Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Why We Must Discuss the Iraq War in 2016

I recently opened my copy of Andrew Bacevich’s America’s War for the Greater Middle East: a Military History.  Bacevich is an excellent writer and an historian of U.S. foreign policy who served in the military.  America’s War for the Greater Middle East is a kind of capstone work that seeks to outline 40 years of foreign policy in relation to a particular part of the world.  It promises to be an engaging and convincing read.
But it is also making me think about the relative absence of substantive foreign policy discussion in our presidential election and politics more generally, and the extent to which the international crises of our day—aside from the climate crisis—can largely be traced back to the war against Iraq launched in 2003.
That war was critical not only because of the principles underpinning it and the destruction it caused.  It was also the first real campaign of the global “War of Terror” launched by the Bush administration.  President Obama’s language might have changed, but for nearly 16 years the United States has been fighting global conflicts untethered from any particular geography, but also from reality and the realm of cause-and-effect.
The war on Iraq was critical because as the administration geared up for conflict, bipartisan support for the war and a culture of violent patriotism cowed the media when it came to asking critical questions about national security, a state of affairs that has largely endured to the present.
The war was based on what I see as the truly terrifying neo-conservative conviction—shared by prominent members of both political parties, as demonstrated by the neo-con “thinkers” moving to back Clinton’s presidential bid.  Namely, the United States has both the right and power to re-make the world in its own image, using whatever means are necessary.
This shockingly arrogant imperial logic has had and will continue to have devastating consequences for our world and our country.
The war on Iraq had immediate and violent consequences: it resulted in a massive (and uncounted) death toll of Iraqis, and the deaths of more than four thousand U.S. soldiers.
The war in Iraq destroyed much civic and physical infrastructure in Iraq.  The country was hardly a model of good governance under Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian rule.  But by destroying institutions and infrastructure, the United States obliterated the social glue that, with Saddam’s authoritarianism, had held a diverse society together.
We are seeing how the destruction of or absence of strong public institutions in our own country creates conditions in which people are liable to turn against each other.  Iraq was and is no difference, although the nature of the Baathist regime, the region’s history, and the relative novelty of Iraq itself made its disintegration particularly bloody.
As the largest and most full-fledged war of the post-9/11 era, the Iraq war led the U.S. to the “dark side.”  Our security state and military embraced—to varying degrees—torture, secret prisons, rendition, and a host of despicable and illegal activities that have gone largely unpunished.  Our own state terrorism discredited the Bush administration’s claims to be waging a moral war for progress, and has made our soldiers and citizens targets for retaliation.
The war took a massive financial toll on our country, worsening the condition of our economy, warping the priorities in successive Bush-era budgets, and leaving us with fewer resources to cope with the devastating financial crisis that capped his disastrous terms in office.  The discrediting of the traditional powerbrokers in the Republican Party along with the neo-conservative wing of the Democratic Party helped to create an opening for the rise of the Tea Party.
More inclined to save their skins than to learn lessons, Democratic supporters of and advocates for the war embraced a feeble narrative that criticized the war as poorly planned and executed.  This allowed them to whack the Bush administration for partisan gains, while getting off the hook for the flawed principles and ideological underpinnings of their votes and subsequent foreign policy advocacy.
Because our military were stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, we became averse to conventional ground wars, and began to fetishize—particularly under the Obama administration—drones and aerial bombardment as the best tools for fighting “terror” and policing our global empire.  These tools and the nature of their deployment have led to less accountability, the erosion of legal processes, state secrecy, and an abstraction of the methods of waging war from their consequences on the ground, meaning we are less willing to take responsibility for what unfolds when we change a government from the air or launch drone attacks.
The logic of the war on terror having largely gone unquestioned, the war on Iraq and derivative conflicts across the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia have drawn a host of other states into a global war of terror.  This has several consequences.  First, the clash of civilizations rhetoric meets international terrorists on their preferred ground.  Secondly, by requiring a massive military response to every act of terror anywhere, it ignores the root causes of terror.
The expansion of the war of terror creates violence and hardship for people around the world.  But it also permits governments in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia of dubious legitimacy to conflate local terror groups that have very specific grievances and agendas with more global terrorist organizations.  This grants those governments license to use violence against their own citizens on the basis of dubious claims, and often has the effect of forging real links between local and international terror where none previously existed.
This occurred most obviously in Iraq itself, where our war created a vacuum perfectly-constructed for Al Qaeda, providing the terror organization with a larger stage and a new haven from which to project itself, as well as the legitimacy that came from taking part in a fight against American occupation.
The war on Iraq also created the conditions for ISIS to flourish, with lethal consequences for millions of Iraqis and Syrians. 
ISIS’ success in exacerbating the Syrian civil war and resurrecting a multidimensional civil war in Iraq is also the cause of the refugee crisis facing Turkey, which will have serious consequences for the country’s people, politics, and already-eroding secular model.
Refugees fleeing the aftermath of failed U.S. foreign policy to the European countries that subsidize our failures are also directly imperiling the viability of Europe’s welfare states.  The destruction of the most enduring, revolutionary, and peaceful political-economic developments of the 20th century is something in itself to be mourned.  But the crisis is also propelling the rise of nativist and fascist parties in Europe and will contribute to undoing the hard-won moves toward continental unity.
Politicians have variously sought to address the Iraq war by referring to a “mistaken” vote, poor information, somebody else’s ill-will, or poor-management.  The fact, of course, is that plenty of people with some understanding of history, politics, the Middle East, etc, predicted most if not all of this.
And the scale of the repercussions, the continuing catastrophe they represent for the world, and the moral, economic, and conceptual straitjacket they impose on our own country clearly require deeper introspection and accountability, as well as answers from those who supported this disastrous war and continue to seek power. 
Both presidential candidates supported the Iraq war (although one of them lies regularly about this), and then found unconvincing ways to disengage from responsibility.  Unconvincing in the case of Trump because he advocates bombing campaigns, torture, and a foreign policy driven by toxic nationalism.  And unconvincing in the case of Clinton because she backed similarly-premised if smaller-scale interventions in Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and is the preferred candidate of neo-con “intellectuals.”
I know Democrats who will respond to this by saying that the two candidates are not equally bad, and so to harp on about Clinton’s foreign policy is to aid Donald Trump.  But I care less about Clinton’s margin of victory than I do about the lives of people around the world, and if we shudder at the thought of a Trump presidency it is also worth wondering how many more disasters on the scale of Iraq our world can survive.
I hope that anyone who believes it possible to walk and chew gum will spend at least some of the coming months (and likely years) thinking about the premises underpinning our foreign policy, and the potential of a bad decision taken under those premises to cause so much destruction and violence.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Britain's EU Exit

