Saturday, August 27, 2016

Nevada's Cortez Masto Must Do Better on International Policy

Nevada matters in this presidential election cycle not just because it is a swing state and will help to determine our country’s next president.  It is also critical because Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring, putting a senate seat up for grabs.  The composition of Congress will determine the extent to which the next president can pursue his or her ambitions.
Congressman Joe Heck, the Republican candidate for Senate, shares his party’s economic fundamentalism, its knee-jerk and half-witted opposition to “government,” and its fealty to the corporate interests who would poison our water, soil, and air if they could get away with it.  He has participated in the Republican effort to sabotage the functioning of the federal government to bring to life their self-evidently absurd claim that “government doesn’t work.”
Former state attorney general Catherine Cortez Masto is the Democrat hoping to replace Reid in the senate.  While the state is losing clout either way, Masto is clearly a more reasonable candidate with a worldview that is simultaneously more humane and closer to reality.
However, I have major misgivings about her international policy outlook.  For many Americans, international policy is almost inconsequential when compared to cultural and domestic policy.  But as the Iraq war demonstrated--and continues to demonstrate--so vividly, a single bad foreign policy decision can contribute massively to a deficit (sidelining or derailing other policy priorities), create ‘blowback’ that imperils American citizens, diminish U.S. influence in the world, and create violence and instability that affects our global family.
Senators should offer coherent thoughts about international policy and demonstrate understanding of the consequences that U.S. actions have around the world.  They should understand the risks of war and have views about how to sustain and develop peace.
Our next president is likely to be Hillary Clinton.  As Senator and Secretary of State, Clinton came down on the wrong side of virtually every major decision involving questions of war and peace.  She supported the ruinous invasion of Iraq that led to the predictable proliferaiton of international terror.  She advocated for a surge in Afghanistan without offering concrete objectives.  She beat the war drums to intervene in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.  And she has supported the engorgement of the national security state, absent proper mechanisms for oversight and accountability.
In short, Clinton has supported aggressive war, advocated intervention, and acted as a proponent of the idea that the U.S. has the right and responsibility to transform the states and peoples world according to its own desires, using force.  
Based on this dangerous and destructive record, a Clinton presidency promise great peril for the U.S. and other global citizens.  Although international policy affords presidents greater leeway than domestic policy, responsible members of the House and Senate in particular should use every tool at their disposal to reduce the recklessness and short-sightedness that has defined U.S. foreign policy.  They should provide sharp oversight, and they should seek to ensure that the U.S. conducts international policy in the most moral, farsighted, clear, accountable, and logical fashion possible.
Cortez Masto’s “issues” page does little to inspire confidence that she is up to this challenge as yet.
In the first instance, her only commentary on international policy is framed as “national security.”  The two are certainly linked, but this particular blinkered vantage point is responsible for much of the myopia infecting policymaking, and for the inability to understand how U.S. actions have ramifications elsewhere in the world that at least in the last several decades have been more and more likely to create new and worse threats to our country.
One of the few substantial pieces of policy Cortez Masto mentions is backing for using the “no fly” list to restrict gun ownership.  It is certainly important to introduce serious and restrictive gun laws.  But using a list and mechanism--the ‘no fly’ list--that has been proven time and again to violate liberties, mis-identify people, and provide no justification for its actions is wrong, and a good example of abusing national security law to reach a desired end as the lazy escape from developing consensus and writing good public policy.  Instead of strengthening a flawed list and using it as the basis for more policy, senators should craft careful, logical, and pointed policy to make Americans safer.  Nevada and the country need better than the approach Cortez Masto advocates here.
More consequential are Cortez Masto’s comments on international terrorism.  “ISIS is determined to continue to attack us,” she writes, “and we must destroy them before innocent lives are taken.  This starts by Congress declaring war on ISIS.  We also need to directly arm and train the Iraqi Kurds to help combat ISIS, as well as increase targeted air strikes and continue supporting our allies in the region to root out terrorism.”
This statement is one part vapid homily and one part incredibly dangerous commitment.
A U.S. war to defeat ISIS is a dangerous proposition that requires serious thought.  A war on ISIS will not be won by air strikes.  It would involve ground operations in multiple states with which we have very different current and historical relations.  We would have to define whether this would be a unilateral, or coalition-based endeavor, or a serious multilateral effort backed by legitimate international organizations (i.e. the United Nations).  It would require intense negotiations with states with their own interests in the region (ranging from Turkey and Jordan to Russia and Iran).  And if it had any prospect of actual success, it would require a level of commitment (including post-conflict commitment) that Americans need to be alerted to and clear about.
Some of our allies in the region--Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, for example--are ruthless in their opposition to democratic politics.  Their authoritarianism is directly responsible for the rise of international terror before 9/11, and for the ability of terror groups to replace civil society organizations in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as the core agents of regional change.  Our backing of these states is directly responsible for the terrorism that has affected many of our own citizens.
Cortez Masto’s statements might come in part from a place of ignorance, which would hopefully be rectified by some time in office.  But they might also be defined by a desire to say something that is popular, without being either practical or responsible.
The latter suggests a willingness to latch on to policy prescriptions associated with the kind of groupthink that has dominated U.S. foreign policymaking for ill.  It suggests that the senator has not reached out to people with a variety of viewpoints, and is disinclined to ask the kinds of probing questions that--if asked by senators like Hillary Clinton in 2002-3--might have prevented a rush to catastrophic war in Iraq.
Or it might be that Cortez Masto has no interest in foreign policy.
But a lack of interest and a concomitant willingness to go along with conventional wisdom is what opens the door to executive abuse of power when it comes to international policy.  It is that attitude which lengthens and frays the leash we have on a national security apparatus that has shown itself to be prone to abusing its powers out of keeping with the public interest.
There is time before November for Cortez Masto to reach out to Nevadans and convince them that she is willing to take seriously the part of her prospective job that involves thinking about a complicated world, checking the excesses of the national security state, and moderating the extreme and dangerous foreign policy views of her party’s presidential nominee.

