Followers Finding Feeble Voices

  • William Barr (I don’t care if he really meant it. He criticized the president.)
  • John Kelley. (I don’t care if it was too little too late. He criticized the president.)
  • Mitch McConnell. (I don’t care if he’s not to be trusted. He criticized the president.)
  • Some Republican members of Congress. (I don’t care if they’re mostly pusillanimous. By criticizing Trump’s pick for the Federal Reserve, Judy Shelton, they criticized the president.)   
  • Some Republican members of Congress. (I don’t care if they’re mostly pusillanimous. By voting to constrain the president’s military leeway on Iran, they criticized the president.)   

You get the idea! America needs more people to speak up and speak out!

Mitt Romney did it – spoke out against Trump. Where are the other Republican senators? Where for that matter are George W. Bush and Jeb Bush? John Kelly spoke out against Trump. Where is James Mattis? Where, for that matter, is H. R. McMaster, who wrote a book about speaking out? (Dereliction of Duty.)

Citizens at every level who believe that Donald Trump should not be reelected in November owe it to the state of the nation to say their piece – not later, but now, the sooner the better. After Election Day could be too late.

Anti-Trump Followers find Your Voices! Pro-Trump Followers have assuredly found theirs.

Mike Bloomberg – My Hero for Good Reason

I’m in the camp of those convinced that Americans have no more sacred an obligation than to defeat Donald Trump for president in November. Defeat him so soundly and resoundingly that he will have no choice – albeit kicking and screaming – but to exit the White House in January. The incumbent president is poisonous – it’s that simple.

Because the alarm is finally being sounded, there’s tension and teeth-gnashing about the Democratic candidate for president. Who will personify the opposition to Trump? In today’s New York Times, Thomas Friedman’s column is titled, “Paging Michael Bloomberg.” He argues strongly against a leftist candidate, particularly Senator Bernie Sanders; and equally strongly for a centrist candidate, particularly former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg.

I agree with Friedman. I too am persuaded that Bloomberg would be the best, most-likely-to-succeed candidate to take on the tyrant in the White House.

However, I refer to Bloomberg as “my hero” not because of my future preference, but because of his past performance. His past performance twice over.

First, Bloomberg demonstrated remarkable political acuity at the earliest stage of the 2020 presidential campaign. He threw his hat in the ring when he foresaw, correctly, that absent him the Democrats would be unlikely to muster a single candidate who could confidently challenge Trump. Long before Joe Biden, five minutes ago considered the Democrats’ strongest contender, dropped off the political radar, Bloomberg foretold the future.

Second, Bloomberg promised to support the Democratic nominee with the vast resources at his disposal – even if the nominee is other than he!  Nothing speaks as powerfully and persuasively to the sense of urgency he feels – as well as to his sense of duty. Bloomberg has committed himself – and a good fraction of his fortune – to removing Trump from the nation’s highest office because he has accurately assessed the dangers of a second Trump term. In consequence, Bloomberg has committed to directing his already very large campaign operation, and everyone and everything that this entails, to whoever becomes the Democratic nominee.

Let’s be clear here: the Democrats will need, badly, every bit of help they can get. Even now, Trump’s campaign machinery is in full gear, and his existing advantages, from incumbency to technology, are enormous.  This makes Bloomberg’s promise to stay the course, no matter who ultimately is the Democratic candidate, critical. For it is no exaggeration to say that without him, without Mike Bloomberg somehow in the mix, the Democrats likely are lost.     

The Strongman

Forty-eight hours ago, the U. S. Senate voted 51 to 49 to block all witnesses and any further evidence from the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Of the 53 Republican Senators, only two dissented, Maine’s Susan Collins and Utah’s Mitt Romney. Which again raises the question, why nearly all Republican Senators continue to toe the White House line. In this case various Senators provided various reasons, some of which were somewhat persuasive. But neither they nor anyone else satisfactorily explained why so many Senators, themselves putatively powerful, denied the American people the most prototypical aspect of American jurisprudence – first-hand fact witnesses.    

