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This last week’s podcast featuring Selwyn Manning and I focused on post-election analysis in two small states, one land locked and the other surrounded by water. Check it out here.

I have been thinking about US foreign policy after the upcoming election. My working assumption is that try as he might, Trump will lose the election and be forced from office. There will be much litigating of the results and likely civil unrest, but on Jan 21, 2021 the Orange Merkin will no longer disgrace the office of US president.

The damage to the US reputation and interests done by the Trump administration has been extraordinary and will take much time and effort to reverse, and even then some of the damage may be irreparable. The scope of what has to happen is too broad to discuss in a short KP post, but here is some food for thought: If Biden wins the US election he should name Barack Obama as ambassador extraordinaire/special envoy to lead the repair, restoration and reform of US foreign relations.

That is a very big task, which is why no one can do more to undue the damage wreaked by Trump than POTUS 44. Obama is the most respected politician in the world according to global surveys and his party is (slowly) moving leftwards. The latter is important because it means that some of the old shibboleths of US foreign policy like unconditional support for Israel or Saudi Arabia can be challenged from within the Democratic establishment of which Obama is part. More broadly, he represents both continuity and change in US foreign policy, and has the stature to confront, cajole and convince international interlocutors. Unconstrained by the strictures of the presidency yet deeply aware of US failures and flaws–including his own while POTUS–as well as its strengths and interests, Obama would have relative freedom and autonomy when negotiating on the country’s behalf. That affords him some room for manoeuvre when addressing thorny matters of international import.

All he needs is institutional (presidential, most importantly) support and the awareness that the US cannot return to the status quo ante. Post-Trump and post-pandemic, with new power contenders firmly entrenched in the international scene and with a broad erosion of international norms and mores, the world is a different place than it was during his term in office, and not necessarily one that looks to the US for unchallenged leadership or moral guidance. That is precisely why someone of his stature is needed to help redefine and reconstitute US foreign relations.

Theoretically Obama could take a step down to SecState, but that is awkward given his previous job and prior relationship with Biden. Making him a global Mr. Fix-It answering directly to POTUS 46 gives him institutional weight commensurate with his stature as ex-president. That frees up the eventual SecState to concentrate on rebuilding the foreign service (decimated by Trump’s minions) and conducting the daily business of diplomacy while Obama concentrates on the hard nuts to crack: the suspended START intermediate range missile negotiations with the Russians, the abandoned Iran nuclear limitation deal, the cancelled Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade compact, Israeli-Palestinian relations, the DPRK impasse, etc. He knows the issues, he knows the principles and principals involved and he knows the history behind and between them.

There will be much on Obama’s plate, to be sure, but with enough resources devoted to the task such a division of labor between him and the State Department could more rapidly address the myriad areas of foreign policy that have been left derelict or deliberately damaged by the mediocrities currently running the White House, Foggy Bottom and other agencies of the federal government responsible for foreign policy issues. That makes the selection of SecState especially important, as the person would need to be able to handle Obama’s plenipotentiary status and also the demands of running the foreign policy bureaucracy while supporting the ex-president’s endeavours.

Biden has already singled that he will use some “old hands” (mostly Obama staffers) in his foreign policy team and will re-assert the preference for democracy and human rights in his approach to foreign relations. But his nostalgic perspective will need to be seriously tempered by two incontrovertible facts, one internal and external. Externally, he will take office at a time when the US is a declining power confronted by rising and resurgent powers and an absence of consensus on how nation-states should behave in such transitional times. It no longer has the will or the ability to be the world’s policeman and the US-led global economic model operative during a half century has seen its frailties exposed by Covid-19. The US must adjust accordingly.

Internally, Biden must agree to a significant number of the foreign policy demands of the left-wing of the Democratic Party not only in order to win the election but in order to achieve stability within government after it. He will try to do so incrementally rather than radically but the bottom line is that he has to do so given the changing times in which we live.

