Posts Tagged ‘Trump’

Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

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.

In defence of public ostracism.

datePosted on 14:40, June 26th, 2018 by Pablo

Public confrontations between Trump officials and activists, ordinary citizens and at least one restaurant owner have reignited the debate about “civility” in political disagreement. The editorial boards of leading US newspapers and Democratic leaders have called for restraint and asked those with anti-Trump opinions to refrain from harassing or confronting Trump officials in the public space when the latter are in a private capacity (such as eating in a restaurant). They claim doing so will play into Trump’s hands by reinforcing the narrative that the “Left” is an unruly mob uninterested in the right to privacy and free speech.

That is nonsense.

This is no longer a situation where taking the moral-ethical “high road” when the opponent goes low is practically effective. The “high road” strategy has not worked in the US since the Reagan days, when Republicans adopted a “stop at nothing” approach to politics that eventually produced the Trump presidency. Time and time again Democrats and progressives have been trumped by a disloyal Rightwing armed with unsavoury and unethical tactics such as Swiftboating and race-baiting. The situation at present is an ethical nadir that calls for what game theorists define as a “tit for tat” strategy: open with a cooperative (read: civil) move, then repeat the opponent’s move (with a turn to cooperation by the opponent rewarded for it). When Trump was elected the Democrats and public at large waited to give him the benefit of the doubt and some political space to prove his opponents wrong. He responded by proving them right and turning the White House into a cesspit of incivility, aided and abetted by a coterie of surrogates, advisors and sycophants who all share his sociopathic tendencies. Thus the proper retort is to respond in like kind, albeit with a twist.

Let’s begin with the fact that the US “Left” or what passes for it is of the soft (non-violent) persuasion. For all the talk about Antifa and Trotskyites smashing things, the bulk of Left violence is the garden variety protest march-turned-small riot where either a few provocateurs try to incite a bigger riot by breaking windows, looting and/or assaulting police or opponents (because most of the “militant” Left rallies are in fact counter-protests against white supremacists and neo-Nazis); or the Left protestors engage with Rightists in physical confrontations using sticks, bottles, Mace, edged and other improvised weapons (the Right does in fact bring firearms to many protests and its adherents of course have used them on more than one occasion, but the majority of the Right-on-Left fights involve variants of basic hand weapons). There have been no assaults on Trump officials and no attempts on the lives of anyone in his administration.

The US Left is mostly about shouting slogans and making witty placards against the status quo; the US Right is mostly about threatening or carrying out violence in defence of racial and ethno-religious supremacy. So when it comes to civility or the lack thereof, it is not the Left that is the problem.

Then take the Trump administration itself, which is anything but “civil.” There are two dimensions to its incivility: its policies and its tone. Trump and minions like Sarah Huckabee Sanders regularly use insults, character assassination, dog whistles, stereotypes and slander to belittle and undermine opponents and critics (and allies!) at home and abroad. The list of such is far too long and readers will be all to familiar with them for me to recount here. This is an administration that thrives on the politics of personal attack and which regularly sets new lows when it comes to Executive discourse. In fact, the immediate response of both Sarah Sanders and Trump to her denial of service at a restaurant (where her presence was opposed by the majority of staff) was to use their official Twitter accounts to disparage the establishment and its owner. In effect, Trumpsters whining about being confronted in their private time is just a case of crocodile tears on the part of bullies unaccustomed to being personally called out on their behaviour.

Add to that its callous disregard for fundamental ethics on a number of fronts (conflicts of interest, disclosure of confidential material, use of taxpayer money for private pursuits), and what we have today is the most uncivil US administration ever. Heck, Trump makes George W. Bush look dignified and smart and Richard Nixon look honest and statesmanlike, so there never again can be an argument as to who is the worst US president of all time. If nothing else his record when it comes to incivility will be hard to beat.

Then there are the policies of the Trump administration and the ways in which they are implemented or attempted. The Muslim ban, the ban on transgender military service, the opening up of wild lands to fossil fuel exploration, the withdrawal from international treaties and agreements, the removal of protections for disabled people, the cutbacks in funding for special education, denial of climate change and removal of scientists from White House offices, the edict to engage in forced separation of undocumented immigrant families–these and many more policies are underpinned by overtly racist, classist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian attitudes that reek of contempt for the institutional process, the meaning of public service and the basic democratic principle of public accountability.

More importantly, Trump administration policies are mean in intent and consequence. They are designed to hurt rather than help people. They are designed to use the power of the federal government to punish and oppress outlier groups and reward and advantage insiders. They are blunt instruments of malevolence aimed at pounding the body politic into complying with a vision of society based on hierarchy, hate, privilege, stratification and self-interest/greed. In word and deed, Trump and his cabal hurt tens of thousands of people on a daily basis and make no apologies for it.

