James Fallows
James Fallows
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More +
  • Giving Trump a Clean Shave

    Imagine listening to the president’s address to Congress as if it were the first speech he’d given.

  • Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

    ‘With Such a People You Can Then Do What You Please’

    Trump’s attacks on the free press don’t just threaten the media—they undermine the public’s capacity to think, act, and defend democracy.

  • Meanwhile in America: ‘New Americans’ in the Rust Belt

    Maitham Basha-Agha, the Iraqi-American who photographed Erie's "New American" refugees for the Erie Reader. Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader

    If you’ve read or heard about Erie, Pennsylvania, since the election, it’s likely to be with framing as “declining Rust Belt city that illustrates the fears and dislocations that led to Trump.”

    Over the past six months, my wife Deb and I have presented a different take on the city, as briefly mentioned in this magazine piece and laid out in more detail in this web post and others collected here. We’ve been struck by the difference between older Erie—the people of our own generation, who had grown up expecting to work at the giant GE plant and are still devastated by its slow-motion shutdown—and younger Erie, people who never expected to work in big factories and are starting new businesses. This is an illustration of an old/young split we’ve seen across the country.

    What initially drew our attention to the city was its purposeful role as a welcoming point for immigrants and refugees. If people from the area were moving away, why not attract those who historically and actuarially have a higher-than-average rate of entrepreneurship and business formation? Today the weekly Erie Reader published a magnificent feature: a large-format photo display of refugees who have made Erie their home.

    I’ll let you go to the feature, on “Rust Belt New Americans:  A Showcase of Erie’s Refugee Population,” to see the several dozen portraits, by Iraqi-American photographer Maitham Basha-Agha (with accompanying narration). I’ll say that this conveys part of what we saw in Erie—and Sioux Falls and Burlington and Fresno and other places with significant refugee populations—and is so much at odds with the fearful national policies of the moment.

    Here’s one portrait, of Afrim Latifi, originally of Kosovo, now an insurance agent and soccer coach:

    Afrim Latifi, originally from Kosovo, now of Erie. (Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader)

    Another of our friends in Erie who is featured in the story—Ferki Ferati, now executive director of the civically important Jefferson Educational Society in Erie—also arrived as a young refugee from Kosovo.

    And here are two Muslim sisters now in Erie schools:

    Sisters Maryan, age 15 (left), and Kaltuma, age 17, in Erie schools. (Maitham Basha-Agha, for Erie Reader)

    ***

    While I’m at it, here is a story from GoErie.com, with videos of people coming out on a frigid-cold Lake Erie day to rally in support of their refugees and immigrants, and against the new ban.

    The psephologists and other polling experts have confirmed it: the areas with the greatest anti-refugee or -immigrant fear and fury are the ones with the least first-hand exposure to newcomers. Congratulations and respect to our friends in Erie for the spirit they are showing.

  • Evan Vucci / Reuters

    ‘American Carnage’: The Trump Era Begins

    Most presidents view inaugural addresses as a rare opportunity to appeal beyond “the base.” This was base-only.

  • A Reflection on Trump's Uncharted Presidency

    In a short animation, James Fallows considers what’s in store for this new era of American politics.

  • ‘Let's Care About Someone Who Does Not Belong to Our Tribe’

    The old Hotel Virginia in downtown Fresno, latest site of expansion by the tech incubator-and-training firm called Bitwise Industries. (Historic Fresno)

    We could use a little positive news at the moment, right? Here you go:

    Over the past three years we’re written a lot about Fresno in general, one of the unglamorous cities of California’s Central Valley that is fighting its way back as a tech and cultural center, and about Bitwise Industries in particular. Bitwise, which we wrote about here, here, and here, is one of several organizations around the country (like the Iron Yard in Greenville, S.C., and Radius and Epic and others in Erie, Pa.) that are pioneering the ideas of creating opportunities in left-behind areas; of expanding those opportunities to left-behind people; and meanwhile helping redevelop downtowns and bring a sense of pizzazz and possibility to their cities.

    Yesterday in Fresno, Bitwise made another big announcement, of a physical expansion combined with a social and civic goal. The physical expansion was the steady growth of its business to several more historic downtown structures, including the Hotel Virginia and old warehouses.

    Concept drawing for Bitwise facility the State Center warehouse.

    Tim Sheehan’s story in the Fresno Bee about the announcement said:

    Bitwise, the self-proclaimed “mothership of technological education, collaboration and innovation” in Fresno, announced Wednesday that it will grow … into three additional sites....

    And for the first time, Bitwise is including a residential component in its plans – a four-story, 28-unit apartment building next to the State Center building.

    “It’s great. I like the fact that they are getting into real estate – the residential side of things,” Aaron Blair, president of Downtown Fresno Partnership, said at a news conference where the project was announced. .. The expansion will make a dent in, but not completely satisfy, a Bitwise waiting list of software and technology companies for as much as 500,000 square feet of office space.

    ***

  • A Big Step for Little Eastport

    Downtown Eastport, from above. The large square waterfront structure on the left, long abandoned, is the site of the new development just announced. The smaller square waterfront structure three buildings over to the right, between the piers, is The Commons of Eastport, where we rented rooms to stay on our visits. The low building next to the Commons, with a white front and red roof, is the locally famous Waco Diner. Aerial photo copyright Don Dunbar

    Since our first visit in the fall of 2013, Deb and I have reported frequently on the grit, vision, resilience, and apparently indomitable drive of the roughly 1300 people who live in the little city of Eastport, Maine. For reference, I did a 2014 magazine story on Eastport called “The Little Town That Might”; we did a visit and report with Marketplace radio around the same time; Deb and I, with John Tierney, did a long series of web posts, all collected here; and this past fall Deb and I returned for an update on some of the buffets Eastport had suffered from shifts in the political and economic landscape many thousands of miles away from their Down East locale. For instance: warfare in Syria had disrupted the port business in Maine, through a causal chain explained here. And the collapse of a breakwater badly affected the cruise ship and tourism industries on which the town was placing many hopes.