Then there is the military aspect of foreign policy. Since Bush 43 the US has been over-reliant on the military as a blunt instrument of foreign policy to the detriment of diplomacy. The traditional dictum that the military should be used only when diplomacy fails has long been discarded, and the Trump administration simply does not comprehend that “military diplomacy” is not always about the deployment, threat and use of force. The relationship between diplomacy and military force is not a zero sum game. The approach to it therefore has to change.

Recently Hillary Clinton has written about the need to reconsider the “Four D’s” of foreign policy: defence, diplomacy, development and the domestic sources of US international relations. Although she (like Biden and Obama) remains wedded to the liberal internationalist school of thought whereby market economies and democratic politics are considered to be the best economic-political combination for both national as well as international politics (something that is under serious challenge on a number of fronts including from within the US), her call for a review and revision of the priority placed on the four pillars of US foreign policy represented by the “D’s” is worth considering.

In fact, although there is a need to bring in fresh and more progressive voices into the US foreign policy establishment, Hillary Clinton might just make an excellent Secretary of Defence should she be willing to take the job. After all, no one is going to say that her relatively hawkish views are ill-suited for the job running the Pentagon, and her vast experience can be used to bring entrenched interests within it into line, assuming that she believes her own words about the need for institutional reform. Like Obama, she can represent continuity and change, this time in US military policy. She knows the issues, she knows the principles and principals involved, and she knows the history behind and between them.

After the disaster that is Trump and company, her perceived flaws pale in comparison–and they will not be up for electoral scrutiny in any event since SecDef is a nominated position confirmable by Congress, not an elected position subject to the popular vote. Should the Democrats cut into the GOP Senate majority or win control of the Senate in November, then she should be given serious consideration for the job.

There will be much work to be done. The US needs experienced hands to undo the damage, but it also needs an ideological rethink given the changed context post-Trump. In an ironic way, Trump has cleaned the slate and therefore cleared the way for a new approach to US foreign policy. That moment is soon to arrive. So long as Biden, Clinton and Obama have learned from the past and are listening to the left side of the Democratic base, it seems sensible to use them in their reconfigured roles.

For more on this check out this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast.

Media Link: Pre-election craziness in the US.

datePosted on 10:06, October 9th, 2020 by Pablo

This week in our “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I reflect on Trump’s increasingly erratic behaviour in wake of contracting Covid-19 and the domestic and foreign implications it has in the run-up to the November 3 national elections. You can find it here.

The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo


News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

In the US, the End of Days.

datePosted on 14:56, September 11th, 2020 by Pablo

I am feeling a bit impish today and so for no particular reason I thought I would share this thought, which I first posted over on twitter:

“Hurricanes, wildfires, floods, heatwaves, murder hornets, street protests, armed vigilante militias, a lethal pandemic and a corrupt authoritarian using the federal government for partisan and personal purposes. All that is needed this election year is a plague of locusts for the US to go full End Times.”

Or think of it this way. The US is like the drunk who finds himself waking up in a gutter covered in his own filth. He has reached an epiphany: he has hit rock bottom and can either seek treatment in order to sober up or he can die miserably in the street. Does he go seek treatment or does he continue on the same course? One choice is tough, the other easier. The body (politic) wants to return to the bottle but the mind says that it is time to quit even though delirium and tremors await.

The US political class needs to use this election year as an intervention that leads to the political equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous. The greed, corruption, hyper-partisan hypocrisy, corporate toadying, lobbyist revolving doors, slush funds and PACs–all of that has to go if they are to save the system from themselves. The question is, can they do it?

The problem is that in order for effective political reform to occur in the US the political class needs to understand that they have hit rock bottom. Not just in the person of Donald Trump but in the entire state of affairs involving the political system. It is dysfunctional, sclerotic, permeated with sleeze, deeply penetrated by vested interests and easily manipulated by money. It needs to be overhauled and revitalised.

I am not sure that the US political class understand this to be the case. Certainly not the GOP, which has used the deficiencies of the system to great partisan advantage. Not necessarily the Democratic Party, which has its own closets and skeletons to cleanse. So it remains to be seen if this election year will be the equivalent of a drunk’s epiphany for them.

