• 781 Per Day

    Grieving is a highly personal experience.  When I worked in the U.S. Senate at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had the solemn privilege of attending several funerals for fallen American service members at Arlington National Cemetery.  For all of the precision and uniformity of a military ceremony, each funeral, each graveside service, was different—reflecting the wishes of family or the fallen heroes themselves.  The one constant was that each was unbearably sad.

    In the eight years of the Iraq War (2003-2011), the United States lost 4,497 service members.  That’s about 2 deaths per day in that war alone.  In World War II, an average of 297 Americans died on each day of the war.  In America’s most deadly war, our Civil War, the rate of death for Americans on both sides of the battle was about 520 deaths per day.  But in the 128 days since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States (January 21, 2020), more than 100,000 Americans have died—that’s an average of 781 deaths each day for more than 4 months. 

    In today’s media environment, we can stare at a fixed point with surgical precision 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  Reporters will camp outside a Congressional witness’ home for days or even weeks to grab footage of the person in the limelight.  Media can bring us together to grieve for one person with reverence and poignancy, peeling back the layers of meaning in an individual’s life.  And media can help us grieve in mass casualty events—such as after Sandy Hook or Charleston or even 9/11.

    But today’s media—both broadcast and print—is ill equipped to report on the 781 lives lost each day over the last four months.  Even before local newsrooms started hemorrhaging jobs and reporters, the sheer volume of death makes that kind of hyper-local reporting impossible to do on a national scale.  There just aren’t enough reporters or column-inches.  As a result, there is no single repository of memories of those lost to COVID-19.  There is no “Faces of the Fallen” for people struck down by this virus.  There is no opportunity for us to grieve and remember, collectively, our fellow-citizens.  There are, instead, the most impersonal statistics about infections and deaths all expressed in line graphs.

    It’s here that leadership matters.

    In this moment, we need leaders who will lead: in our mourning; in our grieving; and ultimately, in our healing.  Leaders shouldn’t be so afraid of the virus that they ignore or gloss over the frightful human toll it has taken on on our country, on 100,000 families, on thousands of communities.  We need leaders to help us find meaning in all of this loss, to buoy our resolve for the difficult challenges that still lie ahead.  We need leaders to tell families and friends of all those who have died that this great nation mourns with you.

    At some point, we will have a conversation about the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic. We’ll debate whether their actions were sufficient.  We’ll argue over whether there was more that could have been done—that should have been done. 

    But for now, I’d be content for a leader to emerge who understands that in this moment we need someone who will walk with us through the challenges of life.  Who willingly leaps into the trenches with us when the fighting is dirty and the loss weighs heavy on our souls. 

    The most searing memory I have of the funerals I attended at Arlington was for a soldier whose wife found in his death more pain than she could bear.  I recall her standing in the sunlight that day, her shoulders heaving with each sob, and hoping she knew that she wasn’t alone in her grief.  Assembled on the grass in section 60 of the cemetery that day were two U.S. Senators, several generals, chaplains, honor guards, family members, friends, and others.  We did not all know her or her husband, but we were all there to show our respect and to offer comfort, even if it was with nothing more than our presence.

    With a virus that makes in-person, collective mourning impossible, now more than ever we need leaders who can bring us together to mourn as a nation; to stand shoulder-to-shoulder, as one people; to remind us that love is real; and that, yes, we will get through this together.

  • We Will Never Surrender

    On Monday afternoon, the stock market responded to news that an experimental vaccine had successfully produced an antibody response in the first six individuals to receive it as part of a phase 1 clinical trial.  One day later, the market dropped precipitously in its closing moments on news that it was too early for this particular vaccine candidate to be declared successful.  It was a whip-saw reaction that feels particularly apt in this moment.  We’re all so eager to get back to normal that we leap at unvetted news from a corporation about a product it’s developing with the determination of a drowning person reaching for a life-saver.

    I get it.  We all want this thing to be over.  We want our lives back.  We want our jobs back.  We want to see our friends and our families.  We want the virus to just disappear.

    But as my sister likes to say, “Wanting ain’t getting.”  And hope is not a strategy.

    The closest historical analogy I’ve been able to come up with is “war weariness.”  There are countless examples throughout history when a people grew tired of the sacrifice and the hardships of continued combat.  It’s a problem for any society engaged in war, no matter how they are governed, but it’s especially dangerous in democracies where public support is essential to the legitimacy and ultimately the success of the war effort.  Once people no longer support a war, a democracy won’t long be able to fight that war. 

