Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

There is some overlap between yesterday’s post and today’s radio interview, but there is also a a fair bit of other material as well: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/video/2017/08/trump–charlottesville-and-north-korea—the-latest-from-the-us.html

Letters from America, take three: a scab got picked.

datePosted on 08:39, August 16th, 2017 by Pablo

Donald Trump picked a scab during his campaign for the presidency and now the pus is draining out. It will be a while before the wound is cleansed. The pus is racism, xenophobia and bigotry.

When I left the US to settle in NZ race relations were arguably the best they had ever been. The economy was thriving, incomes were rising as unemployment dropped, and a black middle class was re-emerging in numbers and across regions as had never been seen before (the previous rise of the historical black middle class was limited to selected East and South urban centers). By 1997, the year I emigrated to NZ, black culture had been embraced and internalized in mainstream US society (i.e., outside of sports and music) and most importantly, there was at least the appearance of racial tolerance and harmony. It turns out that if that was not an illusion then, it certainly is now.

Trump spent his election campaign dog whistling to his alt-Right base. This base is not conservative in the traditional sense of the term. Instead, it is a collection of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, KKK supporters, anti-Semites, violent misogynists, gun freaks and assorted other sociopaths, many of whom claim to be Christians and some of whom are in fact part of the evangelical and Tea Party movements. What is most disturbing is that, like in his treatment of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump was and is open in his embrace of this base. He may be forced from time to time to distance himself from both Russians and neo-Nazis, but when he does so he does so reluctantly, under duress.

Think about it: for the first time ever a sitting US president openly touts as his core constituency a collection of violent retrograde extremists–truly deplorable in every sense of the term–while he simultaneously embraces the virtues of the authoritarian leader of what the US security community has identified as the US’s greatest adversary, one that has worked to usurp US foreign policy goals, repeatedly intruded in US cyber networks and even interfered in its political processes (and yes, the irony of the US complaining about foreign interference in its elections is not lost on me). He has ordered the defunding of programs oriented at combating racist groups while his Department of Justice undertakes a rollback of affirmative action legislation designed to redress historical injustices and discrimination against minorities. His Secretary of State orders the elimination of departments focused on fighting genocide and upholding human rights. All in the name of making America Great again.

In the last ten years, especially after Barak Obama’s election, these groups found an echo chamber in the rightwing media, both in its corporate expression (Fox News, various commercial radio outlets) and in its on-line presence (Brietbart is very much in the news but if you really want to see how these people think, check out the Storm Front web site that I will not link to). The synergy between extremists and their media enablers seeped into the political discourse of the Republican Party, and in the 2016 campiagn it grew into a torrent of vitriol and hatred directed at Hillary Clinton and everything that she ostensibly represented when it came to the cultural divisions rendering the country. Now, with Trump as president, it has institutional support in, if not outright ratification by, the Oval Office.

Trump’s ascendance has empowered and emboldened what used to be a fringe element on the US Right, who have now openly taken to the streets to reassert their supremacy over all others. This move out of the sewer coincided with efforts by Southern state governments to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces, leading to the unhappy convergence of racists focusing on defending these artifacts (flags, statues, street names and plaques) on historical, cultural or transparently racist grounds. Charlottesville was a perfect storm of this convergence.

Even so-called “quiet” or “polite” racists feel comfortable publicly stating the view that things have “gone too far” or that “people need to know their place” in a fashion I had not seen in a very long time during my regular  sojourns in the South (where I still am at the moment). Bigotry is again acceptable in certain quarters of polite society.

