Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Tyler Cowen's Inconvenient Questions

Tyler Cowen has posted a series of what he calls "inconvenient questions" that I think are supposed to be a little shocking to liberals, or at least make us rethink our reflexive hatred of Trump. I will take them up one at a time:
Statement: I think it is more than appropriate and indeed imperative to raise and indeed investigate questions about the suspicious ties between the Trump candidacy and Putin’s Russia.

Question: Given what is now an extensive and proven history of Communist spies in the United States government from 1933 to 1945, was it also appropriate for Joseph McCarthy to raise such questions about (lower-level) political officers in his day? If you insinuate or make the charge outright that Trump and/or staff might be Russian agents on the basis of incomplete evidence, not yet demonstrated in a court of law, shall we downgrade you or upgrade McCarthy? Or both?
This one is easy: it was absolutely appropriate for the US government to look for Soviet spies in the 1950s, and in fact the FBI devoted a huge amount of effort to doing just that. The Soviets had lots of spies in America, including Klaus Fuchs, who gave them priceless atomic secrets.

But Joe McCarthy was not looking for Soviet spies. He was trying to ruin leftists by exposing their ties to the American Communist Party. I grant that the ACP was funded by Moscow and that its leaders were pro-Soviet, but thousand of people joined because they were desperately looking for some way to get out of the Depression. Many were, by 1950, anti-Soviet. McCarthy didn't care about such distinctions; he hated all Reds equally whether they were traitors or not. He also employed methods that would have made it impossible to prosecute many of the people he ruined. Because he didn't really care about that, he just cared about ruining their careers and elevating his own. THAT is the problem with McCarthy's witch hunt. Soviet spying was a real issue, but McCarthy was still an evil clown.
Statement: I think it is more than appropriate to raise questions about whether Trump’s rather cavalier attitude toward the U.S. Constitution disqualifies him from the Presidency on those grounds alone. I consider myself a fairly strict Constitutionalist, most of all for the Bill of Rights.

Question: Do you feel the same way about FDR’s court-packing scheme and internment of Japanese-Americans? Were the Democratic Congressmen — wasn’t that just about all of them? — who stood with FDR on the latter issue better or worse than Paul Ryan for standing with Trump today? If FDR had offsetting virtues as President, because he did in fact “get a lot done,” and you in general support him for that, are Trump supporters allowed to have a similar belief today about their candidate, viewing him in the lineage of FDR? On the basis of this one FDR data point, is it possible that presidential achievement is positively correlated with presidential oppression? Or is that sheer coincidence and all Trump supporters ought to believe as such?
Two responses to this: first, I don't really care that much about fidelity to the Constitution. I believe in Democracy, not government by a 230-year-old document. FDR was elected to help people in the Depression, and when the Supreme Court blocked some of his initiatives he tried to find a way around them. He failed. Yes, he had "authoritarian tendencies." But he did get a lot done, and furthermore his instincts were fundamentally democratic and just. That matters more than strict adherence to the Bill of Rights. Come to think of it, FDR faced a real test of his adherence to the Constitution in 1939-41, when he desperately wanted to get the US into the war against Hitler, but rather than just diving in or manufacturing some flimsy excuse, he waited for an actual attack on America and an actual vote of Congress.

Second, the Constitution assumes that in times of war and other emergencies the President will exercise extraordinary powers. That was part of why the post was created and vested with so much significance. Everyone at the Constitutional Convention knew that the executive power grows in wartime, which is why some of them were so opposed to wars and other "foreign entanglements." I think interning the Japanese Americans was wrong. But World War II was an event of unique awfulness in human history – 65 million dead, a 9-11 every 3 hours for 5 1/2 years – and carping about the way it was won is sort of in bad taste.

And no, none of this makes me feel any better about Trump. We are not in a crisis now, as we were in FDR's time; but Trump is trying to pretend that we are. While FDR's instincts were Democratic and just, Trump's are narcissistic and flighty. This is the key point: it is not just that Trump has spoken dismissively about the limits on presidential power, he has done nothing to show that the things he would like do to are worth doing, legally or not. I don't trust him.
Question: To paraphrase Bill Easterly, if you agree that defeating Trump is a national emergency, do you also think the Democrats should be compromising more on actual policies? Raise your left hand if you have come out and said this. See in addition Ross Douthat’s column.
This I think is a good question, but I don't really understand how "the Democrats" could do more of this than we already have by nominating Hillary. If the right response to this issue is to nominate an experienced moderate, we already did that. I personally know several Democrats who would have preferred Bernie but voted for Hillary because they were afraid Bernie would lose.

Douthat's column asks liberals to consider what they would do if the Democrats nominated a plainly unsuitable candidate but the Republicans had nominated Rick Santorum. Douthat is a Catholic social conservative who is not doctrinaire about taxes or economic policy but passionately hates abortion and has no use for gay or trans rights. The answer from Hillary about compromise on those issues is going to be "no." That is, she (like Obama) is willing to compromise on taxes and spending, and her foreign policy is likely to be very similar to what a moderate Republican would pursue, but she will fight for abortion and minority rights, the risk of Trump be damned.
Statement: During the 1930s, a large number of New Deal Democrats admired the fascism of Mussolini’s Italy, and less commonly but still sometimes Hitler’s Germany in its earlier years.