“Keep Calm and Carry On” has proved little more than a fairytale facade as panicky Britons wholeheartedly embraced a toxic mix of nationalism, racism, and irrational rhetoric.
Yesterday, British voters opted to leave the European Union, the project with origins in a post-World War II desire to bind together the economies of European countries out of a classic liberal belief that states that traded with each other would not go to war against each other.
Britain was a latecomer to the EU's predecessor organizations (it joined the common market in 1973), but in 1975 its public voted by about 67% to remain a part of the expanding project.  However, there were always dissenting voices, in the early days most notable on the left.  Since the late-1980s, however, hostility toward the European Union manifested itself most frequently and violently within the right-wing of Britain's Conservative Party.  Margaret Thatcher stoked a sense of British exceptionalism in the late-1980s that fed the "Eurosceptic" wing of her party, who held her successor John Major hostage for much of the 1990s.  
Back in government since 2010, the Conservative Party's internal drama became the business of the nation and a continent.  Anti-Europe hysteria helped to drive the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party.  Powerless in the British parliament, UKIP sent representatives to the European parliament, and made the Conservatives worry that they were at risk of being outflanked on their far right.  Prime Minister David Cameron pandered to his party's far right and promised a referendum on the question of Britain's EU membership.  
During the campaign, he further relaxed control over his party, allowing some of its most charismatic and least responsible members to campaign for the British exit (Brexit).  Cameron announced his resignation this morning, having failed to persuade the public to continue their country's productive participation in Europe, but he bears significant responsibility for the result that ended his premiership.
Not only has he pandered to the far right of his party, only realizing this morning that there are consequences for indulging extreme nationalists.  His economic fundamentalism and crippling austerity have been responsible for creating conditions of economic uncertainty that left Britons more receptive to the xenophobic, racist, and jingoistic language of the pro-Brexit campaign.
Because although Britons parted way with most of their empire 60 years ago, the deep strain of racism and exceptionalism that was both essential to empire-building and a legacy of its position at the heart of Britain’s political-economy, remains strong.  Britons were happy to take migrants from the former empire when they needed to staff their new public services in the aftermath of the Second World War, but have largely taken a harsher tone since.
The expansion of the EU and the opening of borders and markets within Europe created great anxiety about an influx of "scary" eastern Europeans.  And Britons reacted churlishly to requests that they join other European states in taking in refugees from conflicts that they and the U.S. have generated and fueled with their neocolonial ambitions.
Brexit campaigners, backed by the most powerful and irresponsible media in the country, used racism, xenophobia, a narrative of British exceptionalism, and some highly dodgy economics to persuade the public to abandon the EU.
I would be the first to admit that the European project is deeply flawed.  EU institutions (as opposed the consequences of EU policies) feel remote to many on the continent, can be highly undemocratic, have done great violence to small nations, too often embrace neoliberal economics, and have not successfully integrated political, social, and economic institutions.
But the EU has also facilitated human mobility; cross-continent connections between students and universities; funding and resources for research and development; regulations that however much they might offend some business leaders have real and positive consequences for people’s health, safety, and livelihoods; and the emergence of an identity that transcends poisonous and murderous nationalism.
In practical, economic terms, EU membership also made some sense for the British economy.  While commentators are fussing over a plummeting Pound, longer-term economic consequences outside the realm of finance seem likely to be more serious.
A responsible campaign would have been for reform of the European Union.  It would have targeted the still too unrepresentative nature of its governing bodies, its embrace of facets of economic neoliberalism, and similar features.
But the right-wing politicians who led the Brexit campaign made it about an exit rather than reform, and about an obsessive sovereignty rather than equality or the welfare of Britons and their fellow Europeans.  UKIP and the Conservatives are in no way committed to policies of economic and social equality, and so they were in no position to criticize the EU from a point of principle.
They argued that they could follow a Norwegian model of strong ties to Europe with a greater degree of sovereignty.  But it is easier to negotiate such favorable conditions while making a partial entry than while storming off in a huff.  And Norway has recognized that it cannot reap benefits of EU ties without also making good on its responsibilities, whereas the entire logic of the Brexit campaign was to forswear British obligations to the EU.  British voters might find that they can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Nor did they use reasoned arguments with any basis in fact.  Their campaign was one of misinformation that pandered to the public’s basest instincts.  Like the fascist demagogues on the rise in the United States, they made a series of claims with no relation to reality, repudiated fact-based knowledge, and relied on generating a panic.
The Brexit campaigners claimed that they would save 350 million pounds per week by Brexiting, and that they would throw all of this into Britain’s popular National Health Service.  No sooner were the results clear last night than they were repudiating the claim.
Michael Gove, a British cabinet member who made his reputation as a man of sober (if unkind and often unreal) numbers, as a responsible technocrat, campaigned for the Brexit by comparing actual experts to the Nazis.  In the aftermath of the vote, he crowed that the public have had enough of experts and their facts and reality-based policymaking.
Boris Johnson, the jingoistic, racist, lazy former mayor of London who is angling for the premiership, joined UKIP leader Nigel Farage in leading a campaign of shameless fearmongering.  This morning Farage celebrated an “independence day” that had been won “without a single bullet being fired,” while Johnson predicted a glorious future after their collective rhetoric incited the deadly shooting and stabbing of a Labour member of parliament campaigning against the Brexit.  
Like most historians, I’m wary of morning-after predictions.  But the Brexit will have serious consequences for the economic circumstances of Britons, for the existence of the United Kingdom (Scottish voters preferred to stay within the EU and are likely to hold another referendum on their continued membership in the UK), and for the future of the EU and other transnational endeavors.  
I hope it doesn’t spell the end of a European project which, however flawed, was based on the idea of larger forms of solidarity, cooperation, and socio economic progress.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tony Blair Revisits Iraq as Neocons Prepare to Return to Power in DC