    This past week Eastport got a much-needed dose of very good news. The Arnold Development group of Kansas City specializes in the kind of walkable, environmentally sustainable, mixed-use and downtown-residential developments that make a huge difference in making cities feel “livable.” And this month Arnold has announced an $18 million undertaking, with partners in Eastport, to renovate the most imposing structure in the city’s downtown.

    Classic roll-top sardine can (Wikimedia)

    This is the now-derelict works of what was once the Seacoast Canning Company, a factory that produced tin cans during Eastport’s early 20th-century heyday as a world capital of the sardine industry. Ever seen old pictures of roll-top sardine tins? This building is where millions of them came from.

    ***

  • Happy New Year: See You in June

    Over SoCal on a recent trip. We're headed there again soon. Deborah Fallows

    For me this is the third post of the day, and probably the last in this space for quite a while.

    Effective today, I’m beginning a five-month book-writing leave from online and print activities for The Atlantic. At the start of June I plan to be back, recharged for the fray, and by then my wife Deb and I should—will!—have finished a book on the America we’ve seen in our travels across the country these past four years, and what that means for the years ahead.

    Some practical notes:

    • A major satisfaction in writing in this space and its precursors since the mid-1990s has been engagement with readers. But by the final few chaotic months of this year’s campaign, I had given up even pretending to answer reader emails (or any emails), or sorting them for reader-comment posts. There are still hundreds I would like to have quoted but have not managed to use. I will soon forward some of those, and anything that arrives in coming weeks, to the impresario of our Notes section, Chris Bodenner, who has skillfully curated reader discussions. And not for the first time I’ll be considering the “email bankruptcy” option.
                                                                      
    • The last time I took a blogging leave was five years ago, when Deb and I moved back to China for me to finish my book China Airborne. (Her wonderful Dreaming in Chinese had just come out.) Back then, the concept of “blogging” still existed—that is, of frequent, incremental, voicey dispatches on a range of personalized topics—and I had the joy of assembling a stellar cast of guest bloggers to fill in. Really, it was an incredible group: check them out here. Times have changed, and there is no longer a set personal-blog space here for guests to fill. Our site keeps evolving, and I’m not sure what it will offer by the middle of this year. But for now you will just have to make do with the dozens of other items The Atlantic serves up each day.
                                                                          
    • Why a cold-turkey break? For an external reason, and an internal one.
                                                         
      The external reason involves the new reality of the Donald Trump era. During the final six months of his campaign, I tried to keep up with the “norm-breaking,” unprecedented things the candidate kept doing and saying. That became a nearly full-time activity, and the number of entries ultimately reached 152. Since the election, the pace of Trump’s transgressions and aberrations has only increased. As a reporter you can keep up with this, in the full intensity it deserves, or you can do anything else. I am 100% on board in supporting the reporters, editors, and analysts at The Atlantic and elsewhere who are girding for daily engagement with the implications of Trump. But I think that the greatest journalistic value I can add is not by spending all my time as one more voice in the fact-check/ norm-defense patrol but instead in reporting on how the rest of the country can and should respond. And I know that the latter is the story I am more excited to tell.
                               
    • This leads to the other, internal reason, which involves my personal journalistic metronome. Through my long career with The Atlantic I’ve had a sequence of shifts in topic and location. Through the early 1980s, I was heavily involved in debates about the military and budgetary policies of the incoming Ronald Reagan administration, including with my book National Defense. After five years of this, my family moved to Asia, to spend the late Reagan and early GHW Bush years viewing the U.S. from outside (and for me to do my books More Like Us and Looking at the Sun). I’ll skip ahead several topics and moves to the early 2000s, when I was back in Washington and heavily involved in debates about responding to the 9/11 attacks and invading Iraq (don’t do it!). After four-plus years of that, and reporting on the aftermath, in 2006 my wife and I moved to China, to spend the late GW Bush and early Obama eras seeing that country and viewing the U.S. from its perspective.

      This time, I’ve done what I can through the past year to lay out the consequences of this year’s presidential choice. Those consequences are now upon us. As with every other major shift in national direction, the resulting story needs to be told at many levels. The version of the story I’m most passionate about telling, and that I believe is least likely to tell itself otherwise, involves the implications of what we’ve seen in dozens of places like San Bernardino and Sioux Falls and Erie and Allentown and Ajo and Greenville and Columbus and Charleston and Dodge City and Duluth.             
                                                                               
    • The good and the bad of being in Washington is that what happens in national politics is right in front of you, unavoidably in your face all day long. The good part is why we’ve lived here for half of the past 40 years. The bad part is why we’ve lived elsewhere during the other half, in several-year installments.
      These next few months will be an “other half” period. We’ll be based in inland Southern California, in Redlands, for the writing-camp period. And I’m undertaking a variety of additional “mind in the right place”/attention-protective moves, from reading more things on paper to being less exposed to cable TV. Related: The more time passes, the more I find myself agreeing with Andrew Sullivan’s famed essay on this topic. The public’s attention really has been treated as a free good in the tech-distraction era. We need to fight to protect it. Or at least I do.
                                       
    • Might there be an exception to the online sabbatical? Anything is possible. Suppose Xi Jinping were to announce that he’s personally taking up small-plane aviation, in a speech that begins “I often think of the example of the boiling frog” and ends “may God Bless the United States of America!” (which would be quite a speech), all while holding a leafblower in one hand and a craft beer in the other. I’d probably have to say something.  

