3/9/18

The Democrats, Dr. Evil And Mr. Trump


               I find my blog partner Keith to be reliable conduit for his Party's ideas. For me, this is helpful right now because I feel I've wandered into an absurdist carnival trying to unravel the burning threads of the political tapestry now unfolding before us. Keith at least tries to put a semblance of order to it,  and even though Party loyalty has him off on what looks to me to be a fool's errand at this point, his thoughts give me something to respond to.  So let's see what we can make of his latest piece (American Counterpoint 2/15/18). It was a re-post of a letter he submitted to the New York Times in response to an editorial about Trump and Russia.

               This Russia thing has been percolating now for what seems like an awfully long time. As soon as the Democrats  recovered from the cognitive dissonance that paralyzed them in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, they started casting around for a quick path that might somehow restore the natural order of things for them. Their first gambit was through recount petitions, but when these quickly fizzled, other more fraught strategies started making their way onto the table.  

Search For A Fix

               The extreme left, of course, having few inhibitions, talked openly about assassination.  Kathy Griffins' notorious severed-head stunt was at one level nothing more than an intemperate comedienne's attempt to lash out. At a deeper level, however, it served as a trial balloon for gauging America's tolerance for tactical violence at this juncture. To the Democrats' credit, almost no one at any level of their party came to Ms. Griffins' defense when she was pilloried for what she did. So, with recall and assassination out, the only fast remedy left available to impatient Democrats was impeachment.

               Party strategists have been toying with groundwork for this dangerous option since the very beginning of the Trump presidency. Even before he took the oath of office, dark murmurings began leaking into the press about Trump's international business dealings. Everyone knows that any businessman who routinely swims in enough treacherous waters has a history that, even if not strictly illegal, can be made to smell pretty fishy if exposed to the open air. The Democrats were confident stuff could be found, and sure enough once they started looking, stuff indeed appeared almost immediately.

               And this was all the Democrats, able to count on help from a scandal-hungry media,  would need to begin the long, tortured process of spinning innuendo into narrative,  and narrative into an apparent fact pattern that offered hope of getting them to their goal of unseating Trump. The plan was always likely to gain a boost after the mid-term elections, if as seemed likely,  they could pick up a few Congressional seats.

Political Gold

               What they have been able to seize upon, however, is something much better than a run-of-the-mill financial scandal. Trump did business in many places, and one of them was Russia, the land where Dr. Evil himself, Vladimir Putin, reigned supreme. Now it seemed that Putin's agents, including a small army of Internet trolls, had been at work during the 2016 election doing the bidding of the former KGB operative and lending their dirty hands in support of Trump's candidacy. 

               This was explosive stuff since, if they could suggest collusion,  it could be spun out into something that looked a lot like treason, which would be political gold for them. Not only could they count on unanimous support from their own Party colleagues in going after Trump, they could gain ground even among Republicans, who have always been suspicious of him anyway and might be expected to have an atavistic Pavlovian response to any storyline involving Russians and treason.

               Maybe even best of all for the Democrats, whose self-confidence has been pretty much shattered since the election, they at last had an answer to the question of why America didn't seem to love them anymore.  America did, in fact,  still love them, but this love had come to naught because a nefarious foreign power had intervened.

Barak And Hillary's Reset

               It is not my intention here to disparage the notion that the Russians are meddling in our democracy.  As someone who has followed Russian behavior for decades now  I fully accept the diagnosis that they are anti-democratic actors out to manipulate  our system to their advantage. What I find hard to swallow is that the Democrats seem to be just now waking up to this reality.

               It wasn't that long ago - the early years of Barak Obama's Presidency, in fact  - when they were telling us that bad relations between our two nations was entirely the fault of that bumbling warmonger George Bush,  and that our new president would usher in an era of competent diplomacy and friendship. Who can forget the 2009 news clip of Obama's newly-anointed Secretary of State - none other than Hillary Clinton - holding hands with the Russian Foreign Minister as they laughingly fondled together the big toy "RESET" button she had just presented to him as a gift?