In a blog posted January 11th, I objected to the word “cult” as it was applied – now with relentless regularity – to Donald Trump. The fact is that while some of Trump’s followers are akin to cult members, others are not. Others are entirely devoid of the admiration, devotion, and even veneration that characterizes cult members. Trump’s followers are not, in other words, alike, the one a clone of the other.

Which returns us to Senate Republicans. Again, though they belong to the same legislative body, the 51 Republicans who voted to block witnesses had their various reasons for doing so. No doubt some were motivated by positive feelings toward the president, such as admiration and ideological alignment. Others, though, were motived by negative feelings, including that most primal of human emotions – fear.

Fear of what exactly? To the degree the question is asked, the answer is almost always the same. Fear of being “primaried” – that is, of being challenged for their Senate seats by a candidate running to their right, one who will, among other things, be slavishly devoted to the incumbent president. Granted, this is a fear – but by no means is it the only one. There are at least three other fear factors – three other things that Senate Republicans are afraid that President Trump could and likely would do. Do to them.

  • He could and likely would make certain they are debased, demeaned, belittled and besmirched.
  • He could and likely would make certain they are exposed in ways that make them vulnerable politically and professionally and, potentially, legally and even personally.
  • He could and likely would make certain that they are down for the count – finished forever.          

There is a reason Trump is often compared to Strongmen such as Russia’s Putin, and Turkey’s Erdogan. The reason is he, like they, will do what it takes to preserve their power. To be sure, Putin and Erdogan must be distinguished from Strongmen of a more virulent strain – say, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The former two are encased in the trappings of democracies while the latter two are not. Still, a Strongman is a Strongman. A Strongman is a leader who rules if not by fiat then by threat.  

What exactly did President Donald Trump mean when a few days ago he said that House Manager Adam Schiff had “not yet paid the price” for his role in the impeachment process? I have no idea. What I do know that if it sounds like a threat and smells like a threat, it’s a threat. The real question is not, in fact, whether it’s a threat, but what kind of a threat. Is it an empty threat? Or is it a threat that’s real? Trouble is, with Strongmen you never know.

Man Meets Moment – Adam Schiff, the anti-Trump

When the history of the current impeachment process is written, only a few even of those most heavily involved will be remembered. President Donald Trump, of course. And, of course, Speak of the House, Nancy Pelosi. And now, as anyone paying attention knows, Congressman Adam Schiff.

Schiff has taken the lead in presenting the case for impeaching the president to the Senate, whose members constitute the jury. Schiff’s contributions have been various. Most importantly, first as leader of the House managers he has been fastidious in making what is widely agreed an extremely strong case; second as presenter, as orator, he himself he has been extraordinary effective. His content sometimes sung, and his delivery generally was impeccable. There were of course some naysayers, some who insisted that Schiff was playing more to the cameras than to the people. But overwhelmingly his reviews were unusually strong, words like “dazzling” and “brilliant” and “tour de force” tripping off the tongue of many close observers.   

Trump has a nickname for Schiff – in fact he has two. The president refers to the Congressman from California as “Little Pencil Neck” or, more often, “Shifty Schiff.” (In a 2018 tweet, Trump also named him Little Adam Schitt – about which no further comment.) Trump is bothering insulting as Schiff has emerged from the impeachment process as Trump’s most formidable opponent. Which brings me to the point of this post – to retrieve from the past the psycho-historian.

When I was a graduate student at Yale in the 1970’s psychohistory was big. Erik Erikson especially – whose biographies of Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi were widely read and even revered – was a proponent of biographies that took account not only of the leader’s psychological development but of the way it mapped on to those of the led. In other words, Erikson’s explanation for why some leaders became great leaders was their singular capacity to reflect not only the temper of the time but the temper of the people.     

I am not arguing that Schiff will forever be remembered as a great leader. It is in any case too early to know his place in history. What I am suggesting is that this man in particular mapped on to this moment in particular. A moment most obviously characterized by coarseness and cynicism – and by followers who not only widely dislike their leaders but also widely distrust them. In 2019 less than 20% of Americans approved of the way Congress was doing its job.  

