Running to be torturer-in-chief

trump greatI was traveling last weekend, and as I was packing my bags to return home to Michigan Sunday morning I turned on the TV and caught Donald Trump’s interview with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week.”

I consider myself pretty hardened, but even I was taken aback when Trump not only doubled down on his Saturday night debate pledge to bring back waterboarding, but vowed to become America’s new torturer-in-chief should we be foolish enough to elect him president.

You can read the transcript below, or, if you can stomach it, watch the clip for yourself. If you’re like me you’ll want to take a hot shower afterwards to wash off the stench.

STEPHANOPOULOS: The issue of waterboarding front and center last night as (INAUDIBLE). You said, I would bring back waterboarding and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

What did you have in mind?

TRUMP: Well, George, you’re not talking about what I said before that. I said we’re living in a world where, in the Middle East, they’re cutting people’s heads off. They’re chopping a Christian’s head off. And many of them, we talk about Foley, James Foley, and you know, what a wonderful young man. Boom, they’re chopping heads.

So then I went into this. I said, yes, I would bring back waterboarding. And I would make it a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes.

What did you have in mind?

TRUMP: I had in mind going worse than waterboarding. It’s enough. We have right now a country that’s under siege. It’s under siege from a people, from — we’re like living in medieval times. If I have it to do and if it’s up to me, I would absolutely bring back waterboarding. And if it’s going to be tougher than waterboarding, I would bring that back, too.

STEPHANOPOULOS: As president, you would authorize torture?

TRUMP: I would absolutely authorize something beyond waterboarding. And believe me, it will be effective. If we need information, George, you have our enemy cutting heads off of Christians and plenty of others, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Do we win by being more like them?

TRUMP: Yes. I’m sorry. You have to do it that way. And I’m not sure everybody agrees with me. I guess a lot of people don’t. We are living in a time that’s as evil as any time that there has ever been. You know, when I was a young man, I studied Medieval times. That’s what they did, they chopped off heads. That’s what we have…

STEPHANOPOULOS: So we’re going to chop off heads…

TRUMP: We’re going to do things beyond waterboarding perhaps, if that happens to come.

Donald Trumpcydides

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Donald Trump’s critics and rivals have it all wrong. In his boycott of tonight’s debate hosted by Fox News, a product of his ongoing feud with the network, the GOP frontrunner isn’t showing fear or weakness, though that’s not how Fox itself sees it:

In a Tuesday statement to Business Insider, a spokesperson for the network mused about whether global leaders would be fair to a potential President Trump.

“We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings,” the Fox spokesperson said.

Slate’s Jim Newell was particularly blunt:

Opting out of the last debate before presidential voting begins, because the network hosting the debate issued a snarky statement, is a very big risk. Not only because, on first glance, he looks like a petulant coward.

But they’re wrong. Trump isn’t displaying petulance, cowardice, or weakness. Instead he’s channeling the principles first committed to writing nearly 3,000 years ago by the Athenian general and historian Thucydides, whose History of the Peloponnesian War is one of the foundational documents of the realist school of international relations.

Trump is acting from what he believes to be a position of superior power, and as Thucydides wrote, and Trump knows, the powerful make their own rules. Is it right that Trump walk away from a debate he had committed to in what his detractors consider a fit of pique? In “The Melian Dialogue” portion of his History, Thucydides gives us the answer:

You know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

As Trump sees it, he’s the one with the power. He’s the one who has tapped in to the anger and frustrations of the Republican grassroots. He’s the one who can seemingly say anything, no matter how outrageous, and see his polling numbers rise. Trump boasted to an ecstatic crowd of supporters at a rally in Iowa on Saturday, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” That’s how he sees his power.

From where he sits, Trump can with confidence declare that Fox News needs him on that debate stage, with the ratings he drives and the revenue that he generates, far more than he needs them. After all, as Thucydides observed, the powerful cooperate only when it is in their own selfish interests to do so. Trump, who can dominate the news cycle like no candidate before him, has no interest in helping Fox draw viewers. Which is exactly what he told them:

… as someone who has a personal net worth of many billions of dollars, Mr. Trump knows a bad deal when he sees one. Fox News is making tens of millions of dollars on debates, and setting ratings records (the highest in history), where as in previous years they were low-rated afterthoughts.

Unlike the very stupid, highly incompetent people running our country into the ground, Mr. Trump knows when to walk away. Roger Ailes and Fox News think they can toy with him, but Mr. Trump doesn’t play games.

Trump does not fear the power of Fox News and so has no reason to give it what it wants or to seek the network’s good will. Having taken this stand, Trump is unlikely to back down. Thucydides explains why:

No; for your hostility cannot so much hurt us as your friendship will be an argument to our subjects of our weakness, and your enmity of our power … If any maintain their independence it is because they are strong, and that if we do not molest them it is because we are afraid.

To back down, to compromise with Fox, to give it what it wants when he, not the network, holds all the cards, would be a demonstration of weakness on Trump’s part. A man in his position can’t afford to go down that road.