 Roots Of The Story

               This pre-Trump affinity between liberal Americans and Russia, of course, goes  back way before Obama's time and in fact began taking hold in the years following the Russian Revolution. The Comintern was established in 1919 with the express purpose of destabilizing foreign governments. While the Internet was not available in those days, these early agitprop specialists accomplished quite a lot through agents of influence they garnered for themselves in the press, universities, and other sectors Soviet strategists believed could help mold the public opinion in target nations into a shape consistent with early Soviet notions about the world's inevitable communist future. The young Soviet Union became the Cuba of its day among the leftish in-crowd.

               Joseph Stalin dissolved the Comintern in 1943 because he needed to reassure his WWII allies that he was for the time being  a friend to capitalist democracies and no longer laboring to subvert them. After the war, however, he quickly returned to his old ways, and without re-establishing the Comintern, he in fact double-downed on its mission. He brought it under his direct control in the form of the intelligence service that evolved into the KGB and that years later would become Vladimir Putin's alma mater. Disinformation, bribery, subornation of journalists, and other subversive techniques had been around for as long as adversarial diplomacy existed in the world, but the Soviet KGB refined them to new levels of artistry. They were really good at this stuff and referred to the various techniques collectively as "active measures".

               The Soviet Union  ceased being a sexy role model for the international Left as soon as Stalin died and the Russians themselves came clean about the realities of his rule. However, they no longer cared about positioning their own system as a role model. Instead, they devoted their foreign resources during the 1960's and 1970's towards supporting "wars of national liberation" in third-world nations,  and boosting the peace and anti-nuclear  movements in the United States and Western Europe. Few activists participating in those mobilizations saw themselves as having any affinity with the Soviet Union, yet many of them came to view the Russians as the lesser of two evils relative to their own governments. Inspired by Cuba, the so-called "New Left" had an impact on liberal opinion in the U.S. that was disproportionate to its numbers.

Trainee Becomes The Boss

               Vladimir Putin joined the KGB around 1975 when the agency was near the apogee of its power. He was too young at the time to have been a player yet, but he had  sharp eyes and sharp elbows. Distaining ideology and enjoying power for its own sake, he internalized the techniques his agency used to manipulate it. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created exactly the kind of vacuum a man like Putin seemed destined for, and he quickly emerged out of nowhere to find his way to the top of the new non-Communist Russian government. The old Soviet KGB infrastructure hardly missed a beat as it morphed yet again, this time into the Russian FSB. Now, however, its one-time trainee was its boss, and he was ready to employ all the tricks of the destabilization game as he looked abroad.  

               Conscious of this history, I was not at all skeptical when stories appeared about how Putin had put agents to work in a campaign to influence the 2016 election in the United States. As is their wont, however, the Democrats have twisted the narrative to suit their political agenda and made themselves out to be the victims. Far from having any affinity with Trump, the Russians have simply weaponized him as a wrecking ball for taking down  what remains of America's political establishment. Having humiliated both the Bush and Cruz wings of the Republican Party during the 2016 primaries, he did the same to the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party during the general election. To both parties' discredit, they looked on happily while the other was being savaged. Both are now without coherent ideologies, and both are drifting into the hands of people who make up in hateful energy what they lack in serious purpose. Most of the current leaders will soon be gone to make way for this hostile rabble.  

               The impeachment drive that is slowly gaining momentum will be the final act in the campaign to humiliate America.  Thus have the Democrats become Putin's witless collaborators every bit as much as the President they so despise.

               In an era of endlessly compounding ironies, perhaps the most telling of all is the fact that we would be in much the same boat right now had the 2016 election broken the other way. Like the Democrats, the Republicans too were laying the groundwork for impeachment in the event, actually expected in their case, that the other side won. There is certainly plenty of material for tactical planners in both camps to work from. Scandals and conspiracy theories abound, fed by a reckless media and, so it now appears, disinformation agents from abroad.

               The hallmark of democracy is the capacity for a peaceful transfer of power between bitterly opposing factions. And while America hasn't quite lost this yet, the lack of grace now apparent everywhere seems a bad omen.

