The Trump Presidency And The Iran-Contra Precedent

Perhaps because it has been over three decades, memories of the ginormous political clusterfuck that went by the name of Iran-Contra seem to have faded from our collective memory. As our nation’s polity lurches from one scandal to the next, and as cries of ‘impeachment, if not now, then when?‘ fill the air, it is worth reminding ourselves of just how badly things seemed to be going–back in the 1980s–for another US President, and how, miraculously, he survived:

The scandal began as an operation to free seven American hostages being held in Lebanon by Hezbollah, a paramilitary group with Iranian ties….Israel would ship weapons to Iran, and then the United States would resupply Israel and receive the Israeli payment….a portion of the proceeds from the weapon sales was diverted to fund anti-Sandinista, or Contras, in Nicaragua.Reagan was aware of potential hostage transfers with Iran, as well as the sale of Hawk and TOW missiles…. large volumes of documents relating to the scandal were destroyed or withheld from investigators by Reagan administration officials….Several investigations ensued, including by the U.S. Congress and the three-person, Reagan-appointed Tower Commission. Neither found any evidence that President Reagan himself knew of the extent of the multiple programs….the sale of weapons to Iran was not deemed a criminal offense but charges were brought against five individuals for their support of the Contras. Those charges, however, were later dropped because the administration refused to declassify certain documents. The indicted conspirators faced various lesser charges instead….fourteen administration officials were indicted, including then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Eleven convictions resulted, some… vacated on appeal. The rest of those indicted or convicted were all pardoned in the final days of the presidency of George H. W. Bush.

No criminal charges were ever laid against the US President, and then, as now, the only institutional pressure that could be brought to bear was a Congressional and independent investigation. It did not seem credible that Reagan would survive the scandal. But he did. Obfuscation, denial, selective loss of memory, underlings willing and able to cover-up; these all aided in the Gipper‘s Great Escape. Selling arms to Iran in 1986, six years after American hostages had been freed in Tehran was outrageous; doing so illegally, in order to aid another clandestine operation that involved negotiating with a ‘terrorist organization’ to release American hostages, was beyond the pale. It was that era’s ‘collusion with the Russians,’ that era’s ‘hacking of our elections.’ But after the smoke cleared, matters proceeded much as before; before the nation’s disbelieving eyes, no charges stuck. The capacity of the nation’s political institutions to pay host to, and absorb, considerable wrong-doing was demonstrated rather spectacularly then; and we may bear further witness to their capacity for doing so. Damaged, limping, presidencies that barely make it to the finish line are not unknown in American political history; this could be one of those. If we are lucky, its ability to wreak further damage on the polity will have been considerably diminished.

Teflon Trump’s Terrifying Troops

I did not watch the Donald Trump acceptance speech last night; I did not want to run the risk of a disturbed night’s sleep. I did however, read a transcript that was available on the net before he went live. It was a terrifying read just because it was so ‘good’: pitch-perfect in its tone and content, aiming for the easily visible targets of law and order, national security, loss of jobs, economic inequality, corporate trade deals, the rigged political system. His scapegoats were perfectly picked too: immigrants, aliens, foreigners, indeed, the world ‘outside.’ Trump was not speaking off the cuff, he was reading a prepared speech, one crafted for him by his speechwriters, who distilled the most populist parts of his campaign trail message and artfully packaged it with a corrosive covering of nativism, xenophobia, and paranoia. The speech will be picked apart for its hostility and its lies but it will not matter. If the history of this campaign is any indication of things to come.

Ronald Reagan used to be called the ‘Teflon President.’ Well, let me tell you, Ronnie had nothing on the The Donald. Nothing sticks to the Trump; call him a liar, a crook, a failed businessman, a misogynist, a racist, an ignorant warmonger, it does not matter. His ‘base’ does not care–a fact that made the hoopla over the Melania Trump plagiarism non-scandal especially risible. I suspect that Trump’s followers loved the plagiarizing of Michelle Obama’s speech–‘screw them and their fancy-ass, stuck-up, elitist notions of who wrote what.’ (Besides, why not steal from someone you despise?) Indeed, every attempt to critique Trump on the basis of some conventional understanding of decency and  honesty runs afoul of this inclination on the part of his followers to merely incorporate that critique into their understanding of Trump as an iconoclast willfully denying those staid conventions that work for everyone else. His followers are the most frightening thing about him.