You might remember former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as George W Bush’s brighter half, the man with the tan charged with selling the President’s war of aggression against Iraq.  Unlike Dubya, Blair could pronounce three and four syllable words, but his clipped tones that went down well on American television didn’t mean that those words were necessarily true.
Blair’s case for war was several fold: first were the claims about weapons of mass destruction.  Then there were the claims about weaponry that could hit London in 45 minutes.  And finally there was the humanitarian justification.
For Iraqis who saw the Bush-Blair coalition kill several hundred thousand of their fellow citizens in a campaign of “Shock and Awe” that destroyed infrastructure and institutions, making a wreckage of civil society and introducing greater economic uncertainty than existed under Saddam’s brutal if predictable regime, the humanitarian logic must now seem like the worst of the many bad jokes in Blair’s repertoire. 
Blair, once the fresh face of the “new” (neoliberal) politics, left office in something like disgrace, and has spent his post-premiership making lots of money, advising dictatorial regimes, and fixing the Middle East.  I think I once saw him get an honor guard on the tarmac of an airport in Lilongwe, where he was presumably dipping in to offer a few minutes of highly-expensive advice of doubtful quality.
Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the Labour Party, opposed the Iraq war, and was proved prescient in his criticisms.  He also declined to lend his support for increased British military intervention in Libya, and is wildly popular with the party’s grassroots, who have about as much time for Tony Blair as I do for root canals.
Blair, who comes across as comically insecure, undoubtedly resents Corbyn’s popularity and his repudiation of Blair’s neo-conservative, evangelical strain of bloody interventionism.  That partly explains his recent attack onCorbyn, which was breathtaking for its chutzpah and ability to re-write history:
“I am accused of being a war criminal for removing Saddam Hussein—who, by the way, was a war criminal—and yet Jeremy is seen as a progressive icon as we stand by and watch the people of Syria barrel-bombed, beaten and starved into submission and do nothing.”  Blair compared his own “politics of power” to what he characterized as Corbyn’s “politics of protest.”
It’s difficult to know where to start with Blair’s outburst.  But one is struck by its petulance, and the impression that this is Wee Tony complaining about how Bad Jeremy is more popular with the other kids.  Or the idea—which has echoed around many a schoolyard—that Saddam started it and that somehow excuses Wee Tony from helping to engineer the destruction of a state and the deaths of thousands of people.
Of course, Blair isn’t accused of being a war criminal for removing Saddam Hussein, a byproduct of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  He is accused of being a war criminal for engaging in a “common plan or conspiracy” to wage “aggressive war,” something that has been well-established as a crime since the Nuremberg Trials that put Nazis on the dock.
He is accused of being a war criminal because he massaged intelligence in collusion with the Bush administration to engineer a war of aggression.  The early stages of the war generated huge civilian casualties, destroyed infrastructure, and dismantled institutions.  In the course of the conflict and the broader War of Terror, Blair’s intelligence services facilitated the extraordinary rendition of prisoners to be tortured.
Blair would clearly prefer to see Britain and the U.S. launch an attack on Syria in the name of humanitarianism.  But the kind of humanitarian relief he practiced was notable for how little relief it offered.  The invasion of Iraq, far from enhancing the lives of Iraqis, plunged them into deeper chaos and uncertainty, led to the proliferation of international terrorism, and created ISIS, a monstrosity that has a central role in violence in Syria and Iraq today.
Few proponents of mindless, aimless intervention pause to check their compulsion to act and ask whether the intervention they propose would actually improve the lives of the people they are acting to protect.  “Do no harm,” should be the first requirement of any intervention, and President Obama wisely decided that as frustrating as it might be, there was no path to such an intervention in Syria.
This, together with Corbyn’s disinclination to use blunt instruments to solve complex problems, infuriates Blair, partly because it repudiates his doctrine and partly because it leaves his approach to Iraq looking increasingly indefensible, irresponsible, and lonely.  And that matters because next month will see the publication of the interminably delayed Chilcot inquiry into the invasion of Iraq.  The wording and judgement of the document is likely to be as anemic and tame as the commission’s questioning of Blair and members of his government.  But it will nonetheless call attention to Blair’s sorry legacy in the Middle East,
There is some irony in Blair’s continued descent and humiliation at the very moment of one of his ideological heir’s triumphs.  Hillary Clinton, who yesterday won the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, is a confirmed compulsive interventionist.  The neoconservative’s supporters haven’t let themselves be overly troubled by her bloody legacy or cartoonish worldview.
Whatever the Chilcot report has to say, Clinton’s election, and the spate of ill-considered acts of state violence it promises are likely to offer some solace to Blair.  It would be too much to hope that he could read of Clinton’s wars from a cell in the Hague, babbling to his jailer about the injustice of it all and how much he hates that Bad Jeremy while asking Dubya to pass him his gruel.  Instead we all have to prepare ourselves to offer what scrutiny and criticism we can to Clinton and the neocons whose return to power in D.C. will ensure that Blair’s violently righteous, idle-minded, imperial world view lives on.  

