In the latest episode of AVFA Selwyn Manning and I discuss the evolution of Latin American politics and macroeconomic policy since the 1970s as well as US-Latin American relations during that time period. We use recent elections and the 2022 Summit of the Americas as anchor points.
After a brief hiatus, the “A View from Afar” podcast is back on air with Selwyn Manning leading the Q&A with me. This week is a grab bag of topics: Russian V-Day celebrations, Asian and European elections, and the impact of the PRC-Solomon Islands on the regional strategic balance. Plus a bunch more. Check it out.
Happy New Year everyone.
I am, by personal and professional inclination, loathe to speculate on uncertain future events. On the other hand, I have an abiding interest in distant political processes even though I cannot claim particular analytic expertise when considering them. Thus, when watching the recent Chilean presidential election from afar, I found myself wanting to offer a view while being unable to realistically give a prediction or even outline what the future course of affairs will be beyond the inauguration of Chile’s new president in March. An exchange with a long term reader (Edward Main) during the holiday break led me to look closer into the matter. With that in mind, I hope that readers will take the following as an interested bystander’s observations rather than an expert reflection of the ongoing turn of events.
Five days before Christmas and 51 years after Salvador Allende was elected as the first socialist president in Chilean history, Gabriel Boric re-made history as the youngest candidate (35) to win that office. A former student activist and Congressman from Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego, he first rose to prominence during the 2011 student demonstrations against increases in tuition fees at the University of Chile, then again during the 2019 anti-austerity demonstrations precipitated by a 30 percent rise in public transportation prices in Santiago. In 2021 Boric rode a wave of votes (the most since mandatory voting laws were dropped in 2012) to win 56 percent of the national ballot (although less than 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, leaving a large pool of disaffected or apathetic voters in the political mix). He campaigned on an overtly socialist, specifically anti-neoliberal agenda, promising to tax the super rich, expand social services and environmental conservation programs, promote pension reform and universal health care and make the fight against income inequality his main priority in a country with the worst income gaps in South America.
Boric’s victory is remarkable given the tone of the campaign. His opponent, Jose Antonio Kast, embraced Trumpian-style rhetoric and openly said that he would be the “Bolsonaro of Chile” (Jair Bolsonaro is the national-populist president of Brazil who emulates Trump, now hospitalized because of complications from a knife attack in 2018). He railed against Boric as someone who would turn Chile into Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, or even Peronist Argentina. Kast is the son of a card-carrying Nazi who fled to Chile after WW2 and built a sausage-making business that served as a launching pad for his children’s economic and political ambitions during the Pinochet dictatorship (the Kast family dynasty is prominent in Chilean rightwing circles). Jose Antonio Kast openly praised the strongman and his neoliberal economic policies during his presidential campaign while downplaying the thousands of murdered, tortured and exiled victims of Pinochet’s regime. He won a plurality of votes in the presidential primaries but lost decisively in the second round run-off between the two largest vote-getters.
Surprisingly given their vitriol during the campaign, both Kast and the outgoing president, rightwing Sebastian Pinera (son of a Pinochet Labour Minister who happened to be a friend of my father) extended their congratulations and offers of support to the newly elected Boric, who will be inaugurated in March. This makes the transition period especially important, as it may offer a window of opportunity for Boric to negotiate inter-partisan consensus on key policy issues.
Boric’s election follows that of several other Leftist presidential candidates in Latin America in the last two years, including those in Bolivia (a successor to the illegally ousted Evo Morales), Peru (an indigenous school teacher and teacher’s union leader) and Honduras (the wife of a former president ousted by a coup tacitly backed by the Obama administration). Centre-Left presidents govern in Belize, Costa Rica, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, and Suriname. A former leftwing mayor of Bogota is the front runner in this year’s Colombian presidential elections (now in Right-center hands) and former president Lula da Silva is leading the polls against Bolsonaro for the October canvass in Brazil. These freely elected Leftists are bookended on one end by authoritarian counterparts in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and on the other by right-leaning elected governments in Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala Paraguay and Uruguay. Argentina, which has a Peronist government, straddles the divide between Left and Right owing to the odd (and very kleptocratic) populist coalition that makes up the governing Party.
One might say that the region is relatively balanced ideologically speaking, but with an emerging tilt to the moderate Left as a result of the exposure by the pandemic of inherent flaws in the market driven economic model that dominated the region over the last thirty years. It remains to be seen if this political tilt will eventuate in the type of socio-economic reforms upon which the successful Leftists candidates campaigned on. What is pretty clear is that it will not be a repeat of the so-called “Pink Tide” that swept the likes of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales into power in the early 2000s, both in terms of the extent of their policy ambitions and the style in which they rule. This most recent wave still retains many characteristics of the much lauded (by the Left) indigenous socialism of twenty years ago, but it is now tempered by the policy failures and electoral defeats that followed its heyday. It is indigenous not only because of its origins in populations that descended from pre-colonial civilizations (although there is still plenty of indigena in Latin American socialism), but because it originates in domestic and regional ideological thought and practice. Within this dual sense of the phrase, it is moderation and pragmatism that appears to differentiate the original 2000s versions from what is emerging today.
Western observers believe that the regional move Left may give China an opportunity to make strategic inroads in the hemisphere. That view betrays ignorance of the Latin American Left, which is not driven by any Communist orthodoxy or geopolitical alignment with China (or even blind hatred of the US), but instead is a very heterogenous mix of indigenous, environmental, trade union, student and social movement activism that among other things is progressive on gender and sexuality rights and climate change. This is not a Leninist/Maoist Left operating on vanguardist principles of “democratic centralism,” but instead a fluid amalgam of modern (industrial) and post-modern (post-industrial) causes. What that means is, since China is soon to overtake the US as the primary extractor of raw materials and primary goods from Latin America and has a checkered environmental record as part of its presence as well as a record of authoritarian management practices in Chinese controlled firms, it is by no means certain that it will be able to leverage emergent elected Latin American Left governments in its favor.
