A great speech invokes its predecessors. The structure of Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg paralleled that of the oration delivered by Pericles at a funeral for fallen Athenian soldiers. Lincoln’s measure of America’s age (“four score and seven years”) recalled the measure of a man’s lifespan in the King James version of Psalm 90 (“three score years and ten”). Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” echoed several early American antecedents, including Theodore Parker, an abolitionist minister (“Democracy is direct self-government, over all the people, for all the people, by all the people”) who also observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Martin Luther King began his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington on August 23, 1963, with an invocation of Lincoln’s famous measure of time: Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, King said, “five score years ago.”
King also invoked the Declaration of Independence; like Lincoln, he invoked the country’s founding to call for a recommitment to our founding principles.
Lincoln’s invocation of the country’s founding was to laud the Union for its dedication to the principle that all men are created equal. We were engaged in a “great civil war,” Lincoln said, to determine whether a nation dedicated to that principle “can long endure.” Lincoln asked his audience to resolve “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Lincoln made no explicit criticism of the country’s realization of its founding ideal. He did call for a “new birth of freedom,” which might have been an implicit criticism of the country’s first birth of freedom. The founders clearly intended the proposition that “all men are created equal” not to include “all men.” Lincoln’s intentions on that subject remained ambiguous, at best.
By contrast, King practically accused the Founding Fathers of fraud. Referring to the “magnificent words” of the Declaration of Independence that “all men” enjoy “the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” King called the promise of those words a “bad check,” a promissory note on which the country had defaulted.
King let Lincoln off only slightly easier. One hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation promised freedom for African-American slaves, “the Negro still is not free.”
King’s speech as written was a call to arms. King described “the life of the Negro” as “still badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.” He said that “the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” He listed the grievances as responses to his own rhetorical question, “when will you be satisfied?”:
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.
We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.
We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their adulthood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only.”
We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and the Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.
King referred without detail to the “sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent.” The sweltering summer of 1963 was this: in Birmingham, Bull Connor’s police officers turned fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights protestors, jailing more than 3,000 African-Americans, some as young as six years old; George Wallace stood in a doorway to block the enrollment of African-American students at the University of Alabama; civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered by a segregationist in Jackson.
King warned white America that time was of the essence: “There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.”
The threat in those words was intentional, and surely the force of the threat was amplified by the fact that they were spoken by America’s greatest advocate of non-violent protest. King promised that “1963 is not an end but a beginning” – conjuring even greater unrest to come. American “tranquility” will not be relieved of the “whirlwinds of revolt” until the promise racial justice is redeemed. He called gradualism a “tranquilizing drug.” He said that taking time for “cooling off” was a “luxury.” King emphasized “the fierce urgency of now.”
King’s written remarks concluded with a call to action. But the call was bland, even anodyne:
Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
Evidently, King sensed that his prepared speech had not risen to the occasion. The great contralto gospel singer Mahalia Jackson must have thought so too. Jackson had performed “I Been ‘Buked and I Been Scorned” before King’s speech, and she remained on the stage. She was active in the civil rights movement, and had heard King speak a number of times. In particular, Jackson had heard King speak about his dream for America.
King first spoke about the American dream in 1960, before the NAACP, contrasting the American dream and the African-American reality. He developed the theme in successive speeches, first giving a recognizable predecessor of the “I Have a Dream” speech in November 1962, at the Booker T. Washington High School, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Most recently, he had delivered a variation of the theme on June 23, 1963, in Detroit.
On the day of the March on Washington, as King was winding up a speech that would probably have been as unremarkable as the other 17 speeches given that day, Mahalia Jackson called out, “Tell them about the dream, Martin.” And King heard her.
The skilled and practiced orator that he was, King improvised memorably on the theme he had developed over the previous three years. The dream was of a just and good America, a country that lived up to its creed: that all men are created equal. It was a dream of aspiration, of ideals and perfection, of unity and understanding, where people will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
Separately, neither the original speech nor the improvised addendum would have gone down in history. The prepared text was a critique of the hypocrisy of the economic and legal treatment of African-Americans by a country that professed belief in equality. King articulated the critique especially well, but the concept itself was hardly original.
On the other hand, standing by itself, the “I Have a Dream” improvisation would have seemed surreal – too optimistic, too idealistic, to be realistic. Without a hard-headed acknowledgement of the reality of 1963, the dream would have been Pollyannaish, sentimental and certainly not a serious plan of action.
