Trump continues to sink

Trump is hitting new lows so fast it is hard to keep track. But let’s be clear what he has done lately:

  • given a boost to neo-Nazis, one of whom murdered a peaceful protester and injured 19 others;
  • defended anti-Semites and white supremacists;
  • encouraged racists to continue their protests against taking down Confederate statues;
  • spoken out to defend people who rebelled against the US Government in order to protect slavery;
  • admired a false anecdote about an American general murdering Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.

He has also dissed the Republican Senate majority leader and several other Republican members of Congress, while floating a rumor that he will pardon an Arizona sheriff who was convicted of refusing to obey a court order to stop abusing immigrants. Senator Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had a few choice words on Trump today:

Trump’s approval rating has dropped, but only to 40% or so among registered voters. That is from polling before most of the above items happened. He clearly believes that what he is doing will solidify his base and maybe attract some additional support. We’ll see if that turns out to be correct. His numbers among Republicans have started to slip, but they are still around 74%.

Non-Americans will wonder what all this is about. In a word: it’s about race. White working class voters made Trump’s campaign succeed. They are now hesitating to abandon their hero, who promised good jobs, implying that black people, immigrants, and trade agreements had illicitly deprived them of their white privileges. This map of hate groups in the US gives an idea of how pervasive racial divisions (note they are not particularly concentrated in the south):

Trump is figuring that he can husband and strengthen his white working class support, despite the fact that most of the job loss was due to technology, a factor he never mentions.

But there is a problem. Despite his mighty brags, he is not producing more jobs than his predecessor. Brian Klaas puts it succintly:

Nor are jobs pouring back into the US as he claims. Manufacturing jobs are up only slightly, while government jobs (that’s not just the Federal government) continue to climb after a dip under Obama: Manufacturing and government jobs










The stock market is up since Trump’s election, but there is growing realization that he will not be able to deliver much of the regulatory and tax relief he promised and that the Trump Administration is confused at best and chaotic at worst. The smart money is betting on a big correction.

Hillary Clinton couldn’t get the votes she needed in the Midwest to win in the Electoral College, but she was certainly prescient about Donald Trump, whom she knew well:

So, you may well ask, when will this end? It will, but there is still no indication of when the Congressional Republicans will take on the responsibility for bringing this president down.

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Trump is alt-right

You have to hand it to Donald Trump: he will not be scripted for long. Yesterday’s outburst in favor of his initial statement on the Charlottesville demonstrations clearly reflected his true personal feelings: Confederate statues should not come down, demonstrators on the left were as responsible for violence as demonstrators on the right, and alt-right guru Steve Bannon is a good man who gets a bad break from the fake news media.

The alt-right is celebrating. The President of the United States has given them more than they could have imagined: not only a hearing, but sympathy at the highest level. Why would he do that?

It’s certainly not for the relatively few votes that the alt-right mobilizes. The shift away from Trump by independents is now a stampede that dwarfs their political support. Nor is it because the alt-right were early Trump enthusiasts. Since when has Trump been loyal to someone just because they’ve been around a long time? He is notorious for ditching business partners, colleagues, and friends at the first sign of advantage for himself.

The only explanation that stands up to scrutiny is that Trump is himself alt-right: a white nationalist (that’s the polite term these days for a white supremacist). His political programs are all things the alt-right supports. He is trying to limit non-white immigration, non-white access to college, non-white access to health care, and non-white access to government anti-poverty programs. He has done nothing to fulfill his promises to help inner cities or to improve the lot of minorities. What evidence is there that Trump is not a white nationalist?

Where does this alt-right sentiment come from? Trump is the son of a real estate magnate who marched with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. He worked in his father’s firm when it was refusing to rent to blacks. He launched his political career claiming that the first black president was not legitimate, falsely claiming he was not a natural born US citizen. He ran a campaign in which he described a Mexican American judge as unqualified because he was Mexican American and asked “where’s my black guy?” What would you expect a person with this background to be?

Trump may be correct that there were also perpetrators of violence on the leftist side of the Charlottesville demonstrations. Certainly some of the footage that MSNBC has been running shows counter-demonstrators fighting with the alt-right people. I deplore that behavior, which some “antifa” people advocate. Non-violence is a strategic choice in a situation like this, one that helps to de-legitimize those who use violence.

