Belmont Club

A Message to Garcia

Years ago there was a popular movie titled A Message to Garcia.  The plot went like this: “With tension increasing between the United States and Spain (which then ruled Cuba), President William McKinley desired to initiate communication with the Cuban rebels, who could prove a valuable ally in case of war with Spain. McKinley asked Colonel Arthur L. Wagner to suggest an officer to seek Calixto García, one of three top commanders of the rebels. Wagner suggested Andrew Rowan, a lieutenant, who then traveled to Cuba via Jamaica, dressed as a traveling sportsman.

According to language expert Charles Earle Funk, “to take a message to Garcia” was for years a popular American slang expression for taking initiative and is still used by some members of the military.”  The opening lines of Hubbard’s book are still classic.

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion.

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba – no one knew where. No mail or telegraph could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly.

What to do!

Someone said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, almost everyone wants to take a message to Garcia, now billeted in the Trump Tower.  Unfortunately Lt Andrew Rowan has long since been gathered to his fathers and can no longer beat his way past the fever swamps of Manhattan.  So Leo Linbeck’s letter to Trump, now in my hand, has go to Garcia by Internet.  I am perhaps not simply a messenger but someone who occasionally expounded on the same themes.

The crowd surrounding Trump tower now forms a more impenetrable barrier than any jungle thickets that ever existed.  I entreat the reader should he find this sodden message in the bony fingers of  a long expired skeletal remain in the wastelands of the Internet to bear it onward.  For the themes are lasting: power must be scattered if its not to survive as the foundation of a new tower. The original General Garcia is long dead, but there are other Garcias.

The emphasis in the letter is mine.

Dear President-elect Trump,

I’m gonna try to keep this brief, because we’re both pretty busy with important matters – you with filling positions in your cabinet, me with cleaning the kitchen and helping the kids with their homework and school projects.

I want to reach out to you to make sure you remember why you won, and don’t get distracted. It’s easy to do after pulling off a stunning upset.

You’re getting a lot of advice right now from a lot of different people, and magnanimity in victory is a classic American character trait, so please do keep talking to everyone. And if you should pull some of these folks into your administration, even better. Some of them are exceptionally talented people who will help you govern.

But here’s the thing: your supporters didn’t vote for you to “make Washington work.” They voted for you to “drain the swamp” – not to put the “best and brightest” in charge of making decisions, but to stop making so many decisions in Washington DC.

Look, I get it. There are some decisions that can only be made in Washington: military, foreign affairs, post offices, voting laws – you know, those areas specifically enumerated in the Constitution as amended.

The rest of the decisions made in Washington DC – in health care, education, labor laws, environment, energy, and campaign finance, just to name a few obvious areas – have no business being decided there. All of these decisions should be moved back to the states. That is how you drain the swamp.

And that is also how you can solidify your support on the Right and silence your critics on the Left. Let’s talk about each of these groups, beginning with your supporters.

In case you haven’t figured it out, you haven’t won the hearts of conservatives. Yes, they’re delighted you will be appointing Supreme Court justices, and you will be at the desk where Congress sends legislation, and so on. But they’re not delighted because YOU WON – they’re delighted because HILLARY LOST. Big difference.

And I’m not talking about people are from the donor class or establishment wing of the GOP. I’m talking about conservative grassroots: the local activists, the Tea Party, small businesses, and the evangelical Christian community. That’s where a bunch of your votes came from.

But they don’t entirely trust you. To them, you’re still an entitled, rich, gaudy, vulgar, arrogant bully from New York City. They’re giving you the benefit of the doubt, for now, but they’re going to be watching with a critical eye. After decades of promises from the establishment GOP, they only care about action. And they pay attention.

These folks want control over decisions that impact their lives, their families, and their community. The Tea Party, for example, is united by little else besides a commitment to the Constitution. They want federalism – the compound republic that the Framers’ intended. What they worry about in a Trump Presidency is that you will use the executive power that has accumulated under Bush and Obama to push your policy preferences (whatever they are) on the entire country – even if they agree with those policies. They have figured out that who decides (governance) is more important than what is decided (policy). They won’t be suckered into “fixing” problems from Washington. They want local control.

On the other hand, let’s talk about the Left. These people didn’t vote for you. In fact, they despise and fear you and are already on the attack. They believe you will force your views on them – or, worse, that you will force the ideas of the dreaded knuckle-dragging right wing on them. And they know that you have the power to do that, because they have egged on Obama to use that power – and he did (although not as often as they liked).

But you already knew all this. So let me tell you something you may not know: they will support you if you push for local control. Local control would both alleviate their fear that you will crush them, and empower them to pursue their policy dreams in their own back yard.

Let’s take Vermont, for instance. They want a single-payer health care system. They believe they can make it work, and their state government designed and passed a bill that would allow them to do it. Their problem is that the federal government won’t let them, and the money the feds take for Obamacare doesn’t leave enough for Vermont to run the system they want. And the conservative policy establishment in DC is dead-set against any single-payer system.

Now, I live in Texas. As far as I’m concerned, if Vermonters want single-payer health care, let them have it, as long as they pay for it and don’t come to us for a bailout if they screw up. Heck, maybe they’ll get it to work – there are only about 700,000 people in the entire state, and from what I’m told they’re all hippies. I run a 7-person single-payer system in my house, and it works (and we don’t have any hippies).

So let them try. Let Vermont, and Massachusetts, and California, and Oregon, and New York chart their own path on health care, education, environment, energy, and so on. And let states control campaign finance regulation, so that Congress doesn’t set the rules for its own re-election. And no bailouts – make them accountable for their own actions.

One approach is to leave it to states to decide whether they want to step up for this responsibility by joining an interstate compact. Don’t force them to join; just give them the option. Governors sure talk a good game with they know the feds are in control. Give them the ability to take control; force them to walk the talk, or call their bluff.

You see, that’s the best way forward for you. If you sign up for “business as usual” in Washington DC, and let Congress and your administration make winner-take-all decisions for the entire nation – which is what the establishments of both parties, the press, the lobby, and the bureaucracy want – it won’t be pretty. We’re too polarized at the national level. Your grassroots GOP support will go away, and the Left and the press will attack you without rest for the next four years.

But we’re less polarized at the state level. If you give states the ability to reclaim their power – whether through executive orders, Congressional legislation, or (ideally) through interstate compacts – you will complete the political re-alignment you have started with this election, and set a new course for our nation for the next 100 years. And that would be huge.

Well, that’s it. Hope this helps but gotta run now. Have a great day, and have a blessed Thanksgiving.

P.S. I know Thanksgiving is not that popular in Cuba, but you know what I mean.

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True Believer: Stalin’s Last American Spy, by Katie Marton. The story of Noel Field, an Ivy League-educated, US State Department employee who spied for Stalin in the 1930s and ’40ss, based on Field family correspondence, Soviet Secret Police records, and reporting on key players from Alger Hiss, CIA Director Allen Dulles, World War II spymaster “Wild Bill” Donovan to Josef Stalin.

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