But the two halves together are a brilliant and compelling juxtaposition of our reality and our ideals; of how flawed we are but how good we want to be. It is universally inspirational, both stateless and timeless. People from any time and any place, people who know nothing of the hardships of African-Americans in 1963, can understand those hardships as metaphor for the hardships of other people in their own time and their place. Every people holds ideals of freedom and justice. The hypocrisy is perhaps sharper here, where our founding documents were unusually nobly and ably written, and where their ideals have been unusually well inculcated into our cultural sense of ourself, but the difference with other countries, other societies, other peoples, is a matter of degree, not of kind.
The speech is forever known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, although the written version of the speech nowhere used those words. As delivered, the speech stands with the Gettysburg Address as one of the two pillars of our oratorical history, and therefore as a pillar of our culture.
King himself is also a pillar of our culture and our history. Time magazine recognized King as its man of the year for 1963, and King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In 1983, King’s birthday was made a federal holiday, making him one of only three individuals, along with Christopher Columbus and George Washington, to be so honored.
Among movie critics, Meryl Streep is widely regarded as the best actress of her generation, and it’s hard to argue the point. She has more Oscar nominations (19) and more Golden Globe nominations (30) than anyone else in history; she is the only living actress to have won three Oscars and one of only six people ever to have done so; her eight Golden Globe awards is more than any other person in history. The Wikipedia entry for “List of awards and nominations for Meryl Streep” has 98 sections – not 98 awards; 98 categories of awards.
Streep went to public school in New Jersey, got a bachelor’s degree with honors from Vassar in 1971 and a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale in 1975. She moved to New York that year and began her career in theater, landing six roles on stage her first year, including several produced by the New York theater legend Joseph Papp, appearing with luminaries like John Lithgow, Raul Julia and Sam Waterston. And she only went up from there.
Streep landed her first film role alongside Jane Fonda in the 1977 film, Julia. In her second film, in 1978, The Deer Hunter – the first time I saw Streep perform – she played Robert deNiro’s girlfriend and won her first Oscar nomination, for best supporting actress. Her first Oscar win was for best actress in the 1982 movie Sophie’s Choice.
Streep has proved to be remarkably durable. In an industry that is notoriously hard on middle-aged women, and even harder on older women, Streep continues to star. She has performed in 67 movies, including at least one in each year of this decade.
Last night Streep was presented the Golden Globes Cecil B. DeMille award, given annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” Only 64 human beings have won this award, starting with the great director after whom the award is named, and including such names as Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Sophia Loren, Laurence Olivier and John Wayne.
Streep’s acceptance speech ran nine paragraphs. She began by observing that the name of the awarding organization, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, represents “the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.” She then observed that no one in Hollywood is actually from Hollywood, and she illustrated with the night’s honorees the often humble and sometimes foreign origins of Hollywood stars:
But who are we, and what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola [Davis] was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island; Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids in Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in London — no, in Ireland I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a girl in small-town Virginia.
Ryan Gosling, like all of the nicest people, is Canadian, and Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, and is here playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners. And if we kick them all out you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.
Streep mused that the job of an actor is “to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like,” and she observed that many performers this year “did exactly that.”
But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hooks in my heart. Not because it was good; there was nothing good about it. But it was effective and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh, and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart when I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head, because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate, when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.
Streep concluded with an ever-so-modest call to action:
We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call him on the carpet for every outrage. That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in the Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists, because we’re going to need them going forward, and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.
Before turning to the response from President-Elect Donald Trump, that “person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country,” let’s pause to consider what Streep said about him. She said that he “imitated a disabled reporter” out of an “instinct to humiliate,” that Trump has more “privilege, power and the capacity to fight back” than the reporter he imitated, and that “when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.” She called on the free press to “safeguard the truth,” and she called on Hollywood to support the free press.
Donald Trump, the leader-in-waiting of the free world, the President-Elect of the United States of America, the soon-to-be commander-in-chief of the most powerful military force in the history of the world, responded in four sentences over three tweets from 6:27 to 6:43 a.m.:
Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never “mocked” a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him “groveling” when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!
The first sentence is classic Trump: when someone criticizes him, he attacks the person’s appearance or professional accomplishments, in a manner that has nothing to do with the criticism. It’s as if petulant little Donald is on the playground at school; Meryl Streep throws him out at second base, and Donald responds, “Yeah, but you’re fat!”