I also think the Nazis and alt-right should be able to march and speak, so long as they are peaceful. Shutting them up won’t help. Much as I am offended by Confederate monuments, I understand that there are those who remain attached to the world of white supremacy and segregation that they symbolize. No privilege is easy to give up, least of all privilege rooted in your own physiognomy that entitles you to mistreat others. It would be surprising if racists didn’t try to protect their remaining unearned advantages.

Trump is one of them. Firing Bannon, which he may well do, will change little. Did the firing of Manafort, Flynn, Spicer, or Scaramucci change Trump? The problem is at the top. Things won’t change until the president does.

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Why Trump can’t dump the alt-right

President Trump in his belated statement yesterday about the events in Charlottesville said:

Racism is evil — and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said in response to the attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend….Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.
What he didn’t include is critical: he did not denounce the alt-right movement whose platform was Breitbart News, once headed by now White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Why did Trump not denounce the alt-right?

He is one of them. Trump is a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist whose entire career has been committed to preserving white privilege. As a young real estate magnate his company refused to rent to blacks, as a political gadfly he used the “birther” controversy to challenge the first black president’s legitimacy, as a candidate he questioned the ability of a judge to be objective on grounds of supposed national origins, and as president he is now trying to reduce the number of minorities who can immigrate, go to college, get health insurance, and vote. This is a consistent and unequivocal record.

The implications are important. Trump is not afraid of losing alt-right support or offending white supremacists. The number of alt-right voters is irrelevant to him. He is not even afraid of losing Bannon, whom he might well sacrifice in response to building political pressures, as he did Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Anthony Scaramucci, and others. What Trump won’t do is abandon the white supremacist program he believes in. It’s not just that the fish rots from the head. The head controls the rest of the body.

This administration is committed to preserving white privilege. The statues of Lee and other Confederates may come down, but the ethnic nationalist ideology will remain.

This has important implications for foreign policy. An administration that won’t defend equal rights at home certainly won’t do it abroad. Nor will it try to protect freedom of speech and the press in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines. It will criticize autocrats only when they are enemies: Venezuela’s Maduro, Iran’s Khamenei, and North Korea’s Kim already know that. Trump’s Secretary of State has been refusing to prepare for a meeting of the Community of Democracies he is supposed to host next month. I wonder why.

Applications for the US Foreign Service have declined precipitously. Many prospective candidates are preferring to go to work for nongovernmental organizations. No doubt the Administration will find sufficient numbers of alt-right sympathizers to fill the reduced numbers required to staff a State Department that Trump has marginalized, correctly fearing that its current staff will find it difficult to implement a foreign policy of alliance with autocrats. Liberals and minorities need not apply. The incoming Foreign Service recruits will no doubt soon look like the White House interns: overwhelmingly white and male.

The first seven months of this administration have been damaging: America’s alliances have weakened, its President is the butt of disrespectful jokes worldwide, and adversaries have grown bolder. I dread what comes next.


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Nonproliferation shortcomings

Pantelis Ikonomou, former International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear safeguards inspector, writes:

The on-going North Korean nuclear crisis, in addition to the previous nuclear crises with Iraq and Iran, demonstrates that we lack a coherent, peaceful approach to respond decisively to major nuclear proliferation threats.

In all three cases, world leaders have wavered between war and diplomacy. The results have been suboptimal.

Iraq: war was an excessive response

In September 1980, Iranian airplanes bombed Iraq’s* French-origin research reactor Osiraq. The facility was partially destroyed. Teheran called the attack a preventive act. Notably, Iraq was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), subject to international Safeguards inspections, and free of anomaly reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Eight months later, in June 1981, the Israeli air force destroyed the Osiraq reactor. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the UN General Assembly, and the world’s mass media rebuked the Israelis for the attack. Remarkably, the US administration called it an act of defense.

In 2003, the United States accused Iraq of having restarted a nuclear weapons program. Reference was made to nuclear weapons related activities, detected in 1991 during the first war Gulf War. This embryonic nuclear program was destroyed by international inspectors immediately thereafter. The IAEA did not support the 2003 allegations. Nonetheless, the US decided that diplomacy had failed and, without UN endorsement, invaded Iraq with a coalition of the willing.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq did not disclose a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In 2005, the IAEA’s Director General ElBaradei and nuclear inspectors were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Iran: limited diplomatic postponement

Iran’s nuclear program included sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities, such as enrichment and reprocessing. These were conducted in line with the NPT, but nonetheless contained a possible military dimension. The existence of dual-purpose nuclear activities within the NPT constitutes the Treaty’s Achilles heel. While presumed nefarious intentions can cause heightened alertness, they cannot be legally penalized.

