David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: politics (page 4 of 15)

Trump Diary 5: Feburary 15, 2017

Michael Flynn (office 9 in the above pic) resigned under pressure yesterday. The supposed reason being given is that he repeatedly lied to VP Pence about not having discussed sanctions with the Russians last year. Who knows if this is true? Firing Flynn makes Trump look doubly weak, first for having trusted him in the first place, and second for appearing to give into outside pressure days after saying all was hunky-dory. For a “The buck stops everywhere but here” guy like Trump, he’s going to need a scapegoat for forcing him to make Flynn a scapegoat.

And Trump definitely backed down. When the CIA rejected a security clearance for Flynn’s aid Robin Townley on Friday, it was tantamount to a declaration of war by the CIA on Flynn. Honestly, Flynn and Trump had already declared war on the CIA by denigrating it publicly, accusing ex-director John Brennan of leaking fake news, and generally being an idiot. It affirms what I said last time: if the far smarter Lenin was vexed and foiled by the primitive Russian bureaucracy he inherited after the Russian Revolution, what chance do Trump and Bannon stand against the far larger and more sophisticated American bureaucracy in their supposed revolution?

Here’s where this stops being a purported diary, because there’s a specific reason that makes me quite relieved that Flynn in particular is gone, but I can’t talk about it in public. So I have to break the illusion of writing just for myself and self-censor here. But this anecdote about Flynn speaking to the DIA in 2012 seems to encapsulate as well as any why I think it’s good he’s gone:

NYT: Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his. Some also described him as a Captain Queeg-like character, paranoid that his staff members were undercutting him and credulous of conspiracy theories.

The larger question is how it relates to Russia and Trump’s bizarre inability to say anything bad about Putin. (Update: oops, he just told Putin to return the Crimea. That was a quick turnaround.) I think that’s a question for another day. There’s clearly a lot going on behind the scenes.

What happens next is hard to predict. The administration is already in permanent crisis mode, lines of communication are breaking down, and no one is in charge. As I’ve said before, it more closely resembles a junta at the end of its regime rather than at the beginning. At the center of it is the defective Donald Trump, walking around the White House like a zombie in the evenings, subsisting exclusively on a diet of cable news. And that’s the oddest thing about this spectacle, which is that the spectacle and its spectators are often indistinguishable. Take this:

Were there leaks from inside the NSC? Of course there were. “But the notion that these are political is wrong. These are patriots,” argued a former Obama administration official in comments to The Daily Beast. “They are all staff, from CIA, the State Department and Defense Department. They are…the all-star team from their respective agencies.”

“The reason why they are leaking is because they are cut out of the process and the process is dysfunctional,” the official said of conversations he had with such staffers still working at the NSC. “They are horrified. The general sense that the only way to impact policy is to get it on a morning show.

So much of this is playing out in public because of Trump himself. Because he reacts to appearances, and cares only about his own appearance rather than accomplishing anything in itself, an issue truly does not register with him until it is public. And once it is public, he can’t let it go, whether it’s his 3 million popular vote loss or the size of the crowds at his inauguration. The news media, in turn, mindlessly feed this bottomless hunger by magnifying whatever the object of Trump’s angst is so that he sees it even more. It’s a codependent feedback loop, and it would be pretty funny if it weren’t such a gift to everyone Trump isn’t paying attention to.

But it’s also a comment on the strange medium that is news today. I’m not just talking about CNN here, but about the entire DC news media establishment. What we are effectively witnessing is not a war between the media and the Trump administration, but between the governmental establishment and Donald Trump himself, with the media being used as the vehicle for that conflict. (Some of the establishment is even in the White House: Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, VP Mike Pence, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer all have divided loyalties to say the least.)