The second sentence is also classic Trump: the opinion of any person who criticizes Donald Trump is trivial or biased or both – in this case, because Streep was a Hillary Clinton supporter. Trump may eventually find new enemies, but for now, the entire world is divided between the “us” who supported Trump in an election that was over two months ago, and the “them” who supported Clinton. There isn’t a conciliatory bone in his body, or a conciliatory instinct in his personality, and he lacks the class or the respect or the judgment even to try to fake it.
And it wasn’t sufficient for Trump to dismiss Streep’s criticism of him as biased by her support for Clinton; Trump had to belittle her support for Clinton by calling her a “flunky.” A flunky is a sycophant or a servile person who is retained because of her loyalty, not because of her ability or her intellect. In other words, Streep didn’t come to be a Clinton supporter out of any ability to reason, and she wasn’t welcomed by Clinton because of any positive quality.
As to losing big, grammatically speaking Trump was saying that Streep “lost big,” but I suspect he meant to say that Clinton “lost big” – which, of course, she didn’t. Trump lost the popular vote by a substantial margin, and his electoral win was the 46th biggest out of 58. By that standard of bigness, Hawaii – the 40th most populous American state – is a “big” state.
The third sentence is Trump’s only response to Streep’s actual accusation that he “imitated a disabled reporter” to “humiliate” and “bully” him. And his response was not a denial of her accusation. Trump did deny that he “mocked” the reporter, but Streep had not accused him of that. Trump insisted that instead of “mocking” the reporter, he only “showed [the reporter] ‘groveling.'” That is, he imitated the reporter, which of course is precisely what Streep had accused him of. That fact that Trump imagined that the reporter had been “groveling” pretty much proves Streep’s perception of an “instinct to humiliate.”
In his fourth and final sentence, Trump made his own accusation: “Just more dishonest media!” Maybe Trump thinks of Streep, and Hollywood, as part of the media. Maybe Trump thinks the media was “dishonest” to report on Streep’s speech. I suspect Trump was responding to media characterizations of Trump’s “imitation” of the disabled reporter: the New York Times, for instance, in reporting on Streep’s speech and Trump’s response, referred to Trump’s imitation as “appearing to mock a disabled reporter.” But accusing Streep of saying it was certainly inaccurate, and at least careless, if not dishonest: “People keep saying I intended to mock the reporter’s disability, as if Meryl Streep and others could read my mind.”
Streep delivered her speech last night with poise and passion – she is, after all, the greatest actress of her generation. Streep stood up for outsiders, for victims of powerful bullies, for freedom of the press, and for the truth. Trump delivered his response with the thin-skinned nastiness that is the hallmark of a narcissist. He stood up for no one but himself.
Bill de Blasio ran for mayor of New York in 2013 on a very liberal platform. He was determined to change the city’s story from “A Tale of Two Cities” to a fairer, more equitable story. When de Blasio won, conservatives predicted a “return to the bad old days” of the 1970s. Captains of industry predicted the demise of free enterprise in the People’s Republic of New York. John Rocker offered his opinion, just in case anyone wanted it, that de Blasio would turn the city into a Third World country “that smelled like a sewer and had the murder rate of an African civil war.”
Curiously, Donald Trump predicted that de Blasio would be “a good mayor, maybe a very good mayor.” He said that de Blasio would “make New York great.”
Most of all, conservatives foresaw skyrocketing crime rates. In their view, liberal government is simply inconsistent with peaceful and orderly civil life. Three years in, with the 2017 mayoral campaign about to begin in earnest, I want to point out how wrong the conservatives were.
In 2016, New York saw 335 homicides, just two more than the record low set in 2014, de Blasio’s first year in office. New York has reliable homicide statistics only back to 1963, with somewhat patchier statistics for some earlier years, back to 1928. The only years on record in which New York experienced less than one homicide per day are 2013 to 2016. Giuliani presided over an average of 889 homicides a year, and he’s nationally celebrated as some kind of crime-fighting hero. Homicides under de Blasio have averaged 340 a year. Bloomberg’s average was 515.
To small-town America, 335 homicides sounds like a lot. So let’s consider homicides per person. I grew up near Lancaster, PA, in the conservative heart of Amish country, a town with a population just under 60,000 people, as peaceful a town as ever there was. New York is about 144 times as populous as Lancaster. To have a murder rate as low as New York, Lancaster would have to stay below three murders a year – which hasn’t happened since 2005. New York mayors like to say that New York is the safest big city in America, but the fact is, liberal New York is safer than a great deal of small-town and rural America.