I must confess that I have been surprised by the re-emergence of this openly racist discourse and the human vermin that champions it. When I left the US they seemed to be reduced to a small and disparate assortment of disgruntled losers with low IQs going nowhere fast. But it seems that, for whatever combination of factors–and I should note that the areas in which these people appear to be most strongly evident are the decaying white working class regions that make up the epicenter of Trump’s red state support and the opioid epidemic–racism just went underground. There it stewed in a vexatious brew of internet conspiracies, resentment against so-called PC culture and “liberal” media, post 9/11 xenophobic fear of foreign aggression, hatred of supposedly job stealing immigrants, gun fetishism and the fear of gun confiscation by a Zionist and UN-controlled federal government run by treasonous Democrats (and even a foreign-born Muslim president for eight years!) aided and abetted by smug, effete coastal academic and economic elites with disdain for “real” Americans.

Now these frotherers have scuttled into the sunlight, armed and dangerous. They have killed one and injured many others in the six months since Trump was inaugurated. Charlottesville was not the only staging ground for a racist gathering in the US this past weekend, and more confrontations are planned.

The good news is that, like the draining of a septic wound after a scab is lifted, Trump’s reluctance to repudiate his base of deplorables has ripped the veneer of deference and  respect (or at least what was left of it) from his office. The military, many corporations, numerous politicians (including those from the GOP), celebrities of all stripes, most of the media and hundreds of thousands of regular people have denounced the events in Charlottesville and the president for his cowardice in the face of them. Confederate symbols have been toppled by flash mobs, industry titans have resigned from presidential advisory boards, peaceful vigils and marches have materialized spontaneously thanks to social media dissemination, and the  general mood, at least as I can gather down here in SE Florida, is one of incredulity and dismay that this clown is POTUS.

More and more, I hear word that the endless cycle of scandal and crisis in the White House, some of which appears to be part of a strategy to replace one outrage with another in order to normalise the tumult, make people forget past offenses and divert public attention from the ongoing investigation of Trump’s Russia ties, is taking its toll on congressional republicans looking at the 2018 midterm elections. After all, they have themselves and their party to think of next year, and if the pace of scandal and crisis does not relent–and it shows no sign of doing so–then it is simply not sustainable for them to continue to support Trump without dragging themselves and the GOP down into defeat next year. As it is, even with control of both legislative chambers they have not passed a single piece of significant legislation and, to the contrary, have instead passed with overwhelming majorities presidential veto-proof sanctions on Russia and prohibitions on presidential recess appointments. So Trump is being increasingly and openly defied, when not politically emasculated, by the people in his own party that he most desperately needs to enact his agenda. With his dog whistling of racists now turned into an open field call, the chances of him doing so are slim to none.

In a few weeks or months, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will bring the hammer down on him with regards to the Russia investigation. With a reputation for being relentless and methodical, assisted by a crack team of prosecutors specialised in wire fraud, organized crime and counter-espionage (three of whom speak and read Russian), Mueller has already panelled three grand juries and ordered a dawn raid on Trump’s first campaign director’s house. He has been deposing dozens of Trump aides and campaign staffers, including his son-in-law and first national security advisor. Rumors of plea bargains in exchange for damaging information about Trump are openly circulating. Mueller is also looking into Trump’s dealings with the Russians prior to announcing his candidacy, and the relationship between the Trump organization and Russian organized crime.  As a friend of mine from DC noted, Mueller is the last person you want chasing you, and he is chasing Truimp hard.

Trump can, of course, order that Mueller be fired. Mueller knows that and we can be sure that he has prepared contingency plans so that the investigations continue in his absence. But should Trump order his Attorney General minion, Jeff Sessions (also someone with a checkered past on issues of race), to fire Mueller, than not only will it likely cause a revolt within the Department of Justice and FBI. It will force Congress’ hand when it comes to filing articles of impeachment against him (the “high crime and misdemeanor” required for impeachment being obstruction of justice). Again, with an election looming next year, any such move by Trump will see large swathes of the GOP abandon him.

So the news is mixed. Trump picked the scab of racism and the pus is in the streets. But it also has energised antiseptic forces throughout the country and made congressional Republicans reassess their positions vis-a-vis him in light of his reluctance to thoroughly drain his camp of the putrid emulators of bygone ideologies. Because, as it turns out, as of January 20  the swamp that needs most urgent draining is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue rather than in DC as a whole.