Then there is US society. Still intoxicated on the myth of American exceptionalism and still addicted to its jingoistic militarism, armchair patriotism and sense of moral-ethical and physical superiority. Still under the spell of populist charlatans and Christian fundamentalist snake oil peddlers. Still profoundly myopic and inbred in its understanding of the larger world in which it exists. It too, must shake off the hangover and come to the realisation that the US is a hollow shell of its former self, a decadent and vulgar great power led by mediocrities now competing with rising powers not for world dominance but for a continuing place at the geostrategic table. It may not be at the point of eating crumbs yet, but the direction in which it is heading is evident.

The rot in US society comes from within. No external power has been able to do to the US what its own divisions and contradictions have done. What external powers have been able to do is exploit those divisions to their advantage in order to further weaken the US. After all, why confront the US while it remains military strong when a longer-term campaign of internal corrosion can undermine its ideological unity and military strength without firing a shot in anger?

Once nationally divided along the lines witnessed in Charlottesville, Portland, Kenosha and elsewhere, the rot born of societal malaise will seep into the US’s war-fighting capability (as it has already with regard to policy disagreements within DoD about the impact of Covid-19 on force readiness). When that occurs, the US can be more readily confronted at a kinetic and diplomatic level.

What is clear is that, even if the Democrats win in November by taking control of the presidency and both houses of Congress, if the US continues on its current path it will not recover. It may get out of the gutter produced by the four year bender that is the Trump years but it will only get as far as the equivalent of a park bench when it comes to political sobriety and societal health.

The ultimate problem is hypocrisy and delusion. No one wants to admit that the US is in decline and no politician will get elected if s/he honestly says so. Yet that admission is exactly what has to happen because it is the social and political equivalent of standing up in a room full of strangers and saying “hi, I am Uncle Sam and I am an alcoholic. I am here to change my life.”

That day may never come. But the End Days will.

Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

datePosted on 11:14, September 8th, 2020 by Pablo

I recently heard that my old friend Robert “Bob” Barros died of cancer in Buenos Aires last month. Bob was part of my graduate student cohort in Political Science at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, and we studied under the same group of neo-Gramscian/analytic Marxist “transitologists” who helped redefine and renovate the study of comparative politics world-wide.

Bob wrote a number of influential works, particularly Constitutionalism and Dictatorship, a study of the Pinochet regime’s attempts to provide a legal mantle to its rule (and aftermath); “Personalization and Institutional Constraints,” on the tension between personalist dictators and their attempts to institutionalise their rule; “On the Outside Looking In” and “Secrecy and Dictatorships,” which addressed the methodological and substantive problems in studying (opaque) authoritarian regimes.

Bob’s work received awards and international recognition. Yet rather than seek the material comfort and security of a tenured position at a US university, he chose to follow his love of the Southern Cone by moving to Argentina to work at a small university there. He eventually found a partner and had a daughter with her. The last time I saw him was in 2017 when my family and I visited my childhood and his adopted home town.

Rather than write an obituary for Bob I thought I would share an anecdote about him and how it reflects on intellectual enterprise and scholastic endeavour. It goes like this:

While in graduate school Bob, I and other students of Latin American society would regularly get together over coffees to ruminate about life in general and politics in particular. The students came from a cross section of disciples–history, sociology, anthropology, political science–all connected by the Centre for Latin American Studies. We shared classes together and that became the basis for many personal and professional friendships that continue to this day.

(As an aside, I never saw such gathering after I arrived to teach at a university in New Zealand. Instead, grad students headed to the campus pub for piss-ups and academic staff met for tea and gossiped in the departmental common room, then retreated to their offices and later homes. There was, in the ten years that I lasted in that environment, no sense of intellectual community that I could discern of, at least in what passed for political studies those days. From what I am told, the contrast between my grad student experience and those of today’s grad students at that NZ university remains the same).