Shootings were down as well – 998 shootings in 2016, the lowest number since computerized record-keeping began in 1994. (Since shooting is not a separate crime, and shootings were not counted before computerization of crime records, counting the shootings before computerization would require individual review of typewritten crime reports to determine whether firearms discharges were involved.) The New York Police Department attributes the decrease in shootings to a decrease in gang violence, which has been a policy priority of de Blasio’s NYPD.
In fact, major crime as a whole is down under de Blasio. For the seven categories classified by the FBI as “major crimes” – homicide, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny of a motor vehicle – there were nearly 10,000 fewer crimes in 2016 than in 2013, the year before de Blasio took office.
While Donald Trump was running for president, he changed his mind about Bill de Blasio. After the Mayor criticized Trump’s plan to institutionalize surveillance of mosques, Trump tweeted that de Blasio is “the worst Mayor in the U.S., & probably the worst Mayor in the history of #NYC.” Now, of course, Donald Trump is the president-elect of the United States, and he aggressively espouses a very different governing philosophy than Mayor de Blasio’s.
Mayor de Blasio’s administration can be seen as a test whether 21st century liberal governance can include fiscal discipline, low crime, and economic prosperity. In that respect, de Blasio is the municipal analog of Jerry Brown, whose liberal administration, supported by Democratic super-majorities in both houses of the California legislature, is a test of 21st century liberal state governance. Six years into Governor Brown’s administration, and three years into Mayor de Blasio’s, it is not rationally possible to say that liberal governance cannot work – that liberal governance must necessarily lead to high crime rates, bloated government spending, economic hardship, and social disarray.
President Trump, supported by hard-right Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, may run the most radically conservative national administration in the history of the country. The liberal cause requires that California, being by far the country’s biggest state, and New York, being by far the country’s biggest city, stand strong to lead the liberal opposition. California and New York must stand as potent counterpoints to Trump’s radical ideology.
Trump abhors Hispanic and Muslim immigrants; California and New York welcome them. Trump dismisses diversity and multi-cultural inclusiveness as “political correctness”; California and New York embrace their multi-cultural diversity and work hard to be inclusive. Trump despises labor unions and opposes minimum wage increases, whereas California and New York support unions and increased minimum wages. While Republicans in Washington search out new and innovative ways to advantage the wealthy, the “job creators,” and to slash Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and repeal Obamacare, California and New York don’t just maintain existing social programs – they enact new ones. While Trump and his supporters weaken legal protections for voting rights, abortion rights, same-sex marriage rights, and anti-discrimination rights, California and New York work to strengthen them.
The Mayor has had a tough time in the polls. Of particular concern, his approval ratings among liberals have been surprisingly low – not because of what he stands for, but because liberals believe he has not been effective in dealing with homelessness and poverty.
But 2017 is not a time for intermural battles among liberals, especially not in New York City. In 2017, liberals need strong resistance to the Trump onslaught, and strong resistance requires a unified front. New York City must stand with other progressive cities, with California and other progressive states, as an alternative to the dark ideology that has taken over Washington. It is of vital importance to liberals nationally that New York City not devote 2017 to a Democratic primary spat between Mayor de Blasio and, say, Comptroller Scott Stringer. For nothing less than the good of the country, Stringer, and all other progressives of good will, must sit the 2017 mayoral primary out.
The whole point of representative democracy is that voters are governed by people who represent them. To represent voters – to speak for them effectively – government officials must know, or at least care, what voters think. Historically, American democracy has done a poor job of representing voters who are not white men; what dismays me is the extent to which that underrepresentation continues today.
As of yesterday, President-Elect Donald Trump has made 27 top-level nominations, 18 of which require Senate confirmation and nine of which do not. Twenty-one of Trump’s 27 nominees are white men (78 percent). Of those who require Senate confirmation, 13 are white men (72 percent).
These 13 white men (plus one African-American man, two white women, and two Asian-American women) will go before a United States Senate that is only slightly more diverse than Trump’s nominee list. This year’s Senate is made up of 79 men and 21 women, and that dismal showing actually reflects a record number of female Senators – up from 20 in the last two Senates. Of the 79 men, 74 are white men.