Most of what constitutes political “news” in this day isn’t really related to investigation. Rather, it’s about connections and sources. There are reporters who come to be strongly identified with a particular set of sources. For example, during the Iraq War, there was Judith Miller on the side of the neocons and Walter Pincus on the side of the CIA veterans. David Farenthold’s much-hailed scoops on Trump’s finances last year were little more than actual reporting; the most remarkable thing about them was that a person such as him got into a position to get them printed by a major paper. I had a few significant scoops during my time as a journalist, and they were studiously ignored by the rest of the press, and others have told me the same thing. National journalism today is about access, not research.

Here are a couple striking recent examples of this sort of journalism:

NYT: Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, expressed concern about upheaval inside the White House. “Our government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil. I hope they sort it out soon because we’re a nation at war,” he said at a military conference on Tuesday. Asked about his comments later, General Thomas said in a brief interview, “As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.”

NYT: Two people with direct access to the White House leadership said Mr. Flynn was surprised to learn that the State Department and Congress play a pivotal role in foreign arms sales and technology transfers. So it was a rude discovery that Mr. Trump could not simply order the Pentagon to send more weapons to Saudi Arabia — which is clamoring to have an Obama administration ban on the sale of cluster bombs and precision-guided weapons lifted — or to deliver bigger weapons packages to the United Arab Emirates.

Buzzfeed: “I was hoping you could tell me what the fuck is going on over there,” said one European Union intelligence official. “There’s no guide for handling this sort of situation, happening with such an important and powerful ally,” the official said. “If anything, it’s a wake up call to European leaders that counting on America isn’t currently a smart policy. Of course this is exactly what Putin wants — to destabilize the Atlantic alliance — but I have to counsel my policymakers the best I can and right now it’s, ‘Prepare to handle some crises without US support.’”

Politico: Trump often asks simple questions about policies, proposals and personnel. And, when discussions get bogged down in details, the president has been known to quickly change the subject — to “seem in control at all times,” one senior government official said — or direct questions about details to his chief strategist Steve Bannon, his son-in-law Jared Kushner or House Speaker Paul Ryan. Trump has privately expressed disbelief over the ability of judges, bureaucrats or lawmakers to delay — or even stop — him from filling positions and implementing policies.

Politico: If there is a single issue where the president feels his aides have let him down, it was the controversial executive order on immigration. The president has complained to at least one person about “how his people didn’t give him good advice” on rolling out the travel ban and that he should have waited to sign it instead of “rushing it like they wanted me to.” Trump has also wondered why he didn’t have a legal team in place to defend it from challenges.

WaPo: Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Donald Trump’s White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. “The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,” says one experienced Republican. “This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.”

WaPo: [Trump friend and Newsmax CEO] Christopher Ruddy went on to detail his critique of White House chief of staff Reince Priebus: “It’s my view that Reince is the problem. I think on paper Reince looked good as the chief of staff — and Donald trusted him — but it’s pretty clear the guy is in way over his head. He’s not knowledgeable of how federal agencies work, how the communications operations work. He botched this whole immigration rollout. This should’ve been a win for Donald, not two or three weeks of negative publicity.” [Ruddy later backed down.]

These are killer quotes, but they’re not really “news” in the traditional sense. All such accounts and quotes from anonymous or even non-anonymous sources are given with some agenda in mind. They may be true, but they’re certainly all spun. And most of the spin these days is in a distinctively anti-Trump direction, because Trump scares the living daylights out of them and is incapable of reassuring them. They’re also given with a specific audience in mind, and that audience is sometimes Trump himself.

To stop the flood of leaks and trash talk, all Trump would have to do is to give in and agree to do things their way (that is, the way they’ve been done since Eisenhower, loosely speaking), but because he believes he’s suffered injury at the hands of the CIA, the State Department, the news media, the Democrats, most Republicans, and more or less anyone who’s ever had to deal with him, he doesn’t want to give them the satisfaction. So he’s stuck with Bannon and Miller’s vague ideas of taking on the establishment, just so he can show them all. I have been quite critical of the intelligence establishment over the years, and yet I find it incoherent to think of siding with Trump against them because Trump doesn’t stand for anything except his own self-aggrandizement. He doesn’t even pretend to care about anything else. The man is a void.