    That was the moment facing the British Empire eighty years ago this month, in May of 1940, after the British Army had to be evacuated from Dunkirk.  Having suffered a great defeat on the continent, British politics split between those who favored accommodation with Germany and those around Winston Churchill who believed they should fight. 

    Despite the recent Hollywood portrayal of Churchill taking inspiration from the tenacity of the British people, make no mistake it was Churchill’s leadership that steeled British resolve and steadied a nervous nation.  It was Churchill’s bombast and bravado, his precise understanding of what was at stake, and his ability to communicate determination and to find martial valor in unqualified disaster that sustained the British war effort through the war’s darkest hours.

    That is what great leaders do.  They don’t simply win elections.  They stand for things greater than themselves, greater than any one of us.  They call us together.  They inspire our confidence, and they make us believe that we can prevail in the face of great peril even at the expense of great sacrifice.

    Today we face an adversary in the form of COVID-19, and after three months, we are all tired of living this way.  We would rather go out without face masks.  We would rather be able to hug our parents or grab a beer with our friends.  We want to be able to dine in restaurants, get our hair cut, and just get back to normal.

    That spirit, that sentiment is as old as humanity and it manifests itself anytime we face grave dangers like war and disease. 

    But history teaches us that we don’t always pick the timing of our wars, and we don’t ever pick the timing of pandemics—not when they start, and certainly not when they will end. 

    And if our fight, in this moment, lacks a Churchill to guide us through dark days or replace our war weariness with resolve, then we can write our own history in the countless acts of individual Americans led by science and compassion to wear masks, to social distance, and to look out for the most vulnerable among us.

  • Living with Neurological Disease with Lisa Genova

    Rebroadcast Dates: May 18-24, 2020

    Air Dates: July 8-14, 2019

    An estimated 5.6 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s today. Another 100,000 are living with ALS—or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Lisa Genova is a brain scientist whose best-selling novels describe not what it’s like to die from these diseases, but what it means to live with them. 

    Dr. Genova is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist who broke into the public’s consciousness with her novel, Still Alice. Likened to Oliver Sacks and Michael Crichton, her fiction combines her mastery of brain science and her insights into the human condition. Her other novels include Left Neglected, Love Anthony, Inside the O’Briens, and, most recently, Every Note Played.

    In 2015, the Pell Center honored Genova with the Pell Center Prize for Story in the Public Square. She’s a scientist and a story-teller who sees the power of storytelling to harness empathy that can change the world.

    Story in the Public Square broadcasts each week on public television stations across the United States. A full listing of the national television distribution is available at this link. In Rhode Island and southeastern New England, the show is broadcast on Rhode Island PBS on Sundays at 11 a.m. and is rebroadcast Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. An audio version of the program airs 8:30 a.m. & 6:30 p.m. ET, Sundays at 4:30 a.m. & 11:30 p.m. ET on SiriusXM’s popular P.O.T.U.S. (Politics of the United States), channel 124. “Story in the Public Square” is a partnership between the Pell Center and The Providence Journal. The initiative aims to study, celebrate and tell stories that matter.

  • As Much as We Want it to Be, The Pandemic Isn’t Over

    Everyone wants the pandemic to be over.  I feel it in my own life.  Tempers are frayed.  More than anything, I think we need a chance to blow off some steam.

    When I lived in Washington, DC, I had a tight group of friends.  We had our haunts—places that we would go back to again and again.  One of those places was Ireland’s Four Provinces—or “4Ps,” as everyone called it, up on Connecticut Avenue.  I had a dear friend who lived in that neighborhood and we would walk up there for beers or live music.  Over the years, we came to love—it’s not too strong a word—the Sean Fleming Band—three guys and their guitars who would lead the bar in every song you knew—and if you didn’t know a song, you faked it and you’d know it next month when the band came back around.  They played everything from IRA ballads—it was an Irish bar—to a mash-up of popular hits, to Shel Silverstein’s “Unicorn Song.”  There was frequent step-dancing in the aisles and often people would wind up on stage singing with the band.  The beer would flow and the laughs were easy on those nights.

