Trump Post-Mortem: My 5 Take-Aways from Trump’s Surprise Victory


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This is the English-language version of an article I just published with Newsweek Japan on Trump’s victory. I know there have been a million of these sorts of diagnostic analyses since he won, so this will be my only one. I will get back to East Asia politics next week.

I guess what worries me the most is how Trump toyed with proto-fascist themes, even if he himself doesn’t believe any of it. As I write in the main essay below: “He flirted heavily with race nationalism, illiberalism (attacking the media; winking to the alt-right), anti-democracy (refusal to recognize defeat; insisting the election system is ‘rigged’), and a cult of personality. That is awfully close to a fascist package.” Trump has now demonstrated that there is a constituency for hard-right strong man politics in the US. He ran as an openly misogynistic, racist, cultish candidate, and millions of Americans just didn’t care and voted for him anyway. This is the most important, and terrifying, revelation of the last 18 months. 

No, I am not in hysterics that America is about to collapse. We’ve survived a lot worse in 230 years. I am pretty sure we can survive the Trump administration. He and his family will be epically corrupt, but that won’t bring down the Constitution. There is far too much hyperventilating on the left right now.

But if Trump, or more likely Steven Bannon, can put his stamp on the GOP, the American political landscape will change forever. The Reaganite GOP is disappearing, and in its place will rise a National Front-like nationalist-populist party if Bannon has his way. The US has never seen a blood-and-soil European rightist party. We may look back on Trump as a right-wing turning point even greater than the Goldwater or Reagan presidential campaigns.

The full essay follows the jump.

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Who I Voted for and Why, II: Clinton, bc Trump is Grossly Unqualified


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Cleon, demagogue of Athens during the Peloponnesian War and the archetype of democratic demagogue feared by conservatives like Thucydides, Plato, and Aristotle.

The following essay is a re-print of an op-ed I just wrote for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blogline.

Conservatives who plan to vote for Trump might want to consider for a moment just how much Trump violates the basic principles capital-C Conservatism cherishes: order; paced, digestible change; caution/pragmatism;  stability and moderation in leadership; robust institutions. It is hard to imagine Burke, Buckley, Kirk, Disraeli, and other Conservatives reading Trump as anything other than the type of demagogue political philosophy has long warned can be spawned by democracies in tumult. Just go read Thucydides if you don’t believe me.

I say this one inclined to such Conservatism. I worked for the GOP on/off throughout the 1990s. I am hardly a liberal, even if I am an academic. But if you can’t see the demagogic potential in Trump – the likelihood that he’ll use the law to pursue his enemies or enrich his family; his demonization of out-groups; his belligerent, apocalyptic tone – then you just haven’t been paying attention. Trump just proved that there is a potential for something like authoritarian, maybe even fascist, politics in the US, and that should scare the hell out of all of us.

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Who I Voted for & Why, I: Clinton, bc Trump is a Threat to US Democracy


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In the interest of ‘pundit accountability,’ I will post my thoughts about the upcoming US presidential election this week. It is a pretty open-and-shut affair this year. As Foreign Policy put it in an unprecedented presidential endorsement: “A Donald Trump presidency is among the greatest threats facing America, and the Republican standard-bearer is the worst major-party candidate for the job in U.S. history.” Yup.

The following op-ed is the English language re-print of my anti-Trump essay for today’s issue of Newsweek Japan. I’d like to thank my editor at Newsweek for allowing me to wander out of my area of northeast Asia to write about the US election. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but this is not a normal election. Donald Trump represents an unparalleled threat to US democracy. He must be defeated, and I hope this op-ed helps that outcome in however small a way.

Finally, I don’t write this as partisan hackery. I am a registered Republican and have been my whole life. I worked for a Republican congressman, voted against Bill Clinton twice, gave money to a GOP candidate as late as 2002. I even interned for John Boehner way back in college. My ballot this year was split as I voted Republican in some Ohio races. I suppose I could have voted for Rubio. But not Trump. My god. He’s a terror. He’s not really a Republican as we thought of them at all until recently; he’s more like Marine Le Pen than anyone we know from the tradition of American politics. You think Nixon’s abuse of power was bad, just wait till Trump gets his hands on the Justice Department. 

The essay is after the jump.

The Coming Post-Trump Fight for the Republican Party: Out-of-Touch Reaganites vs Trumpist Insurgents


0726-thumb-240xautoIt’s the summer of Trump, so my July  monthly essay for Newsweek Japan (available here) is about him. I figure if everyone else can get on the Trump gravy-train, then I can too. For my specific thoughts on Trump and Asia, go here.

My interest is because I used to work in Republican politics in Ohio in the 1990s. I interned for John Boehner and later worked for a congressman. I’ve never really thought of myself as a Democrat, but the Republicans have gotten progressively more paranoid, anti-intellectual, and belligerent in the last 15-20 years. So now I am a ticket-splitting centrist, I guess – or at least I was until Trump came along. This is the first year I skipped a Republican primary, and I think the health of the republic requires a resounding Trump defeat this fall.