Iran’s steady development of enrichment and reprocessing capabilities caused international concern that slowly developed into a crisis. In the years after 2006, the UNSC imposed economic and trade sanctions, leading to diplomatic negotiations with Iran by the P5+1: the US, Russia, China, UK, France plus Germany. The July 2015 P5+1 nuclear agreement imposes a 10- 15-year reduction and freeze of Iran’s sensitive activities along with gradual lifting of sanctions.

IAEA inspectors are monitoring and verifying the implementation of an agreed plan, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. If Iran breaks out of the 2015 agreement, it would need ten months or longer to produce the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon, which is enough time for response measures.

North Korea: an on-going threat

North Korea joined the IAEA in 1974, signed the NPT in 1985 and in 1992 signed its NPT Safeguards Agreement. From the very beginning, Pyongyang’s behavior was not consistent with its binding international commitments. Already in 1992, IAEA inspectors found inconsistencies in North Korea’s declarations and the year after North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT.

Just one day before the withdrawal was due to take effect, the US persuaded North Korea to suspend its decision. Six months later, in December 1993, IAEA Director General Hans Blix announced that the Agency could no longer provide “any meaningful assurances” that North Korea was not producing nuclear weapons.

A US initiative saved the situation. On 21 October 1994, an Agreed Framework was signed between the US and North Korea in Geneva. The UNSC then requested the IAEA to monitor the freeze of North Korea’s nuclear facilities under the Agreed Framework.

In December 2002, North Korea tampered with IAEA surveillance equipment and a few days later requested the immediate removal of IAEA inspectors from the country. Then, on 10 January 2003, North Korea announced its withdrawal from the NPT and in April 2003 declared it had nuclear weapons.

During the six-party talks (USA, China, Russia, South Korea, Japan and North Korea) starting in 2003 on solving North Korea’s nuclear crisis, North Korea was repeatedly accused of violating the Agreed Framework and other international agreements, thus triggering several IAEA and UNSC resolutions.

North Korea’s capability to produce both plutonium and uranium nuclear weapons is rapidly advancing. Its capacity to enrich uranium has doubled in recent years. US and Chinese officials believe that there are more than 20 nuclear bombs in its arsenal.

The best that can be hoped for with North Korea is an immediate freeze of nuclear and ballistic missile activities. A return to zero nuclear weapons capability is a utopian expectation. With only one exception, no non-NPT member with nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, and possibly Israel) has ever returned to zero nuclear weapons capability or indicated intentions to do so. The one exception is South Africa, which voluntarily destroyed its nuclear weapons in 1990 under IAEA supervision, as apartheid fell.


Though nuclear proliferation is a leading global threat, we have failed to demonstrate sufficient competence in responding.

The rhetoric of terror on both sides combined with the risk of miscalculation or a military error is extremely worrying. It only accelerates a dangerous nuclear vicious cycle.

PS: With apologies to Dr. Ikonomou, this seems an only slightly appropriate place at which to share John Oliver’s view of North Korea and prospects for opening good communications, among other things via the accordion:

*The original mistakenly said “Iran’s.” Apologies for the editorial error.

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On many sides

By now, most have recognized the egregiously offensive statement President Trump made yesterday about the Charlottesville melee and subsequent vehicle attack. He said:

We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.

This equated white supremacists and Fascist sympathizers with the counter-protesters. The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer commented:

Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us.

He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides!

So he implied the antifa are haters.

There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.

He said he loves us all.

Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him.

No condemnation at all.

When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room.

Really, really good.

God bless him.

Unfortunately, some are attributing Trump’s obtuse statement to ignorance. They suggest he just doesn’t understand enough American history to appreciate that white supremacists are racists and Nazi sympathizers are authoritarians and anti-Semites.

This is profoundly wrong. Trump knows who the people carrying those flags are, and he personally sympathizes with their views. His dog whistle appeals to racism during the campaign–“where is my black guy?” “what have you got to lose?”–and his behavior since taking office are unequivocal. He is trying to reduce the number of disadvantaged minorities voting, getting into college, and entering the US. He wants to increase taxes on them and deprive them of health insurance. He wants to reduce government benefits that go disproportionately to minorities. Nothing of consequence that Trump has done since gaining office is focused on responding to minority grievances or ensuring them equal protection of the law.

