More About “Elite Failure”

And then there’s this by Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian that also describes perfectly what I mean by elite failure:

The era of neoliberalism ended in the autumn of 2008 with the bonfire of financialisation’s illusions. The fetishisation of unfettered markets that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan brought to the fore in the late 1970s had been the necessary ideological cover for the unleashing of financiers to enable the capital flows essential to a new phase of globalisation in which the United States deficits provided the aggregate demand for the world’s factories (whose profits flowed back to Wall Street closing the loop nicely).

Meanwhile, billions of people in the “third” world were pulled out of poverty while hundreds of millions of western workers were slowly sidelined, pushed into more precarious jobs, and forced to financialise themselves either through their pension funds or their homes. And when the bottom fell out of this increasingly unstable feedback loop, neoliberalism’s illusions burned down and the west’s working class ended up too expensive and too indebted to be of interest to a panicking global establishment.

Thatcher’s and Reagan’s neoliberalism had sought to persuade that privatisation of everything would produce a fair and efficient society unimpeded by vested interests or bureaucratic fiat. That narrative, of course, hid from public view what was really happening: a tremendous buildup of super-state bureaucracies, unaccountable supra-state institutions (World Trade Organisation, Nafta, the European Central Bank), behemoth corporations, and a global financial sector heading for the rocks.

After the events of 2008 something remarkable happened. For the first time in modern times the establishment no longer cared to persuade the masses that its way was socially optimal. Overwhelmed by the collapsing financial pyramids, the inexorable buildup of unsustainable debt, a eurozone in an advanced state of disintegration and a China increasingly relying on an impossible credit boom, the establishment’s functionaries set aside the aspiration to persuade or to represent. Instead, they concentrated on clamping down.

In the UK, more than a million benefit applicants faced punitive sanctions. In the Eurozone, the troika ruthlessly sought to reduce the pensions of the poorest of the poor. In the United States, both parties promised drastic cuts to social security spending. During our deflationary times none of these policies helped stabilise capitalism at a national or at a global level. So, why were they pursued?

Their purpose was to impose acquiescence to a clueless establishment that had lost its ambition to maintain its legitimacy. When the UK government forced benefit claimants to declare in writing that “my only limits are the ones I set myself”, or when the troika forced the Greek or Irish governments to write letters “requesting” predatory loans from the European Central Bank that benefited Frankfurt-based bankers at the expense of their people, the idea was to maintain power via calculated humiliation. Similarly, in America the establishment habitually blamed the victims of predatory lending and the failed health system.

Western elites gave up trying to govern democratically, and instead, following 2008, with the politics of austerity, governed punitively. Governed as bureaucratic despots who doubled down and were unwilling to consider that the very policies, programs, and projects they championed were the cause of so much misery, dislocation, and fear.

In this, the promises of democracy — majority rule, accountability — were shown to be shams. Lies. The elite were no longer accountable in any meaningful way, and national governments were increasingly hamstrung by predatory international institutions. Donald Trump is a continuation of this without any pretense. And that, in a world where unaccountable, undemocratic governance has become the norm (and been so for at least a decade), is at least some kind of control and some kind of change.

Varoufakis is calling for a transatlantic New Deal, a nice call, but it is likely far too late. The people who govern the West are incapable of such thought any more. Which means the governments of the West are past being able to do what Varoufakis calls for.

Yes, Trump will fail. But we were facing failure anyway. The only choice we have is how. Not if.

What I Mean by “Elite Failure”

I talk a lot about elites failure here, that a good portion of the reason we in the liberal West are seeing the rise of illiberalism is because our elites have failed — they can no longer think straight about themselves, the societies they govern, or the world.

I’m not sure I’ve ever really explained what I meant by elite failure, however.

This bit by Walter Russel Mead from Foreign Affairs on the rise of “Jacksonianism” as evident in the election of Donald J. Trump, however, does a pretty good of describing one portion of elite failure:

Over the past quarter century, Western policymakers became infatuated with some dangerously oversimplified ideas. They believed capitalism had been tamed and would no longer generate economic, social, or political upheavals. They felt that illiberal ideologies and political emotions had been left in the historical dustbin and were believed only by “bitter” losers—people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations,” as Barack Obama famously put it in 2008. Time and the normal processes of history would solve the problem; constructing a liberal world order was simply a matter of working out the details.

Given such views, many recent developments—from the 9/11 attacks and the war on terrorism to the financial crisis to the recent surge of angry nationalist populism on both sides of the Atlantic—came as a rude surprise. It is increasingly clear that globalization and automation have helped break up the socioeconomic model that undergirded postwar prosperity and domestic social peace, and that the next stage of capitalist development will challenge the very foundations of both the global liberal order and many of its national pillars.

While the liberal West has been relatively well-governed before — I’m thinking of the generation after the Second World War — It has not been true since the mid-1990s. In part, Western elites became enamored of their own victory and success in the Cold War. Thinking history was the struggle of ideas, as opposed to struggle of personality and passions, they were convinced history was over and all that remained was the working out of technocratic details.

That made it possible from them to ignore the damage that much of neoliberalism was doing in the West to the working classes that had done so well materially and morally up until the mid-1970s. “What alternative do you have?” asked neoliberalism as it privatized and financialized and globalized. Because the alternatives do, in fact, seem deeply discredited. Especially if history is viewed solely or primarily as a contest between competing ideologies over social organization. The working classes of the West, especially the non-immigrant working classes, were supposed simply to accept their slow-motion destruction in the name of progress and evolution.