What then is it about Schiff that made him stand out? That made it possible for him to rise to the occasion – to meet the moment? Clearly there was as indicated the overarching importance of his near perfect performance. As a manager, as an orator, as a leader who freely drew on the glories, real and imagined, of America’s past to try to pull the people from what he depicted as their dismal present. To pull them toward a better future in which they, we, would be led by those who appealed to what Lincoln famously called the better angels of our nature.  

But in addition to Schiff’s political position was his personal impression. His presentation of self on a stage now better known for performances that are crude and rude than for those that are quiet and calm. To be sure, the content of what Schiff said was hardly meek or mild. But the way he said it was, well, maybe not meek, but certainly mild. One of the monikers that Trump bestowed – calling Schiff “little pencil-neck” – has a certain resonance because Schiff’s body reflects his history. He is atypically tall and lean, with an aura almost of an ascetic. No accident, as Schiff has not only run marathons he has participated in triathlons. He is, moreover, a vegan. Of how many other Senators can this be said?! Moreover, while he might carry a big stick, he speaks softly. He always speaks softly, never really raises his voice, though it does sometimes, when he is especially impassioned, take on a certain urgency. Still, Schiff’s presentation of self is nothing if not atypical: his silver tongue encased in a body that seems more suited to self-denial than to self-promotion.

How then does this man meet this moment?  By providing the American people with the obverse of their president.  Whereas one has been inexperienced and inexpert, the other is experienced and expert. Whereas one has been impetuous and impulsive, the other has been determined and deliberate. Whereas one has been intermittently sluggish and lazy, the other is as relentlessly hard-working as deeply committed. Whereas one has been proudly licentious, the other has been quietly conventional. Whereas one has flouted a long list of American norms, the other remains steeped in American ideas and ideals.  Whereas one has been a real estate developer and television personality the other is a lawyer who has spent most of his life in public service.

Donald Trump once sued comedian Bill Maher for calling him the son of an orangutan. Can you imagine Adam Schiff suing Donald Trump for calling him Little Pencil-Neck? Or for that matter Shifty Schiff? The fact that the former has better things to do than the latter is precisely why the former, Adam Schiff, has met this moment. As much as anyone else in American political life, he is the anti-Trump.

The Exigencies of the American Experience

Removing a bad leader under the best of circumstances is difficult enough. But removing a bad leader under other than the best of circumstances is a hurdle almost impossible to climb.

This post is not about the American president. It is about the American political process which threatens to be so biased against hard evidence as to violate every American norm relating to the rule of law. To be sure, the story of President Donald Trump’s impeachment is not yet over. Moreover, almost 70% percent of Americans surveyed – a very large majority – say they want witnesses to be heard at his trial. However, the fact that the Republican Senate majority leader can try with a reasonable expectation of success to turn a legal or, if you prefer, political, process into a sham tells you something about the state of the Republic.    

Explanations for how we got to this moment in American history abound. They range from the personal, such as the persona of this particular incumbent; to the political, such as the inordinate divisiveness of the body politic; to the economic, such as the measurable decline in well-being of the working class.

However, one explanation so far has been absent entirely from the discussion: the 21st century paucity of civic education in the nation’s schools. Suffice to say here that at a time when only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government – how shocking a finding is that?! – and when the increased focus on math and reading has meant pushing civics out of the K through 12 curriculum, we should not be surprised when bad things happen. When members of America’s political elite try beating the system to keep a very bad leader in a very high place.

Though the American people strongly support calling witnesses in President Trump’s impeachment trial, they are by and large passive observers of the political process, not active participants in the political process. For example, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell can be virtually 100 percent certain that if he manages to railroad the impeachment trial, turn the Senate into, in effect, a kangaroo court, there will be no immediate political price to pay. He is betting on the American people screaming and yelling on line, but not taking to the streets in sufficient numbers, and maybe not even turning out to vote in sufficient numbers, mortally to wound either him or his Republican majority. The fact that the American people are inadequately socialized to the American experience, the American experiment, means they do not understand, we cannot understand, how precious is our liberal ideology, how singular is our political history.