2/15/18

In the NY Times this morning, the lead editorial's headline asks why President Trump seems blind to Russia's threat. In response I sent the letter below, with some additions due to the space availability:

Mr. Trump is NOT blind to Russia’s threat: he IS Russia’s threat. Whether as
a contractor for President Putin, or as a sympathetic coordinator with him,
Trump has consistently acted in Russia’s interest and against the interests
of the United States. Mr. Trump has even modeled his recent “infrastructure”
plan on the old Soviet Union’s dissipation of public properties to
politicians and their cronies, people now known as oligarchs. The idea is as
ingenious in its evil as brutal in its consequences. The Soviet Union
legally “sold" its institutions and resources to the oligarchs at ludicrous
prices, rendering vast numbers impoverished and unemployed. Trump will do
much the same: any piece of infrastructure that a favored politician or
crony wants will “need” repair or replacement. The oligarch gets the job,
and thereafter, for nothing more than the cost of the (nonunion) repair, in
all but name owns the road, bridge, railroad or whatever. 
We have already seen trials of this approach, such as the “contract” with a tiny company
from Whitefish, Montana to repair Puerto Rico’s power infrastructure. This incredible selection became less puzzling when we learned that the little hamlet of Whitefish was also home to Trump's Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. No link between Zinke and the tiny company there has been found, but that isn't surprising. It's child's play for any company to hide its financial ownership.The US, it turns out, is the world's second most secretive company for financial information (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-finance-secrecy-index/global-study-names-switzerland-as-capital-of-bank-secrecy-idUSKBN1FJ2I0).  

It used to be said that the sale of Russia’s infrastructure to the oligarchs
was the greatest theft in human history. But Mr. Trump’s infrastructure plan
will certainly make his America Great Again.

11/9/17

America's Vanishing Political Parties

               America's two-party system served it well in the past. The Constitution says nothing about political parties, but they emerged soon after the Revolution to provide peaceful channels for the young nation's conflicting energies. As long as the new Constitutional protections remained in force,  parties helped keep political strife within manageable bounds until the middle of the nineteenth century,  when everything broke down and blew apart in civil war.  War, as it usually does, settled matters for a time, and the United States entered into a period of sustained economic growth during which  people on all sides and sectors recognized how much they had to gain from developing America's rich economic potential. There were ups and downs, but political differences once again for the most part took a back seat to the pursuit of wealth, expansion, jobs and progress.

               Our current political parties had their origins during this period.  Oddly, from a contemporary perspective, it was the early Republicans who postured on the moral high ground, making much of their role in humiliating the racist white South and putting an end to slavery. Blacks at the time identified almost entirely as Republicans.  The Democrats initially were the party of the revanchist Old South and it's Northern sympathizers, but segued this position into one of representing the interests of the downtrodden in general. War-broken Southerners, bristling under the heavy hand of Reconstruction, found common cause with Northern factory workers who were fighting the same rising industrial class which the Southerners saw as the power behind Reconstruction.

America's Reigning Twentieth Century Ideology

               This was the uneasy coalition that Franklin Roosevelt inherited in the early middle years of the twentieth century. But the liberal Northern blueblood entered into a Faustian bargain with the rednecks, gaining their political loyalty in return for his willingness to look away from Jim Crow. The Republicans, for their part,  had emerged from the Civil War years with a triumphalist momentum that prevailed for a while but then smashed against a stone wall decades later in the Great Depression.

               The Republicans' moral posturing about slavery had, of course, for the most part been little more than that. What they really valued was economic development and the wealth to be derived from it. When economic development suddenly appeared doomed, the Republicans had nothing positive left on which to stand, and Roosevelt's  emotional pitch to the downtrodden gained sway. His uneasy coalition solidified and his liberal capitalist mantras became America's reigning twentieth century ideology. The existential threats of World War II and later the Cold War honed this ideology into an irresistible force that turned the United States into a superpower.

               When America's economy righted itself and resumed its spectacular growth after the War, Republicans and Democrats all realized they had a good thing going and assumed their complementary roles in making the most of it. Republicans, in their own minds, stood for responsible hard work, self-reliance and economic freedom. Democrats emphasized inclusiveness and the application of government power to ensure everyone got a fair share of the nation's growing prosperity. A natural tension existed between these two sets of ideals, but they were by no means mutually exclusive and both parties were committed to working out the differences through compromise. The two parties both embraced American patriotism and knew they needed one another.