But what the last decade or so is telling us that compelling people to endorse and vote for their own obsolescence, marginalization, and even extinction is a losing strategy politically. The “retrograde” plurality or majority will look at the promises of democratic governance — majority rule, and not rightly guided or enlightened rule — and wonder, if government is in our name, if our will is what makes government legitimate, why is it working against us, our interests, and most importantly, our dignity?

A society or community will always be governed by an elite. There is no way around that. That elite must always be cognizant of its connections, responsibilities, obligations to the people it governs. Elites must always remember people and place and appreciate their limits. The elites of the West have become disconnected, and feel little responsibility or obligation to the people they govern anymore. (More government programs are not it, since the people who design them, implement them, and administer them are almost never “served” by those programs, are never the objects of state care, and thus have no idea how degrading such attention and care really is.) The elites of the West have become enamored of a global humanity that really is an abstraction, and have forgotten the very concrete women and men they actually rule. That is what I mean by elite failure, and it is, sadly, probably an inevitable outcome of liberal democratic governance.

Because no form of government is permanent. There are just people, groping blindly, for meaning, purpose, and some way to organize themselves. Some are better than others, but all fall short of perfection — even liberal democracy — and all reflect certain central human ways of organizing ourselves, mobilizing resources, and holding each other accountable. All succeed to one extent or another, and all eventually fail.

The Perils of Democracy

This … This explains exactly where we are:

But the great undiscussed problem of modern democracy is that liberalism without democracy is the system of government towards which the West has been moving for a generation or more. There has been an increasing shift of power from elected and accountable bodies, such as Parliament, to semi-independent bureaucratic agencies that make their own laws (called regulations), to the courts, and in more recent years to European and other transnational bodies. Liberal progressive elites at the top of mainstream political parties went along with this shift of power. It helped them to ignore the apparent wishes of the voters. They did so by the simple expedient of not discussing these wishes — by keeping them out of politics. Immigration and ‘Europe’ are examples. Over time, majorities ceased to be the dominant decision-makers and became merely one player in the system. Majoritarian democracy mutated into a system that the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls post-democracy, in which elites and the institutions they control increasingly exercise more power than the voters and their elected representatives.

Here’s my theory. At the left end of the spectrum place post-democracy; at the right, populism; in the centre lies majoritarian democracy. Liberal restraints on democratic majorities increase in number and importance as you move towards post-democracy; and decrease in number and importance as you move towards populism. But the more power has shifted to liberal institutions, and the weaker democratic majorities have become constitutionally, the more populism is likely to demand the removal of constitutional restraints on the will of the people.

On the other hand, the more that majority rule remains the driving force of democracy, the more that populism will be absorbed within traditional democratic debate and made subject to its conventions. ‘In short,’ as the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde, pointed out some years ago, ‘populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. It criticises the exclusion of important issues from the political agenda by the elites and calls for their repoliticisation.’ The populist upsurges in Europe are such a response. The answer is to discuss the issues at their heart.

When I speak of elite failure, this capitulation to “post-democracy” is a large part of what I mean. The promise of democratic governance in the West has always lived uneasily with the human reality of elite rule. Elites want to manage relatively stable and predictable societies and want to ensure certain kinds of outcomes. They also want to move societies in certain directions, along specific lines and towards very certain ends. Actual democratic government can get in the way of this. Mass democracies were then managed things, in which elites carefully guided and arranged mass social and political activities in ways that mostly worked in concert with elite desires for the societies they governed.

And elites broadly understood their role. They were inside their societies, but they could see above them.

Three things happened to slowly undo this. First, mass politics was discredited with World War II. Or rather, mass politics was seen to cause the war (actually, both world wars), to create the governments that caused the war, so in the West at least, mass participatory politics was replaced with a consumerist politics, in which citizens would no longer be expected or mobilized on behalf of the state. Instead, they would increasingly become passive consumers of politics produced by others.

Second, a broad and widely shared material prosperity (again, in the West) made this consumption possible. It’s easy to become passive, to accept passivity, when life is easy.

Third, history intervened. The economic conditions of the post-WWII world could not hold. And they didn’t, for a zillion reasons I won’t go through here. The broadly based prosperity came to an end, and as it did, Western elites stopped being able to act as people both within and above the system they governed. They came to see themselves as solely inside that system. Perhaps the neoliberals who embraced financialization of the economy saw themselves as above the fray, but if they did, it was a cynical oversight, or an ignorant one, and one they kept to themselves.

As it became clear to Western voters that the prosperity they had come to expect was no longer working for them, they sought political answers, but action was limited because they had very purposefully been deprived of the tools of mass politics. Their outrage at the failures of liberal democracy prompted them to support for the only critique in town, neoliberalism, which further damaged the system that had worked so well to their benefit. And further impoverishes them.