During some of those Chicago Kaffeeklatschs we debated whether the Argentine and Chilean juntas kept records on the atrocities they committed–the number, ages and gender of those detained, tortured, and murdered, the ways in which they were hunted down and disposed of, the types of barbarity to which they were subjected to, the children that were removed from them, etc. By the late 1970s and early 1980s when we got together over coffee there was enough information leaking out of both countries to suggest that the abuses were both systematic and wide-scale, which suggested that given the military bureaucracies involved, records might be kept.

We asked these questions because our collective reading under our common mentors had shown that Nazis, Stalinists and assorted others before them kept records that incriminated them clearly and recorded for all posterity their culpability in committing crimes against humanity. But why would they do so? Why would they not just erase all evidence of their crimes rather than leave a probatory trail that could be followed? Knowing that what they were doing was extreme and that the shadow of the future would determine how their actions would be read by subsequent generations, and knowing that such record-keeping would deny them any possibility of plausible deniability down the road in the event that they did not prevail for all time and thereby get to write the historical narrative as they pleased, we wondered about the authoritarian mindset, the pathological and sociopath motivations, collective versus individual madness and assorted other possible sources for meticulous record-keeping by murderous authoritarians. We then speculated if the Southern Cone dictatorships shared these traits.

As it turns out, those conversations provided me with the basis for doing my own field research on “desaparecidos” (disappeared) in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, where I worked as a part of a group of human rights organisations trying to determine the fate of hundreds of men, women and children who went missing during those years. I knew that there must be records on them, and sure enough there mostly was. Later on, the questions from those conversations provided me with the primary tools for engaging in leadership analysis work for the US security community. For Bob, it turned into a large research project on authoritarian legal frameworks that became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book on Constitutionalism and Dictatorship.

What he discovered is that, apart from grossly backwards forms of personalist rule, the majority of authoritarians feel the need to provide a legal mantle around their behaviour. This is both a way of justifying their actions as well as setting both precedent and parameters for future regimes in terms of potential judicial action as well as justifying their own rule. Whether they believe that their actions are legitimate or not, authoritarians want to give them the appearance of legality. That way, should they ever be prosecuted for, say, human rights violations, they can argue that what they did was justified by law and constitutional precept.

This may seem retrospectively obvious to the casual observer, but Bob provided meticulously-research details of the thinking that goes into creating such legal and institutional edifices.

I will not try to further summarise Bob’s richly detailed works or the many implications and avenues of future research opened by them. I simply would urge readers with an interest in how authoritarians try to legitimate and institutionalise their rule to have a look at his writing.

Que descanses en paz, querido amigo!

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast, episode 7.

datePosted on 13:19, September 6th, 2020 by Pablo

In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.

Thought for the day: On terrorist entities.

datePosted on 14:49, September 3rd, 2020 by Pablo

Now that he has been convicted and sentenced, including on a charge of committing a terrorist act (to which he admitted guilt), the Christchurch killer has been designated a “terrorist entity” by the government, using provisions of the Terrorism Suppression Act 2002. Designating the killer as a terrorist entity means that his assets can be seized, his (online/other) fans can be prosecuted as terrorist supporters and creating funding platforms for his legal appeals or other reasons are now punishable offenses. No GoFundMe pages for him, it seems, and racists will need to think twice and tread carefully when they sing his praises in any forum (which should make certain NZ rightwing blogs a bit more careful when moderating comments)..

This is a smart move on the government’s part. Although the intent of the 2002 legislation was clearly directed at Islamicists and the various fronts and support networks that aided their armed campaigns, the use of the legislation in its first instance–both in successfully charging the killer with a terrorist offence and in designating him as an “entity” so that others could not easily provide support or encouragement to him or other like-minded people–is a well executed step that in principle demonstrates that the law can be applied in a balanced fashion regardless of the ideological cause being espoused.

