By Fareed Zakaria*
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It’s a secular celebration of America, and as an immigrant, I feel I have much to be grateful for. I am an optimist who tends to see the story of this country as one of addressing its shortcomings and making progress. Lately, it has been tough to maintain that sunny outlook. America’s greatest assets — its constitutional republic and its democratic character — seem to be in danger of breakdown.
Listen to the language of the president. “Our radical Democrat opponents are driven by hatred, prejudice and rage,” he thundered at a June rally to kick off his reelection campaign. “They want to destroy you, and they want to destroy our country as we know it.” Words such as “treason” and “coup” are now casually tossed around in political discourse. Some had imagined that the impeachment inquiry might provide evidence and facts that would cut through the spin and fantasies, but in fact the opposite has happened. It’s clear now that the intensity of polarization is so great that everything is viewed through a partisan prism. Can America survive through such poisonous times?
Well, it has in the past. The American republic is an extraordinary creation, built to accommodate very different people with utterly different ideas and values. It has survived the battles between slave owners and abolitionists, the First Red Scare and McCarthyism, Vietnam and Watergate. All of those struggles were high-stakes affairs, each aroused passions, and each eventually ended, though not without bitterness and disappointment. History, even the history of a powerful and successful country such as the United States, is not a collection of merry tales with happy endings. It’s full of fights, with wins, losses and draws.
Could this time be different? Yes, says Yoni Appelbaum in a thought-provoking essay in the Atlantic titled “How America Ends.” Appelbaum argues that “the United States is undergoing a transition perhaps no rich and stable democracy has ever experienced: Its historically dominant group is on its way to becoming a political minority — and its minority groups are asserting their co-equal rights and interests.” Ezra Klein notes a related transformation: “Almost 70% of American seniors are white and Christian. Only 29% of young adults are white and Christian.”
Appelbaum acknowledges that there have been smaller versions of this transition before, but those moments have been wrenching, often stretching America to the breaking point. It took a civil war to end slavery and then almost 100 years of struggle to end Jim Crow. The United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and interned 120,000 U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent before opening its gates to immigrants from all over the world. Women had to wage a long campaign to secure the right to vote, and gays had to overcome systematic discrimination and persecution before gaining acceptance. Today, the country is locked in a new battle over sweeping demographic shifts.
There is another concerning trend that threatens America’s constitutional character: the ever-expanding power of the presidency. Whatever you think of the charges against President Trump on Russia or Ukraine, his position of resolute noncooperation with Congress should trouble you deeply. If Congress cannot exercise its core oversight capacity, obtain documents and subpoena administration officials to testify, the essential system of checks and balances has broken down. The presidency will have become an elected dictatorship.
We have been going down this road for a while. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote about “The Imperial Presidency” in 1973. The legislation and culture after Watergate led many to believe that matters were under control. People actually began worrying about a weakened and emasculated White House. In fact, as Schlesinger noted in a 2004 reissue of his book, the presidency in recent years has become stronger than ever. The fear after 9/11 proved to be the gateway for an out-of-control executive branch. The president gained the ability to snoop on private Americans, use military force at his whim, torture prisoners and detain people indefinitely. The president can now order the execution of American citizens who are deemed — by him — to be terrorists, without due process.
In Attorney General William P. Barr, Trump has found an extraordinarily useful aide, who appears to believe, despite all this history, that the great problem in the United States is that the presidency is too weak. He has enabled a policy of stonewalling and silence, in which top administration officials almost behave as though Congress does not exist. People often ask themselves what the founders would think of America today. It seems to me that the greatest shock to them would be the incredible growth of presidential power. Congress and the courts are recognizable from their times; the White House is not.
Tensions over profound demographic change, fierce political backlash and a presidency that refuses to be checked. My optimism is wearing thin.
*Indian-American journalist (Mumbai, 1964), political scientist, and author. He is the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and writes a weekly paid column for The Washington Post. He has been a columnist for Newsweek, editor of Newsweek International, and an editor at large of Time. Bachelor of Arts from Yale University, and Ph.D from Harvard University.
Trump Has Made the Military Safe for War Criminals
By Jeet Heer- The Nation
The Pentagon is focused on norm violations while ignoring the enormity of the president’s actions
On Sunday November 24, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired from his post after repeated clashes with President Donald Trump over the handling of the case of Edward Gallagher, a Navy Seal who has been accused of multiple war crimes. One of the accusations centered around the killing of a teenage ISIS member captured in Iraq in 2017. As The New York Times reports, “Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher and other Navy SEALs gave the young captive medical aid that day in Iraq in 2017, sedating him and cutting an airway in his throat to help him breathe. Then, without warning, according to colleagues, Chief Gallagher pulled a small hunting knife from a sheath and stabbed the sedated captive in the neck.” Prior to his deployment, Gallagher had written to a superior that, “We don’t care about living conditions. We just want to kill as many people as possible.”
