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An authoritarian nut in a democratic shell.

datePosted on 16:51, July 31st, 2018 by Pablo

At the turn of the 21st century I was teaching an upper division undergraduate  course titled “Comparative Regime Transitions” in which I explored the four “waves” of democratisation that had occurred since the early 1970s in Southern Europe, Latin America, Eastern Europe and East Asia. I noted that I had also witnessed the rise of concurrent waves of new-form authoritarianism during that rough world time time frame in which old types of despotic leadership were replaced by bureaucratic authoritarians from the Left and Right in response to the crises of oligarchic, populist and weak democratic regimes. These varied from the military nationalists of the Arab world to the revolutionary regimes of Cuba, Iran and Nicaragua and the military junta led-regimes of the Southern Cone of South America, the Philippines, South Korea and Turkey. I also pointed out that, for a variety of reasons, authoritarianism was the more natural political fit for many societies organised along hierarchical lines drawn on gender, class, race, religious or ethnic differences.

My point in doing so was to remind students that contrary to the belief of those like Francis Fukuyama who claimed that the emergence of electoral (if not liberal) democracy as a seemingly global trend in the late 1980s and early 1990s signalled the “End of History” where the political and economic combination of democratic regimes and capitalist production triumphed over all others (particularly authoritarian capitalism and socialism), human history was dialectical rather than linear. There is no simple progression towards a (preferred) end state and the possibility of reversal is always latent in the move from one political-economic form to another. In this I was channeling my view that Hegelian dialectics, rather than dialectical materialism or any number of property and individual-centric “liberal” theories, best explained the superstructural dynamics inherent in political regime change. They are grounded in but not reducible to changes in production and the social division of labour attendant to it, which means that they have a pattern of historical development all of their own.

This belief comes to mind when I think of today’s widely lamented condition of globalised democratic decline and decay. In both the developed and developing world new and old democracies alike are crumbling from within, beset by a nasty combination of corruption, power-grabbing, institutional sclerosis, gerrymandering, electoral manipulation, economic inefficiency and income disparity, racial and ethnic conflict, migration pressures, youth alienation, crime, judicial bias, incompetence or indifference, poverty and assorted other social ills. This has prompted a return to authoritarianism under electoral guise; that is, in its newest version, the turn to despotism occurs under conditions of electoral rule and is instigated from within the institutional edifice of ostensibly democratic governments in response to what is claimed to be the crisis of civil society.

Here is context in order to explain.

In the 1980s a considerable body of academic writing was focused on the demise of authoritarian regimes and the restoration, resurrection or return of democratic forms of governance throughout the world. This followed on earlier academic work that focused on the causes of democratic breakdown. I was lucky to have been mentored by several of the leading figures in that discussion, and through them was exposed to the work of other intellects who together with my mentors formed what came to be known as the first generation of “transitologists,” i.e. people who studied the fluid dynamics of regimes in processes of decline or rise rather than the durable features of stable regimes. As it turns out, regardless of the specific ideology of the regime in question, authoritarians tend to fall for broadly the same reasons having to do with the nature of their rule over time. Likewise, democracies rise and fall due more to general institutional failures than whether they are right or left-leaning in nature.

(For those interested in the dynamics of authoritarian and democratic transition and who may think that recent writing on the subject is all that there is, I commend the companion four part volumes that started the whole transitology industry: The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Johns Hopkins, 1978 and Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, Johns Hopkins, 1986).

Into the mix came the person of Juan Linz. A Spanish born sociologist at Yale and one of the editors of The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Linz was more than professionally concerned about dictatorship and democracy. He had seen both in his homeland and worked hard to understand why democracies could fail from within rather than be overthrown from without. As it turns out, just like the reasons for a coup d’état, there are “push” and “pull” factors in democratic decline. The pull factors are those that come from outside the government of the day, be it a disloyal opposition, military plotting, rising civil unrest, business sabotage, irredentist or separatist strife, economic downturns, etc. These should normally be handled by the government through the institutional process into order to reach mutual satisfactory, or at least second best social outcomes: not everyone gets everything that they want but most get some of what they want. When the institutional process fails to meet expectations and achieve those solutions, the external pull to replace those in power gowns stronger if not irresistible.

Linz understood this but also knew that absent an armed insurrection or military interruption, pull factors alone could not bring down a democracy. He consequently focused on the push factors that impelled democratic governments to turn towards authoritarianism as a response to crisis. His concern was on more than the individual whims of megalomaniac presidents and political cabals intent of holding on to power. Instead, it was on deficiencies in institutional design that left some types of democracy more prone to authoritarianism than others.

He outlined a number of factors in his considerable body of work but pinpointed two, one general and one specific, that made some democracies more susceptible to the “authoritarian temptation” than others: presidential systems and the use of Executive decrees. Basically, there are two types of democratic government, presidential systems and parliamentary systems. The latter are dominated by parties that form governments based on the percentage of votes received and the ability to attract coalition partners. The government is led by a Prime Minister who is the leader of the dominant or majority power of any given coalition, but parliament remains a strong check and balance on what the government can do when it comes to policy-making. In contrast, presidential systems, also known as Executive-dominant systems, are those in which the chief executive of the nation–the president–is elected separately from the legislature (parliament or Congress). Here the Executive branch has much more power and authority to enact policy free from the checks imposed by the legislature, to the point that it is the “first amongst equals” when it comes to the three branches of democratic governance.

For Linz presidential systems have a built-in bias towards ruling without the advice and consent of the legislature or judicial review. That is where the more specific design flaw comes into play. Executive decrees or orders are designed to by-pass the legislature in order to provide efficient and decisive policy-implementation in times of crisis or emergency. Normally a president would not make use of such prerogatives if the national condition was stable and peaceful and indeed in most instances that is a case. But take a president confronted with the pull factors mentioned above and/or one who wishes to perpetuate him/herself in office, impose a specific agenda against the will of the people and its elected representatives, or in others ways benefit or take advantage of executive privilege for personal, private or political gain, then the authoritarian temptation becomes authoritarian practice.

This is the phenomena that we are seeing now. It is not just that right-wing national populists are being elected into office and using demagogic language and behaviour to advance their goals. It is not just elected post-revolutionaries like Daniel Ortega and Nicolas Maduro who have turned on their people when these take to the streets in protest against incompetence, corruption and wide-spread scarcity. It is their use of executive powers that is turning their governments into authoritarian vehicles. Donald Trump is a variant on this theme, where executive orders and decrees are used by everyone from Rodrigo Dutarte to Recap Erdogan to Maurico Macri and are championed by leading political contenders such as rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil (who openly supports Dutarte’s approach to crime and waxes nostalgic about the days of military rule). In all instances these political leaders have advocated for or turned to the use of executive decrees and orders to impose unpopular or anti-democratic policies.

The situation is made worse when the powers of the presidency are defined more by custom and tradition than by law. Nowhere has that been more evident than in the Trump presidency, where time-honoured practices and norms have been repeatedly trampled by the vulgarian in the Oval Office because, as it turns out, there is nothing in law that prevents him from doing so. Presidential practice in the US, as it turns out, is about as much grounded in law as is the interior decoration of the White House because most of it is informal and therefore dependent on the president’s disposition when it comes to adherence to informal norms and customs.

Be that as it may, time and time again, using the pretext of fighting crime, restoring order or handling some other type of national emergency, executives in presidential systems have resorted to decrees and orders to accomplish their ends. And now, in a spectacle that Linz perhaps fortunately did not live to see, we have parliamentary majorities giving extraordinary powers to prime ministers in order to do the same thing. Witness Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and his xenophobic policies or Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s assaults on judicial independence, which come after their parties gained large coalition majorities that allow them to push through laws in spite of popular opposition or the strictures of decency and fair play.

