A new essay of mine, “Merchants of Doom” (with the online title, “Is Capitalism a Threat to Democracy?”), appears in the 14 May 2018 issue of The New Yorker. It reviews Robert Kuttner’s new book Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism? (Norton), and also takes note of Barry Eichengreen’s The Populist Temptation (Oxford) and Dani Rodrik’s Straight Talk on Trade (Princeton).
A few months ago, an unfortunate likeness occurred to me: What if Donald Trump is like Saddam Hussein? The arrest of Manafort this morning has reminded me of this terrible possibility.
Let me try to explain.
As you probably recall, America invaded Iraq and overthrew its dictator, Saddam Hussein, because America’s leaders at the time believed that Saddam was harboring weapons of mass destruction. And as you probably also recall, vanishingly few such weapons were found after the invasion, to the great embarrassment of America’s leaders. How did they get it so badly wrong? How was it that the intelligence agencies they depended on also got it wrong? The case has been made that America’s leaders were acting in bad faith—that they knew the evidence was flimsy and didn’t care because they intended to fool the American public. Maybe. But whether in bad faith or in earnest, the members of the Bush administration convinced not only themselves but also most of Congress and many of America’s pundits and journalists. Protests against the Iraq invasion were massive, but the leaders also succeeded in convincing enough of the public—or at least raised in enough citizens’ minds sufficient doubts—that the invasion went forward. How could the case have been so convincing when the evidence was so weak—when, in fact, the weapons weren’t there?
Well, one of the lines of argument at the time was this: Look at the way Saddam is blustering and obstructing. He’s accused of having amassed weapons of mass destruction, and we and a number of allies are threatening to invade his country and overthrow him. Would he really be willing to risk such a disaster if he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction? In his position, any rational person who was actually innocent would surely let international inspectors into his country and let it be proven that he was innocent. If he’s innocent, maybe it rankles him a little that he’s being falsely accused. But what politician in his right mind would value his righteous rage more highly than a secure and continuing hold on power?
You probably see where I’m going with this.
Saddam was not in his right mind. He was a malignant narcissist. He had virtually unlimited power within his own country, and he had grown accustomed to indulging his personal grandiosity without limit. He didn’t much care about staying in contact with reality for its own sake. What he was passionate about was his sense of honor and pride, which is a polite way of saying that more real to him than reality was the rage that he felt whenever his self-esteem was challenged.
What if Trump is a similar case? Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was arrested this morning on charges of money-laundering, tax fraud, and conspiracy to disguise his work for a foreign power, namely, pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Manafort’s connections to Ukraine and Russia looked shady even last summer, and there’s much evidence that through hacking and disinformation, Russia was trying to influence and did influence America’s 2016 presidential election. But what if Trump himself in fact didn’t have anything to do with Russia’s meddling? What if he fired Comey, and made and continues to make statements that threaten to trigger a Constitutional crisis, only out of narcissistic rage? I hasten to say that I don’t know that Trump is innocent of collusion with Russia, and that I do think that the possibility of such collusion should be thoroughly investigated, by investigators as independent as possible from his meddling. But I also think that people dismayed by Trump should be prepared, politically and psychologically, for the possibility that Trump didn’t collude with Russia and simply can’t get his mind around the fact that although he’s now the highest authority in the land he can still be subjected to scrutiny and doubt—even on matters where he happens not to be guilty. The insult of it! To be suspected of a crime one didn’t even commit! Democracies regularly inflict such insults on their leaders, but I don’t think Trump understands that he still lives (for now) in a democracy.
Please don’t let the arrest of Manafort raise your hopes too high, is I think what I’m trying to say here. I’ve thought since last summer that Manafort will end up in prison, and that he might not be the only one in Trump’s circle to end up there. In another era, to have hired someone so corrupt would discredit a politician, but politics has changed and we live in a darker world now. The investigation must go forward, and it’s wrong of Trump to make any attempt to obstruct it, but it’s possible that tugging on this string will not unravel the whole Trumpian sweater.
UPDATE, 11:25am: Maybe my take here has been superseded by the guilty plea of Trump foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos, which was released while I was writing it. At first, in embarrassment at my poor timing, I deleted this post, but in the interests of humility and full disclosure, here it is again. As of this writing I’m more hopeful than I was a few hours ago that Trump might eventually be shown to be guilty of collusion with Russia.
In Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn, a novel set in the 1860s about a somewhat hapless member of Parliament, one of the crucial political issues of the day is “the ballot,” i.e., whether votes should be public or secret. Though Finn is a liberal, he thinks votes should be public, at least at the start of the novel (which I haven’t finished yet); he believes transparency deters voters from choosing a narrow self-interest. Electoral reform, however, is on the march. Even though MPs like Finn aren’t yet ready for a secret ballot, many citizens are, and at the end of volume one (it’s a three-decker), a large group of protesters is scheduled to meet outside the Houses of Parliament, in hopes of influenceing a debate inside about adding the secret ballot to a larger measure for electoral reform. Finn’s landlord, Mr. Bunce, supports the secret ballot and plans to attend the protest. Finn tries to dissuade him, not because he wants the protest to be smaller but because he doesn’t think a respectable man like Bunce ought to protest and he’s worried that Bunce could be arrested. The two have an argument, remarkably civil and considerate given that they hold opposing views, and the way they talk about the worth of street protest, or lack thereof, and how to balance freedom of expression with concern for law and order, makes the passage seem awfully relevant to America today:
“What good do you expect to do, Mr. Bunce?” Phineas said, with perhaps some little tone of authority in his voice.
“To carry my point,” said Bunce.
“And what is your point?”
“My present point is the ballot, as a part of the Government measure.”
“And you expect to carry that by going out into the streets with all the roughs of London, and putting yourself in direct opposition to the authority of the magistrates? Do you really believe that the ballot will become the law of the land any sooner because you incur this danger and inconvenience?”
“Look here, Mr. Finn; I don’t believe the sea will become any fuller because the Piddle runs into it out of the Dorsetshire fields; but I do believe that the waters from all the countries is what makes the ocean. I shall help; and it’s my duty to help.”
“It’s your duty, as a respectable citizen, with a wife and family, to stay at home.”
“If everybody with a wife and family was to say so, there’d be none but roughs, and then where should we be? What would the Government people say to us then? If every man with a wife and family was to show hisself in the streets to-night, we should have the ballot before Parliament breaks up, and if none of ’em don’t do it, we shall never have the ballot. Ain’t that so?” Phineas, who intended to be honest, was not prepared to dispute the assertion on the spur of the moment. “If that’s so,” said Bunce, triumphantly, “a man’s duty’s clear enough. He ought to go, though he’d two wives and families.” And he went.
I spent much of the past week coughing when I should have been sleeping, the only boon of which is that I managed to read Jordan Ellenberg’s lively and instructive How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. I came across an alarming politics-related anecdote about Kurt Gödel, the mathematician who famously demonstrated that in any formal axiomatic system of arithmetic, there will be some true theorems that can’t be proved to be true.
Apparently, when Gödel was studying for the U.S. citizenship test in 1948, he found what seemed to him a fatal flaw. “The document,” Ellenberg writes, “contained a contradiction that could allow a Fascist dictatorship to take over the country in a perfectly constitutional manner.” For better or worse, the exact nature of this flaw has been lost to posterity, but Gödel was apparently so upset that he couldn’t help but talk about his concern with the judge who examined him on behalf of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, despite the advice of colleagues Albert Einstein and Oskar Morgenstern, who thought he should keep his worry to himself. Years later, in 1971, Morgenstern wrote down his memory of the exchange:
The examiner turned to Gödel and said, Now, Mr. Gödel, where do you come from?
Gödel: Where I come from? Austria.
The examiner: What kind of government did you have in Austria?
Gödel: It was a republic, but the constitution was such that it finally was changed into a dictatorship.
The examiner: Oh! This is very bad. This could not happen in this country.
Gödel: Oh, yes, I can prove it.
The examiner, Morgenstern remembered, “was intelligent enough to quickly quieten Gödel and broke off the examination at this point, greatly to our relief.”
Ellenberg’s source is a webpage at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a page that unfortunately no longer exists, but there’s an account of Gödel’s immigration exam on page 7 of the spring 2006 issue of the institute’s newsletter, and the writer Jeffrey Kegler has put together a synopsis of the documentary evidence and has shared a scan of Morgenstern’s memorandum.