The American population is just under half male; non-Hispanic white males account for less than a third of the population.
In general, Democrats care about diversity and Republicans do not. Democrats campaign on diversity; Republicans do not – on the contrary, in the 2016 election concern for diversity, for representation of the full scope of the American population, was trivialized and dismissed as “political correctness.” In other words, from the point of view that prevails in today’s Republican Party, concern for diversity is not only unimportant, it is wrong.
So it’s not surprising that Democrats in the Senate are notably more diverse than Republicans. Of 48 Democratic senators (counting Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who contend that they are Independents), 30 are white men (63 percent) – which looks pretty bad until you realize that 44 of the 52 Republican senators are white men (85 percent). Sixteen of 21 female senators are Democrats; just five are Republicans.
This year’s Senate boasts not just a record number of female senators, but also a record number of senators from minority groups. Unfortunately, the record is just nine senators – two African-American, four Hispanic, two Asian-American, and one senator who is both African-American and Asian-American.
Although Trump has three cabinet nominations yet to make, as of now Trump stands to be the first incoming president since Ronald Reagan in 1981 to include no Latinos among his cabinet picks.
Much of what Donald Trump promises to do as president will be terrible: for example, putting Scott Pruitt in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency; putting Rick Perry in charge of the Department of Energy; putting Jeff Sessions in charge of pretty much anything. Trump’s Supreme Court appointments will do serious damage to abortion rights. Trump’s Justice Department will do serious damage to voting rights. Nobody knows how much damage Trump is going to do to health care insurance in this country. Discrimination will be re-legalized in the name of religious liberty. Protection of guns will prevail over protection from guns. Federal minimum wage increases are out the window, and federal support for labor unions is dead. The polar icecaps are toast, so to speak.
My suspicion is that we have not yet begun to conceive the measures that the Trump Administration and its Congressional allies-of-convenience will take to erase all evidence that Barack Obama was ever president, and to ensure that no one like him ever becomes president again.
But two things President-Elect Trump has been spending his transition time on are different: pushing corporations to create and maintain American manufacturing jobs, and pushing foreign governments (aside from Russia, anyway) to behave more favorably to American interests.
The conventional critique of Trump has not been that those goals are wrong, but that his unconventional pursuit of them will be ineffective, or even destructive. He has been criticized for acting like he is the president before he is actually the president; for formulating policy not out of consultation or deliberation, but out of middle-of-the-night impulse; for announcing policy in tweets that, by virtue of their 140-character limit necessarily elide nuance, let alone diplomacy; for trying to bully his way through a complex world; and for reducing policy to “some dominance-submission male rivalry game” of “trash-talking.”
Trump’s defenders typically resort to the argument that the President-Elect conducted an unconventional campaign and can be expected to conduct an unconventional presidency – as if defying convention is in and of itself a governing virtue. But what if Trump is onto something? What if his tactics work?
Trump bullied Ford Motor Co. into canceling construction of a $1.6 billion plant in Mexico. Instead, Ford is going to expand production at existing factories in the U.S. and Mexico. On the same day as Ford’s announcement, Trump trash-tweeted about General Motors’ plan to expand production in Mexico of one of its models. GM answered that very few of the Mexican-made vehicles are sold in the U.S.; most of them are marketed globally. But GM’s argument is directed at Trump’s threat to force GM to manufacture in the U.S. by imposing steep import tariffs, entirely missing the only point that Trump cares about – that American manufacturing companies ought to create and sustain manufacturing jobs in America, not Mexico.
Trump’s victories on this front have been only partial, and the numbers of jobs trivial. Ford is expanding manufacturing capacity in the U.S. and Mexico, not just in the U.S., and is not moving a single job back to the States. The new Ford plan will apparently create about 700 jobs in Michigan. For a $7 million payoff from Indiana taxpayers, Carrier Corporation agreed to keep about 800 jobs in the U.S., out of more than 2,000 jobs it originally intended to send to Mexico. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has pointed out that Trump would have to close a Carrier-sized deal every week for 30 years to save as many American manufacturing jobs as President Obama saved with the auto industry bailout; the Ford announcement comes five weeks after the Carrier deal, and it involves fewer jobs.
Still, small results are results. And there is the possibility that these small results will become self-sustaining, if corporations choose to avoid Trump’s Twitter-wrath by not making plans to manufacture in Mexico in the first place.
