Tuesday, January 17, 2017

William E. Conolly — Trump, Putin and the Big Lie Scenario

William E. Connolly, author, Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming  (Duke, 2017)

Donald Trump is a practitioner of the Big Lie. It started with the Birther lie, when he insisted loudly for several years with no evidence that the first democratically elected African American President in the history of the U.S was not born in this country, was Muslim, and was an illegitimate President. That Lie, never actively corrected by other Republicans, helped to weaken Obama and to energize the radical right. Other Big Lies were soon to follow: the charge that Islam in general is laced with terrorist imperatives; the refusal to release his taxes, claiming falsely that an IRS audit makes it impossible to do so; the statement that climate change is a Chinese hoax, in the face of massive scientific evidence to the contrary; the campaign assertion that Hillary Clinton is a criminal, soon to be charged for her treasonous use of a private server and favoritism she gave supporters of the Clinton Foundation as Secretary of State; constant repetition on the campaign trail that the election was “rigged” by a combination of illegal votes in large cities and media bias against him, even though overwhelming evidence speaks against voter fraud and his campaign events received more direct media coverage than Clinton's; the assertion that Mexico and China are stealing American jobs, when in fact those real losses are surpassed by capitalist technological changes that dissolve many decent paying jobs; the repeated assertion that the homicide rate is soaring, when in fact it has been in decline for several years; the very tardy withdrawal of the Birther charge after activating the base around it for years, followed immediately by the assertion that the Clinton campaign in 2008 had initiated the story; the repeated insistence in a “thank you” tour that he had won the election by a "landslide" when it was in fact relatively close in the electoral college and he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes; and post campaign repetitions at rallies and on tweets that he would have won the popular vote if the election had not been polluted by “millions and millions of illegal votes,” again with no evidence and in the face of numerous studies to the contrary. These are merely some of his Big Lies. They also omit numerous false promises he has made for the future, including the promise to replace Obamacare with something “terrific”after repealing it. 

The Lies, repeated on campaign stops in front of a screaming audience of ardent supporters, are designed to further outrage a base that energizes him as he brings it to a boil. The base is prepped to receive these lies, partly because the lives of many in its lower reaches are filled with real grievances that the mainstream media and the Center of the Democratic Party downplayed or ignored at their peril. The lies provide many with scapegoats to blame for real difficulties and fears, making it possible to hope that a billionaire president, billionaire Cabinet, and Republican Congress could resolve them by a series of simple acts that also preserve the powers and privileges of the 1%. The lies allow the base to express its grievances, hatreds and hope for radical change without the need of a more radical economic transformation. Of course, Hillary Clinton was not helpful in this regard because her actual campaign (more than her platform) failed to challenge profoundly neoliberal policies. It emphasized the grievances of multiple minorities in need of attention without also speaking closely to those of another large minority: the white working class in a de-industrialized America.

Some Big Lies are believed by Trump supporters; but others are not really believed. They, rather, serve as pegs upon which the beleaguered can project their grievances against Trumpian targets: liberals, the media, African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, and the liberal arts professoriate.When one Big Lie is dropped because it has become inconvenient, others are wheeled out. The new ones perform the same functions as the old.

The media are key here. At campaign rallies Trump would point to the media assembled in one spot, gesturing angrily as he yelled and prodded the crowd to express its contempt. At his invitation, many in the crowd would turn and gesture violently at the crew. They are “liars”, “scavengers” and “scum”, Trump would say. This tactic allowed him to dismiss corrections of Big Lies made by the media, to energize the hatred of the crowd against a constellation that in fact had too often treated their regions as fly over zones, and to initiate a strategy of media intimidation that will escalate during his term in office. Trump and his entourage do not express concern about the potential violences such a strategy invites. You don’t need to show restraint or respect for “scum”, a term that recalls Hitler’s characterization of Jews, Romani, homosexuals and social democrats during the nineteen thirties.

