An unfortunate likeness

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.

Hindsight is 20/20

Ronald Reagan is often credited, especially among historians on the right, with having defeated the Soviet Union by challenging it to an arms race so costly that the Soviet economy collapsed, taking the political authority of Communism down with it. Some historians on the left prefer to credit Reagan’s diplomacy and arms negotiations, and to tip the hat to his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, but in 1986 Gorbachev himself acknowledged in a speech to the Politburo that the nuclear-arms threat from America was tantamount to an economic one: “We will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities. … If the new round [of an arms race] begins, the pressures on our economy will be unbelievable.”

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I wasn’t aware that there was a plan behind Reagan’s buildup. It seemed, rather, to be a mysterious and almost autonomous process, driven by fear and nationalist rivalry, not strategy. I was a child, of course, and maybe I didn’t understand. But I find that as an adult, I still harbor a doubt, perhaps unfair, that Reagan fully intended his strategy. I don’t doubt that he wished the Soviet Union ill, and there’s no question that he thought that stockpiling nuclear weapons would harm the Soviet Union, but I’m not quite persuaded that he understood in advance that military-induced economic stress could trigger a spontaneous collapse of political authority in the Soviet Union, of the sort that Hobbes alluded to when he wrote that “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them.”

Quite possibly he did, though. I was startled, a couple of weeks ago, to discover that a very articulate explanation of Reagan’s strategy had been published two decades before Reagan even took office. In the science-fiction novel His Master’s Voice, published in Polish in 1968 (and translated into English in 1983), Stanislaw Lem accurately predicted not only Reagan’s military strategy but the economic rationale behind it.

His Master’s Voice concerns a team of American scientists secretly attempting to decode a message transmitted in a stream of neutrinos from a distant galaxy. Because the team works under threat of a takeover by the American military, who fear that the Soviet Union might also learn of the message and decipher it first, the narrator has occasion to look back, from the novel’s imagined future, on America’s military strategy in the 1970s (which in 1968, of course, had not yet happened):

In the seventies, for a while, the ruling doctrine was the “indirect economic attrition” of all potential enemies; Secretary of Defense Kayser expressed this with the maxim “The thin starve before the fat lose weight.” The competition-duel in nuclear payloads gave way to a missile race, and that in turn led to the building of more and more expensive “antimissile missiles.” The next step in the escalation was the possibility of constructing “laser shields,” a stockade of gamma lasers which would line the perimeter of the country with destroyer rays; the cost of installing such a system was set at four hundred to five hundred billion dollars. After this move in the game, one could next expect the putting into orbit of giant satellites equipped with gamma lasers, whose swarm, passing over the territory of the enemy, could consume it utterly with ultraviolet radiation in a fraction of a second. The cost of that belt of death would exceed, it was estimated, seven trillion dollars. This war of economic attrition—through the production of increasingly expensive weaponry that thereby placed a severe strain on the whole organism of government—although seriously planned, could not be carried out, because the building of super- and hyperlasers turned out to be insurmountably difficult for the current technology.

Remarkably, Lem was not only predicting that America would engage in an arms race in order to sap the Soviet Union’s economic capacity, but also predicting that someone like Reagan would come along and accelerate the arms race by adding laser defenses to missile offenses, much as Reagan did in his 1983 “Star Wars” speech, which launched what Reagan called the Stategic Defense Initiative.

While googling to see whether anyone else had already written this blog post, I discovered that Lem himself explained his clairvoyance—sort of. In a 1986 book, One Human Minute, Lem wrote that years earlier he had gained access to “several volumes on the military history of the twenty-first century,” and though at first he feared betraying his knowledge of their contents, he soon realized that “The safest way to conceal a remarkable idea . . . was to publish it as science fiction,” and therefore slipped one of the secrets into page 125 of the novel he was then working on, His Master’s Voice. (A more mundane explanation is possible, of course: he might have punked English readers by slipping into the 1983 English translation a passage that wasn’t present in the 1968 Polish original.)