The key point is that Linz’s bottom line is correct: the combination of a constitutionally strong executive and decree or order-making powers accorded to it is an authoritarian nut in a democratic shell. Short of changing to a parliamentary system with multiple party representation in government, the best immediate solution to the authoritarian temptation inherent in presidential systems is to strip presidents of decree or order-making privileges except in cases of dire national emergency (with what constitutes a dire national emergency spelled out in a constitutional or legal amendment). While this may not prevent the abuse of majorities in parliamentary systems to ram-rod legislation under “urgency,” it can weaken the temptation to go full authoritarian when the law does not explicitly prohibit doing so because it might cause a parliamentary revolt or conscience votes of no-confidence within the ruling coalition.

It is doubtful that any president will abolish the decree or order-making privileges. History has shown that even the most fair minded incumbents tend to leave Executive decree-making powers on the books “just in case.” One only need think of how Barack Obama used Executive Orders to muzzle leakers and whistleblowers to understand that the authoritarian  temptation is powerful even in the best of cases. So the solution has to be found elsewhere, in legislative reform and judicial review that constrain or eliminate the decree-making powers of the Executive.

Even with the cases noted, parliamentary systems are the best safeguards against the authoritarian temptation, something that can be reinforced by eliminating first-past-the-post variants and requiring supermajorities (say, two thirds) to pass legislation under urgency or emergency. A number of parliamentary regimes have in place just such mechanisms but others, including New Zealand, to my knowledge do not. In addition, in parliamentary systems where custom and practice rather than law governs much of what Prime Ministers and their cabinets do (for example, when it comes to national security), the need to increase parliament’s check and balance (if not veto) power is all the more necessary. Getting rid of simple majorities both for government formation and legislation passage is a step in that direction.

When we look at the problems of contemporary democracy, it is not enough to focus on the external or pull factors that cause or facilitate democratic decline–social media manipulation, corporate influence, rank partisanship etc. All of these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the breakdown of democracy. What is sufficient is an inherent institutional disposition towards authoritarianism, something that the combination of presidentialism and executive decree-making authority all but assures.

Word: It is time to re-read Juan Linz and craft our remedies accordingly.

Unions, Parties and the decision to strike.

datePosted on 20:12, July 9th, 2018 by Pablo

For the bulk of my academic career I worked on issues of regime change and interest group intermediation, with a particular interest in Latin America. I wrote a couple of books (one co-authored) about state-labour relations in several South American countries and a fair number of articles that included discussion of how labour engaged in collective action under different regime types. The comparative study of state-labour relations remains an abiding interest of mine.

One of the axioms of comparative democratic labour relations is that unions will engage in more cooperative labour relations strategies and therefore strike less under Left governments than they will under Right governments. The presumption is that since Left governments are working class based or supported, and because they are sympathetic to working class concerns in their policy platforms, there is less incentive for unions to take strong collective action against them, particularly with respect to strikes and  other forms of labour service withdrawal. This is especially so because such direct action could undermine the Left government in question and leave it vulnerable at the next election.

Because unions presumably prefer to have Left governments over Right governments in office, resorting to labour service withdrawals would be a counterproductive union political strategy over the medium term even if economically productive over the short term. That is true of public sector strikes in particular (since strikes, even when focused on economic issues, are inherently political when they involve the state as employer), but private sector strikes are also seen as electorally injurious to Left governments (after all, if a Left government cannot “control” unions then what is the point of having them?).

In terms of so-called political strikes as well as economic strikes, Labour governments are generally thought to offer a better prospect for labour peace.

Conversely, unions supposedly dislike Right governments and therefore engage in more confrontational approaches to labour relations, particularly if there perceive that there has been a rollback of union legal and economic gains under those or previous Right governments. Both economically and politically, unions have reason to adopt more militant strategies under Right governments.

The subtleties embedded in this dichotomy are found in the strategies of public sector versus private sector unions against a backdrop of relative union density and the legal frameworks governing wage-setting. This assumes that union leaders and members share the same ideological orientation and that union leaders accurately transmit the material demands of the rank and file during negotiations with the State and employers (i.e. the principal/agent relationship is tight and coordinated). At that point employer characteristics at the level of the firm as well as productive sector come into play, set against a backdrop of relative business sectorial organisation (both as producers and employers) and the labour relations framework operative at the time. A collective action and strategic interaction is framed by macroeconomic conditions and government budgets, with sectorial growth and Treasury surpluses being determinants of the latitude for negotiation in any particular instance.

For the last three decades all of this occurs in the context of the globalisation of production, consumption and exchange under market-oriented macroeconomic policies developed and implemented by public sector technocrats that seek to outsource public sector service provision and downsize the legal authority and managerial and regulatory functions of the State as part of government mandated, market-oriented ideological agendas.

In the era of market-oriented economic reform, changes in labour relations’ legal frameworks have tended to favour employers and business associations over labour unions under both Left and Right democratic governments, with the degree of favouritism seen in the approaches towards collective bargaining adopted by each. Overall, although Left governments have mitigated much market-oriented labour reform while Right governments have sought to accentuate and exploit them in order to weaken the labour movement and atomise working class representation and collective strength, the trend has seen a weakening of union power across the democratic capitalist world as measured in union density, membership numbers and the collective rights and legal authority governing working class representation in production. This has been acutely felt in the private sector where individual worker rights and contracts predominate over collective rights and representation. With their relative collective strength, public sector unions remain as the diminished core of most contemporary labour movements in capitalist democracies.

A key factor in determining the propensity to strike is wage-setting institutions. Generally speaking, the more centralised the bargaining nexus and more monopolistic the bargaining agents doing the negotiating, the more likely that unions will prosper in their demands without having to resort to strikes. In contrast, the more decentralised the bargaining forum and the more disparate the bargaining agents, the more likely it is that employers will have the upper hand in bilateral negotiations with employees, thereby increasing the possibility of strikes. For example, tripartite (labour, state, capital) wage boards governing wage negotiations in specific economic sectors tend to push compromises that trade incremental wage gains for productivity, job security and reinvestment guarantees. Conversely, enterprise level bargaining between employers and various employee bargaining agents tends to fix or depress wage bills in exchange for non-wage guarantees. In New Zealand collective bargaining is more closely based on the latter model rather than the former and yet overall strike levels have remained low.

The way in which the union movement is incorporated and inserted in the political system matters in this regard. The form of initial incorporation (that is, the way in which unions are initially integrated into the national political system), may be more of historical rather than practical import for well-established unions created in the previous century and whose insertion in the political system today was consolidated some time ago. But initial incorporation matters much to recently organised contemporary unions without long political histories. That is because the terms of their political incorporation and subsequent political insertion in the political system are still being determined and sometimes disputed, including by older or more established unions as well as the State and employers. These may not echo or even resemble the conflicts surrounding initial labour incorporation and political insertion in the past, but they nevertheless condition the way these newer collective agents are allowed to exercise economic and political representation in the present context.

There are three main forms of labour political insertion. In some liberal democracies organised labour is inserted in the political system in Left party dominant fashion, e.g., the party dominates the union in both leadership selection as well as member political affiliation. In other liberal democracies unions dominate or control the party, with union representatives holding key Party positions down to grassroots organising and regularly running for office. In still others unions are independent of Left political parties although nominally sympathetic to them, with union leaders and members displaying a broader range of party affiliations than under the first two types. In illiberal democracies so-called “yellow” unions (factory or business unions and “professional associations”) exist that are independent or affiliate with Right parties. In the main these are not considered to be authentic representatives of working class collective interests because they are created by or at the behest of employers in lieu of them.

