Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Week The Light Dimmed

Sitting in the center of New York Harbor is our Statue of Liberty. A gift from our long-term ally France, it is one of our most iconic images, recognized the world over as a symbol of freedom, equality and opportunity. Holding her torch high in her right hand, she lights the way towards those ideals not just for the physical immigrant arriving on our shores, but for the aspirational immigrants who seek a better life for self, family and neighbors in their own country.

America has shown the way for the world over four centuries. It has led not by force, but by ideals and example. Showing what can be possible, we have been respected by being respectful, serving as the yardstick for progress in the great human endeavor. Until the week of June 8 through 15, 2018. It was a week when all seemed to come apart, when America the noble became America the ignoble, and the light dimmed in Lady Liberty’s bright lamp.

First came a meeting of the G-7 group of our most longstanding allies since WW II. In the months preceding this gathering, Donald Trump unilaterally pulled us out of the Iran nuclear treaty negotiated together with some of these world leaders. At the G-7 meeting, he then imposed new tariffs on these valued trading partners. He justified tariffs against Canada as required because “our [non-existent] $100B trade deficit with them constituted a threat to our national security.” Canada? A threat to our security? Understandably, Prime Minister Trudeau threatened retaliatory tariffs against the U.S., while saying that “Canadians would not be pushed around.” Trump and his advisors responded as they usually do when challenged: they resorted to name-calling and insults, incapable of conducting a respectful, intelligent, fact-based discussion. Further insulting our apparently unimportant friends, Trump rudely arrived late to the gathering, then left it early. In-between he called for his best friend Vladimir Putin to be re-admitted to the group in spite of Russia’s previous expulsion due to its military aggression in Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, each national leader returned home to determine their own individual courses of future action. No wonder Donald Trump is despised by the general populations of most of our allied countries.

Then it was off in a whirlwind to Singapore for a summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. It was an off-again / on-again meeting, with hardly any planning for the substance of the talks versus the theatrics. Trump was embarrassingly effusive in his non-stop praise of Kim: “smart, strong, funny”; “loves his people, his people love him”; “we had a real chemistry”; “I trust him” – ignoring the poverty, the killings, and abuse of human rights that this absolute dictator exercises. Kim got everything he could have wanted: a rogue nation led by a leader now on par with the President of the United States; an offer to lift economic sanctions and encourage external investment; a unilateral end to US/South Korean war exercises (originally recommended by Putin) – an unwelcome surprise to South Korea, Japan and our own military. The U.S. got a promise “to explore denuclearization on the Korean peninsula” with no specific worksteps or timetable – a promise violated many times before by Kim’s father and grandfather. It was, simply, a big theatrical “photo op” of no material substance and a “signing ceremony” of a de facto blank page. Our negotiator-in-chief got snookered by the lack of any real negotiation.

A day later, the Inspector General of the Department of Justice released the results of an internal probe specifically and narrowly focused on the DOJ’s and FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. The conclusions? 1: James Comey did not follow proper protocols and chain of command authorizations in his public announcements. 2: The decision not to prosecute Clinton was correct based upon the evidence. 3: Political bias did not drive the investigation or its conclusions. Trump claimed that the IG report fully exonerated him of any collusion with Russia in the 2016 campaign, and that the Mueller investigation was improperly initiated. In fact, neither issue was within the scope of the IG’s investigation or conclusions.

On Friday, Paul Manafort, one of Trump’s several campaign managers, had his bail revoked due to witness tampering. He was then sent immediately to jail to await his two upcoming trials. He had spent months talking defiantly about fighting his multiple indictments, sitting in his million-dollar home dressed in his thousand-dollar suits. Will that song change when he is sitting in a small, solitary cell dressed in an orange jumpsuit surrounded by an unsavory jail population?

On Friday, it was revealed that over 2500 immigrant children arriving at the Mexican border, from babies to teens, had been pulled away from their parents and sent off to various holding centers. It reflected a new “zero tolerance” immigration policy from Trump/Jeff Sessions against illegal immigrants and legal asylum seekers, all treated the same. Ill-prepared Administration agencies are unable to verify where each child went, which child belongs to which parent, or how (or when) these families are to be reunited. The news led to an immediate explosion of condemnation from virtually all quarters of the country: all living first ladies; bi-partisan politicians; religious, charity and medical groups; governors and national guard units; police and social workers; and the public at large. Trump typically tried to blame everyone else but himself: “it’s the law” (no); “it’s the Democrats’ fault” (no); “Obama and Bush did it” (non-comparable situations with minimal numbers); “it can’t be changed by Executive Order” (disproven five days later when Trump changed course and issued such an Order). Concurrently, Trump did what Trump does best: stoking our worst fears by demonizing these migrants as subhuman criminals “infesting” and threatening our country. The policies were ultimately acknowledged to be a (cynical) negotiating strategy to force the passage of Trump’s border wall and other immigration measures. Nevertheless, the pictures of crying children – all alone, sleeping on mats on the floor, held in cages or dormitory “camps” – rightly managed to shake this country’s sense of itself and its values as no other outrage has done.