Until then, at least some of us will maintain qualms about supporting an otherwise good candidate.  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Clinton's Kissinger Problem

Henry Kissinger with General Pinochet*
Watching the glitzy Democratic gather earlier in the summer was a surreal experience.  The party put together a convention that featured retired generals literally screaming about all the people we are going to obliterate, abundant chants of “USA! USA!” (as though that constitutes an argument of some kind), and a nominee who has been on the wrong side of almost every debate about matters of war and peace for the past decade and a half.
In some respects, Hillary Clinton’s disturbing foreign policy record and prescriptions are encapsulated by her relationship with Henry Kissinger, foreign policy grandee from the Nixon and Ford years, famous both for aiding rapprochement with China and for leaving a bloody wake and high body count behind U.S. perambulations through Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Southern Africa.  
Critics of Clinton’s foreign policy have assailed her for the attention she has paid Kissinger, and for her admiration of his tenure.  Her relationship with Kissinger goes well beyond one-time consulting, and she has cited his diplomacy as an inspiration.  From her first days in the State Department, Clinton made a point of consulting with Kissinger, and she and her campaign (both de facto and de jure versions) have gone to great pains to call attention to the praise that has passed between the two former diplomats.  
Clinton and her defenders argue that Clinton is meeting with a wide array of experts who represent a variety of schools of thought when it comes to the misconduct of American diplomacy.  Kissinger, we are told, maintains useful contacts and “backchannels”, and apparently knows things that the world’s superpower and its overmighty national security apparatus don’t know.  They argue that while we may not all agree with Kissinger, the fact that he should be behind bars doesn’t negate his deep expertise and profound intelligence, and that Clinton would be foolish not to solicit his advice about the workings of the modern world.  
The flaws with this argument are onion-like, and best dealt with in layers.
As a diplomat, Clinton naturally knows that given actions can yield both costs and benefits.  She obviously assumes that more is to be gained by meeting with Kissinger than is to be lost by the message her meetings send to people in all the parts of the world disfigured by what sociopaths call “realpolitik”, but which would be better described as mass murder dressed up in threadbare realist cloth.  
In the first place, I’m not sure that argument is sound.  And in the second, if it was really Kissinger’s advice Clinton was after, she could have met privately.  Instead, in her various public iterations, she has made it clear that consorting with the ageing representation of blunt-force U.S. imperialism is about the “optics” rather than substantive advice.  It is about trying to draw broken-toothed but still-ravenous Cold Warriors and deranged neoconservatives into the big tent Clinton is erecting to keep Trump out of office.  Such people would be better shackled in cells in the Hague for their crimes against peace, but Clinton inexplicably wants them on side.
The other flaw with this defence of Clinton’s consultation with Kissinger is the idea that he represents some kind of foreign policy genius.  The realists of the Nixon administration certainly broke ground in establishing relations with China.  But Kissinger and his national security apparatus had no long term view of policy, saw every event in the world through the myopic lens of the Cold War, and were ill-informed about much of the world.
This was a feature of U.S. foreign policymaking for much of the post-war.  Western diplomatic “experts” travelling to “solve” what they thought of as a Cold War Congo crisis in the 1960s admitted to not knowing on which side of the continent the country was located, making it clear that they didn’t possess elementary knowledge about history and political economy that would obviously be central to addressing the region’s ills.
Kissinger was appallingly ignorant--grandly self-admitted--of basic contours of life, politics, history, and economics of huge swathes of the world.  He told the Chilean ambassador to the United States that he was “not interested in, nor do I know anything about, the southern portion of the world from the Pyrenees down” (Kinzer, Overthrow:177).  While no top diplomat should have to know the ins and outs of all the world’s states, this level of disinterest and ignorance, with the flippant attitude that accompanied it, had devastating consequences for the world.
In part, this was because Kissinger’s ignorance made him easily swayed by his primary interlocutors in the region: a handful of immensely wealthy, powerful, and predatory American businesses.  The influence of these businesses was all the worse because of the revolving door between public and corporate life that existed then as now in Washington.  Not only were these business interests able to persuade Kissinger to act in their own interests; they viewed the world from inside the comically-paranoid and equally-ignorant straitjacket that Cold War thinking imposed on national security “experts.”