The National Consensus Cracks

               But not anymore. It's hard to pinpoint the start of the breakdown, but it certainly long predated Donald Trump's rise, regardless of what today's ADHD-afflicted Democrats seem to be imagining. Trump is in my judgment  more a symptom of the problem than a primary cause, and he would never have gained a foothold if the nation's dysfunction were not already well afoot by the time he made his freakish political appearance two years ago. America's two parties in their heyday might be compared to partners in a successful marriage who work hard and sometimes scream to bring out the best in one another. These same parties today are more like partners in a failing marriage,  where each fertilizes the other's ugly side through non-stop carping and belittling.

               Chronic bitter enemies morph into self-caricatures when confronted by nothing but their own flaws. Accordingly, Republicans are becoming cold-hearted and stupid and Democrats shrill, frivolous and hysterical. Both sides are hateful and neither seems interested any longer in negotiation or serious problem-solving.

Our Parties Have Slipped Their Moorings

               As a Republican, or perhaps soon-to-be former Republican, I can no longer explain to myself or anyone else what my party stands for. It seems for the time being to have resolved into three broad factions: the Bush traditionalists, the Cruz Tea-partiers and, now, the prevailing Trumpists. These factions all hate one another as badly as they do the Democrats, and the only ideology common to them is a limp remnant of Ronald Reagan's formula of deregulation and lower taxes. 

               These guiding principles, in my opinion, were constructive in Reagan's day and contributed  to the national renewal that occurred in the 1980's and gained momentum  in the 1990's as even Democrat Bill Clinton partially embraced them. They have little utility today, however, if for no other reason than that the ham-fisted Republicans are likely to do more harm than good in applying them.

               The Democrats have sunk into an even fouler miasma. Even though lavishly funded by hedge fund billionaires, tort lawyers and Hollywood moguls, the Democrats have seemingly lost their ability to win elections. Having let the presidency and both houses of Congress slip away, they also control a mere 16 of the nation's governorships and a distinct minority of state legislative seats. Furthermore, despite Donald Trump's much-vaunted unpopularity, they keep losing the special elections that have occurred since he's been in office. A couple of victories on November 7 of this year were trumpeted with giddy rapture in the liberal press but did little to change the overall pattern.

America's Spiritual Cul-De-Sac

               It's not hard to see what their problem is. The once-dominant Clinton wing of the party, having just managed to blow a supposedly sure-thing presidential election, is now collapsing under the dead weight of its own corruption, hypocrisy and failure. What remains in its wake is a motley array of pressure groups defined by angry identity politics or by the various phobias and dogmatic enthusiasms to which our Democrats are given nowadays. The electoral appeal of such a political posture is limited.

               The degenerate  state of our two parties reflects the breakdown of the broader political culture. Keith's recent posting to these pages ("Democracy Self-destruction", American Counterpoint 10/19/17) speaks to this issue but seems to reflect the assumption common among today's Democrats that everything would somehow be OK if only  Donald Trump had stayed in the hotel business.

               Always prone to hero-worship, the Democrats have for generations kept FDR and John Kennedy on pedestals, and they're currently in the process of elevating Barak Obama to an even more exalted position. In fairness, of course, the Republicans have done much the same with their own sainted Ronald Reagan, although this kind of behavior is more to be expected from reactionary types than it is from those billing themselves as forward-looking Progressives. Excessive obeisance to the past is characteristic of people who are dissatisfied with their present and afraid of their future. Increasingly, Americans of all political leanings seem to be wandering into this spiritual cul-de-sac.

               With our political parties thus losing their grip, the public arena has ceased being a place for rational discourse and a constructive airing of competing visions. Our omnipresent and omnivorous media is filling all the empty space with noise and ranting.  Reporters have morphed into pundits, and celebrity pundits have become kingmakers, anointing new heroes, destroying old ones and thus subverting the role once played by political parties.