All this is clear enough. Two critical dimensions must be added, however, to capture the full dynamic of the Big Lie Scenario. First, some Lies provide cover for activities in which Trump himself engages. The shocking intervention of FBI Director James Comey in the election that weakened Clinton and allowed Trump to escalate his charges of criminality occurred shortly after Rudolph Giuliani had announced on Fox News that there would soon be a welcome "surprise" from the FBI. Trump's own previous charge of an election rigged against him thus allows him to neutralize the evidence-based charge by his opponent of unjust interference. Now Trump supporters and sycophantic voices on the media can say that “both sides” have made the same charge, disarming the evidence-based charge in relation to the evidence-free charge. Carriers of the Big Lie often accuse their opponents of what they themselves do. Indeed, President Obama has now conceded that he delayed publicizing the most serious evidence about Putin’s intervention against Clinton because it would have appeared to be too “partisan” in this electoral context. And after the Putin intervention was exposed Trump recited another Big Lie: There is no evidence to support that claim, he says, though all the intelligence agencies say otherwise. The objective of the evidence-free campaigner is to reduce this to another “he said, she said” situation.

The second, even more sinister, upshot is this. It is no coincidence that Trump expresses admiration for Putin and nominated a Secretary of State who will defang investigating Russian intervention in the American election. Rex Tillerson, the chief of Exxon, has made huge oil deals with the Russians, and he has been awarded the Russian Medal of Honor. His selection reveals amply how Trumpites give priority to corporate profits over democratic sovereignty, even though they regularly accuse democrats of the latter sin.

The most basic tie between Putin and Trump, however, is this. Putin is a practitioner of Big Lies who enforces them by murdering, poisoning, imprisoning or smearing those who seek to expose the falsehoods. The former KGB Head controls the media that assess his performance. His hacking efforts within Russia are designed to marginalize those who criticize him. And many analysts contend he also practices kompromat, implanting evidence on computers to destroy the reputations of opponents. The practice is common enough to have earned its own name. The evidence that tainted images of child pornography has been found on the computer of one internal Russian critic is bone chilling. And it is meant to be bone chilling. 

Donald Trump admires Putin because Putin can spread and enforce Big Lies with impunity. Putin is a “strong leader” because he overwhelms democratic accountability to enhance autocratic rule. Practitioners of the Big Lie undermine democracy to protect Big Lies: they deliver Big Lies to enforce autocratic rule. You don't need everybody to believe the Big Lie if you can silence or demean critics of it: you merely need the counter-assertions to be neutralized.

There are many reasons to be worried about the future during a Trump Presidency, including that of a nuclear winter, attacks on vulnerable minorities, and the disastrous effects of unattended climate change. But vilification of the media, hacking critics, further politicization of the FBI and CIA, attacks on the professoriate, and new limits on minority voting rights in Republican controlled states are high among them. For these latter practices inhibit publicity about the other Trumpian practices. Big lies enact smear campaigns against proponents of democratic accountability. You can see that in operation again through recent right wing neutralization of worries about fake news by claiming that most news that does not toe their line is fake. The same scenario. 

What can be done to respond to such dangers and threats?

First, each time a Big Lie is initiated or repeated join factual correction of it to an account of how the Big Lie Scenario works. Factual correction alone is not enough. You must show how the Scenario over time undermines democratic accountability.

Second, match the strategy of endless repetition practiced by Trump — his term in office is apt to become a perpetual electoral campaign — with a counter-strategy of repetition, to further loosen the hold of these Lies. When so many Big Lies appear and recede it is otherwise too easy to forget how those recently left behind continue to do their work on the lower registers of cultural life. It is very important to negate those effects. Why? Many who voted for Trump were a little shaky in doing so. While they will resist exposes in the early going, new events and future Trump failures may make more ready to allow now suppressed doubts to re-emerge. If the logic of the Scenario becomes an object of recurrent critique. Such delayed responses did occur during the Nixon years with respect to Watergate (few would listen to the available evidence until after the election) and during the tenure of George W. Bush with respect to Iraq. 

