Trump Diary 4: February 2, 2017

The White House backed off. That, at least, is the major takeaway from the chaos that followed the incompetently-drafted, ambiguous, and massively overreaching travel ban issued late last Friday.

(Many left orgs are still calling it a Muslim ban, which is too imprecise. It applies to Muslim-majority countries, but there’s no religious test. Precision counts for something in these waning days of the truth.)

On Sunday, Priebus (who seems to be in real conflict with Bannon) announced the ban did not apply to green card holders, contrary to what Bannon had told DHS on Friday night. The order itself turned out to have been drafted by Bannon’s protege Stephen Miller, the young far-right speechwriter who along with Jared Kushner constitutes the baffling Jewish presence in Trump’s inner circle. Priebus, representing the Republican establishment, pulled back even as reports were coming in that CBP and even US Marshals had disobeyed court orders. These reports are very anecdotal–scary, but anecdotal. CBP are quite Trump-sympathetic (their union immediately endorsed the travel ban), but it doesn’t seem like their resistance was coordinated or particularly thorough. The US Marshal story is even vaguer. It’s a crucial issue because the judiciary depends on having their orders executed in order to serve as a check and balance, but so far the injunctions seem to have been mostly respected.

On Monday I spent a fair bit of time arguing against a viral incursion into paranoia written by a Google engineer, which argued that the whole immigration order had been a carefully planned trial balloon to test the waters for an executive branch coup. This was presented not as a possibility but as a fact. Littered with mistakes and assumptions, it showed up 10 times on my Facebook feed, each time with comment streams of freak-outs and doom. I remember too well how badly I reacted to unjustified nightmare scenarios after September 11, 2001, and so I felt an irresistible duty to try to dissuade as many people from paralyzing fear as I could. I argued with the author on Twitter, who admitted to the holes and admitted it was a worst-case scenario, but refused to change the piece on the grounds that it would send the wrong message–or something. His argument and those of his supporters amounted to Chicken Little logic: “The cost of not worrying about scenario X is so high we must worry about scenario X, and you’re naive if you don’t think so.” This logic has the strength of appealing both to paranoia and smugness at the same time, since it casts the skeptic as ignorant and complacent. But there’s no stopping point to this argument.

I posted others’ rebuttals to the piece in many places. I wrote my own rebuttal. Some people did seem grateful for the reassurance. (Others called me a Trump shill and a naive ignoramus, which reaffirmed the effect such pieces have on the fearfully credulous.) Was it worth the time and stress it cost me? I don’t think it was a rationally considered action; I felt I had to do it and I did.

I speculated in my last entry that the travel ban’s implications were not well thought out when it was drafted. That looks like it was indeed true. A lot of what happened after that was improvisation. If Bannon has some “master plan,” this didn’t line up with it except in causing chaos. The administration continues to leak like a sieve and seems paralyzed in several respects. The White House moves in fits and starts when Trump acts or when someone (Bannon mostly) gets something in front of Trump for him to sign. On Sunday, when Trump took time out to watch Finding Dory, nothing happens. The White House isn’t even able to provide a named spokesperson to the Post for comment on many occasions. Trump and Bannon are getting their chaos. Bannon used it to appoint himself to the National Security Council, an unprecedented move for an adviser.

I recently finished a short biography of Lenin by Lars Lih, which showed how little in Lenin there is for Bannon to learn from at this point. Perhaps in terms of building a movement based on propaganda, Bannon has been successful in emulating Lenin, but Lenin’s governance strategy after October of 1917 was more or less disastrous. In attempting to force through the new conditions of production he wanted, Lenin and the Soviet leadership starved the country, and what arose after that was a step back toward capitalism because the existing bourgeois and bureaucratic institutions were the only ones capable of keeping the country functioning.

By 1922, Lenin’s anger about the deficiencies of the state bureaucracy had become an obsession. As he remarked to a colleague in February 1922, ‘departments are shit, decrees are shit. Find people, check up on work–these are everything’. All through the year he continued to excoriate the gosapparat (state apparatus) and to trace all its inefficiencies and failures to the original sin of tsarism. Again and again Lenin worries that the party is not controlling the state machinery, but the other way around. The state machinery was ‘like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.’