In fact, given what has been seen in its relationship with the three authoritarian leftist states, many of the elected Leftist governments may prove reticent to deepen ties with the Asia giant precisely because of concerns about a loss of economic independence (fearing debt diplomacy, among other things). The Belt and Road initiative may seem an attractive proposition at first glance, but it can also serve to choke national sovereignty on the economic as well as diplomatic fronts. Boric and his supporters are very much aware of this given problems that have risen from Chinese investment in the Chilean mining and forestry sectors (such as disputes over water and indigenous land rights).
This is worth mention as a relevant aside. Chile’s economy remains primary good export oriented. The bulk of its GDP is derived from mining, forestry, fishing and agriculture, including value added products such as wine. Recently, lithium deposit exploitation has exploded across the so-called “lithium triangle” comprised of northwest Argentina, southwestern Bolivia and northeaster Chile, with Chinese investors jockeying for position with Western interests in the development of salt flat mining in which lithium is extracted for commercial purposes in an increasingly e-based global economy. Such mining is environmentally damaging and machine intensive, so the benefits accrued go to those who can afford to invest in it rather than to workers associated with it. Chinese firms compete on the bottom line, not on social responsibility.
The political economic consequences of this dependence on primary good exports fuelled by foreign investment follows a larger pattern whereby Chilean economic elites resist public investment in anything other than service industries connected to primary good supply chains and ancillary businesses (input and output logistics, highways, port infrastructure and the legal and commercial apparatuses attendant to them). This has made for a significant urban-rural divide when it comes to economic opportunity, something that is not alleviated by the proliferation of universities and private education institutions during the last 30 years. In fact, the Chilean economic model discourages investment in value-added technological innovation that would undermine the primacy of the primary good export sector as the dominant economic, social and political constellation. Instead, Right governments have used low export tax policy as a means of promoting “trickle down” opportunity to those inserted into the main productive sectors while Left leaning governments have used tax revenues on exports as a means of alleviating social inequalities and dysfunction while expanding the service sector middle class. As the 2019 demonstrations made clear, neither has worked. Boric’s presidency has that as its fundamental conundrum.
That brings up the internal political dynamics at play in Chile. For Boric to succeed he will have to deliver on very high public expectations. For that to happen he needs to navigate a three-cornered political obstacle course.
In one corner is his own political support base, which is comprised of numerous factions with different priorities, albeit all on the “Left” side of the policy agenda. This include members of the Constitutional Convention charged with drawing up a replacement for the Pinochet-era constitution still in force (something that was agreed to by the outgoing government in the wake of the 2019 protests). The Convention must design a new constitution with procedural as well as substantive features. That is, it must demarcate governance processes as well as grant enshrined rights. The balance between the two is tricky, because a minimalist approach that focuses on processes and procedures (such as elections, office terms and separation of powers) does not address what constitutes a “right” in a democracy and who should have rights bestowed upon them, whereas an encompassing approach that attempts to cover the universe of social endeavour risks granting so many rights to so many people and agencies that it overwhelms regulatory processes and becomes meaningless is real terms (the latter happened with the 1988 Brazilian constitutional reform, which covers a plethora of topics that have been cumbersome to enforce or implement in practice).
Not all of the delegates share the gradualist, incremental, moderately pragmatic approach to policy agenda-setting that Boric espouses, and because they are independently elected, it signals that the future of Chile resides in a very much redesigned approach to governance. It is even possible that delegates consider moving from a presidential to a parliamentary democracy given that Chile already has a very splintered party system that requires the building multiparty coalitions to form majorities in any event. Whatever is put on the table, Boric will have to urge delegates to exercise caution when it comes to sensitive issues like taxation, military funding and autonomy, land reform (including indigenous land rights, which have been the source of violent clashes in recent years) etc., less it provoke a destabilizing backlash from conservative sectors. In light of that and the strength of his election victory, it will be interesting to see how Boric approaches the Constitutional Convention, how his Cabinet shapes up in terms of personnel and policy orientation, and how his support bloc in Congress responds to his early initiatives.
The latter matters because Boric inherits a deeply fragmented Congress that has a slim Opposition majority but which in fact has seen all centrist parties lose ground to more extreme parties on both the Right and Left. Even so and depending on the issue, cross-cutting alliances within Congress currently transcend the usual Left-Right divide, so it is possible that he will be able to use his incrementalist moderate approach to advance a Left-nationalist project that keeps most parties aligned or at least does not step on too many Party toes. On the other hand, the fact Boric won 56 percent of a vote in which only 56 percent of eligible voters went to the polls means that his policy proposals could easily be rejected on partisan grounds given the lack of unified majorities on either side of the ideological divide.
In another corner are the political Opposition, dominated by Pinochetista legacies but increasingly interspersed with neo-MAGA and alt-Right perspectives (what I shall call Chilean nationalist conservatism). The Right has a significant presence in the Constitutional Convention so may be able to act as a brake on radical reforms and in doing so create space for Boric and his supporters in the convention to push more moderate alterations to the magna carta (each constitutional change requires a 2/3 vote in order to pass. This will force compromise and moderation by the drafters if anything is to be achieved).