But the test of this balance remains to be seen. Imagine if Tame Iti and his ragtag assortment of activist friends had been charged and convicted of terrorist offences because of their Urewera shenanigans (which was the original intention of the Clark government). Would they have been designated as “entities” so that others of similar mind could not legally offer them or their various causes emotional and material support? What about environmental or animal rights militants, who are often labeled as “eco-terrorists” by rightwing politicians and media and the commercial outfits that the activists oppose? What about anti-1080 activists, who have shown a penchant for intimidation and violence? Or the Sea Shepard Society, which Japan has designated as a terrorist group (and pirates) because it has used direct action tactics against whalers in the Southern Ocean and elsewhere?

The old saying “one person’s terrorist is another person’s hero” comes to mind here. The label can be applied to anyone who, under the broad definition of “national security” in New Zealand legislation, causes “harm” to the national economy, social order or reputation regardless of whether they used violence in pursuit of their objectives. Accordingly, the use of the term “terrorist” has been stretched by politicians, media mouthpieces and corporate and/or interest groups to cover a variety of non-murderous people agitating for a wide range of causes.

That is why the use of the term “terrorist” and the designation of terrorist entities must be done under strict guidelines and in the most extreme of circumstances. While international designators are helpful–say, in labelling Daesh as a terrorist entity or NZ expats clearly identified as having participated in its genocidal activities as terrorists–it remains for the Crown to rigorously scrutinise the criteria by which people and groups are placed in such categories. That must be objective, factually-based and proportionate to the harm committed. Above all, it must not be left to the government of the day, less partisan opportunism rear its ugly head in the application of justice.

The Christchurch killer made it easy on the Crown–and on the security agencies that allowed him to slip under the radar when planning and preparing the attacks–when he pleaded guilty to all charges. The sentencing was heavy on drama and pathos but the outcome was foretold and inevitable. The post-sentencing designation of the killer as an entity was an adroit touch. But one wonders if that designation should have come from the court at the time of sentencing rather than from the government after the sentence was handed down.

In any event, the first successful application of terrorism charges and terrorist entity designations is a salutary milestone in NZ jurisprudence and security affairs, but it is not without its potentially negative implications in future circumstances. That should be the guiding (or better said, self-limiting) principle in any future consideration of their use.

The MAGA pyramid.

datePosted on 16:07, August 31st, 2020 by Pablo

This is a short reflection on the what of Trump’s support in the US two months out from the national elections. For weeks now I have been saying to friends here and in the US that whatever the result, there will be bloodshed in the streets. If Trump wins, his armed supporters will celebrate with open displays of armed intimidation, which will include assaults on those who may chose to oppose them in public spaces. If he loses they will go nuts and attack those who they believe had a hand in stealing the election, especially if he calls on them to defend his stolen victory against the usurping Democrat-led coloured hordes. It will not be pretty, and it has already started in Kenosha and Portland.

Although any sane person would believe that after four years the US simply cannot sustain more of the idiocy, corruption, self-serving greed, bigotry, racism and xenophobia that marks the Trump administration, the truth is that he can get re-elected. With his polling weighed down by the pandemic and its attendant economic downturn, he is pulling out all the stops, with his racist dog-whistling now a full-throated megaphoning disguised as a defence of law and order that is starting to resonate with white audiences unfamiliar or uncaring about the realities of (often militarised) policing in the country. His fear for “suburbia” is no more than a code word for “the coloured folk and commies are coming to harm you, ” with the entire GOP falling into line behind his ugly tropes.

Even though Joe Biden leads most polls and they are doing well in many congressional races, the Democrats need to be careful. Biden is a lacklustre candidate at best who along with the Democratic National Committee has turned his back on the liberal wing of the party in favour of yet more centrism (or better said, in favour of the corporate wing of the party). While a strong choice for Vice President, Kamala Harris is no socialist. The Clinton/Obama wing continues to dominate the campaign strategy, eclipsing Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and the progressives who rally behind the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Once again we are told that the election is too important to lose and that a safe pair of moderate hands palatable to middle class white folk is the best way to ensure that Drumpf is consigned to the ash bin of history.

