From the third sub-basement of the Ministry of Snark …

Where to turn, after a day like Tuesday, for political conversation that resists the hysteria of either left or right electronic media megaphones turned up to 11? You can go, I suppose, to CNN or MSNBC or even Fox News, but then you run into the possibility of exposing yourself to Alan Dershowitz or, God forbid, a Trump administration official. There’s NPR, but, you know … pledge drives. (And I’ve never forgiven them for Garrison Keillor.) And who reads newspapers these days?

Well, I read newspapers, yes, but the voices on the Op-Ed page rarely respond to each other, at least not so’s I can hear. So instead I turn to a terrific podcast called Deep State Radio, issued twice a week, the brainchild of David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former CEO of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine and for which he was Editor-at-Large. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Rothkopf presides over a freewheeling, irreverent, never-too-apocalyptic roundtable discussion about both domestic and foreign developments among people who know about these things, including Rosa Brooks of Georgetown Law School, Kori Schake of Stanford University, David Sanger of the New York Times, and Ed Luce of the Financial Times. This morning I was delighted to find a special “Trumpocalypse Now” edition of the podcast, in which Tuesday’s developments were persuasively anatomized by David Sanger; Katie Phang, legal contributor to NBC and MSNBC; and Sharon Weinberger, former executive editor of Foreign Policy and current DC Bureau Chief for Yahoo News.

Here’s how they describe themselves:

Twice a week this podcast will take you on a smart, direct, sometimes scary, sometimes profane, sometimes hilarious tour of the inner workings of American power and of the impact of our leaders and their policies on our standing in the world. … The program will be the lively, smart dinner table conversation on the big issues of the day that you wish you were having … without the calories. Sometimes special guests will join the conversation and always the emphasis will be on providing the unvarnished perspectives others shy away from. Deep State Radio is the insider perspective on American national security and foreign policy that you can’t find anywhere else.

Deep State Radio always manages to lower my blood pressure in some ways and raise it in others. Maybe not so good for my health, I admit, but it’s a small price to pay for 45 minutes or so of sane and only occasionally flippant commentary in insane times. Today’s installment can be found below, and you can catch up on previous episodes here. (And you can sign up for Deep State Radio updates — including the impending launch of an associated Web site — right here. Swag is promised.)

Dining with dictators

Just to be clear, the world is not a safer place this morning — if anything, it’s more dangerous. As usual, with legerdemain of a thalidomide-damaged walrus trying to juggle meat cleavers, Trump lent legitimacy to one of the world’s most egregious human rights violators and lawless totalitarian dictators while insulting and dismissing the legitimate economic trade concerns of America’s usual allies, the liberal democracies of the west, all in the space of 48 hours. And all that for a photo op which means nothing. Our reading today is from Anne Applebaum’s Washington Post opinion piece about that photo op, published earlier this morning:

For Kim Jong Un, this moment is vindication. The wisdom of his nuclear policy has been confirmed: His tiny, poor, often hungry country, where hundreds of thousands have perished in concentration camps that differ little from those built by Stalin, has been treated as the equal of the United States of America. If Kim hadn’t continued the missile program, if he hadn’t enhanced his missile delivery capability, President Trump would not be there. …

In Singapore … Trump controlled the optics, even deliberately giving priority to a Singaporean television station rather than the White House pool. He reveled in that ability.  “Are you getting a nice photo,” he actually asked the camera operator, “So we look nice and handsome and beautiful and perfect?” As for the substance of the meeting, there wasn’t any. The paper signed reiterates previous vague agreements. It promises “denuclearization,” just as in the past, but without any substance, as in the past. It implies that there will now be further talks about talks, but there have been U.S.-North Korean talks before. Had any previous American president, Republican or Democrat, emerged from an event like this, in which so much was given away with so little to show for it, he would have been embarrassed and probably vilified.