My Challenge to Clinton's Supporters

Congratulations to Clinton’s supporters on their candidate’s victory in the election of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee.  I hope that whether or not they decide to support Hillary Clinton in the general election that supporters of Bernie Sanders will recognize that according to party rules (however undemocratic), Clinton will be a legitimate nominee.
However, I have significant misgivings about an ostensibly progressive party nominating a candidate with an international policy track record and platform that consists of radical, violent, and dangerous views.  I share these misgivings with other progressive voters, and joined others in making them known during the primary process.
The response of Clinton supporters who engaged was almost uniform in its dismissal of these concerns.  Some of them said that foreign policy doesn’t occupy the minds of voters, and so even if you agreed with the concerns, there was nothing to be gained from voicing them.  Others made the argument that Donald Trump and the other Republicans were worse, suggesting that it was futile to try to change the dangerous ideas of a Democratic candidate and that instead of trying to improve the outlook of the world for 2017 we should take solace in knowing that fewer people around the world would die in a Clinton presidency than in a Trump one.
Still others criticized Bernie Sanders’ rather incoherent foreign policy views.  His platform might have been deficient in that respect, but that was in no way an answer to the criticisms of Clinton’s platform.  And others went straight to the dishonest deployment of guilt, suggesting that to contemplate not supporting the nominee because of her horrific record was tantamount to support for fascist Trump.
But now we seem to be in a position wherein our party has nominated a candidate who has a history of support for aggressive war, a form of war that the U.S. condemned as early as the Nuremberg trials.  As Secretary of State, in every Obama administration cabinet debate about the use of force, Clinton came down on the side of violence.  She regularly voiced her support for authoritarian regimes and the “stability” they represent, failing to recognize that this short term stability often leads to chronic, long-term problems of the kind we have seen explode in the Middle East.
Clinton has offered support to colonial governments in Morocco (in relation to its colony in Western Sahara) and Israel (in relation to its occupied Palestinian territories).  In the case of a latter she has torn up the most basic rules of diplomacy and offered a state unconditional backing, giving it a license (and also the funds and weaponry) to pursue actions that violate international law and the rules of war, degrade the lives and livelihoods of Palestinians, imperil its own citizens, and endanger the United States public by association.  Clinton has also tried to silence critics of the Israeli state by accusing them of uniform anti-Semitism.
Clinton has attacked whistleblowers and journalists, offered unconditional backing to a prying security state, and has endorsed the Obama administration’s use of drones in a form of state terror that mimics the profiling and violence on our own country’s streets.
Many of Clinton’s supporters celebrated the aggressive attack on Donald Trump’s radicalism in Clinton’s recent speech on national security in San Diego.  But in that same speech Clinton embraced the doctrine of “American exceptionalism” that underpins many of our country’s worst foreign policy blunders of the last half-century or more.  
Clinton said, “if America doesn’t lead, we leave a vacuum – and that will either cause chaos, or other countries will rush in to fill the void. Then they’ll be the ones making the decisions about your lives and jobs and safety – and trust me, the choices they make will not be to our benefit….The truth is, there’s not a country in the world that can rival us. It’s not just that we have the greatest military, or that our economy is larger, more durable, more entrepreneurial than any in the world. It’s also that Americans work harder, dream bigger – and we never, ever stop trying to make our country and world a better place.”
I’m hope that Clinton doesn’t actually believe this baby-simple vision of the world, and I hope that she is less ignorant than her words suggest about history and human motivation and the range of social contracts to which people are party around the world.  There are few things more grating than someone obviously intelligent and accomplished saying such transparently stupid things.  But her words about our cultural and economic superiority make her cartoonish public view of the world not only insulting to people who work and dream and craft democratic societies all around the world.  They are also insulting to the members of a progressive party who have given Clinton their backing.
I think that most of us believe in self-determination, in the capacity of all individuals to shape their lives, and in the universal character of humanity.  
If we do believe in those things, we should be more than offended by Clinton’s argument that Americans should be able to shape other people’s lives around the world because of our own superiority, but that those people cannot shape their own or others’ lives.  We should reject the idea that our own social contract and political economy is by an article of faith superior to those that exist everywhere else in the world.  
