We all know the scene. James Bond is losing a hopeless fight against a man-mountain in the baggage compartment of a train. Things look grim for Her Majesty’s Secret Agent until he coils a rope linked to a heavy object around his opponent’s neck and kicks it off the train. The villain is yanked into the night and James Bond wins again.
Trump’s strategy is to fight the Washington establishment with this outlandish plot device. By engaging in a bare-knuckle public row with four Democratic left-wing congresswomen, he’s creating a rope he plans to loop round the more careful centrists who, with any luck, will be dragged into the darkness by AOC.
Nothing like this has happened before because for years political arguments took place at the stately pace dictated by the news cycle in terms calculated to preserve decorum. The pattern was predictable. Leaks set up the story and talk shows filled in the blanks and the nation had its narrative for the week. But by resorting to Twitter the president can engage any part of the Democratic lineup, bypassing the party front office. With rapid-fire Tweets calling the four congresswomen un-American and they, in turn, calling him a racist, Trump has cut the Democratic center out of a public stage that is now an arena of spontaneous, fiery exchanges.
This provoked spontaneity keeps the Democratic Party from presenting a unified front and communicating through carefully prepared spokesmen in controlled venues, a system that served them so well in the past. It also keeps them from getting their story straight. As Time Magazine notes “lying can be cognitively demanding. You must suppress the truth and construct a falsehood that is plausible on its face and does not contradict anything known by the listener, nor likely to be known. You must tell it in a convincing way and you must remember the story. This usually takes time and concentration, both of which may give off secondary cues and reduce performance on simultaneous tasks.”
Lying is hard work. In a rapid exchange, people can accidentally tell the truth. It was telling the truth that doomed Dr. Leana Wen’s presidency at Planned Parenthood.
Unlike Richards, Wen didn’t have a knack for balancing Planned Parenthood’s self-contradictory talking points. The group’s executives ritually parrot the false statistic that abortion is a mere 3 percent of its services. Its latest PR campaign revolved around the slogan “This is health care,” clearly an effort to redirect away from discussion of abortion and recast it as a health-care procedure. With her attempt to backtrack from what appeared to be insufficient dedication to abortion rights, Wen accidentally revealed that Planned Parenthood sees itself, first and foremost, as an abortion provider.
By forcing the pace, Trump obviously hopes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her companions will blurt out their unvarnished reactions in velocity veritas and it seems to be working. Despite the unpleasantness, the result has been clarity: Washington has laid all the ugly cards on the table, for once the capital is free of artifice and every seething emotion is on display. The choices are stark even if they are not very edifying.
What a scene it presents. On the one hand is a group of people who think America is the source of all evil that should spend the rest of its historical existence atoning for the mischief it has loosed in the world. On the other hand is a group who believe that for all its faults it is the greatest country in the world and that those who want to destroy it should go back to Somalia. Whichever point of view you subscribe to (or neither) it’s hard to deny that these factions have existed for some time and are only now coming to grips in the open.
But this clarity has been bought at the cost of increased political risk. Robert Lundgren, in his analysis of the Kirishima’s sinking at the hands of the battleship USS Washington, concluded that it capsized due to thousands of tons of water sloshing around on its big empty middle decks. Great masses moving inside a void can throw even a battlecruiser from side to side a phenomenon called the free surface effect. “If a moving mass inside the vessel moves in the direction of the roll, this counters the righting effect by moving the center of gravity towards the lowered side.”
A similar thing can happen in politics. With the rout of the Republican establishment during the 2016 primaries and Hillary’s loss in the general a few months later, the old center of gravity was annihilated. The hard left and the populists are gyrating through the wreckage of the parties threatening to upend them at every moment. The Free Twitter Effect is driving the media mad. In retrospect, the psychological center of American politics must have been fraying for a long time.
How else to explain why the new controversy is who owns America. “America,” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “belongs to everyone.” Unfortunately, too many agree, especially on K Street. Depending on whom you listen to the Russians now own the White House, the Chinese control Google, the Middle East funds the universities and according to Ilhan Omar, Israel has “hypnotized” everyone else. Why stop there when anyone can evidently join the fun? When the New York Times asked the Democratic Party presidential candidates about border protection, it turned out they do “not have a uniform stance on border enforcement. We asked candidates to clarify their views, but only a few said whether they saw illegal immigration itself as a problem”.
Maybe globalization has worked only too well. Time was when it was axiomatic that America belonged to Americans but those were simpler, more innocent times before Washington became capital of the world. That title — the caput mundi — once belonged to Rome before it moved on to Constantinople, then London and now D.C. Perhaps one day history will move on again and leave Washington once more the capital of the mere United States of America.
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The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, by Ben MacIntyre. Described by John le Carre as ‘the best true spy story I have ever read’, this book follows the true life exploits of KGB double agent and diplomat Oleg Gordievsky.
A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, by Sonia Purnell. The never-before-told story of Virginia Hall, the American spy who changed the course of World War II.
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, by John le Carre. In this his first memoir, le Carre gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, of his imagining and then the search for reality that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.
The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920, by Eugene Rogan. The book recreates one of the most important but poorly understood fronts of the First World War, the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Despite fighting back with great skill and ferocity against the Allied onslaught, the Ottomans were ultimately defeated, clearing the way for a new Middle East that has endured to the present.
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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.