This relationship ensured that Kissinger acted not to serve any widely defined public interest, but rather a strikingly narrow subset of private interest.  
This was in turn exacerbated by Kissinger’s naive and cartoonish diplomacy.  For a “realist,” his grasp on how the world works resembles less a wise statesman than a teenager who is up far too late playing a game of Risk.  Kissinger’s world consisted of states that were either allies or enemies, capitalists or communists.  Whole parts of the world were either “ours” or not, and if they were, they should stay that way.  Non-state actors did not enter the picture, and while such a framework might have got him successfully through many an international coup and conference, we are paying the price for it today.  
By demonstrating little interest in people’s histories, circumstances, or motives, and by positioning the U.S. at the center of the world in such a way as to only understand other state’s behaviors with reference to the United States rather than those countries’ realities, Kissinger won some small short-term victories, but unleashed chaos over the long term by dismantling democracies, creating dictatorships, and refusing to acknowledge the catastrophic consequences of “small wars.”
He and his handlers--and his mentees--treated powerful countries with careful diplomacy, and directed barbarian violence toward weaker countries.  Those states that had the power to threaten the United States were received at conferences, and received hand-shakes and photo ops.  Small states that posed not the slightest threat to the U.S. public and which were deemed threatening to U.S. corporate interests or a Dr Strangelove-version of national security were bombed or ravaged by “friendly”, U.S.-installed regimes.  Kissinger sponsored carefully orchestrated coups, and aided rogue generals in creating chaos as a pretext for coups.
Kissinger’s actions led directly to the destruction of democratic institutions and economies.  They led to the murder and disappearance of millions of people.  They installed frightful regimes.  They have poisoned relations between the U.S. and other parts of the world down to the present, leaving our politicians gaping stupidly, unable to process why other states have little trust of our government.  
Clinton is no Kissinger.  The world today is far less forgiving of that level of ignorance.  She knows more of the world and its interconnectedness.  But her cultivation of a man who is evil incarnate to those whose families his hand-picked dictators slaughtered without a second thought tells us something about what she values.  Kissinger may have insights, but as a private citizen whose contacts are more than ever through the private sector, the “interests” he represents and worldview he stakes out are horrifyingly distorted.
Her cultivation of Kissinger is in line with her failure to understand the long-term ramifications of propping up friendly regimes who savage their people.  It fits with her lack of understanding that the non-state actors who bear the brunt of our violent foreign policy are the people who will one day wield power, and who thanks to technological advances have more abilities to act in asymmetrical conflicts against our public interest.  It fits with the culture of impunity in our national security sector which protects people who torture, disappear, murder, and violate the safety and security of our fellow human beings.
Clinton, her defenders rightly say, is unlikely to start a “shooting war” with Russia or China, or to launch nukes at someone who tweets rudely about the size of her hands.  But like her grand mentor, she is likely to fan the flames of the “small wars” that define life for many of our fellow global citizens, and to plant the seeds for another generation’s horrific conflicts.  I for one am less worried about a shooting war than the way in which these “small wars” have managed to transform the global economy, instil fear in democracies, and bring people around the world to their knees.
Clinton’s decision to go cap in hand to a putrid war criminal in his dotage is astonishing.
And the fact that Clinton and some of her supporters can’t understand why it is wrong demonstrates the deep empathy problem that defines many of our country’s foreign policy ills, as they did in Kissinger’s time.  We know and care far less about the world than the world knows about us.  This impairs our ability to understand just how devastating some of our actions are.  It encourages people like Clinton to reach for blunt instruments.  It allows her to focus on a horizon defined by a fatally short horizon.  And it permits her to focus on actions that are more about our egos than about doing good.

Doing good, the faux realists tell us, is weak and naive.  But their hubris has blinded them to the lesson, imparted again and again by events if we would but read them carefully, that the easy, violent answers are seldom based on the world as it is.  

Friday, August 19, 2016

Will UC Learn from its Chancellors' Fates?