In ordinary times with a normal president, any one of these stories would be the headline news and national discussion for weeks. Instead, in these unordinary times with an abnormal president, all of these happened in just one week. Generating dizzying volumes of stories is the Administration’s priority; planning, substance and follow-though are unimportant; competency is irrelevant; chaos is the intended tactical result. The public is left increasingly exhausted.

The pictures of these isolated kids and weeping parents was just the final culmination to this week from hell. We continue to say, “it can’t get any worse.” And then it gets worse. The current public and institutional outcry may reflect the country nearly at a breaking point. The daily barrage of White House lies and misrepresentations is bringing trust between the people and their government to its lowest point. Lady Liberty’s lamp is still lit, but its intensity has dimmed greatly, making it hard to see our path forward in the political darkness. We were promised to “make America great again.” So far, America – once the great beacon of light for trust, hope, and good will for all – now simply seems lost, unadmired, unexceptional, increasingly alone.

©   2018   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Coming In 2026

All civilizations move in cycles.  Sometimes these cycles are the swing of the pendulum to the extremes of its arc and then back again.  What rises, falls; what falls, rises.  We might like to think of our national story as a straight-line march to and through the “American Century.”  But it has actually been a sequence of major chapters within the Great American Novel through which our erratic story has been told.

It took 168 years to bring America out of its infancy, its Colonial settlement period, from Jamestown in 1607 until the battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775.  Quite the long infancy period to get ready for this national adventure.  But when the time came, our forefathers and foremothers were ready.  They moved forward, working (unknowingly) in roughly 50-year major increments.

1776-1826 was our Founding Period, organizing this new American Experiment in popular governance.  It took a Revolution, a Constitution, imagination and deep commitment to move this vague concept into a working reality.  All of the principal characters of this first period were a product of the Revolution and Constitutional Convention, including our first six presidents.  Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died on July 4, 1826, and John Quincy Adams’ presidency ended in 1828, both events emphatically concluding this period.  But the Experiment in Governance, and the Founders’ goal of national unity transcending the states, had held.

1826-1876 took us into an Expansion and Division Period.  Presidential leadership moved from the patrician Founders to the era of the Common Man.  Andrew Jackson redefined the presidency into a power equal to or greater than Congress, and fought against the wealthy’s backroom hold on national power.  The country moved west and began to fill in the open space that would become the continental United States of America.  Yet this expansion was continually undermined by threats to divide this hard-won unity over the still unresolved Constitutional Convention issues of slavery and states’ rights.  The threats of division came true in the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the subsequent Reconstruction Era over the defeated South.  Reconstruction, and this historical Period, “ended” as a result of the deal-making of the 1876 presidential election.  As it turned out, ending Reconstruction reinstituted the pre-war South, who now fought a rear-guard resistance of continued division lasting through to this day, with laws replacing bullets and legislatures replacing battlefields.

1877 – 1929 was our Capitalist and Labor Period.  An economic division of America.  If you were part of the mega-rich Capitalist sector – the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Fords, etc. – it was the “Gilded Age” of absolute monopolies, boardroom collusion, and rigging the marketplace to obtain spectacular wealth.  If you were in the worker sector, it was about poverty, oppressive work, employment conditions without recourse or protection – ultimately giving rise to the organized labor movement.  Money dominated this period, and money equated to power.  Theodore Roosevelt’s attacks on “financial trusts” served as a speed bump along the road to wealth, but it only slowed, not stopped, the Pullman luxury trains.  Even World War I, which changed the map of Europe and the Middle East, was only a short diversion for America.  The “Roaring Twenties” brought all of America into the frenzied chase for wealth.