So what is so civil about that? And why should we be civil to them in return? Is not staying silent in the face of official incivility submission or acquiescence to it? I believe that it is.

Instead of silence, I think that we should make things very personal to every single Trump minion, surrogate, spin doctor, media acolyte, political donor and corporate toady. The message, delivered up close and personal, should be that the policies of hate and greed have no place in a secular cosmopolitan society and the politics of personal attack can work two ways. In this case the attack is not physical even if confrontational: the Trump entourage need to understand and feel in their personal lives the discomfort of threat and opprobrium. The repudiation of Trump policy needs to be made personal to them because both the administration lackeys as well as the foot soldiers implementing their policies believe that they are personally immune from liability or accountability.

Those at the top believe that the office of the presidency protects them from personal reproach, and those at the bottom believe that anonymity protects them from individual retribution. If we cannot confront the originators of bad policy in the public space and their personal lives and if we do not equally confront the enablers and implementors of uncivil policies, where is dissent and opposition heard? The courts, which are increasingly stacked with Trump appointees? Congress, where both chambers are controlled by the entity formally known as the Republican Party but which is now a Trump coat-tail and rubber-stamp machine?

No, the time for civility ended a while ago. The truth is that “civility” in political discourse has been eroding since the Reagan era, mostly thanks to the antics of the media and Political Right. So the calls for Left civility are both hypocritical and self-defeating because they work to silence those who wish to stand up to political bullying while ignoring the bullies themselves.

Mind you, I am not talking about physically attacking people or confronting their dependent children in any way. I am not advocating people go out and deliberately harass  Trump administration officials. What I am defending is the practice of calling out those responsible for despicable policies regardless of place. If we are going to ostracise or “name and shame” sexual offenders, local fraudsters, animal abusers and assorted other low-lifes and miscreants who are not in the public eye, why should we defer from doing so to those that are?

The best way to drive home to Trumpsters the fact that their actions have negative consequences is to make things personal understanding that timing and place need to be factored into the equation in order to be effective (e.g. yelling at people outside of church or at kid’s sporting events may be counter-productive while a quiet or polite rebuke in a parking lot may make the point better. There are plenty of ways to be direct and personal without seeming creepy or unhinged). It is not as if these agents of misery are constantly exposed to public wrath. They have enough time to enjoy the bubble and echo chamber that is their political support base in and outside of the institutions of office. They have the option to defend themselves via argument or escape, and many have bodyguards to buffer them from physical aggression. So let’s stop this nonsense about civility and lets make things real: in order to gain respect one has to give respect. In order to be treated with civility one must be civil as well. And if one disrespects entire groups of people and ruins the lives of thousands while catering to the baser instincts of the minority that are one’s political adherents, then better be prepared to hear about it in person.

Because civility is not about silence or submission. It is about consent. And when consent is lost, then civility includes the right to make personal to those who rule the reasons why.

A return to the banality of evil.

datePosted on 13:17, June 20th, 2018 by Pablo

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in Nazi Germany, she was referring not to the leaders but to the thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, civil servants, cops, tax collectors and everyday citizens who went along with the Nazi project or simply said that they were “following orders,” “doing their jobs” or being “good citizens.” The Nuremberg trails put paid to those excuses.

Today in the US we have a variant on the theme. It may not quite be holocaust in size, but the forced separation of children from undocumented parents in order to use them as pawns in Drumpf/GOP attempts to extract Democrat concessions on immigration reform (pay for the wall, etc.) is abhorrent nevertheless. And while attention rightfully is focused on Drumpf and his minions, my question is this: who are the people who are enforcing this wretched policy? These are the people who take the evil abstract of forced family separation and turn it into executable action via bureaucratic procedures and regulations (e.g. wearing of surgical gloves when handling detainees, using female agents to process women, providing water and x amount of calories via solid food at regular intervals, etc.). Who are the border patrol, local law enforcement and homeland security agents and private contractors who are doing the actual separation and detention of children in cages? Are they doing this because they agree with Drumpf, are racists themselves or are just plain psychopathic? Or are they going to tell us that they are only following orders and doing their jobs?

Until we make those carrying out this atrocity as personally responsible as Drumpf, Sessions, et.al, we will continue to see the steady undermining of the moral foundations of the Republic. Make no mistake about it: these enforcers of the morally reprehensible are neighbours, friends, family members and church goers who go about their lives as if all was normal. And that is exactly what Arendt was describing. It is the banality of such evil that eventually makes it normal.

