I learned a terrible truth during my years in the CIA, and especially while working on “enhanced interrogation”: all democratic institutions are only as strong as the culture in which they operate.
America in Peril
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” So spoke Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump during his acceptance speech to the Republican National Convention on July 21st, thus proving his frightening unsuitability for the office of President of the United States.
Trump’s candidacy poses the greatest threat in its 240-year history to U.S. international security, to global trade, to U.S. domestic institutions, and to the social contract that makes it possible for a society to function peacefully. Trump has yet to wield any executive power—he has never held an office—and yet he already has caused historic harm to the U.S. national interest, both domestic and foreign. This is not hyperbole.
Trump has indicated he might not honor U.S. treaty obligations to central European states, such as the Baltics and Ukraine. He actually has made statements indicating he does not know the distinction between the Baltics, where he has intimated his wife comes from, and the Balkans, where his wife actually does come from. He has expressed disdain for mutual defense treaty obligations to NATO members, unless they “pay up.” He has shown he was unfamiliar even with the term “nuclear triad”—the basis of U.S. nuclear deterrence doctrine. He knows nothing of this gravest of presidential responsibilities. Three times in one hour recently, Trump asked a confidential senior government briefer why he couldn’t simply use nuclear weapons if he, as President, decided to do so. He has welcomed Russia’s illegal annexation—in fact invasion—of Crimea, and has affirmed angrily that Russia was not in Ukraine—when in fact Russia has had soldiers fighting there to annex parts of Ukraine for over a year. He removed from the Republican party platform a call to arm Ukraine, while repeatedly praising strongman Vladimir Putin, for his “strength.” Trump denounced President Obama for “weakness,” and not working with Russia in Syria—when in fact the U.S. and Russia have been working together in Syria (albeit, with difficulty) for over a year. Trump did not know. His policy proposals consist of declamations that he will be “strong” and “make America great again.” He has said, in seriousness, his advisers are “himself” and his “really good brain.”
Yet, I—and countless thousands of dedicated and talented officers—spent our lifetimes working to strengthen the alliances and agreements that have, for seventy years, kept global peace and increased global prosperity 1000% since 1945, while the population has only grown about 300%. Europe has known nearly constant war, for two thousand years, until the creation of NATO and the pax Americana in 1945. The continent has known peace since then. Trump does not care, or know. He simply is ignorant of, and uninterested in, history or facts.
Trump also spends a large percentage of his time denouncing “stupid” and “disastrous” trade deals, and denouncing China specifically, for ripping off the United States (but so do, in his telling, Mexico, and virtually every other country on earth.) Yet, it is precisely the nativist protectionism that passes for Trump’s economic “policies” that caused the Great Depression, bringing unemployment up to 25% worldwide for a decade, as well as World War II. Trump’s policy proposals are almost nonexistent, consisting of strings of vehement declarations such as “we will fix … the rigged system” or that he will impose “30% tariffs.” There is nothing but bombast.
Part of my masters degree is in international economics. I worked for years as a government official whose mission was the overall benefit of U.S. society. With whatever respect is due to left- and right-wing opponents of free trade, the facts are clear: free trade increases national wealth and all specific trade deals of recent decades, such as NAFTA and the WTO, have increased protections for the environment and labor. This is amply documented. But, in politics as in life, the facts are secondary, impressions are primary. And the specific sectoral pain that trade agreements do cause (such as to the textile industry in the U.S.) always will receive more attention than the diffused, and overall greater, benefits they bring.
As his poll numbers have recently fallen, Trump has begun to denounce the entire electoral process as “rigged.” He warns that the government of the United States will be “illegitimate,” and his surrogates threaten there will be a “bloodbath” across the country … unless he wins. Trump has thereby declared that the only legitimate conclusion to the election must be his victory; or, say his surrogates, civil war would be justified and could well come. These recent statements have gone relatively unnoticed in the swirl of astounding idiocies Trump spews day to day, but they are profoundly disturbing. Trump’s rallies are already frequently on the edge of violence, as some members of the crowds denounce the “bean eaters” (an epithet for Mexicans) and the “niggers” (an epithet for Blacks).
Trump has already weakened the institutions he purports to lead by rejecting virtually all norms of decency and comportment as a candidate. He calls for the imprisonment of his opponent, Hillary Clinton—thousands at the Republican convention were led in cheers by leading politicians to “Lock her up! Lock her up!” and Trump does not repudiate calls by some of his supporters that Clinton “should be shot for treason.” And yet, in the swirl of Trump’s ignorant ravings, amidst the support of screaming thousands—it would seem about 40% of the American electorate—he and his supporters deride criticism of these statements as simply being the unfair “lies” and hostility of his opponents—who are, it would seem, the educated, all the media except Rupert Murdoch’s shill network, Fox “News”, and, literally, anyone who does not fully support Trump, whatever he says. He has banned from all his rallies a long and growing list of media outlets including The New York Times, Politico, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and others.
Trump directly threatens the delicate balance of ethnicities and religions that make the American “melting pot” history’s most successful and diverse society. Trump has called for a ban on all Muslims—an entire religion—from entering the country. He has said that an American judge of Mexican heritage by definition cannot be fair towards him, because he is “Mexican.” He has called for the deportation, immediately, of all 11-12 million illegal aliens in the country, even if they have lived in the U.S. for decades. He denounces entire ethnic groups or nationalities as “rapists” and “murderers.” He regularly evokes horror in the streets from illegal aliens: “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens.” His support comes overwhelmingly from the uneducated white male voters who have been most affected by sixty years of dramatic globalization and social change; as such, he is progressively pitting class against class, and aggrieved whites against “minorities.”
A Grave Risk to American Democracy
Donald Trump likes to ask, “What is going on?” The answer is straightforward: Trump is stoking nativist racism, xenophobia, and Know Nothing economic and social policies. He is exploiting the anxieties of a poorly-educated segment of society, and in so doing has strained the social peace, the Republican Party, and American democracy itself. He is a protectionist, isolationist, and views all transactions—political, social, economic—as zero sum games in which there can only be “winners” and “losers” (his favored expressions.)
Never before has the United States faced such a threat to its social cohesion, democratic institutions, national wealth, and international stability. Trump is that consequential. And yet, even now, this all seems outlandish to assert, amidst his buffoonery, ignorance, and the imagined strength of American institutions.
But I learned a terrible truth during my years in the CIA, and especially while working on “enhanced interrogation”: all democratic institutions are only as strong as the culture in which they operate. And it only takes a few men a few weeks to destroy hundreds of years of consensus and practice, and to turn good men into torturers. I saw it happen. Our democracies are as frail as good men being told lies, and then acting under stress and in good faith in ways that destroy what they believe they are saving. Donald Trump literally imperils the American republic.