TPM Cafe: Opinion

Joshua Landis is head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and publishes the influential blog “Syria Comment.” He is, perhaps, the nation’s foremost expert on Syria. He has been consistently right about the events of the last five years. When most Washington policy-makers were predicting that Syrian President Basher al-Assad would fall, Landis warned that he would hang on to power. While liberals and conservatives were calling for military intervention in Syria to overthrow Assad, Landis advised caution. In this interview, he assesses the Obama administration’s policy in Syria and the prospects facing the new Trump administration as Russia and Iran consolidate their hold over the Northern tier of the Middle East. It is, in my opinion, the clearest and most comprehensive analysis of why the United States failed to get its way in Syria and what it should do now. – John Judis

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Next year will be a test for whether Europe’s leading parties can withstand the populist revolt that has already shaken the continent. There are national elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Norway. Populist parties are running ahead in the polls in France and the Netherlands. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany could upset the grand coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. What’s at stake would be the cohesion of the European Union – a political alliance that was already dealt a serious blow this year by Great Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

Last Sunday, two elections occurred that while not significant in themselves were seen as harbingers of what might occur next year. The Austrian election was for president, a largely ceremonial job; that in Italy was a referendum that would have strengthened the federal government at the expense of the regions. In both cases, populist parties – one more associated with the right and the other with left – were challenging the prevailing balance of power.

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[The following was originally presented as a speech before the Congrés de Periodistes de Catalunya in mid-November. Learn more about Dan Gillmor here.]

I was honored to keynote the Congrés de Periodistes de Catalunya in Barcelona last week, and this is an edited version of what I said:

I’m glad to be here with you today in Barcelona. This is one of my favorites cities and regions, for many reasons that go far beyond the great people and food and remarkable things to see. There’s a spirit of political and economic innovation here that inspires me – and many others around the world.

It is a special honor to be at this Congress of Catalonian journalists. Journalists are among the people who inspire me the most – most of all when they’re doing their work with persistence and integrity.

I was planning to show you some slides. I was planning to talk about how far we’ve come in digital journalism, and how far we have to go to make it the thriving ecosystem our societies – and our journalists – need it to be.

But something happened this week.

America’s election has – and for once this is not an exaggeration – changed everything.

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At first glance, the victory of Donald Trump suggests that big political money has less clout than imagined in U.S. democracy. Not only are defeated Democrats consumed with blame-shifting and calls to deliver better messages to a supposedly crucial “white working class,” but pundits are portraying President-Elect Trump as a populist politician unmoored from the establishment or big donors. Some journalists even suggest that the hundreds of conservative millionaires and billionaires organized by Charles and David Koch lost relevance this time – because the two brothers personally refused to endorse Trump and their donor network cut back originally projected spending from almost a billion to a “mere” $750 million.

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There is rarely one single reason why a presidential candidate wins an election. The results are “overdetermined,” as Freud used to say of the content of dreams. And Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton on November 8 was no exception. Clinton’s extreme vulnerability as a candidate suggests that other Republican challengers besides Trump might have defeated her; but Trump was also able to exploit Clinton’s vulnerabilities and appeal to a disenchanted electorate, some of whom had backed Democrats in prior elections, and would not have readily backed another Republican.

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Donald Trump may be out of step with the Republican Party’s traditional stance on some issues, like support for international trade, but he’s right in line with Republican hysteria over voter fraud. Indeed, the threat of voter intimidation and violence that Trump is raising by his irresponsible talk of vote rigging and encouragement of his supporters to go to other polling places is only possible because of years of earlier irresponsible talk.

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Every election is, in a way, a protest vote. Listen to this interview with Ron Susskind on “Radio Open Source” (hosted by the incomparable Chris Lydon) and then tell me the Clinton campaign does not need to change the focus of this race. We can’t take our eyes off Trump, Susskind says, because he has given us an unfinished story, which transforms into compelling drama—will he, or will he not, blow up Washington in the name of those left behind by global forces? Can he really pull it out? Clinton needs to give us a better story and a more interesting drama—stay loyal to Obama, but not become a captive of the status quo. She needs to give us something palpable to win or lose, which the press can start imagining to be the “story” of the election. Imagine, then, that she made the following speech:

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This past fall, before he died of cancer, my pal Joel Kurtzman reflected on what made its menace so fascinating. The terrible thing, he told me, was that cancer cells—clearly warped under the microscope—make themselves invisible to the immune system. The body would easily destroy cancer cells if it knew danger was there; but these cells evolve into forms that seem so ordinary, so passably normal on the surface, that they get away with growing. The body, or a subsystem of it, makes something fatal to the whole, deliberately designed (if that’s a phrase meaningful to evolution) to fool its defenses.

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Want to contribute to TPM Cafe? Email ideas for your pieces to us at talk@talkingpointsmemo.com

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