Within the past two weeks, the University of California has lost two campus chancellors to incompetence and scandal.  The reasons for and nature of their departure illustrate what hurdles the University faces in regaining public trust, but also some of ills that came about when the public forsook its responsibilities toward the world’s preeminent public university system, now significantly privatized
First out the door was UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi, whose ignonimous departure has been five years in the making.  In 2011, Katehi bungled the campus’ response to peaceful protest.  In her role as custodian of students’ welfare and interest, she unleashed campus police, who famously pepper-sprayed students.  
Understandably, that and Katehi’s mangled response did some damage to her reputation.  Undeterred, she spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to scrub the internet of negative references to her tenure as Chancellor.
Apparently bored by her day job, for which she was paid over $400,000, Katehi joined the DeVry Education Group as a paid board member, lied about the timing of doing so, and added a position on the board of King Abdulaziz University to her docket to round things out.  
Although she has lost her job, Katehi will be paid $424,360 in the coming year for not serving as UC Davis Chancellor.  [Full disclosure: I wrote to the UC President offering my services as non-UC Davis Chancellor for a paltry $50,000, but received no answer.]
Next down was UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.  Unlike his predecessor, the notoriously bone-headed and tone-deaf Robert Birgeneau, Dirks did not have to deal with massive student protests, and demonstrated greater humanity and dexterity in dealing with the protests he did encounter.
But the decision to offer a pay cut rather than discipline to faculty accused of serial sexual harassment (which his boss, UC President Janet Napolitano first heard about through the news) stunk of a noxious cover-up.  Similarly, the sudden “discovery” of a $150 million per year budget deficit smacked of incompetence.  
Dirks too paid consultants (hundreds of thousands of dollars) to improve his image, and skated close to the edge with his family’s use of a campus fitness instructor.
Nor did Dirks seem entirely at ease with the students in his care.  Berkeley spent $700,000 erecting a fence around his campus residence, and the Chancellor was accused of installing an escape hatch in his office.  [To be fair, I once saw students take a makeshift battering ram to the door of California Hall.  To be fair, campus police had previously shot said students with rubber bullets and beat them with truncheons for standing peacefully with arms linked in front of a building.]
There was no word on whether Dirks, like Katehi would be paid (in his case over $500,000) to not do his job for the coming year.
The absurdity of the administrative mind--effectively walled off from the political-economy that governs the lives of students and faculty, never mind the state’s wider public--is on full display in Dirks’ and Katehi’s mishaps.  But their graceless descents from positions of power and responsibility in California’s most important state institution offer wider lessons.
Californians’ refusal to properly fund their public institutions--a trend initiated during the Reagan era and intensified from the 1990s on--led to the de facto part-privatization of UC.  With that came the prevailing private sector ethos that good leadership means obscenely compensated leadership.  This ushered in the era of sky-high pay for chancellors, the proliferation of administrators at the expense of people who do the actual work of running units and departments, and the use of bonuses.
This has made Californians less likely to contemplate increased public funding, UC’s leadership having made it clear that it has odd priorities about where that funding should be directed.  The secrecy surrounding the handling of sexual assault, the fences, escape hatches, and pepper spray do not help.
The high-powered leadership that was supposed to rescue UC from hard times has repeatedly confused the health of its reputation with the welfare of its institution.  Katehi--whether or not she violated her contract--showed a marked disinterest in her job, and demonstrated by moonlighting for DeVry and its for-profits that she has little commitment to the values of a public institution.  
Far from bringing either fiscal probity or visionary leadership to institutions, these administrators have harmed their campuses and the system by making bad judgements that increased public mistrust of public institutions.  
But they should not bear full responsibility for the harm they have done UC.  The UC Regents, who appear alongside the dictionary definition of “out of touch,” have tried to introduce corporate values to a public institution with disastrous results for UC’s relationship with the state and for relationship on campuses.  
California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, a historic UC sceptic and foe, has sought to discipline the University while dazzling slack-jawed media with a stream of mind-numbing psychobabble.  The Governor compared students who complained about $15,000/year fees to bankers asking for a golden parachute, offering them the “reality sandwich” that his generation dodged because their parents were willing to pay the taxes that his generation then repudiated.  
The failings of these two UC Chancellors illustrate the flaws at the upper levels of the University.  But they are symptoms of the Regents’ efforts to introduce corporate values to a public institution, the state’s flawed political economy, intellectually-impoverished and spineless leadership, and the disconnect between voters and their institutions.

The University should use its search for replacements to be clear-eyed about the nature of the problems it faces, and to engage with campus communities and the public to show that it actually understands why the behavior of some campus leadership is unacceptable.  
Fiat Lux.