Seeking blame, they have only one target — the liberal order. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Democracy focuses on popular will and promises majority rule. Well organized, confident, and thoughtful elites can direct, manage, and focus majorities and their will, and they did successfully in the United States for much of the 20th century. Note well, however, that elite guidance of the masses is an effective betrayal of the promise of democracy, no matter how well elites govern and how well they guide majority opinion. We, however, are no longer governed by such elites, and we haven’t been since sometime in the 1990s. Self-righteousness and arrogance are not confidence. In the midst of this elite failure, when majorities realize that despite what they will they are not allowed to rule, that the promises of democratic governance are hollow and empty, they will revolt. And a democratic revolt looks just like Brexit and just like Trump.

(And yes, I realize the “majority” in the case of Trump is only regional, and not national.)

This is the future. Even if we could remake the West of 1958, the economic conditions that made a broadly shared prosperity possible no longer exist. For lots of people in the West, a return to 1958 is hardly desirable anyway, given that they weren’t allowed to share in that prosperity. It may be some will learn from the coming failure of the Trump regime that his critique is not the answer, but given the past, I think that unlikely.

I suspect the failure to deliver on the promises will not cause people to rethink their desires, but instead, to double down. When Brexit fails, when Trump fails, there will be no soul searching. Only a lot more anger.

The Worse Angels of Our Nature

Susan McWilliams over at The Nation has penned one of the best pieces on Donald J. Trump and Trumpism that I have seen in quite some time. Possibly ever.

McWilliams said that Hunter S. Thompson, in his essay (and later book) on The Hell’s Angels, saw the kind of culture among disaffected white people that would become the wave Trump rode into the White House.

For Thompson, the Angels weren’t important because they heralded a new movement of cultural hedonism, but because they were the advance guard for a new kind of right-wing politics. As Thompson presciently wrote in the Nation piece he later expanded on in Hell’s Angels, that kind of politics is “nearly impossible to deal with” using reason or empathy or awareness-raising or any of the other favorite tools of the left.

[Thompson’s book] Hell’s Angels concludes when the Angels ally with the John Birch Society and write to President Lyndon Johnson to offer their services to fight communism, much to the befuddlement of the anti-Vietnam elites who assumed the Angels were on the side of “counterculture.” The Angels and their retaliatory militarism were, Thompson warned, the harbingers of a darker time to come. That time has arrived.

These are people who are unwilling to play nice because there’s no point for them to do so. They’ve already lost, and they know it.

Thompson’s Angels were mostly working-class white men who felt, not incorrectly, that they had been relegated to the sewer of American society. Their unswerving loyalty to the nation— the Angels had started as a World War II veterans group—had not paid them any rewards or won them any enduring public respect. The manual-labor skills that they had learned and cultivated were in declining demand. Though most had made it through high school, they did not have the more advanced levels of training that might lead to economic or professional security. “Their lack of education,” Thompson wrote, “rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy.” Looking at the American future, they saw no place for themselves in it.

In other words, the Angels felt like “strangers in their own land,” as Arlie Russell Hochschild puts it in her recent book on red-state America. …

The Angels decided not to be polite losers, however. Believing everything — politics, society, the economy — was rigged against them, they fought back with an intense nihilism, a nihilism that deliberately sets out to provoke the genteel and educated through, among other things, coarse, offensive, and racist speech.

Therein lies the ethic of total retaliation. The Angels, rather than gracefully accepting their place as losers in an increasingly technical, intellectual, global, inclusive, progressive American society, stuck up their fingers at the whole enterprise. If you can’t win, you can at least scare the bejeesus out of the guy wearing the medal. You might not beat him, but you can make him pay attention to you. You can haunt him, make him worry that you’re going to steal into his daughter’s bedroom in the darkest night and have your way with her—and that she might actually like it.

Thompson would want us to see this: These are men and women who know that, by all intellectual and economic standards, they cannot win the game. So whether it be out of self-protection or an overcompensation for their own profound sense of shame, they lash out at politicians, judges, scientists, teachers, Wall Street, universities, the media, legislatures—even at elections. They are not interested in contemplating serious reforms to the system; they are either too pessimistic or too disappointed to believe that is possible. So the best they can do is adopt a position of total irreverence: to show they hate the players and the game.

Understood in those terms, the idea that Trumpism is “populist” seems misplaced. Populism is a belief in the right of ordinary people, rather than political insiders, to rule. Trumpism, by contrast, operates on the presumption that ordinary people aren’t going to get any chance to rule no matter what they do, so they might as well piss off the political insiders using the only tool left available to them: the vote.

There’s a lot of insight here, about why such folks might hate government and still think very highly of the police and the armed forces (because both institutions legitimize and draw their legitimacy from the use of brute force, and the Angels both appreciate and respect brute force), and how there’s no reasonable or polite or even civilized way of dealing with such politics. Now that it has been unleashed electorally (Nixon, who also rode such sentiments to the White House, faced a Democrat majority Congress that could check and eventually vote to impeach him; Trump will face no such impediment to his power, at least not for the first two years), it will be intriguing to see how progressives will cope with and adjust to this. My guess is: badly and incompetently. The Left will have to learn a street-fighting fearlessness I don’t see in those busy policing language. The seeds of that fearlessness are there, but the American Left spends too much of its time appealing to power rather than fighting it.

(The time has come to study Act Up! and Queer Nation.)

Anyway, read the piece. It’s worth it.