But Trump and Kim are two men who survive, in politics, by insisting on their own versions of reality. Both have propaganda machines which will trumpet a great success. Both will be loudly applauded by their respective supporters. Both will gain personally, even if their countries don’t. In that sense, this was indeed, as Trump said, “a really fantastic meeting.”

Trump is choosing some curious bedfellows these days. To add insult to injury at the G7 conference, the reigning moron suggested that Russia, having been booted from the G7 group for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty with its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its continuing undeclared war in the eastern half of that country (never mind meddling in both U.S. and European electoral politics), be readmitted to the group. As a European diplomat said in response to Trump’s typically thoughtless comments, “We (have) always been clear we should engage with Russia where it is in our interests, but we need to remember why G8 became the G7, it was because Russia illegally annexed Crimea. Since then we have seen an increase in Russian misbehavior and attempts to undermine democracy in Europe. It is not appropriate for Russia to rejoin until we see it behaving responsibly. Putin should get nothing for free.”

Joseph Stalin and Joachim von Ribbentrop shaking hands after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939.

Not that any of this matters to Trump supporters, who couldn’t care less about North Korea’s human rights record or Russia’s fascistic, expansionist tactics in Europe. Even among some Never Trumpers, the photo opportunity is being met with approval, even celebration, despite the fact that absolutely nothing of substance emerged from the summit, except the public legitimization of one of the world’s most violent dictators. It’s like celebrating the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and look how that turned out.

If anything, Trump’s continuing love fest with Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, as he continues to undermine the very principles of western liberal democracy, pluralism and fair trade agreements by insulting Justin Trudeau, Emmanuel Macron and other G7 leaders, should give us additional cause for worry and concern. And just last week, in the wake of Trump’s withdrawal of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran inaugurated a new nuclear enrichment facility “that will operate within the limits of the nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers” — for now, anyway.

Feel safer yet? There’s now no reason for Iran to maintain the terms of the agreement, not if it can one day provide another photo op for Trump and Hassan Rouhani. And on June 1, the Wall Street Journal reported that diplomats are now preparing a summit meeting for Trump and Vladimir Putin.

The metaphysical question of whether stupidity is just evil with an anti-intellectual tinge, or evil is just stupidity with a moral tinge, is one I’ll leave to the philosophers. On a practical level there’s little difference. Myself, I doubt that Donald Trump is evil, and even if he were, he’s too stupid to do anything about it. But I know enough about history to recognize the rise of a new Axis Power alliance when I see it.

Trump is “very proud of what took place” yesterday. As an American and a believer in a pluralistic western liberal democracy, I’m not. No American should be. It was an empty gesture that subverted the principles upon which this country was founded. And for the rest of you — well, bon appetit.


A few days ago, Timothy Snyder posted the latest in his series of short YouTube talks, “Timothy Snyder Speaks.” In it, he defines two of the central ideas he set out in The Road to Unfreedom, the Politics of Eternity and the Politics of Inevitability. I recommend your taking the brief 11 minutes to watch it.

Remembering Havel

Václav Havel.

We may all be feeling a bit powerless these days. But let’s not end it there. Instead, to combat this feeling, let’s turn to history (if anybody still cares about that) and a dead Czech.

Václav Havel was one of the more peculiar figures to emerge from the Central European dissident community in the 1970s. A chain-smoking, beer-swilling absurdist playwright, Havel was imprisoned several times for his political activities only to emerge during the Velvet Revolution to become president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, a post which he held until 2003 (though following the country’s division in 1992, he became the president of the Czech Republic alone). From then until his death in 2011, Havel served as the exemplar of a philosopher-president: dedicated to democratic ideals, but always ambivalent about the use and abuse of political power wielded through ideology alone, including a democratic ideology. When he left office in 2003, he was succeeded by Václav Klaus, a bit of a piece of work himself: a “Euroskeptic” (which Havel certainly was not) and admirer of Vladimir Putin (ditto), Klaus described scientists who warned against global warming as  Communists at a National Press Club luncheon.

