The Grim Dawn of 2021

New Year’s Day in my corner of the world was wet and grim.  The temperature was in the thirties, and rain fell on the unmelted snow.  The freezing mix formed big slushy puddles, glazed the steps seditiously, left icicles on the downspouts.  Gradually the trees and bushes sank under the weight of the ice forming on their boughs.  The patio grew too dangerous to cross.

Then, after night fell at around 4:40, the ugly grey day morphed into a snowy night.  The tree boughs, now brilliant with snow, arched lower.  By 10pm, the branches of a birch tree taller than the house had drooped to within just a few feet of the ground!  It was weird and beautiful.  Stressful for the trees.  I photographed them before going to bed, knowing I might never see the like again.  At night, I heard a few too-heavy branches fall from somewhere, landing on the roof of the house with a thud.


I want to say “happy new year,” but it would be insincere.  It’s impossible to greet this January with optimism, to pay lip service to the notion of “being better.”  Mortal and political dangers lie immediately ahead, threatening to push the US, already battered from the numerous crises of 2020, into a state of irremediable catastrophe.  What 2021 immediately demands is stamina, renewed vigilance against the coronavirus, and the guts to face down Trump-related threats to our government and national security.


Just as I went to bed the other night wondering whether the birch tree would snap in the night, so I wonder whether the government of the US will survive the week.  Extraordinarily, in the next few days the pressures that have been building on the nation will culminate.

  • This week, we will see whether Congress will allow Trump to destroy the United States or whether it will at last defy him, uphold the Electoral College, and be true to the will of the people and the Constitution.
  • We will see whether Trump will win his struggle to control the Republican party or whether his efforts will produce an all-out schism.
  • Will Mitch McConnell find a way to prevent the challenge to the Electoral College from going forward?  Only if anti-Trump forces in the Senate find a way to avert the EC challenge will the Republican Party, as we know it, survive this week.
  • Donald Trump’s conniving to hold on to an office he knows he lost is a self-interested quest that has nothing to do with his Constitutional duties.  He is a criminal and a grave threat to national security.  With the prospect of an ugly showdown in the House and Senate looming, calls for Trump’s impeachment or resignation are likely to grow.

Will the forces of good be strong enough to keep the nation from buckling under this week? The answer will come in the next 36 hours.

2020: The Possible, Probable, and Inevitable

Near view of the statue normally atop the US Capitol dome.

Some new years open on indeterminacy, the shape of the future vague enough to warrant a complacent optimism.  “Happy New Year!”  Not 2020.  The United States, though still the planet’s most powerful nation, is in the thick of a political metamorphosis, and what character of government will emerge from it is anyone’s guess.  Bickering parties, an out-of-control president, a resentful populace, oceans of Russian disinformation, even a tech-driven epistemological crisis: such are the forces pushing the American republic ever closer to a great collapse—or paralysis.  Even if it isn’t curtains for the US, this is surely one of its most inglorious periods, its government full of cowardly and mediocre people.

Between the president’s pending impeachment and the certainty of a presidential election come November, what is possible, probable, and inevitable in this new year?  Here are a few prognostications.

The possible: Democratic nominees

Although the field of Democratic presidential candidates remains broad and, as yet, no votes have been cast, only two of the candidates have a shot at becoming president: Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

If Sanders retains his current support, his chief progressive rival, Elizabeth Warren, will have to drop out.  Her voters will gravitate to him, giving him a strong lead over all the Democratic field.  In a general election, Sanders would repel moderates and capitalists, giving a victory to the incumbent, President Trump.

None of the more moderate candidates—whether Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, or Tom Steyer—can attract a majority of Democratic support: if they could, that majority would have gravitated to them from other candidates already, and the attraction would have registered in public opinion polls.

