry boat “Sewol”[7] all have called into question the ethics and competence of the “chaebol.”

Then there’s the sinking of the F.V. “Majestic Blue.”  But that’s unrelated.

[1] Carlos Tejada, “Money, Power and Family: Inside the Chaebol of South Korea,” NYT, 18 February 2017.

[2] Not that it has anything to do with economic policy, but you might want to see “The Handmaiden” (2016, dir. Park Chan-wook).  It has been described as an “erotic psychological thriller.”  JMO, but if this doesn’t get your motor running, then you’ve got issues.

[3] Americans commonly—and wrongly—believe that the horrors of that war are encapsulated in the Anabasis of the First Marines from “up on the reservoir” down to the sea.

[4] “Oh what a good boy am I.”

[5] I stole that from someone, perhaps from Walt Kelly.

[6] “There ain’t no clean way to make a hundred million bucks…. Somewhere along the line guys got pushed to the wall, nice little businesses got the ground cut out from under them… Decent people lost their jobs…. Big money is big power and big power gets used wrong. It’s the system.”–Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953).

[7] See:

“Bug Eyed with Fear and Vengeance.”

In the opening scene of The Hamlet[1], Ab Snopes strides across his future landlord’s barnyard, then tracks manure into the front hall.  His behavior, and that of the whole scabby Snopes clan, deteriorates from there on across a trilogy of novels.  When David Mikkelson needed a user name for a group, he picked “snopes.”  Soon, impressed by the amount of sheer nonsense he encountered on the internet, he and his wife started a fact-checking site called Snopes.  To this day, the site tracks manure into the front hall of many internet fantasies.

Recently, the editor at the Snopes site reportedly told The Atlantic[2] that the majority of political false reports and rumors now come from or are aimed at liberals.  To follow one example ripped from the pages of Snopes, in February 2017 a story circulated that Donald Trump had met Vladimir Putin at an exclusive Swiss Alpine resort in June 2016. The story originated with three newly-created “fake news” sites.  “Redirects subsequently put in place for these fake news sites demonstrate that they were established as a promotional effort for the psychological thriller film ‘A Cure for Wellness’.”[3]

In similar fashion, surveys of Democrats conducted in July and November 2016 revealed an increase in a disposition to believe conspiracy theories from 27 percent to 32 percent.[4]  Political psychologists suggest that a belief in conspiracies is a coping mechanism on the part of people who have lost power or status in some fashion.  Thus the same survey that found an increase in Democrats’ conspiracy belief also found a decline in Republican conspiracy belief from 28 percent to 19 percent.[5]  As one academic expert on George Orwell put it, “people are hungry for frames of reference to understand this new reality.”[6]

Perhaps one sign of the post-election state of mind among Democrats is to be found in the surge of sales for “dystopian classics.”  George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 topped the sales charts at[7]  Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here[8] and Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, came close behind.  Sales of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1984) jumped 30 percent in 2016 and 100,000 copies were printed in the three months following the election.

It has been suggested that alarmed Democrats are turning to works of fiction because non-fiction journalism can’t keep up with reality.  It isn’t for want of trying.  To take one example, one “The Interpreter” column in the New York Times offered “scholars of authoritarianism” a platform from which to compare Donald Trump to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, and Rodrigo Duterte.[9]  Will all this turn out to be incitement to some rash act?

[1] William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940).

[2] Which was read by a reporter at the New York Times, who quoted the Snopes editor in a story which I read and am now trying to write about for the blog which you are reading.  Just laying out the provenance here.

[3] See:  The film was produced for Regency Films, owned by Amon Milchan.

[4] Brendan Nyhan, “More Democrats Turn to Conspiracy Theories,” NYT, 16 February 2017.

[5] It is curious (to me anyway) that in July 2016, essentially equal percentages of Democrats (27) and Republicans (28) were disposed to believe in conspiracy theories.  I wonder if that is just a result of an election campaign and that the numbers are lower between elections?

[6] Alexandra Alter, “Fears for the Future Prompt A Boon (sic) for Dystopian Classics,” NYT, 28 January 2017.

[7] Understandably, sales of his Homage to Catalonia (which details the murderous behavior of the Communists to their fellow-leftists during the Spanish Civil War) and The Road to Wigan Pier (which lambast middle-class contempt for the values and behavior of working people) failed to budge.

[8] The novel commonly is taken as an attack on Huey Long, the Louisiana demagogue and rival to Franklin D. Roosevelt until Long’s assassination.

[9] Amanda Taub, “The Travel Ban and an Authoritarian ‘Ladder of Violence’,” NYT, 2 February 2017.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 5.