The fact that Pinera and Kast, scions of the Pinochetista wing (they do not like that name and disavow ties to the dictatorship other than support for its “Chicago School” economic policies), readily conceded and offered support to Boric may indicate that the neoliberal wing of Chilean conservatism understands that many rightwing voters may have abstained from voting or voted for Boric on economic nationalist grounds as a result of Pinera’s adherence to market-oriented policies that clearly were not alleviating poverty or providing effective pandemic relief even as the upper ten percent of society continued to capture an increasing percentage of national wealth. This could mean that the Chilean Right is less disloyal to the democratic process as it was in the run up to Allende’s election and therefore more committed—or at least some of it is—to trying to reach compromises with Boric on pressing policy issues. In that sense their presence in the Constitutional Convention may prove to be a moderating influence.
Conversely, in the wake of the defeat the Chilean Right might fragment between Pinochetista and newer factions, which will mean that conciliation with government initiatives will be difficult until the internal power struggle within the Right is resolved, and then only if it is resolved in a way that marginalizes Trump and Bolsonaro-inspired extremists within conservative ranks. After all, what sells in the US or Brazil does not necessarily sell in Chile. The most important arena in which this internal dispute will have to be resolved is Congress, where extreme Right parties have taken seats from traditional conservative vehicles. On the face of it that spells trouble for Boric, but the narrow Right majority in Congress and Pinochetista disdain for their extreme counterparts may grant him some room for manoeuvre.
In a very real sense, Boric’s political fate will be determined in the first instance by the coalition politics within his own support base as well as within the Right Opposition.
The final obstacle is getting the Chilean military on-board with the new government’s project. Of the three factors in this political triumvirate, the armed forces are both a constant and a wild card. They are a constant in that their deeply conservative disposition and institutional legacies are unshakable and guaranteed. This means that Boric’s government must tread delicately when it comes to civil-military affairs, both in terms of national security policy-making but also with regard to the prerogatives awarded the armed forces under the Pinochet constitution. Along with the Catholic Church and landed agricultural interests, the Chilean armed forces are one of the three pillars of traditional Chilean conservatism. This ideological outlook extends to the national paramilitary police, the Carabineros, who are charged with domestic security and repression (the two overlap but are not the same).
Democratic reforms (such as allowing female combat pilots) have been introduced into the military, especially during the tenure of former president Michelle Bachelet as Defense Minister, but the overall tone of civil-military relations over the years since democracy was restored (1990) has been aloof, when not tense. Revelations that Pinochet and other senior offices had received kickbacks from weapons dealers produced a paratrooper mutiny in 1993, and when Pinochet returned from voluntary exile in the UK in 2000 he was greeted with full military honors in a nationally televised airport ceremony. This rekindled old animosities between Right and Left that saw the military high command issue veiled warnings about leaving sleeping dogs lie. Until now, that warning has been heeded.
The role of the military as political guarantor and veto agent is enshrined in the Pinochet constitution. So is its receipt of a percentage of pre-tax copper exports. These powers and privileges have been pared down but not eliminated entirely over the years and will be a major focus of attention of the Constitutional Convention. With 7,800 kilometers of land bordering on three states that it has had wars with and 6,435 kilometers of ocean frontage extending out to Easter Island (and all the waters within that strategic triangle), the Chilean military is Army-dominant even if the other two service branches are robust given GDP and population size (in fact, the Chilean military is one of the most modernized in Latin America thanks to its direct access to copper revenues). What this means is that the Chilean armed forces exhibit a state of readiness and geopolitical mindset that is distinct from that of most of its neighbors and which gives it unusual domestic political influence.
The Chilean armed forces High Command continues to operate according to Prussian-style organizational principles that, if instilling professionalism and discipline within the ranks, also leads to highly concentrated and centralized decision-making authority in the services Flag-rank leadership. Moreover, although the Prussian legacy has diluted in recent years (with the Army retaining significant Prussian vestiges, to include parade march goose-stepping, while the Air Force and Navy have adored UK and US organizational models), the Chilean Navy is widely seen as a bastion for the most conservative elements in uniform, with the Air Force encompassing the more “liberal” wing of the officer corps and the Army and Carabineros leaning towards the Navy’s ideological position. The effect is to make democratic civil-military relations largely hinge on the geopolitical perspectives and attitudes of service branch leaders towards the elected government of the day.
Successfully navigating these three obstacle points will be the key to Boric’s success. The groundwork for that is being laid now, in the period between his election and inauguration. Should he be able to reach agreement with supporters and opposition on matters like the scope of constitutional reform and short-term versus medium-term fiscal and other policy priorities in the midst of a public health crisis, then his chances of leaving a legacy of positive change are high. Should he not be able to do so, then his attempt to impart a dose of pragmatism and moderation on Chilean indigenous socialism could well end in disarray.
We can only hope that for Boric and for Chile, the country advances por la razon y no por la fuerza.
I have not had much time to blog in recent weeks but continue the weekly series of podcasts with Selwyn Manning. This week we discussed efforts to develop a comprehensive national security strategy for New Zealand that goes beyond Defense White Papers and annual reports from various security agencies, then turned to recent elections in South America as an indicator that neoliberalism is well and truly dead as an economic policy approach and, perhaps more importantly, as a social theory. You can find the episode here.
In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I work through some of the under-examined aspects of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the stakes involved in Samoa’s disputed political transition. You can find it here.
New Zealand coverage of the attempt to overturn the results of Samoa’s national elections in April, when the opposition FAST Party won a one seat majority in parliament thanks to support from an independent MP, has largely been mindlessly anodyne. Take for example the unfortunate choice of words in the RNZ report (re-published in the NZ Herald) on the contested election: “the FAST party of Fiame Naomi Mataafa was expected to secure a majority of seats, overthrowing the long-ruling Human Rights Protection Party and making Fiame Samoa’s first female prime minister.”