Many are tempted to lie and flirt with the forces of darkness to gain presidential power, to command the trillion dollar military that goes with it which lets grown men feel like pre-adolescent boys again, to strut on the world stage like the new Messiah. What those aspirants for power need to realize their dreams is the unquestioned acceptance and obedience of their followers. That Trump has. He is well aware he can lie, prevaricate, dissemble; it will not dent his chances with this crew. When the smoke clears, and if a Trump defeat is the outcome, he will slink away to book deals, speaking engagements, possibly a new television series and a talk-show. More fortunes await him. (I’m shying away from the possibility of his victory for that prospect demands another sort of response altogether.) But his followers will not rest content even then.

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble. Right, well, that’s been taken care of by The Donald. The spirits have been summoned; and now they strut on the stage. Banishing them is going to take some doing.

Hillary Clinton On The Reagans’ AIDS Legacy: Anatomy Of A ‘Triangulation’

Here is my take on what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s ‘the Reagans started a national conversation about AIDS‘ statement (for which, after a ginormous shitstorm on social media had broken out, she apologized.)

In preparation for her remarks, Clinton must have been briefed–by not very competent people–that Nancy Reagan‘s funeral was a good opportunity to ‘reach out’ to, say,  ‘Reagan Republicans’ and ‘Reagan Democrats’ (the ‘Reagan Republican’ is a mythical creature more moderate than today’s flecked-with-spittle and foaming-at-the-mouth Republican types.) She could do this by acknowledging the Reagans’ ‘legacy’ in a domain of interest to Americans–hopefully crossing ‘political divides’–and show herself to be continuous with that American political tradition, which does not denigrate America or its greatness, or see anything fundamentally wrong in its social, economic and cultural polity that cannot be fixed by ‘more of the same.’ She would, at once, show herself concerned with public health issues, and also, by saying nice things about iconic Republican figures, perhaps ensure a softer reception for herself in the Republican demographic at the time of the general election.

Hillary Clinton was not prompted to give the response she did give by a Reagan-sympathizer questioner, who artfully used a leading question like “And what do you think about the Reagans’ starting a national conversation about AIDS at a time when no one else was interested in doing so?” To which, Clinton, in an awkward attempt to avoid saying “What are you on, crack?”–might have said instead, “Yes, it was a good thing.” Instead Clinton volunteered the response she did make, and moreover, she explicitly did it as a way of making the point that the Reagans were an outlier in an atmosphere that was not conducive to their efforts to begin a ‘national conversation.’ Clinton’s mistake might have seemed more genuine had she simply said something like “Nancy Reagan worked on many public health initiatives like those for stem-cell research, Alzheimers, AIDS, and other deadly diseases.” Then, she could plausibly say that she had mistakenly included AIDS in that list. But she did no such thing. Instead, as noted, she set the Reagans’ ‘work’ on AIDS apart from an otherwise dominant attitude towards the disease.

Most reasonably competent students of American politics and history know about the shameful chapter that is the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS crisis. A supposedly liberal politician, one as experienced as Hillary Clinton, should know much better. (The interview linked above shows that Clinton has fairly detailed knowledge of that period at her disposal; she invokes the Brady Bill and stem-cell research as examples of ‘unpopular’ political positions Nancy Reagan took on.) Did she somehow imagine that this aspect of American history has been forgotten? Even more problematically, and this is where a cynical politics becomes acutely visible, did Clinton act on the basis of a calculus that suggested it was perfectly allright to anger the gay community while reaching out to Reaganites? Clinton might have, of course, thought that the folks who were activists in the 1980s had simply died off, leaving no traces of their battles with an uncaring presidential administration. All of these calculations would be very peculiar for a candidate to make in the America of 2016, one which has legalized same-sex marriage.

On a purely electoral reckoning, this incident shows, yet again, an uncomfortable truth: Hillary Clinton is not a very good politician. On a moral reckoning, this is cynicism, pure and simple.

Liberia, Iran, Gautemala et al.: Liberated By Coup D’Etat

In 1981 or so, as a schoolboy perusing my school library’s archives of LIFE magazine, I came upon a set of photos that–like other images in the past–showcased a brutality not immediately reconcilable with my rational understanding of the world: half-naked men, tied tight to poles with green plastic cords that bit into their skin, mowed down by a volley of gunfire from a firing squad. The incongruous backdrop to this summary execution was a sandy sunlit beach, suitable for wading, surfing, and sunbathing on your average tropical vacation. I did not, and could not, fully understand the historical context and geopolitical machinations described in the accompanying article. That was how I first learned of the existence of a land called Liberia, how it came to be, and its peculiar and particular relationship with the United States.