Fake News Is The Defining Meme Of Our Era

               "Fake news" has rapidly become the defining meme of our era,  and characteristically even that started changing shape almost as soon as it appeared. As best I can tell, the term was coined initially by liberals,  who took furious note of stories being invented out of thin air and disseminated as God's truth via the rightwing press to stir up yahoos in the hinterlands against President Obama or Hillary Clinton. Fake News has been credited as a key factor in Donald Trump's rise, and it's ironic although perhaps typical of this new era that Trump himself has now co-opted the term and turned it around on his detractors, albeit with a somewhat different meaning.

               What he's getting at is the approach to news now common to the mainstream media of carefully screening stories down to a select few that fit a preferred narrative and then drumming these loudly and endlessly 24/7 until no other version of truth seems admissible.  Stories that don't fit never see the light of day. News distorted is this fashion is not quite "fake", because it's not completely invented, but the element of truth makes it perhaps even more insidious because the slant is more resistant to "fact checking". It thus lingers corrosively for longer in the national dialogue.

               The most effective lies are 90% true,  as the accurate stuff entices us into swallowing the poison along with the food.  As an accomplished liar himself, Donald Trump is good at spotting similar talent among his enemies and calling it out.

Fake News Becomes Fake Reality

               It is a frighteningly short step from fake news to fake reality. The events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12 of this year are a case in point. Billed as a march for white nationalists protesting the removal of a Confederate memorial located in the town, the rally quickly revealed itself more as surrealist theater than any kind of serious political event. The national media descended on the  small college town and imposed their own construction of the day's proceedings. Anything to do with the endangered Confederate memorial vanished from the story right away, and the political take-away for us was meant to be the image of Hitler's fiery heirs arriving in the town to ravage the American homeland, opposed only by a brave and lonely band of counter-protestors.

               I studied news reports carefully at the time for serious crowd estimates and could find none, although multiple YouTube videos of the affair  made it clear that this thing was truly small, numbering no more than maybe a couple of thousand. Of those, the majority seemed to be curious onlookers and counter-demonstrators. There couldn't have been more than a few hundred white supremacists, who looked like a gang of aging bikers and opioid-addled teenagers in town for a beer party. A few swastikas and KKK-hoods were sprinkled around like stage props.

               A young woman was killed at the event when a car appeared seemingly out of nowhere and swerved into a crowd of counter-protestors.  The videos show the car being immediately pounced upon by  helmeted guys wielding clubs, and it was at this point the real carnage started because the panicked driver threw his car into reverse and blindly hit the gas. Where did the clubs come from, and how did they show up so quickly at exactly the right place? How is it they were applied with such military precision?

               The Charlottesville affair had an air about it of being staged. A  few days later an attempt was made to replicate this macabre media circus on much larger scale in Boston. However, the "white supremacists" there claimed to be nothing more than free-speech advocates and disavowed any connection to the crowd down South.  Also, they were met with such an overwhelming counter-demonstration that they abandoned their march before it even got underway. Still, there was some minor violence and a few arrests as breakaway bands of leftists took to the streets like a hopped-up army releasing tension after being denied a promised battle.

Who's Pulling The Strings?

               At the risk of sounding like one of those idiots always quoting themselves,  I'm going to quote myself here. On November 8 of last year,  the day following the Presidential election, I posted on these pages:   

"There's no telling where all this goes now, although foreshadows of the likely future could be seen already in the early morning hours in the radical fever swamps of Berkeley and Oakland, where gangs of protestors emerged as though on the search for riot police with whom to engage.  The ranks of these people are likely to grow in the months ahead, and it seems only a matter of time before some of the nastier elements among Trump's supporters, themselves also now newly energized, choose to come out of hiding to offer battle." (American Counterpoint 11/9/16, "What Just Happened, and What's Next?”)

               It's my belief that we're likely to be in for more of this sort of thing in the time between now and the next presidential election. It seems not at all co-incidental that incidents of staged violence, media manipulation and electoral fraud are occurring in the midst of allegations that Vladimir Putin somehow stole the American presidency away from Hillary Clinton and handed it to Trump.