Some will counter by asking how he can be an anti-Semite and at the same time be so protective and trusting of his Jewish daughter and son-in-law? Not to mention his coterie of Jewish lawyers. After all, Stephen Miller of “cosmopolitan” fame is Jewish. My short answer is this: many anti-Semites have favorite Jews and are not above using them to serve their own interests. Some even think Jews smarter than other people, or at least cleverer. What is more useful to Trump than Jews who do not object to his white supremacist supporters? Besides, Trump knows that so long as he stays on the good side of the neo-Nazis, they won’t target his family or his loyal Jewish advisers.

Trump’s effort to appear objective and balanced by referring to “many sides” failed miserably. But we shouldn’t imagine that if only he knew a bit more history he would not make such a mistake. It was not a mistake, but a reflection of where this president locates himself on the political spectrum: he is way over to the white supremacist wing, which most of us thought no longer capable of flapping. We were wrong.

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It keeps getting worse

The problem today is not Charlottesville. The problem is the White House, starting at the top. The President can’t bring himself to denounce white supremacists, or even to say that Nazi flags have no legitimate role in American politics, even if the constitution protects their display. His acolytes likewise willfully ignore white supremacists who have killed many more Americans since 9/11 than Islamist extremists have.

If you put America first and want to protect its citizens, you would deal with the violent protesters in Charlottesville first and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria later. Or at least you would pay some attention to denouncing the thugs who think you are their leader–they gleefully shout “Heil Trump”–and skip the bromides about unspecified violence and vague “unity.”

You would also want to maintain America’s international credibility. Trump has spent the week shredding it. After threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” and claiming we are “locked and loaded,” it appears virtually none of the necessary preparations for military action against Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs have been taken. Forces have not been deployed, civilians have not been evacuated, and the Pentagon is denying that the use of force–notably not yet authorized by Congress–is imminent.

To top it off, Trump threatened military action also against Venezuela, where we would almost surely be better off to let nature take its course in ending President Maduro’s shambolic governance.

Trump’s threats are not credible, which means it will be far more difficult to mount a credible threat in the future. We are already at the point that many in the US government are ignoring the president: the Pentagon is not implementing his ban on transgender people, Secretary of State Tillerson is trying to stifle talk of war with North Korea, Republicans in Congress are heading towards a compromise on maintaining Obamacare. Other governments are laughing at Trump’s obsession with undoing whatever his predecessor did. If Trump fails to follow through on his threat against North Korea, and the North Koreans continue to test missiles and nuclear weapons, how much credibility will the United States have in the future?

Of course it is possible Trump will follow this week’s bluster with a cruise missile attack on North Korea, hoping to reproduce the applause he got after the attack on a Syrian air base in April and distract attention from the investigation of Russian interference in the election. But that attack was a one-off that has had little impact. Assad has continued to use small quantities of chemical weapons and to prioritize attacks against the relatively moderate opposition in Syria. A similar one-off against North Korea would predictably have no serious impact on its well-dispersed and hidden missile and nuclear programs.

Nor will many applaud. North Korea might strike back, most likely against Guam, but possibly also against Seoul or even Tokyo. How long do we think America’s friends and allies will remain friends and allies if Washington is seen as having started a war from which they will suffer the most? What are the odds that NATO could be held together once the Europeans conclude the President is rash, unreliable, and likely to provoke adversaries?

The Europeans can be sure of one thing, however: the adversary Trump will never provoke is Vladimir Putin. The reason is increasingly apparent: Russian money sustains Trump’s real estate empire, which was likely used to launder ill-gotten gains of Putin’s best friends. Trump can never turn on Putin, lest Putin pull the plug on Russian financing. This is blackmail, not collusion. We needn’t worry too much about Trump intentionally coming to blows with Moscow, which is using its leverage over the President to gain advantages in Syria.

Can Ukraine be far behind? My guess is that the Administration is busily trying to cut a deal on Ukraine, one that it could argue should lead to lifting of the sanctions on Russia. Fortunately, sharp eyes in Congress will examine any such proposition. It will be difficult for Trump to sell the Ukrainians short, the way he did the Syrian opposition.

The United States matters to friends, allies, and enemies less today than at any time during my lifetime, which corresponds to the entire post-World War II period. The damage to our web of alliances, our international credibility, and our position of leadership in the past seven months is gigantic. Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster are proving incapable of blocking the President from his worst instincts. The only relief will come when Trump is gone. But none of us can tell when that might be. It keeps getting worse.

PS: It got worse within minutes of my publishing this piece. Trump said, in response to a car plowing into peaceful counterprotesters: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.”

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