There is no “overthrowing” going on in Samoa, at least not by FAST. That would be a coup, putsch or “golpe,” and that would involve a violent blocking of the constitutionally legitimate and electorally validated political succession process.
Instead, what has happened so far is a (yet unfinished)) constitutional and therefore legal rotation or succession in elected government between the defeated incumbent Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) led by Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Neioti Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi and the victorious former opposition, a splinter break-off from the long ruling government of Mr. Malielegaoi (the irony of the party name will be ignored here). After dominating Samoan politics since 1982 and with the last 23 years in power in its present form (where it continuously placed legal obstacles to the formation of competing political parties), the HRPP and PM Malielegaoi are a lame duck caretaker administration until the new parliament is convened and the FAST government installed. After a series of legal challenges by HRPP involving a provision that 10 percent of parliament be female (which would mean adding one more appointed female seat to parliament and create a 26-26 MP deadlock that forces a new election), the Supreme Court ruled in favour of opposition that no new seat need be created and validated the results of the April 9 polls, opening the way for the sitting of a new parliament no more than 45 days after the election. That was to happen today.
Instead, the Malielegaoi government has blocked the move to sit a new parliament as per the Court’s order.
This is a troublesome move. Blocking rotation in government after a legitimate election is a very real attempt to overthrow the voter’s mandate. On Saturday Tuimalealiifano Vaaletoa Sualauvi, the Head of State appointed by the Malielegaoi government in 2017, declared that parliament would not re-open today. He stated the reasons for his decision would be given â€œin due courseâ€ and left Apia for his home village several hours drive away. On Sunday the Samoan Supreme Court heard an emergency challenge to the Head of State’s proclamation and found it to be unlawful. The Samoan Attorney General, representing the caretaker administration, walked out on the proceedings. Because it was held on a Sunday, PM Malielegaoi claimed that it contravened â€œGod’s willâ€ and was therefore illegal (there is no constitutional provision against holding court hearings on Sundays). The Supreme Court rejected the accusations of irregularity and reiterated that the new parliament should be seated on the basis of the April 9 results. Instead, the Speaker of the House, a member of the HRPP, shuttered the doors of the Maota Fono, claiming that he follows the orders of the Head of State, not the Supreme Court. Coincidentally or not, the website for the Samoan Observer, the country’s main media outlet, has gone off-line. The stage is set for an authoritarian usurpation.
To be clear: political democracy is based on the principle that election losers accept adverse results in exchange for getting to compete again at pre-set intervals under fair conditions. Rotation in government is considered to be an intrinsic part of democratic governance and intrinsically good because it allows opposition parties to learn how to govern and allows former government parties to refresh and gain perspective when in opposition, all while vying for electorate support. That competitive pressure is considered to be what keeps the political process healthy if not entirely honest.
In other words, either one accepts the principle of the honest loss or one is anti-democratic. The April elections were honest and the HRPP lost–by a very small margin, but it lost nevertheless. Hence, for the HRPP the choice today is to be democratic or dictatorial. Unhappily, what is appears to be going on in Samoa is not an attempted coup by the FAST party after its victories in the April election and in the Supreme Court. Instead, it is a variation on an (attempted) “constitutional” coup carried out by the defeated HRPP.
That brings up the issue of force and outside intervention. The Samoan Police have surrounded the parliament grounds (where FAST are staging a sit-in), but it remains unclear as to who they are are loyal to. Perhaps under the circumstances we should be thankful that Samoa does not have a military. But if the Police are loyal to the Head of State (who is a former police officer as well as an ordained minister) rather than the Samoan Constitution, then the authoritarian “auto-coup” could be successful.
There is more. Under the terms of the 1962 Friendship Treaty signed between Samoa and New Zealand, NZ is duty-bound to come to Samoa’s aid in a time of crisis. As unpalatable that may be given NZ’s history with Samoa and however unforeseen this particular crisis may be, it falls within the scope of the Treaty. But its invocation depends on an official request from Samoa so the issue is who has the legal right to issue that request should they deem it necessary to do so.
Given the circumstances, a legal request can only come from the legitimately elected government that has Samoan Supreme Court sanction. That would be a FAST-led coalition. But it runs the risk of provoking large scale unrest between political factions if the Samoan Police side with HRPP and people decide to take matters into their own hands with street violence. That then raises the question of the nature of any NZ intervention if the Friendship Treaty is invoked. Given NZ-Samoan history, a minimal amount of force should be used, with the NZDF (if need be) only used in a support role for NZ Police intervention units.
Most importantly (and pressingly), diplomacy can avoid invocation of the Treaty and thereby help avert intervention. MFAT needs to be on the case now because it is quite possible that other foreign actors with vested interests in Samoa seize the opportunity to extend their influence in it by favouring one side or another in the impasse. So diplomatic urgency is required for three compelling reasons: 1) to avoid invocation of the Friendship Treaty as a means of resolving a political dispute; 2) to preserve Samoan democracy in the face of authoritarian resistance from within; and 3) to prevent extra-regional (and non-democratic) actors to influence how the political process plays out.
The Samoan diaspora can help in this regard by signalling support for democracy. Although Samoan expats cannot vote in their home elections (thanks to Tess Newton Cain for the head’s up), it would be helpful if expats voiced support for the political system rather than a partisan preference given a contentious outcome. That could assist in easing partisan and social conflict in their homeland.