This extraordinary arrogance, which leads to a power imbalance between the U.S. and other countries that mimics the imbalances and inequalities within our country, is destructive and can be traced to the growth of ethnic nationalism, scientific racism, social darwinism, militarism, and imperialism in the nineteenth century.  It is appalling that the leader of the Democratic Party should be a standard-bearer for these ideas in the twenty-first century.
Many Democrats were incensed by George W Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq, his militarism, and his arrogant nationalism.  They were critical of the methods of torture and terror that his administration adopted to combat international terrorism.  But most of those same Democrats sat quietly as the Obama administration perfected its own methods of terror, persecuted journalists, attacked whistleblowers, presided over the deregulated growth of the security state, and advanced radical arguments about oversight and war.  
This most nauseating and pathetic display of partisanship led to great loss of life, the proliferation of international terrorism, and an emboldened security state.  It also signalled that there is no electoral penalty for embracing neoconservative terror and radical ideas about American cultural superiority and impunity.
I hope that Democrats don’t make the same mistake now that Hillary Clinton is the party’s nominee.  I wish that all of her supporters would take a moment now and--publicly or privately--communicate with the Clinton campaign indicating what I hope to be their disquiet about her international policy track record and prescriptions.  Those supporters remained deafeningly silent in public during the primary--the best occasion for attempting to reform a candidate’s position--and now have an obligation to do all that they can to moderate the toxic, immoral, and irresponsible views of their nominee.  
For a variety of reasons, people seem to see politics as a zero sum game, where critiquing Clinton must inherently strengthen Sanders or Trump.  But out in the real world, this myopic view of politics has consequences for the people whose lives could be bettered or saved by constructive criticism of one’s own candidate.  People who have every much a right to a decent, safe, and protected live as do American citizens.
I’ve got an offer for Clinton supporters...I’ll back your candidate in the general election in spite of my misgivings because of the danger posed by the fascist Donald Trump if you give your word that you will work hard during Clinton’s candidacy and presidency to reform her international policy.  Your silence might make sense from a strategic domestic standpoint, but it has real consequences for the lives and livelihoods of the people who populate the “rest of the world” that Clinton deems so culturally and economically “inferior”.  Those people are our brothers and sisters and are ill-served by your silence.  


Democrats Have a Dangerously Weak Candidate

It is now all but formalized: Hillary Clinton will be the leading candidate in the presidential election against Donald Trump.  It is an election which pits a liberal (in the 19th century sense) against a fascist (in the 1930s sense).  In an election wherein voters had good access to accurate information and weighed policy, Clinton would probably win an easy victory.  But no election anywhere meets that ideal standard, and in Clinton--who possesses dangerously radical ideas about the world--Democrats have an extraordinarily weak nominee.
It doesn't matter that in degree and kind Trump's scandals and misjudgments are worse than Clinton's.  It won't matter that some of his claims are fabricated, and that Clinton's sins pale before his own.  He'll be able to de-fang many of her claims.
Even in the area where Clinton's supporters believed she was strongest--foreign policy--Trump has almost no record outside of his outlandish remarks to be measured against Clinton's truly abysmal track record on matters of war and peace.  I might be far more petrified by Trump’s fascism than Clinton’s liberalism, but her extremist foreign policy views--and the ease with which her supporters have swallowed her violent excesses--are terrifying in their own right.
The fact is, when she calls him reckless with foreign policy, he will say "Iraq?"  When she brings up Trump U, he'll ask about Bill's chancellorship of a for-profit college.  When she accuses him out being out of touch he'll revive her comments about being "broke" after the White House.  When she accuses him of inconsistency he's got a mile-long list of her flip-flops to emphasize.  When Clinton says he'll destroy the economy, Trump will reply, "NAFTA?  TPP?"  
He has already instructed his online trolls to answer claims of racism against him by citing Clinton's "super predator" remarks.  And while self-satisfied Clinton supporters have spent the primary season delivering blanket dismissals of Sanders’ supporters as entitled, feeble-minded millennials, Trump has been consistently courting those voters, inviting them into his dangerous fold.  For many of Sanders' supporters who are participating in politics for the first time, Clinton's new outreach to them will feel like salt in the wound.
Clinton's supporters contended that Sanders' more leftist politics would have made him an even easier mark for a Republican campaign, but the public's mistrust of Clinton isn't something you can manufacture overnight; it is the result of tens of millions of dollars of attack ads and 20 years of Clinton's own extraordinary flip-flops that don’t seem to trouble any of her high-profile backers in the Democratic Party.