To be honest, I sympathize an awful lot with the resentment that Thompson describes here. I did a lot of work, got a lot of education, and have failed spectacularly within polite society and respectable institutions. I have a whole raft of useless education, skills and talents no one is willing to pay for. In  the end, that’s my fault, but honestly, I’m not all bad or disreputable, despite what some religious leaders have concluded. (Jen and I lived next to a biker gang in San Francisco; that chapter didn’t make it into my book.) But it’s bad enough for me, I am disreputable enough and almost completely useless even with my Georgetown education, my master of divinity, and my solid middle-class upbringing, to see the class problems at work in bourgeois and elite America. Really, on many days I too wouldn’t mind bringing the whole the thing crashing down upon itself.

I remember when the Department of Homeland Security, the Pentagon, or some similar agency, was test flying a giant, white, antenna-and-camera-covered blimp over Washington, D.C., testing out the device’s intelligence gathering capabilities. I was taking a mid-morning break from The Oil Daily, had gone down to the Starbucks in the lobby, gotten some coffee, and was standing at the corner of 14th St. and New York, watching this spy blimp drift over the city.

Everyone knew what it was. We’d all been warned it was being tested.

I don’t recall if anyone else gave it the finger, but I did.

The Dangerous World to Come

I was talking to a co-worker today about Donald J. Trump, billionaire president-elect (he owns a mansion and a yacht) and she said something very interesting that I hadn’t considered.

She suggested that all of this “luv” Trump has been showing for Vladimir Putin isn’t real. Or rather, it isn’t what it seems to be. There’s no bromance going on here.

Rather, what we are seeing is something akin to the admiration Hitler and Stalin allegedly had for each other, and the cooperation Nazi Germany (and before then, the Weimar Republic) and the Soviet Union engaged in, especially when it came to military cooperation (such as tank training) forbidden to Germany under the Versailles Treaty and the sale of German military and chemical technology to the USSR in exchange for Soviet food and raw materials, especially after the Molotov-Ribbentro Pact of August 1939.

The sides were ostensibly friendly to each other, and once the Germans invaded Poland, the two nations carved up Eastern Europe. It is my understanding that even as German tanks crossed the Soviet frontier in June, 1941, Stalin was still sending food and resource shipments to the Germans, and had been convinced that he, and not Hitler, was going to be the one to abrogate the pact.

So, it may be that the Trump-Putin “bromance” is more akin to this David Low cartoon from late September or early October 1939 than a real effort by two of the five major “Congress Powers” to run the world along the lines envisioned by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the UN Charter.


This makes sense, given that the best way to understand Trump is to take him seriously without taking him literally. (A mistake the educated chattering classes of the elite, including myself, constantly made.) However, this also means that Trump’s intentions toward Russia are fraught with a great deal more danger than advertised, since far from avoiding confrontation, he’s steeling himself for the moment he thinks he can provoke something and have the absolute advantage.

This also makes sense if I’m right about my analysis of Trump as a gangster, then right now, he and Putin are sizing each other up, and Trump’s words are not so much sincere admiration but coded language that tells Putin, “I know who you are and how you act, and I can play your game too.” (In fact, I’m beginning to think we underestimate Trump’s native intelligence at our peril. He’ll be undone at some point, but Obama’s cool, calm, educated cleverness was as well.) It’s a signal that Trump will be dealing with Putin on Putin’s terms.

If the American foreign policy establishment was in the process of rather stupidly wandering into war with Russia with extremely foolish talk of supporting Ukraine, a no-fly zone over Syria, and maintaining the foolish expansion of NATO all the way to Russia’s borders, well, Trump may well be sneaking and creeping under the cover of darkness toward that same place.

It is no comfort to point out to anyone who might be listening that while you can win a limited with Russia (Crimea, Tsushima), total war is another matter entirely. I once pointed out to a Greek TV crew in New York in the week following 9/11 that no one has successfully conquered Afghanistan since Alexander the Great. Similarly, it’s been a long time, since the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth installed a czar of its own in the midst of the Time of Troubles, that someone has conquered Russia.

Napoleon and Hitler sent in magnificent armies to conquer the place, and what came home were ragged remnants that cost both their empires.

And as I was happy to tell anyone who thought a no-fly zone over Syria was easily manageable, Russia is still armed with H-Bombs and the means to lob them over the North Pole. Hundreds of missiles of our own sitting in glaring in North Dakota are no guarantee our army won’t be reduced to rags and our country to ruin by war with Russia.

I’m still not sure it will get that far. Even with all this, I do trust Trump to deal with Russia more than I trusted Clinton and the existing foreign policy establishment, if only because the foreign policy elites — especially those Clinton would likely have surrounded herself with — have grown entirely too sure of themselves and their self-righteouness. Russia is the only nation that can possess anything remotely resembling parity with the United States, if only on the H-Bomb front. It is best not to provoke or confront Moscow needlessly.

A good gangster has a fairly realistic approach to armed conflict (a lot more realistic than a neoconservative or a liberal/humanitarian interventionist). He may look for the first opening to bring out the knives, but the same gangster also knows when a conflict will cost more than it will gain, and when to cut a deal that carves up territory and keeps the peace.

Because, in the end, a good gangster is a good businessman. And in a world where force rules, maintains order and stability, all-out war is bad for business.

And the H-Bomb is definitely bad for business.

Learning to Parse Trump’s Tweets

Oh goodie. We’re going to have to spend the next four years (at least, maybe) trying to read between the characters of a presidential tweet to figure out what Donald J. Trump, billionaire-president, means or is trying to say.