At the end of today the new FAST majority was sworn into office by the Supreme Court in the Supreme Court building rather than parliament because they were locked out of the Folo by the Clerk and Speaker of the House, both HRPP minions. The farce–some say typical of recent Samoan politics– is now about symbolism rather than the substance of political change, as if the location of the investiture ceremony and who gets to sit where when it comes to exercising governmental authority matters for the exercise of elected sovereign power. To his credit, the sitting Police Commissioner has taken an agnostic stance about the political shenanigans and seems disposed to adhere to constitutional edicts and respect for the rule of law. If that is the case, no foreign intervention is necessary and Samoan bureaucrats do not need to look to a particular building for their instructions when it comes to the continuity of State business. All that is needed now for a peaceful transition that reaffirms Samoans commitment to democracy is for foreign governments to recognize the realty of the situation. Word to the wise: It is all over but the HRPP shouting, and the sooner that they shut up or are ignored, the better for Samoa things will be.
As is often said: time to move on. The next days will tell if Samoa takes a political step forward or backwards. Best then, to illuminate and encourage the path ahead.
Let’s be clear: if Trump is not politically killed off once and for all, he will become a MAGA Dracula, rising from the dead to haunt US politics for years to come and giving inspiration to his wretched family of grifters and thousands of deplorables well into the next decade. So what is needed now is a stake in his black heart, or a silver bullet, so long as whatever the means employed, it kills the beast.
The process of doing so is more akin to cancer surgery than supernatural intervention, but before proceeding to the discussion let me explain why Trump’s political death sentence is recognised as necessary.
The Democrats know what he is so I shall not discuss the logics by which they came to the conclusion that he needs to be extirpated from the body politic. It is the Republicans who are decisive here. They–by that I mean the Republican National Committee, US congressional delegations, state governments and legislatures, and the corporate interests that influence and fund Republican causes and candidates–have to come to grips with simple facts.
Trump was never a “true” Republican. Not only is he not a blue-blood old monied elite with stakes in traditional Republican ventures like oil, automobiles and finance. He was not a member of the party until he switched allegiance in 2010. From the get-go, his politics have been more of the George Wallace meets Barry Goldwater type rather than of the Nixon-Reagan-Rockefeller variant. His victory in the 2016 presidential primaries was a slap in the face by an upstart vulgarian to the Republican establishment, which he then proceeded to eviscerate by using their own opportunism against them. He offered the GOP “family” tax breaks, deregulation, a return to Anglo-Saxon heterosexist patrirachical Christian values and shirt-sleeve patriotism. They responded with political support. That support was contingent on his staying in his lane and understanding the limits on his authority and the boundaries of his power.
He did not. Instead, he picked needless fights at home and abroad over matters both inconsequential and important. He alienated allies and he cultivated American enemies. Rather than work to heal old wounds he picked the scab of racism and bigotry until it festered and burst into the public square in places like Charlottesville, Portland and Kenosha (the last two where he joined rightwing conspiracists in claiming that Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of unarmed black men by police were an Antifa-Socialist plot).
Meanwhile, he drove a wedge within the GOP by forcing out non-MAGA types and replacing them with national-populists who would do his bidding. That fractured the Republicans, and yet the marriage of convenience between the GOP establishment and Trump continued until 2020. However, at that point his erratic behaviour and incompetent, some might say delusional approach to the Covid-19 crisis turned a bad situation into a world-leading case study in governmental dysfunction. He turned a public health crisis into an internecine ideological war about masks and lockdowns. He refused to listen to scientists and increasingly relieved on conspiracy theorists for advice on the pandemic and more. In doing so he became bad for business even as the financial markets remained optimistic that at some point he would come to his senses.
He did not. He ran a dog-whistling re-election campaign marked by Covid super-spreader rallies. He impugned the integrity of the electoral process months before the vote was held. He tried to manipulate votes by filling the US Postal Service with partisan hacks who attempted to suppress absentee (mail-in) ballots by reducing collection points and sorting facilities. He urged Republican state election officials to challenge minority voting rights and to limit access to voting facilities in areas that traditionally went Democratic on Election Day. He did everything in his power to tip the scales, skew the results and delegitimise any outcome other than his win.
He lost anyway. Not by hundreds of thousands or a few million votes. He lost by nearly 8 million votes. It is true that he garnered 74 million votes himself, but that was on the back on the highest voter turn out in over a century (60.66 percent). Joe Biden won close to 82 million votes, so in the end even with those 74 million votes cast for Trump, the race was not close.
Rather than concede gracefully, Trump well and truly jumped out of his lane. He denounced without evidence fraud in the electoral system and specifically those in contested swing states. He spoke of dark forces operating behind the scenes to cheat him out of his rightful victory. He decried foreign (but non- Russian) interference. He mounted over sixty specious legal challenges to the results in several states, losing all but one of them. And then he crossed the biggest line of all: he incited a seditious insurrectionary attack on the US Capitol in order to prevent the Electoral College results from being certified by Congress. People were killed and injured in the mass assault and occupation of the Legislative branch. Politicians were forced to flee for their lives and take cover as the mob swarmed the debating chamber and halls baying for blood. And rather than appeal for calm, Trump watched it unfold on TV.
Whether they recognise it or not, that was the point when he crossed a Republican bridge too far. The assault on the Capitol was aimed not just at Democrats but at Republicans as well (people chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” among other niceties). In the days leading up to, during and after the siege, Republican lawmakers were harassed and threatened in public spaces, social media and via personal communications (including Mitt-Romney (R-UT) and Lyndsey Graham (R-SC), as were Democrats (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) were singled out for particularly violent misogynistic abuse). The attack may have been originally driven by partisan rage stoked by Trump and his minions, but became a broad-brushed assault on an institutional pillar of the American Republic.