One can’t entirely blame Democratic voters for failing to anticipate Trump’s rise.  But there would have been any number of candidates from the party who didn’t bring Clinton’s serial flip-flops, neo-conservatism, and long-term, deep unpopularity with independents, Republicans, and leftist Democrats to the table.  If the party hierarchy had not been intent on steamrolling any opposition, and had actually considered the frailty of Clinton’s candidacy, they might have considered that even in the absence of a Trump-like character, running a candidate as fundamentally weak as Clinton against a party lurching towards fascism was a poor choice given the stakes.  

Monday, June 6, 2016

Donald Trump Attacks the Courts

Donald Trump and his presidential campaign possess many of the attributes of fascism, most of which are common at one level or another of the Republican Party that he represents.  These include ethnic nationalism, militarism, religious bigotry, sexism, racism, xenophobia, populist rhetoric and plutocratic policy, attacks on journalist, constant threats of violence and incitement to violence, and cult of personality.
Trump has now combined these dangerous characteristics with a new one: an assault on the courts.  At a first glance, his recent comments about the integrity of judges could just be grouped into his racism and his religious bigotry.  But I think otherwise.  
The judge presiding over the suit against Trump “University” released documents illustrating the fraudulent and predatory nature of Trump’s creation.  Trump’s response was to say the judge was compromised because of his ethnicity, repeatedly referring to the U.S.-born judge as “Mexican” by way of discrediting his credentials in the eyes of a xenophobic and hyper-nationalist public.
It is widely known that “race, ethnicity and religion are not legal grounds for a recusal, courts have ruled for decades, and the complaint runs afoul of basic US civil and religious rights.”  And so I suspect that Trump’s dog-whistle attacks on the legitimacy of a legal system that represents all of our nation’s communities are not just red meat to the most racist of his supporters.
I believe they are also a prelude to the initially-stealthy attacks Trump will make on the legitimacy of that court system as an impediment to his authoritarian style should he win the White House.  
Fascists in the interwar years depended on eroding support for and corrupting judiciaries, and Trump will do the same.  He is beginning by tarring members and groups within the courts, questioning their ability to serve impartially.  Although Trump is most directly questioning their legitimacy with reference to suits involving him, the way he has done so invites any white American to embrace his toxic non-logic and make the same kinds of arguments.

I have no idea what the next step in Trump’s assaults on our country’s institutions will be, but by targeting both courts and journalists he is undermining the ability of two core institutions to hold him accountable for his words and actions in politics and business. But the contrast with Bernie Sanders, who could win tomorrow's California primary, and even with Hillary Clinton, could not be clearer.  
Trump’s attacks on Clinton revolve around her supposedly being ‘crooked.’  Whatever you think of Clinton’s politics, in her handling of scandals real and imagined she has cooperated with and voiced respect for the courts and the press, despite her wary relationship with the latter.  But what could be more crooked than Trump’s efforts to subvert the ability of legal and investigative institutions, with grounding in our constitution, from holding him to the same standard as every other citizen?  