    After my old boss John Kerry lost in 2004, I was pretty depressed for the rest of November and most of December.  Then my friends dragged me up to see Sean Fleming at the 4Ps.  I sat there nursing a beer, trying my best not to be a downer, but I’m sure I wasn’t very convincing.  Then somewhere in the second set a woman sitting at the table behind me hopped up and began doing an interpretive dance on her chair to the band’s rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”  When I turned to see what was going on behind me, I laughed for the first time in months, the pallor lifted, I breathed easy, and I found myself back among the living.

    I’d love to have a night like that tonight.

    But where I live, the virus is still near its peak.  In a city of about 50,000, we’re still seeing dozens of new cases every day.  More than 1000 residents have been infected and 36 have died.  Nationally, the numbers seem to be growing.  Where a few weeks ago we were talking about 40,000 or 50,000 dead, we’re now past 70,000 and the White House’s Coronavirus advisor Dr. Birx said over the weekend that the internal numbers at the White House have consistently projected a range of between 100,000 to 240,000 killed by the virus in the United States.

    So it shocked me earlier this week to hear that the White House was considering wrapping up the Coronavirus task-force.  When the White House announced the formation of the group on January 29, 2020, the press secretary said in a statement the task force would “monitor, contain, and mitigate the spread of the virus.” Yet at every turn, the U.S. response has faltered.  Because our testing was so poorly organized, we never had enough testing available—and we still don’t—to do the kind of disease surveillance that has worked in other countries.  Because we were unaware of the spread of the virus in vast communities, we were not able to contain it.  And while thousands of front-line healthcare workers have done everything in their power to mitigate the impact of this virus, governors and public health officials have had to go to extraordinary lengths to get the resources they need to protect those doctors and nurses and techs on the frontlines.

    I’m left to conclude that President Trump wants a political win in November more than he wants to defeat this virus and that the only way he can achieve that is to declare victory and come home.  We’ve seen some of this already in his Fox News townhall from the Lincoln Memorial, in his remarks from the briefing room podium every day, and in his interview with ABC News earlier this week.  In Vietnam, some talked about securing “a decent interval” after which the United States could withdraw.  But we can’t withdraw from this virus—as much as we want to—so governors are telling their states to learn how to operate with coronavirus in their midst, at least until we have a safe and effective vaccine.

    But the great arbiter of truth in this campaign may turn out to be a single strand of RNA—the coronavirus itself.  The White House’s own internal numbers predict that 3,000 Americans will be dying each day by about June 1.  That’s a loss of life equivalent to one 9/11 each day.  This isn’t a time to be wrapping up the work of the coronavirus task force: it’s a time to double down.

    I’ve already told myself that when the bars are open and the music is playing again, I’m going to track down the Sean Fleming Band—the 4Ps closed years ago—and see them again.  Just imagining that night makes me smile.  Until then, we all have to live in the real world, listen to the science, and not let our desire for normalcy and carefree days—whether we are private citizens or candidates for president—prolong the pandemic.


  • Globalization: Not Dead Yet

    Every fall I teach a course on the history of globalization.  It is the highlight of my year and it gives me a seemingly endless supply of grist for understanding.  So when I read an article from The Los Angeles Times that claimed the Coronavirus may threaten globalization, it set my wheels turning because it speaks to a popular misunderstanding of what globalization actually is.

    More than a century before Christ, Rome and Han China were the two wealthiest empires of the ancient world—and the most commercially active.  Not surprisingly, there is substantial evidence of that their merchants traded with one another.  Along the old Silk Road, merchants from the West brought glassware, statuettes, and slaves trained as jugglers and acrobats which they traded for silk, exotic fruits, rare birds, ostrich eggs, gem stones, gold, silver, spices and perfumes from China. 

    This trade continued for centuries.  So when Marco Polo left Venice in 1271 with his uncle and father to try to reach China, they knew there was money to be made—lots of money.  At the time, Europe was an economic backwater.  The bulk of the world’s wealth existed in Asia.  When you read The Travels of Marco Polo—the book he published upon his return to Venice, it’s not just a travelogue.  It’s like the old J.C. Penny catalogue—an accounting of all the things you can trade between Venice and China. 

    Within several decades, the bubonic plague cut-short the enthusiasm for trade with China that Marco Polo inspired with his stories of great wealth.  When the plague arrived in the middle of the 14th century, it is estimated to have killed up to one-third of the population in both Europe and Asia—that’s as many as 120 million lives in Asia, alone.  Mass death shook the existing world order.  Death was everywhere, then famine.  Weak governments collapsed.  Trade shrank considerably.  The pursuit of wealth from distant trade would have to wait.