I’m a free-trade Democrat, which means among other things that I am a capitalist with the courage of my convictions. A bedrock foundation of capitalist theory is that all parties are best served when the components of commerce – labor, capital, and goods – are allowed to move as markets dictate, not as governments dictate. Protectionists either are not capitalists or are capitalist pretenders who lack the courage of their supposedly capitalist convictions.
I also believe that free trade is essential to a durable end of large-scale illegal immigration. There is no wall high enough to keep people out who are desperate for a chance to work for a wage. As long as there is poverty, and the social pathologies that accompany poverty, people will find ways to flee them. You can’t outlaw desperation, and it turns out that desperation is a powerful human motivator.
The North American Free Trade Agreement took effect on January 1, 1994. Economists credit NAFTA with only relatively small reductions in the Mexican poverty rate. But economists credit NAFTA with a very large boost to the Mexican middle class, lowering the cost of basic goods by about half, endowing the Mexican middle class with resources to spend on educating their children. Mexico now graduates more engineers each year than Germany. A growing professional class promises a growing economy, with robust job creation.
And guess what? Net migration from Mexico to the United States has been negative since about 2009, and the trend is accelerating. In other words, for about eight years, more people have moved from the United States to Mexico than vice versa. It’s not a stretch to say, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign notwithstanding, that the “problem” of immigration from Mexico has been solved. Today, most of the people crossing the Mexican border into the United States are not Mexicans, but Central Americans, fleeing violence and poverty in those countries, desperately for a chance to work for a wage.
So Donald Trump’s approach to manufacturing jobs is both small-bore and partly counterproductive. Moreover, his successes can only be counted as provisional, as industries that incur the higher costs of American wages concomitantly incur greater pressure to invest in automation.
Trump’s other transition-time preoccupation has been foreign affairs. He has sided with Vladimir Putin and Russia against the sitting American government and the findings of our intelligence bureaucracies. He has sided with Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel against the sitting American government and our 45-year-old position that Israel’s West Bank settlements violate the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition against moving civilian populations into territory taken by military force during war.
Now he’s tweeting at North Korea, specifically Kim Jong-un’s claim that North Korea is nearly ready to test an intercontinental ballistic missile that would be capable of striking the American west coast. And he’s tweeting at China, blaming that country for failing to “help” the United States persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Even if tweeting at American corporations proves to be a scalable strategy for altering manufacturing plant-siting plans, tweeting is less likely to be a successful strategy for altering the interests of whole countries. I’ve expressed my skepticism that China has the ability that Westerners assume it has, to stand North Korea down with a phone call, and I’ve opined that North Korea’s nuclear deterrent may be directed as much at China as at the United States: the U.S. maintains fewer than 30,000 military personnel in South Korea, while the Chinese People’s Liberation Army numbers more than two million, with 20 million more Chinese reaching military age every year.
I can’t imagine that China wants a nuclear-armed North Korea, run by a family dynasty of dubious reliability, any more than the U.S. does. If the four million people of Los Angeles are within range of North Korean missiles, then all 1.4 billion people of China are also within range. And Chinese missile defenses, such as they may be, would have a whole lot less warning that the missiles are inbound.
If China has been pressuring North Korea to moderate its nuclear ambitions and hasn’t succeeded, then Trump’s tweets are useless. And if China has not been pressuring North Korea despite its greater vulnerability to North Korean nuclear missiles, then Trump’s tweets are probably useless anyway.
There was one Trumpian tweet that was undoubtedly successful. Late on Monday, the Republican conference of the House of Representatives voted, against the objections of caucus leaders (but not ultimately without their votes), to gut the independent Office of Congressional Ethics. The move had nearly unlimited disaster potential, and the commentariat was all over it. Even Republican pundits were shaking their heads at the unbelievable stupidity of it.
Trump reacted in a pair of tweets this morning at 10:03 and 10:07. He didn’t defend the Ethics Office, or so much as acknowledge the value of the office’s independence. Instead, Trump questioned whether attacking the office was an appropriate top priority for Republicans. By this afternoon, House Republicans had reversed themselves.
Another president would have called up a few key House Republicans and asked them politely, if perhaps somewhat urgently, if they had lost their minds. Another president would have allowed House Republicans to recall their own error. But as has been noted, Donald Trump is not just another president. Donald Trump had to engage in his trash-talking game of dominance-submission male rivalry.