    Online life changes and moves on, even more quickly than life in general. There are inevitable costs to stepping away. But in this case I believe there are greater benefits. See you in June.  

  • ‘Here's to the People Who Are Not Known’

    In writing about the inevitable but sad passing of my last surviving uncle, Robert L. Fallows of the Philadelphia area, I mentioned the phenomenon of people who—like him, and like my own parents—are respected and influential in their own communities and essentially unknown beyond it. (Want to do a modern test of this hypothesis? Try an online search to learn about my uncle.) These local-scale civic virtues are what entire civilizations depend upon, but their nurturance is at obvious and increasing odds with many other forces in our current civilization.

    Readers write about different aspects of this cultural tension. First, from a reader of my sons’ generation, who served as an officer during America’s recent wars. He writes about the military experience that was obviously so characteristic of my parents’ World War II generation and is so unevenly shared now:

    I always have a thought nagging at me about families where generations are in and out of the military, which seems to me to be an ideal, as opposed to the current state where some families have long traditions of service; I think that state becomes toxic.

    But it isn't much written on… and I'm not adequate material in which that thought can gel.  Nonetheless we are less, as a nation, than the nation in which families like that were common.

    ***

    Next, from a reader of my generation, about the pluses and minuses of a narrowly place-based conception of “community”:

    Following the thoughts in your post about our parents’ (your uncle’s) generation as meriting enhanced recognition.

    My (step) mother, born in the mid-1920s, has lived by herself for 15 years in a church-run elder community [in central Pennsylvania], where she & my father (a few years older) moved four years prior to his death in 2001. A very large proportion of the residents, my folks included, are/were clergy families (also white, protestant, and not radically evangelical).

    I visit my mother frequently - her community is a terrific operation, quite exemplary - and I observe that she and her residential colleagues virtually all seem to be people for whom a) the phrase "purposeful living" would seem puzzlingly redundant, and b) the word "community" has always applied to everyone geographically within shouting distance.

    For her "homies," to coin a phrase, these meanings have been reinforced, for better or worse, by the inclusive but relatively static and demographically homogeneous social and economic environment that defined "home" for most white European Americans (i.e. most of the "majority" population) at that time in the US, which continued into your and my childhood.

    The home community was a base of strength - people of like mind and shared, or at least similar, experience in a community close-knit and collectively strong enough to extend its hand with good intention to selected outsiders. Recipients of this beneficence were referred to typically as "less fortunate" and implicitly regarded as inherently "good people," virtuous and/or unlucky enough to have deserved a better hand than life had dealt them. To these few the community could extend, and even over extend, its acceptance and generosity….

    In any case, as for my parents' generation - with what mixed feelings do I now regard those paragons of that (great) American epoch - their indefatigable strength so daunting to our subsequent generations, their insularity so quaint.

    As a preacher's kid, I'm typically awed by the superior strengths of my parents and their generation, rather than dismissive of the relative simplicity of the imperatives within which those strengths arose and were reinforced. But it could be the other way around I suppose, and someone other than myself could just regard the virtues of our parents' generation as natural adaptations to the era, subsequently eclipsed by global evolution in mobility, economics, information, and perceptions.

    In this light, maybe Trump et al are the debt collectors - unduly harsh souls, heartless and randomly disruptive but an essential evolutionary digression, unsustainable but creating a space in/during which the imperfections & imbalances of human evolution, which all of us would prefer to ignore, deny or otherwise let pass like unpayable auto loan payments - can knit themselves into some new, more clear eyed social/economic/political fabric.

    These are oversimplified late night thoughts that do not temper my commitment to work against this insurgent American "nativism," but I find myself perhaps too eager to latch onto some constructive meaning in how passively the US is responding to Trump's accession, in how uncannily he disarms the liberal argument with untruth and bullying, in how this brute has been empowered putatively to teach us just what we "have to lose." Unlike my parents and their generation, I'm not at all sure any of us really knows, and maybe this is what it will take to figure that out.

    ***

  • All Progress Is Local: New Year’s Notes From Around the Country

    Barn at the Deerwood Ranch wild horse refugee, outside Laramie, Wyoming this past November. James Fallows

    This is the first of three posts on this New Year’s Day, building toward a change in (my part of) this space for the next few months.

    First installment: quick updates on a few places and projects that my wife Deb and I have learned about in our American Futures travels these past few years.

    • Pittsburgh, Pa. The wonderful City of Asylum community, which Deb wrote about online here and which I described briefly in my cover story in March, has just won a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Congratulations! It’s an important and much-deserved recognition.
                                                                                      
    • San Bernardino, Ca. Long before it was featured in global news because of the terror-related mass shooting a year ago, San Bernardino had struggled with one economic and political blow after another, as we reported here and here. The most dramatic downward step happened in the 1990s, when the enormous Norton Air Force Base, dominant employer when I was growing up in the area and long a bulwark of the regional economy, was closed for good.
      This past month the San Bernardino Sun reported on a study showing that all the job loss from that closure has finally been recovered, and that the shift — largely to logistics operations for the likes of Amazon, the Stater Brothers grocery chain, and Kohl’s — has on a spending-power basis offset the loss of the base. The former Norton property is now San Bernardino International airport, SBD, which has itself become a major employer. I wrote about SBD several times, for instance here, when our propeller airplane was based at its Luxivair facility during our 2015 California travels; we’re headed there again soon. Through this past shopping-and-shipping season the San Bernardino airport won a major new UPS contract. The city of San Bernardino is now looking toward its post-civic-bankruptcy future, as Ryan Hagen of the Sun describes here. Good luck to a town that deserves much more of it.
         