That dynamic pushes the Democratic agenda onto two legs: Biden/Harris as the “not Trump/Pence” alternative; and identity politics. The reckoning appears to be that in a character match-up Biden/Harris win, and that the changing demographics of the US have reached the point to where appealing to non-whites (yet including white women and youth) is a key to success. It includes appeals to non-binary, liminal or non-heteronormative people. But for that to electorally resonate, the logic goes, the ticket must appear to be “reasonable,” that is, to be centrist and “unifying” in its appeal. Nothing about class can be voiced other than the usual platitudes about the hard-working working classes. Nothing that can be weaponised against it by the label “socialism” can be openly mentioned, such as universal health care and welfare reform, debt relief, etc. These unmentionables may resurface after the election in the event of a Democratic victory that includes winning back both houses of Congress (and assuming that civil war does not break out), but they are not part of the campaign platform because the corporate Democrats do not want to be painted as radicals intent on destroying the American (read: white) way of life–claims that were on ample display at the circus side show that was the Republican National Convention.

This poses dangers for the Democrats. In 2016 Steve Bannon correctly argued that all Trump had to do to win was to appeal to lower middle class and working class whites on economic and cultural grounds. It did not matter if he could not fulfil his campaign promises of economic re-birth. It did not matter if by “culture” his appeal was to retrograde sentiments about a past long gone and best forgotten. What mattered was that the Democrats would be too busy fighting amongst themselves along identity and ideological lines, and this would cause large numbers of would-be Democratic voters to abstain from doing so. Added to the fact that Hillary Clinton was successfully painted (with Russian help) as an out-of-touch elitist with murky connections to nefarious swamp figures at home and abroad (in a Trump projection if there ever was one), and Bannon was proven right. 45 percent of eligible voters did not vote in 2016, and of those most were young and/or non-whites who traditionally lean Democratic in national elections.

In 2020 the stakes are higher now that it is clear that institutions have not been able to contain or even restrain Trump in his sociopathic use of public office for private gain. But the Democratic strategy remains the same: appeal to the centre, try to be “nice,” call for unity, and pander to important interest groups that are not reducible to socio-economic class position. Trouble is, there no longer is a majority centre in the US, polarisation is a seismic fault line fracture in American life that transcends politics, and the fundamental unmentionable of socio-economic class and class inequalities fester like an undetected mestasizing malignancy within the US body politic that no amount of chest-beating mythologizing can cure.

More to the point, no matter what the contradictions of US society may be, Trump’s supporters are not interested in unity and centrist moderation. Some may not realise that they are on their economic and political deathbeds, but they all are itching for a fight and are willing to fight dirty in order to prevail even if it is for the last time. In fact, that is explicitly what the alt-Right notions of replacement and acceleration are all about: start the race war now while whites can still prevail, and accelerate extant social divisions in order to do so. The key to their success is to be organised and armed.

So who are the MAGA morons who are the reliable base that Trump can stoke with his scapegoating and fear-mongering? The answer resides in what we might call the MAGA pyramid.

At the bottom are those who are truly deplorable: racists, bigots, misogynists, xenophobes and assorted other a-holes of various stripes. They are not necessarily stupid or poor meth heads living in trailer parks. They are just evil at heart–true scumbags now encouraged and enabled by Trump to come out from under their rocks and revel in their moment in the light.

Many of them are armed.

Above them are the ignorant. These are people who by dint of lack of intellectual capacity, education, exposure to alternative views or ways of being and other consciousness-raising aspects of social life are easily manipulated and fooled. Some of them are also racist bigots and/or sexist xenophobes. They include the gullible who think that their industrial-era jobs are coming back. They are the fools who think that Covid is a hoax or just another flu, that masks are an assault on freedom and that the Clinton ran a paedophila ring out of the basement of a pizza parlour in Northwest Washington DC. These are the QAnon crowd, now mixed in with anti-vaxers, anti-fluoride and other tin hat-wearing bozos who are easily sold the snake oil about the Deep State, Rothchild’s, Trilateral Commission and other global networks run by Soros lackeys and supplicants. It includes true religious believers who think that somehow Trump, while flawed just like Abraham, is God’s chosen vessel for restoring the US to its position back up on that crumbling hill.