               Mr. Putin cut his pointy teeth in the old Soviet KGB, where he would have learned a lot about the arts of staged violence, media manipulation and electoral fraud in democratic societies. Our Democrats today are working in feverish overdrive to determine what he has been up to more recently and to find proof of collusion that might facilitate impeachment proceedings against Trump.  Despite the fact that the massive investigation seems so far to have turned up embarrassingly little, I have felt from the beginning that there is probably something to the charges. They are all too consistent with Putin's nature, training and personal history. His motivation would be not supporting Trump but subverting American democracy.

               One has to wonder as well what George Soros is up to in all this. Having made his multi-billion dollar fortune through sharp trading and currency manipulation, he pours his money into leftwing causes through a labyrinth of front organizations complex enough to have made Meyer Lansky blush.  I'm pretty sure he's not a philanthropist in any normal sense of the term despite what his billing on the Forbes billionaire list reads. But what he is and who he's really allied with is anybody's guess.

               Money in high enough volume corrupts everything it touches, and it pretty much all flows through invisible channels.

Modern Media Undermines Political Parties

               And where are our political parties in all this? It used to be their role to give edgy factions voice behind the scenes and then assimilate enough of their issues to coax would-be supporters into more constructive positions. Thus has our two-party system in the past largely succeeded at marginalizing extremists.  However, the modern media, now with the Internet front-and-center, has re-shuffled the deck in a such a way that  fringe players can bypass party discipline and gather supporters directly. The parties are reduced to relative passivity, producing gobbledegook platforms that speak to no one by trying to speak to everyone and offend no one. Any faction with hurt feelings can embarrass the party by taking its case to Fox or CNN or releasing angry swarms of like-thinking bloggers and web trolls.  The only reliable unifier for each party seems to be hatred for the other.

               It's hard for me to see a happy outcome for what's underway right now. Conspiracy theories  are circulating on all sides, and one measure of our current instability is how many people seem ready to believe them. What's worse, some of the creepy theories seem poised to unfold in real life. There certainly is a "deep state" at work in some sense  - there has to be in any complex system - and some commentators have speculated that the discord we see every day in fact manifests a civil war already underway in semi-secrecy behind the scenes. This almost certainly goes beyond Vladimir Putin. The operative metaphor would be  jangly ripples on the surface of an ocean beneath which an earthquake is building.

Trump's Likely Demise Will Fix Nothing

               In his 10/19 posting, Keith tried to paint a hopeful picture. However, his optimism  stems from a belief that Donald Trump's crude missteps are giving rise to a counter-movement  that will take him out of power by the next election if not sooner.  I actually agree with this forecast but take no comfort from it. Keith retains what I consider to be a misguided faith in the virtue and good intentions of his own party. However, in my view, so complete is their sense of electoral impotence right now and so hot and blind is their rage at Trump, that if given back the reins of power, our Democrats will stop at very little to make sure they never again fall into such unhappiness.

               In recent decades our college campuses have emerged as incubators for radical and sometimes bizarre thinking that has a way of creeping into the mainstream as students graduate and enter society. I find this to be an ominous thought today. Students seem to be losing faith in democracy and in the ideals of free speech and open debate that undergird it. Conservative and sometimes even open-minded liberal speakers are routinely shouted down and sometimes physically attacked by leftwing students and professors. These people are intent on converting their environments into "safe spaces" where discordant ideas are forbidden.

               The bitter left wing of the Democratic Party today is populated by people who have in recent years been trained in such environments.  And with the implosion of the Clinton faction, this bitter left may be about all that remains of the Party.

               I consider Bernie Sanders to be an honorable and decent man, albeit one given to foolish thinking, but he is clearly a transitional figure. The people coming after him will be given to even more foolish thinking and will be unlikely to share his respect for democratic norms.

               Is There A Constructive Way Forward?

               I am still a registered Republican, but in my mind I've pretty much abandoned the party,  since I don't know what it stands for anymore and don't respect many of its leaders. At this point I would encourage my blog partner Keith perhaps to start reconsidering his own political allegiance too, since his Party has already fallen into corruption and is probably on the verge of becoming dangerous. Furthermore, it seems to me possible that both of these parties are beginning to disintegrate and may well be gone within our lifetimes. It's time to prepare for what's coming.