Friday, June 3, 2016

Donald Trump Meets Redding

In 1971, historian Gilbert Allardyce wrote that “nothing appears more foreign to our times than the fascist years--years of marching columns, flags, and torchlight, a season when grown men indulged themselves in pagan pageantry and Roman salutes.  Hitler once remarked that his movement would appear to the future as though it were a fairy tale; it appears instead like a nightmare.”
In 2016, the nightmare of fascism, once extinguished by American, Soviet, and British armies, is burning again.
I have managed to avoid watching a Donald Trump rally all the way through this election season.  But when I read that the fascist presidential candidate was speaking in Redding, the small northern Californian city where I was born, I thought I would watch on the Redding Record Searchlight’s live feed of the event.
The audience at the Redding Airport was a sea of bobbing umbrellas, with Mt Lassen visible in the background between the heat waves, the magnificent view soon to be defaced by a gaudy airplane and a gaudier man.
Trump was very late, suggesting that his round-ups and deportations might be less efficient than those managed by the fascists of the last century.  With most politicians, the perpetual tardiness comes across as being supposed to convey their importance.  We know that Trump has no self-doubt as to his world-historical significance, so I suspect that in his case it stems from basic discourtesy and the habits one develops from a lifetime of running sloppy, fraudulent organizations.
True to his tendency to shoot himself in the foot with various constituencies in our country, Trump’s strategy here seemed to be to kill off most of his Redding supporters by way of heat stroke by forcing them to stand on a tarmac in 104-degree weather.
Eventually, Trump’s airplane touched down at the airport that normally launches a couple of tiny planes each day in the general direction of San Francisco, and Trump wandered off his plane in a camouflage “Make America Great Again” cap.
The next 50 minutes was akin to watching the guy we’ve all seen at some point who stumbles out of the bar onto a street late at night, arms flailing, mouth running, swearing and threatening people left and right, angry at everyone and no one in particular at the same time.  It’s a futile kind of anger, a form of displacement, where onlookers cover their mouths and watch with a suspicion that it won’t end well.  The man lurches around, squinting angrily, looking like he’d take a swing at the first person to enter is bobbing field of vision.  His sentences are incoherent, his thought-process transparently unhinged, his bellows a set of grievances to the world at large until he plows head-first into the dirt, where his rantings are reduced to drooling, muted mumblings.
The problem is that most people who come stumbling out of a bar in an inebriated state don't have audiences of thousands to hang on their every garbled phrase and hateful word, sustaining a worldview that threatens people's lives and the foundation of our democracy.
But just as watching the man outside the bar can feel embarrassing and voyeuristic, so can watching a Trump rally.  But as duty bound as one might feel to look away, there is something horrific and therefore compelling about the spectacle.  In this case, the spectacle of three thousand people frying their brains in 100-degree weather and being conned like nobody’s business.
One of his minders must have told Trump that Redding was a backwater sea town, because he seemed to adopt a distinctly piratical parlance.  “Redding, Redding, arrrrr, we love Redding!” he arrrrred, as though he had heard of the place before.
Pointing to a man in the audience, “Oh, I like that, he’s got the same hat!  You like that?  The NRA!   Arrrrrrr!”
Waving to the people stuck on the safe side of the fence, “Look at all those people!  Hello everybody!  But you don’t want them to come in, you have enough people, right?  See, that’s the way life works.  Life is vicious!”  
An imaginary dialogue with the Russian president, “How dare you call me a genius, Vladimir!”
At one point, perhaps realizing he had nothing substantial to say, Trump decided his audience might find it more interesting to hear about his rally in San Jose, and so he proceeded to narrate it, protester by protester, cheer by cheer, ovation by ovation.
For someone who wrongly claims to have opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, Trump demonstrated stunning naivete.  “We’re gonna knock the hell out of’ll be faster and easier than anyone understands!”
Half of the 50 minute speech consisted of Trump--who claims he has rhinoceros-grade skin--defending his temperament.  He uttered the following in the space of about 90 seconds: “There’s nobody with a better temperament than me, I love winning!...temperament is very important...I’ve got the greatest temperament there is, the temperament that this country needs...I could just say, Oh, I have a wonderful temperament...I have a tough temperament, we need a tough my temperament is so controlled, totally beautiful, I built an unbelievable company...temperament is a very important word...we need toughness and talk about composure, you talk about temperament!”
At one stage, Trump conducted an extended rendition of an imaginary conversation between himself and his “good friends” in the audience about winning wherein he used the word “win” 18 times in about 30 seconds.  
The speech was regularly interspersed with self-pitying whines about the press, coverage from which has propelled Trump to prominence.  But I had lost track of who Trump was castigating when he gibbered, “They know less than the beautiful young woman standing there!”
The woman in question wasn’t the only unfortunate to be singled out.  “Oh!” Trump yelped, “Look at my African American over here!  Are you the greatest?  You know what I’m talking about!”
In the vein of the man outside the bar whose ravings have quieted and are reduced to nonsensical stories, Trump then began to talk about “my African American supporter” who punched someone at his rally, and then said, “Let me tell you while we’re on the subject, we’re going to bring jobs back to this country!”
This reminded Trump of a wall he once knew, a “serious wall, a real deal wall, way up there, a big, beautiful wall...someday maybe they’d name it after Trump, but I’d much rather have a statue in Washington, D.C.”
Then after another spurt of “wins”, Trump decided it was time to pack it in and head home.  Judging by the utter incoherence of his speech, I’m saying the score was Redding’s June heat 1--Donald Trump 0.
But the almost comical, substance-free, policy-averse nature of Trump’s rally shouldn’t obscure the threat that his toxic combination of policy and personal pose to the livelihoods of Americans, the security of our democracy, and the safety and well-being of people in other parts of the world.  Trump’s fascism has the potential to undo the fragile consensus that keeps people in our grossly unequal country--and Trump’s policies will exacerbate that inequality--tied together.
Earlier in the day Trump claimed that the judge presiding over the suits against Trump University should recuse himself because "he is Mexican."  The suit has to do with attendees at Trump's faux university suing for breach of contract, fraud, misrepresentation, and more.  How does anything in this case compromise the standing of a judge because of his ethnicity (incidentally, the judge is a U.S. citizen, not a Mexican citizen)?  How is this anything other than racism on Trump's part?  What is the next step?  That no citizen of Latino ancestry can take part in any judicial or other public forum because they are compromised somehow by their ethnicity?  

Trump’s racism, xenophobia, sexism, and nastiness--which won him cheers from members of the crowd--should disturb democrats in the United States.  And when I say democrats, I mean small-d democrats: people who believe that strong institutions rather than a strongman are our path to prosperity, justice, and equality.  