So now Trump is stuck getting angry at the media for printing verbatim words of executive branch employees. This is classic authoritarian paranoia, and it quickly will make any government sclerotic. With Trump, though, it takes on an ironic dimension because it’s only through the media that anything gets through to him at all. He has no interest in anything other than the vision of himself reflected through the television screen, and all the TV says is how that vision is screwing up royally. That moves him to action, but unpredictably. I imagine it as being like Hamlet if all Claudius ever did was watch plays. Suddenly Hamlet’s ridiculously circuitous plan to ascertain Claudius’ guilt is now the only way to get through to him.

And yet there’s a hollowness to it all, because all these news accounts are not striving to ascertain the facts or determine the truth, but are themselves mere receptacles for the parroting of other people’s images of the world. Reporters don’t fact-check these statements, because it’s not their claim, it’s just what a source said. If they can get nine sources to say it, that’s not an insignificant detail, but at the end of the day the assurance provided by papers of record is only that their sources are who they say they are and that they really said the things they are saying. It’s not that what the sources said is true.

Next to Trump’s view of the world, almost anyone’s will appear more convincing, but at the end of the day we are only eavesdropping on telegrams delivered between two distant planets at war with one another, without ever being able to see the actual combat. The thing is, I suspect even a lot of people in DC feel this way as well. In the short time I spent in DC, it was the land of cocktail parties and dinners, where everything takes place in person and people communicate through backchannels. It is an island working with its own vision of the world–or more accurately, multiple competing visions of the world. It is the world of governance, but not of the governed. It’s perfectly fitting that DC itself has no Congressional representation.

But we just elected a president whose world vision is at odds with very nearly everyone in DC (very nearly everyone period), so now a lot of those internecine fights (about health care, for example) are taking a back seat to dealing with the sheer clash of competing realities. Maybe it’s not fair to call Trump’s vision a reality at all, since it’s so premised on the presentation given him through the news. He’s a man who would rather watch CNN than read classified briefings, so making informed policy requires him to pull himself up by his bootstraps. He wants to hear about how great he is before he does the thing that’s going to make him great. This may explain why he has already made two humiliating climbdowns on the travel ban and on Flynn: nothing (neither principle nor ambition) stops him from deciding that something was always a bad idea once it starts making him look bad. So despite the damage Trump is evidently capable of doing through negligence if nothing else, I don’t see how his “reality” wins. It literally has nothing to offer anyone but Donald Trump.

There are two types of people in the world today: people who Donald Trump doesn’t care about, and Donald Trump. DC is going to increasingly see itself in the first category.

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.

Trump Diary 3: January 28, 2017

The other shoe has dropped. The travel and reentry ban issued by the White House on Friday has pushed the US into new and unstable territory.

That sudden escalation made me reflect on how we got here. I considered my evolving mindset over the last week, particularly the strange disjunction between Trump’s oblivious narcissism and the aggressive policies coming out of the White House–evidently none of them from Trump’s hand. In between Trump’s media whinging and the flurry of ambiguous, autocratic executive orders, the chief question in my mind was: What is the Trump administration doing that any other Republican would not have? To what extent is Trump a smokescreen for a longstanding Republican agenda? Keystone, TPP, mortgage rate cuts, and the now-undone health care freeze were all on the Republican agenda long before Trump entered the presidential race.

The Trump-only items mostly relate to the administration’s demagogic, rhetoric-first strategy, and his attempts to intimidate the executive civil service into submission. As ex-Republican senator Judd Gregg told WaPo, Trump supporters are “more interested in the verbal jockeying and the confrontational verbal approach than the results. So as long as he’s poking a stick in the eye of the people his constituency feels are a problem, the rest won’t matter.”

