Sunday, February 26, 2017

Are we better than Nazi Germany?

I hope so, but we may be tested. Timothy Snyder, distinguished historian of the Holocaust, has an article in the New York Review of Books noting that Hitler used a fire in the Reichstag  to suspend civil rights and later an attack on a German diplomat by an angry Jew to launch the kristallnacht pogrom. 

The 9/11 attacks led America to accept increased government surveillance and travel restrictions -- though I would note that Congress required the USA PATRIOT Act to be renewed every few years and did not adopt the Bush administration's open-ended authorization for wars on terrorists.

Nevertheless, Snyder's warning is valid. Even strong democracies can be turned authoritarian in the face of real or exaggerated threats.

politicization of the U.S.military

I have long warned against military personnel becoming politically identified with either political party. [See chapter 12 of my Warriors and Politicians.] Imagine how destructive it would be if the American people thought that the armed forces were a tool of a political party rather than a servant to the nation and defender of the Constitution. Imagine presidents searching for Republican or Democratic generals rather than the best warriors or strategists. Not good!

A new survey of West Point cadets and graduates warns that these military professionals are freely expressing their political views through social media, phenomena that have grown up since the last codification of rules for political activities. The existing rules limit the public display of political preferences, largely confining them to the secrecy of the ballot box and small bumper stickers.

The survey was limited -- to army officers -- but still can be taken as a warning. Officers should strive for nonpartisanship if they want to avoid becoming pawns in nasty political power struggles.

Friday, February 24, 2017

refresher course

It's good now and then to revisit those golden oldies of political thinking. There are still powerful insights in Max Weber's writings on bureaucracy and John Milton and John Stuart Mill on freedom of the press.

Today's assigned readings are from British writers: George Orwell's classic, "Politics and the English Language," and Jonathan Swift's "The Art of Political Lying."

Read and reflect.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Who said that?

I read a fine short biography of a famous man recently. Some things, however, jumped out at me -- a deja vu moment.

Here are three quotations from the great man:

1.“All of you know nothing; I alone know something. I alone decide.”

2.“My course is the right one, and in it I shall continue to steer. We are destined for greatness, and I shall lead you to glorious days.”

3.“Beware the time when I shall give the orders.”

And here is advice on dealing with him from his closest friend:

4.“[He] takes everything personally. Only personal arguments make any impression on him. He likes to give advice to others but is unwilling to take it himself. He cannot stand boredom; ponderous, stiff, excessively thorough people get on his nerves and cannot get anywhere with him. [He] wants to shine and to do and decide everything himself. What he wants to do himself unfortunately often goes wrong. He loves glory, he is ambitious and jealous. To get him to accept an idea one has to pretend that the idea came from him. …He is the sort of person who becomes sullen unless he is given recognition from time to time by someone of importance. You will always accomplish whatever you wish so long as you do not omit to express your appreciation when [he] deserves it. He is grateful for it like a good, clever child...We two will always carefully observe the boundaries of flattery.”

Who said that?

The three quotations in italics are from Kaiser Wilhelm II, who [mis]ruled Germany from 1888 until 1918. The advice was given to Foreign Minister Berhard von Bulow by Wilhelm's longtime friend, Count Philipp zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld. The book, Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1859-1941: A Concise Life, by John C.G. Rohl, who earlier had written a 3-volume life of the kaiser.

Sound familiar?

Friday, February 10, 2017


Lyndon Johnson, by all accounts, was a big, egotistical, profane, domineering man. So is Donald Trump. Both men showed a keen sense of their opponents' weaknesses. Both men bullied others relentlessly. Both men were obsessed with television news about themselves.

But there are significant differences. Lyndon Johnson knew how government works and how to make it work for him. Donald Trump is clueless, careless, incurious, and thus likely to be ineffective.

One of the Senators I worked for was like LBJ in many ways: big, assertive, temperamental. Over the years I observed, however, that he didn't lose his temper, he deployed it --for impact and effect. And it often worked.  Johnson, too, deployed his anger and his affection for strategic effects, and they often worked.

Too bad -- for him -- that  DJT lacks the skills and qualities of LBJ.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson

President Trump now has a large portrait of Andrew Jackson hanging in the Oval Office, Some of his closest advisors, including Steve Bannon, have labeled him a Jacksonian, mainly on the grounds that he will be a populist and be politically disruptive.

Some historians like H.W.Brands have disputed the comparison. I think, worry actually, that Trump may practice the worst of Jackson's policies.

Remember, Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States and the economic regime it had created, sending the United States into the worst depression of its early history. Trump has sharply criticized the Federal Reserve, head of our current banking system, has expressed indifference to the idea of a default on our national debt, and seems intent on tearing down our existing structure of trade agreements.

Remember, Jackson famously defied the Supreme Court, refusing to enforce its decision in an Indian claims case. Who believes that Trump would enforce a court order against any of his key policies, such as the immigration ban?

Remember, Jackson forced the removal of Indians from their eastern lands, sending thousands, many of whom died, along the Trail of Tears. Trump's orders have already led to the removal of legal immigrants and visa holders; and he seems ready to deport thousands of nonviolent, law-abiding people lacking proper documents.

With that kind of record, Jackson falls far short of political sainthood in my view. I hope that Trump does not follow that model.