I have agreed to provide a weekly commentary to Mitch Harris on his Night Talk show on Radiolive. In the first instalment we roamed over a series of subjects,  but the focus was on the ongoing trainwreck that is US presidential politics.

Letters from America: Opioids and Venezuelans.

datePosted on 08:22, August 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I am on an extended stay in the US that will see me in several states and regions before my return to NZ in December. I decided that this is a good opportunity to write an occasional “Letters from America” series gathering together random thoughts on various aspects of US politics, society and culture. First stop is the East Coast of South Florida.

Late summer in South Florida is hot (over 30C daytime temps), humid (over 80 percent until the PM thunderstorms break the steam bath), and languidly quiet. Tourists are few and far between and the locals alternate hiding from the heat indoors with forays to the beach or pool.

The two items on my mind today are opioids and Venezuela. Since the latter might not seem to be an US relevant subject, let me start with it.

Venezuela is in the middle of a slow burning civil war sparked by deteriorating economic and social conditions caused by the incompetence, corruption and myopic power lust of the Maduro government that succeeded the father of the Boliviarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, upon his death. Unlike many non-Venezuelan leftist commentators I have no time for Maduro and the petty authoritarian kleptocrats that surround him just because he opposes the US and the US opposes him.  He is just another prop in the endless right-wing arguments about how the Left cannot govern either competently or in a democratic way. As much as I loathe the Venezuelan oligarchy that has always been a disloyal opposition to the Boliviarians, I despair for the Venezuelan poor, working and middle classes who saw hope in the Revolution and have now had their aspirations terminally dashed under a barrage of water cannon, tear gas, sniper fire, rocks and molotovs. The root causes and official responses to the crisis are not just the work of external interference and internal agitators (sound familiar?).

Blame lies everywhere in Venezuela today, but no one will take responsibility and the regime has simply met its end with the last resort of dictators–repression. What comes after may be no better, or worse.

The reason that Venezuela is a social issue in South Florida as well as a political issue in the US is simple: there are over 100,000 Venezuelans living in South Florida, many recent arrivals as “refugees” from the Boliviarian regime. Many moved their capital and as much of their fixed assets to the US as they could (capital flight being a key indicator of political instability), bought property in a climate that is similar to that of their homeland, and struck up political alliances with the long-standing Cuban exile community. Like minds think alike, and the type of Cubans and Venezuelans who inhabit South Florida come from the reactionary-to-troglydite end of the political spectrum.

The union of Cuban and Venezuelan reactionaries, coupled with the money they bring into local, state and national politics, has been instrumental in turning the Trump administration’s approach to both countries in a backwards direction. The Cuban-Venezuelan lobbying bloc is staunchly pro-Trump. Not surprisingly, the restored relations with Cuba begun by the Obama administration have been partially rolled back, and the US has just announced asset freezes and other punitive sanctions against Maduro and members of his personal entourage wherever US jurisdiction applies. The White House has been at pains to note that Maduro joins Mugabe, Kim Jung-Un and Assad as the only heads of state sanctioned in this way, and the way in which the farcical and rigged constitutional referendum was held in Venezuela this past weekend was likened to assorted atrocities committed under Stalinism, Pol Pot etc. No mention of the US glad-handing the Saudis, Erdogan in Turkey or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi even as they engage in more egregious human rights violations than Maduro on a systematic basis. But hey, as a general rule politics in the US is about hypocrisy loudly masquerading as righteousness or indignation, so in that regard the White House sqwaking about Maduro (who again, is not a fit or suitable ruler for his country) needs to be taken with a grain of comparative salt.