    It took decades, but eventually trade along the old Silk Road resumed.  But when it did, the Chinese were no longer interested in European pottery.  They would only trade for gold and silver.  By the end of the 15th century, changes in ship design (we could sail INTO the wind) and the advent of navigational instruments made trade by ship with Asia viable.  That set off a scramble to find a shorter route to China as well as the gold and silver demanded by the Chinese in order to trade with them.

    When Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492, it was the culmination of an impulse to trade—to seek the most efficient route of getting to China.  But as the enormity of the discovery of the New World came into focus, European conquerors soon began the largest transfer of wealth in human history.  In the 50 years after Columbus’ arrival in Hispaniola, European powers shipped more gold and silver from the Americas to Europe than had existed in all of Europe previously.  And with that, the wealth of the world shifted west—a progression that marched onward until the 1990s, when it began moving back towards China.

    I have no doubt that there will be changes and disruptions to the way we trade and the frequency with which we travel—at least temporarily—as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Global supply chains are already stressed and there is logical concern over reliance on foreign manufacturers for critical supplies like personal protective equipment.  But if this brief history teaches us anything, it’s that the impulse to trade with others is a characteristic of humanity.  Even in the face of the bubonic plague, which was orders-of magnitude worse than Coronavirus, people still dreamed of riches to be made from trading over vast distances.  Pandemic might disrupt the particular mechanisms of trade, but it won’t disrupt the impulse to trade.

    Globalization is a process by which the experience of everyday life—marked by the spread of goods and ideas—becomes standardized around the world.  It may change in the details, but globalization is here to stay.

  • Russian Disinformation in the Age of Coronavirus

    Just because there’s a global pandemic doesn’t mean that the great game of international politics takes a break.  In fact, just like the rest of society, international powers are adapting to—and in some cases exploiting—the Coronavirus.  The two most aggressive players are Russia and China, and while they have different international objectives, they are both aggressively pursuing their goals. 

    In Russia’s case, the government of President Vladimir Putin continues to use disinformation to create a wedge between members of NATO, the EU, and in America’s trans-Atlantic relationships.  His ultimate goal is to weaken organizations that exclude Russia, and undermine the political cohesion of Russia’s Western rivals in order to achieve a freer hand at home and internationally. 

    This last point is important: a lot of Russia’s online influence campaigns have played both sides of issues in the United States, whether its immigration, gay-rights, or vaccines.  Russian leaders don’t care if Americans chose any particular policy outcome; they want to watch us tear ourselves apart.  They are chaos agents, seeking to undermine America’s political cohesion by amplifying divisive messages.  They did this in social media posts celebrating parents who “crossed a border” so their children could “cross a stage”—meaning graduate from an American high school.  To some, such posts look like a welcome pro-immigration post.  To many others, it looks like a celebration of law-breaking.  That dichotomy, that cognitive dissonance, that binary choice is exactly what the Russians seek to exploit and even amplify.  They did so during the Ebola crisis, they continue to do so around vaccines.  They will certainly do so in the midst of this pandemic.

    Russia also uses the fear associated with new diseases to attack the goodness of the United States.  Consider the case of HIV/AIDS.  In 1983, three Soviet intelligence officers placed a story in a small, English language newspaper in India alleging that the virus that causes AIDS was engineered in the United States to target blacks and the homosexual community.  This was an analog era.  A story placed anywhere would take time before it went global.  By 1987, however, the story had been published in 80 countries and in 30 languages with real consequences for U.S. policy, especially when the country moved to try to stem the spread of the virus in sub-Saharan Africa.  But that lie also made it into American minds, too.  A study from the University of Oregon found that as late as 2005, 20% of African-Americans believed HIV was created in a government lab.

    Russian disinformation around the H1N1 flu—the so-called “Swine Flu” in 2009 and Ebola in 2013-2014 also alleged the viruses in those outbreaks originated in U.S. government labs. 

    Finally, we need to remember that the Coronavirus is taking place in an election year.  In October of 2019—long before any of us were talking about quarantines and novel viruses, the FBI and DHS warned that Russian influence campaigns in 2020 would be focused on voter-suppression—similar to some of their tactics in 2016.  It’s not hard to imagine a fall disinformation campaign intended to target certain groups of Americans to keep them from voting in key districts or states.  We may have seen a fore-taste of that already.  On March 15, 2020—just a month ago, rumors began swirling about a nation-wide lockdown soon to be announced by the president.  The rumors were groundless, but they inspired the National Security Council to put out a Tweet that night forcefully denying the rumor.  What was insidious about this was that the rumor wasn’t just spread on social media platforms, but also via text messages on our phones.  We’ve seen similar disinformation campaigns on so-called peer-to-peer platforms in other parts of the world, but not in the United States. 

