The level-of-analysis problem in assessing and reacting to Trump’s assault on American democracy


The outlines and methods of President Donald Trump’s asault on the institutions of American democracy and their underlying traditions and values are now clear.

First, he has conducted an all-out assault on the very concept of the truth.  He and his administration lie all the time, about everything. Bernie Sanders has rightly pointed out, as have others, that the lies serve a purpose, to undermine the very concept of truth. Timothy Snyder, a historian specializing in Europe, places the assault on the concept of truth within the larger framework of a drive toward authoritarianism.


Ed Pilkington (in Washington), “‘Trump lies all the time’: Bernie Sanders indicts president’s assault on democracy; Exclusive: the former presidential candidate suggested that Donald Trump’s false claims serve a purpose – to push the United States toward authoritarianism,” The Guardian, March 10, 2017 (7:00 a.m.).

“Trump’s tsunami of lies,” The Trenchant Observer, February 7, 2017.

Interview von Matthias Kolb, “Timothy Snyder über Donald Trump: ‘Wir haben maximal ein Jahr Zeit, um Amerikas Demokratie zu verteidigen,'” Süddeutsche Zeitung, 7. Februar 2017 (15:06 Uhr).

Matthias Kolb (Interview), “We have at most a year to defend American democracy, perhaps less,“ Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 10, 2017.

Second, Trump’s principal strategist and the mastermind behind his policies, Steve Bannon, is an admirer of Vladimir Lenin who has avowed his intention to dismantle “the administrative state”.

Trump’s policies have been consistent with this goal, appointing a climate-change skeptic to head the Enviornmental Protection Agency, seeking to introduce changes into the nations’s health care system that would provide massive tax cuts to the rich while throwing millions of subscribers out of the system, either literally or through changes that would price them out of the health care (individuals aged 55-64, for example).

Third, Trump not only lies about everything all of the time, but also engages in defamation of the leading news media in the United States on a daily basis, labeling them “the opposition party” and “the enemy of the people.”

Earlier this week State Department employees were pressed into service to act in effect as thugs to physically force a distinguished reporter, Andrea Mitchell, out of a room where Rex Tillerson was holding a news briefing while firmly refusing to answer any questions. This vignette showed, more powerfully than words, what the true attitude of the Trump administration is toward the press. The State Department only this week resumed press briefings.

Those who ushered Mitchell from the room, physically, were led by a very large African-American woman and another African-American woman, backed by an African-American man. In an administration where African-Americans are notably absent from any leadership roles, except for Ben Carson who is in a class of his own, it is deeply ironic that Trump and Tillerson have chosen African-Americans to play the role of thugs in shutting down an illustrious reporter trying to do her job.

Tillerson does not answer questions. Period. This may have worked at Exxon-Moblil, but it is not going to work at the State Department. His refusal to engage with the press may be the strongest reason why, six weeks into the job and unable to name a staff, he has so far been a disastrous choice as Secretary of State.


What the Hell Is Going On At the State Department?
KEVIN DRUMMAR. 9, 2017 8:14 PM, Mother Jons, March 9, 2017 (8:14 p.m.).

This is a first whiff of an authoritarian regime. Take note.

The Level of Analysis Problem

The level-of-analysis problem in assessing the significance of the actions of Donald Trump and his administration is that media resources are constantly expended on pointing out that his lies are untrue, or that outrageous actions and policies are defended by Republicans, as if everything were just politics as usual.

In doing so, they miss the larger story.

The larger story is that Donald Trump and his administration are acting to undermine the pillars of American democracy, such as a free press, a press which holds public officials accountable for their statements and their actions, an independent judiciary, and a Congress which properly exercises its constitutional oversight responsibilities.

Today, the concept that Respublican legislators owe any duty to uphold the constitution beyond their party loyalties is easily forgotten, as Trump apologists twist and turn into incredible pretzel shapes in seeking to defend the president. Many fear his wrath if they oppose him.

The larger story is no longer reporting what Trumtp is doing, and even analyzing what he is up to, but rather what Americans are doing to defend their democracy, and the achievement of generations to make life better for American citizens, e.g., to ensure that they have clean air and water and that the country acts to mitigate cliimate change, as this phenomena is revealed by science.

From Words to Actions

Democrats, Independents and Republicans who oppose what Trump is doing to American democracy, and who favor policies and programs that are supported by a majority of the population, need to move from their current state of shock and disbelief into the phase of active defense of American democracy and its core values.

Currently, Democrats are not funding television commercials or other efforts to communicate to citizens exactly what the intent and effect to date of the programs Trump is dismantling have been. They need to stop waiting to oppose these actions, because by the time 2018 comes around many, many programs will have been dismantled. Each should be defended on its merits as Trump seeks to dismantle it.  Now.  Ferociously. In media and by means which reach Trump supporters.

At the same time, Democrats need to launch the 2018 Congressional campaign now, and lead attacks on Trump apologists for their support and/or acquiescence in his anti-democratic actions.

We face a dramatic situation.

We have a president who lies about everything all of the time.

We have a president and administration which reject the concept of accountability, dismissing criticism with lies and charges of “fake news”. The president openly defies the requirements of the Enmoluments Clause of the Constitution, for example, by benefitting from business directed to his hotels for political reasons, and even receiving trademarks in China in a case of extraordinary timing.

We have a president who has just introduced combat troops on the ground in Syria, without a public discussion of the issue, and who is considering a military request for additional troops in Afghanistan. The direct participation of the U.S. in the war in Yemen has expanded, with troops-on-the-ground and commando actions such as the one which recently occurred.

We have a president who is under strong suspicion of colluding with the Russians in their intervention into the November 2016 elections in the United States, who has not criticized Putin or Russia directly in any significant way, and who has failed to speak out on major security issues with Russia, such as its violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclean Forces Agreement by introducing a new intermediate-range missile in Europe.  Instead of speaking for the U.S. government, Trump let a mid-level military official make the charge of Russian violation of the treaty. Such a charge made at that level is, of course, easily disavowed. It maintains, moreover, the pattern of Trump never making any criticism of Russia or Putin.

Consequently, citizens must not only analyze and express their horror in exclamations when the latest Trump lie or outrage is made public. They need to act, to organize, to begin the 2018 congressional election campaign today, and to explain to the American people the rationales and achievements of the laws, regulations, and social policies which Trump is acting to reverse.

Given Trump’s ongoing assaults on the pillars of American democracy, and the values which underlie them, Democrats, Independents and Republicans need to start thinking, with great urgency, about how Trump and Bannon can be removed from office–at an early date.

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.