One Big Reason Why LaMalfa, Dahle, and Gaines are Unfit to Represent the North State

Northern Californians are voting for their Congressional representatives in the primary that takes place next week.  Redding and its surroundings are currently represented by Congressman Doug LaMalfa.  I personally have many ideological disagreements with Doug LaMalfa, but there is one particular feature of his time in public life that I think ought to disqualify him in the eyes of all of his constituents--whether they are Republicans, Democrats, or un-registered voters.

LaMalfa, you see, has joined many of his colleagues in the national and state Republican Party in signing Grover Norquist’s pledge to “oppose any and all tax increases.”  These colleagues include state-level officials Ted Gaines and Brian Dahle.  
For many of LaMalfa’s, Gaines’, and Dahle’s Republican constituents who don’t want to pay higher taxes, that might seem at first like a good thing.  Their candidates shares their ideology and their desire to pay fewer taxes.
However, if you think closely about what LaMalfa and Co have done, these elected officials’ loyalties now do not correspond to the needs of their constituents.  Instead of being elected in the tradition of representative democracy as individuals with strong viewpoints but who are nonetheless ostensibly intelligent individuals able to consider changing circumstances and the needs of constituents and the country, LaMalfa and Co’s pledge-taking, oath-swearing politics make them a kind of automated vote stamper.  
Their actions on any vote dealing with the fundamental questions of revenue have nothing to do with a particular issue, nothing to do with changes in the regional, local, or national economy, and are taken with no reference to the needs or desires of constituents.
Their pledge means that LaMalfa, Gaines, and Dahle cannot or will not listen to arguments or engage in good-faith debate.  It means that they can’t negotiate, can’t win concessions, and can’t ultimately exercise influence as independent agents on behalf of their constituents.
I believe that even the most right-wing of these representatives’ Republican constituents probably believe that there are certain times when the country might need to increase its resources.  In times of war, economic catastrophe, or natural disaster I suspect that even they would acknowledge the need for marshalling resources to defend ourselves, protect the vulnerable, and rebuild.
I suspect that many of those Republican constituents would recognize that in a state with a young population that is growing in size and demographic complexity, not raising taxes doesn’t create a flatline.  It makes revenue fall relative to the number and needs of our population.
The North State currently has an active group seeking the construction of a new University of California campus in the region, a worthy cause that would bring educational opportunities and job opportunities to the area.  I suspect that the campaign for this campus draws support from people who consider themselves Republicans as well as those who regard themselves as Democrats.  Such a campus would require an investment from the state, and likely higher taxes on some people in the state.  But those advocates recognize that these commitments would be outweighed by the benefits of a large, cutting edge research campus in our midst.  
LaMalfa’s short-sighted and inflexible pledge-politics means that as a state representative he would have been incapable of weighing the costs and benefits of such a venture, and current state representatives like Gaines and Dahle are in the same boat.

From my own left-wing perspective there are plenty of policy views that put me at odds with LaMalfa and Co.  But what I find most extraordinary is that voters in the North State have tolerated representatives who abdicate the use of their critical reasoning by signing pledges that commit them to mulishly sitting on the sidelines during fundamental debates about public services, public revenue, and the future of our nation.  In the primaries next week, at least some of these representatives can be held accountable, and in November voters have the opportunity to replace them with thinking men and women capable of reacting to the world around them.  

A Tip for the FBI

The Federal Bureau of Investigation describes its mission as protecting “you, your children, your communities, and your businesses from the most dangerous threats facing our nation.”  These include “international and domestic terrorists,” presumably defined as people who are planning or have pledged vocally to commit acts of terror.  The FBI also claims to “defend and uphold our nation’s economy...and democracy.”
If this is indeed the FBI’s mission, I have a tip for them.  I have knowledge that a man will today appear in Redding, California who poses an imminent threat not only to his fellow citizens, but also to the very character of our democracy and the lives of people in other parts of the world.
This man is seeking elected office with the promise of unleashing violence.  This man has threatened to murder civilians in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Horn of Africa to punish the family members of those civilians who have committed crimes.  This man has committed to violating the law by ordering the torture of prisoners.  He has suggested that he will commit deliberate crimes against our environment by bombing oil fields, the consequences of which we saw after Saddam Hussein did the same in the Gulf War.  
He has encouraged his supporters to harm his critics.  He has pledged to violate our constitution by rounding up people on the basis of their religion.  He has pledged to violate our constitution by attacking protections that allow journalists to do their job.
Like other state and non-state terrorists the FBI pursues, this man is seeking to aid the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including to authoritarian states with a long history of corruption and sponsorship of state terrorism like Saudi Arabia.
I implore the FBI to investigate this man and gauge the extent of the threat he poses to our public, our democracy, and our world.  While I don’t support pre-emptive action against criminals and terrorists without correct evidence, it seems that some investigation is in order.

He will be recognizable by his enormous private plane, apparently minuscule hands, large tufts of red hair, a face screwed up in rage, and his Fascist ravings.  He may be speaking to a large crowd of sympathizers.