Big, Bad Ideas

The emerging conventional wisdom of this election cycle is that Donald Trump represents an existential threat to our country and our democracy.  Indeed, his campaign has involved the candidate uttering a series of bizarre and incendiary comments about women, ethnic and religious minorities, and his impatience with democracy.
But we should not let Trump’s persona and ideology--which has lurched into territory long the preserve of fascists--distract us from either his party’s slow and steady drift into right-wing fanaticism or the extent to which the four main candidates in the 2016 presidential election represent different, fundamental, and very dangerous ideas and consensuses.  
Donald Trump’s contribution to this mess is his embrace of ethnic nationalism: the idea that citizenship and its benefits should be based on race.  While Trump--the man who supposedly “tells it like it us”--has constantly backed away from each inflammatory statement as soon as he is called on it, he frequently returns to them, and has been sufficiently consistent in this regard that we should be seriously worried.
His recent weeks might have been dominated by outrage as his cynical assault on Gold Star parents, but the moment that crystallized his candidacy came when he argued that a judge of Mexican heritage was not fit to serve because his race made him incapable of examining facts, assessing evidence, and pronouncing the judgment he was trained to offer.  Trump’s statement invited every white, nationalistic American to call into question the viability of black, Latino, and Asian Americans to possess the full attributes of citizenship.  
Part and parcel of Trump’s ethnic nationalism have been the suggestions that if he loses the election it will not be because he ran a ramshackle campaign predicated on offending core constituencies in American politics.  It will be because the election was rigged to benefit people who aren’t really even American.  He and his campaign have suggested that this should be greeted by an armed citizenry taking to the street, causing a “bloodbath”, engineering a “constitutional crisis”, and murdering his rival.
There is a man whose contempt for democracy is clear.  He and his party also deny the realities of climate change, the greatest long-term problem facing the planet, and go so far as to suggest that people should take pride in the consumption and production of dirty and unsustainable forms of energy that work to the clear detriment of people around the world.
The Green Party’s Jill Stein represents another fundamental set of flaws with American liberalism (in spite of the party’s leftist credentials).  Unlike some of its regional iterations, the national Green Party gives the impression of pandering to affluent and eccentric white suburbia, both with its candidates “wink, nod” pronouncements on vaccines--where the scientific verdict is really quite solid--and its chronic inability to link its environmental ethic to an economic platform that resonates with the country that exists outside of Marin County.
The Green Party’s sins seem like small fry when compared to the Libertarian Party, led by Gary Johnson.  One selling point of this party to a public exhausted by protracted and pointless imperial wars was its leader’s critique of our leaders’ pathological commitment to intervention.  But Johnson’s running-mate has tried to put the brakes on the party’s isolationism.  
But the fundamental flaw with the Libertarian Party is its quaint, fairy-tale belief in the wholesome property of markets, as though a “free market” is a) something that has ever existed in the world; and b) something that functions separately from the machinations of the political world.
Less than ten years ago we had the awful experience of seeing what damage that a far more moderate version of this dangerous idea could do to our national economy.  Rolling back “government”--the one institution capable working at the macro level for a broad-based public interest rather than a narrowly-defined private one--is a stupid idea that is at the very heart of the Libertarian Party, and an important plank of the Republican Party (alongside its Klan-style white nationalism and general fury at the modern world).
Another set of ideas, remarkable both for how bad they are for how long they have endured in spite of experience and evidence, involve an aggressive, violent, interventionist U.S. foreign policy.  Hillary Clinton, the preferred candidate of neo-conservatives in this election, spent eight years as Senator and four years in the State Department as one of the foremost advocates of American aggression in the wider Middle East.
That aggression--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond--contributed to our massive national debt, led (as intelligence agencies warned at the time) to the proliferation of international terrorism, killed and wounded tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, and has led to the deaths of millions of our fellow global citizens, while generating instability that leads to further inequality that in turn is guaranteed to fuel a new generation of conflict.
Particularly when it comes to the two large parties, the fact that their standard bearers are uniquely associated with truly awful and dangerous concepts of nationalism and ideas about American power, says something frightening about our country.
On the one hand, it suggests that one of our major parties is in the process of transforming itself into a party of white nationalism, prepared to hand power to a candidate who openly talks about upending constitutional norms and singling out citizens for punishment or disenfranchisement on the basis of their race or religion.  
On the other, it suggests that the idealistic internationalism that once fueled parts of the Democratic Party, and the humanist ethic supposed to stand behind its claims about universalism, are dead, and that the party is in the process of becoming the vehicle for its own form of toxic, jingoistic nationalism, its violence directed outward rather than inward.
Trump’s rhetoric, at its worst, can seem to herald the end of our republic.  Happily, his chances of victory seem to slide further away with each week.  But the ascendancy of Hillary Clinton represents the upsurge of one of the most dangerous and destructive ideas in human history, particularly in the last 500 years for people in the non-western world: the conviction that one group of people has both the right and the power to transform the world and its people in its own image, using whatever tools and force it has at its disposal.  

Members of her party seem constitutionally incapable of offering criticism toward their nominee so great is their fear of Donald Trump.  But if responsible voters do not take care and remain vigilant and critical, they will avert the triumph of fascism by ensuring the empowerment of a hubristic and terroristic security state led by a long-time advocate of aggressive war.  