This brings up the subject at hand. There currently is the possibility of nurses, public servants and teacher’s strikes in the next few weeks. Conservative commentators have claimed that this is to take advantage of the Labour-led coalition’s “weakness” and to seize the moment of opportunity provided by Labour’s unwillingness to confront the unions in question. That runs against the conventional wisdom about Left governments and unions. So the question is: why are the nurses, public sector and post-primary teacher’s unions threatening to strike?

One answer may lie in that all of these collective agents are public sector unions that are independent of the Labour Party and its coalition partners. Membership density is high but the sociological demographic in each is changing, with younger members being more ethnically diverse and less identified with the traditional class structures of the industrial era (since those under 30 are of the post-industrial, post-modern age). This may have led to a rejigging of agent/principal relations within the respective unions that might make them more prone to challenge the labour relations orthodoxies of the past, to include being more cooperative when Left governments are in power.

Another answer may lie in the fact that Labour, for all of its “progressive” policy pronouncements and initiatives, still clings to market-driven logics of production that, even when cushioned along the margins, reinforce the collective bargaining dominance of capitalists. Seen in labour legislation and the role of national labour administration as an interlocutor between labour and capital, this includes cost-cutting managerial rationales in the public sector, where modern Taylorist principles have been borrowed from the private sector and applied to public sector service provision.

That bureaucratic orientation could be partially due to the fact that most Labour leaders are career politicians with few backgrounds “grounded” in the realities of working class activism, and/or because the party’s focus has recently concentrated more on identity rather than class politics. This has caused Labour to accept market logics in principle and market-oriented solutions to employment relations in fact. The NZ Labour Party is less a working class party than a coalition of post-industrial causes joined by antipathy to conservative (read: Anglo-Saxon Christian capitalist heterosexual and patriarchal) mores. Seeing the situation in this light could well disincline nurses, teachers and bureaucrats from continuing to toe the “cooperative” line, especially if the union demographic traits outlined above prove to be correct.

It is worth noting that the long-established unions affiliated with the Labour Party have not uttered a peep about strikes, to include not offering solidarity with the nurses and teachers. Newly created unions like UNITE in the private sector have engaged in strikes regularly against private employers under the previous Right government and are supportive of the action. But in general the union movement in New Zealand has remained out of the conflict between the State (as manager and employer via the civil service, DHBs and Education Ministry) and the nurses, bureaucrats and teachers unions.

Another question is why did these unions (or most others, for that matter) not strike regularly when the National government was in office? Was it a matter of contracts being in force? Or was it the limits placed on strike action both legally and practically? On the face of it, it seems odd that civil servants, nurses, teachers and other productive groups would wait to strike until Labour was in office if they were out of contract towards the end of the National government. Did they think that striking in an election year would lessen Labour’s chances of winning a plurality and forming a government or, put more appropriately, strengthen National’s arguments that they needed to continue to hold a tight reign on labour market dynamics less the economy lose momentum? This is true for private sector unions but particularly so in the case of public sector unions. Or are the conservative commentators correct and non-Left party affiliated public sector unions simply more willing to exploit Labour’s perceived “weakness” on collective bargaining matters?

If so, then the Labour-led coalition has a problem that is more political than economic.

I am still working through the logics at play because I do not know the internal dynamics of the unions in question nor the Labour-led government’s strategy for handling the strike threat. But if any readers would like to join the discussion and illuminate me on the details of each position, that would be welcome.

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

In the US, what is needed is a Broad Front.

datePosted on 11:03, February 20th, 2018 by Pablo

The mass murder of 17 high school students and teachers in Florida at the hands of a deranged gunman has once again prompted public outcry about the need for better gun control in a country where gun-related violence is at epidemic levels. Foremost amongst those leading the charge for legislative reform in and around the 2nd amendment are teenagers, led by classmates of those killed and supported by a legion of kids nation-wide who have decided that they will do what their parents could or would not do: confront the National Rifle Association and the politicians in its pocket on the issue of who should have access to firearms, and which firearms should be made legally available to the citizenry.

Sadly, noble intentions notwithstanding, I fear that their efforts may be in vain and the movement will whither and die before any significant change can be made. Think of it this way. In this instance we have a mentally ill teenager kill other teenagers and staff at his former school. Teenagers are largely good if difficult to deal with, but there are enough of them (such as the killer) who push the boundaries of acceptable social convention for nothing more than self absorbed thrills. So one could say that not all of them are the precious flowers they are now being made out to be and that the loss of some teenagers (even if not these), while tragic, does not actually represent a complete waste of untapped human potential. I do not mean to be insensitive or cruel, but instead am trying to put things into context.

Because there are those other incidents to consider. For example, what about Sandy Hook? There 20 primary school kids were murdered along with six staff. These were little kids, still innocent, still wondrous, still untouched and untainted by the distractions of teenage life and attractions of the adult world. And yet, even as then president Obama tried to get the Republican controlled Congress to do something when it came to mentally ill people having legal access to semi-automatic weapons, nothing–as in zero–got done. A movement in their memory was started and yet it failed to gain wide-spread traction across the country. Little kids–precious, innocent kids– were murdered and nothing was done. So why do we think that the deaths of some teenagers will suddenly change the terms of any national discussion about guns?

I suggest that it will not change unless the teenage #NeverAgain movement joins forces with other social movements in what can be called a Broad Front (or, as the Maoists used to say in its original incarnation, “United Front”). The objective is to join together otherwise seemingly disparate groups in common cause. That is because if the #NeverAgain crowd go it alone they can be isolated and divided from, if not against, other mass based collective actors seeking systemic and institutional reform. This type of stove-piping or siloing makes divide and conquer tactics on the part of the status quo easier to accomplish, especially when the teenagers in question are not monolithic on the subject of gun control and may not have the type of national reach that they aspire to (say, for example, amongst adolescents in North Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia or Wyoming, where the gun and hunting culture is ideologically hegemonic).

Instead, what the kids in the #NeverAgain movement need to do is establish links with groups such as Black Lives Matter, the #TakeaKnee anthem protesters, the Women’s March on Washington, LGBT groups, unions and professional associations (including those that represent professional athletes, musicians and other artists), student governments, Hispanic, Arab, African-American, Asian and other identity organisations, religious entities, political organisations, pacifists and peace advocates, medical and psychiatric associations and lobbying groups, chambers of commerce, even local governments. The common cause is rejection of the existing gun culture and the agents of death that represent it in politics, to include the NRA and the media types and politicians who parrot its lines. The Broad Front can then rally around a few simple, good sense-based propositions regarding the who/how/what and whens of gun ownership in a diverse and democratic (as of yet) society. The unifying thread in both facets is the belief that the mental, physical and social costs of the current gun ownership regime far outweigh whatever benefit it may have in terms of personal and collective safety, and that since most of the costs are paid by taxpayers while the benefits are accrued by weapons manufacturers and dealers, the interest groups that represent them and some individuals rather than society as a whole, the current gun culture is reactive rather than proactive in its approach to commonweal costs and biased in favour of death merchants rather than children.

Interestingly, there is a parallel and example provided by the Argentine “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) movement that emerged from the ashes of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s and which grouped a wide swathe of organisations in the effort to find justice for those victimised by the junta and to put an end to the culture of impunity that led to the so-called “dirty war” in which so many innocent lives were lost. In name and in broader intent, this is exactly what the English hashtag eponym movement is all about.

Organizing a Broad Front around the #NeverAgain movement will be hard to do but that is what collective action is all about–organizing people by making them think outside of their own personal circumstances and in terms of the collective good. For the #NeverAgain movement there has to be a conscious, deliberate and systematic effort to reach out and establish horizontal solidarity ties with other mass-based organisations and collective agents with agendas for change. There are few subjects that can unite a wide array of ideologically diverse and often narrowly-defined interest and activist groups in a heterogeneous society such as that of the US, but if there is one that can do so, it is the issue of gun control.

And a Broad Front can be made from that.