Trump repeatedly tweeted in support of Gallagher while he was on trial. In July, Gallagher was convicted of one charge of posing in a trophy photograph. In his capacity as Navy secretary, Spencer wanted Gallagher’s status to be decided by a peer review board, which would determine whether he should be demoted, receive a dishonorable discharge, and lose his trident pin (signifying membership of the elite SEAL unit). Trump over-ruled Spencer on these matters.
While Spencer’s resistance to Trump’s actions is admirable, it was also rooted more in turf-protection than condemnation of the moral enormity of Trump’s embrace of war criminals. “This was a shocking and unprecedented intervention in a low-level review,” Spencer wrote in The Washington Post after his firing. “It was also a reminder that the president has very little understanding of what it means to be in the military, to fight ethically or to be governed by a uniform set of rules and practices.”
While the reference to fighting “ethically” hints at the moral issues at stake, the burden of Spencer’s comments is on the deleterious effect of a president interfering with military protocol. As so often in the Trump era, what is actually a political dispute is recast as a struggle over norms. But the issue of norms being violated is ambiguous. While Trump’s actions are despicable, a president does have sweeping pardon powers. Further, the principle of civilian control over the military is worth defending even if Trump uses it for a bad cause.
Trump’s championing of Gallagher is wrong not because it causes military leaders to wrinkle their noses, but because it is part of a larger push to normalize war crimes. Indeed, Trump’s actions can be seen as the fulfillment of a promise Trump made during his campaign, when he often complained that American soldiers were being shackled by rules that prevented torture and slaughter.
In a 2016 town hall in Wisconsin, then candidate Trump complained, “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight. We can’t waterboard, but they can chop off heads. I think we’ve got to make some changes, some adjustments.”
Trump doesn’t have the right to end American participation in the Geneva Conventions, but he’s found a work-around by using the presidential pardon power. Aside from Gallagher, he’s mitigated the punishment of two other soldiers accused of war crimes. By doing so, Trump is remaking the military. Going forward, soldiers know that if they commit war crimes while Trump is in office, they’ll have a Commander-in-chief receptive to pardoning them.
America’s allies and foes will also know that they are dealing with a military unshackled by longstanding rules of war. Even if the Democrats win in 2020, Trump has created a precedent for future Republican presidents, rendering rules restricting war crimes provisional and open to quick overturning. With a few simple interventions, Trump has effected a far-reaching policy revolution.
According to The New York Times, Trump’s embrace of war crimes is straining his relationship with the top brass. “The case of the president and a commando accused of war crimes offers a lesson in how Mr. Trump presides over the armed forces three years after taking office,” the newspaper reports. “While he boasts of supporting the military, he has come to distrust the generals and admirals who run it. Rather than accept information from his own government, he responds to television reports that grab his interest. Warned against crossing lines, he bulldozes past precedent and norms.”
As with Spencer’s Washington Post op-ed, this framing of the issues is too tepid and plays to Trump’s political strengths. By posing this as battle between a rules-breaking commander-in-chief and norm-preserving military leaders, Trump’s critics are allowing him to adopt a heroic pose. He can be Dirty Harry or Rambo, the tough-guy who doesn’t follow the regulations but gets the job done.
This is precisely how Trump presents the issue in rallies. At a recent rally in Florida, Trump styled himself a foe of the Deep State. “We’re going to take care of our warriors and I will always stick up for our great fighters,” Trump said. “People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.”
It’s understandable why military officials would restrict themselves to a constrained critique of Trump that avoids politics and focuses on norms. What’s been largely missing, is any political critique from outside the military. The historian Waitman Wade Beorn is a rare exception. Writing in The New Republic, Beorn noted that, “Trump is now breaking the moral backbone that prevents war crimes, demolishing America’s military institutions and replacing them with his own cult of personality and bankrupt values system.” This is exactly the sort of political attack that needs to be made.
Military men don’t have the power to stop Trump from normalizing war crimes. Nor should they have that power in a democracy where the military is under civilian rule. It’s up to Trump’s political opponents to find the courage to take up this cause.
*Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).