Dictators Dictate – or Try To

While Russian President Vladimir Putin has been busy rejiggering his government to satisfy his ceaseless lust for power, his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, has been busy doing something similar. Xi too has been seeking to satisfy his ceaseless lust for power, albeit in his case not exactly at home, more like abroad. Though how exactly Taiwan relates to the Chinese mainland lies, of course, in the eye of the beholder.   

Xi has always claimed that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.” There’s just one small problem: the people of Taiwan see their situation differently. A few days ago, they handed a landslide victory to incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, who has flat out rejected Beijing’s insistence that Taiwan succumb entirely to Chinese control. The reason for their increasing skepticism is clear: what happened recently in Hong Kong. What happened recently in Hong Kong frightened the people of Taiwan – and it emboldened them. They are frightened by what they rightly regard as Xi’s attempts to hold Hong Kongers increasingly tightly in his iron grip. And they are emboldened by Hong Kongers’ fierce resistance to what has become Xi’s dictatorial rule. The model held out by Beijing to both Hong Kong and Taiwan, known as “one country, two systems,” is widely perceived now a sham, which means that people in both places can be expected to fend off for the indefinite future Xi’s most ardent overtures.

Once again, this leaves this most powerful of dictators with a difficult hand to play – a very difficult hand. He is pitted against two peoples who have lived their lives in systems more akin to democracies than autocracies – and they rather like it. Which means that Xi has few if any good policy options. Political compromise is unlikely. And the prospect of using military force is as unattractive as, likely, counterproductive.

When the results of the election in Taiwan became known, Beijing was, predictably, furious. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, reiterated yet again that Taiwan was an “inalienable part” of China,” adding for good measure that “those who split the country will be doomed to leave a stink for 10,00 years.” But, in the short term at least, it is those in mainland China, not those on the island lying just 100 miles to the east, obliged to hold their nose.

Trump’s Followers – Colleagues? Cronies? Collaborators? Or Cult Members?

This post is prompted by Frank Rich’s article in this week’s New York Magazine, “What Will Happen to the Trump Toadies?” * Rich doesn’t know how to be a bad pundit or poor writer, so I recommend the piece without reservation. (Link below.) I do, however, paradoxically perhaps, take strong exception to his fundamental assumption: “Trump’s Republican Party is nothing if not a cult.”  

First, let’s consider the word – cult. A cult is a “system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” More broadly cult members share a “misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person,” such as in, for example, when the phrase “cult of personality” is associated with a certain leader.

Second, let’s consider who composes “Trump’s Republican Party.” Common sense dictates that there is not a single, monolithic Republican Party in which every member is a clone of every other. Rather the Republican Party consists of all sorts of people, some of whom are, no doubt, true believers – cult members. But others of whom toe the Party line not because they are diehards, but rather for transactional reasons. They figure that if they give something, especially their unswerving support, they’ll get something in return, one or another favor or reward.

Third, let’s consider who specifically Rich targets in his piece. Curiously, he concentrates not on those who genuinely seem cult members, but on those who seem not. Rich focuses on those who regularly and reliably fall into line for one of two reasons. Either they support President Donald Trump on ideological grounds – they believe in what he does and who he appoints to, for example, lifetime judicial appointments; or they support the president on professional grounds – they are careerists concerned that if they fail to fall into line they will be out of a job, whether appointed or elected. Names mentioned by Rich include those still around, such as Mike Pompeo, William Barr, and Mitch McConnell, and those long gone, such as Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson, and Paul Ryan. While each of these men have had their reasons for following where Trump led, to all appearances these reasons have not included deep personal devotion or excessive professional admiration.   

Contrast Trump’s close associates with those at greater remove: with members of the Republican Party who seem genuinely seized by what they experience as Trump’s charisma. I refer of course to true believers – most strikingly and stridently people such as those who show up at the president’s rallies to cheer his every word, no matter how outrageous an assault on decency or even on the truth. Those who to this day can be found hooting and hollering at the phantom of Hillary Clinton, “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

You looking for cult members? These are cult members – ordinary people. Americans like you and me who, for whatever their various reasons, are enthralled, literally, with a man described by Rich as presiding over a time when “truth and shame are on life support.”

All followers are not the same. They never are. In this case cult members are not the Republicans Rich names in his article. They are however the Republicans he does not.