In my final interview in the “Letters from America” series with Mitch Harris at RadioLive, I reflect on the Alabama senatorial election, the plight of Rex Tillerson, the attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and a few more things. After five months, it is time to go home.

Thanksgiving Weekend is ending here in Boston. For the first time in 15 years I spent it in the US with family and friends. It struck me that Thanksgiving is one of the few remaining symbols of common values left in the US. Independence Day, Christmas, New Years and Super Bowl Sunday all have broad appeal, but only Thanksgiving has the single unifying thread of family to keep it above partisan, religious, ethnic, racial and assorted other divisive tendencies within US society.

Buchanan family Thanksgiving table in The Barn, Holliston, MA.. Photo courtesy Kathy LaCroix Buchanan

Not that all believe Thanksgiving to be controversy-free. Plenty of indigenous people believe that the Pilgrims were complicit in the subjugation and expulsion of eastern tribes from their ancestral lands. The Pilgrims, we may recall, were 40 religious refugees (“Separatists” or “Saints”) who were among the 102 passengers from England who landed first at what became known as Provincetown (on Cape Cod), then Plymouth, Massachusetts (on the mainland) on November 11, 1620 after crossing the Atlantic from the southern English port of Plymouth on the Dutch-made merchant (“fluyt’) ship Mayflower. Originally intending to settle on the Hudson River where an earlier European settlement was already in place, the Pilgrims were thwarted by bad weather and sailing conditions and decided to seek shelter further East. Armed with a grant from the London Company and Crown for the exchange of goods for religious autonomy and self-governance, the Saints/Pilgrims and their fellow travelers were decimated by illness and harsh winter conditions, with only half surviving until the next winter.

Conventional history has it that the Pilgrims arrived in peace and interacted amicably with the native Wampanoag and their sub-tribes (mostly grouped as Alonquian peoples). They also established the Mayflower Compact as the governing framework for the new colony, something that guaranteed all male colonialist participation in collective decision-making and which is considered to be one of the foundations of US democracy. It was in this context that the first shared meal with the local Pokanoket tribe was held in 1621, something that has passed into folklore as Thanksgiving. That meal followed on the heels of the Wampanoag-Pilgrim Peace treaty of April 1, 1621, which bound the settlers and all Wampanoag tribes together against other tribes (such as the Mohawk and Mohegan).

Critical interpretations paint a less rosy picture, noting prior conflict between earlier European settlers and Eastern tribes, with the first shared meal being less an act of cross-cultural friendship than a forced terms of settlement ceremony by which the Pilgrims began a divide-and-conquer process against the indigenous people. Whatever the intent of that breaking of bread, and admitting that colonization did result in the loss of land and displacement of the indigenous majority over the next centuries, “Thanksgiving Day” entered into US mythology as a moment to pause in order to give thanks for the blessings received and ties that bind.

Fast forward to today and one can see that the divide and conquer process is now being used on the settler colonizers in an extremely effective way, yet one that is different to that used on the original indigenous inhabitants. The instrument of division is called “commercialization” and it employs retail therapy as a form of community dismemberment.

For the last decade consumer non-durable retailers have pushed the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” not so much because it is a deadly day to be avoided but because it is a day for so-called “black” sales of retail goods: everyone gets a heavy discount on whiteware, electronics, toys,clothes and other merchandise so long as they are able to get their hands on the discounted goods. This causes thousands of commodity fetishistic numbskulls to line up 24 hours in advance of opening at assorted malls and other shopping venues in the hope of snagging a 20 dollar 60 inch TV and whatever else is within grasp amongst the grappling hordes. This has caused crushes, riots and a few deaths over the years, but the urge to shop on Black Friday is now reified in the media and popular culture to the extent that the original point of Thanksgiving–to give thanks for family and the benefits at hand–has been replaced by the urge to engage in competitive shopping. This no joke: on Black Friday the retail zombies literally fight each other over bins of discounted goods less than a day after the day of thanks. The media cover the crowded malls and traffic chaos as if they were national celebrations (or disasters, depending on your point of view), with person-in-the-street interviews suggesting that for many the importance of the weekend is the sales, not in spending time with family.

Although the day after Thanksgiving Thursday is not a statutory holiday, it has traditionally been treated as the middle of a long family weekend. Football has been added to the mix, with a range of college “rivalry” games and professional football contests serving as backdrops to the reunions. In recent years it has morphed into Black Friday, which in turn has also become a weekend affair culminating in Cyber Monday: the day in which telecommunications devices are fire-sold, especially via on-line retailers. In fact, on-line sales are rapidly approaching in-store sales, which has prompted shopping outlets such as malls to turn the Thanksgiving weekend into a sales event masquerading as a cultural moment, but without the historical linkage back to 1620. Today it is all about pumpkins, autumn colors, pilgrims and turkeys as caricatures rather than historical legacies, and the vibe is about using Thanksgiving as an icon in order to sell an infinite array of product. Fathers and sons can bond over ride-on lawn mowers and ratchet sets as they undertake autumn outdoor chores; moms and daughters can get their pumpkin baking mojo going together with the latest Martha Stewart oven accessory line. Granddads and grandmas can hug the little ones as they fiddle the consoles of their Pilgrim-themed electronic games.

The commercialization frenzy brought on by Black Friday has not only eclipsed the meaning of Thanksgiving but is in fact just the start of a month-long sales push leading towards Christmas, which in turn is followed by its own returns-and-exchanges day (Boxing Day). The entire month between the two holidays is an orgy of conspicuous consumption and brand tie-ins (to the military, football, Santa Claus and whatever else can entice a purchase). Whatever the spirit of togetherness fostered by the communal offering of thanks in late November, the ensuing four weeks is an exercise is materialist self-gratification.

This extends to petty thieves. The advent of on-line shopping has led to a proliferation of so-called package thefts, whereby thieves follow delivery vehicles around and steal packages from front doorsteps. The distinctive packaging used by Amazon is particularly irresistible to the low-lifes, but the general trend is to let others do the shopping and treat doorsteps deliveries as an invitation to help oneself to the surprises that they contain. Let here be no doubt about it: there is a country-wide epidemic of this type of theft, something that is a microcosmic distillation of how the spirit of Thanksgiving is well and truly gone.

Therein lies the tale. What wars and internal political divisions could not do (even Trump was silent on Thanksgiving Day!), the consumerist mentality and grotesque commercialization of everything has done. It has further broken many of the horizontal solidarity ties that once held communities together and promoted a form of nihilist alienation that is abetted and deepened by the advent of social media and individual telecommunication devices. The result is a society of self-gratifying materialists unconcerned with and unencumbered by the responsibilities of civic engagement.

There are just 2700 Wampanoag left today and they are dependent, as is the case with so many tribes, on gambling for economic sustenance. Things might have been different had they discovered that the best way to undermine the Mayflower Compact and its historical sequels was to push commodities on the white man rather than share a meal and foster community with him.

PS: Here is the RadioLive interview counterpart to this post. It begins with Thanksgiving, then wanders into a range of other subjects: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/audio/2017/11/-thanksgiving-is-being-degraded-in-the-states—-paul-buchanan.html

One notable aspect of contemporary US politics is the re-emergence of so-called culture wars. Orchestrated by Steve Bannon, assorted alt-Right platforms and Murdoch media outlets in response to what could be called the de-WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant)-ification of US society, the conflict is centered on symbols and messaging. The regression into appeals to tradition, “culture” and “values” (read: white privilege) is a modern version backlash against what author and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) called “good Negro government” after the Reconstruction Era in US history (1863-1877). The theme that today’s culture wars hark to the backlash against “good Negro government”  has been picked up by the writer Ta Nehisi Coates in his latest book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” where he argues that Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 was in large part due to white voters fears that Barack Obama had conclusively proved that people of color could run the federal government competently and that whites could no longer claim that colored people were ill-suited, emotionally, tempermentally, intellectually and culturally, to govern. It is one thing to have “good” Negros portrayed as equals on TV shows. It is quite another for them to actually wield power over whites.