There is a more sinister element in this “Venezuelafication” of South Florida. Although one of my pleasures in returning to SoFl is to have access to many Spanish-speaking radio and TV channels (including the legendary “Escandalo (Scandal) TV”), what pours out of the talk shows is an increasingly violent insurrectionary call to eliminate “traitors,” “dupes” and assorted others who are seen to enable or support the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes both at home as well as in the US. This has meshed with the alt-Right narrative about “libtards” and other usurpers of the White Christian social order because many of the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles are also virulent racists and classists who view the poor brown masses in their homelands as human vermin equivalent to those reviled by the US Right. And because the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, whatever their faults,have  empowered brown people in their countries and removed some of the deep-seated social and institutional barriers to their success, the White Cubans and Venezuelans see red in more than one way.

What that has done is to compliment and expand the rhetoric of violence surrounding political debate in SoFl. And whereas it may have been true in the past that “an armed crowd is a polite crowd,” that presumed that the crowd in question had some basic shared notion of civility and proper comportment to fall back on when things got heated. Under Trump that is no longer the case and in fact the opposite is now openly encouraged: give no quarter to political opponents, hear, much less heed no argument from them, confront and attack them at all times using all means necessary to silence them.

Then add some Cuban and Venezuelan mouth frothing ranters with money and influence into the mix. The bottom line is that local and state democracy suffers when expat revanchists take center stage in it.

Were it that I was inclined to seek escape in prescription drugs because it would inure me to the dangers inherent in that trend. But others are not as averse as I.  Over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids (mostly Oxycontin, Vicodin and Methadone). Over 1000 people a day are hospitalised with opioid overdoses, and 100 people a day are dying of them. In 2015, the last year for full records, over 15,000 people died of opioid overdoses, with 183,000 having died between 1999 and 2015. In 2016 the estimated number of opioid overdose deaths jumped to over 59,000 people, the largest increase ever. Even so, the sale of prescription drugs has quadrupled, along with overdose deaths, during the 1999-2015 time frame. Why is this so?

The first cause is the proliferation of shady “pain clinics” in which unethical doctors hand out prescriptions for opioids like lollies. The process if simple: you walk into the clinic complaining of chronic pain of one type or another, you get a script in less than 10 minutes for a $30-40 fee, and the cycle continues after you leave the clinic and enter the pharmacy conveniently located either next door or a few storefronts down from the clinic (usually located in strip malls).  SoFl is awash with these places, and it is not a stretch say that it is easier to get one’s hands on opioids than it is cocaine, cannabis or other illegal drugs.

The second cause is the discounting of opioid prices in states and regions that have an opioid addiction problem. You read that right: pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs at cheaper prices in those regions where addiction rates are highest. What might these regions be? Well, pretty much all of those Red States that voted strongly for Trump, Florida included. Think Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, West Virgina–if the state went strong for Trump, it is likely that the price of a Vicodin is less than that in a Blue State.

Who are the victims of opioid addiction? Again, the connection with Trump’s voter base is strong: predominantly white working class or unemployed/partially employed males aged 25-54 years (most of the figures used here are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention–CDC).

In the face of these epidemic-sized addiction figures, the attorney generals of several states in which the problem is concentrated have filed class action suits against the pharmaceutical companies for their price discounting and targeted marketing of vulnerable populations. But resistance has already been met at the federal level, with GOP congress people rebuking those who would seek to interfere with market imperatives and the freedom of choice people have when it comes to self-medication.

The problem does not end there. The rise in addiction has in turn given rise to a thriving “rehab” industry in which addicts enter into so-called “sober homes” in order to detox. Trouble is, these sober homes are often no more than temporary way stations for addicts trying to kick the habit and pain clinics and pushers have been drawn to them like flies to poop. In many cases “sober homes” are nothing more than glorified shooting galleries, with the attendant rise in criminality associated with the phenomenon. Cities throughout the US but especially in SoFl, including the one I am in, have had to redraft zoning and occupancy laws in order to discourage these type of addiction parasites from continuing to profit from human misery.

So there you have it: a country whose internal political polarization is abetted by that imported from abroad, filtering into a society that in many places is awash in guns and prescription drugs unscrupulously  supplied by industries profiting from them. These same places provide the core demographic–the hard 35 percent–of Trump’s support base who are the ones who support his every move, including demands for regime change in Cuba and Venezuela and a turn against the notions of civility and democratic disocurse that previously served as the ideological myth that once bound the nation together.