Question: Does this history cause you to have a more positive view of Trump and his supporters? Or do you instead significantly downgrade your sympathy for the Democrats of the New Deal era, now that you have lived through the Trump phenomenon? Does the Trump phenomenon now seem to you more in accord with traditional and historic American values? (I haven’t even mentioned slavery or race until now, nor Nagasaki nor Native Americans. And oh — did I mention that the New Deal coalition signed off on a lot of bigotry and segregation to keep the party together and get the core agenda through? Or how about the forcible repatriation of perhaps up to 2 million Mexicans, without due process of law, and many being American citizens, during the 1930s?)
No. Like most people who have read and thought a lot about 20th-century history, I have long pondered the meaning of Fascism and its place in human history. As I take it, the basic point of Fascism was to harness the astonishing energy and unity humans can achieve in wartime for the general advancement of the nation; or maybe just to achieve that level of unity and energy as a goal in itself. Some Fascists thought that the simplest way to do this was to start an actual war, but not all were so bellicose. Fascists also thought that a nation, like an army, functioned best when everyone followed one strong leader, and they called on everyone else to sacrifice self-interest for the nation. So once you have pondered Fascism you can catch echoes of it anytime people call for great national energy and unity – the War on Poverty, for example, or the Apollo program – or anytime some business guru goes off about leadership. In America, Republicans and Democrats have wasted a lot of words accusing each other of being Fascist, but the label does not really fit either party very well.

Trump is like a Fascist in putting himself forward as the one leader who can save the nation, in his obsession with making the nation great again, and in his contempt for manners, political correctness, and other rules about what can and should be done. But I don't consider these things bad because they are elements of Fascism. I consider leader worship and an obsession with national greatness bad on their merits. Other elements of Fascism, like a desire to build highways and airports and a deep concern for elderly war veterans, are good. So yes it is true that some of FDR's policies resembled those of Fascists, and that he admired their energy and unity. I think that is even more true of Teddy Roosevelt. So?

As for that list of bad things America has done, what is the point? Because the country has committed crimes, should we be blasé about committing them again? Yes, we have survived awful leadership before and we probably will again, but that doesn't make choosing awful leaders a good idea.
Final question(s): Would American history have taken a better or worse course if none of our Presidents had had significant authoritarian tendencies? Or do you insist that is the wrong question to ask, instead preferring to stress the issue of “our authoritarians” vs. “their authoritarians” and stressing the relative virtues of the former and the evils of the latter? And if that is indeed the case, do you now understand why Trump has come as far as he has?
I have never had any trouble understanding why Trump has come so far, so that question is moot for me. People vote their identities, and many Americans find that Trump stands up for who they are and what they believe in a way that nobody has in decades.

I consider authoritarianism a dangerous tendency, but really all political leaders sometimes do things that their opponents consider authoritarian. I think Trump's authoritarian tendencies are more dangerous than, say, Obama's because:
1) Trump seems to be a strange sort of narcissist with a weak relationship to reality; more than any other recent prominent American, Trump seems to think that he can make something so by saying it.
2) Trump is politically unmoored, with no obvious ideology or even plans beyond a vague lust for grandeur.
3) Trump has been publicly contemptuous of things I consider very important, such as freedom of the press;
4) Trump is an angry grudge holder who spends more time insulting people on Twitter than thinking about how to run the country;
5) Trump seems to admire dictators more than democratic leaders;
6) Trump gets into fights a lot. I hope that his responses to insults will be limited to words, but given his constant attacks on Obama for weakness I worry a little that he might start using cruise missiles.
America would survive Trump; I consider the notion that he is an existential threat to our democracy to be alarmist. But that is no reason to vote for him.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Based on John's characterization of Cowen's questions, it seems like Cowen is basically trying to score points by pointing out the contradictions between the current Democratic stance, and policies and stances adopted by FDR. To me the answer would be the changes brought by history. The later 1960s and early 1970s transformed both parties. The party of Lincoln became the part of the white South, and the party of Jefferson Davis became the party of the Northeast. The latter kept allegiance to some of FDR's policies (eg., social security, alliance with unions) while repudiating others (Japanese internment, tolerance for southern segregation). Most of today's Dems would probably have problems voting for FDR unless he changed along with them. Arguably, today's Democratic Party is more the party of Eleanor than of Franklin.

On a separate point, I'm somewhat skeptical about the usefulness of the label "authoritarian" in a debate like this. It seems to me almost any exercise of power could be slandered as "authoritarian," and to the extent that any exercise of power is bound to make someone unhappy, that person might be perfectly sincere in so slandering. Arguably Ike's use of the army to enforce school desegregation was authoritarian, just as segregation itself was enforced by state governments with authoritarian means. So authoritarianism is in the eye of the beholder.

Tom Edsall has an essay on authoritarianism in the NYT today, which basically slams Trump and his followers as authoritarian. But there are problems with this. For example, one of the metrics used to determine if a person is "authoritarian" is the degree of desirability they assign to teaching children good manners; the more manners, the more authoritarian. But a lot of what anti-Trumpistas dislike about Trump are his insults and his ill-mannered person as a politician, and much of what they find disturbing in his rallies is their general rowdiness. And surely political correctness is all about manners. One might point out further that supposedly anti-authoritarian ideals like creativity and questioning authority are, in an academic setting, largely dependent on students having already assimilated basic good classroom manners. (We want students to raise their hands and say in an even tone of voice, "I disagree with the premise of this assignment," not yell "Fuck this, I'm going out to smoke weed!")