               The United States needs a new centrist party that would represent the best of what Democrats and Republicans used to hold in common, updated for the 21st Century. In his 10/19 post Keith quotes a Ms. Anna Grzymala-Busse giving homage to the threatened virtues of "civil discourse, respect for the opposition and freedom of the press, and equal treatment of citizens".  I don't know anything about Ms. Grzymala-Busse or her politics, and while these sentiments are not really a big enough foundation upon which to build a party, they sound to me like a pretty good place to start.

10/19/17

Democracy Self-destruction

Tom Edsall posted an article citing various scholars who are extremely worried about the state of democracy in the US and other populist-besieged countries. He starts by citing a poll to the effect that 46% of Americans think the media fabricates news, compared to 37% who say not. After quoting other doomers and gloomers, he quotes NYU political scientist Adam Przeworski saying that although Trump's election was not itself a failure of democracy, he might well act to undermine free and fair elections, the processes of informing voters, and using government power to attack opponents. He then quotes a Stanford political scientist,  Anna Grzymala-Busse:

"My big worry is not simply that formal institutions have been eroded, but that the informal norms that underpin them are even more important and even more fragile. Norms of transparency, conflict of interest, civil discourse, respect for the opposition and freedom of the press, and equal treatment of citizens are all consistently undermined, and without these the formal institutions become brittle."

Trump might, she says, follow the classical autocratic model of first attacking the courts, then the press, and finally the institutions of civil society like churches and universities.

An important cause of rising wing-nut populism, he notes, is a growing segment of disengaged and profoundly alienated citizens who support leaders like Trump and are comfortable with, in the words of another political science researcher, "a broader set of self-interested and antisocial attitudes that are present among a substantial minority of the U.S. population." 

He then goes into why this segment is growing and has the views it holds. It's basically a catalogue of social and economic ills and resentments. Then his conclusion: "Trump’s recklessness is disturbing enough on its own. But what makes it especially threatening is that much of the public — well beyond the 40 percent of the electorate that has shown itself to be unshakable in its devotion to the president — seems to be slowly accommodating itself to its daily dose of the Trump reality show, accepting the rhetorical violence that Trump inflicts on basic standards of truth as the new normal."

I suggest that Mr. Egan, one of my favorite NY Times columnists, has written a gloomy and scary essay, too well done to reject but perhaps mistaken, I think, in at least one major premise. That premise is that the individuals who compose the electorate will remain so easily fooled as they were in 2016. Trump's radicalism took everyone by surprise, and the delay in mobilizing adequate responses, along with the venal self-interest of his GOP supporters, has made his position seem very powerful. 

But to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, even if we don't yet know exactly what form it is taking. Trump's trashing of moral norms like honesty and decency provoke widespread disgust, even among his supporters. His opposition to civic virtues like respect for heroes, protection of diversity, and support for the Rule of Law makes enemies of many who said "yes, but" about his indecencies. And the policies he seems to favor--like discarding diplomacy, abandoning international agreements, lowering taxes for himself and his rich cronies, stripping funds from national R&D efforts, eliminating health insurance for millions of people, demolishing environmental protections and vast areas of natural environment, etc.--will soon come home to roost in the form of severe economic and public health crises. So I think there is a growing opposition to Trump within the ranks of those he so effectively tricked in the 2016 election. They won't be tricked again. I hope.

9/28/17

Putin and Sun Tzu

“He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious.”
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
“Be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. Thereby you can be the director of the opponent’s fate.”