It’ll be a little like Kremlinology, and trying to figure out who is in and who is out by seeing which Communist Party figures are in and which ones are out by where they stand stand in relation to the General Secretary in the May Day Parade reviewing stand atop Lenin’s Tomb.

(Yeah, I’m old.)

So, Trump said this:

And, apparently, Russian President Vladimir Putin said something similar, noting a need for his country to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces, especially with missile complexes that can reliably penetrate any existing and prospective missile defense systems.”

This has some people I know wondering whether or not we’re going to be going back to the days of “duck and cover” drills when we all worried about “The Bomb” (please note: I’ve never stopped worrying, since it’s never gone away, which is why I take relations with Russia so very seriously) and wondered if Ronald Reagan was going to press the button or not.

And whether we will be going back to the time when U.S. factories churned out an H-Bomb or two a day. Make America great again!

First, let me recommend that everyone calm down a bit. The weapons producing infrastructures of both the United States and Russia have taken quite a hit in the last 25 years — Hanford, where the U.S. produced the bulk of its plutonium 239 (the kaboomable kind needed for both plain old A-Bombs and city-busting H-Bombs), has long been closed and turned into an EPA superfund site and a national grassland. While the Obama administration has wanted (and budgeted) to get the United States back into plutonium production, that is still some time away, and what supplies exist on hand are scavenged from old weapons and reclaimed from spent reactor fuel rods.

The same is true of tritium, the fuel needed to make proper fusion bombs. There is enough to keep the slow upgrade program going on the current arsenal of U.S. nuclear weapons, but not enough tritium to produce any new thermonuclear bombs.

Russia is in a similar situation regarding its nuclear weapons complex. Neither superpower (sic) is in a position to mass produce nuclear weapons. It’s not 1982 again.

While Putin’s words are measured and the reasonable talk of a national leader (more like something Obama would say and do), Trump’s require some interpreting. Because it’s not entirely clear what he is saying.

There’s a charitable reading of “until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” the reading that has Trump eventually seeking disarmament along the lines of the infamous “Walk in the Woods” or the near-elimination of ballistic missiles at the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The charitable reading has “until the world comes to its senses” meaning until nation states and their leaders decide that nuclear weapons aren’t needed anymore, no one will want them, and everyone will beat their nuclear swords into plowshares. (Though, hopefully, not like this.)

In this, Trump is a Reagan figure, using his bluster for more as a way of negotiating for less. And yes, this is a real strategy and is actually worked. A lot better than, say, the Nuclear Freeze. It is also suggests that Trump believes in eventual total nuclear disarmament or something like it.

Yes, this is the charitable reading. It may be true, for all we know.

But there is a darker reading of “until the world comes to its senses.” Trump believes in force, in the willingness to make threats and keep them. His understanding of statecraft is that it isn’t much difference than being a street thug, or a mob boss. If someone is causing a problem, or attacking you, or generally being disorderly and unpleasant, it’s because they aren’t properly afraid of you. Fear is a necessary component of rule, and the willingness to follow through is essential.

In this, Trump echoes a lot of conservatives who believe that a failure to be strong, make threats, and follow through on those threats has given us the uncertain world we live in today where Daesh rules a diminishing portion of the desert between Syria and Iraq and angry Muslim immigrants drive trucks into crowds. The world coming to its senses is an acknowledgment of American power and supremacy — made flesh in the W88 and its brethren, the ultimate and most serious threat we could make.

War, for these folks, is a form of communication. (It was for these folks too.) It communicates toughness and resolve. Building more nuclear weapons is a sign of resolution, a way to tell the world, “we mean business … don’t mess with us.”

A world that has come to its senses will behave itself, will understand how tough and resolute we are, won’t attack us, and its angry young men wont blow themselves up.

I think Trump’s wrong. George W. Bush was more than willing to make threats and follow through, and it got us … just about nothing. Except the mess along the Euphrates we live with today. Obama made his fair share of war, most of it has resulted in chaos and disaster, too.

I wrote this piece more than a decade ago about comments Paul Harvey made during the height of the war in Iraqi. “With all this power at our disposal, with all our missiles and planes, why are people still resisting us? Why aren’t we winning? Why haven’t we already won?” Harvey asked, plaintively, angrily, despairingly, and quite honestly. It is very much the question, I think, hardened into almost incoherent rage, that animates many Americans now.

After more than a decade of war, after bombs and assassinations and invasions and trillions of dollars, why haven’t we won yet?

Because some people, some groups, cannot be deterred. They are willing to fight, to kill and die, for truth, for family, for home, for honor, because of our power, and not in spite of it. War is not a form of communication in which one expresses one’s seriousness, resolve, and willingness to inflict pain, suffering, and death. The North Vietnamese should have taught us THAT. The only response, IF you believe the cause is just and the war is right, is to kill your enemy until they run out of resolve.

And even then, there is no victory for us to win. Or we would have won it already.

Trump may understand this. He’s not a learned man, but I will grant him some serious smarts. He’s running rings around us, won the presidency, and I suspect gets a lot more than he lets on. (It is, after all, a good business strategy to play dumb, especially when your opponents think themselves too clever by half.) He’ll have successes in imposing his will upon the world.

But reality has a way of resisting the human will. So do other human beings.