The trouble for this “Deplorables” core, as well as the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles longing for a return to the pre-revolutionary past, is that Trump’s promises are nothing more than the prescription drug version of a pipe dream.

Still think it is all about postmodern identity?

datePosted on 15:24, June 18th, 2017 by Pablo

Long term readers may recall something I wrote a few years ago about the issue of Left praxis and the need for a class line above all other strategic perspectives. That post was done in part because of the prevalence of identity politics and other post-modern forms of association within the NZ Left (such as certain “polyamorous” factions present in local progressive circles). This focus on non-class based forms of identification has been eloquently defended at some length by my colleague Lew here at KP, so there is merit in it, at least in some instances.

However, I believe that a major contributing factor to the decline of the Left as an ideological force and political alternative to currently dominant market-supportive ideologies and parties is the turn away from a class line, be it by the 3rd Way Labourites that NZ Labour emulates or the NZ Green Party with its election campaign emphasis on youthful (primarily female Pakeha) candidates over policy substance (which has completed the turn away from “watermelon” politics where class was at the core of its environmental philosophy and grassroots demographic and towards a business-friendly largely urban metrosexual orientation). The fact that many on the Left welcomed the victory of Emmanuel Macron, an investment banker, over Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist, in France and failed to understand Donald Trump’s populist appeal to white American working class and lumpenproletarians (a sin I was guilty of) demonstrates the intellectual and practical vacuum at the core of what passes for modern progressive politics in some parts of the world, Aetoroa in particular.

It puzzles me that even in the face of Bernie Sanders’ remarkable primary campaign in the 2016 US presidential election and UK Labour’s rise under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the UK snap elections of a fortnight ago, that many in the US, UK and NZ Left still cling to the (false consciousness) notion that centrist policies and identity politics are the way to play the game. The truth is that centrist politics have bottomed out under the polarising conditions produced by Alt-Right provocations and disinformation and the futility of the Left trying to successfully play a “soft” version of the market-oriented election game. The corporate and media Right have been quicker to realise this and seized the opportunity to deepen neoliberal era policies of economic deregulation and public sector cost-cutting by adding to it the politics of cultural conflict, immigration control and other methods by which the underlying bases of class conflict are downplayed in order to harvest the political fruits of cross-class uncertainty and fear.

The effect of three decades of market-driven ideological socialisation and post 9/11 politics of fear has been to prompt vulnerable sectors of liberal democratic societies to revert to primal and centrifugal forms of identification–race, religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality–all of which divert attention from the commonality of wage labour class subservience and its increased precariousness under the rule of a predatory type of post-industrial capitalism. Clearly non-class forms of identification need to be factored into any  discussion of praxis in a given socio-economic and political context, but adding non-class identification into the mix as the main focus of progressive struggles only serves to further dilute the solidarity bonds created by the one commonality workers have in the social division of labour of contemporary advanced capitalism.

And yet, in the face of this much of the Left appears to be suffering a form of post-modern paralysis where it is unwilling or unable to recognise that the advances made on superstructural issues like gender and LBGTI rights have their genesis in (but are not reducible to) the class driven struggles of the industrial and post-industrial eras, many of which persist to this day.

With that in mind, rather than prattle on as an old white male former academic, I defer to a genuine organic intellectual of the Left. The context is the aftermath to the Grenfell Tower fire in London:

https://www.facebook.com/thedeepleft/videos/649061075299366/?pnref=story

Guest Post by Selwyn Manning – Editor of EveningReport.nz.