    • Fresno and Clovis, Ca. I’ve talked about Fresno’s economic, cultural, technological, and downtown renovations in an endless series of posts; Deb has described schools there and in neighboring Clovis. Here’s a report on a big new environmental victory for Clovis; here’s a time-lapse video cam of the ambitious reconstruction work underway on Fresno’s downtown Fulton Street Mall; here are a few of the ever-expanding civic and tech activities of the training and incubator company Bitwise (including, topically for now, a seminar on how to avoid conflict and actually persuade in an era of polarized views); and here is the latest brewpub to announce its opening in Fresno’s reviving downtown. Happy New Year to all.  
                                                    
    • Eastport, Me. This fall the Boston Globe had a report on some of the plans, achievements, and frustrations we’ve been describing over the years in the little Down East city of Eastport, Maine. Now the Christian Science Monitor adds to the discussion of how climate shifts are affecting life in this part of the world.   
                                                  

    • Louisville, Ky. Back in June I reported on the exciting FirstBuild maker / prototyping / incubator facility in Louisville. Had the campaign (and China) not consumed so much of my life in the following months, I would have already said more about the stream of new products continuing to come onto the market from FirstBuild. During my visit I was intrigued by its Prisma cold-brew coffee maker, then still in early prototyping. The whole idea of the FirstBuild operation is to enable more Americans to make (and then sell) technically innovative, commercially viable, manufactured products. You can read about a range of the offerings, most based on crowdsourced pre-orders and funding, on FirstBuild’s blog and their Facebook page.

    I’ve got a dozen more items on the update list, but these will have to do for now. There’s a lot happening inside the country. Happy New Year to everyone busily making America greater.

  • Robert L. Fallows, My Uncle Bob: 1922-2016.

    Robert Fallows was 19 when he joined the Army after Pearl Harbor. He spent much of the next four years in action. (Family photos.)

    Eight years ago I mentioned that a run of very public news—the deaths of prominent figures, plus a presidential election with all its consequences—coincided with news of great significance to a limited number of people. That was the death at age 83 of my father, who spent most of his working life as Dr. James A. Fallows of Redlands, California. (My mother, Jean Mackenzie Fallows, had died a few years earlier.)

    When growing up my dad had been one of the two Fallows boys of Jenkintown, Pa. His brother Bob, was three years older—old enough, at 19, to join the surge of enlistments after the Pearl Harbor attack 75 years ago. My uncle Bob was on active Army duty from the summer of 1942 through the end of the war. He then returned and soon married his high school sweetheart Alice Heller.

    Recent weeks have seen another run of very prominent public deaths, and another extremely consequential shift of presidential power. And they have again brought news of significant impact within a limited circle: Bob Fallows’s death this month, at 94.

    The news naturally matters to me just because I knew and loved Uncle Bob, Aunt Alice, and their family. But I mention it, as I did with my dad, because of the example of locally important personal, family, and civic virtue these brothers in their different ways set.

    The Fallows boys of Jenkintown, probably in the late years of the war. My dad, on the left, joined the Navy’s V-12 program after finishing high school in 1943 and eventually served as a Navy doctor. Bob is in his Army uniform.

    ***

    Before the war, Bob Fallows had been a very good student, especially in math, but was also famous as a football and basketball champion at Jenkintown High School. After the war he went to Penn, where he studied finance and was on the varsity basketball team. I can’t find a way to confirm this at the moment, but my recollection is of going with him to a Penn-versus-somebody game at Penn’s Palestra basketball arena in the late 1960s, and noticing a plaque with his name as the many-year holder of the school’s free-throw shooting record. As I already knew, from childhood games of H-O-R-S-E with him, he used the old-style, pre-Rick-Barry underhand free-throw shooting motion, and he practically never missed. Seeing the contrast between my dad and him—both of them avid and successful team-sports and individual athletes, but my dad someone who visibly worked at it while Bob somehow made it all look effortless—was an early introduction to the idea of natural athletic grace. Into his 70s and 80s Uncle Bob remained active in Senior Olympic-type activities, winning medals in both speed and skill events.

    His army service made up a relatively short period of his life, and he was not one to regale people with war stories. But we learned that his experience had been varied and intense. He was in the Corps of Engineers and first worked in Alaska and British Columbia designing and building the ALCAN highway. Then he was sent to Europe, where his unit was in action in Bastogne, at the Bridge at Remagen, and on into Germany. Although they were engineers, they were in the middle of combat. He received U.S. decorations and the French Legion of Honor for his service; next week he will be buried with military honors in the Washington Crossing National Cemetery not far from Trenton.

    Most of his life was spent raising his family, mainly in a big, gracious old stone farm house in Southampton, outside Philadelphia; running his gas-station business in Willow Grove; attending to his parents and numerous other relatives in the area; being active in his church and the local Rotary; traveling widely with his beloved wife Alice, whom he met as a teenager and who survives him; and generally being the kind of person who felt it his responsibility to care about and sustain the people and groups around him.

    Big brother Bob, known as “Nick,” on the left; little brother Jimmy, or “Little Nick,” on the right. This would have been in the mid-1930s.

    He and my dad, close and also competitive as brothers, had many differences as adults. My parents moved to the other side of the country from where they started; Bob lived most of his life within a few dozen miles of his origins. Both brothers grew up in a politically, culturally, and religiously conservative household. Bob and his family maintained many of those views; my dad, decreasingly so. But they remained close, and both brothers shared the great fortune of finding very early, in their hometown of Jenkintown, the right life partners. My mom and dad met in grade school and got married when she was 20 and he was 22. Bob and Alice met before he went off to war and were married soon after he came home. I believe they reached their 70th wedding anniversary.