  • The federal hiring freeze is a Trump-only special because it stands a good chance of breaking parts of the government that really are indispensable, and will probably need to be undone in part. (See below, however.)
  • The executive order for the wall is a Trump-only special because it doesn’t provide any funds to build the wall. It is mostly empty rhetoric designed to build support for obtaining the money elsewhere.
  • The refugee ban is probably a Trump-only special. If Muslims are specifically targeted by it (something I’m still not clear on), that is definitely a Trump-only special.
  • The suspension of travel and reentry to the US by visa holders and permanent residents of 7 countries including Iran (but not including Saudi Arabia, UAE, or Pakistan) is definitely a Trump-only special. The countries are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

But it’s that last one that genuinely raises the specter of immediate crisis. The refugee ban will hurt a lot of people, but it’s something that most Americans will not see. The travel ban, however, is having effects up and down the US. Google says that at least 187 employees are affected by the ban. CEOs and professors are now unable to enter or leave the US. All of this is, I believe, primarily a consequence of Iran being included in the ban. Iran has a cosmopolitan urban elite that has a significant presence in the US, particularly in science and technology, and their stories of being stuck outside/inside the US or being detained are flooding Twitter and the news in a way that refugees’ stories mostly don’t. I imagine we’re getting a taste right now of what it must be like to live in Tehran, with the veneer of an urban, secularized environment subject to sudden destabilization by ruling reactionaries.

The travel ban serves no security purpose whatsoever. It is pure cynical theatrics, and it seems likely to have come from Bannon, who seems to be able to get Trump to sign whatever’s shoved in front of his face. (Trump himself is still more concerned with proving that he didn’t lose the popular vote by 3 million than he is with any actual political issues. As is a fair chunk of the media.) It really is a Lenin-like move from Bannon, very 1917, in that it seems calculated to encourage a state of permanent crisis, which would then give the administration more opportunities to exert power. We all know that presidents as varied as Lincoln, FDR, and George W. Bush all grabbed more executive power via emergency powers in times of crisis, and no one really stopped them from doing so. (I bitterly think back to law prof Bruce Ackerman’s “emergency constitution” that he proposed in 2004, which tried to regulate the suspension of constitutional rights as a response to terrorist threats.)

So what do you do if you want to, say, suspend habeas corpus and you don’t have a crisis? You create one. Whatever causes unrest, whatever “breaks” societal normality, works to one’s benefit because it disrupts the normal allocations of power, and in the ensuing destabilization, the quick-acting revolutionary can grab that power before the slow-moving bureaucracy can reconstitute itself. The courts can’t act fast enough to stop the train. States of emergency benefit the executive. Bannon probably would love an excuse to declare martial law in cities and send in the National Guard. The more traditional Republican faction of the administration probably doesn’t want to go that far, because they aren’t going to be wholly spared the effects of the disruption (economically in particular). But when Bannon says he looks up to Lenin as a model, I do believe him.

So my feeling is that we are now at a very significant bellwether. The inclusion of Iran, in particular, means that a lot of major social institutions, like tech companies and universities, are now being affected, and the leaders of those institutions are not going to be given the luxury to just sit back and be quiet about it, because doing so means abandoning those employees. Google’s PAC gave almost a million to Republicans last year, even as its CEO now objects to the travel ban. A lot of very rich and somewhat powerful people now have some hard decisions to make. With most “left” institutions like unions and academia hollowed out at this point, it’s corporations and the civil service “deep state” that offer the most possibility of institutional resistance to Trump–but I can’t say how high that possibility is. There’s also state governments, but their latitude for actual action is far more restricted.

There will be a lot of pressure on the White House to rescind the ban. I could see it being rescinded only for Iran, which would allow the ban to become the new normal while still removing most of its effects among American elites. (Perhaps only for Green Card holders, but even H-1B and student visa bans will be felt pretty noticeably.) That’s the smart strategy if the White House doesn’t want to pick too much of a fight right now. They get a toehold on suspending the rights of aliens while still appearing to “compromise” and be “reasonable,” and corporations are now in the uncomfortable position of having far fewer affected employees for a costly and dangerous fight.