Immigration occupied the spot-light.  On the one hand, the Trump Administration’s ill-prepared travel ban got banned itself by a federal judge in Seattle, soon backed up by the Appellate Court of the 9th Circuit.[1]  On the other hand, the president got into an ugly spat with the prime minister of Australia.  President Obama had struck a bargain with Australia to take in 1,250 refugees, and President Trump ungraciously agreed to honor the deal even as he was trying to ban immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries.  Media attention—in the United States and Australia—highlighted the president’s boorish behavior.  Little noticed in the scrum was Australia’s own sweeping ban on refugees from selected countries.  Refugees trying to reach Australia are intercepted at sea to prevent them from ever setting foot on Australian soil.  That would allow them to apply for asylum.  Instead they are diverted to “detentions centers” (i.e. prison camps) in places like Papua-New Guinea and Nauru.[2]

Far more important than these eye-catching events, however, was the proposal from two Republican senators to cut the number of “green cards” issued each year from 1 million to 500,000.  Immigrants, broadly defined, create about half of new start-ups.[3]

The president issued executive orders for a review of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act regulating Wall Street, and the not-yet-implemented Fiduciary Rule.[4]  Observers dispute whether Dodd-Frank offers a reasonable safeguard against the stupidity of bankers or imposes crippling burdens on American business.  Possibly it does both.  Worse, what if it does neither?

As for the Democrats, it seems widely agreed that they lost many former voters to Donald Trump because those voters found that the Democrats had moved too far to the left.  The party’s solution for now appears to be to hold fast to Democratic loyalists.  One columnist argued that they “will not tolerate any sign of accommodation” with the administration.  What they want, said another, is “total resistance” to the president.  The trouble is that the Republicans hold the House, the Senate, and the White House.  They are poised to take control of the Supreme Court as well.  The president nominated Neil Gorsuch to take the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia.  Democrats are calculating whether it makes sense to try to filibuster a vote on Gorsuch.  What the Democrats have been able to do is to use parliamentary procedure to slow down the confirmation of Cabinet members and to stage showy demonstrations, both in the streets[5] and in the corridors-of-out-of-power.  This hardly represents a long-term strategy.

The New York Times characterized the president’s fuming about the judge’s stay on his immigration order as an assault on “the most dependable check on his power.”  A columnist in the Washington Post situated the president’s continuing denunciations of journalists within his larger effort to weaken anyone or anything that “place serious, meaningful limits on his power.”  Another lampooned “Trump’s bug-eyed retreat into fear and vengeance.”[6]  Trump’s not alone.

Largely unremarked were signs that Trump may have begun to learn something.   Chief-of-staff Reince Priebus may be winning his power struggle with Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.  The president has moderated some diplomatic positions as well.[7]  Still, “many’s the slip….”

[1] See:

[2] “How they see us: Australia stands up to Trump,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 15.

[3] “Boring but important,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 6; “Noted,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 16.

[4] “Trump takes aim at Dodd-Frank,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 5.

[5] “Rowdy constituents,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 7

[6] “Travel ban challenged in court,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 4; “Democrats: Should they become the ‘party of no’?” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 6.

[7] “The White House: An internal power struggle,” The Week, 17 February 2017, p. 16.

The Current Crisis of Political Islam.

“Our minarets are our bayonets, our domes are our helmets, our mosques are our barracks.”[1]

In the wake of 9/11 the George W. Bush administration made a correct judgment about the origins of the terrorist attacks.  The Middle East is deeply messed-up for reasons that have little-to-nothing to do with Western imperialism or oil companies or American engagement with authoritarian regimes.  The Bush administration then made a spectacularly wrong decision about how to address the problem.  In 2003, the United States led a “coalition of the willing” in an invasion of Iraq.  The ripples from that attack have not yet subsided.  The Americans over-turned the long-standing domination of the Shi’ite majority by the Sunni minority; the Shi’ites hungered for revenge while the Sunnis launched a bloody insurrection; al-Qaeda poured gasoline on the fire when it had not before existed in Iraq, then–when defeated in Iraq—retreated into Syria, where it evolved into ISIS; and the Iraqi Kurds began to pull away to create a proto-state that would exert a magnetic pull on Kurds in Syria and Turkey, so an important American ally faced an existential crisis.

One additional effect appeared in the question whether an Islamist government could–or should–come to power by democratic means.  The implications of the question reach very far.

First, there is Islam in general and then there is Islam in the Middle East.[2]  Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation, made a transition to democracy in 1999.  Islamists have made no head-way in gaining power there.  Although far from a democracy, in Pakistan Islamist parties have made little progress trying to displace the military-dominated government.  Both examples might encourage Americans seeking to understand the international security environment.