Meanwhile, political observers, the Republican establishment, and the remaining contenders in the GOP field, cling to the hope that the Trump bubble will eventually burst, that the man will finally take it one step too far, that voters will sober up, turn away, and bring his improbable rise crashing back to earth. But Thucydides offers them a blunt warning:

Your strongest arguments depend upon hope and the future, and your actual resources are too scanty, as compared with those arrayed against you, for you to come out victorious.

Before a single vote has been cast, Trump has more support than any Republican in the race. He doesn’t need the establishment’s money or its endorsements. He dismisses the criticisms of the punditocracy. No rival has gone after him directly and come out on top.

Has Trump finally overplayed his hand? Even the powerful can miscalculate. But I for one am no longer willing to bet against him.

Not yet.

Overthinking Sarah Palin

trump-palin-2016Conor Friederdsorf, who’s usually pretty level-headed, has a remarkably off-target piece over at The Atlantic today in which he suggests that Sarah Palin has rethought her commitment to neoconservative foreign policy and ditched it in favor of the still-muscular but restrained (in foreign policy terms) sensibilities of Donald Trump (whom she endorsed to much fanfare yesterday) and Rand Paul. Palin, he writes:

has always been an interventionist hawk. Bill Kristol played a part in her riseMatthew Continetti defended her at book length. If the Tea Party runs the gamut from non-interventionist Rand Paul to on-the-fence Ted Cruz to neoconservative Marco Rubio, Palin once aligned most closely with a Rubio-style foreign policy. It’s why an otherwise uncomfortable political marriage with McCain could work.

What’s the fundamental flaw in this take on Palin? It proceeds from an assumption that Palin ever had any semblance of a coherent foreign policy thought in her head that didn’t stem from her desire to boost her own profile. To his credit, Friedersdorf recognizes this may be behind her apparent change in approach:

One theory is that Palin never had any real foreign-policy convictions. She allied with George W. Bush when it was popular to do so in her party, adopted John McCain’s attitude when it was politically advantageous, and is changing again now that her most likely path to political relevance lies within a Trump Administration.

Too bad he dismisses the idea a paragraph later, offering the alternative theory that she has changed her stripes because foreign policy was never a priority for her.  Ultimately, he writes, it doesn’t matter because Palin’s break with the neocons is what’s really significant. And thus this:

Going forward, it will be fascinating to see what Palin says about foreign policy, especially if Trump squares off against Hillary Clinton, with her neocon proclivities.

No, you know, not really. It won’t be fascinating at all except in the way that a multi-car pileup is fascinating as you rubberneck your way past on the freeway.

The truth is, Bill Kristol and the other neocons weren’t drawn to Palin by her ideas, but by her story, her frontier image, and above all, by her looks. The shallowness of Palin’s rise to national prominence is nicely captured in this October 2008 piece from The New Yorker.

And now she’s back. Once again she’s basking in the glow of attention from media and pundits. Once again, we’re falling for the con.

A passive public and the death of democracy

Years before I started this blog I fooled around with Facebook’s “notes” app, which long ago (as measured in Internet years) people used to turn to when they wanted to post longer-form comments and ideas, things that didn’t comfortably fit in a status update.

I was thinking about that today in light of the continuing story of Donald Trump’s still ascending political star, the ugly rhetoric that’s fueling it, and the devoted followers for whom Trump’s brutishness seems to be a virtue rather than a liability.

Eight years ago, in March 2007, I posted a note on Facebook that today looks sadly prescient.  And so it’s worth bringing back and thinking about as this extraordinary political season sails into uncharted waters.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

evans bookI noted in my status earlier this week that I had been reading Richard Evans’ The Coming of the Third Reich. After finishing it last night I decided to take a break before plunging into the second volume of what will be a majesterial trilogy when it is complete. I didn’t want to leave it without a comment, however.

First, the conventional wisdom that the German people voted the Nazis into power democratically is tragically mistaken. As Evans demonstrates, the Nazis never did better than the high 30s in terms of their overall percent of the German vote prior to Hitler being named chancellor in 1933. So how did it happen?

I think Evans paints a vivid portrait of how a passive public can facilitate the death of democracy. While a majority of Germans never voted for the Nazis in their rise to power, they stood by and watched as Hitler and his followers systematically dismantled parliamentary democracy. The majority of ordinary Germans were not complicit in the rampant illegality that was the final Nazi rise to power, but neither did they resist.

There is a cautionary lesson here for our own times.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Trump is a fascist or a Nazi. As Dylan Matthews argues in a long piece at Vox, you can be a right-wing ethnonationalist who proposes immoral public policies without being a fascist.

You can call for barring members of a specific religion from entering the country while insinuating that those already here, citizens included, are lying about their loyalty to the homeland. You can pledge that one of your first actions in office will be to sign an executive order sentencing to death anyone who kills a cop. You can defend the beating of a protester at one of your rallies by suggesting that maybe he deserved it. That doesn’t necessarily make you a fascist, or your followers proto-Nazis.

But before the rest of us sit back and assume that this too shall pass, let’s remember where the passivity of the majority took another democracy not that long ago.