Because many of the insurrectionists were wrapped in body armour and armed with blunt and other street-level weapons like Mace and bear spray (there were also firearms and explosives cached near the Capitol), which they used to fight sworn law enforcement officers defending the complex, the assault was an attack on the sovereignty of the US government itself. That is because one of the foundations of sovereignty–the core of what it is to be a “sovereign”–is legal monopoly over organised violence within defined territorial limits (the definition is from Max Weber but the origins of the notion of sovereignty as having a coercive core dates back to Thomas Hobbes).
It has now been established that, cloaked by the larger crowd who attended the Trump “Stop the Steal” rally and then walked to the capitol after Trump urged them to, members of various militias were acting in a coordinated fashion to the extent that some used walkie-talkies and their phones to organise aspects of the attack such as blocking the underground tunnels below the Capitol that are used as escape routes for congresspeople in times of crisis. Once they violently engaged the Capitol and DC Police on the steps and interior of the legislature, they challenged the sovereignty of the Federal Government and the components parts of its repressive apparatus.
For any nation-state, much less a supposed superpower, that cannot stand. Regardless of partisan orientation, no individual is above the Institution. As the saying goes, the Nation is one of laws, not people. Sovereignty cannot be contested because if it does, the Republic is at risk. The State is sacrosanct so long as it performs its core functions.
That is why Trump must be excised. He has undermined the basic foundations of the constitutional Republic and thereby challenged fundamental notions of the US as a sovereign State. He has divided the Nation and manipulated his supporters into becoming a riotous seditious mob. He has put himself before God, Flag and Country even while wrapping himself in them.
If not in public, in their hearts Republicans know this.
Removal of Trump’s malignant political presence is a three step process. One is via his Senate trial and banishment, one involves the prosecution and punishment of his seditious supporters, and one is a form of legal chemotherapy that will hopefully prevent him from returning to the political scene. This is what needs to happen. It does not mean that it will happen. We can only be hopeful.
Senate Minority Mitch McConnell (R-KY) seems to understand the situation. With his bleating about “rigged” elections in Georgia, Trump contributed to the GOP losing both Senate seats in that state (to a Jew and an African-American!). That cost McConnell his majority leadership. He now has an incentive to see Trump finished off because among other things it will pull the rug out from under and bring to heel would-be pretenders to the MAGA throne like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.
The impeachment charge against Trump is incitement of the attack. In asking for two extra weeks for Trump’s lawyers to “prepare, ” McConnell may in fact be giving Democrats more time to uncover irrefutable evidence that the Trump White House colluded with insurrectionists on how to storm the Capitol. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have uncovered evidence that some of the “rioters” were paid staff on Trump’s campaign and were in contact with members of Trump’s entourage, including family members and people like Rudy Giuliani. With the articles of impeachment now tabled, more evidence may be uncovered before the Senate court proceedings begin. People can be subpoenaed to testify under oath or offered immunity in exchange for their testimony. Unlike his first impeachment, Trump cannot offer presidential protection to those called as witnesses (as he did when he ordered various officials not to testify). Things are about to get real and that reality is ugly for Trump.
17 Republicans need to cross the aisle and vote in favour of conviction in order for Trump to be impeached. McConnell has said that he has whatever numbers he needs to go either way. If the evidence is compelling then it will be easier to convict on “institutions over individuals” grounds. Doing so will be the start of the de-Trumpification process. Although that is necessary, it is not sufficient. More needs to be done by way of follow ups.
If Trump is convicted he then can be banned from political life by a simple majority vote in the Senate. The decision to vote on a lifetime ban is called by the Democratic majority. Given his long-standing repudiation of Trump, Mitt Romney will gladly provide the cross-over vote but there are others who will be willing to do so as well.
In order to make the ban stick, the second step is a form of legal chemotherapy. He needs to be sued and charged in civil and criminal courts at the state and federal levels, along with family members and others, like Giuliani, who conspired with him during his time in business and government. The constant barrage of lawsuits and prosecutions will exhaust him financially and perhaps mentally and will open space for people to turn on him in order to escape or receive lesser punishment themselves. So long as he is occupied in this fashion he will have relatively little resources, time or energy to try and mount some sort of political re-birth under different guise.
The final part of this process involves the prosecution and serious punishment of those charged with offences related to the assault on the Capitol. These include murder; conspiracy to commit murder; grievous bodily harm; conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm; inter-state transport of weapons with the intention of committing crime; looting; vandalism; theft of government property; theft and distribution of classified material; rioting; affray; sedition; treason and more. The charges must be as serious as possible and the sentences must be as severe as legally permissible.
The reason for this hard line approach is not just the punitive value it has on those who perpetrated the attack on the Capitol. Its main value is deterrent. It provides a palpable indicator of the boundaries of the “no go” zone when it comes to political dissent and legitimate protest. Adopting a judicial hard-line will help deter copycats or those who think that just because some politicians, even the president, say it is OK, seditious insurrection in fact is not OK as far as the constitutional State is concerned.
The three-tiered approach to extirpating the Trump malignancy from US politics is the only way that we can be reasonably assured that the treatment will work (and yes, I recognise that I am borrowing some of that “organic” language used by the Argentina junta when referring to its victims. But if the shoe fits, then why not wear it?). In the end, Trump is an existential threat to the very notion of the US as a nation-state, and must be treated as the domestic terrorist inspiration and enabler that he is. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he is no better and more likely a bit worse than one of Osama bin-Laden’s drivers in Pakistan. If so, and those guys wound up in Guantanamo or dead for their efforts, why should he be treated appreciably differently than they were?
One can only hope that Mitch McConnell and the GOP recognise that Trump is just another data point on that anti-democratic continuum, but one that is far more dangerous to the US than any Islamicist chauffeur.