SERMON It May or May Not Be Okay, But I Have Hope

A reading from the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 29:

1 These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: 4 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

10 “For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:1–14 ESV)

I want to tell you things are going to be okay.

But I can’t. Because I don’t know if they are.

I don’t know what okay means with the election of Donald Trump. I know that many of my queer friends, many of my friends in mixed-race marriages with with mixed-race children, are terrified, and many with disabled kids are as well. They fear for the future, and rightly so. Because it isn’t just Trump himself, it’s many of the people he brings into office with him — Chris Christie, Rudi Giuliani, Newt Gingrich could only best be described as callous and indifferent — who are also short-tempered, petty, vindictive, and intolerant of dissent. Sheriff David Clarke, who may find himself tabbed to head a department like Homeland Security, has for months now called Black Lives Matter a “terrorist movement” and predicted a BLM alliance with the Islamic State to topple the U.S. Government.

And what do we do with terrorists? What has Trump said we should do with terrorists? Arrest them. Torture them. Kill them and their families.

These may just be words, but words mean something. Trump’s 2005 boast that he grabs women “by the pussy” has a terrifying resonance given the ministry I do. Words set actions into motion. We’ve had a little taste of what life in Trump’s America looks like, and I suspect Trump and his regime, if they are magnanimous at all in victory, won’t be for very long. We have every reason to believe his government will be a punitive, authoritarian one eager to arrest and brutalize and condemn people.

Alex Jones may yet see FEMA Camps at work.

So no, I have no idea if it will be okay. At best — at best — the American Greatness Trump supporters seek hearkens back to an era which did not welcome and did not include many of the people I love and care about. I have no idea how this will end, whether this will be a bumbling and incompetent government or merciless and brutal. I have no idea. None at all. There is no future to discern here1.

When God spoke through Jeremiah to the exiles of Israel, he didn’t promise them things would be okay either. Consider where Israel was. They had been invaded, subdued, Jerusalem the holy city besieged. Judah was defeated, conquered, and carried into exile, told by their captors to sing and dance and entertain them with their strange new stories. “By the waters of Babylon, there was sat down and wept, and we remembered Zion.” Zion was gone. Not just far away, but reduced to rubble.

There were prophets telling them “soon and very soon now,” that within two years God will break Babylon and the exiles will go home to live and rebuild. And to someone in a strange place, frightened, traumatized by war and conquest and dislocation, living admidst hostile captors and conquerors, that seems good news! Just hang on a few months, all will be reversed! We will be going home! Our defeat will be undone! We can hope again!

But God is having none of it. Because that is not what real hope looks like here.

Build houses and plant gardens, God says. Marry and have children, and give them in marriage. Seek the welfare of the city — this strange city, this foreign city, this enemy city, this home of your conquerors — where I have sent you into exile. Pray for it. It’s success will be your success.

You’re going to be here for a while, God tells exiled Israel, amidst your enemies and your conquerors. So build, plant, beget.

In face of hopelessness and fear, in the face of uncertainty, humiliation, and defeat, God’s command to us is: build, plant, beget.

This is what hope looks like. Not “hang in there, everything is going to be okay,” but: build, plant, beget.

This is not an easy hope. It is not a happy hope. It does not promise quiet, easy, untroubled lives. And it is given to people who will never live to see it realized. It is little different that the promises given to Abraham — descendants, a land of his own, and a blessing to the world — promises he never saw during his lifetime but took hold of tight and believed anyway (though he wasn’t always entirely faithful in that either). We, my sisters and brothers, may never leave this place, this exile, this Tel Aviv — Summertime Hill — that we have cobbled together on the banks of the Euphrates.

We may never see Zion again. We may die here. Our children may die here. And their children may die here too.

None of that matters. We still have hope. We are still called to build, and plant, and beget.

Because we know something else. Babylon is judged. God has promised we will be delivered. We will not be here forever. “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for wholeness and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope,” God says. “I will bring you back to the place from which I have sent you into exile.”

Seventy years from now. A long fullness.

And so we wait. And live. In hope. We build, and plant, and beget.

Because Babylon has been judged, and she will fall. We have that promise too. Babylon has been judged, and been found wanting, a place of violence and brutality, of lecherous corruption, of immorality and debauchery. “So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence and will be found no more … And in her was found the blood of prophets and saints, and of all who have been slain on the earth.” (Revelation 18:21b, 24)

Babylon has been judged. It has already happened, even as we weep in exile in its midst. Babylon has fallen, even though she stands tall and strong, her armies invisible, her treasury bursting.

And we have already been redeemed. One who was faithful and true lived and preached and healed and died and rose from the dead, facing down that very power which has carried us off, dying at its hands, and showing us that God’s response to faithfulness is not success, but resurrection. (Just as God’s response to sin is not damnation, but resurrection.) I’m certain in the Garden of Gathsemene, Jesus wanted it to be okay, to know it would be okay, and he realized — it wasn’t. And it wouldn’t be.

This is hard faith. And a difficult hope. It is sometimes a hope of bitter determination. I wish I could say no one will suffer and no one will perish and no one will have to resist great evil. But I don’t. I can’t. I have no idea how terrible things will get. I have no answers except the ones God gave to Israel in exile — build, plant, beget.

Build. Plant. Beget.

In a difficult and uncertain time, that is what hope looks like.