Many of them are armed.

At the top of the pyramid are the opportunists. They include Trump and his entourage, but also corporate actors who have taken advantage of the window of opportunity presented to them by his de-regulatory and tax-cut policies. It includes guns and weapons manufacturers trading on his bully penchant for believing that violence is strength. It includes crony capitalists making money off of projects such as the Wall. It is blessed by Evangelical leaders likeJerry Falwell Jr., he of unzipped pants and pool boy threesome “cuck” fame. It includes rightwing ideological extremists who seek to use his administration as a vehicle for their own nativist agendas (think Stephen Miller, Seb Gorka or the departed John Bolton and Bannon himself) and the “conservative” media ecosystem that feeds off the intellectual detritus that oozes from the GOP partisan swamp. That includes a slew of Republican politicians seeking to coattail on evil and venality for their own gain, even if that turns out to be a losing proposition if you are Paul Ryan or Jeff Sessions. It includes the modern equivalent of house negros (e.g. Herman Cain, of Covid death fame) who step and fetch for the master even in the face of his long history of racist contempt for everything that they represent in humanity. Less one think that I am being unkind to these modern day Toms, remember that they are descendants from what Trump described as s***hole countries” that are not like Norway, and share skin tones with people who Drumpf has declared to be traitors and thugs because they take a knee or to the streets to protest systemic racism in the land of the free.

Trump opportunists come in many guises and are both high- and low-brow in nature, but their single commonality is that they know that their collective fortunes rest on manipulating those below them in the pyramid. So long as there are suckers, dupes and rubes to play in the great con game known as the Trump administration, then there always will be players like those surrounding and supporting him who will be there to play the MAGA morons for all its worth.

They too are often armed. And when not armed themselves, part of the con is that they enable and ensure that those below them in the pyramid maintain unfettered access to guns–and listen to directions.

Some may rebut this trichotomy by saying that there are true believers in the Trump support pyramid. That may be true of deplorables like David Duke and ignorants such as assorted old war veterans ripe for the fleecing. But the vast majority of the opportunists understand that Trump’s one belief is in benefitting himself, and if they can do so as well by toadying up to him, then the more the merrier. This project is not about what he and they can do for the country. It is about what personal and political benefit they can extract from their access to federal power while the joyride lasts.

The question of the moment is whether that the mass violence that might break out the night of the elections (November 3), will in fact start earlier. The way things are going it seems that in the measure that Trump and his minions begin to sense the real possibility of defeat, the more they will appeal to their base–the bottom two thirds of the pyramid–to take direct action in order to prevent that from happening. If violent unrest becomes wide-spread then the stage is set for the use of Executive powers to declare a state of national emergency that permits the postponement of the elections. Thus a call to “patriots” to take up arms before the election in defence of “democracy” is entirely possible, and as we have seen in recent days, rightwing militias are ready and willing to heed the call. If that happens, then basic issues of civil-military relations and constitutional principles come into play, if not the integrity of the Union itself.

We must remember that for Trump and company the stakes are deeply personal. Many of these people, not just Trump himself, face the serious possibility of criminal prosecution once they leave office. Not just for what they may have done as private citizens before or on behalf of the current president, but for using their public offices for private gain. As many have pointed out, the parallels and ties between organised crime, the Trump business empire and the Trump administration are clear and tight. The network of Trump-connected criminal opportunists may therefore be very wide, so there is strong incentive for them to collectively do everything in their power while in office to forestall and prevent liability down the road. Four more years may buy them that.

The issue is whether a shift in the political sands will bury the pyramid of support that they need for that to happen. One thing is certain: the Trump administration has already begun digging its defences.

I have been fortunate enough to receive regular reports from the 42 Group, a defence and security-focused collection of youngish people whose purpose is to provide independent strategic analysis to policy makers and the NZ public. Their work is very good.

I asked the person who sends me their reports if it was Ok to republish the latest report here. He agreed, so here it is.

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