If the White House does want to pick a fight, I can only imagine things are going to escalate quite rapidly. There will be many visible faces of banned Green Card holders who are high-contributing members of American society. They’ve had their rights taken away for no good reason, purely in the service of a larger executive power grab. If corporations resist, the White House could go after them. If cities resist, the White House could go after them.

There was a smaller incident earlier in the week, reports of a plan to make up a list of crimes committed by illegal immigrants and publish it on a weekly basis. This too came out of the Lenin playbook, designed to scapegoat a particular group and draw as much attention to them as possible. I can imagine Trump tweeting out names and photos alongside their crimes, saying “Immigrant scum, we need to kick them out!”

The question was always where this rhetoric would meet reality. It was certainly going to do so on the margins: refugees, undocumented immigrants, and other voiceless people would quietly suffer more, and the left would do its typically ineffective job of trying to guilt-trip people over it. But now the nativist xenophobia has met reality far closer to the mainstream, which means something has got to give.

Postscript: Given the current White House’s peculiar combination of authoritarianism and incompetence, another possibility occurs to me. The executive order of the ban was not drafted with any assistance from the State Department or the usual bureaucratic hands. It makes no mention of specific countries except for Syria, which it singles out for a permanent ban. It lists governmental visa exceptions, but doesn’t say anything about permanent residents. So it’s possible that (a) the drafters didn’t realize Iran was included, or didn’t realize the implications; and/or (b) the drafters didn’t realize the order as written would affect Green Card holders.

“Nobody has any idea what is going on,” a senior Homeland Security official told NBC News.

In this case, Bannon is still after a crisis, but he didn’t plan for this being it. It would be so perfectly ironic for White House incompetence, rather than authoritarianism per se, to create a Leninist political breakdown.

(Add’l Note: A friend points out that the inclusion of dual nationals makes it illegal for the EU to assist in preclearance, bringing the US into sharp conflict with the EU. This seems far more likely to be an oversight than the Iran or Green Card issues.)

Trump Diary 2: January 24, 2017

I don’t expect to be writing every day, but things are flowing fast and I started a few days behind the inauguration. Trump specializes in generating noise, and making it difficult to sort out what noise is important. This works to his benefit to obscure his executive actions, which already include a partial freeze of federal hiring (except for military, national security, and public security), suspending EPA grants and contracts, reviving the Keystone pipeline, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and suspending mortgage rate cuts, but I can’t see it helping in terms of building public or even Congressional support for any particular course of action. There’s just no focus or discipline.

Likewise, the big story of this weekend was Trump’s debate over the size of the crowds at his inauguration. Some said that this was an attempt to put the media in their place and cow them. It was, but it was also the Trump administration making a virtue out of necessity. Ranting about crowd size when trying to make nice with the CIA, as Trump did on Saturday, is an act of pure instinct, not of strategy. Trump’s instincts have gotten him pretty far, but they also limit his scope for action far more than they would a strategist. When FDR took office, no one really had any idea what he would do.

People don’t trust the media today: a late 2016 Gallup poll put them at 84% untrusted, only slightly below Congress. And Trump leveraged that incredibly effectively during the campaign, because people liked to see Trump beat up on the press. But as a ruling strategy it seems good for generating attention and creating distractions, but questionable for more than that. Sean Spicer’s humiliating climb-down yesterday, where he made nice with the press after calling them a bunch of lying liars on Saturday, was probably the biggest show of weakness ever for the Trump campaign. (I wrote “campaign” instead of “administration” by accident, but I’m leaving it because it seems quite appropriate.) I can’t think of a worse climb-down. Even Trump’s catatonic half-apology for his “locker room talk” was less humiliating, because it was clear Trump didn’t mean any of the things he was saying. Spicer really was trying to make nice. And I cannot imagine it was a hit with the press-haters. “Why is Spicer being so nice to these horrible journalists? What do they have on him and Trump?” Since Trump’s entire career has been one of confidence games, this is the sort of thing that can start to erode confidence.