  1. With all the talk of Nazi Germany, Trump reminds me more of Mussolini or Napoleon III (who was the first real modern dictator), and their use of power on opponents and dissidents was real but fairly restrained. Both regimes ended badly, however, in war, conquest, and ruination because of wars they started or joined. Something that should also give pause. ↩︎

It Begins in 1970

As I continue to read Meg Jacob’s Panic At The Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s I am fascinated by the things I am learning. I was alive in 1973 — I turned six that year — and there’s not a lot I remember about the time. I was too fascinated by what remained of the space program (Skylab!) and Sesame Street, and spent a lot of time playing outside. That’s what remains in my consciousness of 1973.

But I see the beginning of our era in this. A conservative president who resorts to New Deal price controls and supply management to deal with a crisis that seems completely out of control. The makings of the oil crisis of early 1970s were already in place by 1970 — steeply increasing consumption coupled with stagnant or declining production and an increasing reliance on imported crude oil to make up the difference — when the Arab states of OPEC increased prices and then completely embargoed sales of crude oil to the United States (and the Netherlands) in October, 1973, following the US resupply of military equipment to Israel in the midst of the October War.

According to Jacobs, most Americans did not believe the crisis was real. Rather, the country was being cheated by oil companies withholding supplies in order to raise prices and reap windfall profits. Most Americans did not understand how the petroleum refining and distribution systems worked, and had no idea the US even imported any oil at all.

It didn’t help that the Nixon administration was in free fall over Watergate and the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew during the miserable and eventful October of 1973.

A worsening situation, one with no clear end in sight, stoked social antagonisms. When asked to sacrifice, many Americans responded by defending their right to maintain their lifestyle while questioning the right of others to do so. The political direction in which the energy crisis was moving the country was hard to pin down. Even as many Americans railed against the business world and expressed frustrations with the Nixon White House, liberal reforms that had generated controversy before the energy crisis now came under attack as luxuries the nation could no longer afford and should not have to. High on the list was federally backed school integration by busing, which in the early 1970s reached a peak of controversy. “Why must I avoid visiting a friend or running an errand when buses all over the country are driving children back and forth across cities?” one Tennessee housewife asked a sympathetic Nixon. Another Tennessee woman protested “this sinful practice of hauling defenseless children for miles upon miles through city streets,” a practice she blamed as a “major reason for this gaosline shortage.” (65)

A war a half-world away changed the willingness of Americans to be charitable toward each other.

But not just each other.

… For others, the energy crisis, along with the rapidly deteriorating economic conditions [inflation mostly], made the cost of American interests in Vietnam too high. “My job is in jeopardy. Why should my tax dollars be used to subsidize foreign economies when my work is being taken from me?” a North Carolina man who supported the ban [on oil shipments to Southeast Asia] wrote to the White House. Wasn’t it unfair to ask Americans to sacrifice while, as one California woman put it, “you are sending millions of barrels of oil to Cambodia and So. Vietnam? We should come first!”

As future prospects grew worse, the public became angry at government officials in Washington. If business contrived the shortage to make a profit, as many believed, the government failed to take effective action, either because of incompetence or because of some general notion of “politics.” A Harris poll revealed increasing blame for business and government, with 83 percent of the public attributing fault to oil companies and 75 percent also pointing the finger at politicians. As the shortages continued, it appeared that Washington was lacking solutions. As one young mother from Toledo put it, “Is there anyone who cares, will listen, and Do Something?” (68)

The embattled Nixon administration, peaching a gospel of the free market, acted instead by regulating oil and refined crude products even more heavily. And the burden of the restrictions imposed by both the administration and Congress, as Jacobs notes, “seemed to have consequences greater than what Americans felt they could live with.”

Which led to a series of wildcat strikes by independent, long-haul truckers, who would use the then relatively new technology of citizens band radio to coordinate massive stoppages of trucks on major interstate highways and bridges that would block traffic for hours and many tens of miles.

These truckers were some of the core members of Nixon’s — and the GOP’s — constituency. (Though Jacobs notes that Nixon wanted to build an electoral coalition independent of the GOP.) They were socially conservative, upwardly mobile in their aspirations, supported the war in Vietnam, were for law and order and against protestors, rioters, and hippies, and believed in tough government to protect their livelihoods and way of life.

In short — they were Trump voters.

These conservatives voted against welfare and busing, two programs that they felt doled out benefits from their hard-earned tax dollars to those who did not deserve them. Al Trafford, who was married, had four children, and owned a home in Westchester, New York, believed he could easily distinguish the difference between “niggers” and “colored.” The former were on welfare and did not have good jobs; the latter owned their own homes, earned a decent income, and educated their children. “When they live on my block, they’re colored,” he said. “The coloreds on my block are my friends. They’re so nice that after a while you don’t know they are colored.” (76)

Remember, while this thinking was likely never far from the surface, Trafford is quoted saying these things because of a war a half-a-world away and an embargo enacted by governments of tiny countries he had probably never heard of.

The energy crisis was more than they could take. They needed relief, and for that they turned to the government to hold down prices at the pump, give them more fuel, and get the oil companies to comply. As the journalist Harry Maurer explained, the crisis “dealt a stunning shock to the truckers’ philosophical and political framework. They believed passionately in free enterprise but they were going broke. They voted for Richard Nixon but he was ignoring them. They called themselves independent but their livelihoods clearly hinged on the Arabs, the government, the oil companies — and on each another. It was a time for a change in their thinking.” (76)

That change, however, did not mean more social solidarity. It would mean less. The political system was beginning to break, and no one in the country was up to fixing it.

