A letter from Parsnip

We should keep on blogging the way we have done.

On blogging in the Trump reign.

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street …

This is the opening line of Auden’s fine poem on the outbreak of the Second World War. A year later, Evelyn Waugh memorably pilloried Auden and Isherwood in his satire Put Out More Flags, as the poets Parsnip and Pimpernel bravely opposing fascism from New York. He had a point. In the summer of 1940, petit-bourgeois Kentish shopkeepers and lumpenproletariat middle-aged farm labourers were joining the Home Guard, Dad’s Army, in order to fight invading Panzers and Brandenburgers, a battle in which they would have got themselves killed. Every wargamed rerun of Operation Sea Lion confirms the wisdom of Hitler’s decision to cancel the invasion, but the shopkeepers didn’t know that at the time.

My excuse for Parsnippery is that I’m not American and don’t live in the USA, so I’m not running from anything. It would still be rather unseemly to egg on others to take personal and career risks from a safe vantage point in Spain. So for the record, let me say just once: I support the resistance to the odious acts and statements of an illegitimate, incompetent and dangerous President, and welcome what non-violent protest you feel up to. On violent protest, I am more with Macaulay than Gandhi and King, as long as it’s effective, which these days it rarely is. I do not expect to say this again. So what am I doing here?

A week ago I had a little exchange with Keith Humphreys. He wrote a post on blindness to “sweet spots” in public policy. I commented that such rational thinking had no place in the age of Trump’s nihilism. Keith rejoined that there are other players than the US federal government.

On reflection, Keith was right and I was wrong. So I, and as far as I am concerned my fellow RBC bloggers, should keep on doing what we have always done, as long as we have readers. There are negative and positive reasons for this.

The negative reason is that Trump and Bannon are creatures of the modern TV news cycle and of social media. Their political actions, and the responses to them, take place in a very short time-frame. Twitter is the preferred medium; for a blog to keep up, you have to run it full-time like Kevin Drum or Josh Marshall. Scott Lemieux is risking burnout. We can’t realistically compete here.

There are several more positive reasons for following the advice of Churchill’s Ministry of Information.

1. When in doubt, do what you are good at. Comparative advantage is an ethical as well as an economic principle. Of course, there may be no demand for your skills, as many horse-handlers found out round 1920. It’s still a reasonable starting point.

2. Keith’s sound point was that there are many actors in public policy other than the US federal government; other countries, US states, cities, and the intelligentsia. Add that Trump does not yet control the entire federal bureaucracy, and is unlikely to have the diligence for a systematic purge. There is still a Washington audience for reason and evidence, if not at the highest level.

3. American progressives need to plan ahead for their return to power. The US Army started training thousands of civil affairs officers from 1943, to handle the postwar administration of vast liberated territories. They did a good job, judging by the subsequent history of Germany and Japan. The scale of the probable failure of Trumpism may widen the Overton window of possible policy options in the Booker/Harris/Warren Reconstruction. For example, the incremental and piecemeal nature of the ACA reform allowed an effective divide-and-rule counterattack. A true universal national healthcare system like Medicare for all would create an “iron rice bowl” as politically impenetrable as the NHS or the French sécurité sociale. Is this doable? I dunno. But it’s worth thinking about.

4. Josh Marshall has pointed out that the battle for the 2018 midterms and the 2020 election will be played out in the “borderlands”, between the solidly Democratic cities and states and the solidly Republican states and rural counties. Democrats have roughly speaking to win back the staid Midwest voters who gave Obama a chance twice but not Clinton. Consider some of the issues they are likely to be worried about:
– the impending chaos in health care
– renewable energy and pollution, and to a limited extent climate change
– crime and drugs
– America’s standing in the world.
Surprise surprise, these are all issues the RBC bloggers write about with greater or lesser expertise (the lesser is me), but always with clarity and evidence. There is little reason to think our contribution will be off-topic and useless. Peoria won’t read us, but those crafting messages to Peoria might find us helpful.

So let’s Carry On. Bloggers and commenters both.

* * * *

A digression. Trump’s (or more likely Bannon’s) preferred tactic is the snowstorm: disorient your opponents by a blizzard of initiatives, so fast that they cannot respond strategically and are driven from one instant response to another. This worked well for Nicolas Sarkozy as President of France, for a time. But look at the differences. Sarkozy was not at war with the French technocratic élite of which he was a paid-up member. So he could delegate the execution of each initiative to other énarques, and move on smoothly to the next. He was also very intelligent, incisive and hard-working. Trump is a dim bulb who does not read state papers and spends his time tweeting and watching TV. Bannon is clever, but a professional rabble-rouser not an administrator. Priebus and Spicer are out of their depth. Flynn is a conspiracy theorist. Kushner and Ivanka are tyros. This ship of fools is not remotely equivalent to Sarkozy’s Elysée, or indeed the staff of any other world leader. Strike “world”; the President of Costa Rica and the Prime Minister of Luxembourg are better served.

The danger of the snowstorm tactic is that you get lost in it yourself. This is already happening. By alienating the standing bureaucracy, and in the case of the State Department gutting all its top management, and acting before the Cabinet nominees are in place, they have made delegation impossible. Each crisis stays in the White House. And the crises keep burning. Immigration? Mexico? China? Iran? Oh, stop press, they have just solved the China crisis by a humiliating climbdown. Even minor ones add their pennyworth: the UK state visit (the Speaker of the Commons, the maverick Tory John Bercow, is opposed to inviting Trump to speak in Westminster Hall), the insults to German economic policy, and nominating a representative to the EU, Ted Malloch, who has compared his mission to his role in the breakup of the Soviet Union. The political groups in the European Parliament have formally opposed accrediting Malloch. [Update: the speech to the British Parliament is now off. As I wrote, it’s hard to keep up.]

The problems accumulate. At some point the White House is likely simply to crack from cognitive overload; perhaps when ACA repeal becomes a reality. My inexpert prediction is that the life expectancy of the Trump Administration is measured in months not years. Paddy Power will give you 4 to 1 against a Trump resignation in 2017, which looks a good deal.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

5 thoughts on “A letter from Parsnip”

  1. Another thing that gives me hope is the apparent (some of it may be kabuki) ongoing clash between the executive and the legislature. Trump appears to be a man who can't take "Yes" for an answer, so some of both sides' favored intitiatives may stall as they disagree on who gets to take more credit.

  2. Let's suppose Trump does crack, and Pence becomes President. What difference would it make in practice?

    1. The confront-everybody foreign "policy" would go away. Domestic policy would be the balance between Ryan and McConnell, as it is already on ACA and the budget. Energy and climate? I don't know if Pence is as much in thrall to the oilmen as Trump, but I would not expect much real difference. Pence is more reactionary than Trump on reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and the like, but the President can't do much here apart from nominating SCOTUS judges. The other thing is that President Pence would not have a real mandate for anything, and would have a weak hand against Congress and the media. YMMV.

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