The inevitable Brexit

[update below]

The UK general election is two days away and I am crossing my fingers—hoping against hope—that it will result in a hung parliament—though without the Tories, like last time, being able to form a government with the DUP (or any other party). A Labour-LibDem-SNP-Plaid Cymru-Green majority would be able to put an end to the Brexit folly, with a second referendum and inevitable Remain victory. After which another general election would be held and the world outside the UK wouldn’t care one way or the other who came out on top.

But I’m realistic enough to know that this is not the likely scenario. The Tories are well ahead in the polls and, barring a polling failure of the first order, will win a comfortable majority in the House of Commons—and with the UK leaving the UK next month and Boris Johnson in 10 Downing Street to the end of 2024. And the responsible party for this calamitous outcome will be the unreconstructed 1970s communist Jeremy Corbyn, who is Britain’s answer to Georges Marchais, though less entertaining in front of a TV camera (and two decades and some after the French Communists abandoned Marchais’ political vision). If the Labour Party hadn’t changed its leadership election rules in 2014—thereby enabling far leftists to hijack the party—the UK would most certainly not be in this Brexit mess. Maybe more about that another time.

Like lots of people, I have been appalled by BoJo and dismissive of him, viewing him as a sort of Trump wannabe. But I’m rethinking this after having read a lengthy portrait of him—”a great read,” as one friend emailed me; “brilliantly written,” so another tweeted—in New York magazine (December 9th issue) by Andrew Sullivan, “Boris’s blundering brilliance.” The lede: “Brexit has given the U.K’s self-seeking Prime Minister the opportunity to show he actually knows what he’s doing.” The piece is indeed a must-read. Sullivan may be interesting or irritating but, on this specific question, I instinctively trust him, as he is a product of Oxford, crossed paths with BoJo there, and as a working class ex-Tory (and anti-Brexit), has a critical distance on the matter. Sullivan presents BoJo as almost a social democrat—pragmatic in any case and hardly an ideologue—who will not sell Britain out to Trump’s America. I want to believe Sullivan here. The proof will be in the pudding. But Sullivan does convincingly argue that BoJo is not a right-wing populist in the mold of Trump, Orban, Salvini et al. And certainly not Marine Le Pen.

This YouTube video of BoJo reciting a passage from The Iliad in ancient Greek certainly proves that he is no Trump.

Regardless of what Sullivan says, the rhetoric coming out of the Brexit camp on the economy and social policy has been worrisome indeed, with talk of a “Singapore-on-the-Thames,” a free trade agreement with the US—that would lead to the gutting of the NHS, entre autres—and regulatory and fiscal dumping on a massive scale at the doorstep of the European Union. On this neoliberal vision/nightmare, one thinks of the last two films by the très engagé Scottish director Ken Loach. The most recent, which opened in France in October, is Sorry We Missed You, about a working class family (in Newcastle) in which the husband/father has lost his steady job and forced to become an independent contracter, and with the wife/mother working impossible hours—and neither earning enough to make ends meet. It’s the most incisive cinematic critique—denunciation, in fact—of the “Uberization” of our neoliberal economies that I’ve seen. Workplaces in France are not what they are in Great Britain such as depicted in the film—where no one mentions a Code du Travail—but if Emmanuel Macron were to get his way, it will only be a matter of time.

The other Loach film is I, Daniel Blake, which won the 2016 Palme d’Or. The protag in this one is a 59-year-old manual laborer (also in Newcastle) who is put on disability and thus entangled in the social service and unemployment agency system, which have been privatized and whose organizing principle is thus the bottom line—not in actually accompanying clients—and getting public charges off the dole. The film is a biting critique of precisely that: the privatization, or outsourcing to profit-making enterprises, of social service delivery, which had been—and should still be—assured by public employees. Having had personal experience with this here in France, where the state functionaries are dedicated professionals and whose objective is to help you, the citizen, I feel more strongly than ever that this sector must remain public and never be allowed anywhere near the private sector. Again, if Emmanuel Macron were to receive carte blanche, France would resemble its neighbor outre-Manche before too long.

Ken Loach is a gauchiste—more so than I—no doubt about that, but he makes good movies and that do not descend into caricature, bons sentiments, or manichaeism in their social critiques.

À suivre.

UPDATE: So the election resulted in the predictable Conservative victory, with a modest 1% increase in the Tory vote over 2017—a defeat for Theresa May—but a landslide in seats, which is all that counts. A huge victory for Boris Johnson and the incontestable brilliance of his strategy—of smashing Labour’s famous ‘red wall’ and uniting the entire Leave camp behind his leadership. And a corresponding debacle for Labour and the calamitous Jeremy Corbyn, who is incontestably responsible for the counter-performance. When a party’s share of the vote plunges from 40% to 32% in the space of two years—and witnesses its greatest loss in seats since before most people reading this were alive—the party leader is necessarily responsible. Nick Cohen nailed it in an instant post-mortem comment in The Spectator, “The polling that shows Corbyn is to blame for Labour’s decline.” It begins

The reason Jeremy Corbyn is not preparing to lead the first majority Labour government since 2010 is Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is proving the falseness of the cliché that ‘oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them’. Unless enough people are convinced of an opposition’s competence and decency it will not take power, even when all it has to do is beat the mendacious rabble that make up today’s Conservative party.

Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition did not win a majority and could never win a majority because millions could not vote for the incompetent and indecent Jeremy Corbyn. It’s that simple.

I am not just repeating anecdotal evidence from Labour MPs and canvassers. A vast poll of 12,000 voters, released tonight, showed Jeremy Corbyn was by far the single biggest reason voters gave for deserting Labour. Of those who voted Labour in 2017 but were less than 50 per cent less likely to vote Labour now, Deltapoll found the overwhelming reason people gave was they ‘don’t like Jeremy Corbyn’ with 46 per cent agreeing with that blunt statement.

As tonight’s epic defeat shows, Labour could not win because of Jeremy Corbyn and the rancid political clique he led. Do not underestimate the scale of the rout for a moment. Johnson’s triumph is absolute. The Conservatives could be in power for most of the 2020s because a bunch of student politicians and narcissist performance artists destroyed a once viable party.

To continue reading Cohen’s comment, go here.

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee likewise nailed it in her post-mortem column, “Devoid of agility, charisma and credibility, Corbyn has led Labour into the abyss.” The lede: “Yes, the manifesto was magnificent. But Corbyn has allowed his party to be riven by sectarianism, antisemitism and Brexit.”

For his part, The Observer’s political editor Toby Helm wrote, “I saw for myself just how hostile many voters were to Jeremy Corbyn.”

Paul Mason has an incisive comment in the New Statesman, “Corbynism is over – Labour’s next leader must unite the centre and the left: Only a pluralist movement can counter a dangerous alliance of conservatism and authoritarian nationalism.”

The tyke with a toque

Various people today have been wishing me a happy Thanksgiving, though here in France it’s just another day. Thanksgiving is every American’s favorite holiday, though if one is not in America—with family and/or friends, the turkey dinner in the afternoon, and football game (Dallas Cowboys vs. whoever) on in the background—it loses context, so no point in celebrating.

As Thanksgiving is principally about food, I will use the occasion to post a wonderful article in the current issue (November 25th) of The New Yorker by my dear friend Adam Shatz, “The tyke with a toque,” on his life as a child chef, from middle school years through high school, in western Massachusetts—and which took him to France. I’ve known Adam for almost twenty years but he only started to tell me in the last couple about this episode of his early life. He was on track to become a great chef but decided to take the intellectual route instead. I’ve had occasion to taste his cooking and it is indeed that of a gourmet fine gueule. If you read just one article today—or want a break from politics, climate change, and other malheurs—make it this one.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, which is receiving a fair amount of media attention here in France. As I told my American students this week—born a decade after the event—it was, geopolitically speaking, one of the most important events in my lifetime, not to mention exhilarating (I further specified that states that put up walls on their border normally do so to keep people from entering, but the Berlin wall was to prevent people from leaving). I followed the unraveling in East Germany from Algiers, where I was living at the time, via the BBC World Service (on my shortwave radio), International Herald-Tribune, and Le Monde (when I could find it): the opening of the Hungarian-Austrian border to fleeing East Germans, the demonstrations in Leipzig, and the sudden opening of the wall on the night of the 9th-10th. Unlike the Tienanmen Square movement in Peking five/six months earlier—which I was also riveted to via the BBC—this one did not end tragically.

For the anecdote, I went through the Berlin wall once, in August 1974, with my friend and traveling companion, along with a couple of Swedish girls we met at the youth hostel in West Berlin. One could visit East Berlin for the day without a visa (and that included US military personnel). So we went through Checkpoint Charlie in the morning and headed by foot to the center of the eastern side of the city, through a couple of blocks of buildings that were abandoned or hadn’t been rebuilt since the war. On the Unter den Linden we crossed a guy around my age (late teens) standing at a table, maybe selling or distributing something. He asked me in a hushed voice, and in English, if I had a map of West Berlin (the city stopped at the wall on maps available in the east). I said no or shook my head. Who knows, it could have been a set-up. Crossing back to the west at Checkpoint Charlie, around 6 PM, we watched the East German border guards slide a big mirror on wheels under the cars, to see if anyone was clinging underneath. What a system.

As it happens, there have been several very good films over the past two years on East Germany, of the nature of its system—of “actually existing socialism,” as the Hungarian philosophers Agnes Heller and Ferenc Féher tagged Eastern Bloc communism—and people trying to flee it. One is Balloon (the title in both German and English; the French title, Le Vent de la Liberté—the wind of freedom—is better), directed by Michael Bully Herbig and which opened here in April. It’s set in 1979 and based on a true story (there’s a lengthy Wikipedia page on it), of two families (of eight people) in a town in the hilly, forested southwestern GDR (in Thuringia), who concoct a plan to flee to the West in a hot air balloon, which the two men—who work together in a factory, one an electrician, the other who knows how to sew—have the skills to make. The attempt fails, however, as the balloon hits the ground just short of the border (with its electrified barbed-wire fences and minefields). They manage to make it back to their homes in the dead of night undetected but when the balloon is discovered, the Stasi launches a massive manhunt to find out who it was who tried to flee. The importance accorded to it at the summit of the East German state and mobilization of manpower and resources to tracking down the culprits—simple, otherwise non-political law-abiding people—takes one’s breath away. Knowing that they are in danger of being discovered, the families decide to confection another balloon and try again, with acquiring the materials without arousing suspicion riskier than ever. So it’s a race against the clock as the Stasi closes in on them, and which is hot on their heels as they take off from the forest in the second attempt (spoiler alert: it has a happy ending). It’s a terrific movie; a riveting, edge-of-the-seat thriller (the high-octane final scene recalls that of the movie ‘Argo’). A slam-dunk for AWAV’s Top 10 of the year. It seems not to have been released in the US or UK yet, though no doubt will be at some point. Trailer is here.

Another first-rate film, which opened in France in May 2018, is The Silent Revolution (In France, La Révolution silencieuse; the German title translates as ‘the silent classroom’), directed by Lars Kraume and also based on a true story (of course), this one set in autumn 1956 In Eisenhüttenstadt (then called Stalinstadt), at an elite high school, where the students are all members of the Communist party’s youth league, being tracked for elite careers and presumably with party membership. Two students, learning via RIAS—which listening to in the GDR could get one into trouble—about the reality of the Hungarian revolution underway—of the mass nature of the uprising and the bloodiness of the Warsaw Pact intervention—inform their classmates (equivalent of 12th grade), who decide to hold a minute of silence before class begins for the Hungarian victims. When the school authorities demand to know what the minute of silence was all about, the students make up a story that it was for the Hungarian soccer star Ferenc Puskás, who had reportedly been killed. But the reports of Puskás’ death were false, as it turned out, and could have only been heard via Western radio, so the school authorities demand to know who the ringleaders of the minute of silence are, informing the class that they will all be expelled—with their entrance to university thus compromised, future career plans scuttled, and parents punished for good measure—if they don’t cough up the names. It becomes an affaire d’État, taken with the utmost seriousness in East Berlin. But the students stick together and, one after the other, plot their escape to West Berlin (the wall hadn’t yet been built but there were checkpoints leaving the Soviet sector, making the crossing risky for East Germans and other citizens of Warsaw Pact countries). Crazy system. Trailer is here.

Another very good film—which was a nominee for this year’s Academy Award for best foreign language picture—is Never Look Away (in France: L’Œuvre sans auteur, which, like the German title, translates as ‘work without auteur’), by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who directed the 2006 masterpiece The Lives of Others, which remains the best film to date on the GDR and its system. The pic, which is over three hours long—split into two parts for some reason; I had to leave the theater and buy another ticket for the second part—is loosely based on the early life of Gerhard Richter—from his childhood in the mid 1930s to the mid 1960s—who has been one of Germany’s leading contemporary artists for the past few decades. The A-list cast, of actors/actresses one has seen in other German films, includes Tom Schilling, who plays the adult Richter character, Kurt Barnert; Sebastian Koch, a gynecologist and Nazi-turned-communist collaborator named Carl Seeband; Paula Beer, Seeband’s daughter and Barnert’s wife; and Saskia Rosendahl, the young Barnert’s beautiful, beloved, free-spirited aunt, who is committed to an asylum, and then sent to an early death, by the Nazi Seeband. I’m not going to recap the complex story—for that, one may consult the Wikipedia page—which takes us from Barnert’s childhood in Dresden during the Nazi era, coming of age as an artist in the communist GDR, suffocating under the reign of socialist realism, defecting with his wife via West Berlin (before the wall), coming into his own as a cutting-edge artist in Dusseldorf, and settling scores with his father-in-law Seeband, who was, as Barnert learns, responsible for the death of his aunt twenty-five years earlier. I was totally engrossed in the film from beginning to end. It is sure to make AWAV’s Top 10. Trailer is here.

And then there’s Cold War by Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, which is set mainly in Poland in the late 1940s—the Stalinist deep freeze—to the 1960s (also in Paris and Italy), and has nothing to do with East Germany except for a scene in East Berlin (pre-wall), when the protag gets past a checkpoint to defect to the West. It’s short film (barely an hour-and-a-half), a mood piece (with the jazz soundtrack adding to the moodiness), shot in a haunting black-and-white—it’s aesthetically beautiful—of a torrid love affair between a prominent pianist and a young singer. And it gives an idea as to how “actually existing socialism” persecuted artists who fell afoul of the system, as did the protag musician. I was engaged with the film and, like most people I know who saw it, thought it quite good, though didn’t have a tremendous amount to say about it afterward. Trailer is here.

Finally, there’s an animated film, ‘Fritzi – A Revolutionary Tale’, which I saw last month at the annual Festival du Cinéma Allemand in Paris (at the Arlequin cinema on Rue de Rennes). I hesitated on this one, as I don’t normally go to animated films, but as the theme sounded sufficiently interesting, I thought what the hell. Here’s the description from its English website:

East Germany, 1989.

Twelve-year-old Fritzi lovingly takes care of her best friend Sophie’s little dog Sputnik, while Sophie’s family is on summer vacation in Hungary. When Sophie doesn’t come back, Fritzi and Sputnik set out in search of her. That adventure leads her into the Monday´s demonstrations of Leipzig and towards the heavily-guarded border…

Historically accurate, authentic, and with lots of rich period detail and atmosphere, this moving animated movie for the whole family retells the story of the peaceful revolution of 1989 from a child’s perspective. An entertaining and exciting tale of the Fall of the Wall, and of the people who were brave enough to change the world, which will make a lasting impression, not only on young viewers.

The salle at the Arlequin theater was packed with some 150 exuberant 8th and 9th graders on a field trip from middle schools in the Paris banlieue, whom I learned (asking a few afterward) were all taking German as their principal foreign language (LV1). They applauded and cheered at the end. The youngsters liked the film. Nice. Trailer (dubbed in English) is here.


[update below]

My goodness, people have been flipping out since yesterday with the publication of the New York Times/Siena College poll—headlined on the NYT website and bylined by the redoutable number-cruncher Nate Cohn—showing Trump, with the election a year-to-the-day away, to be in a strong position vis-à-vis the top three Democratic candidats—and particularly Elizabeth Warren—in the six battleground states that are sure to decide the winner. The collective hand-wringing, indeed panic and despair, among liberals and progressives on social media, plus in email exchanges with friends, has been something to behold. To this may be added the finger-wagging “I told you so!” by Biden-supporting pundits and friends who have been warning that the Dems are courting certain disaster next November if they lurch to the left with Warren (and there’s a fixation on Warren over Sanders, who tends to be discounted—I have been guilty of doing so myself—though that may be premature). One such self-satisfied center-hugging pundit—whom I follow and normally like—is New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who entitled a commentary à chaud, “Poll shows Democrats have been living in a fantasy world,” and tweeting “The Democratic field has proceeded in blissful unawareness of the extremely high chance that Trump will win again.”

What poppycock. A few points. First, the NYT/Siena College poll is just one poll—”a new data point, but not a definitive one,” dixit Ruy Teixeira—and which may or may not be an outlier. That it could indeed possibly be this is suggested by Trump’s +6 margin over Warren in Michigan (sample of 501 RVs and MOE of 5.1%), which is hard to believe, as not only has there never been a poll in that state with such strong numbers for Trump but the Emerson poll of Michigan voters released Nov. 3rd (1051 RVs and MOE of 3%) has Warren with a +8 lead over Trump.  One of these polls is clearly way off (pour l’info, FiveThirtyEight gives Emerson a grade of B+). In view of the sample size and MOE, not to mention MI’s polling history, I’ll wager that the way off one is the former—and particularly in view of news like this.

Second, the election is a full year away, which is, to employ that cliché, an eternity in politics. And it’s still three months to the Iowa caucuses. As Nate Cohn writes:

There is a full year before Election Day, and a lot can change. Ms. Warren is an energetic campaigner. She could moderate her image or motivate young and nonwhite voters, including the millions who might not yet even be included in a poll of today’s registered voters. Mr. Biden could lose the relatively conservative voters who currently back him; the president could be dealt irreparable political damage during the impeachment process.

The impeachment process: It’s hard to see how Trump comes out of that—assuming he survives it—without sustaining at least some damage to his standing in public opinion. Cohn, however, adds this:

But on average over the last three cycles, head-to-head polls a year ahead of the election have been as close to the final result as those taken the day before.

If it had been over, say, the past ten cycles, that would be a history giving cause for concern. But three? Just because Real Madrid has won the Champions League title three times in a row doesn’t necessarily mean it will win a fourth. Three is not sufficient to establish a loi des séries.