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http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/01/what-will-happen-to-trumps-republican-collaborators.html

Whiplash

That the incumbent American president, Donald Trump, is so radically different from his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, has consequences. While these consequences differ, of course, depending on the contexts within which they play out, they have one characteristic in common: they do harm. The change in leadership style and substance is so abrupt and disruptive people both at home and abroad get whiplash. Our heads are snapped first in one direction, then in the other, opposite, direction, leaving us as disturbed as unsettled.  

Few back-to-back presidents have ever been as dissimilar as these two. Obama and Trump have radically different personas, radically different presentations, radically different politics, and radically different policies. If Obama was one thing and went one way, Trump has seemed almost willfully to be the other and go in the other. This see-sawing, this whipsawing, has been in everywhere in evidence in our domestic affairs, and it has been everywhere in evidence in our foreign affairs.     

One could, however, reasonably argue that nowhere has it been so starkly apparent as in America’s stance vis-à-vis Iran. No need for me to spell out the differences between Obama and Trump on Iran: broadly speaking they have been dramatically, diametrically opposed. Most strikingly, whereas Obama spent an enormous amount of his foreign policy capital on crafting a nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has spent an enormous amount of his foreign policy capital not only on undoing the deal but on transforming Iran into America’s archenemy – and then containing or trying to the fallout.  

My point is not to point a finger. Rather it is to draw attention to the damage done by a leader who comes to captain a ship of state only to whip it around 180 degrees – in the historical equivalent of a human heartbeat.

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Agreed. But … how about a clever consistency? How about a consistency grounded in reasonableness and rationality? Seems to me that, barring an unanticipated crisis, some level of consistency at the top is to be desired, not disdained.

Whiplash is disorienting – even dangerous. Moreover, when we’re talking about the American president, we’re talking about being disorienting and perhaps dangerous not only to America’s putative enemies – imagine you’re Iranian leaders Khamenei and Rouhani, navigating Obama in early January 2017 and Trump in late January 2017 – but to America’s ostensible allies, and to Americans themselves.

When leaders take over, they naturally seek to distinguish themselves, even separate themselves, from their predecessors. But when they do so heedlessly, with reckless abandon, they put at risk everything and everyone.       

Leaders of the Year/ Followers of the Year – 2019

The leaders listed below are those who had the greatest impact on the course of human affairs during 2019 – for good or ill. The rankings are in alphabetical order.