As an aside, Jacobs focuses a lot on Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the hawkish liberal from Washington State who led the Democratic opposition to the Nixon administration’s handling of the energy crisis. A lot is focused today on Jackson’s hawkish proteges and their lasting influence on American foreign policy. But Jacobs notes that Jackson was angling for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976 (and he used the energy issue to batter Nixon and the GOP), and in his advocacy of rationing and price controls, Jackson may have been the last serious and committed New Dealer in Congress. It’s interesting to consider what would have happened to the United States had Jackson, and not Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, become president in 1976.

Vote Against Jesus

For those of you who have complained in the past about the quality of my faith (you know who you are), and that I don’t love Jesus enough, don’t blame me for my headline — blame Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas:

“You know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” Jeffress said. “I said, ‘Heck no.’ I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.”

Because what matters, apparently, is power and order.

“Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government told to turn the other cheek,” Jeffress said.

The conservative pastor said earlier this week that police officers are “ministers of God sent by God to punish evil doers” — which is what he said the Bible calls for in a president.

“Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find — and I believe that’s biblical.”

This is, actually, solid and fairly straightforward Protestant theology, and dovetails well with the historic teaching of the church. Martin Luther said very similar things about the state and its rulers, whether they faced domestic rebellion or external threat.

But like a good Protestant, he mistakes church teaching for biblical teaching. The Bible is much more mixed and nuanced on the moral nature of government — our teaching is distilled from scripture and the need of Christians through history to be morally right, to be sinless, to be justified, in their thoughts and deeds. Government appears, biblically, to be little more than an inescapable necessity, and is not dealt with in the Bible in any systematic fashion. There is no recipe for government in scripture (just as there isn’t in the Qur’an, despite the belief on many Muslims to the contrary), just a set of rules on how a community people should live and the story of that people’s failure to live by those rules.

Some have taken Samuel’s description of a king in 1 Samuel 8 to be a recipe for government — Martin Luther did, as did James VI/II — but that appears to be a warning to Israel of what they are bringing upon themselves by failing to trust God and demanding regular government rather than a recipe for how a king should act.

What scripture doesn’t appear to believe in is democracy. Or representative government. Certainly not popular sovereignty. If anything, scripture tells the story of a people who are frequently subject to government that is not their own, in which they have no say, far more than they govern themselves. That’s the forgotten context of Jeremiah 29 (“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile”), the restoration at the end of Chronicles (“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth…”), and Romans 13 (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”) — a community of people conquered, occupied, scattered, and ruled not just by foreigners but by enemies.

The Sermon on the Mount which Jeffress says has no governing value (and to be fair, Martin Luther said it had no governing value either), is actually a set of instructions on how to trust God, have hope, and live under brutal exile — to know that your enemies have not won even as they appear to have all the power in the world — and not merely a guide to good behavior. Whether government should forgive or not is only important when Christians govern, and that does not appear to be a New Testament expectation.

Christians are expected to love and forgive their enemies. Because there is no New Testament expectation (or even an Old Testament one, for that matter) that Christians will defeat, conquer, and kill those enemies. They are God’s alone to deal with.

We do know that, in the Old Testament, when faced with a rapacious enemy (Syria), the Prophet Elisha not only forgave, blessed, and healed that enemy — again and again — he also once sent their army home unharmed after giving them a meal. An army that would, in a later vision given to Elijah, do much evil to the people of Israel:

You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women. (2 Kings 8:12b)

Israel is governed. But God does the governing, through agents God chooses in God’s way. Time and again, God tells Israel “I am your king,” and appoints vice-regents in the form of Moses and Joshua and the Judges and even Cyrus, the king of Persia. But God does the appointing, and not the people. The Judges are emergency rulers, raised to redeem Israel from Canaanite and Philistine occupation — occupation and rule Israel has come to deserve because of its idolatry, its faith in the false gods of its neighbors.

I could see some Christians, like Jeffress, seeing Trump in this way, as a Judge raised up to redeem Christian America. I have a theological problem with this — the work of redeeming God’s people has already been done by the final king and judge, Jesus, on the Cross and from that empty tomb — but it could work as metaphor. However, even that metaphor also misses that this kind of salvation and redemption is always temporary because of Israel’s own inclination toward idolatry:

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. (Judges 2:16–17 ESV)

Some of the judges were of sparkling character and solid pedigree, like Othniel (nephew of Caleb, the fearless Israelite spy), and some were not (like Jephthah, a protitute’s son banished from his family). Trump could be a Samson-type, skilled at waging war — killing Philistines with the jawbone of an ass — but easily beguiled by pretty girls of all kinds, including Philistine prostitutes.

And Samson said, [w]ith the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey, have I struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:16)

Samson was a mighty warrior, and he judged Israel for 20 years. No mean feat for a people surrounded and tempted and oppressed by enemies on all sides. Yeah, maybe not a bad way to think of Donal J. Trump, if you are a Christian inclined to yearn for such things.

I think it should be remembered, however, that Samson came to a very bad end. At the hands of the Philistines, yes, but one he clearly brought down upon himself. Because even God-given government is tragic by its very nature.