1930-1976 began our Middle-Class and Government Expansion Period, when the economic frenzy of the previous Period abruptly ended in 1929 with America’s Great Depression.  The family fortunes from the Gilded Age remained fairly intact through the Depression.  It was the common Joe and Josephine who lost everything, the ones who were the last to arrive at the get-rich party before the bubble burst.  Big-money’s power over the government was checked – though not eliminated – as the federal government’s attention, programs and funding were redirected to the needs and suffering of Middle Americans trying to survive the Depression.  Millions of middle-class Americans fought and won WWII at home and abroad.  Upon the war’s end, new opportunities from government programs created the largest middle-class, consumer-based, sustained economy in our history, redefining government and the face of American society. It was a redefinition that came to include a redressing of civil and economic rights across a spectrum of previously hidden constituencies: e.g. African-Americans, women, the gay/lesbian movement, Native-Americans, the poor.  Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to create a “Great Society” blew up in the 1960s/1970s wake of Viet Nam, the youth movement, and ultimately, Watergate.  Gerald Ford promised us that “our long national nightmare [of Watergate] is over.” But so also was America’s Middle-Class and Government Expansion Period.

1976 began our current 50 year cycle of a simultaneous Retrenchment and Advancement Period. Similar to the previous Expansion and Division Period, it is a time when a deep and contradictory schism has split the citizenry.  It has been a return to times past governmentally and economically, yet concurrently a leap forward in the social order and measures of equality.  Since the Reagan years, we have been on a steady return to the Gilded Age of 100 years ago.  Extreme wealth has returned into the hands of the few, leaving the great Middle Class stagnant economically – if not going backwards from its post-WWII gains.  We neutered the financial controls instituted in the 1930s, and in 2008 unsurprisingly had our worst Recession since that Depression.  (Apparently learning nothing, we are now dismantling the new controls that arose out of that Recession.) Since the mid-1990s, division has been our overriding theme of (non-) governance. The disappearance of bipartisanship has resulted in a virtual end of functioning government and a handover of power to wealthy businesspeople. “Conservative” politicians ascended and pushed for shrinking government’s size while practicing “fiscal responsibility,” but these have proven to be more idealized myths than actuality. Meanwhile, “Liberal” social themes from the prior cycle – civil rights, protected environment, racial integration, economic parity, and gay and gender issues – continued to expand. However, a backlash from social conservatives to this expansion has grown steadily out of a belief that their traditional family lifestyles, and their role in America, is under attack and being lost. The citizenry today is as polarized and paralyzed by two competing views of what America means as much as any time since our Civil War.

If our pattern of 50-year cycles holds true, then our next cycle is due roughly in 2026, 250 years after our founding.  What will this next cycle bring to us?  Like all others, it will unfold gradually, requiring time for us to identify the themes that are emerging.  Will the next phase cement the Retrenchment we currently find ourselves in?  Or will it push the Advancement forward and begin a new period of social, economic and political movement?  Will America achieve greater heights over the next decade, or start our gradual descent as a leader in world civilization – a descent that happens to all civilizations at some point?

When changes have occurred within our historical cycle, they have usually been forecasted by a rising tension between “the old that is” and “the new that is to be.” The end of the Founding Period saw a disputed 1824 presidential election and the political shock waves of Jackson’s presidency. The end of the Expansion and Division Period came with our American Civil War – our most deadly war – and the utter destruction of the Old South society. The end of the Capitalist and Labor Period was America’s twelve year Depression with its 25% unemployment. The end of the Middle Class Period was Viet Nam, Watergate, and the youth revolution which tore apart America’s cohesion and trust. In each instance, a drastic upheaval was needed to move our “current” into “past” in order to open the door to our “future.”

Today, we see governmental paralysis, the Trump dismantling of the institutional Presidency, the reversal of government’s role in America, and the abdication of international moral and political leadership. The result is a country in an angry divide not seen since the turmoil of 1968 and the immediate years beyond; the parallels between 1968 and 2018 – another 50 year cycle – are unmistakable. According to the Pew Research Center, in 1964 77% of Americans trusted their government all or most of the time. In December 2017, that number had fallen to just 18% (TIME, 6/11/2018). Donald Trump’s presidency is clearly the beginning of our next transition. What is unclear is whether his time will be the blueprint, the model for America’s next Period. Or, whether his excesses ultimately cross a fault line and become the final hurrah of Retrenchment, thereby giving rise to a new period of government and societal Advancement.

I hope to live to see the beginnings of this next American cycle, at least sufficiently to see the direction it will be heading.  It would be nice to have some sense of what kind of country my generation is bequeathing to our children and grandchildren. I certainly will not be around to see the end of this next cycle.  Perhaps the upcoming 2018 and 2020 elections will give us some preview of what to expect; the 2024 election will most certainly commence the opening step.  We should look forward to this next cycle with great interest and anticipation, but also caution.  It will be the next crossroad in America’s journey.

©  2018   Randy Bell                www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com