As moderate candidates drop out, the moderate “frontrunner” Joe Biden will not necessarily get stronger.  Pete Buttigieg will be limited in that he comes across as a product of entitlement.  Michael Bloomberg, a wealthy and capable latecomer, could, however, draw enough support from among moderate and independent voters to come to dominate this weak and wide field.  In a general election, Bloomberg would stand a fine chance of beating Trump.

The possible: a fair Senate impeachment trial

It is still possible, though not probable, that the US Senate will decide to conduct a thorough impeachment trial of the president, one that impartially explores the charges against Trump that the House has formally brought.  That Senate Republicans have stood firm as a group and only faintly objected to the fawning proclamations of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and vocal Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham makes me doubt that the Republicans will ever do anything but fall on their swords in defense of their man.

More evidence could come out against Trump, however, of a nature impossible to defend, tolerate, or ignore.  As long as Nancy Pelosi holds on to the impeachment charges, and as long as there is a chance of a major witness coming over from the administration to testify, there is a chance that a fair and full trial, with live-witness testimony, will be held.

The Senate is intent on stonewalling and preventing a fair trial, because, if a fair trial were held, the Senators would be compelled to find the president guilty and remove him from office.  In that case, we could see a President Pence in 2020.

[Hours after this post appeared, John Bolton, a key player in the White House during the Ukrainian controversy, announced that he would be willing to comply with a Senate subpoena and testify.]

The probable: a show trial in the Senate

More probable is that the Senate trial will be a superficial affair, with a vote to acquit the president.  That would leave him free to run for reelection.  Regardless of the lip service constantly paid to Trump’s base, his erratic conduct and the controversy it engenders is weakening the Republicans.  The unusually large number of Republican lawmakers leaving Congress instead of running for reelection is one sign of the party’s critical condition.  It is rare for humans give up power unless they must.

The probable: a very close presidential vote but a loss for Trump

Americans who don’t approve of Trump outnumber those who do by about 10 percentage points.  Trump’s victory in 2016 rested on electoral votes, while the loser Hillary Clinton dominated the popular vote, winning nearly 2.9 million votes more than he.  According to the Washington Post, “Of the more than 120 million votes cast . . . , 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the election.”  The three states were Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.  Trump also won Iowa and Ohio, which Obama had carried previously.  In all, margins of less than two percent decided the outcome in six states.

I don’t want to underestimate the Democrats’ ability to choose an unelectable candidate or run an undisciplined presidential campaign, but with the right candidate and a smart strategy, the Democrats could defeat Trump fair and square.  In truth, this would be better for the country than removing him from office, which would embitter many of his supporters.

The inevitable: dangerously fierce partisan rancor

Here’s the problem with extreme partisanship.  The parties end up competing for power, rather than tailoring their identities around ideas or the needs of the people.  The government grows unresponsive and ineffectual, increasing discontent and cynicism among citizens.  The bland, stale character of the parties largely accounts for the rise of Trump, a dangerous figure.

Unfortunately, unless a third party emerges to disrupt the existing balance of power between the two parties, or unless the parties reform themselves from within, American politics is likely to go on being nasty, vengeful, and mediocre.

The overall decline in the quality of American governance is not just wasteful and embarrassing; it is a real threat to our well-being, domestic tranquillity, and security.  Yet it appears inevitable that party warfare will continue and perhaps even intensify in 2020.  It won’t be unprecedented, but it will be both scary and a betrayal of the people’s trust.

Image: A 1993 Jack Boucher photograph of a close view of the Statue of Freedom
normally atop the United States Capitol,
 
from this source.


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The Biggest Worries of 2016

An empty dining room decorated in an opulent European style.

Optimism is to be cherished, but, given the state of the world, it may be a foolish indulgence.  The times call for levelheaded engagement, not the dreamy complacency that optimism breeds.  Faith in our political system, in the American people, or in the capacities of elected leaders: faith like that has yielded small rewards lately.  The glue of trust that valorizes American government is disintegrating.

That the US has fallen into troughs of mediocrity before (think of the Gilded Age culture Mark Twain pilloried) is one of the few thoughts that consoles me.