Saturday, August 13, 2016

How the World Might See Our Election

The most heavily-armed superpower in the world today is now less than three months from a general election that local journalists call one of the most important in the past hundred years.  Americans elect their president not just through a popular, democratic vote, but through an indirect system of "electors", who can conceivably hand victory to a candidate who wins fewer actual votes than a competitor.
Sixteen years ago, the country's top court halted a recount amidst a contested election amidst accusations of collusion and corruption. The Republican candidate, who won fewer votes than his opponent, became president.  Today, politicians openly seek to disqualify citizens from voting,  and volatility in the two major parties has made the country highly combustible.  The outcome of this election is uncertain.
The Democratic Party has been in power for the past eight years, the outgoing President taking credit for partly restoring a crumbling economy.  While the growth of white nationalism as a backlash to Barack Obama's presidency has generated racial antipathy toward the president, he remains generally popular among the electorate.  
The party's candidate, Hillary Clinton, is the wife of a former president, and served for eight years in elected office as the representative of the nation’s financial region, dominated by elite banking interests who live dramatically different lifestyles from the citizens scattered across the nation’s “heartland.”  She represents the return to power of the “neo-conservatives”, the jingoistic imperialist faction that favors the violent projection of American power.  She also represents continuity with the liberal social and economic policies of her predecessor.  [“Liberalism” is a loaded term for America’s historically ignorant electorate, members of which frequently confuse the term with “socialism,” “fascism,” “communism,” "vegetarianism," and other unrelated terms.]
Clinton’s campaign has been plagued by accusations of collusion with the party during the primary--when the supposedly neutral party machine expressed support for Clinton against her social democratic challenger Bernie Sanders.  Sanders drew his support from leftist activists, traditionally apolitical segments of the electorate, and the country’s youth, which faces widespread unemployment and constant attacks on its “sloth” from older generations who received benefits like free education that have since been denied to later generations.
Having overcome the challenge from the left of her party, Clinton remains dogged by a history of well-documented flip-flops when it comes to energy, the environment, financial, and economic policy.  Her campaign recently hired a disgraced party official, and demonstrates palpable impatience with the media.  Clinton also represents America’s dynastic politics--out of step with what many would describe as the meritocratic values of the 21st century world--which have left many Americans questioning the vitality of their democracy.
However, her campaign has been strengthened because she faces a Republican nominee who has deeply divided his party.  Housing magnate and entertainer Donald Trump inherited vast wealth and expanded his empire over the years, in part through a series of bankruptcies and collusion with unsavory domestic and foreign investors.  Critics have pointed out that by simply investing his money, the unstable television personality could have made even more wealth, but this reality hasn’t stopped him from selling himself as a business expert to voters across the deeply-divided country.
Trump took advantage of popular discontent with the country's economic fortunes to present himself as the savior of the country's shrinking middle class.  His task was undoubtedly aided by the extraordinarily ill-educated voter base, many members of which are ignorant of much basic science from the past 150 years, possess literal belief in ancient mythology, and learn a patriotic if wildly misleading version of their country’s history in schools that suffer from neglect.  Educational standards--and basic scientific and historical content--are determined by the governments of the country’s many regions (“states”), which have strong identities, and the management of which varies widely in terms of competency, modernity, and economic viability.
Trump appears to share his party's faith-based convictions about the intrinsic wisdom of markets, a quaint deviation from a wider global consensus about the need for the state to regulate markets in the public good.  But he also rails against internationalism, and the country’s large trading partner to the south, seemingly ignorant of the fact that a huge western swathe of his own country is land taken in a violent war of expansion from its former owners.
But his campaign's signature feature has been his extraordinary racism, outlandish commentary, abject ignorance, and threats of violence.
Trump will need to hold together his party's coalition of white supremacists, religious fundamentalists, and affluent sociopaths to triumph against Clinton, who is backed by most of the country's ethnic minorities, middle-class white Americans, and a sizable chunk of the country's diminishing blue collar working class, who receive oddly outsize attention during elections in spite of the service-oriented nature of the overwhelming majority of the country's workforce.
Other challengers include the cultish economic fundamentalists known as the Libertarians, and the Greens, who are fielding a doctor who appears to advance outlandish ideas about the dangers of vaccinations.
Marginal internal critics complain that a personality-focused campaign pays little heed to significant challenges: climate change (the government of some American regions prohibit civil servants from mentioning the words); a de-industrializing economy; and the international sphere.
American party primaries are staggered over several months, and for most elections candidates rely on private sources of funding which deeply corrupt the political process.  Many candidates receive endorsements from elite celebrities and sports figures.
This election has illustrated the poor state of the country’s indulgent, self-referential, and uninspired media, much of which is concentrated in a few hands.  A characteristic feature of American journalism involves putting anywhere from two to twelve “talking heads” on screen--many of them employed by political candidates--and inciting shouting matches.  Reporting, according to many Americans, has taken a back seat to entertainment.
International observers have reason to be troubled by the country’s election.  Democrat Clinton is known for having pursued deeply destabilizing violence abroad, and has supported illegal conflicts.  As the country’s foreign minister, she shielded war criminals from prosecution.
Donald Trump has expressed affinity for the authoritarian leader of another of the world’s political basket-cases, Vladimir Putin.  He has also expressed ignorance about the country’s enormous stockpile of nuclear weapons, and has openly pledged to pursue policies of state terrorism.
Trump has also declared that if he loses he will encourage his volatile supporters to take to the streets.  His supporters have predicted a bloodbath if Clinton wins, and the candidate recently appeared to endorse the assassination of his opponent.  This is comparatively feasible in America, where many citizens, prey to historic paranoia, go about heavily armed.  