    Disinformation spreads the same way a virus spreads—from person to person, contact to contact, social-media-account to social-media-account, hence the phrase “going viral.”  All of us can help control the spread of disinformation by being discerning users of social media.  Don’t retweet, share, or send anything that seems sensational; that isn’t from a credible source; or that seems like a massive scoop from some no-name-outlet. 

    We’ve heard a lot of late that our individual and collective behavior is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19.  The same is true of disinformation. 

  • An Ode to Government Inefficiency in the age of COVID-19

    When is it okay to start thinking about life after the virus?  It’s hard to ask that question because the news is still bad in so many places.  The crest of the pandemic hasn’t arrived anywhere in the United States and we’re looking at more days of sickness, and isolation, and, tragically, death. 

    Yet, there are questions we will need to grapple with as we begin to rebuild.  Perhaps no question is grander than this: what kind of world do we want to see created in the aftermath of this emergency?

    The virus has revealed some giant faults in the American system:

    • We have seen up-close the great digital divide where wealthy kids have access to computers and easy internet access while less fortunate students are issued school Chromebooks and told to sit in the parking lots near public buildings to access free wifi. 
    • Public health turns out to be a national security issue, but nearly 30 million Americans aren’t defended by routine health insurance.  How would we think about a national defense strategy that excluded 10% of the American population from our defense plans?
    • Finally, years of rhetoric dismissing the value of government looks empty and vacuous now that we need government at all levels to organize the response to COVID-19. I don’t believe government is the answer to all things—but for some things like public health, national defense, and basic investments in science, I think there is no alternative.  Only the government can do things that are, by definition, inefficient or which may only pay off in the midst of a so-called “black-swan” event. 

    More broadly, the virus is going to challenge us to think about the role of the United States in the world, the future of globalization, and whether we would more readily respond to the next pandemic with greater international partnerships or on our own. 

    The historical analogy I keep coming back to are the two world wars of the 20th century—and specifically the peace making that followed.  After World War II, leaders of the winning powers decided—consciously—that the future of humanity required people to work together, and so they built an international system based on norms, the rule of law, and cooperation.  We expanded free trade, and celebrated human rights and science, and we talked about progress.

    U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had sought a rules-based international system after World War I, as well, but it fell apart really in the process of negotiating the peace treaty.  Instead of nations trying to work together after World War I, nations built walls, limited immigration, and ratcheted up tariffs to protect national industries.  Instead of avoiding war by working together, national leaders sought revenge, dominance, or chose to effectively bury their heads in the sand in hopes that the troubles of the world would pass them by.

    Unfortunately, it feels like the world we’re heading towards is more like the world after World War I, than World War II.  Americans have been so inundated with rhetoric and stories about the shortcomings of government that we’re not yet ready to think that government can be part of the solution to modern pandemics.  We’ve been told that reliance on foreign medical supply providers is a threat to our security and that we need to make face-masks in the United States exclusively for American doctors and nurses. 

    I’m sure that fantasy is a comfort to some, but it’s a mirage.  If you don’t let government, and healthcare for that matter, operate with some inefficiencies, then it won’t matter where you produce face masks, other protective equipment, or ventilators, unless you’re willing to let the government buy massive quantities to sit in warehouses possibly never to be used before they expire. 

    But that’s precisely what governments can do because they are not supposed to be motivated by profit, but rather by service to the nation and readiness for crisis—even if that seems wasteful at times or inefficient.

  • The Questions Matter

    I watched the Democratic primary debate from Las Vegas last night.  I don’t know if what we saw was good for Democrats, good for Republicans, or good for the country.  I know politics is fierce.  It’s bare-knuckled.  It’s theatrical.  And last night’s debate had its fair share of drama. 

    But there are so many issues worthy of a national discussion that I’m mystified why debate moderators don’t ask better questions, bigger questions, more meaningful questions that will give us a better chance to glimpse the intellectual curiosity and readiness of those who would lead us and give us a sense of the kind of president any one of these candidates would be.