Our national capacities matter more then ever, given the dire condition of the world, our institutions, and many of our communities.  What can we bring to 2016’s daunting prospect, a prospect defined by several cosmic and worrisome possibilities?

1. World War Three?

If it breaks out, it will be a war like no other, as was also true of World Wars One and Two.  In fact, it may already be underway.  We may not know it, simply because we are in the same situation as those who lived through other world wars. We watch as an unconventional conflict erupts and spreads in a fashion that the world order is unprepared to protect itself against.  In Syria and with the Islamic State, aggressors are working with playbooks that defy borders and prevailing conceptions of war and nationality.  As in previous wars, the Middle East’s war-within-a war has geographic and strategic traits that have already begun enmeshing a widening set of parties, both psychologically and militarily.

2. The decline of national sovereignty

World order as we know it is based on the concept of the nation-state: that states and powers have boundaries, and that, within those boundaries, all are subject to a nation’s laws.  The international order and our concepts of war are built on the notion that nations are sovereign.  In the many parts of the world, the concept of the nation-state has allowed humans to live peacefully under the rule of law.

These days, the integrity of the nation-state and the inviolable nature of national sovereignty are losing salience.  A host of contributing forces, both economic and geopolitical, was strikingly evident in 2015.  While Greece’s economic crisis exposed the mutual discontents inherent in the great experiment known as the European Union, its member-states are increasingly fractious, as the incidence of terrorism and a massive influx of refugees from war-torn and dysfunctional parts of the world have highlighted their loss of internal control.

Global mobility has increasingly challenged the static bulwark of the nation state, but the world’s leading powers have also rained insults on its integrity. Whether it’s Russia in the Ukraine, or the US in Syria, the superpowers frequently allow their desires to override their respect for the sovereignty of nations that they dislike.  Their increasing resort to overt and covert interventionism mocks the concept of national sovereignty.  Even changes in technology–such as the increasing sophistication of air-to-ground warfare–have made it easier to ignore and violate the clear boundaries that formerly protected nations from one another and impeded a general descent into war.

3. Witchy weather

Climate change, global warming—call it what you will, it’s a major worry.  Unbreathable air; murderous landslides; droughts and forest fires; glaciers melting, oceans rising.  Whether you’re a scientist or a believer in the Biblical end-time, you may agree (while wearing shorts in winter) that ‘Old Mother Nature’ is trying to tell us something.  Resource exhaustion is how a planet’s inhabitants typically do themselves in.  With omens like this, why worry about bombs?

4. The twin bankruptcies of Chicago and Illinois

Chicago and the State of Illinois are bankrupt already.  They just haven’t admitted it yet because of the shame.  The most powerful people in our state, especially the state legislators and Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan, will be remembered as the people at the helm when the ship went down.

Poor governance alone is to blame for Chicago and Illinois’s difficulties, for, ironically, both are richly endowed entities, with great human capital and masses of valuable resources and assets, including some of the world’s most productive farmland.  Illinois has one of the largest GDPs in the country, but it is saddled with a growing and inescapable debt load consisting chiefly of unmet pension obligations, the legacy of decades of corrupt and self-interested leadership.

The collapse of a major American city and its state AT THE SAME TIME has no precedent in US history.  History will remember and damn the leading politicians who for decades have written bad laws and abused the people’s trust.  Hold on to your hats, all Illinois!  2016’s going to be a bumpy ride.

5. A Donald Trump presidency

Beyond the well-aired controversies that Donald Trump inflames, his ascendancy portends chaos in the political realm.  Not only does Trump’s unwelcome prominence prove that the Republican National Committee has lost control of the party; it also shows the degree to which both parties and their personnel have lost touch with the sentiments of the electorate.  Whether Trump can convert viewers into votes remains to be seen, but if he polls well, we’re going to find out what happens when a candidate upends an entrenched national party.

Image: Carol M. Highsmith, Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island,
from this source.