On Monday, Spicer seemed to appeal for sympathy from the press, saying how deeply Trump is affected by press coverage:

I think it’s unbelievably frustrating when you’re continually told it’s not big enough, it’s not good enough…He keeps getting told what he can’t do by this narrative that’s out there…It’s frustrating for not just him, but I think so many of us that are trying to work to get this message out…he narrative and default narrative is always negative. And it’s demoralizing…So, when you wake up every day and that’s what you’re seeing over and over again and you’re not seeing stories about the cabinet folks that he’s putting or the success he’s having trying to keep American jobs here, yeah, it is a little disappointing.

Maybe appealing to the press for pity will work. But it doesn’t sit easily next to the bullying, and Trump is supposed to be the man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. If he’s frustrated and demoralized and disappointed three days into the presidency, he’ll most likely have a lot more of that ahead of him. It does make Trump a model representative of his time, where “You’re a horrible human being who deserves to be bullied! / Whoa, why are you being so mean to me?” has become the default rhetorical strategy of every political faction on Twitter (and quite a few other places), but I fail to see the strength in Trump adopting that strategy. It looks weak. I wish I could have heard the discussions that resulted in Spicer’s choice of engagement on Monday. Four years of bullying the press might not have worked, but surely it would have worked better than this?

And at least some of Trump’s cronies agree. There appears to be at least some sort of fifth column in the Trump administration that’s trying very hard to rein him in by any means necessary. Last August, I wrote:

Trump is one of the most emotionally needy figures in American political history…Trump stands out from other demagogues in that he did not seek political influence from a young age. His overriding concern is not power but love, or at least attention. For most demagogues, from Julius Caesar to Vladimir Putin, the love and devotion of the public serve to shore up their political power; with Trump, it is the other way round.

The anonymous administration leaks (from dozens of people, apparently) to the top two papers of record and Politico paint exactly this portrait:

New York Times: Mr. Trump grew increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr. Obama’s in 2009. But he spent his Friday night in a whirlwind of celebration and affirmation. When he awoke on Saturday morning, after his first night in the Executive Mansion, the glow was gone, several people close to him said, and the new president was filled anew with a sense of injury. While Mr. Trump was eager to counterattack, several senior advisers urged him to move on and focus on the responsibilities of office during his first full day as president. But Mr. Spicer, who often berated reporters for what he called biased coverage during the campaign, shares Mr. Trump’s dark view of the news media and advocated an opening-day declaration of war.

Washington Post: But Trump was adamant, aides said. Over the objections of his aides and advisers — who urged him to focus on policy and the broader goals of his presidency — the new president issued a decree: He wanted a fiery public response, and he wanted it to come from his press secretary. But in Trump’s mind, Spicer’s attack on the news media was not forceful enough. The president was also bothered that the spokesman read, at times haltingly, from a printed statement.

Politico: One person who frequently talks to Trump said aides have to push back privately against his worst impulses in the White House, like the news conference idea, and have to control information that may infuriate him. He gets bored and likes to watch TV, this person said, so it is important to minimize that.

Russia experts can correct me here, but I strongly suspect that Russia’s newspapers have never written things like this about Putin. These descriptions of Trump’s tantrums do not seem fitting for a man who attracts the half-ironic term “God Emperor” from his most fervent supporters. (Actually, describing Trump as a disgusting, unlovable mutant half-worm who thinks he’s the center of the universe and never shuts up may not be so far off the mark, but I would never make such an unflattering comparison.)