Third point. Jonathan Chait and others are simply wrong that Democrats have been Pollyannas deluding themselves about Trump’s potential electoral strength. Democrats, who are congenital worrywarts when it comes to national elections, have been more than aware that the 2020 campaign is going to be hard-fought and that despite their incontestable advantage in the national popular vote, the Electoral College now structurally favors the Republicans—and Trump in particular, with his cultural appeal in the Rust Belt. N.B. the analyses last July by Nate Cohn and Dave Wasserman, which were received by Dems like a five-alarm fire, of the growing skew in the EC, that the Democrats could win the national popular vote with an up to 5% spread but still fall short in a tipping state like Wisconsin, which is “balanced on a knife’s edge,” thus losing the election. And it is indeed the case that the demographic evolution of Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, even Minnesota—not to mention Florida, with all the Republican-voting retirees moving in—are not trending the Democrats’ way. To say that Dems don’t fully understand this is absurd.

Anyone who knows or follows me knows that I have been confident for the Dems’ chances in ’20, though do not categorically exclude the appalling possibility that the orange-haired idiot could win. He clearly has a number of factors in his favor, as enumerated in my July 12th post “Can Trump win in ’20?,” among them the power of incumbency, his party united behind him, no serious primary challenger, and a fanaticized base—of a fourth to a third of the electorate—such that the American political system has not witnessed on a national level in memory. And then there’s the money, of which Trump has an almost unlimited amount, and a campaign that will be/is far more professionally-run than in 2016. And his campaign—with its shock army of evangelicals—will invest massively in turning out every last voter inclined to vote for him, including lower class whites who abstained in 2016 and/or may not currently be registered—and discourage/suppress voters inclined to vote against him.

It won’t win Trump the popular vote but could the EC, to which the Democrats will have no choice but to massively invest in their own base strategy, of mobilizing Afro-American and younger millennial voters to the max—including the millions of potential voters who will have turned 18 over the previous four years—and combating Republican efforts at voter suppression. It will be base vs. base—and as I keep reminding everyone, there are more of us than there are of them, including in the states that will get us past 270 EVs.

Yes, Trump could hypothetically win the EC even with a 5-point deficit in the popular vote. But if it’s more that? Utterly unlikely. FYI, the spread in the national vote today at Real Clear Politics is Biden +9.3, Warren +6.1, and Sanders +6.8. Voilà.

On the (hugely exaggerated) progressive vs. moderate dispute, one thing Warren/Sanders detractors get wrong is that this will at all matter in the general election campaign. The fact is, Trump and the Republicans will set out to shred the Democratic nominee regardless of who s/he is. Sleepy Joe will be torn to pieces, Pete Buttigieg will be mauled in countless ways, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet—should either pull off a miracle surge during the primary season—will be tarred as wild-eyed liberals, if not outright socialists. No matter who the Democrat is, s/he will be demonized by the Republicans and Trump state propaganda (Fox, etc). Whether or not the Democrat is viewed by pundits and mainstream media as a “moderate” or “progressive” does not and will not matter to Republican voters. To them, they’re just Democrats, period.

À propos, Sean Freeder—a very smart and insightful political science doctoral candidate at UC-Berkeley—posted this comment on a Facebook thread yesterday:

[I]f being “centrist” is what beats Trump, then we are truly all in trouble, as NO ONE running is centrist by 2016 standards. As cute as it is to keep calling Biden centrist, if a candidate with his policy platform had run in the 2008 primary, he would have been the most liberal candidate in the race by far, perhaps excepting Kucinich. The party has already moved far to the left over the past several years, but no one seems to treat that as true.

The moderate label we give to Biden is a relative one, not an absolute one. Stacks of research demonstrate that most voters dont have stable policy preferences, or know virtually anything about the candidates who run in primaries. “Moderate” voters prefer “moderate” Biden because they think he and they are moderates, but neither of these things are true. They just like the label moderate, and those to whom it is applied, because it sounds “reasonable”. Warren has a year to convince voters that she’s not a wide eyed extremist, and that her plans are in the dead, dull moderate middle of virtually any other left party in the world.

Tout à fait. On voters not having stable policy preferences, one may add that the vast majority have little to no knowledge or interest at all in the details of policy. Paul Waldman, in his WaPo column yesterday, “Democrats have a dangerous misconception about policy and campaigns,” underscored this point. Money quote:

Try to recall a time when a single policy issue not only made a significant difference in the outcome of a presidential election, but it was because one candidate had a more popular position on it than the other. It certainly isn’t what got Donald Trump elected. Or Barack Obama, or George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton, or George H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.

Sure, there were arguments about policy in those elections. But voters don’t keep a scorecard on which they tick off points of agreement and disagreement with both candidates, then total up the results to decide their vote.

Presidential campaigns “are fought on character and broad themes,” not policy, which is one reason why the attacks on Elizabeth Warren’s Medicare-for-All plan, while perhaps valid, are, from the campaign standpoint, irrelevant. What Warren needed to do was come up with a plausible-sounding plan that does not raise taxes on the middle class—to deprive her Democratic opponents and, later, the Republicans of a sound bite on that, to be endlessly played in attack ads—and which she has clearly done (if Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein say her plan is serious and passes the test, that settles the matter for me). All Warren has to do now is defend her plan on the stump and in debates, and parry the attacks on it by Buttigieg, Klobuchar et al, which she will do no problem (pour mémoire, Warren is fast on her feet and sharp as a whip). And when the debate gets technical (which is not too likely with Trump), voters’ eyes will glaze over, with debate moderators eventually tiring of the health care issue and moving on to something else.

And if Warren wins the nomination, she will no doubt pivot toward the center in the general election campaign, as Will Wilkinson of the libertarian Niskanen Institute—who is critical of some of Warren’s positions—submitted in a tweet storm 2½ weeks back. One may be confident that she will assure voters nervous about losing their employer-based insurance that there will be no sudden, brutal transition. And once in the White House, inshallah, those with an even minimal knowledge of how American government works know that President Warren will not be able to implement her M4A plan by executive order. Congress will have a say in it—i.e. almost the entire say—and that even if the Dems win a decisive majority in the Senate and abolish the filibuster, there is no chance that M4A will be adopted in anything resembling its present form. Moderate senators (Michael Bennet et al) will take charge and pass a more modest bill (at minimum, reinforced ACA with a public option), and Warren will be fine with that, as she knows how Congress and legislation works. Her M4A plan, which people are dumping on, is all about firing up the base, moving the Overton window, and setting out a long term vision, which will be realized down the line via incremental reforms (and as it’s Elizabeth Warren, she of course needs to have a plan). Pundits know this, which is why the current polemics over the issue are so ridiculous.

Warren presently has Wall Street in a panic, as one reads. Nice. This no doubt makes “moderate” Democrats very nervous but none have, so far as I’ve seen, taken on Warren on this one…

I have a lot more say on the Dems, on Bernie (toward whom I am warming), Biden (who I really wish were not in the race), Buttigieg (if he knocks off Biden for the moderate slot, so much the better), and others. La prochaine fois.

À suivre. In the meantime, check out the current head-to-head numbers in the key swing states.

UPDATE: Yale University political science professor Jacob S. Hacker argues, in a NYT op-ed (Nov. 5th), that “Elizabeth Warren is asking the most important question on health care: How can we move from a broken system to one that covers everyone, restrains prices and improves outcomes?”

For the record, Lawrence Summers says in a WaPo op-ed that “Warren’s plan to finance Medicare-for-all pushes into dangerous and uncharted territory.”

Lock him up!

Magnet on my refrigerator

[update below]

That’s what the crowd chanted at Nationals Park in Washington Sunday night (game 5 of the World Series) when the wanker’s presence (in a stadium luxury box) was announced, as everyone has heard by now. How gratifying. Certain belles âmes in the mainstream media and Democratic Party establishment deplored the stadium taunting, equating it with the “lock her up!” chanting at Trump rallies aimed at Hillary Clinton. Talk about a false equivalence. In addition to the fact that Trump directed the chanting himself at his rallies, Hillary Clinton never committed a single crime or even misdemeanor, or was ever indicted for a thing—and, as we know, has been definitively cleared of any legal impropriety in the emails business. As for Trump on this score, his serial criminality requires no explanation or elaboration at this point. The man has been in and out of court for decades, been sued by dozens (perhaps hundreds; who’s counting?), and spent millions on lawyers defending himself, counter-suing others, and gaming the system. That he has avoided prison up to now is proof in the pudding of a certain corruption in the American judicial system, where money—how much one has—really does count.

But justice will ultimately be served, inshallah, and with Trump locked up for many years, after a fair trial, of course, hopefully preceded—wouldn’t it be nice—by the perp walk and in handcuffs. And with his real estate empire liquidated and name effaced from every edifice. His conditions of imprisonment should be comfortable—we don’t want to be vindictive—but with no Twitter or television, except for MSNBC in the evening (plus Al Jazeera if he likes). Juste un rêve…

It’s a foregone conclusion that Trump will be impeached by the House, though conviction by the Senate looks most unlikely. But maybe not. A number of commentators and pundits, conservatives among them, have speculated that enough Senate Republicans could indeed vote to convict in the end. E.g. Peggy Noonan, who has not been suspected of Never Trumpism and, ça va de soi, knows a lot of Republicans in Washington, had a noteworthy op-ed, dated Oct. 17th, in The Wall Street Journal, “The impeachment needle may soon move: The mood has shifted against Trump, but the House has to show good faith and seriousness.” It begins:

Things are more fluid than they seem. That’s my impression of Washington right now. There’s something quiet going on, a mood shift.

Impeachment of course will happen. The House will support whatever charges are ultimately introduced because most Democrats think the president is not fully sane and at least somewhat criminal. Also they’re Democrats and he’s a Republican. The charges will involve some level of foreign-policy malfeasance.

The ultimate outcome depends on the Senate. It takes 67 votes to convict. Republicans control the Senate 53-47, and it is unlikely 20 of them will agree to remove a president of their own party. An acquittal is likely but not fated, because we live in the age of the unexpected.

Here are three reasons to think the situation is more fluid than we realize.

First, the president, confident of acquittal, has chosen this moment to let his inner crazy flourish daily and dramatically—the fights and meltdowns, the insults, the Erdogan letter. Just when the president needs to be enacting a certain stability he enacts its opposite. It is possible he doesn’t appreciate the jeopardy he’s in with impeachment bearing down; it is possible he knows and what behavioral discipline he has is wearing down.

The second is that the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, told his caucus this week to be prepared for a trial that will go six days a week and could last six to eight weeks. In September there had been talk the Senate might receive articles of impeachment and execute a quick, brief response—a short trial, or maybe a motion to dismiss. Mr. McConnell told CNBC then that the Senate would have “no choice” but to take up impeachment, but “how long you are on it is a different matter.” Now he sees the need for a major and lengthy undertaking. Part of the reason would be practical: He is blunting attack lines that the Republicans arrogantly refused to give impeachment the time it deserves. But his decision also gives room for the unexpected—big and serious charges that sweep public opinion and change senators’ votes. “There is a mood change in terms of how much they can tolerate,” said a former high Senate staffer. Senators never know day to day how bad things will get.

The third reason is the number of foreign-policy professionals who are not ducking testimony in the House but plan to testify or have already. Suppressed opposition to President Trump among foreign-service officers and others is busting out. (…)

A six to eight week Senate trial, with all that will be revealed during that interminable period and Trump melting down daily… Does one imagine that all but two or three GOP senators will remain with him to the end, and particularly if his approval rating descends below 40%?

In writing last Friday on “the collapse of the president’s defense,” Benjamin Wittes—editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution—observed that

Polls are unmovable until they move. Cracks in the wall are mere cracks until the wall comes down and we realize the bricks were actually just the spaces between the cracks. Senators are a fickle lot, and when the winds shift, they can shift suddenly.

The Washington Post had a report yesterday co-authored by Robert Costa—the National Review’s Washington editor before joining WaPo and who knows the congressional GOP comme sa poche—with the title, “‘It feels like a horror movie’: Republicans feel anxious and adrift defending Trump.” One notes this bit:

The GOP majority is in play in 2020, with Collins, Joni Ernst (Iowa), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Martha McSally (Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (N.C.) each facing tough campaigns and grappling with polls in their states showing independent voters souring on Trump and open to impeachment.

“At some point, McConnell is going to have to perform triage to save the majority,” said Rick Wilson, a longtime GOP consultant and Trump critic. “How the Senate Republicans handle everything is all going to come down to how threatened Mitch feels and how worried he is about losing Colorado, North Carolina and a few other states. And if Trump’s numbers keep dropping, that decision is going to come sooner than later for him.”

On calculations over the outcome of next year’s Senate races, Henry Olson—a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center—had some interesting observations in his Oct. 23rd WaPo column, “Trump is blowing his defense against impeachment.” E.g. this:

Trump is too personally tied to [the Ukraine] scandal to deny responsibility, but he could admit that he displayed poor judgment and pledge to turn over a new leaf. That might help him in the court of public opinion.

That’s not going to happen, though, because it runs counter to the pattern of Trump’s entire adult life. He built his public reputation as the man whose skill and will get him what he wants. Whether it’s in business, dating and marrying beautiful women, or “draining the swamp,” the entire Trump mystique is built around the idea of the daring, infallible “stable genius” who lives the life of power and luxury that most people only dream of. This is the character he has created for himself, and he is incapable of changing the script now.

Trump is Trump. He’ll never change. Olson concludes:

That both elites and average voters might be outraged by [Trump’s] decisions [to abandon the Kurds in Syria and hold the G-7 summit at his property near Miami] never entered his mind because he rarely tries to persuade people rather than sell himself to a niche market.

You can get rich and powerful marketing to a niche market. The Trump brand wasn’t for everyone, but it was attractive to enough people to fuel his real estate and product-branding enterprises. The Trump political persona clearly alienates millions of people, but it attracts millions of others. These people like the vision of Trump the president peddles, and like any good niche marketer, he keeps giving his acolytes what they want.

The trouble for Trump is that presidents can’t win without building larger coalitions. Trump won in 2016 because he persuaded that election’s swing voter — the person who disliked both him and Hillary Clinton — that “Never Hillary” was better for that person than “Never Trump.” Those people form the core of the person he needs to talk to now, and they aren’t buying the idea that the Democratic investigation is worse than what Trump appears to have done.

This conclusion spells near-certain doom for Trump if it persists. Trump’s reelection strategy has clearly been to rerun the 2016 campaign: hold the Trump base and coalition together and demonize the Democratic nominee, terrorizing the voter in the middle to reluctantly choose him again. That person, however, is unlikely to do that if he or she has already concluded that Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine are so bad that he should be removed from office through impeachment.

Trump’s character made him famous and gave him the presidency. Unless there’s more behind the mask he has created, however, it will also likely lead to his political demise.

If Trump is doomed in November 2020, so too will be the Republican majority in the Senate. If Trump goes down, he will make sure to take Moscow Mitch, Lickspittle Lindsey, and the rest of the wretched GOP band with him. When this becomes clear during the Senate trial, if not before, one may presume that the latter will do what they need to do, with the (illusory) hope that a President Pence will enable them to sauver les meubles and keep their majority.

But if Trump does survive the Senate trial, thus making it to Nov. ’20, does one really think that, after all we will have been through, he will clear 270 EVs and after a general election campaign dominated by the policy details of Medicare-for-All, or Democratic proposals to amend Section 1325 of Title 8 of the U.S. Code? Come now.

À suivre.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has a report from Florida (Oct. 31) by national correspondent Griff Witte, “Is Trump’s base breaking over impeachment? The tale of a congressman’s defiance suggests not,” that will throw cold water on the prediction/hope that GOP senators will vote to convict Trump.

And National Review editor Rich Lowry has an opinion piece (Oct. 24) in Politico, “The fantasy of Republicans ditching Trump,” that makes a lot of sense. He may well be right, alas.


Describing Trump

This one has been making the rounds on social media, and which merits reposting on AWAV. Someone on the popular question-and-answer website Quora asked, “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?” A witty and insightful writer from England named Nate White wrote the response below, which is as spot-on a description of Trump-the-man as one will find:

A few things spring to mind.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.

He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.

He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

  • Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
  • You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:

‘My God… what… have… I… created?

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.’


On a somewhat sobering note, Peter Beinart’s latest, typically insightful piece in The Atlantic is entitled, “The two psychological tricks Trump is using to get away with everything: His brazen attempts to redefine the norms of acceptable conduct work for a reason.”

IMHO Trump will not get away with this, i.e. what he will be impeached for. His luck will run out. Inshallah.

The impeachment inquiry

I was going to offer my initial thoughts on the impeachment inquiry ten days ago but got distracted by Jacques Chirac (see previous post). Two immediate comments. First, it’s about time. Finally. Second, the (flawed) arguments by pundits and skittish Democrats against trying to impeach Trump—that it would be opposed by a majority of the public, surely fail in the Senate, and end up reinforcing the Mad King and his reelection chances—are now obsolete. They have been overtaken by events. One thing is certain: like Brexit, we have no idea how this thing is going to play out. But one other thing is also certain, which is that there will necessarily be a succession of revelations during the House inquiry that are highly damaging to Trump—as a sociopath and lifelong con man who should have been sent to the slammer many years ago, how will it be otherwise?—making impeachment an all but foregone conclusion. And does anyone seriously believe even at this early stage—with support for impeachment spiking in the polls and Trump melting down daily and flailing hysterically—that even in the event that the Senate does not vote to convict—which looks like the probable outcome at present but who knows?—that Trump will come out of the process politically strengthened? And moreover, given that he is piling on the provocations and manifest illegality daily, is certainly clinically psychotic—and likely in the early stages of dementia—and with a staff of bootlickers, lickspittles, and lackeys; in short, people who are, objectively speaking, not very smart? Or, as they would say over here, qui ne sont pas des fins stratèges ou des flèches? Come on.

It is now well understood by erstwhile impeachment skeptics that, with the revelation of the Trump-Zelensky telephone conversation, Nancy Pelosi had no choice but to finally open an impeachment inquiry. And all the more so as even non-Never Trump conservatives suggested that the Ukraine affair has pushed Trump into impeachment territory. The consequences of a Democratic failure to act would have been disastrous, signaling to Trump that he could commit unconstitutional or illegal acts with impunity—and with the Democrats looking like castrated eunuchs and Trump’s fanaticized supporters exulting. As Will Wilkinson—the very smart vice-president of the libertarian Niskanen Center think tank—put it in an excellent NYT op-ed, impeachment simply became “imperative.”

In one of the best essays of the past week, the conservative lawyer George T. Conway III (husband of Trump spinmeistresse Kellyanne, if one didn’t know), writing in The Atlantic, submitted quite simply that Trump is “unfit for office” and with his malignant “narcissism mak[ing] it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.” Conway’s piece is long but essential reading.

On how the impeachment inquiry endgame may play out, writer and ex-SCOTUS clerk Dean Gloster, who represented two “high-functioning narcissistic sociopaths” in his former career as a lawyer—who describes himself as “the guy the awful people came to after they’d screwed up so badly in front of federal judges with their first lawyers and wanted saving”—offered some experience-based thoughts in a must-read Twitter storm, and with some pointers for Trump’s flunkies and henchmen whom Adam Schiff will be serving with subpoenas. In his view, it will be sauve qui peut.

As to how Adam Schiff’s committee should pursue the hearings, Trump-loathing onetime Republican operative Rick Wilson, who’s always a pleasure to read, has these recommendations in his September 25th Daily Beast column, entitled “Five simple rules for impeaching our president: Battle on and for TV, ignore the old rules, expect the worst from Republicans, cause pain, and let the pros work.”

Rule 1: This is a battle by, for, and of television.

Donald Trump is a reality-TV star. It’s all he understands. It’s the only thing that penetrates that gigantic bone dome concealing his tiny lizard brain. The hearings must be public, televised, media-friendly, and done in a way that emphasizes the scope and intensity of this investigation. Remember, America elected this orange jackhole in large measure because they saw him pretending to be a CEO on a reality-TV show. If Congress provides moments of critical gravity on-air, preferably live, Trump’s brain will melt.

Rule 2: Ignore the old rules. Trump certainly will.

The first rule of Trump Fight Club is that there are no rules. The real battle to come is one of spectacle, drama, loud noises, and made-for-TV confrontations, not careful legal proceedings and meticulous fact-finding. Democrats shouldn’t be trying to make an air-tight legal case; they should be making a vivid, powerful, political and public case against Trump’s lawbreaking, greed, and sleaze. Don’t get caught up in the petty details; work the big, brash picture.

Trump is playing to his strength. As a man without shame, his only goal is to create a larger explosion, a bigger shock, a more powerful emotional response. He’s playing to his base; if Democrats are playing to the New York Times editorial board, they’re fucked.

Rule 3: Expect fuckery from the Republicans.

Play back every hearing in the past year where Fredo Nunes, Jim Jordan, Matt Gaetz, Mark Meadows, or any other member of the Deep State Douche Caucus rolled out some bizarre attack utterly unrelated to the actual investigation.

They’re going to ramp this up by a factor of a million, using every procedural trick in the book to blow up every hearing. The chairmen of these hearings need to drop the goddamn hammer on these jerkoffs, and hard. Suspend rules, crack skulls, cut corners—just keep the conversation and the camera on the Trump scumbags in the dock for questioning.

Don’t expect any heroes from the GOP; Republican members view him with more fear than loathing, and that’s the ballgame. Some true believers will be there to detonate themselves in service to the Dear Leader; they’re the Trumphadi caucus, and guys like Gym Jordan are one televised hissy fit from strapping on a bomb vest and charging the gate at Chappaqua. Once the filing deadlines for the GOP primaries have passed, you might have a little more luck but, until then, expect nothing but trouble.

Rule 4: Cause pain.

So far, no one from Trump’s world has felt the slightest bit of pressure or pain from contempt, lying, withholding information, evading subpoenas or being a Trumpian cocknozzle. When sinister Trump-world shitbird Corey Lewandowski lied his ass off before the House Judiciary Committee and verbally abused members of Congress, he did everything but take a dump on Jerry Nadler’s desk, and still walked away scot-free. If the shoe was on the other partisan foot, Lewandowski would have been perp-walked out of the room and strip-searched in the Rotunda.

If “inherent contempt” isn’t in the Democrats’ playbook right now, then forget impeachment and plan for a season of stonewalling. So what if the law is vague or there’s going to be a big old habeas corpus fight? You’re looking for the video clip of some Trump fuckwit being heaved off his feet and dragged out of the hearing room in contempt, not a legal-eagle panel on MSNBC nodding sagely.

You have to attack Trump’s weak spots; his money, his taxes, and his kids. Raise the stakes for all of them. Press harder. Be more cruel and more determined, because the other side most certainly has decided to lie and stonewall until you lose patience. Drag all of them, even the most tangential characters in Trumpworld.

Rule 5: Let the professionals work.

I know every member of Congress wants to be the star of the impeachment hearings. That’s not how this game works. They need to treat this like a televised trial, not like a goddamn press availability at the East Bumfuck Rotary Club.

The Democrats need to get professional, outside prosecutors to serve as the lead interrogators for every Trump witness. Pipe-swinging attorneys asking meaningful and high-risk questions to the Trump witnesses is better television, better lawyering, and better at wrecking Trump’s headspace than the five-minute-rule boredom of normal hearings.

And one more rule, mostly for the press: Stop taking the bait.

The president of the United States of America is, as you may have noticed by now, a lying liar who lies. The people around him are more of the same.

You’re not required to edit his word salad into coherent video or quotes. You’re not required to cover every one of his lunatic accusations as if it were gospel fact. If Trump makes an outrageous claim, he depends on the reporters around him to merely amplify what he said and not to call bullshit. This is how Trump has hacked the media system to his advantage. Even his lies, when reported, are believed as truth.

It’s past time for the press to call bullshit. No one is required to report verbatim the details of the president’s outrageous lies, only that he told them.

Those are the new roles, to win a fight that is going to be long, bloody, and painful. We’re still at the beginning of the beginning, as much as we may wish otherwise.

Trump deserves impeachment. America deserves a Democratic Party that has the strength, discipline, focus, and determination to carry it off.

In his follow-up October 2nd column, “Trump is going to burn down everything and everyone, and Republicans, that means you,” Wilson begins:

Donald Trump’s Oval Office performance-art masterpiece Wednesday was one for the ages, a pity-party, stompy-foot screech session by President Snowflake von Pissypants, the most put-upon man ever to hold the highest office in the land. If you watched his nationally televised press conference, Trump’s shrill, eye-popping hissy fit scanned like the end of a long, coke-fueled bender where the itchy, frenzied paranoia is dry-humping the last ragged gasps of the earlier party-powder fun.

Between calling Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) a panoply of Trumpish insults (and for the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to be held for treason), engaging in his usual hatred of the press, talking about Mike Pompeo’s intimate undergarments, and quite obviously scaring the shit out of Finnish President Sauli Niinisto—who looked like he was the very unwilling star of an ISIS hostage video—Trump spent the day rapidly decompensating, and it was a hideous spectacle. All the Maximum Leader pronunciamentos won’t change the reality that Donald John Trump, 45th president of the United States, has lost his shit.

In private, Republicans are in the deepest despair of the Trump era. They’ve got that hang-dog, dick-in-the-dirt fatalism of men destined to die in a meaningless battle in a pointless war. They’ve abandoned all pretense of recapturing the House, their political fortunes in the states are crashing and burning, and the stock-market bubble they kept up as a shield against the downsides of Trump—“but muh 401(k)!”—is popping.

You want to know why so few Republicans have held town-hall meetings since early 2017? Because Trump is the cancer they deny is consuming them from the inside out. They see the political grave markers of 42 of their GOP House colleagues—and several hundred down-ballot Republicans—booted from office since 2017 and know that outside of the deepest red enclaves, they’re salesmen for a brand no one is buying.

How I wish I could write with such flair. To read the rest of Wilson’s column, you’ll have to plunk down $29/year or whatever it is to get behind The Daily Beast’s paywall (it’s worth it).

One big question—and over which there is much disagreement—is the scope of the impeachment inquiry, of whether or not it should be narrowly focused on the Ukraine affair or expanded to take up the countless number of impeachable offenses Trump has committed. I’m undecided, as there are strong arguments for both. Basically I’ll go with whatever it takes to get the SOB out of there (and preferably in handcuffs). Another question, which many had not thought of (myself included), is what will happen in the Senate if Trump is impeached. It has been assumed that the Senate will hold a trial, as it is presumably supposed to under Article II Section 4 of the constitution, but certain analysts have said that Mitch McConnell, as majority leader, could decide to not hold one, to simply ignore the House’s articles of impeachment. McConnell has assured that Senate rules do obligate it to take up impeachment but still, he could try to quickly dispatch with the matter. In a lengthy interview with the excellent Dahlia Lithwick, who writes on courts and the law for Slate, Walter Dellinger—former acting solicitor general and emeritus professor at Duke Law School—specified that the presiding officer at a Senate trial would be Chief Justice John Roberts, not Moscow Mitch, which would engender a different dynamic. And several Republican senators in purple states facing potentially tight reelection races next year—in IA, CO, AZ, ME, NC—may deem it prudent not to go on record as trying to nip in the bud a Senate trial before it has run its course. So what happens in the Senate could be quite interesting.

There’s much more to say about this obviously but I’ll leave it there for now. À suivre.

Map tweeted by Trump and response.

Jacques Chirac, R.I.P.

AFP photo / Patrick Kovarik

I’ve been riveted over the past week to the dramatic, fast-moving developments inside the Beltway—of which I will have things to say soon—but the news here, aux bords de la Seine, has been dominated since Thursday by the death of Jacques Chirac, who was, along with François Mitterrand, the most important French political figure of the post-De Gaulle era. As his four decades at the center stage of political life in this country have been been succinctly and excellently assessed in the Anglophone press by veteran Paris-based reporters John Lichfield in Politico and Christopher Dickey in The Daily Beast—I could have signed both myself—I’ll just add a few thoughts of my own.

As my permanent residence in France began in the early 1990s, I only read episodically about Chirac beforehand,  though had formed a negative view of him in the 1970s—when I spent a semester in Paris, in the run-up to the 1978 legislative elections—as an unsympathetic right-winger and with a nasty streak—a view that was cemented by my French teacher at the Sorbonne—a chic, middle-aged fonctionnaire in l’éducation nationale—who invited the class to her home one evening. As the discussion was informal, I brought up politics; when I mentioned Chirac’s name, she spat out: “C’est un fasciste!” As a youthful gauchiste, that settled the matter for me.

French lefties at the time did indeed call him “facho Chirac.” While he was, in point of fact, nowhere near the extreme right, he was still out there. And he was, as one knows, an early Eurosceptic—and when “Europe” was still merely a common market of nine members and with France the major actor to boot. Chirac’s rightist bent continued to the early 1990s, finding full expression during the 1986-88 cohabitation and his second stint as prime minister, when he adopted Thatcherite neoliberalism in economic policy and a tough law-and-order stance (with tough guy Charles Pasqua at Interior), plus turning the screws on immigration. And then there was his infamous 1991 demagogic outburst on “le bruit et l’odeur” of immigrants—rather obviously African (West and North)—a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for right-wing audiences (akin to Ronald Reagan’s made-up stories about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and buying t-bone steaks with food stamps).

The 1991 dérapage was, it should be said, the exception rather than the rule for Chirac; there were no future commentaries or petites phrases of the sort targeting post-colonial immigrants and the latter mostly did not hold it against him. The racist label was never attached to Chirac. It was around this time that perceptions by those who had long disliked him, notably on the left, began to change. There was indeed a remarkable evolution in his public image, from that of an antipathetic réac to a man more sympathique, with a warm, human touch and less markedly right-wing. He became almost Bill-Clintonian in his glad-handing. He genuinely seemed to enjoy the contact with random citizens (and particularly farmers, who loved him back). It’s been said that Chirac was profoundly affected by his repudiation in the 1988 presidential election—after which his wife Bernadette famously sighed that “the French people don’t like my husband”—and, above all, by the painful family tragedy of his beloved eldest daughter Laurence, about which he never publicly spoke. His traversée du désert seemed to have publicly humanized him, as it were.

He also moved toward the center on a number of fronts, one being Europe. His late call for a ‘oui’ vote during the 1992 Maastricht Treaty campaign was decisive in the referendum’s narrow approval; had Chirac opposed the treaty, as did the majority of the neo-Gaullist party of which he was the founder and leader, it would have surely been rejected by the French electorate, with the consequence being that the European Union would not have seen the light of day and there would have been no single currency (the latter eventuality would have perhaps not been a totally bad thing but that’s another matter). He also abandoned Thatcherite neoliberalism—which he blamed for his 1988 debacle and was never in his political DNA anyway—adopting an almost left-sounding rhetoric in the 1995 presidential campaign with his pledge to tackle the “fracture sociale,” i.e. to do something about widening inequality. And then there was his rejection of any contact with Jean-Marie Le Pen—including refusal of a debate before the 2nd round of the calamitous 2002 presidential election—with Chirac erecting a high wall between his party and the Front National. A sizable minority of his party’s activists wanted to deal with the FN but Chirac was adamant on the question. He was genuinely allergic to the extreme right and what it represented.

So when Chirac was finally elected president in 1995—on his third try in a row—there was no particular fretting or hand-wringing on the left, let alone alarm. It was seen as normal and not the end of the world. His appointment of Alain Juppé—widely respected across the board—as PM was confirmation that France would experience a normal alternation of power. It was around this time that Chirac’s veritable political identity became discernable, as less a man of the classical right than a sort of centrist Third Republic-style Radical (a “rad-soc”), a neo-Gaullist expressing the most centrist, consensual features of that tradition, notably republicanism and adhesion to France’s famous social model (i.e. the welfare state). In the US he would have been a New York-New England liberal Republican (a now extinct political species).

One thing about Chirac, among many others, merits mention. Despite his mec sympa image from the mid ’90s on, he was never very popular during his years in power (Matignon and Élysée). Excepting a stretch in the late ’90s, when the economy was booming and France won the World Cup, and saying no to Bush on Iraq in 2003, his job approval poll numbers were almost always underwater. Moreover, his electoral record was mediocre. In his four presidential elections, he broke 20% of the 1st round vote only once, in 1995 (20.5%). And during his twelve years as president of the Republic (1995-2007), his political camp lost every intermediate election (regional, European, etc) save two: the 2001 municipal elections and 2002 legislatives, the latter happening in the wake of his reelection. And on the 2002 presidential election—which Chirac won with 82% of the vote against a Jean-Marie Le Pen who shocked the world in overtaking the Socialist Lionel Jospin in the 1st round—this was an accident. If Jospin had qualified for the 2nd round, which was expected by all and by all rights should have happened, it is likely that he would have defeated Chirac, as I have extensively explained here. Chirac was unhappy about that election and the way he won it, so one understands. But without the accident of the 1st round, his political career would have probably ended five years earlier than it did.

As for an assessment of Chirac’s action, particularly as president of the Republic, here’s my bilan. First, the positive things he did:

  • The obvious number 1 is standing up to Bush on Iraq, of refusing to participate in the US’s “coalition of the willing” or allowing the UNSC to endorse the unprovoked US invasion. As I wrote on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq war, Chirac’s opposition to US policy was well-considered and based on principle. Chirac did not, in fact, exclude the possibility of joining the US in Iraq and told his military to prepare for it. But it became obvious to the French that the Bush-Cheney administration’s “evidence” of WMDs was bogus, that there was no casus belli. France needed the proof from Washington and never got it. After Colin Powell’s infamous presentation to the UNSC—which so impressed US pundits—analysts in France pronounced Powell’s photos and vials of powder impossible to interpret. So Chirac could not but declare that France would vote against a UNSC resolution authorizing war. If the Americans and Brits wanted to wage an unprovoked war in Iraq, they would have to do it without the green light from the United Nations. The French position was impeccable, ironclad, and irreproachable. As for Chirac’s cultivating of Iraq and Saddam Hussein in the 1970s—during his first stint as PM (1974-76)—which has been held against him, this was before Saddam had consolidated power and the Ba’athist regime had attained the degree of awfulness it did under his total rule. France was engaging in realpolitik at the time, as was the US and every other state on the planet, so Chirac is not to be reproached for this. And he was not identified with the informal Iraq lobby in Paris in the 1980s-90s.
  • The wars in Yugoslavia: when Chirac’s presidency began in May 1995 he quickly steered French policy away from his predecessor François Mitterrand’s backhanded pro-Serb stance, adopting one favoring the Bosnians and Croats, and, with the US in the lead (naturally), forcing the Serbs to the negotiating table and to end the siege of Sarajevo. And in 1999, Chirac, along with Tony Blair, was out front in supporting an intervention—i.e. pulling in the Americans—against the Serbs in Kosovo. Things in Kosovo may not have worked out so well since then but Chirac’s position at the time was the right one.
  • Expressing solidarity with the US immediately after 9/11 and joining the intervention in Afghanistan. Again, however that one has turned out, it was the right thing to do at the time.
  • His July 16, 1995, speech on the anniversary of the Rafle du Vel d’Hiv, recognizing the responsibility of the French state in the roundup and deportation of Jews during the Nazi occupation. No French president over the previous fifty years faced up to the specific French responsibility in this dark episode in recent French history. Chirac, to his great credit, did.
  • Not a political action, policy, or speech, but Chirac’s private passion for art premier, or tribal art, from cultures across Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania. Chirac was a bona fide authority on the subject, with the product of his passion being his sponsorship of the Quai Branly museum, his specific contribution to Paris’s cultural patrimony. He also had a deep interest in and knowledge of Chinese and Japanese civilization, visiting the two countries numerous times (some 40 times to Japan). Chirac’s interest in and respect for other cultures spoke to a cosmopolitanism and ouverture d’esprit that is not common for professional politicians (in any country).

Now for the negative side of his bilan, or just of him as a person:

  • Corruption. One lost track of the affaires in which Chirac was implicated, mainly from his years as mayor of Paris (1977-95), though he only finally stood trial for one, in 2011 (verdict: two year suspended sentence). Chirac, whose salary during his entire working life was drawn from the public treasury (i.e. the taxpayer), lived the opulent life, which was, ça va de soi, not wholly paid for by his monthly earnings.
  • Rank opportunism and insincerity. Chirac’s periodic lurches leftward, then back to the right, suggested a lack of core principles—of a man who was willing to do or say whatever it took to further his ambitions. The post-1995 view of him as a “rad-soc” did not jibe with his political persona of the previous three decades, not to mention his political entourage (decidedly right-wing) and the base of his party (definitely right-wing). And his 1995 campaign rhetoric on the fracture sociale was quickly forgotten once he took office, witness the Plan Juppé, the most ambitious reform effort involving public spending that happened on his watch, which had nothing to do with reducing inequality. There were also lingering suspicions that Chirac’s back-slapping mec sympa image—the kind of guy with whom you could kick back and have a beer (Corona was his brand)—was all a facade, that the only thing that interested him (art premier apart) was the conquest of power, and that people were only interesting to him if they aided in advancing his ambitions. (On all this, see the incendiary 2005 réquisitoire—some would say hatchet job—by the well-known right-leaning journalist and editor Denis Jeambar).
  • Immobilism. It is commonplace, even among those sympathetic to Chirac, that while he was obsessed with attaining power, he didn’t know what to do with it once acquired. Apart from the aborted 1995 Juppé plan—which was to a large extent imposed on him by France’s obligations under the Maastricht Treaty (itself, one must not forget, largely a French initiative)—and the 2003 pension reform, Chirac’s policy agenda was thin to non-existent. He was reduced to domestic policy impotence in the last five years (1997-2002) of his first term—which was just as well, as he had no agenda to begin with—following his ill-considered dissolution of the National Assembly and consequent victory of the Gauche plurielle. And the watchword for his second term (2002-07) was drift. Politically speaking, the summit of the French state was brain dead. Chirac was the “Roi fainéant,” his court consumed with the battle between Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin for his succession. His presidency did not end a day too soon.
  • Chirac was, of course, determined to win a second term, even though he had no record to run on or anything to propose to the French people. So in the 2002 campaign he cooked up the issue of “insécurité,” i.e. petty crime, which he argued had worsened under PM Jospin’s Gauche plurielle government. Crime was, objectively speaking, not a big problem in France but it became Chirac’s centerpiece issue—with the subtext being immigration, as “insécurité” was a political code word for youthful lower class males of North and West African immigrant origin who snatched purses and behaved poorly on public transportation. The ideal issue to stoke the fears of elderly conservatives. It was pure demagoguery, the consequence of which was Le Pen’s vote spiking to an unprecedented 17%—as when it comes to demagoguing any issue having to do with swarthy and dark-skinned persons of recent immigrant stock, voters will, as Le Pen justly put it, always prefer the original to the copy. And the rest was history.
  • In mid 2003, Chirac decided, for no compelling reason, that France’s hallowed laïcité was under threat from young Muslim women wearing headscarves, so, with trumpets blaring, he convened a commission to ponder the question. Brilliant issue to distract the public, with unemployment increasing and his poll numbers sliding. So the commission submitted its report to Chirac, which he then referred to his government, which in turn took a single one of its recommendations and enacted a law proscribing the wearing of “ostentatious religious symbols” (read: Islamic headscarves) by students in public schools. The law was overwhelmingly approved by public opinion—including a sizable minority of France’s Muslims—and is uncontroversial today, but it further politicized a non-issue that did not need further politicization. The whole debate, which was so heavily skewed, contributed moreover to the transformation in the understanding—by the larger public, politicians, and intellectuals—of what laïcité means, from a law defining the relationship between the state and organized religion (the correct understanding) to a principle concerning itself with the comportment of private individuals (the incorrect understanding). This is most unfortunate and regrettable.
  • Chirac was beloved across the Arab world for his 1996 outburst at the Israeli police in the Old City of Jerusalem and, of course, for saying no to the Americans on Iraq. And many in France vaunted his return to de Gaulle’s famous “politique arabe,” of cultivating good relations with Arab states and peoples. But it was a myth and mirage. Chirac’s “politique arabe” consisted mainly of supporting Gulf emirates and other dictatorships—Qatar and Ben Ali’s Tunisia, among others—and selling them weapons, and in return for not much, as Arab regimes, knowing where the real power lay, privileged their relations with Washington over Paris. And in sub-Saharan Africa, it was business as usual under Chirac, with the “Françafrique” and support of dictatorships. While Chirac may have been the toast of the “Arab street,” he was not on the streets of Dakar or Abidjan. He may have had a passion for the art of “primitive” peoples but did not think them meritorious of democracy.
  • Organizing the 2005 referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which he both didn’t need to do and was then incapable of defending or explaining. The treaty would have failed anyway in view of the negative vote in the Netherlands three days later, but still. The rejection in France—confirming that referendums are almost always a bad idea—reinforced the Euroscepticism of a growing portion of the electorate.
  • Following the failure of the 2005 referendum, appointing the gasbag and poète à ses heures Dominique de Villepin, who had never stood for election in his life, as prime minister. Talk about an erreur de casting.

Arthur Goldhammer has a short essay on Chirac on the Tocqueville 21 blog. In it, he links to a remembrance by Libération’s Jean Quatremer, who skewers Chirac’s “catastrophic reign for Europe.” And Mediapart has a lengthy, not-too-positive assessment, “Jacques Chirac, ou l’obsession du pouvoir.”


Je recommande la lecture de cette fascinante, étonnante et gratifiante série en six volets, intitulée “Sarajevo-Jérusalem” et publiée dans Le Monde du 13 au 19 août, sur la communauté juive de Sarajevo, présent et passé, de son histoire de bonne entente avec les musulmans bosniaques de la ville – ville où il n’y a jamais eu de ghetto et où l’antisémitisme était quasi inexistant. Il y a eu une douzaine de milliers de juifs à Sarajevo avant la Deuxième guerre mondiale – 20% de sa population, majoritairement séfarade – dont plus de 80% ont été exterminés pendant l’occupation nazie, avec le concours des Oustachis croates. Un certain nombre des rescapés est parti en Israël après 1948, et surtout pendant le siège de Sarajevo par l’armée yougoslave serbe (1992-95) – quoique les juifs de Bosnie-Herzégovine étaient, dans leur majorité, peu pratiquant et pas très sioniste.

Ce qui reste aujourd’hui est une vibrante communauté d’un millier d’âmes qui fait partie intégrante de la ville. L’expérience sarajévienne réfute-t-elle la notion d’une Bosnie historiquement divisée en communautés vivant à couteaux tirés – et s’inscrit en faux plus généralement contre le nationalisme ambiant de notre époque. Comme on peut lire dans le sixième volet, “contrairement au mythe brandi par les nationalistes des trois dernières décennies, la coexistence ne fut pas limitée à une Yougoslavie de Tito condamnée à disparaître après sa mort, mais qu’elle fut ancrée dans l’histoire de la ville durant des siècles, répondant à un sincère besoin de bon voisinage et d’humanité des Sarajéviens.”

L’expérience sarajévienne allait au-delà du bon voisinage. Il y a eu une véritable solidarité entre juifs et musulmans (avec des mariages mixtes). À ce titre, le Jérusalem d’aujourd’hui – l’exacte contraire du vivre-ensemble, où une communauté (en l’occurrence, juive) domine les autres par la force – est implicitement posé en contre-modèle, et pour cause.

L’auteur de cette remarquable série, Rémy Ourdan, connait bien le sujet. Grand reporter au journal Le Monde, il a couvert le siège de Sarajevo durant quatre ans (et a co-réalisé un documentaire dessus) et a fait maints reportages en Israël-Palestine au fil des années.

Voilà les volets de la série:

  1. Juifs de Sarajevo: les héros ordinaires de la ‘Jérusalem de l’Europe’. —— A travers l’histoire des juifs de Sarajevo, voyage dans ces deux villes en quête d’universalité, symboles des peuples du Livre, épicentres des conflits modernes, sur les traces d’une certaine idée, réelle ou imaginaire, de la coexistence…
  2. La saga du sauvetage de la Haggadah de Sarajevo, le manuscrit sépharade le plus précieux au monde. —— Convoité par les nazis en 1942 puis menacé pendant la guerre de Bosnie, le fameux manuscrit enluminé du XIVe siècle a dû être caché à plusieurs reprises.
  3. Les mousquetaires juifs du siège de Sarajevo. —— La communauté juive a, pendant la guerre de Bosnie, lancé une incroyable opération humanitaire, organisant l’évacuation de 2 500 Sarajéviens et portant assistance aux assiégés. Israël a de son côté vu débarquer des centaines de ‘juifs sarajéviens’ très peu juifs…
  4. Les étonnantes coutumes des rabbins sarajéviens. —— A l’instar du dernier rabbin yougoslave, Cadik Danon, c’est toute une lignée de religieux, représentée aujourd’hui par Eliezer Papo et Igor Kozemjakin, qui prend des libertés avec les lois et traditions juives. Une vision du judaïsme proche de l’esprit de Sarajevo.
  5. De l’’éducation sarajévienne’ à la cause palestinienne. —— Fille d’une survivante sarajévienne de Bergen-Belsen, Amira Hass vit depuis vingt-cinq ans en Cisjordanie. Cette reporter et éditorialiste au quotidien ‘Haaretz’ défend sans relâche la cause palestinienne dans les colonnes de son journal.
  6. Sarajevo-Jérusalem, deux villes, deux destins. —— Contrairement à Sarajevo, qui a résisté avec l’énergie du désespoir à la division ethnique de la ville, les habitants de Jérusalem vivent aujourd’hui séparés et la ville sainte est plus fracturée que jamais.

Here’s a related article in Haaretz, dated 19 July 2017, by Sarajevo-based journalist Kate Bartlett: “Why Sarajevo’s tiny Jewish community believes it’s in the safest place in Europe for Jews: In a country where ethnic hatreds run deep, the Jewish community in the ‘Jerusalem of the Balkans’ says it is not subject to anti-Semitic acts and is even enjoying a ‘baby boom’.”

The 1619 Project

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

If one doesn’t know it:

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

I read all the articles this past week—those so far published, 17 by my count (the series is ongoing)—some 100 pages printed out (PDF is here), authored by well-known academics (historians and social scientists) and journalists. It’s an incredible series. Historian, Holocaust specialist, and old friend Marc Masurovsky described it well on his Facebook page:

A must-read, you have to read this special issue of the New York Times magazine…

It’s a shattering assessment of the history of America—white America—built on the blood of African slaves since 1619. A searing indictment of how American economic growth, political machines, and judicial decisions were rooted in the enslavement of millions of men, women and children. Generations of white businessmen, politicians, scholars, scientists, lawyers and judges, breathed and ate and drank segregationist and racist views…up to this day… and shaped and molded Federal and State policies to satisfy the segregationist agenda.

It makes one rethink what being American really means. And it’s simply frightening and appalling.

Oh, I know! We know the story of slavery and racism. But we really don’t. Please read this! You owe it to yourselves, to our African-American brothers and sisters. I am frankly ashamed that we have to bear this legacy. It’s bad to have committed genocide against the first inhabitants of what came to be known as America. If that wasn’t enough, we had to build the foundations of American democracy on the blood, flesh and tears of slaves. It makes you really wonder who the Bill of Rights was really written for and what that Declaration of Independence really means and for whom.

And no, I wasn’t born yesterday.

As Marc indicates, you may think you know the history of slavery and its legacy but, after reading The 1619 Project series, you realize you really don’t, at least not fully. There’s so much you don’t know or haven’t realized. And to call slavery America’s “original sin,” which just about everyone does, is too easy. It’s a throwaway line. Slavery was America’s crime: it was constitutive of the founding of the United States of America and the legacy of which weighs heavily today—and which is incarnated in the world-view of one of America’s two major political parties. As one reads in the series, the nature of American capitalism, the ideological rejection of universal social insurance schemes (a.k.a. the welfare state) by one of the major parties and the on-going battle over voting rights—making the US an outlier among advanced democracies—et on en passe, is a legacy of slavery and the century of apartheid that followed its abolition.

Sure, lots of countries had chattel slavery—Brazil, the islands of the Caribbean, Arabia, large parts of Africa, Thailand, etc—and which profoundly marked their politics and social structure (Brazil today is a big case in point) but we’re talking about the United States of America here, and where slavery and its legacy had some unique features.

Conservatives have unsurprisingly been flipping out over the 1619 series (a few reactions have been measured, though it’s obvious that most of those who are trashing the series have hardly read any of it). In responding to the conservative attacks, the NYT’s excellent columnist Jamelle Bouie (who has an article in the series) argues that “slavery was not a secondary part of our history: in America, liberty and bondage have always been intertwined.” And The Nation’s Jeet Heer observes that “conservatives’ freakout over The 1619 Project reveals their fear of America’s actual past.” Or, we should say, fear of a changing narrative of America’s past. E.g. some of the series authors refer to plantations as “forced-labor camps,” or “slave-labor camps,” and with all calling slave-owners “enslavers.” I will wager that in a generation, say twenty years from now, this nomenclature will be the prevailing one. An old Southern plantation doesn’t look the same if it’s labeled a “slave-labor camp.” This is, needless to say, deeply threatening to the conservative narrative—and largely white Southern—of American history.

On the question of historical narratives, the NYT published an op-ed on August 21st by writer and cultural critic Lewis Hyde, “How nationalism can destroy a nation,” in which he discusses Ernest Renan’s famous 1882 speech at the Sorbonne, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (What is a nation?)—which is the classic French republican statement on the question—and whose central idea is that of historical narrative and the will of the members of a nation—the nation being an abstraction—to live together (Renan’s “daily plebiscite”). And central to historical narratives, for Renan, is “forgetting,” of an implicit decision by the gatekeepers of the national narrative to gloss over parts of the past—or bury them altogether—that caused members of the nation to kill one another (Renan’s example for France was the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, i.e. the 16th century religious wars of Catholics vs. Protestants). In America, this was slavery and the Civil War. As David Blight and other historians have written, the reconciliation of the North and South was predicated on black Americans—the former slaves—being written out of the American national narrative, and of the Southern view of slavery as a benign institution becoming the dominant one—of the North, in effect, being southernized.

This narrative was blown apart by the civil rights movement, the formal end of legal apartheid in the 1960s, and the according of full rights of citizenship—of belonging to the American nation—to Afro-Americans. And with that, America has once again become a deeply divided society—with a reactionary, southernized Republican Party leading the resistance to this change—such as it has not been since, well, the Civil War.

A few months ago, here in a Paris, I was browsing in a recently-opened far right-wing bookstore. One book I leafed through was a paean to the antebellum South, by the late neo-fascist writer-historian Dominique Venner, the title of which translates as ‘The white sun of the defeated: the epic history of the South and the Civil War, 1607-1865’. In the book he explicitly refers to the United States as being comprised of “two nations”: the North and the South. He was certainly not wrong in describing it that way for the period covered in his book and, I dare say, he would not be totally wrong in it today.

A historical reminder: the United States of America was founded as a nation of white people. The 1790 Naturalization Act, which limited American citizenship to “free white person[s],” was explicit on this. Excluded from American citizenship were, of course, persons of African descent but also the indigenous population (the latter were only granted American citizenship in 1924, with the Indian Citizenship Act). Grounding the race-based conception of American nationality in law was, among others, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act, with the provisions reaffirmed in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act; the 1922 SCOTUS ruling Takao Ozawa v. United States, which refused naturalization to Japanese immigrants on the grounds that they were not part of the “Caucasian race;” and the 1923 SCOTUS ruling United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which likewise prohibited South Asian Indians, decreed as non-white, from acquiring American citizenship. The raced-based exclusions of Asians from naturalization were only repealed in 1943 (for Chinese), 1946 (Filipinos and Indians), and 1952 (for all others).

Today is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in WWII by the Free French and United States. Le Monde has a five-minute video on its website entitled ‘Liberation of Paris: why was there not a single black soldier in the military parades?’, even though there were over 3000 African soldiers—principally Senegalese tirailleurs—in General Leclerc’s elite 2nd Armored Division, which spearheaded the liberation of the city. The answer: pressure on the French from the Americans to remove the black soldiers from General Leclerc’s forces.

One of the preoccupations of the US Army during WWII in regard to its black soldiers—as historian Raffael Scheck, interviewed in the above Le Monde video, reminds us—was fraternization with European women—there being no taboo on interracial intimacy in France, Britain, or anywhere on this side of the ocean—and the measures that were taken to prevent this (including court martials and execution of black soldiers for rape, even when more than a few of the accused rapes were, in fact, consensual relationships). The actual consequence of interracial affairs involving black American soldiers was cinematically depicted in the powerful 2017 Netflix film Mudbound, which is set in rural Mississippi in the aftermath of WWII. What happened to the black soldier returning from Europe when his love affair with a woman in Germany was discovered by the local white men was utterly real. Such happened countless times to black men in the South. The excruciating scene toward the end of the film—which is almost unbearable to watch—crystallizes America’s experience with slavery and its legacy. And, one may add, the evil of the white American South.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: The (surprisingly good) Trotskyist World Socialist Web Site has published lengthy interviews with James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood (here, here, and here), who are strongly critical of the 1619 Project. These three are, if one doesn’t know, major historians of the Civil War (McPherson, Oakes) and 18th century America (Wood), so their views on the question are to be read and pondered.

2nd UPDATE: On the controversy over the 1619 Project—with Sean Wilentz leading the attack—see Adam Serwer in The Atlantic (December 23), “The fight over the 1619 Project is not about the facts: A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

3rd UPDATE: Sean Wilentz, writing in The Atlantic (January 22, 2020), continues his attack: “A matter of facts: The New York Times’ 1619 Project launched with the best of intentions, but has been undermined by some of its claims.”

4th UPDATE: In the Boston Review (January 24, 2020), David Waldstreicher—Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York—weighs in on “The hidden stakes of the 1619 controversy.” The lede: “Seeking to discredit those who wish to explain the persistence of racism, critics of the New York Times’s 1619 Project insist the facts don’t support its proslavery reading of the American Revolution. But they obscure a longstanding debate within the field of U.S. history over that very issue—distorting the full case that can be made for it.”

5th UPDATE: Northwestern University history professor Leslie M. Harris, writing in Politico (March 6, 2020), says “I helped fact-check the 1619 Project. The Times ignored me.” The lede: “The paper’s series on slavery made avoidable mistakes. But the attacks from its critics are much more dangerous.”

The El Paso massacre

[update below]

Dayton too. The latter one was a garden-variety American massacre, committed by an angry white male, who shot up a crowded place—that may or may not have been chosen at random—and with a legally acquired semi-automatic rifle. If such weapons of war could be as easily procured in, say, France—where there are plenty of angry white males—as they are in the US, does anyone doubt that we would see a dramatic increase in massacres there (and of murder more generally)?

The El Paso massacre was different. As one knows, this one was racially motivated. It was an act of terrorism targeting a particular ethnic group—and a group that has been the target of racism, hatred, and dehumanization by the President of the United States since he announced his candidacy four long years ago. Trump has spoken of Mexicans and Central Americans in the same terms as the Rwandan Hutu Interahamwe did of Tutsis in 1994 (as “cockroaches”) and Nazis did of Jews. Trump’s words are “poison,” as a commentary by a conservative pundit headlined today. Trump is poison. The El Paso Walmart terrorist was morally aided and abetted by Trump. Trump bears moral responsibility for the massacre. And one may be utterly certain that there will be more to come—possibly even more so once the unspeakable SOB is gone. On this, Paul Waldman has a chilling column in The Washington Post (August 5th) on “[h]ow Trump’s biggest broken promise will make white supremacist terrorism even worse.” The angry, heavily-armed white men out there will be even angrier when their man is no longer in the White House—and having failed to build his wall or rid the country of Muslims and others from “shithole countries.” A future President Warren-Biden-Harris-etc needs to start thinking now about how s/he will deal with an inevitable upsurge in domestic terrorism such as the United States has not witnessed in anyone’s lifetime.

On the antecedents of white American nationalist terrorism, historian Thomas Meaney has a must-read review essay in the August 1st London Review of Books, simply entitled “White Power,” in which he discusses two new books, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, by Kathleen Belew, and Revolutionaries for the Right: Anti-Communist Internationalism and Paramilitary Warfare in the Cold War, by Kyle Burke. One learns in the essay that the armed white nationalist movement in its present form was born with the Cold War and America’s military interventions and other imperialist ventures over the decades, most notably the Vietnam War, and with veterans later freelancing as mercenaries to fight Soviet-backed insurgencies across the globe (one reads about the monthly magazine Soldier of Fortune, which I would periodically look at with morbid curiosity in the 1970s and ’80s). With the end of the Cold War, new generation white warriors acquired experience in Afghanistan and Iraq. In short, there are a lot of violent men out there in the American heartland—and no doubt in big blue cities too—who are racist, like to kill, and possess the heavy weapons to do so on a large scale. Again, El Paso is just the beginning.

Kathleen Belew, who teaches history at the University of Chicago, has an op-ed in The New York Times (August 4th), “The right way to understand white nationalist terrorism.” The lede: “Attacks like that in El Paso are not an end in themselves. They are a call to arms, toward something much more frightening.”

One may also profitably read Slate political editor Thomas Scocca’s commentary (August 4th), “Where taking the concerns of racists seriously has gotten us.”

UPDATE: Brian Beutler, the smart editor-in-chief of Crooked, has a smart comment (August 6th), “Members of the press, WTF indeed!,” in which he takes off from Beto O’Rourke’s impromptu reaction to a clueless journalist’s question. This passage in the piece is particularly noteworthy:

One recent incident that attracted relatively scant attention connects [Trump’s] racist incitement with his other nefarious activities: his unlawful intrusion in the war-crimes case of Eddie Gallagher, the Navy SEAL who fatally stabbed a teenage ISIS fighter, posed with his corpse, then threatened to kill anyone who reported him. Trump helped secure Gallagher’s acquittal, then ordered the Navy to strip the prosecutors who tried him of the achievement medals they were awarded for doing their jobs well. The Gallagher case became a right wing cause célèbre, saturated with jingoism and Islamophobia, which is surely why Trump first took interest in it. But what purpose did he serve by punishing war-crimes prosecutors whose superiors determined they had acted appropriately? Why would the president want to communicate to certain favored, dangerous people that they have his permission to be violent, and that those who stand in their way will be scorned, abused, or purged? It is easier to look away than to connect the dots, because if the president has truly fascistic ambitions—if he has abused his power to recruit violent sympathizers in the military or civilian life with the lure of immunity—then conventional journalism lacks the language to say so.

Read the whole thing here.

The crisis at the border

[update below]

The Democrats are gearing up for their second debate this week, with questions on immigration and the crisis at the border certain to be posed. In informing oneself on the subject, which all concerned citizens should be doing, some advice: ignore the pundits and pay attention to the specialists and practitioners, i.e., to those who know what they’re talking about. A good piece to start with may be found on the Foreign Affairs website (dated July 16th), “Trump’s incendiary rhetoric is only accelerating immigration: The crisis at the border is of Washington’s own making,” by Randy Capps, who is Director of Research for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute.

See likewise the commentary on the MPI website, co-published with the El Colegio de México, by MPI president Andrew Selee et al, “Strategic solutions for the United States and Mexico to manage the migration crisis,” in which five recommendations are advanced, one of which is increasing pathways for legal migration of Central Americans to both the United States and Mexico. If the US wants to reduce illegal immigration, it must increase legal migration, e.g. circular migration schemes (see my post on ‘the border’ from last March). There is no other way.

Another informative commentary may be found on the Washington Office on Latin America website, “There is a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s manageable,” by Adam Isacson et al.

It is well-understood that the majority of migrants trying the enter the US from the southern border are not Mexican but rather from the Northern Triangle of Central America. There has also been an upsurge of Africans, notably from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola, which Randy Capps discusses in his Foreign Affairs article:

These migrants are the leading edge of a trend that will likely preoccupy the United States for years to come. African countries have among the highest birth rates, lowest per capita incomes, and most unstable governments in the world. Demographers project that due to rapid population growth and high poverty rates, Africa will produce more international migrants than any other continent in coming decades. Conflicts in South Sudan, northern Nigeria, and Burundi have already displaced millions of people in recent years. And in the DRC, where 4.5 million people are currently internally displaced (300,000 of whom were uprooted in the last month), a combination of ethnic conflict, political instability, and state repression has the potential to produce as many international migrants as conflicts in the Middle East and Central America.

Even though the vast majority of African migrants remain in neighboring countries, more are seeking to leave the continent. Hundreds of thousands headed to Germany, Sweden, and other European countries during the peak of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis in 2015–16. But their main route across the Mediterranean has been cut off as a result of European policies to thwart boat crossings and increasing violence and insecurity in North Africa, particularly in Libya, the most popular launching point. With this route blocked, migrants from the DRC and other African countries are turning their attention elsewhere, including to the United States. (…)

The flow of migrants from Africa and Asia to the U.S.-Mexican border is unlikely to abate soon. The world is experiencing the greatest humanitarian migration crisis since World War II, and most of the displaced are living on those two continents. Until recently, the United States was largely insulated from these pressures by geography. But with refugees and other migrants finding new routes and adapting to shifting policies, that may not remain true for much longer. (…)

On the African migratory flow to the US, see also this AP dispatch linked to in Capps’ piece.

À propos of all this, the latest issue of The New York Review Books (dated August 15th), has an excellent, must-read review essay by Joseph O’Neill on Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation, and This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, by Suketu Mehta, who is a naturalized American citizen from India. The gist of Mehta’s argument is that the rich countries of Europe and North America have no moral right to erect barriers to migration from countries in Africa and Asia that were pillaged over centuries of Western colonialism and imperialism. In this respect, Jason DeParle, in a review essay in the August 16th 2018 NYRB on Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, reminds the reader that seven of the ten largest immigrant groups in the US—Filipinos, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Cubans, Dominicans, Koreans, and Guatemalans—come from countries the US invaded or where it had a large military presence—and eight if you go back far enough to count Mexico. Salvadorans—the subject of Markham’s book—are here in the US in part because of what we did there in El Salvador, he says. Quoting Markham: “We have played a major part in creating the problem of what has become of Central America.”

Likewise with a smaller immigrant/refugee population in the US that we’ve been hearing a lot about lately: from Somalia, a country the US sent soldiers to in the early ’90s. The initial motives may have been high-minded and humanitarian but the Americans quickly—and calamitously—involved themselves in Somalia’s civil war, the consequence of which was to worsen what was already a nasty tribal conflict—and which saw the entry of new, Islamist actors (Islamic Courts Union, Al-Shabaab) that were themselves a by-product of Washington’s Global War on Terror. Somalia had never been a country of emigration but, thanks in significant part to the United States, it became one.

Back to Suketu Mehta, while one may not share his view that the US and Europe should institute what would be, in effect, a veritable open borders regime with the rest of the world—and I’m not with him on this, for a couple of specific reasons—his argument merits a respectful, well-considered response.

Hari Sreenivasa interviewed Mehta on CNN’s Amanpour & Co. on May 21st, which may be seen here. I don’t agree with Mehta on all the particulars but think he has the big picture right.

Among other things, Mehta aptly asserts that the US could triple the number of Green Cards handed out, to three million a year, and not only would it have no downside but would make the country better. In this vein—and departing from my above admonishment not to pay attention to media pundits on the immigration issue—the NYT’s Bret Stephens—whom I would normally not quote favorably—began his column dated June 21st 2018 with this:

I prefer the window seat.

I like to idle away time on flights trying to guess where and what I’m flying over, without the benefit of the map. I’m hypnotized by the red-beige-brown carpet of California desert; mesmerized by the unbroken wilderness of northern Maine; awed by the peaks and valleys of the Cascades; calmed by the serenity of the Great Lakes.

And I draw a political conclusion: America is vast, largely empty and often lonely. Roughly 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, covering just 3 percent of the overall landmass. We have a population density of 35 people per square kilometer — as opposed to 212 for Switzerland and 271 for the U.K.

We could use some more people. Make that a lot more.

Right. If the US population were to double via immigration—to 660 million—the country would still have a lower population density than three-quarters of the member states of the European Union. And like the latter, the US would necessarily have a more elaborate welfare state and greater environmental consciousness—and witness the extinction of the Republican Party in its current form to boot. And what sentient person cannot hope for that!

À suivre.

UPDATE: For those who may have missed it, a polemic was sparked over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referring, on June 17th, to the migrant detention centers on the border as “concentration camps,” with Republicans and right-wing media—plus Jewish organizations—denouncing AOC for what they considered to be an obscene use of the term. Following suit, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington released, on June 24th, a “Statement Regarding the Museum’s Position on Holocaust Analogies,” thus aligning the USHMM with the attacks on AOC. This provoked a response by several hundred historians and other scholars, who signed “An Open Letter to the Director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum,” published in the NYR Daily on July 1st.

One critique of the New York Congresswoman was penned by Robert Rozett, who is Senior Historian in the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, in The Times of Israel, “What exactly is a concentration camp, AOC? The prison camps the lawmaker referenced were many things, but they were not detention or internment camps in a classic sense.” Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov was asked by friends and associates to respond to Rozett, which he did on his Facebook page on July 16th:

[H]ere is my response. I’ll now opt out of the rest of this debate since I think I have said everything I can say at the moment.

The article by Rozett makes the obvious point that the Nazi concentration camps were not the same as other detention and concentration camps. It evades the issue that most concentration camps were in fact not where Jews were killed, and that most Jews were not killed in concentration camps. About 3 million Jews died in extermination camps, which were indeed a unique feature of the Nazi regime. The other 3 million were mostly shot where they lived or died in ghettos. The Nazis did not invent concentration camps, and if you read about the horrors of such camps under other regimes and at other times you will discover the family resemblance. Even in WWII, Jews were interned in camps, e.g. in France, that were similar to other detention camps in history, before they were handed over to the Germans, so that such detention camps were a link in the chain leading to extermination. Most important, the term “never again,” as it was understood also by the most prominent and articulate survivors of the Holocaust, was specifically intended to make future generations not repeat the process of dehumanization of other groups of people that could eventually lead to violence and mass murder. It was not meant to prevent what had already happened, which could no longer be undone. What people such as Jean Améry and Primo Levi appealed for was to recognize the humanity of others.

What the current inhabitant of the White House is doing is an intentional dissemination of an idea, and implementation of policies, intended to dehumanize others, be they foreigners, minorities, Muslims, or what have you (including Jews). He is opening the gates, both rhetorically and by bureaucratic measures, to an unmooring of the greatest aspect of American society, from which many, including myself, have benefited immeasurably – the acceptance of people from elsewhere and the fundamental rejection of the blood and soil nationalism that was at the root of Nazism and fascism. The brutality toward children on the border is a manifestation of this new worldview, which must be rejected at all cost because it would undo American society and bring out, as it has already begun, the worst demons that inhabit its fringes.

I won’t go here into the reasons for Yad Vashem’s protection of the notion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which is an ahistorical concept that hampers the very idea of studying the event, something that can only be done by way of comparison. In this I of course supported the letter of hundreds of historians and other scholars to the USHMM (which has yet to respond) for its bizarre rejection of analogies. The current Israeli government has in fact been utilizing the Holocaust in order to legitimize its insupportable policies viz-à-viz Palestinians. Unfortunately, it too has forgotten nothing and learned nothing from the Holocaust, namely, that dehumanizing others dehumanizes oneself. It is tragic to see this same predilection now threatening to erode American democracy as well. This erosion will harm all minorities, and American Jews who believe that they will be spared it are fooling themselves as Jewish nationalists have done in other places in the past. Allow me not to continue this discussion, I am sure there are those who disagree but these are my views.

Historian Timothy Snyder had a comment in Slate (July 12th), “It can happen here: The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s decision to speak out against Holocaust analogies is a moral threat.”

Those over a certain age are remembering where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon fifty years ago today. I was 13 and in London, where I had arrived the day before with my family (driving from Italy and France; we crossed the Channel from Calais to Ramsgate, in the hovercraft). We were staying with relatives, on Pennine Drive in NW2, all watching the telly. I remember the first live image of the spacecraft on the ground and, at 2:40 AM on the 21st, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerging from the vessel. My mother and I went outside and pointed up at the moon, me excited and probably saying “there they are!”

I likewise remember—as a snapshot image—when the three astronauts came to Ankara, Turkey—where I was living at the time—in October (three months to the day after the landing; it was a sunny afternoon), on their world tour, of them waving to the multitudes from an open-top sedan in the procession down Atatürk Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. A large part of the city turned out to see them.

On the subject, there’s the movie First Man, which opened last October and was nominated for four Oscars (in technical categories, winning one, for ‘best visual effects’). If one doesn’t know it, it’s the first feature-length non-documentary film on the Apollo 11 mission, with Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) at the center. I thought it very good and unexpected in its approach, as director Damien Chazelle opted not to make a classic ‘The Right Stuff’ kind of movie about the heroic march to the moon landing but instead meditate on the extreme dangers faced by NASA astronauts—who were taking their lives into their hands with each mission—and the psychological toll this took on them, their wives, and children (entre autres, the colleagues and friends who had perished in training and test flight accidents, not to mention the Apollo 1 disaster—and whose families were their friends—weighed heavily on all, as NASA in Houston was a tight-knit community). The Apollo missions, including the big one in July 1969, were anticipated by the astronauts and their families not with excitement but stoicism (for the former) and dread (the latter). And exhilaration did not necessarily follow the mission’s success. The subtext: history may be heroic but it is just as often tragic.

Johnny Clegg, R.I.P.

He died today. He was the “White Zulu.” His 1987 ‘Asimbonanga’—a tribute to Nelson Mandela, then imprisoned on Robben Island—is being posted by all and sundry on social media. It’s a beautiful song (here). Also ‘Scaterlings of Africa’ (here).

Can Trump win in ’20?

[update below]

Since the Democratic candidate debates two weeks ago, a number of liberal pundits and Never Trump conservatives have been admonishing the Democrats that they are lurching too far to the left, and that this could be—indeed, will be—fatal to their chances of defeating Trump. Others—including at least two worrywart friends of mine—contend that only Biden can beat the idiot in ’20 and that the Dems are dead if they nominate Sanders, Warren, Harris, or anyone else presently polling over 2%. And then there are those who submit that it doesn’t matter who the Dem candidate is, as Trump is, as the normally smart political scientist Cas Mudde asserted last month, “cruising toward re-election.” This sentiment was reinforced by The Washington Post-ABC poll released July 7th (which FiveThirtyEight gave a grade of A+), that has “Trump’s approval rating [rising] to the highest point of his presidency” (for the WaPo-ABC poll). Echoing Professor Mudde, conservative WaPo columnist Henry Olson—who, unlike other right-wingers at the WaPo opinion page, is not a hack—thus concluded from the poll that “Trump is almost a lock to win [reelection].”

Last August 25th I wrote the following:

One should normally not speculate on an election outcome two years ahead of time—and I normally never do so—but, in this particular case, I will categorically assert that, barring major voter suppression in key swing states (emphasis added), Trump will not and cannot win in 2020.

I may have perhaps been getting ahead of myself but hold to my categorical assertion nonetheless, with maybe the proviso that it is unlikely that Trump will win. As his aggregate poll numbers at FiveThirtyEight were almost identical then—41.9% approval/53.4% disapproval—to what they are today (see above image), there is no objective reason for me to get cold feet now, particularly as Trump’s numbers have been remarkably stable over the past two years. Peoples’ attitudes about him are baked in and strongly felt; the intensity of sentiment is striking, and with a wide spread between those who just hate the S.O.B. and his adoring cult base—with the former some 15% higher than the latter. The fact is, Trump has not topped 43% approval at FiveThirtyEight since March 2017. If his numbers don’t spike between now and November 2020, it’s hard to see how he wins reelection.

That said, one obviously cannot totally rule out the unthinkable possibility that Trump could indeed win, particularly as he does have a few things going for him, namely:

  • The power of incumbency. This may not guarantee reelection (e.g. Ford, Carter, Bush 41) but it does help, as the POTUS can make sure he’s in the news daily and drive the political discussion—and which includes driving inconvenient stories or revelations out of the news cycle (and Trump is, as we know, a genius at this).
  • Trump will not face a serious primary challenger (the presence of one for an incumbent being an almost sure predictor of defeat in November). He owns his party, which fanatically supports him, voters and elected reps alike.
  • The core of Trump’s fanaticized base—the evangelicals—is highly organized and richly endowed, and will spearhead a ground operation to ensure maximum turnout of Trump’s electorate—and which will be an important factor in certain swing states, notably Florida and North Carolina, plus in red states where the Democrats have a shot (Georgia, Texas). Add to this the Republican propaganda machine (Fox News, etc) and social media army, which will go into overdrive, plus eventual covert ops by foreign actors.
  • The Trump campaign will have a huge amount of money, with America’s plutocracy pulling out all the stops to get him reelected.
  • The economy. It’s clearly more helpful for an incumbent to launch a reelection campaign with positive macroeconomic numbers than negative ones—not to mention a booming stock market, in view of how many voters’ retirement pensions depend on that.
  • For the moment at least, no foreign quagmire involving US soldiers—that the public is paying attention to—or major foreign policy fiasco.
  • The Electoral College, in which the Republicans now enjoy a structural advantage. Trump’s operatives know that he will lose the popular vote but are confident that he can repeat his 2016 Electoral College feat.

But then we come back to his poor poll numbers—which increasingly look to be etched in stone—and a few facts, namely:

  • With the exception of a few days after his inauguration—Trump’s ephemeral “honeymoon”—he has never reached even 45% approval at FIveThirtyEight. There is always a first time, of course, but no incumbent president has ever been reelected with a job approval rating of less than 48% in the average of election eve polls.
  • If an incumbent is running for reelection, the election is a referendum on him and his performance. The 2020 election will be about Trump, not his opponent. Period.
  • If the evangelicals will be fired up for Trump, so will liberals and progressives for the Democratic candidate, regardless of who s/he is. The Dems will likewise have a ton of money and a GOTV ground game like none in their history. The number of Democratic voters who will be knocking on doors and getting out the vote will be unprecedented.
  • The economy is going great for some Americans but not for many others—and certainly not for the 40% who struggle to pay their bills. As the FT’s Martin Wolf has explained, there’s a lot of “hot air” in Trump’s boom. And for even swing voters, all sorts of other issues may trump perceptions of the economy—and in this case, Trump himself.
  • The Electoral College: the Clinton campaign (and almost everyone else) was blindsided by Trump’s feat, having taken the three famous Rust Belt states—the Blue Firewall—for granted, and particularly Michigan and Wisconsin, where it consecrated few resources. One may be utterly certain that this will not happen again.
  • Trump has done nothing to expand his electoral base. His strategy is “base only.” Some 2016 abstentionists may come out of the woodwork to vote for him but it is unlikely that he will flip a significant number of Clinton voters. The Dem candidate, on the other hand, has a greater reservoir of 2016 abstentionists—of 2012 Obama voters who stayed home in 2016, notably persons of color and younger Millennials—and greater prospects to attract disaffected 2016 Obama-to-Trump voters. And the Democratic base is larger than Trump’s to begin with.

Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, in an interesting interview with the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner, “What the Democrats’ turn leftward means for the party’s chances in 2020,” argues that the election will be determined in six states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (of course), plus Florida, North Carolina, and Arizona. This is correct. All were narrowly won by Trump in ’16. FL presently looks iffy and NC is a toss-up but the Dems will be well-positioned to win the other four, in view of the razor thin ’16 margins, current state polling, and the outcomes there in the 2018 midterms. The Trump campaign, with its boatloads of money, will target states narrowly won by Clinton—New Hampshire, Maine, Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, even Virginia—but more to distract the Ds and make them spend money there, as it is most unlikely that he will win any. So if the Democratic candidate takes PA-MI-WI-AZ, plus the Nebraska 2nd CD (where it was close in ’16, so why not?), that’s 290 EVs. And the election.

Wasserman makes one critical observation that needs to be reiterated again and again, particularly with those who have a fixation on the famous white working class being the key to victory:

[W]hat five of the six [swing states that will decide the election] have in common are pretty robust African-American populations. And if I wanted to know the turnout rate for one demographic in 2020 for the sake of predicting the result, it would be African-American voters under forty.

Thank you. As I’ve been insisting forever, if black voters turn out in the same percentage as they did in 2008 and ’12, the Dems will win. Period. To help insure this, the Dem ticket will, as I’ve been incessantly repeating, need to have an Afro-American (Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Stacey Abrams are obvious candidates).

On the WWC, plus Joe Biden, Wasserman has this to say:

[T]he idea that Joe Biden could return a lot of those white working-class voters to the Democratic fold could turn out to be a mirage. These voters have become culturally loyal to Trump. They are much likelier to live in places where local news is declining—in other words, places that are more susceptible to aggressive social-media propaganda campaigns. Trump’s popularity has not waned much in those places. (…)

[W]hat I think 2016 proved was that doubling down on the evolution of your party and its base can pay dividends. We saw in 2012 that Mitt Romney, who represented the last vestiges of the country-club wing of the Republican Party, simply could not excite the voters that Trump could excite in 2016. I see the same potential scenario on the Democratic side, where Joe Biden might be the last vestige of a certain kind of Democratic Party that failed to excite the future of the Democratic Party.

Wasserman sees pitfalls in an Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris nomination, which could, he contends, reinforce the image of a Democratic Party “dominated by coastal élitists” (Massachusetts and Harvard for Warren—malgré her Oklahoma roots—and San Francisco for Harris). He undermines his argument on this, however, in his assessment of Barack Obama:

[P]art of why Obama appealed in those [Midwestern] states was that he was a Midwestern candidate. He was someone who had experience going to fish fries in rural counties of Illinois, which, culturally and economically, are a lot like the parts of Wisconsin and Michigan and Iowa where Democrats’ fortunes have fallen recently.

Wasserman is way wide of the mark here. Apart from the fact that Obama had possibly never even set foot in the Midwest—or anywhere in “flyover country”—before age 22, he lived his entire time there on the South Side of Chicago, which is as culturally “Midwestern” as is NYC’s Upper West Side, the Occidental College campus in L.A., or Honolulu, where he had resided prior. He may have attended a few fish fries and county fairs downstate during his brief stint as senator but that hardly made him a fils du pays.

The fact is, the mixed-race Obama, with his exotic, Muslim-sounding name and background, Hawaii and Indonesian childhood, professorial demeanor, residence in Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood (which is so different a neighborhood from any in Middle America), having lived his entire life in global cities, et j’en passe, was, for a sizable portion of the (Republican) electorate, culturally alien and suffused with elitism and Otherness—and far more so than Warren or Harris today. The Republican attack machine will certainly try to affix the elitist/culturally out-of-touch label to both but I don’t think it will work.

On the supposed electoral dangers of the Democrats moving too far left, Never Trump conservatives, plus a few liberal pundits, seem to think that 2016 Obama-to-Trump or soft Hillary voters in the aforementioned six swing states will, hearing that the wild-eyed leftist Elizabeth Warren wants to take away their private health insurance, stay with or defect to Trump. Objectively speaking, there is no reason to think this. First, voters—and particularly low information ones, which is what the tiny number of persuadable Trump voters are—do not read policy papers or make their choice after carefully weighing the issues, and particularly in a highly partisan, politically polarized environment. There is of course some single-issue voting but mainly over cultural or identity markers (e.g. guns, abortion) and by voters who are otherwise highly ideological and partisan. Second, Democratic positions on health care, college tuition, student debt, and other such issues that impact on peoples’ pocket books are largely popular. These do not appeal solely to the hardcore Democratic base. Third, the Dem candidate—whether it’s Biden, Warren, Harris, or any of the others with a shot (N.B. I am discounting Sanders, who I simply do not believe can or will get the nomination)—is not going to take away peoples’ existing health insurance, drive up their taxes, and then impose socialized medicine on them. No Democratic nominee will pledge to do this. It’s a red herring.

Now it is indeed likely—indeed nigh certain—that the Republican propaganda apparatus will nonetheless frame the Dem position this way—as “socialist”—and hammer away at it. The Dems will just have to fight back. À propos, the erstwhile Republican Bruce Bartlett tweeted this trenchant comment:

Keep in mind that no matter how “moderate” the Democratic nominee is, he or she will be painted by Fox and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber as far, far left. I think someone who is actually a lefty might be better at parrying these charges than a moderate.

On the Democrats’ moderates vs. lefties conundrum, there are two recent must-read articles: one by Alex Pareene in TNR, “Give war a chance: In search of the Democratic Party’s fighting spirit,” the other by Ryan Grim in The Washington Post, “Haunted by the Reagan era: Past defeats still scare older Democratic leaders — but not the younger generation.” Both observe that Democrats over a certain age—who were around in the 1980s—were permanently traumatized by Ronald Reagan, his landslide victory over Walter Mondale in 1984, the near-landslide by the otherwise hapless George Bush over Michael Dukakis in ’88, and with the Democrats only winning back the White House by embracing the center with Bill Clinton. Older establishment Democrats are tetanized by Republican dominance during this era and have thoroughly internalized the notion (false) that America is politically a center-right country. So while it is okay for Republicans to take far-right positions (e.g. on abortion, guns, taxes) and pay no electoral price, the Democrats feel they have to tread very carefully on their issues (immigration, health care, etc), even though public opinion may be with them, and not move too far to the left.

Wherever the median voter is situated today, it is not on the center-right as this was understood three decades ago. And today’s electorate is not what it was during the Reagan-Bush era.

One of the stranger critiques of the Democrats inching left is by the otherwise smart and incisive Matthew Ygelsias, in a Vox piece entitled “Democrats are learning the wrong lesson from Donald Trump: He ran as a moderate — and it worked.” Nonsense. Trump ran in the primaries as an anti-GOP establishment populist, not as a “moderate,” and while his rhetoric was centrist-sounding on some issues, such as health care and taxing billionaires (though not himself, évidemment)—demonstrating that the GOP base is not necessarily on the same page with the party’s plutocrat donor class—this was not why he rose to the top of the heap and won the nomination. And his discourse was far-right on matters of utmost concern to his voters: to wit, nativism, nationalism, race, and demonizing the opposition (liberals, the media, etc). Mussolini and Hitler may have sounded “moderate”, or almost leftist, on this or that question during their political ascent but they remained fascist or Nazi. Likewise with Trump. Moreover, Trump has made good on none of his moderate-sounding campaign pledges, but which has led to no appreciable loss of support in his voting base.

One liberal pundit who has critiqued the Dems’ left-tilting rhetoric is the WaPo’s Richard Cohen, who informed the Ds the other day that they “are on a losing streak.” Cohen discussed two issues: busing and reparations for slavery. He needs to chill out. On busing, which Harris brought up against Biden, this will not be a campaign issue in 2020, I promise you that. Cohen’s WaPo colleague Jennifer Rubin, who is the best of the Never Trump media commentators—she strikes me as more of a Rockefeller Republican than a bona fide conservative—had a worthwhile column on Harris and the busing issue. On reparations, the Democrats are also most unlikely to make this a campaign issue. As it is, the only candidate—or “candidate”—who mentioned it during the debate was Marianne Williamson.

One of the more vitriolic reactions to the Dem debate—and with a mean-spirited title—was by the NYT Never Trumper columnist Bret Stephens, which earned him a salutary shredding on Twitter by Cornell history professor Lawrence Glickman. One issue that Stephens attacked the Democrats on—as did other commentators and critics—was immigration. That will be the subject of an upcoming post.

UPDATE: David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment, who served in the Clinton administration, had pertinent piece recently entitled “Hey Dems, take it from this ex-centrist: We blew it.” The lede: “New Democrat ideas are past their sell-by date and old labels are meaningless. Time to listen to voters.”

[update below]

This post, which is a couple of days late, is my first on the Democratic Party’s 2020 campaign, which is well overdue in view of how closely I’ve been following it. I’m periodically asked what I think by those who don’t see me on social media (Facebook, Twitter), where my views are well known: in short, I’m supporting Elizabeth Warren, though am fine with most of the candidates, as they largely agree on the major issues—differing on the details or at the margins—and that each one has as good a chance as the other to defeat Trump. As for the latter consideration, I dismiss the silly preoccupation of many over a given candidate’s “electability,” as Trump-hating D voters will vote for their party’s nominee no matter what. As for the vanishing number of truly independent/swing voters in key swing states—who are not a homogeneous bloc—one cannot know at this stage what will drive their choice in November 2020. It’s a waste of time to be worrying about it—and all the more so as we know with utter certainty that Trump and the Republican attack machine will ruthlessly set out to destroy the D candidate regardless of who s/he is.

Watching the full four hours of last Wednesday’s and Thursday’s debates on YouTube over the weekend confirmed my positive sentiments—with an exception or two—of the Democratic field. Historian and FT contributing editor Simon Schama expressed it well in a post-debate commentary, “Kamala Harris and faith in democracy won this week’s US debates: Democratic presidential contenders bubble over with passion for decency and justice.” He begins:

If Vladimir Putin was watching the debates among contenders for the US Democratic party’s presidential nomination, the Russian leader’s cynical belief that liberal democracy has had its day might have been shaken.

Here was the noisy, exhilarating, living proof that whomever Winston Churchill was quoting in 1947 to the effect that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others” was correct. Instead of a semi-literate tweet, there was informed debate; instead of self-serving lies, something startlingly like the truth.

And Schama concludes:

But there is a more important lesson to take away from the debates. Contrary to premature assumptions that populist nativism is sweeping all before it, American democracy is still very much alive with moral intelligence, unapologetic freedom of opinion, and the passion for decency and justice that are its proper claims to respect.

The debate confirmed that the Democratic Party is the ‘smart party’, in which a premium is placed on being intelligent, articulate, well-informed, and wonkish (the other party is the 180° opposite, which we know all too well). And the debate further confirmed—if confirmation were needed—that the D party has moved to the left. There can be no doubt about this. The US Democratic Party is (finally) resembling European social democratic/democratic socialist parties (okay, many of these are presently in crisis, but that’s another matter). E.g. the parameters of the debate on health care, with building on Obamacare via a public option now being the most moderate position a D candidate can take, whereas a decade ago, centrist D senators who were crafting the ACA took the public option off the table, And Medicare-for-All and single payer were too far left for serious consideration. Likewise on the immigration issue, about which more later (I’ve written about the politics of this within the D party here; see in particular the Vox piece in the update).

Some pundits and friends lamented that the candidates—particularly in the Thursday debate—had formed the infamous “circular firing squad” but I didn’t perceive this at all. While the first debate was thoroughly civil, the second was rowdier and with candidates interrupting or talking at the same time—which can happen when people are exuberant and have things to say; it’s not a big deal—but the only real attack moment was when Kamala Harris went after Joe Biden—which was inevitable and, in point of fact, needed to happen. And it will happen again, one may be sure of that.

Here’s my brief evaluation of each candidate, of his/her debate performance and political qualities more generally, in the order of their ranking in the YouGov Blue–Data for Progress poll released July 2nd:

Joe Biden (23%). His poll numbers have taken a hit since the debate, which is not surprising given that his performance was certainly the worst of the twenty candidates, highlighting the numerous weaknesses of his candidacy. This was on display from the get-go, when he was asked about his recent fundraiser with Wall Street billionaires, where he assured them that they would have nothing to worry about if he’s elected POTUS. He avoided the question altogether, giving a boilerplate response from a campaign stump speech. And when the candidates were asked to raise their hands if their health care plans would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants, Biden timidly half-raised his, and then gave a mealy-mouthed response. There were other such moments, and in addition to the one with Kamala Harris. I don’t dislike Biden or hold against him positions he’s taken in past decades—which, I contend, won’t necessarily guide his action if he’s POTUS; he’s an opportunistic politician, after all—but feel strongly that his time has passed. As one journalist put it, “Joe Biden is old.” Period. He’s a has-been and whose establishment centrism is out of sync with where the party is headed. It’s akin to Alain Juppé or Laurent Fabius running in the 2022 election in France. Moreover, Biden has offered no rationale for his candidacy other than “electability”—which is not an argument (see above)—and the delusional promise that he will restore bipartisan “comity” in Washington. Not only is this disconnected from reality but D base voters do not want to reach across the aisle to Republicans. They want to combat the Republicans. And then there’s his wistful nostalgia for the deals he made with segregationist Southern senators back in the good old days. To call this tone deaf is an understatement. More concerning, though, is that it may well be calculated, a cynical strategy that sees older voters as the key to winning the D party nomination; a centrist “silent majority,” white and black both. If this is Biden’s gamble, it’s a risky one, as if he is seen as dismissing the Gen Yers and Millennials in the D party base—who are the party’s present and future—it will create divisions and bad feelings, which will not help in assuring the maximum turnout of D party voters that will be essential to victory in November ’20. For these reasons (and there are others), I do not see Biden as the Democrats’ strongest candidate. Au contraire. And I shudder to think of what Trump would do to him during the campaign (“Sleepy Joe,” etc). The earlier Biden’s candidacy fails and he quits the race—and I’m banking on this—the better.

Elizabeth Warren (22%). What to say, she was excellent. I’ve been supporting her pretty much from the outset and for the obvious reasons: she has progressive, well-thought-out positions on just about every kitchen table domestic policy issue—she has a plan, as everyone knows by now, and explains how it will be passed by Congress and paid for—is a fighter for her convictions (which I share)—she’ll destroy Trump in a debate, you may count on that—and comes across as a good, decent person (and how nice it would be to have someone like that in the White House again). Now there are issues she is not overly focused on, such as immigration and foreign policy. In regard to the latter, I was not entirely satisfied with her article in Foreign Affairs, not for what it said, with which I agreed, but for the subjects it glided over or didn’t mention at all (Iran, Israel-Palestine, the European Union). But that’s okay. A politician can’t be knowledgeable about every last issue. She’ll get up to speed when she needs to. Certain pundits reproached her debate pledge to do away with private health insurance, opining that this was a risky position and could come back to haunt her in the general election campaign. My response: she will have plenty of time to clarify her position, that it’s a long term objective and only concerns for profit private insurance, and that many health care systems (including France) based on affordable, universal coverage have supplementary non-profit private insurance schemes, and that this is okay. In late April I posted a comment on Facebook saying that Warren was manifestly the best of the Dem candidates and that I was puzzled as to why she was underperforming in the polls. This provoked a torrent of reaction, some of it negative toward Warren, from lefties and centrists alike, and particularly women. One was an Ivy League sociologist who said that Warren “comes across as a ‘scold’ and smug” and felt that “if I met her she would wave her finger at me and tell me to clean up my room and put my toys away.” What an image. I will wager that the good sociologist said much the same about Hillary Clinton. Women—plus men, of course—are so severe toward other women in politics, particularly if they are ambitious, self-confident, and play the game like men. The gaslighting of Warren seems to have passed in any case, as has her ill-advised misstep with the Cherokee heritage business. She’s been playing the long game, with Democratic voters now taking her seriouslyWorried corporate interests likewise. Her surge in the polls over the past month—and mainly at Bernie Sanders’ expense, whose voters she’s competing for—has been both striking and gratifying. In lieu of further extolling her qualities, one may read with profit the recent portraits by Sheelah Kolhatkar in The New Yorker, Emily Bazelon in the NYT Magazine, and Joan Walsh in The Nation.

Kamala Harris (17%). There is a near-total consensus that she was the breakout star of the debate, via her now-famous exchange with Joe Biden but also supremely self-confident, in-charge demeanor. She showed herself to be the prosecutor that she once was. In a debate with Trump, she’ll cut him into little pieces. Some think that her attack on Biden was too calculated—as if politicians on the campaign trail don’t calculate—or overly aggressive (a charge that would likely not be leveled if she were male). But not only was it inevitable that Biden would be taken to task for his gratuitous public declarations on busing and the segregationist senators, Harris also needed a hook to peel off older black voters who have been reflexively supporting Biden’s presidential bid. And it manifestly worked, witness her surge in the post-debate polls—and entry into the top-tier of the field—and Biden’s consequent drop, much of which looks to be due to black voters switching. As for her positioning within the D party, she’s somewhere between the progressive and establishment/centrist wings. She’s waffled on issues or quickly adapted her position (e.g. on health care). The left is wary of her on account of her record as San Francisco DA and California Attorney General, with a NYT op-ed from January by law professor Lara Bazelon slamming that record—as not progressive—being widely circulated by lefties on social media (also here and here). Harris will need to respond to the critiques. I assume, or at least hope, that she acquits herself well and quels the left. It will not be good if her candidacy hits a wall, because if Warren doesn’t make it, we must have Harris. [UPDATE: Since posting this, I have come across two pieces that have further increased my esteem for Harris, one on her personal history, “13 trailblazing facts about Kamala Harris,” the other defending her record as prosecutor, “‘The research on her record: Why Kamala’s time as a prosecutor and Attorney General are a damn good thing’.”]

Bernie Sanders (15%). His debate performance was competent but unremarkable. Bernie was Bernie. He performed an invaluable service to the D party in 2016 in giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money, which she needed, and in pulling both her and the party to the left. Watching his campaign launch speech last March, he didn’t say a thing I didn’t agree with. Bernie expresses my values and I can only entirely adhere to his vision of where he wants to take the country. And he’s good on foreign policy too. That said, I am opposed to his candidacy, wish that he weren’t running, and am hoping that he falters early—e.g. comes in behind Warren in the New Hampshire primary—and quits the race. First, he’ll be 79 on Inauguration Day in 2021 (one year older than Biden). He is simply too old to be running for president. It is not reasonable for him to be doing this at his age, even if he’s mentally 100% (but who knows in four years, let alone eight). Second, he continues to call himself an independent. I think it’s a problem that he refuses to declare himself a member of the party whose nomination he is seeking, and for the second time now. This signifies, at minimum, that he has no loyalty to the Democratic Party. And this likewise suggests—and this is my third objection—that he will be less helpful to down ballot Democrats in November 2020 than a top of the ticket candidate would normally be. Insofar as it is imperative that the Democrats take the Senate and keep the House, this could be a big problem indeed. Fourth, Bernie is carrying a lot of baggage, as it were, from his past, making him a particularly rich target for the Republicans (in addition to the “socialism” label, which he would be relentlessly hammered on; on Bernie’s vulnerabilities, see the post-2016 election Newsweek piece by Kurt Eichenwald). I still think he’d beat Trump but the attack barrage against him would be a big distraction. He would be permanently on the defensive. Fifth, his message in 2016 was new and fresh but is not now. He’s saying the same thing. He’s become one-note. And while Elizabeth Warren “has a plan”—and explains how she’ll pay for stuff—Bernie does not so much. I fear that Bernie in the White House would have a difficult time implementing his program even if the Ds control Congress. Disillusionment could set in, which would not auger well for the 2022 midterms. Sixth, D primary voters in 2016 who didn’t want Hillary only had Bernie. For progressively-inclined voters today, there’s an embarras de choix. And particularly Warren. Seventh—and this is subjective—Bernie’s grouchy persona—his almost permanent scowl—may not wear well. One prefers a man of his age in high public office to be avuncular (e.g. Reagan, Biden), not a curmudgeon. For these reasons, I don’t want Bernie. He and Biden—two old white men—should get out of the way and leave the final stretch to Warren and Harris.

Pete Buttigieg (7%). He’s definitely one of the smartest, most articulate presidential candidates we’ve had in a long time and proved that on Thursday. He had good responses to the questions put to him, notably on college tuition—free for lower and middle income students but not the wealthy—and raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. And what he said about the Republicans and religion was brilliant. I like Mayor Pete—how can one not be well-disposed toward a US pol who speaks la langue de Molière?—and think he’d be a great POTUS. In 2028 (when, at age 46, he’ll still be a spring chicken). In the meantime, he should run for senator or governor of his state.

Cory Booker (2%). He’s impressive on form, largely so on substance, though I didn’t much like his equivocal response on the Iran deal. But no big deal. He’ll be an ideal running mate for Elizabeth Warren.

Beto O’Rourke (2%). He was the Dems’ star during his run in Texas last year against the ghastly Ted Cruz but that star has faded somewhat, as one learns about his palling around with the fossil fuel, real estate, and other moneyed interests down his way. I thought he was okay in the debate, though didn’t like him beginning his first response in Spanish. We know he speaks it so what’s the point? Julián Castro also clearly got the better of their exchange on immigration. I can see why Beto might not have wanted to run for the Senate in ’20 against incumbent GOPer John Cornyn—to do the whole thing all over again—but it’s still too bad, as the Senate is where Beto belongs. One doesn’t see the raison d’être of his presidential candidacy, particularly as he jumped in the race when the field was already crowded.

Andrew Yang (2%). I didn’t know a thing about him and had not seen his face before the debate. He is manifestly smart and with some good ideas, e.g. on instituting a VAT. He’ll be a good cabinet secretary (pick your department), if that’s what he’s angling for.

Julián Castro (1%). If Warren and Harris weren’t in the race and he were a little higher in the polls, I could easily jump on his bandwagon. If nothing else, he has entirely justified his candidacy on the sole immigration issue, on which he has the best, most thoroughly thought-out position of anyone in the field. And he performed a salutary service to the Democratic Party—and America—in bringing up Section 1325 of the US Code: Title 8, calling for its repeal, and then challenging the other candidates (the Wednesday ones) to support him on it. Good. He’ll be an impeccable pick for Secretary of Homeland Security come January 2021.

Amy Klobuchar (1%). She is smart and sensible, and gave well-considered responses to the questions put to her. Some of her positions may be a tad centrist for my taste but that’s okay. It’s fine that she stays in the Senate.

Jay Inslee (1%). He has the merit of having made climate change his centerpiece issue and the equal merit of being—believe it or not—the only candidate during the debate to bring up unions and collective bargaining. And he specifically mentioned the SEIU, a union with growth potential and a membership that is largely female, minority, and/or immigrant. It’s too bad he’s not polling higher.

Tulsi Gabbard (1%). I thought she came across well in the debate but that’s neither here nor there with her. When elected to the House from Hawaii in 2012, she was apparently seen as a rising star in the D party, including by President Obama, and with a possible national future (this passed under my radar screen at the time). That didn’t last long, as she has come to be strongly disliked by large sectors the left—I see this on social media whenever her name is invoked—for her foreign policy stances, notably her support of the Syrian Ba’athist regime—she has met with Bashar al-Assad, as one may know—and the Hindu bigot Narendra Modi in India. And then there was her past opposition—now opportunistically dropped—to LGBTQ rights. As for nutty hard-leftists who support Bashar (and Russia), they are turned off by the Fox News-compatible manner in which she talks about “radical” Islam. Pat Buchanan likes her but on the left, Tulsi is toast. And one other thing: her Hinduism—or “Hinduism”—which does not come from a South Asian ethnic heritage but rather an offshoot of the Hare Krishna cult, of which her father (half-Samoan) was a follower. I remember the Hare Krishnas from the mid-1970s in suburban Chicago, proselytizing on street corners along with the Scientologists and adepts of the Guru Maharaj Ji (I engaged all in discussion on occasion). They were nuts. Or, rather, a cult. That does not belong in the White House.

John Delaney (1%). He’s the kind of centrist Democrat who has no chance of breaking out of the single digits in today’s D party. In addition, he has not succeeded in becoming household name despite having been on the campaign trail for over a year. In the debate, I wasn’t impressed with his support of Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to pursue impeachment and implying that the American people aren’t interested in this. If Trump has manifestly committed crimes and misdemeanors, he needs to be impeached for this, regardless of what people may say at a public meeting or tell a pollster.

John Hickenlooper (1%). His name has been advanced over the past decade as a moderate, pragmatic governor from a purple state with possible presidential stature. It looks like 2020 won’t be his year.

Kirsten Gillibrand (<1%). I find her to be a smart, compelling candidate, and who does not lose an occasion to bash Trump. As for her erstwhile right-leaning positions on certain issues (e.g. guns) before entering the Senate—after which she had to appeal to D voters outside her rural upstate NY CD—she has explained to my satisfaction her (manifestly opportunistic) conversion and tack to the left. But her opportunistic jumping on the #MeToo bandwagon and then leading the charge against Al Franken—who was hounded out of the Senate largely thanks to her—left a bad taste. I cannot forgive Senator Gillibrand for that. And then she piled it on with her opining that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky affair. That added to the bad taste. In view of her standing in the polls, I'm clearly not the only one to feel this way.

Tim Ryan (<1%). Didn't know much about him before the debate. His selling point seems to be that he represents a CD in northeastern Ohio chock full of white working class voters who make politicos and pundits swoon, and whom the D party establishment is so eager to woo. But they're lost to Trump and aren't coming back. Dems need to accept that. As for Ryan, he should run for the Senate in 2022, join Sherrod Brown, and keep Ohio purple.

Bill de Blasio (<1%). If he were serious about running for POTUS, he should have declared six months ago, not six weeks, when the field was already full. His candidacy is self-indulgent and irrelevant. Moreover, it's unserious, as his campaign doesn't even have a website!

Michael Bennet (<1%). First time I've seen him. He was quite good, I thought, giving well-informed, well-considered answers to the questions posed. I particularly liked his take-down of Joe Biden's extolling partisanship and ability to get things done with Republicans, reminding the former vice-president that the 2012 tax deal with the congressional GOP was a victory for the latter, as it made the Bush tax cuts permanent. Biden did not have a snappy comeback to that one.

Eric Swalwell (<1%). He was unknown to me before this past Sunday (when I watched the debate online) and still pretty much is. I liked his proposal on a mandatory government buy-back of assault weapons.

Marianne Williamson (<1%). I had no idea who she was or what she was doing on the stage, though that probably says more about me than her, as she is, so I now learn, a best-selling author for over two decades now—of books I have not heard about, let alone read—and has a fairly high public profile (particularly among people who are not riveted to politics). So she's running for POTUS. I found her interventions during the debate to be quirky and/or amusing. Out of the box. But a journalist whom I highly regard is admonishing us to "take Marianne Williamson seriously,” adding “laugh all you want, then remember who the president is.” To which I respond that it’s too bad she isn’t running in the Republican primaries against the idiot. Depending on the state of the D race, I would consider crossing over to vote for her…

One thing I’ve been insisting on: the Democratic ticket must contain a woman and an Afro-American. If there’s going to be a white (or Latino) man, Kamala Harris (or Stacey Abrams) will have to be on the ticket.

To be continued.

UPDATE: Here is a clever, funny, and spot-on take of “The Democratic primary field as a history department,” by historian Jason Tebbe, who blogs at Notes from the Ironbound.

Credit here

I’ve been off AWAV for a while, which a few have noticed, in part as I was away from the banks of the Marne—and on or near the shores of the Aegean—earlier this month. There’s also been too much news to follow. So much to write about, so little time. Actually, I do have some time now. One never-ending story that continues to capture attention is the Brexit psychodrama, which has entered an ever crazier phase, with the descent into insanity of a Tory party that is increasingly resembling its unhinged conservative counterpart outre-Atlantique—just take a look at the YouGov poll released last week (image below)—and the seemingly inevitable accession of Trump wannabe Boris Johnson to 10 Downing Street. That BoJo does not belong there goes without saying, former Daily Telegraph editor and well-known historian Max Hastings being the latest to remind us, in a June 24th opinion piece in The Guardian, “I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister.”

The most fascinating explanation of how a clown like BoJo could rise as high as he has—in the world’s oldest, most stable, and, so we thought, most serious democracy—may be found in a terrific “long weekend read” essay by Simon Kuper in the FT (June 21st), “How Oxford university shaped Brexit — and Britain’s next prime minister.” Kuper, an Oxford alum himself and contemporary of BoJo and other top Tories, knows the institution, its culture, and personalities comme sa poche, and offers a unique insight into the us et coutumes of the British ruling class (in the vein of the pieces by Pankaj Mishra and Joanna Scutts that I’ve linked to on the subject). It’s a must-read.

If one has lost the thread on Brexit and needs a refresher, see Ian Dunt’s “Short guide to Britain’s long attempt to leave Europe.” And if one needs a refresher on BoJo’s inveterate lying and mythomania—rendering him utterly untrustworthy by his future EU partners and not to be taken seriously—see the post-2016 referendum pieces by Martin Fletcher and Jean Quatremer.

On a subject having nothing to do with Brexit or the Tory party, but merits posting here in view of the Oxbridge/British elite angle, take a few minutes to read the obituary (here) of the well-known historian and journalist Norman Stone, by fellow historian Sir Richard J Evans, I can’t remember the last time I read an obituary like this, at least in a mainstream publication. Sir Evans really didn’t care for Professor Stone!

[update below] [2nd update below]

In 2014 it was a disaster, as I wrote back then. This time it wasn’t. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National may have finished in first place but this was pretty much expected. And there were some bright spots—from my standpoint at least—in the scores for all the principal lists. I’m not going to give a full-blown analysis here, just flesh out some instant thoughts I posted on social media on Sunday night.

  • First, the marked increase in the participation rate, which broke 50%, the highest for a European election since 1994. Late polling indicated that turnout would be up compared to last time, but it wasn’t expected to this extent. I was an assesseur titulaire in my bureau de vote on Sunday, so could observe this throughout the day. Salutary this sursaut citoyen, even if the veritable impetus had less to do with Europe than national considerations (to sanction Emmanuel Macron or deny first place to Marine Le Pen). That said, the increased turnout—and in other EU states as well—signals in increasing interest in the European  Union—and for many, a support for the European project.
  • The RN may have come in first place but, at 23.3%, its score was lower than in 2014 (24.9%). And as it will have two fewer seats (22) in the European Parliament, this cannot be seen as a hands-down victory for Le Pen. The RN drew votes from Gilets Jaunes—up to 44% of GJs voted RN, according to one poll—but they were likely RN/FN voters anyway. The RN has consecrated its status as one of the major poles in French politics but this result does not, in itself, point to RN gains in next year’s municipal elections (as for 2022, that’s a ways away). So long as the RN remains in its ghetto, with no major party willing to ally with it, it will not be able win a national election. And in the European Parliament, one may be sure that it won’t do a thing—i.e. its MEPs won’t participate in the work of the parliamentary committees (where they’re congenital no shows)—and will only undermine the influence of France in EU institutions.
  • I wrote on Sunday night that Macron took a hit (and a well-deserved one) with the République en Marche-MoDem list finishing in second place, though think I need to attenuate that. It would have obviously been preferable from Macron’s standpoint to finish first, but the close second—and with 22.4%—should not be viewed as a setback, all things considered. E.g. with Macron’s unpopularity—he’s at 27% approval/68% disapproval in the latest IPSOS baromètre—and the endless weekend GJ manifs, it could have been worse for him, cf. the more marked votes de sanction against the party in the Élysée in almost all past European elections (2009 a notable recent exception). Exit polling has shown that the REM benefited yesterday from the defection of moderate right LR voters in its direction, confirming that Macron will most surely govern from the center-right for the rest of his term. This will be majorly consequential for the ongoing recomposition of the French political spectrum heading toward 2022.
  • Europe Écologie-Les Verts’ 13.5% is quite simply stunning, as no one expected it, Yannick Jadot’s list polling at 9% tops. Given the momentum of Green parties in Germany and elsewhere, and the increasing importance attached by voters to climate change and other environmental issues, such electoral progress can only warm the heart. And the increased size of the European Greens political group in the European Parliament can only be welcomed. This said, EELV’s excellent score does not augur anything for the future, as we’ve seen this before. E.g. in the 1999 European elections, Les Verts, led by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, reached almost 10%, but which did not send the écolos into orbit nationally, nor did its amazing 16.4% in the 2009 Euro elections (close on the heels of the PS, led by Martine Aubry at the time). The écolo spikes in past elections have been sans lendemain, with European election Verts voters returning to other left or centrist parties/candidates in national elections. And this will likely remain the case, with almost all parties outside the hard right having integrated environmental themes into their programs, The fact is, EELV remains a small formation, permanently rent by factional infighting, and with, at present, almost no high-profile elected representatives. And if it tries to go it alone electorally—presenting candidates on its own, outside of any alliance or pact with the PS or anyone else—which has been its reflex in recent years, it will bite the dust, as it always has in two-round elections when it does its cavalier seul act. So despite EELV’s brilliant score yesterday, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to become the leading force on the French left.
  • The catastrophic 8.5% of Les Républicains, which not a single poll came anywhere close to predicting—LR was seen going as high as 15%, if not more—is the big story of this election. No one could have ever foreseen the longtime standard-bearer of neo-Gaullism and la droite parlementaire sinking into the single digits, and despite the party’s increasingly hard right turn over the past decade (recalling the rightward progression of a certain conservative party outre-Atlantique). The cerebral tête de liste François-Xavier Bellamy seemed to be catching on with the LR base, and despite—or perhaps because of—his very conservative, Catholic views on questions de société, and came across as friendly and open-minded to boot (quite unlike the cynical, insufferably arrogant LR secy-gen Laurent Wauquiez). E.g. even Benoît Hamon, among other lefties, enjoys conversations with Bellamy, so one reads. But this finally didn’t matter to LR voters, particularly the more moderate among them, who found Bellamy too conservative—and Wauquiez’s identitarian rhetoric too extreme—so defected to the REM and Macron. And on LR’s right flank, réac voters decided to go for the real thing—Marine LP and the RN—rather than the wannabe. As for where LR goes from here, it would be nice if this calamitous result brings moderate rightists like Valérie Pécresse or Xavier Bertrand back to the fore, but I’m not optimistic. The core of the LR base remains the “Trocadéro right,” and despite the REM having realized some its best scores in Paris’s most upscale arrondissements (6th, 7th, 8th, 16th), plus wealthy western banlieues (Neuilly-sur-Seine et al)—which have been fiefs of the right since the dawn of time—finishing way ahead in first place and with 45-48% of the vote. With the REM now occupying the center-right and the RN formally abandoning its pledge to quit the EU, the space for a significant conservative party between these two is narrow indeed.
  • The paltry 6.3% of La France Insoumise list was the most gratifying surprise of the election. This catastrophic, utterly unforeseen result for LFI was not a failure of tête de liste Manon Aubry, who is sympathique and acquitted herself well in the campaign, so I thought, but of LFI caudillo Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who was aiming for the double-digits and to consecrate LFI as the uncontested nº 1 force on the left, but instead barely avoided being overtaken by the convalescing PS, which would have been the supreme humiliation for him. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. With this score, JLM is K.O., both politically and personally, the latter because his trash-talking, scowling personality is not wearing well, including among his voters. I personally know people who are otherwise supportive of LFI’s line but simply cannot stand JLM (the televised spectacle of him blowing his fuses with the judicial police last October turned off more than a few). And within LFI, there is increasing exasperation at JLM’s authoritarian style and of his solo leadership—in informal tandem with his significant other—of the party. On the political level, LFI’s counter-performance signifies the limits of JLM’s populist discourse, of trying to appeal to categories of the electorate who don’t necessarily have the same world-view, e.g. the couches populaires—of the Gilets Jaunes variety—and urban, educated left-wing millennials. Both may share an allergy to neoliberalism but they sharply differ on other matters (e.g. immigration, identity). The couches populaires are attached to the nation and are reflexively suspicious of the European Union; with educated millennials, it’s the reverse. With the latter, JLM’s nationalism and Euroscepticism—when it comes to the EU, he is fundamentally not so different from Marine Le Pen—will not fly. There is a bitter truth that a lot of lefties over a certain age have a hard time accepting, which is that the working class unmoored from trade unions leans much more to the right than the left. JLM knows this—I’ve heard him say it up close, that it’s a myth that the WC has always monolithically voted for the left—but he underestimates the numbers. Left-wing parties can craft an appropriate economic message—that’s what makes them left-wing—but insofar as identity and nationalism trump economics for atomized WC voters, the latter are out of reach for the left. And a party of the left that tries to address the cultural anxieties of WC voters will not only fail in the effort but lose sizable numbers of its educated supporters. There is a space on the political spectrum for an LFI-type party but in the single digits. If LFI were to become the leading party of the left—which is now not too likely—it would consign the French left to permanent opposition in the same way the PCF’s domination did in the three decades following the end of WWII. Hopefully JLM will wake up, smell the coffee, and abandon his ambitions for 2022. As for who could take his place as the porte-drapeau of the radical left, I have my ideas.
  • The Parti Socialiste-Place Publique’s 6.2% was cause for satisfaction, as, according to the final polls, the list was in danger of falling under 5%, and thus sending no deputies to the European Parliament. As I wrote in the previous post, such a result would have likely meant the end of the PS. That the PS came close to matching its calamitous score in the 2017 presidential election is hardly a cause for rejoicing—which Raphaël Glucksmann made clear on Sunday night—but at least we know that the Socialists have touched bottom and can only go up, particularly in view of LFI’s failure. If Benoît Hamon had responded favorably to Glucksmann’s unity initiative and not run a list of his irrelevant micro-party, Génération.s—which received a predictable 3.3%—the “Envie d’Europe” list could have gone as high as 9%. So now that the PS has sauvé les meubles, it can now look to rebuild, as the positioning of Macron and the REM on the center-right has created a wide open space on the center-left that cannot and will not be filled by EELV alone. Or even primarily. The PS still has an infrastructure of militants and élus—which is rather larger than EELV’s—and, with the next elections being the municipals in March 2020, can realistically aim to recover some of the ground it lost in the 2014 debacle, particularly if it can forge single slates with EELV. Also, the REM controls not a single mairie—the party not existing in the last municipal elections—and most of its eager beaver marcheurs of the 2017 campaign have fallen by the wayside. If Macron remains unpopular into next year—which is likely—the REM will not be entering the municipal election campaign with a head of steam. Likewise with LR, in view of its current state. So things may indeed be looking up for a rejuvenated PS after next March. In this respect, some history: (a) In the 1969 presidential election, as everyone remembers, the Socialists hit rock bottom with Gaston Deferre’s 5%. Two years later was the Epinay congress and François Mitterrand, followed by the Union de la Gauche and the cliffhanger 49.2% loss in 1974; and then there was 1981… (b) After the victories of 1981 the PS suffered one major electoral setback after another and by 1986 the right looked to be in the drivers seat; but Mitterrand recovered and was easily reelected in 1988;  (c) The catastrophic 1993 legislative elections saw the PS lose 218 of its 275 incumbent deputies, followed by the rout of Michel Rocard’s list in the 1994 European elections; the PS looked to be out of it for the foreseeable future; four months before the 1st round of the 1995 presidential election, the party didn’t even have a candidate, but then Lionel Jospin rose from the ashes, losing to Jacques Chirac with a respectable 47.4% in the 2nd round; and then there was the 1997 early legislatives and the brilliant victory of the PS-led Gauche Plurielle; and if it hadn’t been for the accident of the 21 avril, Jospin would have likely defeated Chirac in the 2002 presidential election. (d) After its miserable result in the 2009 European elections, the future of the PS looked somber, and with the high-profile pundit BHL proclaiming in a banner headline in a Sunday newspaper that the party would soon be “dead.” But it came back in the 2010 regionals and, by mid 2012, was the dominant party in France (okay, that didn’t last long but still). The lesson: when it comes to the French Socialist Party, it ain’t over till it’s over…

There’s a lot more to say but that’s it for now.

UPDATE: The image below illustrates the point made above about the REM doing particularly well in Paris’s beaux quartiers on Sunday (h/t Angelo Pardi via Guillaume Duval).

2nd UPDATE: Libération editor-in-chief Laurent Joffrin’s “lettre politique” of May 28th, on LFI and JLM, is absolutely worth reading. He totally nails it.

28 mai 2019
La lettre politique de Laurent Joffrin

La France insoumise a «un problème»

Clémentine Autain est sortie du bois la première. Il y a, dit-elle, «un problème de ligne et de profil politique» à La France insoumise, qui a trop misé sur «le ressentiment, la haine, ou le clash permanent». Nostra culpa : «Sans doute avons-nous pris trop de distance avec un discours de gauche.»

«Problème» il y a, de toute évidence. Sur une ligne dégagiste, LFI a divisé par trois en deux ans le score de Jean-Luc Mélenchon à la présidentielle (de 18% à 6%). C’est l’effet des innombrables sorties de route volontaires des insoumis, toutes justifiées par la culture de l’anathème : agressivité permanente, dénigrement constant du reste de la gauche, procès en sorcellerie contre Jadot, «haine» assumée contre les journalistes de tous bords, vociférations grand-guignolesques contre une perquisition judiciaire, invocation rituelle d’un «raz-de-marée» populaire qui n’a jamais eu lieu, sauf avec le mouvement des gilets jaunes, parti tout seul, quand LFI n’appelait à rien ; déification compensatoire de certains leaders gilets jaunes aux options pour le moins ambiguës, discours européen incompréhensible consistant à prévoir une «sortie des traités» qui ne serait pas une sortie de l’Union, alors que l’Union est justement bâtie sur un traité, etc. A force de considérer que l’enfer, c’est les autres, tous traîtres, soumis ou vendus, on reste seul avec ses certitudes.

Problème plus large, d’ailleurs : le recul de la gauche radicale est général en Europe. La débâcle la plus spectaculaire a frappé le parti dégagiste Podemos, miné par les divisions, tombé à 10% en Espagne, après avoir perdu la plupart des villes conquises dans la foulée du mouvement des «indignés», dont Madrid et Barcelone, excusez du peu. Il n’est pas le seul. Au total, le groupe d’extrême gauche au Parlement européen est passé de plus de 50 sièges à moins de 40, représentant tout au plus 5% de l’électorat. Gauche radicale, gauche marginale. A force de dire non à tout, les énergies militantes se lassent et passent chez ceux qui disent oui à quelque chose. Elles ont gonflé le mouvement écologiste, qui se bat sur un programme positif de réformes immédiates et, au lieu de dénoncer mécaniquement tous les compromis, cherche des alliances européennes pour y parvenir.

C’est l’essence même du dégagisme qui est en cause. Le peuple d’un côté, les élites de l’autre : sommaire et faux. Les élites ne sont pas toujours réactionnaires ni le peuple progressiste. C’est en bâtissant une coalition «interclasses» qu’on réunit une majorité ou, à tout le moins, qu’on impose des réformes de progrès. C’est avec des civils qu’on fait des militaires, et donc avec des gens qui ne pensent pas comme soi qu’on élargit son influence. Sans quoi on reste au balcon à distribuer les excommunications. Le dégagisme a marché un temps. Il est usé, ou alors il profite aux nationalistes. LFI en avait fait un dogme, un leitmotiv, un ADN. Effectivement, il y a «un problème».

Polls, 2019 European elections, France (credit: Huffpost)

[update below]

The European election campaign in France has been a sad spectacle. The level of public interest is typically low, the pro-Europe left is weaker than ever, and the extreme right-wing ex-FN—renamed the Rassemblement National—will likely finish in first place as it did in 2014, with a quarter of the vote and Marine Le Pen exulting. Emmanuel Macron likely thought that anointing the non-politician Nathalie Loiseau—unknown to the public and who is as much a caricature of the énarchie as he—to head the REM list—called Renaissance, which will join the centrist ALDE in the European Parliament—was a deft move, but she hasn’t worked out too well as a candidate. Macron’s political skills are nul; as a politician, he’s hopeless. If his list finishes behind the RN, he will rightly be seen as the election’s big loser—particularly as he has implicated himself in the campaign to a greater extent than his predecessors in the Élysée—which will further weaken him in Brussels. And with the RN set to win up to a third of France’s 79 seats in Strasbourg, this will only increase the marginalization of France in the EU, as Le Pen’s party, in addition to many things, barely participates in the work of the European Parliament. The RN is a party of grifters. Triste France.

There have been a number of televised debates, the latest one last night on BFM, with the 11 leading têtes de listes and which went for three hours. I didn’t see it. Too long, too many people, too much cacophony. I did, however, catch on replay Wednesday night’s first debate on France 2, with candidates or representatives of the six lists polling over 5%, which went for an hour-and-a-half (it was followed by a second debate, with nine lesser candidates, which I didn’t bother with). The participants were Marine Le Pen, standing in for the no. 1 on RN list, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella; MoDem‘s François Bayrou, who is allied with Macron and REM, taking the place of Mme Loiseau; the hard-rightist Laurent Wauquiez, replacing the youthful conservative egghead François-Xavier Bellamy, who heads the LR list; the engaging newcomer Manon Aubry, all of 29 years of age, whom Jean-Luc Mélenchon has put in charge of LFI‘s list; Yannick Jadot of EELV; and Place Publique‘s Raphaël Glucksmann, who is leading the PS’s effort (more on him and that below).

According to IPSOS’s Brice Teinturier, the four most important themes for the French electorate in this election are purchasing power (i.e how much money people have in their figurative pockets), protection of the environment, France’s place in Europe and the world, and immigration (slipping to fourth place). So the questions revolved around those, which included ones on whether or not diesel cars should be banned in the EU by 2040, if the VAT should be set at 0% for “produits de première nécessité” (not precisely defined), what degree of protectionism should be imposed by the EU, should national border controls be reestablished, and if there should be obligatory quotas for EU member states in receiving asylum-seekers and refugees.

As one knows, form is as important as substance in debates, particularly in televised political ones, and all the more so when there are many undecided voters faced with multiple options to choose from that, on substance, hardly differ from one another—and in a proportional representation election where le vote utile (voting strategically) does not factor (except if a list is close to the qualifying threshold). E.g., even in this particular debate, with just six candidates, large numbers of voters (myself included) could, strictly on the issues, vote for two, or even three, of them (like a Democratic or Republican primary in the US). When the two debates ended, Teinturier announced the result of IPSOS’s instant poll as to which candidates were “convincing”—I knew it about beforehand, having watched the debate en différé—which had Le Pen in first place, with 39%. I regret to say that I can understand why persons even somewhat open to her rhetoric would say this. MLP spewed her usual bullshit but not with the aggressiveness for which she is wont. She toned it down. And as her party has changed its line on quitting the euro and the EU—the FN/RN, ceding to French public opinion, no longer formally advocates this—she could not be attacked on this score. She also skillfully avoided answering the environmentally-related question by weaving, dodging, and bringing up irrelevant issues. She was likewise fortunate to have Wauquiez—standing to her right on the stage—as a foil. Wauquiez, who leads the LR party, is not a stupid man but, like Macron and Loiseau, is almost a caricature of the arrogant énarque—he graduated first in his class at ENA (promotion Mandela, 2001)—who thinks he’s brilliant and everyone else around him is, at best, a nitwit, at worst an outright idiot. Wauquiez is, moreover, surely one of the most cynical men in French political life. E.g., he started his political career under the tutelage of the late Jacques Barrot, as a pro-Europe centrist and liberal in the classical sense, but tacked to the identitarian hard right, and with a soft Eurosceptic stance, when he detected that the base of the LR party was increasingly aligned with the FN on practically every issue. And he comes across as antipathique—he really does seem like a nasty person utterly full of himself—which cannot be a merely subjective opinion on my part in view of his poll numbers (in the May IPSOS baromètre politique: 17% approval, 62% disapproval). Wauquiez had at least two sharp exchanges with MLP in the debate, and with the latter getting the better of them. It was a mistake not to have sent Bellamy, who is equally smart, comes across rather better, and has become popular with right-wing voters to boot.

Aubry, Jadot, and Glucksmann all acquitted themselves well IMHO, but Bayrou did not so much. His participation in the debate was almost incongruous. A renewal of the French political class has been underway for the past several years, and which accelerated with the 2017 election of Macron and his REM in the National Assembly. Bayrou is a throwback to a bygone era. He’s a smart man, very well spoken, and with interesting, valid things to say—and, at 67, is not that old—but he seemed out of place on the stage. An almost has-been. And in responding to the question on migration, he specified that he was expressing his personal viewpoint. But, hey, he was there as the representative of the REM-MoDem list! A big mistake. And also for Macron to have sent him.

On Raphaël Glucksmann and the PS list, this is the one I will be voting for. The PS, as one may be aware, has been a champ de ruines—a rubble heap—since the 2017 elections. First Secretary Olivier Faure has struck me a good man and well spoken, though he doesn’t have much of a public presence and may or may not be the right person to revive the PS from its pitiful state. When Glucksmann announced the creation last year of Place Publique, whose objective was to unite the moderate left—i.e. everything between REM and LFI—into a single list for the European elections, it wasn’t taken too seriously, as Glucksmann is a mere writer and intellectual (his late father, André, had more notoriety). Personally speaking, I’ve listened periodically to Glucksmann’s weekly Saturday afternoon debate on France Inter with the contrarian souverainiste talking head Natacha Polony—I’ll take him over her any day—but that was it. But Faure, fully cognizant of the PS’s calamitous state, decided to take up Glucksmann’s offer—and for him to head the list—and got his skeptical party to go along (with the smaller Parti Radical de Gauche and Nouvelle Donne; Benoît Hamon, to his discredit, refused to commit his Génération.s movement—and for specious reasons—and there was never a chance that the écolos would join).

But the list, called Envie d’Europe, hasn’t taken off, needless to say, hovering around the 5% threshold, below which is elimination and no MEPs elected, and one of the reasons being Glucksmann’s difficult transition from the Parisian intellectual world to partisan politics. Last Saturday, at the marché in my neighborhood, I ran into a local PS tract-distributing militant, who, when I asked if the PS was having any rally at all in Paris in the final week of the campaign, informed me that one would be happening the next day at a venue called the Cabaret Sauvage, in the 19th arrondissement, which I had never heard of. And so I went, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. The place—tucked away in the Parc de la Villette complex, along the Canal de l’Ourcq and off the Boulevards des Maréchaux—is hard to find if one doesn’t know it. My, how far the PS has fallen, I told myself, to have its final Paris election rally in such an obscure venue, and with there having been almost no publicity, not even online (there was a Facebook page but that was about it). And the sentiment was reinforced when I got there, as the thing was beginning (toward 4:45 pm); the place was packed, most standing room, but held a maximum of maybe 800, almost all manifestly card-carrying PS militants (as they cheered wildly at the mention of PS politicos present I hadn’t heard of, and I am fairly well-informed as to who is who in French politics; the event was, in effect, a pep rally for the hard core). Not too good for the once great Parti Socialiste. But my attitude evolved as the event progressed. There was a succession of speakers, all holding to their clearly allotted 10-15 minute speaking time. Faure was good. Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who, with no elective mandate, has taken a break from the political arena—she presently works for IPSOS and Fayard, and teaches at Sciences Po—gave one of the keynotes. She’s hugely popular with PS activists, and with me too. She was followed by Anne Hidalgo, who was sure to be a hit with the crowd—she’s mayor of Paris, after all—though while impeccable on substance she needs to work on delivery IMHO. She’s not a great speaker. Mais peu importe. Glucksmann spoke last, for half an hour. The reception was rapturous and he rose to the occasion. He was laid back but serious. In short, he aced it, on both form and substance. It was all about Europe, and with few references to the opposition (and no mention at all of rival left-wing lists). I didn’t disagree with a thing he said.

Leaving the venue I felt reasonably good about the PS for the first time in a long while and am encouraging undecided friends and family to vote for Glucksmann’s list. One of the arguments: as retiring PS MEP Pervenche Berès wrote in a text message to a friend of mine earlier this week in regard to incumbent MEPs Sylvie Guillaume and Éric Andrieu—who are in the 2nd and 3rd positions on Glucksmann’s list (and were at Sunday’s rally)—they “did a great job on migration and asylum for her, and fight against Monsanto and GMO, glyphosate, health, and sustainable agriculture for him.”

It will be terrible if the PS fails to break 5% on Sunday. The French Socialist Party absent from the European Parliament is unthinkable. I don’t think this will happen but if it does, it will possibly be the PS’s death knell. And with that, any chance of the French left credibly contesting elections for the foreseeable future. The specter of another presidential 2nd round confrontation between Macron and Le Pen is not something I want to contemplate. Crossing fingers.

UPDATE: See the reflection (May 23rd) by Alternatives Économiques editor-in-chief and friend Guillaume Duval, “Pourquoi la France ne débat pas de l’Europe.”

Paris, 19 May 2019

[update below]

The elections to the European Parliament are taking place between tomorrow and Sunday in the 28 EU member states, which persons outside Europe (and some inside) may or may not be aware of, and with several presidential debates—for the presidency of the European Commission—having been held over the past month. The latest one—and with the most participants—was on Sunday, at the European Parliament in Brussels, which I watched via the debate’s website. There are six “Spitzenkandidaten”—”lead candidates,” designated by their respective Europarties or European Parliament political groups—in the running to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker, whose term ends on October 31st: Manfred Weber (from Germany) of the European People’s Party (moderate right), Frans Timmermans (Netherlands) of the Party of European Socialists, Margrethe Vestager (Denmark) of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (centrist), Ska Keller (Germany) of the European Green Party, Nico Cué (Belgium) of the European United Left, and Jan Zahradil (Czech Republic) of the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe, this last one being the one Eurosceptic (soft) Europarty to present a candidate. The other right-wing Eurosceptic groups—which include such parties as the Italian Lega and French RN—appear not to have their Spitzenkandidaten. For more on the candidates, go to the website Europe Elects.

The new President of the Commission will be nominated by the European Council—by consensus or in a qualified majority vote according to the formula contained in the Treaty of Lisbon—and ratified (or rejected) by a majority vote in the European Parliament (which will vote up or down on the entire College of Commissioners, not just the President). One more reason underscoring the importance of these elections. The European Council is not obliged to choose one of the Parliament’s Spitzenkandidaten, and though it ultimately did in 2014 it may not this time. If it were to designate, say, Michel Barnier—who would like the job and is certainly the best possible person from the EPP, which will no doubt remain the largest party in the Parliament after the election—it’s hard to see how the Parliament could reject that. On verra.

The debate lasted 90 minutes, with six broad questions posed and each candidate—all speaking in English except for Cué, who spoke in French—having one minute to answer and with the opportunity for rebuttal. The questions were on migration, youth unemployment, climate change and what sacrifices should be asked of Europeans in dealing with it, GAFA and tax havens, trade negotiations with Trump and if Europe should open its markets to US agricultural produce (including GMO), and how to explain the rise of Euroscepticism across the continent and if the candidates felt that their own political families had any responsibility in bringing it about. Cué (who’s a trade union leader) and Vestager were the best on the migration issue (I expected a fuller response from Keller), whereas Timmermans was very good on youth unemployment. The candidates were all fine on form, though none stood out in the way the ALDE’s Guy Verhofstadt did in the two 2014 debates (when it comes to exuberance and sheer presence, no one in the EU parliament beats the Belgian Verhofstadt, e.g. see him shred Nigel Farage and offer a few thoughts to Italian PM Giuseppe Conte). As for Weber’s performance, it was rather superior to that of the EPP’s Juncker back in ’14, who was a dud in those debates. The conservative ACRE’s Zahradil actually impressed, in that he gave full, concrete, coherent responses to all the questions. I don’t adhere to his positions but for those who do, he’s as good a spokesperson as they will find in Brussels and Strasbourg.

To watch the debate—which is worth the while—go here. À suivre.

UPDATE: Wolfgang Münchau, who is one of the best informed and most incisive analysts of the EU around, has an important column in the May 19th FT, “Brexit wrangles intrude on EU job allocation: Victory for Nigel Farage in the European elections could complicate appointments.”

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