With his whining about the “stolen” election, Drumpf does not appear to understand a basic rule of politics: politicians are only valuable because of their utility to others. Once they stop being useful they become expendable, and political utility never lasts forever.
With his transactional approach to everything, Drumpf should have been quick to realise this and in his use of pardons he seems to grasp the basic principles of the quid pro quos involved. But he also fails to grasp that he was only useful to the GOP so long as they could ride his coattails and exploit the window of opportunity his presence in the Oval Office represented for themselves and their constituents. Once it became clear that he lost the election, few GOP heavyweights came to his defense. That was left to lightweights and sycophants peddling increasingly deranged conspiracy theories.
Remember that many traditional GOP backers held their noses as Drumpf scorched his rivals during the 2016 primaries, then grabbed their ankles when he won that November because they saw that doing so facilitated Drumpf doing their bidding. The strategy worked well for them, at least when it came to domestic deregulatory and tax legislation. But in order to get that, the “old” GOP stalwarts had to swallow a lot of crow from the vulgar upstart and his uncouth entourage when it came to everything else, be it in culture wars, race relations or foreign policy.
For short -term gain, they gave up hard earned long term guarantees of stability at home and abroad, and then the pandemic exposed the basic incompetence, indifference and crude venality that passed for Drumpf’s Executive leadership. As part of his pathology, Drumpf doubled down on his destabilisation tactics, blaming Antifa and BLM while encouraging racists and other rightwing nutters to take matters into their own hands against politicians who refused to support, much less challenged him on the pandemic response and matters of race, law and order. Truth be told, by late summer the US social order was in melt down mode, and that continued through the elections last month.
Now his relentless attacks on the electoral system as a whole not only render him useless as a vehicle for the GOP’s political advancement. It also threatens to divide it between MAGA and non-MAGA factions, thereby jeopardizing the future of the party itself. For the Republican old guard, the limits of toleration of the buffoon have been reached. They are now slowly but surely turning on him because they know that when it comes to politics, the Party is more important than the person.
That is where Joe Biden comes in. In spite of the attempts to smear him, ole Joe ain’t no commie. Nor is Kamala. The “Squad” got no jobs in their cabinet. Instead, corporate America can breath easy so there is no need for the Republicans to bluster and puff about the American capitalist way of life. Joe’s 40 years of swamp living has made him a known entity across the aisle and his penchant for compromise, as distasteful as it is to me and other Lefties, allows the GOP to exit the Drumpf era with some grace, if not dignity. For all his lack of charisma, Sleepy Joe is exactly the kind of Democratic usher that the GOP can live with. Drumpf is no longer needed, much less essential for traditional Republican interests to be served.
In sum. Having moved from being no longer useful to becoming a threat to GOP unity, Trump has transitioned from expendable to expellable. His best hope now is to be ignored on his way quietly out of office, less further outbursts and outrages force the Republicans to publicly repudiate him. That moment could well be coming, even if the shadow of his future actions also weighs heavily on that decision.
The bottom line in any event is that Drumpf is done. Trumpism may survive as an ideological current within rightwing circles, but its political value will diminish without the advantages of having access to the bully pulpit of presidential office. Drumpf may agitate from the sidelines and there will be pretenders to the throne within the GOP, but it is more likely that Republicans will try to reclaim the party from Trumpism rather than resurrect it. That will be especially true if criminal investigations of Drumpf administration activities unobstructed by obstacles placed from within by the Justice Department and White House result in state and/or federal prosecutions of people connected to it.
Even Moscow Mitch knows that.
The refusal of Donald Trump and his supporters in the media and Republican Party to acknowledge his defeat in the presidential election has taken an ominous turn. What at first could be discounted as the childish petulance of a sore loser is now morphing into the makings of a constitutional coup. The move is two sided, involving the de-legitimation of the electoral process as a foundational institution of the political system; and the hollowing out and/or partisan stacking of key agencies that otherwise would be the most resistant to that type of subversion. This is, in effect, sedition from within.
In the last days Trump has fired the Secretary of Defense and forced the resignations of key aides, including the DoD Chief of Staff and head of special operations and low intensity conflict. He has replaced them with craven loyalists, including Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, a former Army special forces soldier and recently Director of Counter-Terrorism at the NSC. Miller has an intense hatred for Iran and supports Trump’s efforts to immediately withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in order to re-deploy them on Iran’s Western flank, which in turn will be part of the “maximum pressure” campaign Trump wants to wage on the Persian State. US military commanders object to both the withdrawal and to the lop-sided re-deployment, to say nothing of being drawn into yet another (senseless) war of opportunity.
Trump is rumored to be getting ready to fire the CIA and FBI directors. He has purged professional careerists in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and replaced them with hyper partisans. He has politicised and promoted partisans and loyalists in the Border Patrol and Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The pace of this “purge and replace” process has quickened since Election Day. If he continues to do so, by Inauguration Day he will have cleared a path in the repressive apparatus of so-called “constitutionalists” in favor of loyalists.
The Miller appointment is also ominous because Acting Directors do not need Senate confirmation and one of the main missions of US Army special forces is to train indigenous militias in guerrilla warfare. Already there is speculation that his experience can be used to forge links between DoD, Republican-led state governments and various rightwing militia groups in the event that Trump’s refusal to abdicate turns into physical confrontations between his supporters and Biden supporters and/or local government security agencies. This puts pressure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and service branch leadership as to what they will do in the event that DoD lends its institutional weight and resources to the pro-Trump insurgents, egged on from within the Oval Office.