    Uncle Bob’s final few years were difficult, as Aunt Alice’s are now. But he (and she) had an extraordinarily long record of living, day by day, the values many people talk about. I note his passing because he meant so much to our family and to me, and also because of a reason I mentioned when explaining why I had talked about family losses on a Fresh Air show eight years ago:

    As I fumbled to explain [to Terry Gross] in real time, part of my instinct in making a private matter public was the sense that people with the virtues of my parents -- talented, loving, curious, hopeful people who poured their heart and effort into the betterment of their small community and the well-being of their family -- deserve more celebration than they typically get, precisely because they have chosen not to operate on a broad public stage. My parents were very well known in our home town but unknown outside of it. It gave me heart to think that people who had never encountered them might hear something about the lives they led.

    ***

    Bob Fallows on a visit to his brother’s family in California. These were his senior-sporting-champion years.
  • Books to Read (or Buy), According to Me

    The best seasonal present, this year and any year (since 1857), is of course a subscription to The Atlantic. Get yours now!

    But in addition to that, books make the perfect gift. My own book choices are part of two seasonal wrapups.

    One is the 2016 edition of the Atlantic’sBest Books We Read This Year” feature by our staff members. I thinking about this feature, my working definition of “best” is “an interesting book I’d like to let people know about.” There are lots of good suggestions in this year’s report—I expect that I will remember for a long time When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi, which is Rebecca Rosen’s selection—but the one I chose to discuss and recommend is Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. You can read my reasons why here.

    The other is a “Books for the Trump Years” feature, compiled by Michael Winship for Bill Moyers & Company. I recommend a whole slew of books about the original Gilded Age and the response thereto, for reasons I explain. And of course many other people name their picks.

    Read. Enjoy. Subscribe!

  • Remember the 'Thucydides Trap'? The Chinese Do; Trump Clearly Does Not

    A tweet from Donald Trump this morning. It carried the meta-data label “Twitter for iPhone,” which has generally meant a staff-written tweet, in contrast to the freer-swinging 3am messages from Trump’s own “Twitter for Android.” The word “unprecedented” also is not typical of Trump’s own messages. (Also please see update at end of post.)

    In my cover story in the December issue of the magazine, on how the United States should prepare for the possibility of a more truculent and repressive China, I mention the concept of the “Thucydides Trap.” The article describes the implications:

    This concept was popularized by the Harvard political scientist [and my one-time professor as an undergraduate] Graham Allison. Its premise is that through the 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian warfare that Thucydides chronicled, rising powers (like Athens then, or China now) and incumbent powers (like Sparta, or the United States) have usually ended up in a fight to the death, mainly because each cannot help playing on the worst fears of the other. “When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen,” Allison wrote in an essay for TheAtlantic.com last year.

    The idea Allison was getting across—that managing relations between the United States and China is enormously important, and also very complex, and not guaranteed to turn out well—is built into the themes Henry Kissinger expressed to Jeffrey Goldberg in the interview in that same issue, and that I was explaining in my article, and that every U.S. president from Nixon through Obama has reflected upon and, with some variations, built into his policy toward China, the Koreas, Japan, Asia, and the world as a whole.

    Reduced to three elements, this outlook would be:

    • Relations with China really matter, for each country’s interests and for the world’s;
    • They’re very complex and less obvious than they seem, in part because the Chinese government sees the world differently from the U.S. government in some important ways; and
    • If poorly managed, they can lead to great danger, even the unlikely-but-conceivable disaster of military showdown. This is another way of stating the first point, with emphasis on the downside.

    In his press conference yesterday, President Obama lightly touched on several of these points, while talking about the entities we usually refer to as “Taiwan” (the Republic of China, HQ in Taipei) and “China” (the People’s Republic of China, HQ in Beijing). Here is what he said, with emphasis added:

    There has been a longstanding agreement essentially between China and the United States, and to some degree the Taiwanese, which is to not change the status quo. Taiwan operates differently than mainland China does. China views Taiwan as part of China, but recognizes that it has to approach Taiwan as an entity that has its own ways of doing things.

    The Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they’re able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy, that they won’t charge forward and declare independence. And that status quo, although not completely satisfactory to any of the parties involved, has kept the peace and allowed the Taiwanese to be a pretty successful economy and—of people who have a high degree of self-determination.

    What I understand for China, the issue of Taiwan is as important as anything on their docket. The idea of One China is at the heart of their conception as a nation. And so if you are going to upend this understanding, you have to have thought through the consequences because the Chinese will not treat that the way they’ll treat some other issues.

    They won’t even treat it the way they issues around the South China Sea, where we've had a lot of tensions. This goes to the core of how they see themselves.

    And their reaction on this issue could end up being very significant. That doesn't mean that you have to adhere to everything that's been done in the past, but you have to think it through and have planned for potential reactions that they may engage in.

    And now we have Donald Trump, five weeks away from being president but determined to put himself in the middle of U.S.-China relations as he has everything else. (Please see update after the jump)

    ***

    As a general principle of life, I’m skeptical of claims that begin, “Oh, this is too complex, leave it to the experts.” Usually there is a simple way to convey the essence of an issue. But the simple way to state the reality of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations is that they are very complex and the product of decades’ worth of trade-offs and understandings, and that they are much easier to destroy than they were to create and sustain.

    What could go wrong?

    The joke about Homer Simpson, as the lovably incompetent operator at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, is that he had no idea of the complexity of what he was dealing with—or the potential consequences of his blunders. It’s not that everything in the world is more complex than it seems; it’s that nuclear plants are more complex, and dangerous. So too in dealings with China.