Observers worry that America--its democracy long under strain, and its courts under-staffed due to the Republicans’ rejection of executive authority--will succumb to post-election violence.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Trump Campaign Plots Post-Election Violence

Americans are accustomed to thinking of post-election violence, along ethnic or “tribal” lines, as something that occurs Somewhere Else.  Popular narratives would have us think of that violence as an irrational feature of backwards, underdeveloped cultures.  People who study politics, and people with historical and social knowledge of these places--never mind the people who live there--know better.  
But between now and November, we in the United States are going to have a front-row seat to how political economic circumstance, party dysfunction, and calculated efforts by an elite politician create the conditions for post-election violence.
Yesterday, the fascist candidate Donald Trump called his rival Hillary Clinton “the devil,” and warned that “November 8th, we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be’s going to be taken away from us.”
This follows a Trump advisor saying that Hillary Clinton “should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”  
The Guardian also reported that another Trump ally is using right-wing radio to describe how Trump can discredit the election process in preparation for its aftermath.  “He needs to say for example,” Roger Stone said, “today would be a perfect example: ‘I am leading in Florida.  The polls all show it.  If I lose Florida we will know that there’s voter fraud.  If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, the election winner will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.’”
Stone advocated a “bloodbath” if the election doesn’t go Trump’s way.
This is a terrifying strategy being adopted by the Trump campaign, but we knew it was coming because it is part and parcel of fascist politics, and it is no more than a ramped up version of the rhetoric Trump deployed during the primary.  Then, he warned the Republican Party that if he didn’t win the nomination, he couldn’t say what his supporters might do, and pledged to circumvent the democratic process.
Now he is doing the same thing, but his supporters are very openly endorsing and proscribing the use of violence whether Trump wins or loses.  If he wins, he should execute Hillary Clinton.  If he loses, he will start a civil war.  
No matter his post-convention poll boost, a Trump victory has always been unlikely given the reality of American demographics in the 21st century and his own predilection for being nasty and brutal toward so many groups that make up so much of our society.  He launched his latest salvo against women and their rights by saying he hoped that if his own daughter were harassed at work, she would look for a job somewhere else rather than standing up for herself.  And he has offended veterans and their families across the political spectrum with his bigoted and spiteful attacks on parents who lost a son in a war that he (as well as Hillary Clinton) supported).  
He has also thoroughly alienated Latinos with his border policy and his racist claim that we are unable to serve in positions of responsibility because our ethnicity prejudices us, and black voters by returning to the Reaganesque association of crime with race.  
State politics make a Democrat theft of the election particularly unlikely given Republican dominance in state-houses and crucial statewide offices in many swing states (and the country more broadly).  But Trump, his advisors, and hardcore of supporters are hardly likely to let facts stand in their way.
Trump and his campaign are clearly coming to terms with the likelihood that he will lose the election.  There are just not enough people standing who he either hasn’t insulted, or who aren’t terrified by the prospect of electing a dishonest, exploitative, racist member of the 1%.  And so they are looking beyond the election to find another path to victory, one which promises to be horrifyingly violent.
Trump has made a lot of off-handed comments about a rigged system, partly in an unlikely bid to win over Sanders’ supporters who supported a candidate diametrically opposed to every last policy Trump represents.  But the coherence of rhetoric around promises of violence and a systematic plan to discredit the electoral process is truly sinister.
It fits with the Republican Party’s recent method of political participation--to sabotage the functioning of government to create dysfunction and void of democratic power that can be filled by the super-wealthy.  
And it fits with the behavior of fascists and authoritarians more broadly, who participate in electoral processes, but facing defeat, dehumanize their opponents, cry foul and ask their supporters to resort to violence to create constitutional crises and civil strife, into the midst of which a strongman can present himself as the peacemaker, the “law and order candidate,” the antidote to the very fear they so systematically stoked.  
What might save us from the future Trump offers America--whether or not he is elected--is the transparency of his campaigns sadism, and the ability of mass media to circulate their words to a large audience.  People need to be aware of the Trump campaign’s “Plan B,” and discourage their family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and anyone they can speak to from being sucked into the vortex of conspiracy theories and calculated efforts to subvert democracy.

The alternatives are too frightening to contemplate.  Fiat lux.  