As it turns out, they celebrate Christmas in the United Arab Emirates – not the baby Jesus in a manger kind of Christmas, with gift-bearing Magi and harking of herald angels, but Christmas nonetheless. Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where I just spent ten days, were prolific with Christmas trees, reindeer, snow scenes, even a sax-playing Santa Claus outside a supermarket. Christmas has apparently become an occasion for giving presents to the children.
Islam is the official religion of the UAE. The largest mosque in the country, the Sheik Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi, was built by and is named after the first president of the UAE. Religion and government are indivisibly fused in the UAE; Islam is a primary source of legitimacy for the country’s absolute monarchy.
Yet they celebrate Christmas.
At first, I thought it was a show for the tourists. There were lavish Christmas displays in the lobbies of our hotels, and in the world-famous shopping malls. But there were also Christmas displays in non-tourist locations like office buildings and grocery stores.
So I asked about it. I went to a hotel employee I had become friendly with, an Indian immigrant named Sri who worked at the concierge desk. Sri acted like it was obvious: of course we celebrate Christmas, the UAE is a multi-cultural country. He mentioned a Hindu holiday that is also celebrated.
A guide on a bus tour similarly emphasized the UAE’s religious tolerance. A Kenyan named Anthony, the guide told us with manifest pride that Dubai has 16 temples and two churches. He didn’t mention that Dubai also has more than 400 mosques – built and maintained by the government, including vast numbers of small “cookie-cutter” mosques distributed around the city to enable Muslims to respond efficiently to calls to prayer wherever their day happens to take them. The UAE’s population is estimated to be more than a quarter non-Muslim, suggesting that the mosque-to-non-mosque ratio (400 to 18) may not be such clear proof of truly enthusiastic religious tolerance. And Anthony didn’t mention any synagogues.
The UAE is indeed a multi-cultural country, a country of immigrants. In 1960, the population of the entire country was less than 100,000. There were no paved roads or running water. Dubai and Abu Dhabi were two small fishing villages whose economies had once depended on pearl diving, an industry that was ruined in the 1930s by the Japanese development of cultured pearls. The people of the seven separate emirates that became the UAE in 1971 were Bedouin tribesmen scattered across 32,000 square miles of mostly desert and a few oases.
In the 1960s, oil was discovered in the emirates. The ruling emirs being remarkably farsighted, oil revenue has been invested extraordinarily well. Development has made the UAE a modern economic powerhouse. Dubai is the fifth most popular tourist destination in the world. The infrastructure of Dubai and Abu Dhabi is stunning, both visually and functionally. And both continue to build at a breathtaking pace.
In just a half-century, the emirates have developed from a region of desert-dwelling camel herders and village-dwelling fishermen into a hyper-modern country of great wealth. The UAE ranks near the top of the world in gross domestic product per capita, well ahead of the United States.
The country’s tiny population when oil was discovered couldn’t begin to support a modern economy with world-class infrastructure, so immigration was essential and population growth has been rapid. A census in 2005 counted more than four million UAE residents; 2015 estimates range as high as 9.5 million. UAE nationals, known as Emiratis, have become a small minority in their own country, estimates ranging from roughly 10 to 20 percent of the population. About half the population is from South Asia; other major immigrant groups are other Arab countries and Iran, and the UAE hosts a growing number of Western residents as well.
Immigration is frequent, but not open – meaning that immigration is permitted almost exclusively for purposes of employment, and very few immigrants are granted permanent residence, much less citizenship. Immigrants come to the UAE on work permits that must be renewed every two years, and loss of employment means denial of permit renewal and deportation.
The retail and service sectors are staffed by immigrants, who are somewhat euphemistically referred to as expatriots, or expats. In ten days in the UAE, every commercial interaction we had – at restaurants and hotels, in taxis, on tour buses, in stores, even on Emirates airlines – was with an expat. Most if not all of our interactions with Emiratis were governmental – immigration officials upon arrival and departure.
Native Emiratis are distinctly better off than most expats. I read that most Emiratis work for the government, and that Emiratis’ resistance to entrepreneurship and private sector employment has become an obstacle to the UAE’s efforts to diversify away from an oil-based economy.