The underlying point is that having broken something, putting it back together is very difficult, especially if you want to remake institutions in the process. Even after two revolutions and the top-down enforcement and abandonment of the NEP, Lenin can’t get past existing practices of the state bureaucracy. Lenin remarks on the fundamental inertia of bureaucracy, which should be very familiar to anyone who has seen Yes, Minister. As for American bureaucracy, the Post ran a story discussing how there wasn’t too much actual resistance coming from civil servants (the “resistance” discussed is mostly within proper channels), but I think that is missing the point. Indeed, I think everyone including myself is constantly falling prey to the intentional fallacy, because people’s intentions, even Bannon’s, are increasingly only tangentially related to the effects their actions have. Federal bureaucracy is going to resist Trump’s autocratic maneuverings not because of explicit resistance but because of its inherent self-preserving conservative structure. Yes, Trump and Bannon could potentially decimate the entire federal bureaucracy a la Stalin, but the degree of disruption would be so great that it could very well provoke even Republicans to desert him. They like their sinecures too.

And recall, Lenin was senior statesman, beloved by the party, and had purged all opposition within the party. Bannon, as far as I can tell, has few friends, few connections to the Republican establishment, and a lot of enemies, who are leaking constantly to the papers. He’s not really in a position to be playing Lenin. Kissinger, perhaps (which is enough of a scary thought on its own), but not Lenin. Not even Cheney.

Despite my perverse suspicion that Trump would nominate someone totally off the wall to the Supreme Court (Pryor, or Thiel, or Cohen, or himself), he went with Scalia clone Neil Gorsuch, who is almost certainly the nominee any other Republican would have picked. A brief return to normalcy followed in which the media and experts analyzed his views as if the functioning of this country wasn’t in total disarray, but within 24 hours we were back to the races with saber-rattling at Iran (they’re “on notice,” says Michael Flynn) and, uh, Mexico and Australia (belligerent bloviation from Trump in phone calls to their leaders).

And in the middle of this came what worries me the most, which is a different international situation altogether, entirely unremarked upon by the White House: Russia and the Ukraine. Russia has significantly escalated its attacks against Ukraine forces and support for the separatists. (A supposed relaxation of sanctions on Russian security services appears to have been a technical fix planned under Obama, though it seems such lifting of sanctions is still likely imminent.) The Ukraine wants to join NATO. Putin does not want this. Europe is scared. And America is silent. The “what-ifs” then include whether Putin’s dream of a renewed Rus extend to the Baltics, which already are a part of NATO.

When asked about Russian aggression in the Baltics last July, Trump complained of NATO states not paying their dues. Would he aid them if attacked? “Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.” Since Trump’s attitude is that no one ever fulfills their obligations toward him, this quote looks ominous in today’s light. Abandoning the Baltics would, presumably, presage the dissolution of NATO, even if the US doesn’t officially drop out. NATO would no longer hold any credibility or strength. The precise implications of this are beyond me to tease out, but I think major global instability and conflict would be guaranteed. And again, America is silent.

(The paleocons seem all right with the sudden detente because Russians are white and Christian (I’ve got news for them on that front…), but the calculus of that logic is beyond dumb.)

There is something going on between Putin and Michael Flynn, who seems to be the point person between Putin and Trump. No one else, not even Bannon, appears to be guiding the evolution of that relationship, though they’ve certainly been sworn to silence on it. Whether there is any quid pro quo or kompromat or whatever remains purely hypothetical, and the promised investigations from the Republicans have, unsurprisingly, not materialized. It’s strange to think the post-war world order could be upended so quickly, but foreign policy is a far more unilateral and executive affair than domestic policy, and if Trump and whoever controls him decides to turn on that dime, the future will become far more uncertain in a hurry. I admit this is all speculation, but Putin indisputably has an aggressive agenda, and I’d feel a lot more comfortable if I had some idea of where he would stop. The events of 2016 were almost uniformly good for Putin, and I’m sure he feels quite emboldened. And for the time being, America is silent–or rather, making a lot of noise to obscure Russia’s actions.

(Late update: UN ambassador Nikki Haley criticized Russia at the UN on her own initiative, but this barely made a blip next to all the swirling noise around Iran, Australia, Mexico, and whatever else.)

These are my gloomiest thoughts because I think they hold the most danger of large-scale deaths and suffering. We have been spoiled since the 70s by a dearth of war and non-war atrocities; the worst consequence of that seems to have been that we have forgotten the danger of them. That bill may be coming due.

Oh, and a bunch of black bloc morons set fire to Berkeley while protesting some right-wing bozo’s speech there. For all the well-organized activity by the ACLU and the legal community in response to the travel ban (cheers to them), large parts of the left are still addicted to exhibitionistic own goals.