    Now, I realize that complaining about debate moderators is almost as ancient a past-time as complaining about referees in sports.  So I went and pulled the debate transcripts of a few presidential debates over the last 60 years to see if I was just particularly curmudgeonly during last night’s debate or if, in fact, we can do better. 

    Let’s just take one example: the final Nixon-Kennedy debate from October 21, 1960. 

    The very first question was to Vice President Nixon from radio newsman Frank Singiser.  He asked about U.S.-Cuba relations and, specifically, “in what important respects do you feel there are differences between you, and why do you believe your policy is better for the peace and security of the United States and the Western Hemisphere.”

    Tonight, in contrast, the moderator played gotcha with Senator Amy Klobuchar over her inability to recall the name of Mexico’s president in an interview last week.  How much more meaningful would it have been if the moderator had asked candidates about their respective plans for “the peace and security of the United States and [its neighbors in the] Western Hemisphere?”  That might have inspired a conversation about border security, international engagement, the value of diplomacy, trade, and international aid.  It might have given us insight into how each of the candidates would represent the United States on the world stage. 

    In 1960, the ABC network’s John Edwards asked the first question to Senator Kennedy.  He wanted to know who Kennedy would appoint to his cabinet.  Both Kennedy and Nixon refused, wisely, to put forward names in the midst of a campaign.  Still, a similar question asked tonight might have drawn a contrast with the current president who has said he favors so-called “acting” members of his cabinet because they give him greater independence from congressional oversight.  On a day when President Trump named his new, acting Director of National Intelligence, this question could have provided key insights about how the field of Democrats would approach building their cabinet and explore their relative respect for the Senate’s Constitutional roll in confirming cabinet secretaries.

    When NBC’s John Chancellor asked his first question of the debate in 1960, it was about how the United States would respond to a resumption of nuclear testing by the Soviet Union.  In 1960, this was an urgent issue, and both candidates responded with a serious reflection about the need for negotiation with the Soviets.  Today we face a wealth of urgent issues.  Consider China’s growing power around the world. While the United States has been fighting costly wars since 2001, China has been quietly expanding power, resources, and relationships across Asia, Europe, and Africa.  Or consider the transformational potential of technology—whether we’re talking about genetic engineering, robots, or artificial intelligence.  We should care more about the next president’s familiarity with these issues and whether they are prepared to offer thoughtful leadership on complex and potentially dangerous issues than with the number of homes any candidate owns.

    This is going to be a long, primary fight and there will be many more presidential debates in this cycle.  We need the moderators asking questions on these stages to focus on things that really matter and not lose us in the noise of personal attacks.

  • http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/tellingstories/

    Our Republic is on the Ballot

    The most important player in a republic—including ours—is the citizen. 

    From our consent, leaders derive the authority to govern: to raise taxes, to declare war, to enforce laws and treaties, and to do all the things we expect of government.  From the ranks of citizens, our government draws its judges, its soldiers, its officials at every level—including our representatives in the House and Senate as well as the White House.  There is no hereditary class of leaders in the American tradition.

    In the United States, it is because our government is, as Lincoln put it, “of the people,” and “by the people,” that it is also “for the people.”  The U.S. government exists to protect our rights, to pursue our commonwealth, our shared progress, and our societal growth.  In a well-functioning republic, government does not serve the interests of any individual leader or faction, but the interests of all citizens.  We can have incredibly spirited debates about what “the interests of all citizens” might be, but historically we have understood that it extended far beyond the narrow interests of current political leaders.

    Now, just a week after Senate Republicans blocked the conviction of President Trump in his impeachment trial, we see the Executive Branch not engaged in the pursuit of the public good, but in a narrow prosecution of the president’s personal interests.  We’re witnessing a purge of executive branch personnel who testified against the president.  We’re seeing nominations of qualified Americans withdrawn from consideration in the Senate because they might be questioned about the president’s actions in Ukraine.  We’re witnessing—in broad day-light—presidential interference in the criminal prosecutions of his friends and supporters. 

    This is not normal. 