Du Bois outlined his thoughts on “good Negro government” by watching the sequels to post Civil War reconstruction in the South, in South Carolina in particular. After the civil war US authorities mandated a period of social reconstruction in the defeated Confederacy in which free slaves were, by federal mandate, integrated into municipal and state governments and other social institutions. This forced intervention was designed to lay the foundations of a more egalitarian Southern society, and in many instances free Negros took up managerial positions in a variety of public and private agencies. However, after Reconstruction and federal government intervention ended (along with the withdrawal of federal troops), Southern states set about undoing the social changes that it had wrought. In 1895 South Carolina held a state constitutional convention in which most of the gains made by blacks were reversed and they were legally reduced to second class citizens prohibited from holding political offices and purged from public and private bureaucracies. This was also the time when the Klu Klux Klan was founded (as an extrajudicial enforcement arm of the socially revanchist South), the period of building monuments to heroes of the Confederacy was begun and the foundations of Jim Crow were laid.

For Du Bois, this backlash demonstrated that what White Southerners feared most was not a “bad Negro government” rife with incompetence and corruption, something that was already evident in pre-war Southern white governments. Instead, the greatest fear of Southern whites was of “good Negro government” that did the things that only whites were purportedly capable of doing due to their supposedly superior attributes. To that was added the battlefield record of black Union troops, who Southerners thought would be cowards and run from battle but who instead proved to be very competent soldiers, and the fact that instead of rioting, raping and pillaging once they were freed, former slaves went about peacefully rebuilding the South without major problems of their own (in fact, the majority of violence during the Reconstruction was white-on-black as white Southerners resisted treating recently freed slaves as equals).

This combination of factors destroyed the myth of white supremacy that Southerners clung to, so legislative reforms such as the 1895 South Carolina constitution were enacted in order to restore and enshrine the “proper” racial hierarchy under slave-free conditions. In effect, although unable to return to slavery, post-reconstruction legal reforms that restricted the citizenship and human rights of free slaves amounted to an early American version of apartheid, the origins of which were rooted in the fear of usurpation of white privilege.

Coates sees the Trump phenomenon as a repetition of the fear of “good Negro government.” The election of Barack Obama and the success of his administration in the face of disloyal opposition by Congressional Republicans and the Right-wing media was a nightmare for white (mostly working-class male) social revanchists who had been forced to suppress their racism and bigotry since the 1960s, when the Civil Right Act (1964), opposition to the Vietnam War and the adoption of anti-status quo and “countercultural” lifestyles upended traditional hierarchies. In the ensuing 40 years the white wage labouring classes have seen their social status eroded along with their jobs vis a vis competitors, most of them people of colour, emanating from home as well as abroad.

Objective explanations for white working class decline offer no relief to those suffering within it. It is bad enough for them to have to compete on US wages with undocumented immigrants and foreign wage slaves. It is particularly bad for them to have to compete with robotics and other aspects of computer generated productive automation. They have to find explanation for their plight in something other than the inevitable progression of US capitalism in a globalised system of production, communication and exchange. For the white demographic in decline, the answer to their plight lies in no fault of their own under conditions of capitalist competition, but in the social changes occuring corollary to it. That is, the explanation for white decline has to be socio-cultural rather than structurally capitalist in nature, specifically seen in the decline of WASP “values” and emergence of non-WASP perspectives as dominant influences in contemporary US society.

In that light the election of Barack  Obama to the presidency and his subsequent success at mastering the art of governance compounded white social revanchist fears by promoting and celebrating Hispanics, Asians, gays and other minorities in leadership roles in government, business, academia and communities, and by openly embracing minority cultures as part of the mainstream of US society.

Steve Bannon has seized on this to lead the cultural charge in support of “tradition” and against “unAmerican” values, which are now open code words for a return to white supremacy. He and his political acolytes have been successful in orchestrating a pushback that has prompted a regression in US social development, with a white backlash against the gains made by minorities of all persuasions now growing stronger than in the previous three decades. The cultural wars are between an ascendant multicultural, multi-ethnic, poly-religious yet increasingly secular, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pacifist, sexually diverse and egalitarian-minded, “keep your hands off unless invited,” post-modern demographic with a rationalist and normatively relative global perspective, on the one hand, and a monocultural, white dominant, Judeo (but mostly) Christian, heterosexist, patriarchical, sexually aggressive hands -on, pro-gun, militarist, anti-choice, anti-science, industrial, xenophobic, normatively absolutist and economically insular demographic on the other. For the moment, the struggle is even but the numbers do not lie: given current and projected birth rates, the Bannon target demographic is in decline.

The last time there was a cultural clash in the US anywhere similar in scope was in the mid-60s. Until the early 60s the US was run in the image that Bannon and Trump supporters now hark back to: Dad at a good paying manufacturing job that allowed him to own his own home, Mom happily tending to the domestic front, both regularly attending a Christian church with 2.2 kids and a car in every garage (or, for those who may remember such things, basically operating as Ozzie and Harriet of 1950s TV fame).

But the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opposition to the Vietnam war and counter-cultural lifestyles pushed by rock music broke the consensus on the national myth and prompted a major ideological struggle. In that instance, progressive forces won over the rednecks and defenders of tradition. Now the struggle is being repeated but is sparked, as it were, from the other side–conservative whites are pushing back against the progressive secularization and egalitarianism of US society, as exemplified by Barack Obama and his good Negro government. The champion of these social revanchists is Trump, but it is Bannon who is the puppeteer.

There is a popular saying in the US these days: “Stay in your lane.” It is taken from car culture and references highway traffic dynamics. But it has a subtext of implicit or threatened road rage and it is in fact a substitute for “know your place.”  “Stay in your lane” is now used widely to address stroppy females, uppity Negros, recalcitrant children, surly teens, overly camp gays or butchy lesbians–basically any minority individual or community that dares to challenge WASP conventional wisdom about social hierarchy. For Steve Bannon, who has been doing the rounds of talk shows and conservative conventions this past week, it is all about getting the usurpers of white privilege to either get back into their traditionally prescribed roles or return to hiding.

Bannon believes that his 20-25 percent of the electoral base is homogenous, scared and united through social and corporate media. It is a short term vision, but given the uncertain shadow of the future it is possible that short term political gains based on a socially revanchist ideology could seep into the broader electoral fabric. Whatever their antipathy towards Trump aand the GOP, his opponents are heterogeneous, hopeful and yet fractious and divided. The erosion of horizontal solidarities in an age of ideological individualism is abetted and pushed by adavances in telecommunications technology–the same technology that social revanchists use so effectively.  Bannon has already invited Democrats to continue to play the identity politics game (and there is a lesson for New Zealand here), because that allows him to successfully impose the weight of his demographic against those aligned against it. The Bernie Sanders/versus Hillary Clinton campaigns show one end of the “liberal” internecine division in the US; the feminist arguments about the #metoo hashtag show another. There are many more sources of liberal/progressive cleavage, and in Bannon’s eyes they spell “Achilles Heel.”

The success of the cultural wars pushback is concerning. The Right-wing (including alt-Right) media, both corporate and social, have very much influenced the discourse with their attacks on the Obama legacy (him being “weak” in foreign affairs etc.) and in their support for Trump’s demeanour and his dismantling of that legacy via Executive Orders. The impact is real. Things that one would have thought were done and dusted years ago–arguments about gender differences as they apply to employment and wages, racial differences as they apply to law and order, whether being native born as opposed to foreign born should be a criterion for security clearances, are homosexuals trustworthy with kids, what constitutes patriotism, etc.–are now back in the public domain in a measure not seen in decades.