Monday, August 1, 2016

Donald Trump and the Republicans' Lie

There is little doubt that the Democratic National Convention had its failings, despite its broadly optimistic tone and policy-based prescriptions for our country.  The party offered a relatively uncritical embrace of Hillary Clinton’s dangerous neoconservatism and its troubling implications for our country and the world.  The occasional “USA! USA!” chants sounded a little mindless.  The constant emphasis on American exceptionalism suggested that the Clinton campaign will follow the line it used during the primary and insist that it has little to learn from the world about forging a rational, functional social contract.
But the biggest failing of the DNC was in its attacks on Trump.  Make no mistake.  Donald Trump, a fascist, deserved each and every one of the criticisms levelled at him by politicians and members of civil society.  But the Democrats are framing their attacks on Trump as though he represents an aberration in American politics, wholly divorced from any context. They are crediting him with reintroducing racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry to American politics.  They suggest that he alone is responsible for efforts to strip people of their rights, short-change workers, and define citizenship in exclusive, ethnic and religious terms.
The Donald is many things, but original he is not.  Trump recognized what had made Republicans successful among their constituents for years and gambled that he could take their show on the road to a bigger audience by being louder and more honest about the savagery, cruelty, and stupidity of his smoke and mirror politics.  
The Supreme Court rebuke to recent GOP efforts to restrict voting prevented “the biggest setback to voting rights in North Carolina since the Jim Crow era.”  Even in the virtual absence of voter fraud, the Republican Party has sought to introduce voting laws clearly designed to prevent black voters getting to the polls.
The GOP has long provided a big tent to racists and people who tolerate them.  Ronald Reagan used race to divide Americans and enrich the wealthy as fluently, if more subtly, than Donald Trump.  Today, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and John McCain acknowledge Donald Trump’s racism, but refuse to do anything about it.   
Perhaps worse than these sins is the basic strategy of the Republican Party over the past eight years.  Virtually all of its members have signed no-tax pledges that benefit their corporate sponsors, but turn them into mindless automatons, voting for or against a given piece of legislation without being able to consider it in context or evaluate its ramifications for their constituents.  
It is one thing to believe that lower taxes are better for some people.  It is another thing to forswear the use of logic and repudiate the very idea of taxes as a tool to pursue social and economic ends, come hell or high water.  
But this vapid, jack-booted conservatism is essential to the obstructionist program that the Republican Party launched after President Obama’s election.  Rather than attempt to govern in good faith, the Republican Party decided that the best way to strengthen their corporate masters in the face of Obama’s efforts to pursue regulation to protect the health and welfare of the average citizen was to sabotage the functioning of government.
Any measure put forward by the President has faced opposition of the most rabid and unhinged kind.  Encouraged by their leadership, their sponsors, and their pledges to march in lock-step, Republicans have refused to consider or debate the merits of policy, and have instead presented to the public a claim that “government doesn’t work.”
The functioning of the Post Office, the popularity of social security checks, the ability of people to live on agricultural subsidies, the vibrancy of public research universities, the tremendous (if ill-used) power of our military, the success of emissions regulations, and a whole host of other elementary facts about daily life in the United States demonstrate how extraordinary this foundational lie of the Republican Party truly is.  We might not agree with all of these policies, but they demonstrate that at the local, state, and federal level, government is capable of doing important things well.
The difficulty for the Republican Party, and its priorities as illustrated by both Paul Ryan’s budget and Donald Trump’s tax plan, is that when government works, by representing the interests of the majority, it cuts into the profits of their affluent funders.  It does so by redistributing wealth downward to the middle and working class; by impinging their ability to poison our water and air; by giving bargaining rights to workers; by providing services based on public need rather than private gain; and by emphasizing collective investments rather than private extraction.
Faced with this conundrum--that when government works, their core constituency loses wealth--the Republican Party has adopted a strategy of sabotage in order to bring their lie to life.
If government isn’t naturally dysfunctional, as they have asked Americans to believe, they will make it so.  Bringing this lie to life erodes public trust in government, and encourages voters to reward Republicans for their message of doom.  Thereafter, Republicans have little to offer voters other than the pleasure of attacking the poor and denouncing black and Latino citizens.  But the divide and rule strategy creates sufficient disenchantment and distraction for their purposes.  In the absence of good government, and in the vacuum created by civil strife, powerful interests profit and flourish.
Republicans have used diverse tools in their campaign of sabotage: shutdowns, fiscal cliffs, economic crises, and the refusal to staff agencies, departments, and courts.  
Democrats have their moments of partisan intransigence, but only Republicans have turned sabotage into a method of governing.  Some might describe it as a method of not governing.  But make no mistake, by diminishing the ability courts to provide oversight, tearing apart regulatory agencies, and de-funding offices devoted to pursuing the public interest, Republicans are creating a new state that protects predatory capital and facilitates the hijacking of middle and working class wealth for the rich.
Donald Trump has proclaimed himself the defender of the little guy.  But everything you need to know is in his tax plan.  His tax plan and the budgets proposed by his party work in tandem.  On their best days they offer peanuts in tax breaks to average Americans and enormous gains to the wealthy, while destroying the collective investments that yield long-term benefits and stability to the majority, and cutting the public services that offer opportunity for mobility and prosperity.  
Donald Trump, who attacks the rights of his workers in Las Vegas, and short-changed contractors and workers in his East Coast empire, is exactly the kind of magnate the Republican Party is designed to serve.  And this authoritarian ethnic nationalist, with no respect for courts, institutions, or the diversity that is an incontrovertible fact of life in our country, will facilitate the unholy mission of the Republican Party.  Far from “hijacking” the Grand Old Party, he has breathed new life into its search and destroy mission in our democracy.