Less NZ readers think that it cannot happen here, just hark back to the Police invasion of Nicky Hager’s privacy in search for the elusive “Rawshark” source. You may recall that I wrote a post about how the cops used Customs, Immigration and airline companies to obtain the personal data of thousands of passengers who flew on certain dates between Auckland and a foreign country where the Police suspected Rawshark was vacationing. None of this was done under warrant, but instead, just as in the case the banks that gave up Hager’s financial records so readily, they did so willingly upon request. All of those involved will defend their actions as cooperating with the Police but in fact they were under no obligation to do so without a warrant. But they did.

We now learn that a private security firm has a hand in glove relationship with NZ public agencies in spying on people who pose no threat to national security, and that in fact the private security firm may have business steered to it by a NZ intelligence agency in spite of the obvious–or at least appearance of–conflict of interest. Here as well we have a case of people just doing as they are told without consideration of the ethics or morality about what they are being told to do, some in pursuit of profit and some for reasons known only to them. They are following orders, doing their jobs, chasing leads and tip-offs without consideration of the fact that what may be legally permissible (or at least not outlawed) may not be morally or ethically proper.

These, in sum, are Kiwi examples of evil gone banal. And there are bound to be others, so perhaps the abomination that it is the Drumpf policy of separating undocumented asylum-seeking families at the southern US border should serve as a reminder to New Zealanders as to the depths to which a nation can plunge if it allows that evil banality to become the new normal.

The political rope-a-dope.

datePosted on 12:39, April 10th, 2018 by Pablo

Older readers will remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” where Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman for the heavyweight boxing title. Held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, the contest pitted the undefeated champion Foreman, a beast of a man whose stock in trade was brutal early round knockouts of people such as Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and other contenders of the time (the uppercut punch that KO’d Norton earlier in 1974 actually lifted him off of the ground) against an ageing Ali, well past his prime after lengthy suspension when his concientious objection to the Vietnam War was ruled invalid and he was convicted of draft-dodging.

In the build up to the fight Ali pushed the line that he was going to take the fight to Foreman with his superior speed and agility. But Foreman and his trainers knew, based on the workouts Ali allowed the public and media to see, that his hand, head and foot speed were no longer what they used to be, and he could no longer “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” The Foreman fight plan was therefore simple: bear down on Ali, cut off escape angles and corner him in the corners and on the ropes, then expose and exploit his slowness in a ferocious and relentless beatdown.

As readers will know, that did not happen. Ali privately trained to absorb body blows and using the lax rules of the boxing federations sponsoring the fight, was able to get the ring ropes loosened to their maximum extent (which allowed up to 12 inches of slack from the bottom to the top rope). Come fight time, this allowed Ali to lean back against the ropes, absorb Foreman’s increasingly frustrated and reckless body blows while dodging the occasional head shot and in doing so conserve energy by not punching himself out in a toe-to-toe brawl.

 

By the eighth round Foreman had thrown hundreds of punches. He was staggering around the ring in pursuit of Ali and physically spent, punch drunk and arm weary from throwing jabs, roundhouses and uppercuts rather than taking them. Once his hands dropped and stayed at his sides Ali pounced, using a series of jabs and hard rights to knock him down and out. It remains one of the greatest sporting upsets–and spectacles–of all time.

I mention this anecdote because it seems to me that we are witnessing a variation on this theme in US politics today. Although it is blasphemous to say so, think of Trump as Ali, his civil and political opposition and mainstream media as Foreman, the courts as the referee and the Republican party and rightwing corporate and social media, including state-sponsored trolls and disinformation purveyors, as the ropes.

In a straight up contest between Trump and the US constitutional system of checks and balances, it would be no contest. The courts, Congress and independent media would prevent Trump from slipping the boundaries of executive responsibility, would hold him to account and would punish him when he transgressed. Given his background and behaviour, he would not make it out of the first round.

But in the US today he has a support cushion in the GOP and rightwing media. Like the rules governing the tension on boxing ring ropes, the strictures governing partisan behaviour and truth in reporting have been stretched to their limits. Every blow he is dealt by the institutional system–the “swamp” as he calls it–is absorbed and countered by a chorus of hyper-partisan hyperbole and media ranting about “fake news,” conspiracies and the “Deep State.” This allows Trump to deflect, weave, dodge and counterpunch his accusers, questioning their character, motives, looks and heritage as if these were somehow equivalent or worse than the activities he has and is engaged in. The courts can only enforce what exists on paper, and since what exists on paper regarding presidential conduct is predominantly an issue of norms, custom and mores rather than legal accountability, there are limits to what they can do as referees in battles between Trump and other institutions.