    The president drives this agenda with a kind of open information warfare against the American public.  He attacks, again and again, any news source that doesn’t push a narrative favorable to him as “fake news.”  He floods the information space with distractions and misdirection.  He uses a technique known as “reflexive control,” to illicit narratives and questions that serve his own purposes.  (The Hunter Biden story was baseless, but it got reporters all over the country to report on an allegation of corruption involving the Biden family.  The truth didn’t matter, the allegation did, and Joe Biden has suffered in the polls as a result.) Finally, the president relies on the “illusory truth effect”—in short, if someone repeats a claim again and again, it will gain an audience who accept it as gospel truth.  That’s why the president so often repeats short-hand phrases like “the witch-hunt” to describe the Mueller investigation, or “socialists” to describe Democrats; and uses nicknames like “Shifty Schiff,” or “Nervous Nancy” to diminish his opponents.  He’s telling a story that might not be believable at first blush, but over time his claims gain ascendency through the simple process of repetition.

    But more than his critics in Congress, the president must respect the American electorate—the citizen, because it is we, the people, who will decide, ultimately, whether he remains in office a year from now.  We will decide if we’re okay with his intervention for personal gain in criminal prosecutions, with his interference in the prosecution of war crimes, or with his attacks on the professionals in the U.S. intelligence community, the FBI, and the Department of Defense. Collectively, citizens will be the judge and jury of this presidency.

    For me, the central question in the 2020 election is which candidate will best preserve and defend the Constitution of the United State of America.  The republic we love is on the ballot and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

  • Our North Star

    In May of 1952, John Foster Dulles, the man who would become Secretary of State to President Dwight Eisenhower, published an article in Life magazine titled “A Policy of Boldness.”  It was both a critique of the Truman administration’s conduct of foreign policy and a description of the establishment views of the Republican party as it sought to regain the White House for the first time in two decades. 

    I was drawn back to that article today as I reflected on the events of the week: the conclusion of the president’s impeachment trial—including Senator Mitt Romney’s principled vote, the State of the Union address, and the Iowa Caucasus. 

    In the article, Dulles called attention to “three truths:”

    1. In politics, “the dynamic prevails over the static.”
    2. “Nonmaterial forces are more powerful than those that are merely material.”
    3. There is a natural moral law which determine success and failure over the long-term in all endeavors.

    Dulles urged the United States to “let these truths work in and through us.  We should be dynamic; we should use ideas as weapons; and these ideas should conform to moral principles.”

    Dulles was prescribing a strategy to confront the Soviet Union in cold war, but his advice still resonates 70 years later—particularly after the events of this week and as we look to the political calendar ahead in 2020.

    One of the sharpest contrasts between candidates Trump and Clinton in 2016 was in the amount of dynamism each projected.  Merely in terms of tone and tenor, Clinton embodied competence, control, and intention.  Trump was chaos channeled into politics, a WWE-event with electoral consequences.  The free-wheeling nature of his campaign events served to communicate that change was coming in a way that well-crafted policy speeches or fact-sheets never could.  In Trump’s case, his dynamism was lashed to a simple mantra “Make America Great Again,” hearkening to a great national project of renewal.  When candidate Trump would make outlandish claims and Democrats were quick to point out his flaws, it communicated not better preparation on the part of Secretary Clinton, but stasis—that Democrats wouldn’t make big changes.  For a restless electorate, Trump’s dynamism was more appealing than the competence offered by the Democratic standard-bearer.  The crop of 2020 Democrats would be wise to heed this lesson.

    Dulles reminded us that politics doesn’t just operate on the level of policies—it cries out for something bigger beyond the material world.  In the cold war that meant our defenses required more than tanks and bombing planes, but also animating ideas, values, spirituality, and a belief that in the long-run, a moral code would prevail. 

    After the events of this week, a lot of Americans are asking whether a moral code still matters in American politics.  In short, it does—especially with those who understand and appreciate the heroic defense of the republic from Representative Adam Schiff and Senator Mitt Romney.  Both men spoke to ideals, values, and principles that are beyond reproach.  History will judge them well. 

    In the here and the now, President Trump’s reelection campaign is going to talk about the economy, the stock-market, the value of our retirement accounts, and dangle the possibility of further tax cuts.  They will buttress these materialistic arguments with scare tactics about immigrants and Godless, socialist Democrats.  The question I struggle with is whether Democrats will respond with fact-checking and wonky policy proposals, of if they will challenge Americans to summon our better angels.

    Ultimately, the seeds of a new political awakening are going to be found in the ideas and values that have sustained the republic for 230 years. Democracy, freedom, civil liberties, checks and balances, and the rule of law are not anachronisms, they are the life-blood of the American experiment in self-government. They have proven to be our most valuable asset internationally, and our north-star in our darkest moments domestically. 

    Those ideas and values—the birthright of every American and the envy of the world—will lead us home.