Trump cares about love and his own image more than he cares about politics or power, and that is not a survival trait for where he is. I’m sure he’s wishing he could be back at rallies right now, with his adoring crowds. Or at the least, he wishes for some new achievement to pursue. “For me, the important thing is the getting, not the having,” said his ghostwriter in one of his books. What Trump wants to get is fame and approval. But in DC, the only people around to obtain approval from are the national elites. Is it possible that Trump will decide he needs the approval of the press? If he can’t get it by bullying, what will he do? I really don’t know.

The short-term solution is probably the Supreme Court nomination. Assuming Trump picks a hard-line base favorite like Scalia-clone William Pryor, the negative attention will shift onto the nominee and away from Trump, giving him and his administration some breathing room to get their act together. I wouldn’t put it past Trump to pull a Harriet Miers and nominate a crony of his (Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen would be hilarious), but I just can’t see that happening in this tense of a situation. Still, I have lower confidence in my predicted outcomes than I did a few months ago. 2016 was as much an “Everything you know is wrong” year as 2001 was. We’re pretty much living a Firesign Theater album.

A final note on the enormous Women’s March protests. I went back and forth in my mind over their utility. They demonstrate the size of the opposition to Trump, but they won’t prevent him from nominating a far-right Supreme Court judge, or much of anything else. I am not by nature a marcher, disliking being part of a crowd and most comfortable staking out my own position, but I think this caused me to underestimate the therapeutic role the marches played. I get the sense they have restored some of the social cohesion and sense of normality that was thrown up in the air after Trump’s election. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad sort of normality either; rather, it’s one that allows people to feel more comfortable with getting back to their everyday lives. That can easily become complacency, but the mass hysteria and loss of perspective that dominated in November and December was mostly impotent. The march, I think, put a damper on the trauma cycles that were proving incredibly unhealthy on the left. The public competition over who was most demonstrably traumatized by Trump’s election and Clinton’s loss were not just gauche, but toxic. I hope they’re at an end.

Trump Diary 1: January 23, 2017

In the tradition of Victor Klemperer, I’m beginning a series of posts on the Trump era, not because I judge myself so much more perceptive than other commentators, but because I think there is a need for some kind of chronicle that is neither news-based nor analysis-based, but just a series of reflections as events happen. I may move these to another site if this becomes enough of a habit.

Three events happened on Friday at three different levels. On the national level, Trump was inaugurated. He gave a speech that discussed the “American carnage,” but compared to the horrorshows he painted in his campaign speeches, it was comparatively low-key. It didn’t stop the National Class (the term I’ll use for the coastal elites and upper-middle class Democrats who overwhelmingly voted for Clinton and are horrified by Trump) from reacting as though Hitler had just taken the chancellorship and that fascism had begun in America today, but I persist in hearing Trump’s words as belligerent but mostly unintelligible noise. Trump’s speech was written by Breitbart’s Steve Bannon and the young Stephen Miller. Bannon fancies himself a right-wing Lenin, as he has himself said, while Miller is an arch-conservative true believer. In other words, they are not Washington political operatives, and they do not hold the reins of power in the way that Republican hacks like Reince Priebus (Trump’s chief of staff) and shadowy spooks like Michael Flynn (Trump’s Director of National Intelligence, who’s been investigated for his Russia ties). Trump’s speech was aimed at his supporters, but it was not an indicator of policy. Judging by the widespread reports of Trump’s messy and half-baked transition, policy is still being worked out.

Trump (and Bannon and Miller, I imagine) also wanted tanks in the streets for a Red Square style inauguration; the military shot that idea down on the grounds that it would destroy DC streets. I imagine they weren’t keen on the idea in the first place. (As Dan Newman points out, this is according to a single anon source in the Huffington Post, so take it with a grain of salt. At the same time, it’s not exactly something that would damage Trump’s standing among his fans, and among his detractors it seems a bit redundant. Still, let this serve as warning that all the information we’re receiving currently is going through multiple levels of indirection and distortion, and accepted facts today may become blatant falsehoods in retrospect.)