    I can tell you that virtually everyone on the Chinese, North America, Asian and ASEAN, etc. front of U.S.-Chinese relations has a similar dread about Trump’s tweet-based “policy” toward China. Of course any aspect of U.S. policy should be up for re-examination, including this one. But Trump appears to have no idea what he is dealing with, what it has taken to make the relationship as stable as it has been, or what it could mean for it to go awry.

    In the sequence leading to this latest tweet, we see an example of the latter point:

    • Trump challenges and provokes the Chinese, with a literally unprecedented gesture toward Taiwan that—as Obama pointed out, and as Nixon, Reagan, and either of the Bushes, plus Kissinger would have confirmed—challenges what China’s leaders consider the irreducible heart of their national identity;
    • Once Chinese officials determine that he’s not just kidding (the initial press reaction noted that Trump was still a private citizen, soon followed by editorials saying that he was “speaking like a child”), the leaders get their back up, and take their own unprecedented step of seizing this maritime drone;
    • And then Trump, who as president-elect has been the major force provoking China, responds in today’s raise-the-stakes way.

    I do not believe the United States and China are likely to go to war. There are too many buffers on each side; too many many positive linkages; too much awareness on the Chinese side of U.S. relative military advantages—and on both sides of the potential risks.

    But if historians and citizens look back on our era as the transition point, at which 40 years of relatively successful management of U.S.-China relations gave way to a reckless focus on grievances and differences,tweets like the one today will be part of their sad record.

  • This Is What the Resistance Sounds Like

    Governor Jerry Brown of California got Twitter-verse attention for saying two days ago that if Donald Trump shuts down satellite collection of climate data, “California will launch its own damn satellites.”

    I’ve now seen the short speech from which that line was taken, thanks to a tip from reader CS. It’s remarkable enough to be worth your time. It’s a genuine fighting speech, with a tone that is resolute but positive, rather than resentful or doomed. It’s a rousing call-to-battle against the environmental backwardness and larger disdain for fact of the coming era, from a person who as he nears age 80 has struck a distinctive Happy Warrior tone of resistance. Happy, in its confidence. Warrior, in its resoluteness.

    The 13-minute clip of an obviously extemporized speech is below, followed by a viewer’s-guide annotation:

    Points to note:

    • Brown is speaking to the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco two days ago. As reader CS says, this is “probably the largest single yearly gathering of geophysics related scientists in the world; close to 25,000 people attended it this year.” Brown’s remarks begin at around time 2:00, and you’ll see that he swings right from the introductory applause into a call for renewed energy on behalf of fact-based policies, science, truth.
    • From about time 3:30 to 3:50, the sound on the video fades away. Just wait it out.
    • From 4:30 to 5:15, Brown begins one of his “we’re ready to fight” riffs. The speech as a whole is unpolished, but among its charms is Brown’s ability to seem self-aware and even self-mocking. An example is in this passage: First he says that Big Tobacco was brought down by a combination of scientists and lawyers. Then, “And in California, we’ve got plenty of lawyers! … We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight!”
    • At 5:30, he introduces the “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Brown? You’re not a country” argument, about the way California has used its technical advances and sheer scale to set national and even international environmental standards. “We have a lot of firepower! We’ve got the scientists. We’ve got the universities. We have the national labs. We have a lot of political clout and sophistication for the battle. And we will persevere!
    • From 7:00 to 7:15, the defiantly confident declaration: “We’ll set the stage. We’ll set the example. And whatever Washington thinks they’re doing, California is the future!”
    • At time 8:00, Brown makes an offhand reference to “Breitbart, and the other clowns.” In the following minute and onward in the speech, he increasingly stresses the need for reality, fact, “honest science,” truth.
    • My favorite part of the talk starts at 8:30, when Brown embraces a role that long ago he seemed to resist: that of a consummate politician, who knows both the nobility and the squalor of his business as intimately as anyone still performing on the national stage. This was the theme that fascinated me when I was writing my profile of Brown for the magazine three years ago. During Brown’s first incarnation as California’s governor, when in his 30s he seemed to resist the craft of politics into which he had been born. During his second stint, when in his 70s he is the oldest person ever to be California’s governor, he has fully embraced the importance and the value of political skill. You get a distilled version of how he feels about politics in this brief passage,  through time 9:20.
    • Starting at 10:00, the “our own damn satellites” riff. It also has a great “Governor Moonbeam” cameo.
    • At 10:50, a similarly defiant stance about how Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and the rest of California’s science establishment will stand proudly against a fake-science, no-truth trend. If you’ve watched this far, stay through the “we can take a few data bases more” punchline.
    • Time 11:55, “This is not a battle of one day or one election. This is a long-term slog into the future. And you [the climate scientists in the AGU crowd] are the foot soldiers of change and understanding and scientific collaboration.”
    • Time 13:00, a nice in-your-face challenge to Rick Perry, who as governor of Texas had urged California companies to move to his lower-tax state. It ends with, “Rick, we’ve got more sun than you have oil, and we’re going to use it!”
    • Brown’s talk ends by time 15:45, following a “scientists of the world, unite!” pitch. I think that nearly every part of it is novel enough, in the current political world, to deserve a look.

    This is one of the first speeches of the Resistance era that actually makes me feel better.

    White nationalism, no. But I could go for some Brown nationalism of this sort.

  • Which Department Should Rick Perry Head? The Answer Will Come to You.

    I have a soft spot for Rick Perry, finding his aw-shucks demeanor more natural-seeming than most politicians’. I can even remember the time, in the summer and fall of 2011, when Perry seemed the strongest Republican challenger to Barack Obama for the 2012 race. The reasoning back then: like George W. Bush before him, Perry was an affable-seeming, popular incumbent governor of an important state. Also like Bush, he was unusual among Republicans in maintaining broad Latino support without alienating immigration-hardliners in his own party.