All of which is to say that things in the US are pretty tetchy at the moment, and the possibility of physical conflict between those who embrace “good Negro government” and those who fear it are quite real.

Let us not think that this is exclusively a US problem. Be it in the “I told you so” comments of white South Africans or Zimbabweans about the bad Negro governments that followed the abolition of white supremacy in those countries, or in the similar comments about poor governance of black-ruled cities like Detroit or the District of Columbia in the US, or those who point to problems with aboriginal self-governance in the Northern Territory, there are many who find comfort in black failure and find threats in black success. That is true for some quarters in Aotearoa, where the possibility of “good Maori government” or “good Pasifika government” is dismissed out of hand not so much because of their outright impossibility due to some instrinsic traits of those involved, but because of Pakeha fear that they could do no worse, and perhaps even better than Pakeha dominated government.

Let’s remember this if there is pushback against the notion of “good Negro government” in New Zealand.

Letters from America, take six: Flirting with disaster.

datePosted on 12:46, September 7th, 2017 by Pablo

The theme of the week in the US is “flirting with disaster.” Trump did well on his return to Texas for a second time after Hurricane Harvey–he looked a bit more presidential and at least went to the affected areas to hand out relief packages and hug displaced babies (of color, to boot!). Upon his return to DC his decision to repeal DACA, the so-called “Dreamers Act” (which gave limited legal protection to foreign born children without criminal recrods who were brought to the US by their parents) has enough support in Congress to see it upheld and replaced within the six month time frame Trump has specified for its implementation (although like everything else Trump does, the court challenges are already being filed). So for first time in months Trump had a week devoid of major scandal, crisis or controversy.

But now Hurricane Irma is headed to South Florida after hitting the Leeward Islands, including the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (a US territory with a population of 3.4 million). The Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba are in its path before it is predicted to make a direct hit on the larger Miami area (with a population of 6.7 million). It remains to be seen what Trump’s response to this storm will be given the heavily Hispanic demographic in the impact areas and the fact that he did not carry South Florida in last year’s elections (unlike SE Texas where Harvey hit). He might order full scale federal help given that even Mar el Lago will be affected, but so far he has done nothing and left it to the territories and states to deal with emergency prep.

Irma is stronger than Harvey, being a full fledged category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and gusts to 225 mph (nearly 300 kilometers per hour) and a storm surge of up to 30 feet. Harvey was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall and turned into a rainbomb, but neither in terms of winds or surge is it comparable to the punch that Irma is packing. Like SE Texas, South Florida is low lying (and even below sea level in some places), so the catastrophic potential is huge. The number of people who could be affected in the Florida, Puerto Rico and the island territories is more than double that of those impacted by Harvey, and the demands for recovery assistance both in US territories as well as foreign neighbors will be astronomical.

So Hurricane Irma will be a big test for Trump. He ordered US$ 7.5 billion in federal disaster relief to Texas for Harvey recovery efforts (a drop in the bucket of what is estimated to be a 150 billion dollar recovery cost), but that will now need to be increased exponentially for Irma recovery efforts even in the face of GOP misgivings about disaster relief spending. Recall that the Texas congressional delegation opposed federal relief for the Mid Atlantic areas affected by Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, but are now clamoring for federal help (Ted Cruz and John Conrnyn come to mind). More generally, many Republican congresspeople are loathe to increase the US debt ceiling in order to fund recovery efforts outside their own districts, something that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claims is an abosolute necessity (and a direct betrayal of Trump’s campaign promise to reduce the US debt ceiling). Faced with GOP opposition, Trump has sided with congressional Democrats in calling for a temporary elevation of the debt ceiling in order to finance disaster relief (a Faustian bargain if there ever was one,), much to the annoyance of GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. In view of these differences it will be interesting to see how the Republican majority in Congress reacts to pleas from Florida and US territories for federal receover aid, but what is certain is that the debate over it will be contentious at best.

Almost unnoticed in Washington amid all the hurricane news is the fact that another major disaster is unfolding in the US west. Nearly 60 large scale wildfires  covering hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in seven Western states, and both property and lives have been lost in them. Although the region is drought- and hence fire-prone and therefore has signficant deployable fire-fighting resources at the state and federal level (e.g. via the US Park Service and other branches of the Departments of Interior and Homeland Security), budget cuts have reduced the federal ability to contribute to fighting simultaneous large fires, some of which have reached the outskirts of major cities such as Los Angeles. With no end to the fire season in sight and seevral of these conflagrations still out of control, the possibility exists that a fire disaster can be declared this year. If that happens the arguments about natural disaster recovery funding will only get more intense and partisan.

And then there is North Korea. The test of what the DPRK claims is a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb is a significant step forward in its nuclear testing program. Unlike more primitive fission or “atomic” bombs, these type of munitions are used by all of the major nuclear weapons states save India. The shape of the warhead that Kim Jung-un is seen posing with in photos appears to be similar to a US mid 60s-mid 70s Teller-Ulam  “peanut” design. Hydrogen bombs are two-phased fission-fusion devices that do not need advanced triggers because of their plutonium (or sometimes U-235) primary fission cores, which are more easily “ignited” by conventional high explosives (Pu-239 is used in both the primary and secondary sequences, although the bulk of the thermonuclear explosion comes from ignition of the U-238 “tamper” surrounding the Pu-239 “sparkplug” in the secondary sequence). The size of the prototype shown in DPRK propaganda photos demonstrates that it can fit into the nose cone of their recently tested ICBM (which seems to be a Chinese knock-off similar to Pakistani designs). So they have made a quantum leap towards having a lauchable weapon.

The issue remains as to whether they have the re-entry trajectories down so as to not burn up the nosecone and/or booster at too steep an angle, and whether the US and allied missile defense are up to the task of intercepting the booster before re-entry or upon re-entry on a flatter trajectory slope. Since the DPRK will have only one warhead on the booster (as opposed to the multi-warheaded nature of MARV’d and MIRV’d strategic strike missles deployed by the US, UK and Russia), a successful intercept can push the DPRK back both operationally as well as politically (since it will take some time to mount and fire another warhead, and that will likely not be allowed to happen because a launch in anger makes the DPRK vulnerable to a retaliatory response, be it conventional or not).

The more important question is whether, upon intelligence showing preparations of a live nuclear missile launch, the US will trigger (most likely conventional) pre-emptive strikes against DPRK missile launch facilities, or whether it will wait until a “live” launch is confirmed (which reduces the time avaliable for a response but which can allow more accurate tracking and intercept by ABM defenses such as the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, and which provides data for early detection of the trajectory of future launches, should they occur). Either way, the result will be war between, at a minimum, the DPRK, ROK and the US, with more states such as Japan likely to get drawn in because of direct engagement or alliance commitments. And then of course, there is China.

It is an open question as to where the DPRK got its warhead design. But Pakistan comes to mind simply because it already has nuclear weapons and has a history of clandestine nuclear weapons design and parts proliferation. That poses some thorny diplomatic and security questions for those who have tried to engage Pakistan in the effort to have it moderate its behaviour on a number of fronts.

In the face of a DPRK willingness to launch, the US has very few options left short of pre-emption and or interception upon launch. Trump as usual has backed himself into a corner by tweeting that “the time for talking is over,” and the response from China and Russia to his demands for stronger sanctions has been equivocal at best. Trump’s barking at South Korea for its alleged policies of “appeasement” vis a vis the  DPRK are not only factually incorrect but alarming to regional allies, since the ROK has been anything but appeasing even while urging bi- and multi-lateral talks with the DPRK on a regular basis. Secretary of Defense Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have emphasised that the US is not interested in annihilating the DPRK, but they and the rest of the foreign policy establishment have not dropped the long-standing demand for regime change and reunification under ROK rule, which is simply a non starter from the DPRK point of view. So the walls are closing in on non-military options.