Put another way: Normally a wayward president could not stand toe to toe with the institutional system of checks and balances without taking a beating. But that assumes that the limits of executive power are codified in law and not subject to manipulation. This turns out to be untrue. Much executive power does in fact answer to the law, at least in terms of how presidential decisions affect others. But much of it is also a product of precedent, practice, custom and tradition, not legislation, particularly when it comes to the president’s personal behaviour. In turn, the limits of presidential behaviour has always rested on the assumption that the incumbent will honour the informal traditions and responsibilities of office as well as the nature of the office itself, and not seek to manipulate the position for pecuniary and political self-advantage and/or personal revenge.

Trump has done exactly that. He regards the presidency as a personal vehicle and has disdain and contempt for its traditions and norms. He realises that he can play loose with the rules because the political constraints that bind him have been loosened by his corporate, congressional  and media supporters. He and his allies are willing to play dirty and use all of the tools at his disposal to thwart justice and destroy opponents.

This is the great irony of US politics. For a country that provides itself on constitutional protections and the “rule of law,” the framework governing presidential behaviour is little more than the ropes on a boxing ring.

For those interested in a return to civility and institutional norms this is problematic but is not the only thing that parallels the “rumble in the jungle.”  Like Trump’s attacks on those investigating him in the FBI and Justice Department, for months prior to the fight Ali poisoned the well of good will towards Foreman. Ali lost his prime fighting years to the suspensions levied on him by boxing associations after he refused to be inducted into the US Army in 1967. Although he never spent time in jail and became an icon of the anti-War movement, he resented the five lost athletic years and those who profited by stepping into the ring during his absence. He particularly loathed Foreman, who he considered to be the white man’s favorite because of his quiet, polite and compliant demeanour out of the ring. He publicly labeled Foreman an “Uncle Tom” and “House Negro” who turned his back on his fellow people of color. Although none of this was verifiable, Ali’s charges resonated beyond boxing circles.

When Ali arrived in Kinsasha he held public training events that were part sparring, part evangelical preaching. He railed against colonialism and imperialism, averred his faith in Islam, lauded African nationalists like Mobuto Sese Seko, then-president of the host country Zaire (and not one known for his affinity for democratic rights), and generally carried on like a bare-chested revolutionary in shorts and gloves. Foreman, for his part, stayed quiet, trained mostly in private and had his handlers speak for him. When they entered the ring on that storied night, the 60,000 strong crowd crammed into the national stadium was overwhelmingly on Ali’s side.

Perhaps Ali’s mind games were designed to help sway the judge’s decision in the event that it was close. Perhaps it was to intimidate Foreman himself. Whatever the motive, there is a parallel to be drawn with Trump’s attacks on his critics and investigators on Twitter, at press conferences and at campaign-style rallies. His ranting serves to raise public suspicion about the critical media and federal law enforcement much in the way Ali’s insults about Foreman had the effect of raising questions about his ethnic identification and personal integrity, something that eventually turned African opinion against him. Could the same happen with Trump’s support base and undecided voters in the US?

It is too early to tell if Trump’s “rope a dope” political strategy will see him triumph over his adversaries. But that leaves pending an open question: is there a person out there that can play Leon Spinks to Trump’s Ali? And if so, is that person named Robert Mueller, or could it turn out to be Stormy Daniels?

One thing is certain. Trump is a big fan of the WWE and likes to fancy himself as a tough guy willing to take on all challengers. However, in this contest, unlike the WWE, the outcome is not pre-determined and the blows are both real and far from over.

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.

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.

Mitch Harris and I continued our weekly radio conversations from the US, this week discussing Harvey Weinstein, reports that Trump is  mentally “unraveling” and how the Mueller investigation into possible Russian interference in last year’s US election is progressing. Theme of the week might as well be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

This week Mitch Harris and I talked about Trump’s  attacks on the so-called “take a knee movement,” his lack of compassion for the Puerto Rican victims of two hurricans and the increasingly risky rhetoric he uses vis a vis North Korea. It can be found here.

As part of the series of radio interviews I do with Mitch Harris on RadioLive on Wed nights, this week we decided to be a bit more free ranging than usual (since the normal focus of the radio version of the “Letters from America” series tends to concentrate on matters of US politics and society).  The issue of Chinese influence in NZ is getting a fair bit of attention as of late, and the pipe rupture causing shortages in aviation fuel and petrol supplies provides a basis for pondering the down side of N8 wire culture. And then there is Hillary blaming Bernie Sanders and the Russians for her loss last year while taking no responsibility for it, and Drumpf ranting incoherently at his first UN General Assembly speech. There was plenty to talk about. You can find the interview here.

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