Third, the white working class now sits on the razor's edge of time. A huge cadre supported Trump in this election, but that support contains a large reserve of citizens who could turn against Trump if and when they see how he has conned them. This will be so, however, only if more critical voices outside the working class speak forcefully to the real grievances and suffering of that class while simultaneously supporting other minorities in precarious positions. The task is to contest expanding the military and fossil fuel infrastructure with support for dynamic programs that would increase the number of good paying jobs for high school graduates. Bernie Sanders started to pursue such a noble combination, with great success. He spoke to the higher angels of the working class, as Trump pounded away at its worst tendencies. Cornel West and Elizabeth Warren pursue similar strategies to Sanders. Moreover, several voices on The Contemporary Condition have been calling for such an approach for several years now. The Rust Belt must no longer be treated as a fly over zone; the ugliness finding ample expression today in sections of the white working class must not be deployed as an excuse to ignore its real grievances and suffering. The idea is to criticize expressions of racism and misogyny when you encounter them, as you simultaneously support positive responses to real working class grievances. Hopefully, it has finally become clear how necessary it is to draw working class and other minorities closer together. Hopefully, too, that clarity has not arrived too late to counter the grip Trump has now gained on the first constituency. The Hillary Clinton campaign, again, missed the boat in this respect, even if the Democratic platform she was supposed to represent did make modest gestures in this direction.

Fourth, the democratic Left needs to identify more young leaders who are charismatic in noble ways and who can inspire large constituencies as they counter the ugly appeal of Trumpian charisma. For Trump is a charismatic adversary whose critics have not adequately appreciated his rhetorical effectiveness. Apparent wanderings in his speeches—as it seemed to many academics and journalists who ridiculed those speeches in the early going--actually gather together a medley of grievances as they crystallize collective targets of white working class resentment. Each element in the medley becomes fused with the others into a resonance machine. Satires and dissections of the Big Lie Scenario itself are far better than either academic dismissals or factual corrections alone. Formation of a counter-resonance machine with charismatic circuits of its own is better yet.

Fifth, while the privately incorporated media often deserve intense criticism, the democratic Left must also expose and attack Trumpian intimidation of it. It was unwise, for instance, to re-enforce Trump and Putin denials of the Putin intervention with Left wing statements that came close to saying the same thing. The media and professoriate are going to be vicious targets of Trump’s attacks for the next four years as he deflects attention from the failure of his policies to lift the working class and from the dangers he promotes on several other fronts. It is possible for critics to chew gum and walk at the same time, in this case to hold the media accountable as you also defend it against Trumpian assaults. Indeed, the protection of democratic institutions makes it essential to pursue such a combination.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

Steven Johnston — Trump’s (and the GOP’s) Illegitimate Legitimacy

Steven Johnston

Author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics.

While democracy is no stranger to violence, the Republican Party and Donald Trump have escalated and exacerbated democracy’s violence problems. Among other things, violence has achieved a new level of viciousness, bordering on murderous. This change could be seen during Trump’s campaign when the candidate himself called on his supporters to attack fellow citizens in his audiences who were there to voice their political disagreement and disapproval. It could be seen when Trump, on more than one occasion, effectively solicited his followers to assassinate his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump also threatened to unleash the forces of the state on Clinton after the campaign (lock her up) if he won. Violence is also inherent in Trump’s (and the GOP’s) domestic and foreign policies—from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to the elimination of women’s reproductive rights, from an embrace of the fossil fuel industry and the denial of climate change to torturing and bombing America’s enemies in the so-called War on Terror. The material harm these policies portend range from serious injury to death. This reactionary agenda constitutes Trump’s impotent vision of American greatness. It is a vision shared by Republican America and its fellow travelers.

The GOP’s, not just Trump’s, resort to violence poses an existential threat to American democracy, especially in combination with another age-old political debility: illegitimacy. Trump’s November 8 victory reeks. He defeated Clinton in the Electoral College, which gave him the formal win, but he lost the popular vote by over 2.6 million ballots cast. This translates to a 2% defeat. Given the undemocratic character of the Electoral College, Trump, at best, enjoys an illegitimate legitimacy. From a democratic perspective, Hillary Clinton deserves to be president of the United States. American democracy earned a Clinton victory. If the principle of electoral equality (one person, one vote) means anything, the Electoral College cannot be defended as a democratic political institution or practice. It enables, even invites illegitimacy. Trump’s presidency is the illegitimate offspring of this antiquated institution. Wyoming voters, for example, exercise nearly four times the voting power as California voters. This is not just unacceptable but intolerable. When American citizens claim that Trump is not their president, this is more than a rhetorical ploy. It is a valid, even compelling democratic political argument. (Tom Dumm’s December 5 post brilliantly recounts and dissects the Electoral College’s fatal defects.)