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

Asymmetric gardening

For years, I have had a pot of chocolate mint and a little terracotta trough of basil in the windowsill. For almost as long, the mint and the basil have had flies. (The adjacent geranium, for some reason, is immune.) I don’t exactly know what kind of flies they are. They’re smaller than fruit flies. Gray. Dusty-looking. They don’t bite, or they don’t bite me, anyway. They’re not skilled in evasive maneuvers. If you clap in the vicinity of one, you usually annihilate it. Sometimes I’ve even managed to grab one out of the air one-handed.

I haven’t figured out their life cycle exactly, but in one instar or another, they spin disorganized, misty webs over the plants’ leaves, which turn brown, in a sickly, mottled way, and then fall off. The flies, therefore, must go. I am too squeamish, however, to use pesticides inside the apartment on herbs that I am in the habit of eating. Snipping off the damaged leaves helps, but not much and not for long. The furthest I have gone in the chemical direction is insecticidal soap, whose labels proclaim its all-natural, organic nonthreateningness. Indeed, its mildness seems proven by its inefficacy. A thorough dousing with insecticidal soap seems to clear the herbs for a few days, but the flies always return. Perhaps there’s a reservoir of flies hiding elsewhere in the house—maybe in that bark that the orchid lives on, for example—or maybe the flies are only vulnerable to the insecticidal soap at one or two of their life-stages. In the latter case, if I were able to remember to spray the herbs at regular intervals all the way through a life cycle, I would succeed in eradicating them. It’s an idea, anyway, and so from time to time I have given myself strict instructions to suds down the herbs every other day even if I see no signs of the flies, and to continue with this schedule for, say, two full weeks. But I never make it to two full weeks, or however long a generation of flies lasts. After the second or third iteration of spraying, I forget. Or I run out of insecticidal soap. And the flies come back.

There have been two recent innovations in the technology of my warfare, however. About a month ago, the basil reached more or less the end of the line, and instead of immediately re-seeding, I was inspired to freeze the soil for a few days. (The label on a recent purchase of blue jeans had advised freezing instead of washing them, a practice that against all my instincts seems to work.) The flies declined noticeably, even though the mint and geranium remained at room temperature. Once new basil had sprouted, the blow couldn’t be repeated. Still, the small success filled me with a spurious hope, and casting about for another novel weapon system, I hit upon . . . the vacuum cleaner.

It is so pleasantly absolute. Whenever I water the herbs, a few flies rise from the soil where they’ve been hiding and hover indecisively. And now I suck them out of the universe with our Dyson’s attachment-less maw. I’m not sure the vacuum cleaner works any better than the insecticidal soap—I’ve been vacuuming the herbs for two weeks now, and there are still a few new flies every morning—but it’s much more satisfying. The flies are so decisively gone, once the Dyson has inhaled them. It’s a bit rougher on the herbs themselves, unfortunately. Now and then one of the mint’s runners or stems gets snuffled up by the Dyson and rattles around inside its tube until I tug it free. The leaves, afterward, are raggedy, and they blacken at the torn edges. From time to time, too, a clot of dirt is accidentally raptured.

My war makes no sense, economically speaking. I can get a week’s supply of basil and mint for $1.50 each at Fairway, and even at a freelance writer’s low wage, I must be spending much more in labor. Nonetheless, I continue. Murder by vacuum cleaner is more, shall we say, engaging than spritzing with insecticidal soap ever was, and I’ve kept at it for many more days than I ever managed to continue with spritzing. I find myself daydreaming about it. Last night, after I was awoken by a mosquito bite, I wondered if I should start vacuuming the bedroom for mosquitoes every evening. This morning, as I tapped the basil pot and dislodged one or two of the gray enemy into the perilous air, I imagined that someday I would have a little domestic drone that would regularly visit, Roomba-like, my houseplants, gathering in the winged unwanted.