The back story to that execution is worth revisiting–if only as an exercise to see how political and historical patterns may be easily detected:

In 1971, President William Tubman [of Liberia] died and his left-leaning, idealistic vice-president, William Tolbert, took over. Tolbert expanded social services like health care and education and scrapped subsidies on imported rice to encourage Liberian farmers. However, he antagonized the US by renegotiating unfavorable contracts with Firestone and other companies. He also criticized Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, offered support to the African National Congress and other revolutionary groups, and established diplomatic relations with North Korea, Libya, China, the USSR, and other countries on America’s cold war enemy list. He also refused to grant the American military unlimited access to the nation’s main airport, which it had been using to send weapons to cold war allies around the continent.

This should sound vaguely familiar. (Guatemala-Árbenz, Iran-Mosaddegh, perhaps?)

In 1980, Tolbert was murdered in his bed by soldiers allied to Samuel Doe, a young sergeant in the Liberian army. US foreign aid cuts and riots organized by CIA-backed opposition groups over increased rice prices had already weakened Tolbert’s regime. Doe himself also claimed to have been recruited into the CIA in 1973, and according to eyewitnesses he called the US embassy the night of Tolbert’s murder and received its blessing for the takeover. Ten days later, thirteen of Tolbert’s cabinet ministers were paraded around Monrovia in their underwear and then shot dead on the beach before an audience of horrified Western journalists.  [citations removed]

Those ministers were the trussed up men, the sweat and sand and spit visible on their writhing bodies as they died, that I had seen in those photos.

And then, grimly and inexorably, other aspects of the visible historical pattern stand forth:

Doe promptly dismantled Tolbert’s leftist policies, cut ties with Libya, the Soviets, and other enemies of America, renegotiated contracts with US companies, and allowed the US military free rein at the airport. In return, Doe received $500 million in foreign aid from the Reagan administration, far more than any other African country at the time.

And this, of course, is not where it ends. Charles Taylor awaits.

Ronald Reagan and the Casual Invocation of ‘Lynching’

In March 1983, Anne Gorsuch Burford, the chief administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, fired Rita Lavelle on charges of having abused the $1.6 billion Superfund that the US Congress had earmarked for cleaning up chemical spills and hazardous waste dumps. Allegedly, Superfund monies were being steered to Republican officeholders seeking relection. A few weeks later, Burford, along with twenty other EPA employees, resigned after Congress cited her for contempt in refusing to hand over Superfund records.

The US president in March 1983 was Ronald Reagan. His response to the news included the following line: ‘This whole business has been a lynching by headline hunting Congressmen’.

In September 1983, Secretary of the Interior James Watt resigned. In responding to critics of a Watt-created commission, he had said that his commission included ‘every kind of mixture you can have. I have a black, I have a woman, two Jews and a cripple.  And we have talent.’

The US president had a response for this resignation too. He admitted Watt had ‘an unfortunate way of putting his foot in his mouth’ but then went on to insist Watt was ‘really the victim of a two and half-year lynching.’

In The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008 (Harper Perennial, 2009)pages 169-170 of which serves as source for the notes above–Sean Wilentz notes that ‘Reagan often referred to press and congressional investigations as lynchings.’ (The James Watt story is taken from: Douglas Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries (New York 2007), 185, entry for October 8-10, 1983.) These two instances appear as part of a distinct pattern of speech in describing political adversity.

Comparing violent, murderous events to considerably more benign activities is a fairly common rhetorical strategy among journalists and politicians alike. The most common and widespread instance of this is the almost constant invocation of martial metaphors and language when talking about sports. In more recent times, that natural killer of hundreds of thousands, the tsunami, has been routinely compared to almost anything that is sudden, widespread, or remotely threatening. Perhaps you have heard of the tsunami of election commercials which await us in the next few weeks? Or the tsunami of Christmas shopping commercials which will inundate and engulf us? Perhaps modern life drenches us with a tsunami of ennui?

Still, even having accounted for the widespread deployment of this bit of verbal pyrotechnics, it still seems incontrovertible that only a ‘special’ talent could use, as part of his political linguistic arsenal, a word that has such a gruesomely violent history in the associated domain of interest . It also, of course, requires that political leader, in the modern age of mass media coverage, to be surrounded by incompetent media advisers. And lastly, and most depressingly of all, it perhaps requires that leader to be afforded an almost bizarre tolerance by his electorate, one perhaps not so attuned to the history invoked by the word in question.

Note: Next week, the Wolfe Institute of Humanities at Brooklyn College will be hosting Sean Wilentz as its 2012 Robert Hess Scholar in Residence. A full week of panels, talks and round-tables is planned; the program for the week is now available. Please contact me if you have any questions and/or are interested in attending.