  1. Marc Benioff, Founder, Chairman, and co-CEO of Salesforce. Benioff’s company has been fabulously successful, making him fabulously wealthy. But it is as an avatar of good corporate leadership that Benioff has made his mark. His recent book especially, Trailblazer, puts him at the forefront of corporate leaders worldwide who argue that their ilk should be driven by visions more expansive than the companies they run.  
  2. Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Xi appeared on this list last year but necessarily he is making a repeat appearance. Nothing has happened in the last twelve months to diminish his impact. To the contrary, China is more powerful than ever – and Xi is more powerful than ever. With every passing year he controls China with a tighter fist. And with every passing year his appetite for global greatness grows with his eating.     
  3. Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of Great Britain and leader of the Conservative Party. Contrary to expectations, the boisterous blond sometime buffoon has had the last laugh. In an early December election, he trounced the opposition – which means that for better and worse he has been empowered by his people to negotiate a deal to extract Britain from the European Union. Johnson is situated to influence the course of continental politics for years if not decades to come.     
  4. Dennis Muilenburg, former CEO of Boeing. Muilenburg is not entirely to blame. But he is partly to blame for presiding over one of the biggest corporate debacles in recent years. Despite several warnings which several Boeing executives knew about, on Muilenburg’s watch two 737 MAX airliners crashed within five months of each other, killing all 346 people on board. In the wake of the disasters Muilenburg’s handling of the crisis was so obviously clumsy and counterproductive that, finally, he was canned.
  5. Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India. Since 2014 Modi has been leader of what sometimes is called the world’s largest democracy. Early on some thought him a reformer who had the potential to lead India to greater equity and prosperity. In the last year, however, perceptions of him changed. Increasingly he is seen as a fervid, fervent Hindu nationalist, especially at the expense of India’s 200 million Muslims. In recent weeks protests erupted around the country, specifically against a new citizenship law that favors religious groups other than Muslims. Time is running short if it is not already out for Modi to show people at home and abroad that he is a leader who is at least somewhat even-handed, not a dictator who regularly tips the scales in favor of his own kind.  
  6. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives. Pelosi has been a powerful player in Washington for decades. But it is only in the last year that she has become a commanding force: fully in control of her own Party and fiercely in opposition to the incumbent president. Pelosi has become so dominant a figure that history will judge her one of the most impactful American leaders – not just American women leaders – ever. The course she charts in the coming months will go a long way toward charting the course of American politics for some time to come.
  7. Vladimir Putin, President of Russia. He’s another repeat on this list. But how to exclude the poker-faced master at playing poker? The leader who plays a weak hand better than any of his opponents? Russia under Putin is nothing much to boast about. It is 25 times bigger than Texas and has more than five times as many people – yet its economy is measurably smaller. None of this has precluded Putin from successfully meddling in, mucking up, American politics. Or successfully meddling in, mucking up, European politics. Or successfully meddling in, mucking up, Middle East politics.   
  8. Megan Rapinoe, Captain of the U.S. Women Soccer Team.Rapinoe, a force of nature, has already been compared to two other great athlete-activists, Billie Jean King and Muhammed Ali. Both left an enduring mark on American sports – and on American culture and politics. Early evidence is Rapinoe will do the same. She is singularly smart and opinionated, exceptionally ambitious and tenacious. She is, moreover, tough enough to mow anyone dumb enough to get in her way.
  9. Donald J. Trump, President of the United States. Never in my experience has an American leader so completely dominated the national discourse or so heedlessly toyed with the temper of his time. Trump is leader of a cult whose members remain captured and enraptured no matter his transgressions – and he is leader of every other American caught in his preternaturally powerful grip.  Late night host Jimmy Kimmel summarized succinctly the situation. “I don’t want to talk about Donald Trump every night. None of us do. But he gives us no choice.”   
  10. Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for a Digital Age. As I wrote earlier (blog  dated November 23), at a time when most of do nothing “while big tech intrudes on the common good, invades our personal space, and distorts the national discourse, Vestager has figured out how to use the power of her post to contain and even clamp down on companies that have, by general consensus become much, much too big for their britches.” Americans have been slow to see the dangers and downsides of big tech. Europeans, in contrast, have been clear-eyed for years – for which they have Vestager in good part to thank.

The followers listed below are those who had the greatest impact on the course of human affairs during 2019 – for good or ill. In my book, Followership, I define followers as subordinates who have less power, authority, and influence than do their superiors and who therefore usually, but not invariably, fall into line. According to my definition, then, followers can never have more power and authority than their leader(s). But they can – and sometimes they do – have influence. Which means they can – and sometimes they do – make history.