    Then came the Republican-primary debate of November 9, 2011, when Perry had his extended “Ooops!” brain-freeze. If you’ve forgotten the episode, Perry had promised to eliminate three whole federal cabinet departments. But when he tried to name them, he got through two (the Departments of Commerce and Education) but couldn’t come up with the third, not even after checking his notes and thinking about it.

    If you haven’t gone back to see this moment in a while, it’s worth another look, in the clip below. Perry actually takes his on-stage embarrassment with good humor. Still, it is as agonizing a 60-second stretch as you’re likely ever to see in a live debate. And, as I remarked during the Time Capsule series, it was the sort of gaffe that back in the pre-Trump age could de-rail an otherwise promising candidacy, as it appeared to do to Perry’s.

    Again, I find Perry more appealing as a person than some of the other characters now coming onto the national stage. But it is somehow an appropriate metaphor of our era that, if he is nominated and confirmed, this could be the sequence of U.S. Secretaries of Energy:

    • 2009-2013, Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab;
    • 2013-2017, Ernest Moniz, professor of nuclear physics at MIT, former under secretary of Energy;
    • 2017- , Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember the department’s name.
  • Landslide Donald

    Kellyanne Conway, on Donald Trump’s “blowout” win

    As I mentioned in this post in late November, and in this followup, and also in a discussion with Diane Rehm on her new podcast series yesterday, Donald Trump’s lies differ from those we have encountered from other national figures, even Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton during their respective impeachments. The difference is that Trump seemingly does not care that evidence is immediately at hand to disprove what he says. If he believes what he’s saying, at least in that moment, why shouldn’t we?

    For the record, the latest entry of this sort is the repeated insistence by Trump and his associates that he won a “landslide” or “major” victory. For instance, this was his transition team’s response to reports of Russian attempts to swing the election in his favor:

    “Now time to move on.”

    Translation: “A long time ago” is actually one month, and “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history” is actually one of the least impressive. Here are the facts:

    • In terms of his Electoral College margin, which will probably end up at 306 to 232, Trump will rank #46 among the 58 presidential elections that have been held, or just above the bottom 20%.
    • In terms of his popular vote margin, Trump will probably end up with the third-worst popular vote result ever, or if you prefer 56th ranked of the 58 winning candidates in history. (Obviously the 58 elections have produced 45 presidents, some of them winning two terms and FDR winning four.) This ranking is based on Trump’s losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a little more than 2 percent, or a little less than 3 million votes. John Quincy Adams lost the popular vote by 10 percent in 1824 to Andrew Jackson, and also came in second in the electoral vote—but became president when the race went to the House, since none of the four candidates had an Electoral College majority. He is #58 out of 58, in terms of popular-vote mandate for winners. Rutherford B. Hayes, who won the electoral college while losing the popular vote by 3 percent to Samuel Tilden in 1876, is #57. Donald Trump, losing by 2 percent, is #56. Every president except J.Q. Adams and Hayes came to office with a stronger popular-vote mandate than Trump.

    None of this changes the fact that Trump ended up ahead in this year’s electoral vote. But the next time you hear Trump, his campaign managers, his transition team, or anyone else call this a “landslide” or “one of the biggest victories ever,” remember the numbers. This is 46th out of 58 in electoral college terms, and 56th out of 58 in the popular vote.

    ***

    Here is the embed for my discussion yesterday with Diane Rehm:

  • WG600; Lucas Jackson / Reuters

    Despair and Hope in Trump’s America

    Americans are optimistic about the communities they live in—but not their nation. Why?

  • Dear Mr. Obama: You Are Still the President

    U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference in a packed White House press briefing room on November 14, 2016. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

    In the four weeks since the election, which seem like four centuries, Donald Trump has dominated the news and done real strategic and economic damage with his stream of intemperate tweets. For a reckoning of the chaos that his tweets about Taiwan and China have already induced, please see these Atlantic items: by Uri Friedman with Shen Dengli, by David Graham, by Chris Bodenner, and by Isaac Stone Fish, with links to many other analyses. The harm he petulantly inflicted today on Boeing, a company that is perennially the United States’s leading exporter and one of its most important high-tech manufacturing employers and standard-setters, is only the latest and most flagrant illustration.

    This is not responsible behavior. This is not normal. This is not something the United States, or for that matter the world, can really withstand from a commander in chief. But this ungoverned, thin-skinned impetuosity is something the “responsible” GOP has decided, to its enduring shame, that it dare not criticize.

    One other thing is true of Trump’s destructive outbursts. They come from a person who does not yet exercise any official power. The American-democratic principle of peaceful transfer of power includes the tenet that the United States has only one president at a time. And for the next 44-plus days, that president is Barack Obama.

    As president, Obama has often been at his best in moments of national trauma, stress, or confidence-destroying emergency. I am thinking, for example, of one of  his very greatest speeches: his “Amazing Grace” eulogy and exhortation after the gun massacre last year in Charleston, South Carolina.

    Our current exposure to Donald Trump is a moment that even experienced Republicans will say—carefully off the record—represents a confidence-destroying emergency. (How do I know this? Like most reporters, I have heard first-hand—but of course not from anyone willing to be quoted. This is the party of Lincoln.) A man whose temperament makes him manifestly unfit to command the vast military, surveillance, investigative, and enforcement powers of the U.S. government stands mere weeks away from assuming that command.