KP Note: The issue of what the NZSAS did or did not do in Operation Burnham, a 2010 raid in Afghanistan that became the subject of the controversial book Hit and Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, must not be buried and forgotten by the next news cycle. The issues at stake go to the core of democratic civil-military relations: issues of accountability, transparency and civilian oversight of the armed forces. In the following guest post veteran journalist Selwyn Manning (formerly of Scoop and among other things co-founder of 36th Parallel Assessments) dissects the NZDF response to the allegations in the book and takes a close look at some important discrepancies in the official version of events. Readers are encouraged to carefully consider what he has uncovered.

There’s an overlooked aspect of the New Zealand Defence Force’s account of Operation Burnham that when scrutinised suggests a possible breach of international humanitarian law and laws relating to war and armed conflict occurred on August 22, 2010 in the Tirgiran Valley, Baghlan province, Afghanistan.

For the purpose of this analysis we examine the statements and claims of the Chief of New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), Lieutenant General Tim Keating, made before journalists during his press conference on Monday March 27, 2017. We also understand, that the claims put by the Lt. General form the basis of a briefing by NZDF’s top ranking officer to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Bill English.

It appears the official account , if true, underscores a probable breach of legal obligations – not necessarily placing culpability solely on the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) commandoes on the ground, but rather on the officers who commanded their actions, ordered their movements, their tasks and priorities prior to, during, and after Operation Burnham.

*******

According to New Zealand Defence Force’s official statements Operation Burnham ‘aimed to detain Taliban insurgent leaders who were threatening the security and stability of Bamyan Province and to disrupt their operational network’. (ref. NZDF rebuttal)

We are to understand Operation Burnham’s objective was to identify, capture, or kill (should this be justified under NZDF rules of engagement), those insurgents who were named on a Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) that NZDF intelligence suggested were responsible for the death of NZDF soldier Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell.

Lieutenant General Tim Keating, Chief of New Zealand Defence Force.

When delivering NZDF’s official account of Operation Burnham before media, Lieutenant General Tim Keating said:

    “After the attack on the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT), which killed Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell, the NZPRT operating in Bamyan Province did everything it could to reduce the target profile of our people operating up the Shakera Valley and into the north-east of Bamyan Province.

“We adjusted our routine, reduced movements to an absolute minimum, maximised night driving, and minimised time on site in threat areas.

“The one thing the PRT [NZPRT] couldn’t do was to have an effect on the individuals that attacked Lieutenant O’Donnell’s patrol. For the first time, the insurgents had a major success — and they were well positioned to do so again.”

For the purpose of a counter-strike, intelligence was sought and Lt. General Keating said: “We knew in a matter of days from local and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) intelligence who had attacked our patrol [where and when Lt. O’Donnell was killed].”

The intelligence specified the villages where the alleged insurgents were suspected of coming from and Lt. General Keating said: “This group had previously attacked Afghan Security Forces and elements of the German and Hungarian PRTs.”

The New Zealand Government authorised permission for the Kabul-based NZSAS troops to be used in Operation Burnham.

“What followed was 14 days of reliable and corroborated intelligence collection that provided confirmation and justification for subsequent actions. Based on the intelligence, deliberate and detailed planning was conducted,” Lt. General Keating said.

Revenge, Keating said, was never a motivation. Rather, according to him, the concern was for the security of New Zealand’s reconstruction and security efforts in Bamyan province.

As stated above, Operation Burnham’s primary objective was to identify, capture or kill Taliban insurgent leaders named in the intelligence data.

We know, from the New Zealand Defence Force’s own account, Operation Burnham failed to achieve that goal.

Read the rest of this entry »

After doing the radio interview linked to in the last post, I was approached by the nice people at The Spinoff to write a short elaboration on what I discussed on air. Here it is.

Media Link: Some thoughts on “Hit and Run.”

datePosted on 13:13, March 30th, 2017 by Pablo

I have done a fair share of media interviews about the Nicky Hager/Jon Stephenson book “Hit and Run.” Needless to say, the claims in the book are damning of the NZDF, although I believe that the criticism is more focused on the command leadership rather than on the troops involved in the operation that is the subject of the book. In any event, this is a an interview I did with radio New Zealand on the matter.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

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