  1. Thunberg. In the last year Greta Thunberg, the now world famous 16-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, morphed from being a largely unknown outlier to epicenter of a global movement. A global movement of people extremely worried and exceedingly angry about the lack of adequate, requisite, progress on climate change. Thunberg has no power whatsoever – she is not able either to punish or reward. She does not, moreover, have any authority. She does not hold a post or position of any kind, nor does she have any credentials that would entitle or even legitimize her to speak as an expert. As an Activist, however, she has been able to exercise inordinate influence, influence that seems entirely out of proportion to her persona. But it is, of course, precisely her persona that enables Thunberg to capture the attention of legions, transforming her from seemingly shy girl or maybe young woman into a force to be reckoned with. Thunberg has not worked magic. There is a yawning gap between raising global awareness and changing public policy. One could reasonably argue, however, and I do, that consciousness raising is the critical first step, a step Thunberg vividly, dramatically, prompts us to take.           
  2. Republicans. Though in theory congressional Republicans particularly have power, and they equally have authority, during the last three years they have, for all practical purposes, abdicated both. Up to now at least, Republican legislators have become abjectly subservient to the executive, to President Trump. He is their leader; they are, in lockstep, his followers.  To state that this is other than what the Framers originally intended is to state the obvious. The American system of government was designed to provide checks and balances, the one branch of government expected to check and balance the other two. But absent the political will to do the political work the system seizes up – it cannot function as it should. Congressional Republicans have become Trump’s toadies for reasons that range from the preferences of their constituents to ideological alignments. Still, one branch of the American government Kowtowing to the other? Nothing good can come of it. Nothing good can come of people being craven – especially when the position they hold requires precisely the opposite.  
  3. Protesters. For reasons experts are struggling to explain, 2019 saw a spate of public protests worldwide – in, for example, Iran, Iraq and India; and in Chile, Columbia, and Bolivia. Especially striking and potentially consequential have been the protests this year in Hong Kong. Evidence of political unrest in Hong Kong began years ago, in 2014, during the so-called “Umbrella Revolution,” when China’s increasingly autocratic president, Xi Jinping, clearly became increasingly controlling. Not just within China but without, specifically in Hong Kong which had been turned over by the British to the Chinese less than two decades before. Since the Umbrella Revolution, discontent has curdled into anger, which explains the eruption in 2019. An all-out, full-force protest by Hong Kongers against their China-sanctioned leaders and, more to the point, against Beijing itself. To be clear: the protesters were, are, followers. They are ordinary people, Hong Kongers without power or authority. But, obviously, they have accrued over time, in large part on account of their large numbers, influence. Protesters in Hong Kong are not a fringe group. The number of those who have been in some way engaged is enormous: nearly 2 million followers have taken to the streets to take on their leaders. Leaders who as of this writing have not been able effectively to respond. Xi particularly is in a quandary. He has had no obvious recourse – no clear path to getting his putative followers to fall into line. Short of slaughtering at least some number of protesters, many of whom are young, it is not clear that anything Xi can do will stop Hong Kongers from challenging his power and authority. As we transition from 2019 into 2020, they are at the forefront of followers worldwide protesting the status quo. And in this case taking the risk of asking this question, are tyrants too powerful to topple?  

Followers into Leaders…in the Fullness of Time

We know that it can take years, sometimes many years, for great change to take place. Especially if this change is from the bottom up – the powerless pressuring the powerful. Change within the Catholic Church has been no exception.

Though cracks began to appear in the Boston Archdiocese in the 1990s and even earlier, it was not until a certain story appeared in the Boston Globe on January 6, 2002, that the time of troubles for Church officials began. The headline ran, “Church Allowed Abuse by Priests for Years.” As the Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” vividly depicted, once the Globe decided to take hold of this bone, it did not let go.  The paper, along with some of the victims themselves, and with activist groups such as Voice of the Faithful, and with the cooperation of the courts, was able, a year later, finally to push the leader of the Boston Archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law, from his powerful perch. The perch to which he had clung until his clinging became for all practical purposes untenable.  

As it turned out, this was just the start of unprecedented change in the Catholic Church – worldwide. Once it was revealed, in fits and starts, that priestly abuse was for more rampant and frequent than nearly anyone had imagined, the political pressure, dramatically if not radically to change the Church from within, never let up. Nor is now – almost two decades after the Globe story first broke – an exception. Though our eyes are trained elsewhere – on, say, Donald Trump – change in the Church continues apace.

Just this week was announced another big step forward. After years of refusing, the Vatican agreed to stop shielding priests from criminal punishment by secular authorities. The Church will not start to mandate information about abuse claims to be turned over to police, prosecutors, and judges; but it will no longer prevent Church officials from sharing information about abuse cases with civil officials. This will accomplish at least two things. It will further tear at the veil of pontifical secrecy. And it will hold priestly abusers to wider, to better, account.

This story is by no means over – which is precisely the point. Change driven from the bottom up is a process, almost always a long one. This most recent announcement mollified Church critics somewhat, but, predictably, properly, they’re clamoring for more. It is not clear, they say, how broadly this change will be applied. Nor is it clear that this change will be applied retroactively. Finally it is not clear that progress will continue – that the Church will, to take a single example, decide to defrock any priest who has abused a child. Still, those who started to scratch the ecclesiastical surface some two decades ago can be assured – the work continues.