Anyway, this piece for Newsweek lays out what I think is the real impact of Trumpism. Given that Trump himself will likely lose and then disappear, his real impact will be that he opened new, white nationalist pathway to the GOP nomination, while demonstrating that GOP voters don’t actually care for the dated Reaganite agenda of the party’s Washington elite. So Ryan, McConnell, Laffer, and the rest now stand revealed as the emperor with no clothes as the nativists take over. Hence the next 4 years will be civil war between entrenched but unrepresentative Reaganites, and rising, insurgent Trumper nationalists. It is not clear who will win.

No, ‘American Sniper’ is Not the greatest American War Movie; it’s actually quite Conventional


Watching Fox News has always been a weird attraction. The hysteria, the persecution-complex, the frightening belligerence, the Obama conspiracy theories – what’s not to love? While I was home over Christmas, I saw more than my usual share, and the non-stop adulation coverage of American Sniper was really noticeable.

At last, the Iraq war movie neocons had been waiting for! Faith, family, nationalism, shooting foreigners (lots of foreigners actually) without much remorse, no tough questions about why the war was fought. It was a ‘Jacksonian’s’ dream, and predictably Limbaugh, Beck, Palin, and the rest swooned for it. And I say that not as some carping lefty, but as someone who supported the war far too long after it was clear that it was a messy failure.

That the right lionized the movie hardly disqualifies it of course. And it is a good film. But the meme emerged that this was somehow the greatest US war movie ever. That’s not even close to true. American Sniper is actually quite conventional. So now that the hype is fading, here is a run-through of the all-too-familiar aspects of the movie.

The review follows the jump and was first published at the Lowy Institute (here).

PS: The best American war movie ever made is almost certainly Apocalypse Now, and the worst is The Green Berets.

Park Geun-Hye’s Presidency is Turning into Status-Quo Maintenance


(For Korean readers, the following essay has been translated here.)

And who can blame her? Things are pretty good for her coalition, if not for a lot of younger and female Koreans. Unemployment is reasonable; debt and deficits are under control; the chaebol, for all their corruption and hubris, do make stuff people want; the much (but mistakenly) worshipped trade surplus is high; the Korean left, no matter how much they campaign on the Sewol sinking, cannot seem to break through; and so on. So why rock the boat?

The essay below the jump, originally published here for the Lowy Interpreter, argues that Park’s presidency is “drifting.” But as I have thought about it since then, I am wondering if maybe ‘drift’ is the wrong word. That is why I put “status quo maintenance” in this blog-post title. That suggests a little more agency than drift, because maybe Park really just doesn’t want to change much. Certainly her coalition, as I argue below, does not. Maybe stasis is the whole point.

I should also say that this essay was not intended as some major, biting critique of Park. A friend of mine at the Wall Street Journal called the essay below ‘scathing,’ and the Korean group who translated this essay and distributed it on Twitter has read the essay as a left-wing critique. But I should say honestly that this was not my intention – another reason I call it ‘status quo maintenance’ here. For Korean readers looking for liberal/leftist critiques, those are not really my politics (try here for the best lefty critiques of modern Korea). Regular readers know that I deeply distrust the SK left on foreign policy (too much excuse-making for the Norks). Also, I thought Lee Myung-Bak, who was to Park’s right, was actually a really good president and I said so in the JoongAng Daily. In short, this is not intended as a partisan shot for the SK left. I try to call them as I see them, and LMB, IMO, was a much better prez than PGH is turning out to be. I am sure that hopelessly confuses my politics, but so be it…

The essay follows the jump:

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My October Diplomat Essay: Russia between Empire and Modernity


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This is a re-up of an essay I just wrote for the Diplomat (posted here). And that image to the left comes from this famous (notorious, really) tweet. If that doesn’t capture the values clash between Putin and modernity – real men have tigers as pets, while Obama is a well-dressed wus – I don’t know what would. If you ever wondered where feminism in the study of international relations came from, there you go.

Russia is a bit outside my normal purview, but I’ve always had a running interest. I studied Russian in grad school and spent a few summers there learning the language. I enjoyed it a lot and like to think I am sympathetic. Like a lot of post-Soviet analysts, I find it tragic how badly misgoverned Russia has been for so long – literally back to Ivan the Terrible. Russia has so much human capital; if only it was governed properly, it could be a serious emerging market player like China. But instead its one megalomaniac czar after another – whether they be imperial, Soviet, or Putin – wrecking the economy for their own vanity and nationalist unwillingness to accommodate the West.

Putin would rather posture and bluster like a bully on the school parking lot than whip Russia into shape. Everyone knows what’s needed – real elections, press freedom, an anti-corruption campaign, and so on. But I guess if Western analysts say these things, the ‘Russian’ way for Putin must be to do the opposite. So we’re back to 19th century ‘Dostoyevskyan’ images of Russia as an Orthodox, anti-western nationalist power with a unique mission (read it for yourself, then compare it to Alexander Nevsky). That may sate the ideological cravings for global status of Russia’s nationalists, but it won’t help Russia rival the West in the medium-term, will scare non-Russians along Russia’s borders, especially Muslims, and will not impress Beijing, which long ago learned how to profit from globalization and capitalism (while corruption is destroying Russia).

Here’s that essay after the jump: