Publisher's Note — June 9, 2017, 4:24 pm

The New Nonalignment

A version of this column originally ran in Le Devoir on June 5, 2017. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

Normally, I wouldn’t applaud the audacious rhetoric of a German chancellor, especially one speaking to right-wing activists in a Munich beer tent. Apart from the bad associations with Hitler’s 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, I find that Angela Merkel is already sufficiently reckless in her conduct on the European scene, where her fiscal intimidation of the Greeks and the Spaniards continues without letup.

But we’re not living in normal times, and the chancellor’s recent speech, in which she advocated for a German foreign policy more independent from the United States under the leadership of Donald Trump, seemed utterly appropriate to me. At the present moment, with an American president so ignorant and dangerous – and under fire from all sides for his more or less criminal conduct – it would be absurd for the heads of European Union member states to act as if nothing but business as usual was taking place internationally. With almost 68,000 American soldiers in Europe, 36,000 of them based in Germany, there’s plenty to worry about.

Historically, U.S. foreign policy has consistently been bound up with its domestic politics. Two examples are the invasion of Mexico in 1846, which was part of the great project of America’s so-called manifest destiny, and the dream of expansion to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. More recently, Trump’s strike against the Assad regime in Syria was more a symbolic strike than a real military intervention, launched for the sole purpose of silencing American critics of his tendency to favor Russia and appeasing the supporters of human rights who consider Assad a war criminal. Just as President James K. Polk in 1846 had no intention of conducting diplomacy with Mexico or of guaranteeing and respecting the borders between the two nations, Trump is uninterested in resolving the civil war in Syria or stopping the slaughter of innocent people trapped between the Islamic State, the various rebel factions, and the Syrian government.

The Mexican-American War, which was provoked by the United States, underscores how the U.S. is motivated more by the ambitions of politicians than by a desire for peace, for cooperation, for constructive alliances, or even for the good health of the country’s economy. Trump doesn’t have Polk’s intelligence, but all the same there are some psychological links between the two men that pass through Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. The slogan “Make America Great Again,” as well as verbal assaults against the “criminal” Mexicans, who are impugned for stealing American jobs, arise from atavistic impulses that go directly back to prejudices common in the nineteenth century. When Trump labels as “unfair to the people and taxpayers of the United States” Washington’s allegedly disproportionate expenses for NATO’s maintenance, the subtext is nearly the same: foreigners of dubious character, simultaneously cunning and lazy, are seizing what rightfully belongs to the honest citizens of Middle America. Trump’s withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord sounded a similar note: “We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore…. I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”

However, instead of lingering to consider the numerous stupid remarks spouted by Trump, it would be more useful to think about ways of protecting Canada, in conjunction with Europe, from an aggressive, powerful, unpredictable, and obviously unstable neighbor, led by a head of state so narcissistic as to be capable of causing serious damage to the Middle East as well as to the Korean peninsula. Ever since the Kennedy Administration, Washington’s foreign policy has been made entirely in the Oval Office and at the National Security Agency, not at the State Department. Any appeal to the cultivated diplomats of Foggy Bottom is out of the question.

My idea would be to revive and reform the Non-Aligned Movement, which was all the rage during the Cold War, in order to erect a protective barrier made up of usually pro-American countries currently confused by Trump’s incoherent foreign policy. “Neither Washington nor Moscow” could become a mantra again. An unrealistic notion, perhaps, but Canada’s Justin Trudeau could serve as a leader in this endeavor, together with such partners as Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron. The Non-Aligned Movement is still technically in existence, but it’s handicapped by the hypocrisy of its key members, such as Saudi Arabia (a country obviously allied with the United States and Trump), and by its exaggeratedly third-world, anti-West image. Instead of proclaiming its allegiance to neither orthodox communism nor unbridled capitalism, as people said during the era of General Nasser and Marshal Tito, a new non-aligned movement, supported by a “Little Entente” of Trudeau, Merkel, and Macron could have as its slogan: neither national narcissism (à la Trump/Putin) nor nationalist aggression.

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November 2018

Rebirth of a Nation

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The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

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Rebirth of a Nation·

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Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Blood Money·

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Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

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When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Wrong Object·

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e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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