The Friday protests got violent at times, with anonymous black bloc protesters causing damage in several cities and, most notoriously, punching out white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Spencer’s role, then as now, is mostly as a bogeyman for the left. He holds no power and has been rejected even by other “alt-right” mouthpieces like Milo Yiannopoulos and Mike Cernovich. (In turn, Spencer’s fanbase deems them the “alt-light” for downplaying the whole race-war narrative.) In turn, the left on Twitter was consumed by holier-than-thou posturing over who could more fiercely advocate for violence against the far right, with anyone who dared question the punching raked over the coals for being sheltered and privileged. Comic book writer Warren Ellis (540,000 followers) opined, “It is always okay to punch Nazis in the face,” which was representative of the level of discourse at work. Notably, Clinton surrogate Sarah Silverman (10 million followers) was excoriated by Adam Johnson (45,000 followers), Susie Cagle (18,000 followers) and others for saying of Spencer, “I saw a wildly misguided young man who could have been changed with info & <3 but now will forever be closed.” She was apparently ignorant both of Spencer’s age (38) as well as the extremity of his views: she expressed shock and horror when shown some of his magazine’s publications: “Holy shit what a piece is shit! You guys all knew this?”

Such is Twitter discourse: whatever position you take, there are fools on your side making your position sound dumb. But there are also fools on the other side to convince you you’re right and that you should defend the fools on your side even though they sound dumb. My sole comment on Spencer-punching is that a pie would have been more effective than a fist.

The second event was underreported: a protester was shot at Milo Yiannopoulos’s University of Washington event. The protester was hard-left, but the shooter apparently said thought otherwise, possibly based on the protester having a tattoo of a swastika in a red No circle on his arm. So a case of left-on-left violence, then. [Update 1/24/2017: Perhaps not, it may have been right-on-left violence after all.] So much was going on that this event got buried. Was it because it served no clear narrative to either side? I think it speaks to an important narrative, which is that events often happen accidentally and some of them will inadvertently lead to escalation. Trump didn’t get his tanks in the streets, but I’m sure that he is itching to deploy the National Guard on flimsy pretexts. Trump’s rallies last year were ugly affairs, but never reached a significant level of physical violence, which was constrained to isolated incidents. But now that he has the executive branch at his command, excuses to crack down on social unrest will be far more welcome.

The third event went unnoticed: a site dedicated to chronicling/stalking internet weirdos and other “lolcows” went offline permanently after the site’s owner and his family were targeted. (Another site with a history of similar behavior is currently imploding.) The seedier site of internet underculture came to most people’s attention last year as part of a concerted effort by the Clinton campaign to associate Trump with racist internet trolls and the amorphous “alt-right” movement, which was defined as much by the media as by the “alt-right”‘s actual members. The mainstream narrative around these internet cultures is confused, ignorant, and alarmist, partly because the Clinton campaign was happy to exaggerate and distort the reality in pursuit of an effective campaign strategy (it didn’t work), and partly because the people writing about it did very little first-hand research and have no familiarity with the workings of the internet underculture. The shutdown of these sites signals that the underculture is not sitting still; it too is undergoing realignment and reshaping, and it has been affected deeply by Trump’s election. Excluded from the national conversation, Trump’s supporters are mostly able to express themselves through the underculture. They do not constitute the majority or even a significant plurality of the underculture, but they are unified in their goals (evangelizing Trump, hating on the media, attacking Trump’s opponents) in a way that most underculture groups are not, and they are far more prone to express themselves outside the underculture so that the mainstream takes notice of them.

This is meaningful because the mainstream and the underculture are now in permanent contact, a development only of the last few years. And while the underculture isn’t capable of manipulating the mainstream to their own ends, it does have an impact on the mainstream, mostly to increase the amount of noise, disinformation, and conflict. As long as the underculture (whether right or left) can organize and disseminate information on Twitter, Reddit, and elsewhere, the media and other entities will draw from this information and interpret or misinterpret it, for their own ends or sheerly at random.

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