    There is nothing Barack Obama can do about the transition scheduled for January 20. But in the meantime he is the president, and he needs to be present— and visible, and heard from. So far he has been deferential to a fault, letting the chaos emanating from Trump’s Android phone disrupt markets and alliances. His latest major press conference was on November 14, more than three weeks ago. (Trump, of course, has not held a press conference since the election, and none at all since July.)

    Obama’s lowkey approach is no doubt an extension of his statesmanlike invitation to meet Trump just after the election, and their strained handshake at the White House. It’s in keeping with “no drama Obama.” He has never been known for seeking confrontations.

    But if he thinks that America stands for values different from Trump’s daily outbursts, if he thinks the institutions of the country can survive the tantrums of the man scheduled to control them, if he thinks democratic norms and limits deserve defense, if he thinks the United States can find a steady path in the world despite a most unsteady leader—and we assume that Obama believes all these things, and may even have thoughts about the path forward—then let’s start hearing from him. Why not another press conference tomorrow? And then one a week after that. And then maybe we’ll all take a week off for Christmas and Hanukkah—but other presidents have given post-holiday greetings, and he could too. And remember hearing about Dwight Eisenhower’s greatest speech, his farewell address, three days before John Kennedy was sworn in? As his next rhetorical target, Obama could set for himself the goal of topping that to give the most-influential ever farewell address.

    Everything Barack Obama has stood for, Donald Trump—not yet in office—is doing his best to discredit. For the next 44 days, Obama will still be the most powerful person on Earth, so he might as well sound that way. Remind us of what the country is, what it should stand for, how it can find a steady path ahead.

    As the current saying goes: What the hell does he have to lose?

  • ‘There’s No Such Thing Anymore, Unfortunately, as Facts’

    Population-adjusted county-by-county cartogram of the 2016 presidential vote. M.E.J. Newman at the University of Michigan

    This morning, straight off the plane from Shanghai, I was on The Diane Rehm Show with Margaret Sullivan, much-missed former Public Editor of the NYT who is now with the WaPo, and Glenn Thrush of Politico. We were talking about how to deal with the unprecedented phenomenon that is Donald Trump, related to the “Trump’s Lies” item I did two days ago.

    You can listen to the whole segment here, but I direct your attention to the part starting at time 14:40. That is when Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump stalwart, joins the show to assert that “this is all a matter of opinion” and “there are no such things as facts.”

    You can listen again starting at around time 18:30, when I point out one of the specific, small lies of the Trump campaign—that the NFL had joined him in complaining about debate dates, which the NFL immediately denied—and Hughes says: Well, this is also just a matter of opinion. Hughes mentions at time 21:45 that she is a “classically studied journalist,” an assertion that left Glenn Thrush, Margaret Sullivan, Diane Rehm, and me staring at one another in puzzlement, this not being a normal claim in our field.

    It’s worth listening in full. This is the world we are now dealing with.

  • A More Detailed Guide to Dealing With Trump's Lies

    I have seen this portrait, at Mar a Lago, with my own eyes, and took this photo.  (It was years ago, during an entirely non-Trump-related event that happened to be held there.)

    Yesterday from China, I did a long item on the utter inadequacy of standard press practices in the face of a person like Donald Trump. Everything about “balance” and “objectivity” as news standards rests on a benefit-of-the-doubt assumption about public figures, and about the public audience. For the public figures, the assumption is that they’re at least trying not to lie, and that they’d rather not get caught. For the public audience, the assumption is that they’ll care about an ongoing record of honesty or deception. But those assumptions do not match the reality of Trump.

    You can read the whole thing here. The summary is:

    • Unlike other public figures we’ve encountered, Donald Trump appears not even to register the difference between truth and lies. He lies when it’s not “necessary” or even useful. He lies when disproof is immediately at hand. He shows no flicker in the eye, or “tell” of any kind, when he is caught in a flat-out lie. Richard Nixon looked tense and sweaty when saying “I am not a crook.” Bill Clinton went into his tortured “it depends what the meaning of is is” answer precisely because he was trying to avoid a direct lie.
      Trump doesn’t care. Watching his face for discomfort or “tells” is like looking at an alligator for signs of remorse.
    • Thus the media have to start out with the assumption that anything Trump says is at least as likely to be false as true. He has forfeited any right to an “accurate until proven to be inaccurate” presumption of honesty. Thus a headline or framing that says “Trump claims, without evidence, [his latest fantasy]” does more violence to the truth than “Trump falsely claims...”

    Now, two readers write in with detailed practical tips. The first, from a reader outside the U.S. with experience in publishing, is mainly about journalistic practices. This reader correctly refers to Trump’s behavior as narcissistic, without assuming any underlying medical diagnosis. The reader’s predictions and advice:

    • The mania for reporting every false or outrageous tweet as major news will eventually fade as everyone, including the public, gets tired of it. Smart people also know it’s a diversionary tactic and most people will eventually catch on. Smart people also know they’re lies, even if those persons are too partisan or embarrassed to admit it. Most  people will eventually catch up on that front too. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time. There will be some settling down around the time of the inauguration, followed by a steady slide. People only have so much patience for temper tantrums. Narcissists get old and ugly, especially when overexposed to sunlight.
    • In the meantime, less scrupulous members of Congress and appointed officials will use the diversions for their own ends. There must be continuous vigilance directed at these people as well and it might be up to the hometown media to be vigilant. It’s a great opportunity for ambitious young journalists to make a name for themselves, even if it’s stories about how Congressman Whosit rolled over and played dead. It is necessary to keep them honest. The hometown reporters will be the first to notice when someone is living beyond their expected means.
    • Pressure on members of Congress will help to keep pressure on the president, in turn ensuring that they act as a check and balance. The media can then report White House news indirectly from that angle, even if they can’t get a direct angle.