Candidate Trump also received illegitimate assistance from another source, one not as well-known for its distortions in American politics as the Electoral College. There is convincing evidence, Donald’s refusal to believe notwithstanding, that Russia tampered with the American election in an effort to secure Trump’s victory. Republicans led by Mitch McConnell refused to publicly denounce the interference when they had the chance prior to November 8 and when it might have made a difference. They preferred to effectively collude with a foreign dictatorship rather than protect the integrity of American elections, as long as their candidate potentially benefited. The Trump Administration will assume power indebted to Vladimir Putin and tainted by the specter of treason. Someday, and that day may never come, he’ll call on Trump to do a service for him. What payment will Putin demand in return for his assistance? Is a Secretary of State enough? Trump’s white nationalist regime can now claim Russian ancestry.

These are not the only problems with Trump’s ascension. For years the GOP has been engaged in deliberate voter suppression efforts to deny the franchise to people they deem political enemies (people of color, the poor, the elderly, college students, etc.) and prevail in elections they assume they would otherwise lose. Many of these legislative efforts successfully took place in battleground states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, and Wisconsin. No one can say with exactitude what kind of effect they had on turnout and thus the election’s outcome, but the fact that a decisive influence cannot be categorically ruled out in a tight contest is damning. The Republican Party invented the problems of voter fraud in order to commit voter fraud. Donald Trump, resentful of Hillary Clinton’s decisive numerical triumph, has perpetrated new lies about illegal voting, part of new efforts to further suppress voting. Not surprisingly, the Trump campaign and the GOP oppose recount efforts in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, even though it is a standard aspect of the political process, and even though it is unlikely to alter the election’s result. Since Republicans have secured total power at the federal level, it does not matter to them that they won by hook or by crook. Only the outcome matters since they understand themselves to be the only party entitled to rule America. For them democracy and (permanent) one-party rule (theirs) are tailor-made for each other.

Mass political deceit is not a phenomenon limited to presidential politics. Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country have gerrymandered congressional districts to guarantee themselves a national superiority unwarranted by the total number of votes they receive in each election. Republicans have thus legislated their way into a nonrepresentative—and therefore illegitimate—position of power. With the election of Trump, Paul Ryan’s House will be able to introduce and impose ideologically-driven legislation that should never see the light of day, thus making American citizens subjects rather than authors of the laws that govern them. This is a traditional definition of domination. The Republicans Party is the ugly embodiment of authoritarian minority rule in 21st century America. The pushback on many fronts thus far has been minimal, though on November 21 the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that the Wisconsin legislature’s 2011 reconfiguration of State Assembly districts to ensure Republican Party control violated the 1st and 14th amendment rights of its Democratic voters.
Republicans at the state level have recently expanded their power ambitions. In North Carolina, following the defeat of incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory, Republicans called a last-minute special session to pass legislation to cripple the governor’s office and limit its power, perhaps especially including ways that will make it difficult to reverse successful Republican voter suppression efforts, now that a Democrat has been elected to it. Republicans will do anything to prevent Democrats from winning electoral office. Failing that, they will sabotage any office they do not control—until they hold that office again. Republicans seek a form of democratic totalitarianism where they—and they alone—can rule. They have not yet acquired a monopoly on power nationwide, but this is what they are after. It is a kind of political psychosis with them and there is no effective response to it other than raw power in one form or another.

GOP subversion of democracy is not restricted to electoral domains. The Republican-controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell, for example, refused to consider, let alone approve Merrick Garland as Supreme Court justice following the death of Antonin Scalia. Chief Justice John Roberts stood by and said nothing on behalf of the judicial branch as the Republican Party converted the court into an instrument of its conservative ambition. This constitutional coup delegitimizes the court itself, especially any 5-4 decision issued if and when Trump’s appointee rules with the majority. The GOP cannot simply arrogate to itself a monopoly on Supreme Court appointments and thus control of the final decision-making power of the court regarding the law of the land.

"Teens Throwing Rocks At Overgrown, Long-Vacant Supreme Court Seat"
Each one of these democratic assaults is corrupt. Taken together they undermine the credentials of the very system that enacts them. This, of course, is the point. Republicans do not pursue these measures ignorant of or indifferent to their consequences for American democracy. They implement them precisely because of the political consequences they generate. Just as Republicans did not think Bill Clinton or Barack Obama legitimate office holders and did everything they could to obstruct and destroy their presidencies, they do not think those who would vote Democratic (or anywhere on the political “left”) are anything other than voices to be suppressed or silenced, however possible. Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they cannot (and do not want to) share a democratic polity with anyone unlike themselves, which makes it impossible for others to live with them as democratic equals. This is a recipe for not just resistance but upheaval.