--Chinese philosopher of war Sun Tzu

An accumulating mass of information suggests to me—and I hope I am wrong about this—that Vladimir Putin has launched a war against the United States and its European and other allies (the “West”). I also think that Vladimir Putin is a student of Sun Tzu, and has applied strategies like those above.
Whether Putin’s motive is simply a hatred for and desire to destroy the democracies that humiliated the Soviet Union, the reassembly of most if not all of Russia’s empire, or something else I don’t know. Certainly, the destruction of the West is part of whatever he seeks.
His method of waging this war seems reasonably clear. Russia is militarily and financially no match for the US and NATO. But he perceives that the West is rich and complacent, and concludes that, reminiscent of German Jews facing the rise of Hitler in the 30s, we are loathe to jeopardize our comfort by taking decisive but extremely costly self-protective action so long as his threat remains, shall we say, “soundless,” “formless” and “mysterious.”
Putin “knows when he can fight and when he cannot.” Russia lacks the financial strength to mount a powerful military, but information technology now provides a much less expensive as well as “mysterious” offensive force: cyberwarfare. Not only is it cheap and hard to detect, but extensive dependence on the internet and other computer-controlled infrastructure networks makes the West exceedingly vulnerable to it. And with our uncensored social media and belief in freedom of expression, we have forged weapons for our own destruction.  
So Putin has for several years been developing and honing perhaps the world’s most aggressive and effective cyberwarfare capability. This has stolen sensitive information from the most carefully secured sites, locked up and ransomed expensively protected computer systems, disrupted vital communications and other infrastructures, and swarmed social media like Twitter and Facebook with vast clouds of false, scurrilous messages designed to enrage people, inspire hatred or fear, set communities against each other or themselves, and impugn politicians Putin deems dangerous. His efforts may well have thrown the US Presidency to Donald Trump, and provided crucial support to such disruptive causes as Brexit, Kurdish independence, Catalan secession from Spain, and the 5 Star movement in Italy, among others.    

While Putin uses cyberwarfare against the West “to subdue the enemy without fighting,” he has also initiated small and camouflaged military invasions of Russian neighbors like Georgia, the Crimea, Ukraine, and Latvia. Nothing so far is clear enough to shatter our complacency and mobilize our overwhelmingly stronger military, but still valuable land grabs and useful threats to other neighbors. These actions, along with a cyberwar effort whose extent is not yet fully apparent, are the evidence for my concern that, without our knowing it, Mr. Putin has launched a deadly war against the US and its allies.

9/5/17

The Joy of War

Articles trying to explain terrorism rarely mention how joyous and exciting the idea of going to war can be, particularly to the young, angry, and inexperienced. As the World War I critic Randolph Bourne wrote, “War is the health of the state.”[1]

War, or at least the idea of it, is very enjoyable for many people. You get to dress up in nifty uniforms that make you look great. You receive the praise and admiration of civilians—these days, they even applaud you in airports and other public places. And meanwhile, you’re preparing to play the most basic and beloved type of game: competing against tough opponents. War is its ultimate expression.
Everyone realizes, deep down, that war is hell. But for the young and inexperienced, who naturally feel invulnerable, war and the propaganda that always precedes and accompanies it makes fighting it seem a noble sacrifice for the sake of honorable ideas. You fight to defeat vile and hateful enemies; selflessly protect the innocent; and bravely defend Our Way of Life, Our Religion, our God, the Homeland. Preparing for and fighting war can mold you into a strong, enduring, brave, skillful and admired adult.

More important than we like to acknowledge in this calculus is sadism. The history of warfare (and anything else that allows the unaccountable use of force against others), is replete with wanton cruelty.  These situations may well attract some who have cruel and angry impulses, but they also arouse such feelings in many others. Wars validate such behavior by inspiring fear and hatred of the enemies and providing many apparently legitimate opportunities to behave badly. They may even bring social approval for bad actions, seeing them as just punishment for enemies expected to do the same or worse.

Americans are perhaps especially susceptible to the powerful psychological attractions of the idea of war because, unlike most other countries, we have not experienced it on our soil since the Civil War ended more than 150 years ago. Nor, have many young Americans fought in recent wars, lengthy as they have been. Very few Americans, therefore, have personally experienced the dire consequences of fighting war.

Inexperience also afflicts the young of many other countries, many of whom suffer a degree of hopelessness and despair about their futures that most Americans escape. To some of them, the siren call of jihad sings of noble sacrifice in an honorable cause, and offers an approved outlet for frustration and rage. To defeat terrorism, I think we need to fashion programs in light of these feelings.




[1] As quoted in Franklin Foer, “Why Liberalism Disappoints,” The Atlantic (September 2017), p. 47