The threat to stop all trade with countries that trade with the DPRK is an idle one given the negative impact on the US economy that such an action would entail (particularly in the case of China), but smaller DPRK trading partners (perhaps including NZ, which purportedly has small backdoor dealings with it), could suffer as a result. The big issue is whether China will put the squeeze on the DPRK in light of recent developments. So far, other than rhetorical condemning of the test and the clear embarrassment it feels at having been ignored by its client when it came to not going forward with the nuclear test, it has shown a relcutance to do so. The Russians flat out refuse to cooperate in any increased sanctions regime. So the US is left with few cards to play short of the military ace in the hole.

In sum, the US is flirtng with disaster on several fronts, three natural and one man made. How Trump handles them is going to impact his standing before Congress and of course have an impact on domestic support as well as international relations. Options on all fronts seem limited and the consequences dire, both for him politically as well as those affected by his decisions. The moment is one where, as Machiavelli noted,successful handling of  the viccisitudes of fortuna (fate) requires the commitment of leadership virtu (virtue).

When it comes to leadership virtue, Trump has so far displayed none. It remains to be seen if the tests now before him will uncover what has never been seen before.

Addendum: Here is an interview that I did with Selwyn Manning of eveningreport.co.nz as part of a video series that parallels/complements the written series here.

After weeks of crisis and scandal, Donald Trump was cut a break by Hurricane Harvey. Several million people’s pain provided him with some temporary relief from the DC presure cooker, if not a small measure of political gain by heading out to inspect (from afar, as it turns out) the damage wrought in South Texas by the mega-storm. He got to look presidential while still being his self-centered self, since he spent his time in Texas talking not about people suffering but about how great the relief effort was and how historic the recovery would be–the best ever!

Hurricane Harvey provided him with a convenient deflection from last week. What with his continuing support for Confederate iconography, his rant at the Phoenix rally that he was asked not to hold and his pardoning of the racist cop Joe Arpaio, he needed a break from critical media coverage. But even his response to the storm could not cloud the fact that last week he revealed what appears to be his strategy for the 2018 US midterm congressional elections, where all of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate are up for grabs.

Trump has clearly been advised to double down on his 33 percent core base of “law and order,” “traditional values”” supporters. His consiglieri believe that his full-thoroated appeal to this base will force the GOP congressional caucus up for re-election to think twice before opposing him on matters of domestic security and “values.” That includes those in his party who oppose funding his Wall and/or the more draconian aspects of his anti-immigration platform, to say nothing of a myriad of cultural topics like the military transgender ban and removal of Confederate symbols from public places. His strategy is to force the GOP congressional caucus to support his agenda fully or risk his openly courting primary opponents who will. He has already spoken favorably of primary opponents to several GOP Representatives and Senators, including in Arizona where Arpaio is rumored to be considering a possible congressional run. He has the support of powerful financial benefactors like the infamous Koch brothers, who are willing to fund primary advertising campaigns against Republican incumbents who do not toe the Trump line. The idea is to put the fear of that Trump base into the Republican caucus, especially in those Red states where his support remains strong and where Republican political control is unchallenged.

The goal is to publicly squeeze GOP critics as hard as possible on “values” and security in order to get them to cave to and support his policy demands. It is harsh but effective, especially in those dyed in the wool Red states–IF his calculus that just a 33% core support concentrated in a handful of Red states is enough to force the GOP congressional caucus to acquiesce to his demands and IF further scandals and crisies do not continue to erode his political capital to the point that he becomes expendable. If he is right, then congressional Republicans will go with him. If he is wrong–and next week can and will bring another scandal and the hurricane will eventually move off the national headlines–then his courting of racists and bigots and flouting the conventions of presidential behavior might come back to bite him.

The bottom line of his midterm election strategy, particuarly in Red states, is the upping of the ante on any GOP congressperson who dares to critique him by publicly calling for their removal in the primaries. He is going to rest his case on their support or lack thereof of traditional values (read: white supremacy, but as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant national cultural theme rather than as a Klan or Nazi meme) and domestic security (the Wall, dealing to illegal “alien” criminals, Muslim terrorists in the midst, support for law enforcement, etc.). Just like the possibility that the pardoning of the criminal Sherriff Arpaio was a trial run for is pardoning of conspirators caught up in the various Russia investigation, the tactic might work, or it might not. All depends on how Republicans in Congress react.

This is part of what can be called a bifurcated or two-pronged strategy that has begun to emerge in the White House over the last few weeks. On foreign policy, the shift is towards a neo-realist approach led by the retired and active duty generals who comprise his national security team and who appear to be reading from the same book (if not same page) as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The thrust is to bring some measure of rationality and predictability to US foreign policy decision-making guided by more narrowly construed notions of national interest, regardless of what the president says in unscripted moments.

On the domestic front the ghost of Steve Bannon still haunts the halls of the West Wing while his presence at Brietbart News serves as an external buttress reinforcing the Trump domestic agenda against any attempt at moderation of its national populist principles. The plan to double down on the core base of Trump’s support with appeals to law and order and ‘traditional values” is straight out of his national populist playbook. So is the economic nationalism displayed by Trump’s ongoing fulminations about NAFTA, which for him is much less about the movement of goods across borders and much more about who is making and moving them. Most importantly, the hard turn against GOP critics in the run up to the 2018 elections is quintescently Bannon in its scorched earth approach to opponents, including those from within the GOP: destroy them and sully their legacies in order to create a new movement that eschews compromise in the pursuit of Trumpian “principles.”

In sum, Trump started out this week better than he did last week, thanks to a natural disaster at least in part influenced by the climate change/global warming effects that he says are a bogus Chinese invention. One immediate effect is that petrol prices rose a full ten percent in two days thanks to the shutting down of the Texas oil refineries in advance of the storm and their continuing closure due to its effects. This market response has reinforced Trump’s calls for more gas and oil exploration in national parks and wilderness reserves, more pipelines from Canada, and more fracking in places where shale oil is believed to be present. For him, the answer to the negative impact of climate change is to again, without any hint of irony, double down on his core support for the fossil fuel industry.

Trump’s emerging midterm election strategy is a make or break proposition for both him and the GOP. Either he wins or he loses, because he is forcing the GOP to be with him full stop or be treated as the enemy. Given the uncertainties about the Russia investigations, tensions with North Korea, the daily dose of twitinsanity emanating from his phone and the spectre of more scandals and crises to come, the situation, as Gramsci once noted, “becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny.”

Who these forces and men are, as well as the real possibility of violent solutions, remains a matter of conjecture. But there is one thing that is certain in the US today: the crisis is real and Trump’s response to it, as evident in his midterm election strategy, could well bring it to a head.

Pablo is in the USA and having technical problems, so I am posting this on his behalf. -L

Donald Trump’s last two weeks could well be the turning point in his presidency. Given that I have been wrong about him before I am reluctant to call it terminal for him, but there are now unmistakable signs that his tenure in office is under threat. Allow me to explain why.

Think of the Trump presidency as a wheel with five spokes. The wheel is his administration. The spokes are his bases of support: corporate America, the congressional Republican caucus, the military-security complex, the Right-wing media and the alt-Right/Tea Party electoral support base. With his actions since the clashes in Charlottesville between Klansmen and neo-Nazis versus counter-protesters, he has broken or weakened the spokes that hold his administration together.

When he failed to denounce the Klansmen and neo-Nazis in unequivocal terms and instead drew false moral equivalence between them (“there was violence on both sides,” “there are fine people on both sides”), corporate America took leave of him. Members of his business advisory council began to quit, and when the number of them became too significant to dismiss, he abolished the council entirely. In doing so he also took Twitter pot-shots at the sole black member of the council who resigned while saying nothing about the whites who did likewise.