The Trump administration has already held a trial run of sorts when it comes to politicised domestic repression. A few months ago armed federal “agents” wearing uniforms without identification were sent into Portland to counter BLM protests. They were not invited by the mayor or the Oregon governor. They stayed for several weeks, making arrests, using batons and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators, seizing people and removing them in unmarked vans to locations outside the city centre. They worked alongside the Portland Police, who in turn cast a blind eye on armed right-wing militants showing up to counter-demonstrate against the BLM crowds. It turns out that these unidentified federal agents were recruited from within the Border Patrol, ICE, Customs and other agencies overseen by DHS. They were removed from Portland when their activities were exposed in the media and were subsequently prohibited by several local jurisdictions–Chicago and New York among them–from deploying there in spite of Trump’s threats to “send them in.”
Then, of course, there was the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray by National Guard and other federal security units against peaceful demonstrators in and around Lafayette Square in Washington DC. When DC based National Guard troops–many of them African Americans–baulked at repressing their fellow Washingtonians, Trump had supportive Republican governors supply National Guards from their respective states (National Guard units are commanded by state governors or, in the case of federal territory like the District of Columbia, by the president himself). He went so far as to stage a photo opportunity outside St. Johns Episcopal church adjacent to the square in which the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and then-defence Secretary Mark Esper were paraded out and used as props (both Milley and Esper later claimed that they were unaware of what was going on when they were invited to join the president for a walk into the Square).
Trump has refused to allow Biden to receive the daily intelligence briefs that incoming presidents are normally provided. He has made no plans or engaged in the usual niceties of transitions between administrations. Instead, he has dug his heels in on the fraudulent election claims and in this he has been supported by (with a few exceptions) the Republican Party at all levels, rightwing media, and foreign despots like Jair Bolsonaro. Whether out of prudence or preference, the autocrats running China and Russia have remained silent on the issue.
If Trump is able to corrode the institutional apparatus by hollowing it out and stacking it with cronies, then one of the last defences against a full authoritarian take-over of the executive will have to be the courts. But Trump has the Bill Barr-led Justice department running cover for him, not only in cases involving his administration, his campaign or disputes with Congress, but even attempts to represent him in personal matters such as defence against lawsuits stemming from rape allegations dating back to his days as a private citizen. He has named over 200 judges to federal courts and has successfully placed three Supreme Court judges on the highest bench in the land. He is banking on them coming to his side when push comes to shove regarding the presidency. It remains to be seen if they will do so but the fact that it may even come to that is alarming of itself.
Opinion polls show that Republican voters are much less supportive of democracy as a construct and much more supportive of governments that cater to their policy preferences. That is to say, when it comes to democracy, for US conservatives it is all about deliverables. This is a variant of the old “trains run on time” argument made about Mussolini–that efficiency is more important than representativeness, equality or transparency when it comes to governance. It is this instrumental view of democracy–that it only works or is preferable if it works in one’s (partisan) favour–that under-rides popular support for Trump’s authoritarian moves.
The anti-democratic trend is visible world wide in both new and mature democracies, but in the US it has a distinctly partisan aspect to it. Normally anarchists, communists and assorted other Leftists would be the most opposed to what Lenin called capitalism’s “best possible shell.” But in the US it is the right-wing view that this political shell–bourgeois democracy–covers the work and policies of nefarious liberal elites. QAnon elevated the nefarious nature of elite behaviour into the realm of pedophilia and sex-trafficking in Deep State-operated circles, so the crazy is strong and runs deep on that side of the US ideological ladder.
That is what makes Trump’s moves more alarming than they should be under “normal” circumstances. There are a lot of people who welcome his sedition and in fact want to be part of it. For many it is a defence of the historical status quo that motivates them, heterosexist, patriarchical, racist, xenophobic and classist as that may be. For others it is just an opportunity for taking advantage. Whatever the motivation, this coalition of deplorables are ready, able and willing to join the Trump-led subversion of American political institutions. And they are here to stay whether he remains in office or not.
The danger of a US constitutional coup is compounded by the fact that many people in and outside the federal bureaucracy do not believe that “it can happen here.” For every MAGA maniac frothing about the Deep State, there are many reasonable others who believe that the US institutional foundation is too solid to be usurped or overthrown. They simply cannot grasp the notion that a coup can occur in the US, much less one that is carried out quietly, incrementally and from within the State apparatus. And yet for the entirety of his presidency, Trump has been preparing the ground for exactly that, using the justifications of “draining the swamp” and fighting the Deep State as the cover for his seditious intent.
That brings up the question about Republicans. Although it is widely understood that they at first thought that they could control Trump and bend him in their preferred image, by now they must realise that was a pipe dream. So the question of the moment is why do major components of the Republican Party and rightwing ecosystem continue to cling to him after the election and tie themselves to his attempts to overturn the results? Is it their desire to ride his political coattails? Or what he could do to them down the road? Is it fear of what his MAGA base can do to them now and down the road? Or are they sincere in thinking that the election was stolen (only where he lost) and that usurping the constitution and institutional foundations is justified by that circumstance even if it destroys the Republic?
It may pay for the GOP to remember that Trump was a Democrat before he switched to being a Republican ten years ago. It may pay for them to recall that he said that he switched because Republican voters were dumb and it was easier to dupe them. It may pay for them to remember that before he embraced evangelical Xtians he led a degenerate atheist lifestyle that has only been slightly tempered by his move into public office. It may pay for them to remember how he turns on those in their ranks who question his actions, and on Fox News when it stops blindly cheerleading for him. Because what that should tell them is that their loyalty to him is not reciprocal, and that his actions are based in personal self-interest, not principle or partisan conviction. That is the ultimate motivation for his sedition from within.
It may seem far-fetched, but of this the US constitutional coup could be made.
Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.
In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.
Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.
This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.
The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.
It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.
I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.
Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.