Employment conditions for expats can be difficult. Construction laborers may have it the worst, a fact that comes to Western attention because of agreements between the UAE and Western cultural institutions and universities to construct affiliates in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
All expats work under the constraints of close governmental oversight and regulation of their employment and their work permits. Their status is tenuous, and not just because they must retain employment to retain their residency. Even minor offenses, like causing a traffic accident, which might result in a fine if committed by an Emirati, can lead to deportation for an expat.
All expats live with a second-class legal and social status. An argument with an Emirati is a losing proposition for an expat, making expats vulnerable to exploitations and abuses. In an absolute monarchy, no one enjoys rights enforceable against the state, not even native Emiratis. But Emiratis enjoy rights, or at least privileges, enforceable against expats.
An unusually talkative young taxi driver, a very recent Pakistani immigrant, indulged my curiosity on our way to the Dubai airport to come home. He is from Peshawar (he was surprised that an American had heard of it); he complained about violence and terrorism in his home city, and corruption in the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Still, his feelings about the UAE fell well short of wild enthusiasm. He was happy to work for the government-owned taxi company, because he gets a block of two months off every year, to visit his family in Pakistan, whereas employees of the private taxi company get only 45 days off every 18 months. But he complained about the time demands of his job. He has to work 12-hour shifts, either 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. or vice versa, and although he is not required to work seven days a week, he chooses to because living in Dubai is so expensive. The way he put it was, if he worked only six days a week, he would lose 220 dirhams – which I took to mean that 220 dirhams, about $60, is what he makes in a day.
He complained bitterly that no matter how hard or long he works, he can never become a UAE citizen. And he saw little hope for any opportunity to advance his education or move up the employment pay scale. What he sees in his future is driving a taxi in Dubai, followed at some indeterminate point by return to Peshawar with its violence and Pakistan with its corruption. It isn’t much to look forward to for an obviously intelligent, capable and diligent young man starting out his working life.
Expression of discontent even that openly is rare in dictatorships, but it does happen from time to time. Expat laborers do occasionally go on strike, even though organized labor activity is illegal – and strikers pay the price of deportation. Smaller expressions of discontent are a little more frequent, like my taxi driver’s disquisition on life in the UAE.
Along similar lines, Anthony of Kenya, our tour bus guide, commented when a car cut dangerously in front of our bus in traffic: “He must be an Emirati. An expat would never drive like that.” He wasn’t bragging about the driving skills of expats, he was complaining that expats and Emiratis are held to different standards of conduct, even in relatively trivial matters like driving etiquette.
The history of absolute monarchies is that eventually they fall. The monarchies of the UAE have delivered bigly for their people these last few decades. The emirate of Dubai had a close call during the financial crisis of 2008 – 2009, but was bailed out by neighboring Abu Dhabi and appears to have fully recovered its pre-crisis swagger. The emirates were nervous about the Arab Spring, but seem to have escaped that danger as well.
Eventually every hereditary monarchy falls to an idiot, or to a struggle between heirs, or just to a failure of governance or imagination. And people become less tolerant of dictatorship as they become more educated and wealthier. The emirs of the UAE have bought themselves an insurance policy, in the form of immigrant labor that saves native Emiratis from the indignity of hard work for low pay and affords native Emiratis a built-in lower class to feel superior to – which would be put at risk by dethroning the monarchy.
Still, if you believe as I do that the arc of history bends toward democracy, then you conclude that the emirs must fall, maybe in the next year, maybe in the next century. The creation of a perpetual expat underclass is similarly unsustainable in the long run – no people will forever abide second-class status.
I’m not sure if there are or aren’t lessons in the UAE for the United States. Emirati numbers have been overwhelmed by expat numbers, but Emiratis have nonetheless retained their own legal and cultural predominance in their country. White Americans remain a majority in this country, but have become quite fearful of losing their predominance as their majority has shrunk. Numbers are more decisive in American democracy than in Emirati monarchy, and the shrinking white majority knows it. White Americans thus have a choice: change the rules while they’re still in charge, so that majority status is no longer dispositive; or get used to the prospect of no longer being in charge of America.
This is not a new problem in the world, and humanity does not have an especially good history of handling it. Recent bad examples include the white minority that ruled South Africa, the Tutsi minority that ruled Rwanda, and the Sunni minority that ruled Iraq. Besides the U.S., countries facing the prospects of a change in majorities include Israel, which aspires to be both Jewish and democratic in a geography where demographic trends put the two aspirations into conflict.
Right up until November 8, I thought that Americans would handle the transition better than most. As of November 9, I’m not so sure.