The United States is always quick to condemn any violence that the state does not authorize and impose itself. The story the country tells itself is that violence is unjust insofar as political institutions exist where differences and disagreements can be resolved peacefully because all parties accept the inevitability of winning and losing, where political office and power are open to genuine contestation and results reflect the democratic will of the people, and where opposing voices are not only listened to and respected but also protected from the exercise of arbitrary power by majority coalitions or minority tyranny.

Yet the Republican Party has systematically subverted these institutions and understandings, which means that American citizens have been deprived of their most basic political right, the right to self-determination. If anything, American citizens today have greater cause for complaint than British colonists, who took up arms in opposition, did in the 18th century. American citizens have been disenfranchised in a system where there is no longer agreement on and loyalty to its fundamental terms. Republicans use democracy to game the system and destroy it just enough to empower themselves and retain a democratic veneer. It could thus be argued that the Republican Party has effectively forced the question of violence back onto the American political agenda. In this kind of hegemonic context, do the people have a right to resist those who successfully manipulate, mutilate, and render meaningless the democratic process to control and dominate their perceived enemies? If so, what forms might resistance take, especially when the state is likely to attack those who oppose, protest, and disrupt illegitimate minority rule?

Ironically, democratic citizens under violent assault from an illegitimate Republican regime might take a lesson from the testosterone-driven, gun-toting antics of the Bundy family, a gang of welfare-system deadbeats determined to open public lands to private exploitation and extraction, and its followers. They invoke the cause of freedom, but this rhetoric is mere cover for their know-nothing anti-statist libertarianism. At the same time, they embody a defiant, oppositional disposition uncowed by the state that democratic actors with actual grievances would do well to channel productively.

Republican subversion of American democracy is nothing new. Much of the country, however, has fooled itself regarding Republican identity and intentions. America regularly tells itself reassuring stories to maintain and stabilize the order in the face of incursions against it. After the Rehnquist Court shamelessly installed George W. Bush in the Oval Office in 2000, for example, Vice President Al Gore came to the rescue with a stoic concession speech that honored the allegedly final decision of an institution that had just delegitimized itself by its blatant ideological intervention in and usurpation of the electoral process. The Court stole an election, but the country preferred to congratulate itself about and revel in the peaceful transition of power. In similar fashion, mainstream acquiescence to the Trump regime-to-be is now under way.

According to American political lore, what happens when government tyrannizes its people and denies them the possibility of effective participation in the political process where the collective future is decided? American citizens from the Revolution in the 18th century to the Labor and Civil Rights Movements in the 20th century have, when necessary, turned to the possibilities of democratic violence to counter state and state-sponsored domination to exercise and take (back) their rights. The GOP envisions something other than benevolent, white nationalist, free market despotism. The program it plans to implement is beset by violence. The state does not need to resort to guns, truncheons, gas, and water cannons (though we are likely to witness an upsurge in the use of force by police at all levels under Trump) to perpetrate violence against citizens. Flint, Michigan, is one example. People there have been poisoned by a Republican-controlled political machine that deemed political ideology more important than the health and well-being of those in its charge. Paul Ryan’s plans to privatize and thus gut Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security, to cite but one post-election example, would also constitute violent assaults on human well-being.

As the (now Trump-led) Republicans make social, economic, environmental, and political war against American democracy and many of its people, what are they supposed to do? Sit and take it? As Rousseau, hardly an advocate of violence, wrote in pre-revolutionary Europe: “I would say that as long as a people is constrained to obey and does so, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke and does so, it does even better.” What might shake off the yoke mean here and now? It’s not just a question of the indispensability of everyday resistance that is called for. The Republican Party needs to be put on notice: the United States of America is a political fiction the continued existence of which is unnecessary. Perhaps it’s time to deconstruct it, as some anti-Federalists imagined in the 18th century, for the people of the United States no longer share a commitment to, let alone practice, a democratic way of life. A United States split into two (or more) separate and distinct political entities would not only trigger a new birth of freedom on the North American continent; it would also be a boon to peace across the planet.

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