Corporate America supported Trump because of two things. He promised tax reform and de-regulation, particularly of the financial and energy markets. But his behaviour has become so erratic, his bluster and threats so disconnected from reality (such as saying that he would rather shut down the government if Congress does not approve his billion dollars plus taxpayer funded Mexican Wall project, a project that he repeatedly promised that Mexico would pay for), corporate leaders fear that not only will he not deliver on his promises but his actions will plunge the US back into recession. So quietly but steadily they are abandoning public support for him in favour of political hedging strategies focused on Congress and his likely successor. Mike Pence, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush are all being courted as more rational and responsible pro-market conservatives with presidential qualifications, to the point that all three have had to do the usual disclaimers about not being interested in the job. When that happens, you know that they are. And that means that the corporate spoke supporting the Trump presidential wheel has fractured.

Corporate America’s distancing from Trump is paralleled by that of his second support spoke: Republicans in Congress. Republicans control both houses of Congress but have been unable to pass any significant legislation because of internal divisions within their ranks and Trump’s brutish interventions in their affairs. The latter includes personally attacking both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in extraordinarily personal terms, to say nothing of the torrent of vitriol he spews at those like Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake who have defied his orders to do as he commands on contentious policy issues. His attacks on Democrats are equally ferocious but are water off a duck’s back as far as the latter are concerned. After all, the Democrats are focused on winning back one or both congressional chambers in 2018 thanks to hatred for Trump and the paralysis of congressional Republicans when it comes to confronting him on even the most obvious of his mistakes. Since they only need a shift of three seats in the Senate and 35 in the House to reclaim control of Congress, Democrats wear his insults and threats as a badge of honour and in fact are using his nasty soundbites and tweets as part of their political advertising campaigns.

For Republicans, however, his slings and arrows do sting. That is because campaigning for the November 2018 midterms begins in November 2017, and they must choose whether to fish or cut bait on their support for Trump in order to save their own political careers as well as the future of the Republican Party. Trump’s attacks on the Republican congressional leadership have deepened the fractures within the party itself, to the point that some wonder if what he is doing is trying to promote an internal coup against the GOP leadership.

The Republican calculus is stark. Do they continue to ride Trump’s coattails on the way to the midterm elections or do they campaign against, or at least disavow support for him once campaign season begins? If he is doing well in the polls (which translates into a national approval average of 35 percent or more), then they will remain loyal to him. If his polling numbers continue to dip as they have been for the last few months, then they will cut bait.

The practical effect is to accentuate the alienation of the Republican congressional leadership from Trump. Although many never liked him and most understand that he is not a dye-in-the-wool conservative, the situation after his election was not supposed to be like this. Instead of a united front passing conservative legislation and rolling back Obama’s policy agenda, the Republican Party is in disarray and taking heat from its constituents. Something must give, and what has given is the support spoke that congressional Republicans provided Trump at the beginning of his reign.

Trump’s equivocating on racism and his continuing support for symbols of the Confederacy have produced a remarkable response from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Secretary of Defense (and former Marine General) Jim Mattis. Without mentioning Trump by name, these senior military leaders have repudiated his remarks on the events in Charlottesville and instead stressed that the US military operates on principles of equality and non-discrimination (to include transgender people, who Trump and Pence have targeted). This is an extraordinary moment in US civil-military relations, where public questioning, much less criticism of the president by the uniformed corps is anathema. When we add into the mix the strained relations between Trump and the US intelligence community—who he continues to blame for leaks and who he ignores when it comes to its assessment of Russia—what results is a serious strain in the support spoke of the Trump presidency that is the US security community.

Evidence of his concern with maintaining their contingent support (since allegiance is given to the Constitution, not him) is seen in Trump’s agreeing to the military request for a troop increase in Afghanistan after he campaigned on withdrawing the US from that country and repeatedly claimed that he “knew more” than the generals when it comes to warfare (which is a bit rich for a draft-dodging playboy, but there you go). He may have had to choke on his ego to do so, but he and his advisors know that fracturing the support spoke provided by the security community could well be his political Waterloo. Hence the acquiescence on the Afghan troop surge. As a result, the security spoke may be strained to the point of cracking, but it is not yet fractured.

All of this has been watched with interest by the Right-wing media. Most of this media has been supportive of Trump, but here too cracks have appeared because of the racism row and his firing of Steve Bannon, the nationalist-populist strategist and former Brietbart publisher who commanded his ear for the first six months of his presidency. It was Bannon who urged the president to embrace the Alt-Right, and who crafted the anti-trade, anti-Muslim, anti-Chinese and false moral equivalence memes that found their way onto Trump’s twitter feed. But when Bannon’s pretence exceeded his grasp of political realities, the new presidential Chief of Staff, Jim Kelley (another retired Marine general and former Secretary of Homeland Security), gave Trump a “he or me” ultimatum. And like that, Bannon was gone from the West Wing.

But he did not go far. Instead, he resumed his leadership of Brietbart and immediately began attacking Trump for caving in to the Washington establishment on Afghanistan and other issues. The Alt-Right responded accordingly, and now Trump cannot be assured that he has its undivided support. Meanwhile, other Right media figures criticized, however reluctantly, Trump’s comments on Charlottesville and the historical record regarding the civil war, thereby driving a wedge into what until recently was monolithic Right-wing media support spoke for him. With Right-wing media now splintered between those who attack him for not fulfilling his campaign promises and those criticizing his more egregious rhetorical and practical excesses, his media support spoke is becoming increasingly wobbly.

Which leaves his base. Those that flock to his campaign rallies remain unwavering in their support for him (and yes, he is still holding rallies six months into his presidency and three years before his run for re-election, using insignificant “official” appearances as an excuse to use taxpayer funded transportation and lodging for what otherwise should be private campaign expenses). But however solid their support, their numbers are dwindling. Rallies that used to bring in tens of thousands now barely reach 10,000. His national poll numbers are hovering below 35 percent, and most importantly, in some die-hard Red states that he won overwhelmingly, his approval ratings are starting to slide below the 75 percent incumbent party support threshold common for presidents this early in their first term. Thus, while the base support spoke remains solid it is also smaller than it used to be, thereby increasing the rickety strength of the presidential wheel.

The sum effect is an exercise in political unsustainability. The presidential wheel cannot continue to sustain its increasingly wobbly roll unless drastic repairs are made to its support infrastructure. That does not appear likely to happen.

All of this occurs against the backdrop of a collective fever breaking. From the moment Trump came on the political scene, the response of the political class has been akin to a feverish dream. First, they believed that he could not win the Republican primaries. Then they believed that he could not win the general election. Then they believed that he would “grow” into the presidential role. Then they hoped that he would be forced to wear the institutional straight jacket of the presidency whether he wanted to or not. Then they expected that he would moderate his language and behaviour once he saw the effect they had on markets and diplomatic relations. Then they believed that his staff or family would reign him in and save him from his own impulses. Then they looked to Congress and the Judiciary to restrain him, and that is when the fever broke.

The US political class now realizes that there is no changing Trump and that he is a danger to the nation. His recklessness is now openly acknowledged and his mental stability repeatedly questioned by politicians, businesspeople and media commentators alike. Courts have challenged his executive orders and Congress has by veto-proof majorities imposed over his objections sanctions on Russia and prevented him from making recess appointments or dismissals. He may not want like it, but now that the feverish delusion that he would somehow exhibit the restraint, reason, decorum and willingness to compromise that are considered essential traits of presidential leadership has been once and for all dispelled, the institutional straight jacket is being forced onto him. And with the spokes coming off his presidential wheel, he may not be wearing it for very long.

Or so we can hope.

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