Below is an excerpt from Havel’s 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” here translated by Paul Wilson and an essay that landed him in prison the following year. Most of the essay is a consideration of what happens when ordinary citizens thoughtlessly acquiesce to an authoritarian government, whether out of fear or anything else. Back in 1978, of course, Havel could not have foreseen a “technological civilization” that included cultures like Facebook (he couldn’t have had such things in mind), and it’s clear that the health of “traditional parliamentary democracies” is not quite as robust as it used to be. His words ring eerily relevant today.

It would appear that the traditional parliamentary democracies can offer no fundamental opposition to the automatism of technological civilization and the industrial-consumer society, for they, too, are being dragged helplessly along by it. People are manipulated in ways that are infinitely more subtle and refined than the brutal methods used in the post-totalitarian societies. But this static complex of rigid, conceptually sloppy, and politically pragmatic mass political parties run by professional apparatuses and releasing the citizen from all forms of concrete and personal responsibility; and those complex focuses of capital accumulation engaged in secret manipulations and expansion; the omnipresent dictatorship of consumption, production, advertising, commerce, consumer culture, and all that flood of information: all of it, so often analyzed and described, can only with great difficulty be imagined as the source of humanity’s rediscovery of itself. In his June 1978 Harvard lecture, Solzhenitsyn describes the illusory nature of freedoms not based on personal responsibility and the chronic inability of the traditional democracies, as a result, to oppose violence and totalitarianism. In a democracy, human beings may enjoy many personal freedoms and securities that are unknown to us, but in the end they do them no good, for they too are ultimately victims of the same automatism, and are incapable of defending their concerns about their own identity or preventing their superficialization or transcending concerns about their own personal survival to become proud and responsible members of the polis, making a genuine contribution to the creation of its destiny.

Because all our prospects for a significant change for the better are very long range indeed, we are obliged to take note of this deep crisis of traditional democracy. Certainly, if conditions were to be created for democracy in some countries in the Soviet bloc (although this is becoming increasingly improbable), it might be an appropriate transitional solution that would help to restore the devastated sense of civic awareness, to renew democratic discussion, to allow for the crystallization of an elementary political plurality, an essential expression of the aims of life. But to cling to the notion of traditional parliamentary democracy as one’s political ideal and to succumb to the illusion that only this tried and true form is capable of guaranteeing human beings enduring dignity and an independent role in society would, in my opinion, be at the very least shortsighted. …

Above all, any existential revolution should provide hope of a moral reconstitution of society, which means a radical renewal of the relationship of human beings to what I have called the “human order,” which no political order can replace. A new experience of being, a renewed rootedness in the universe, a newly grasped sense of higher responsibility, a newfound inner relationship to other people and to the human community — these factors clearly indicate the direction in which we must go.

It is a perspective which doesn’t readily lend itself to a practical policy. But as Czech president, Havel tried. He achieved varying levels of success — no more and no less success, though, than presidents who weren’t prone to such metaphysical musings.

In 1993 Havel showed up in Philadelphia, appearing at Independence Hall to receive the sixth Liberty Medal, awarded annually by the National Constitution Center “to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people the world over.” (Seventy-five years earlier, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk had stood on the steps of the same building to proclaim the independence of the Czechs and other peoples of Central Europe.) I was there myself and heard him deliver his acceptance speech, which concluded:

The only real hope of people today is probably a renewal of our certainty that we are rooted in the Earth and, at the same time, the cosmos. This awareness endows us with the capacity for self-transcendence. Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights, but it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, the miracle of our own existence. Only someone who submits to the authority of the universal order and of creation, who values the right to be part of it and a participant in it, can genuinely value himself and his neighbors, and thus honor their rights as well.

It logically follows that, in today’s multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies or sympathies: it must be rooted in self-transcendence.

Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe; transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world. Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.

The Declaration of Independence, adopted two hundred and eighteen years ago in this building, states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.

Many of Havel’s most important essays and speeches can be found in Open Letters: Selected Writings, 1965-1990.