In contrast, for decades, Middle Eastern autocratic secularist governments built a dike of policemen and prisons to hold back a rising tide of popular support for Islamists.  As their numbers grew and as violence failed to open the road to power, Islamist political movements endorsed “democracy.”  Some observers believe that, for Islamists, democracy means “one man, one vote, one time.”[3]  Since its’ founding in 1979, Iran’s Islamic Republic has put meat on the bare bones of this suspicion.  The clergy always have the last say in political decisions and candidates for office often find themselves disqualified on the say-so of clerics.

The great problem is that Islamists believe that there is only one right road, not many roads, to Salvation.  They believe that they are in the left lane with an EZ-Pass and everyone else is on the off-ramp to Hell.  This is an idea that has not held sway in the West for hundreds of years.  The anti-unbeliever face of this belief troubles Westerners struggling to define a policy toward Muslims that does not violate their own core values.  At the same time, Westerners seem inattentive to the anti-wrong-believers face of this belief.  The Sunni-Shi’ite civil war is tearing apart the whole region.  Saudi Arabia has spent decades propagating a puritanical (Wahhabi) version of Sunni Islam that is congruent with radical Islamism.  The Shi’ite majority in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq immediately began to grind the faces of the suddenly displaced Sunni majority.  Relatively secularized Muslims recoil from even peaceful Islamists into the arms of the traditional authoritarians.

Tritely, values differ across cultures.  Politics follow.  Often, so does tragedy.

[1] Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

[2] Vladimir Trofimov, “The Crisis of Political Islam,” WSJ, 23-24 July 2016.

[3] Thus, Recep Tayyip Erdogan once said that he saw democracy as “a vehicle.” His course as prime minister and president of Turkey makes it clear that he doesn’t see it as an end in itself.

Looking back on Tahrir Square.

We try not to look back at the “Arab Spring.”  The military autocracy in place since the coup in 1952 has oppressed the vast majority of Egyptians and been opposed by the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  Eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood forswore violence and the military dictatorship grew long in the tooth.  While many Egyptians disliked the autocracy, most found ways to adapt to living under its heel.  Meanwhile, largely un-noticed by Western observers, a younger generation of Egyptians entered the scene.  In 2011, an impulsive revolt in Tunisia set off a sympathetic detonation in Egypt.  Huge demonstrations took place in Cairo and other cities.  The autocracy appeared to buckle, but elections revealed that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood commanded the will of many voters.  The new government, headed by Mohammed Morsi, soon alienated the young people whose demonstrations had opened his way to power.  In July 2013, after having covertly disrupted the efforts of the government, the military overthrew Morsi.

What went wrong?  Egyptian society is shot through with conflicts and individuals rebel against Western stereotypes; these truths extend unto the younger generation.[1]  Egypt remains a deeply “traditional” society in which women are constrained.  Egypt remains a Muslim society.[2]  While Western commentators have made much of the role of “tech-savvy” young people orchestrating protests through social media, the state has equal facility in this area.  Most of all, the “revolution” changed only the holders of some offices, not the underlying society.

As is so often the case, context matters.  Egypt has a long tradition of relying upon assertive leaders in government and religion.  Egypt is nationalist in ways that are now difficult for Westerners to comprehend.  Moreover, Egyptians, like many Muslims in the Middle East, are unusually prone to embrace conspiracy theories.  These cultural traditions limited the scope of action for even the most “Westernized” of people.

In journalistic fashion, Aspden limns the devotees of an Islamist televangelist who still wish to encounter Westerners; a secular Muslim who despises Christians; and a rebellious teacher under heavy pressure from her family to conform to her expected role.

Many/Most of these young people quickly turned against the Muslim government of Mohammed Morsi.  Some young people joined new protest movements under the illusion that they were reviving the spirit of Tahrir Square.  In fact, the new movements had been created by the intelligence services to give a sheen of populism to the coming coup.  Families exerted sustained pressure on their children to “be reasonable,” as families have always done.  Many children eventually bent before the pressure, as many children have always done.  They welcomed the military coup of July 2013.  What they did not welcome or expect was the repression launched by the “deep state” against the original sparks of the revolution.

“What kind of change is possible in the Arab world”?  “Why were so many young Egyptians willing to risk everything in 2011, and why,…just two years later in July 2013, were they willing to make another devil’s bargain with a despot”?[3]  These are important questions, not least because they are likely to arise again when unrest sweeps Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and—perhaps–Iran.

[1] Rachel Aspden, Generation Revolution: On the Front Lines Between Tradition and Change in the Middle East (2017).  Aspden now writes for the Guardian.  For a sense of her writing and views, see:

[2] The apparent notion in the West is that Muslim countries are just like Western countries, except that they are nominally Muslim rather than nominally Christian.  This is an erroneous view.  In Muslim countries, both atheism and apostasy are crimes that will bring a swift and severe response.

[3] Thanassis Cambanis, “Youth Was Not Enough,” NYT Book Review, 12 February 2017.