Trade Wars don’t put America First

Today we woke up to the delightful news that a close ally of Angela Merkel has called for Europe to retaliate if Donald Trump implements the protectionist trade policies he tells us will put “America First.” A lot of people have asked me why Donald Trump’s use of “America First” as a slogan is worrisome to me and many other Americans.  The answer is, because it borrows the name of a 1930s era movement associated with anti-semitism, isolationism, and protectionism. Putting aside the disturbing  anti-semitism and morally bankrupt isolationist foreign policy for future discussion, we need to talk about why reviving 1930s style trade policies is bad for our economy. Trump supporters want the US government to put their interests first, and that is appropriate. Unfortunately, trade policy is complex, and Trump’s simplistic policies do not promote our indvidual or collective interests. Isolationism and protectionism will shrink or stagnate the economy, start trade wars, and damage alliances. They did not work in the 1930s, and they aren’t going to work now.

Protectionism prolonged the Great Depression

Although, reasonable economists disagree about how much protectionist economic policy prolonged the Great Depression, no one thinks it improved America’s economy. In 1930, about a year after the Wall Street crash, isolationists in Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff act, imposing the highest import tariffs in 100 years. Over 1000 economists signed a letter to President Hoover asking him to veto the bill, stating that it would only worsen America’s economic situation. While the Act did not start the Great Depression, it is widely accepted among economists that the Act lengthened the Depression and prevented recovery, not least because it started trade wars with our closest trading partners.

Trade wars do not improve the economy

Canada, then as now our largest trading partner, was so irate about high tariffs that it not only retaliated with tariffs of its own, it kicked out the existing government because the tariffs weren’t high enough. Similar tariff provisions were imposed throughout Europe, hampering recovery of trade relations everywhere.  For example, US imports from Europe declined from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million in 1932. The problem with beggar thy neighbor policies is that when one country adopts them, every country adopts them, thereby impoverishing the entire world economy.  The less stuff we sell, the fewer jobs we have, and no one will want to buy our stuff or sell to us if we charge them ridiculous tariffs.

This may sound like doomsaying, but Europe is not the only economic force promising to engage in a trade war.  Mexico has promised a trade war over Donald Trump’s proposed wall tariff. China has promised to retaliate if Trump enacts higher tariffs. The assertion that foreign governments will react as they did to the Smoot Hawley act isn’t a hysterical overreaction, it is what our trading partners have announced they are going to do. We would be well advised to look to analogous historical circumstances and avoid making the same mistake.

Solutions for those left behind must also promote growth

The United States is not an independent actor.  If we damage other countries’ trade interests, they will retaliate. Moreover, trade wars are more dangerous today than they were in 1930 because global trade is more interconnected. Globalization of trade is not going anywhere.  It is completely understandable why the people negatively impacted by globalization might buy Donald Trump’s promises, but he can’t deliver. Starting a trade war with Mexico may make people feel good, but it won’t help them get manufacturing jobs back. Those jobs don’t exist. Contrary to his rhetoric, 88% of those jobs have been lost to robots, not Mexico. We desperately need to address economic inequality and the fact that the only way to get a job is a back-breakingly expensive education. However, to do so, we need to look elsewhere. Protectionism and isolationism are not a way to put America, or Americans, first.

 

 

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Is Donald the Trumpenfuhrer?

I’m the last person who will tell you that it’s unreasonable to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler pre-1935. There are a lot of personal and tactical similarities. However, Hitler and Germany in 1932, when the Nazis were elected, differ from Trump and modern America in important ways. The first difference is that Hitler declared his intention to create a Dictatorship if elected. The second is that both sides of the ideological spectrum in the Weimar Republic wanted that Republic to end. It’s an open question whether Donald Trump will do permanent damage to the Constitution and create a Russian or Latin American style kleptocracy, but he has not violently grasped power with the consent of the people. Trump may lie like a rug, but he did not campaign on a platform of Dictatorship and his voters did not ask for one. Our democracy does not share the elements of Weimar that made it collapse, so we can’t look to Germany as a model for what might happen to us.

The Weimar Republic was never overwhelmingly popular

Supporters of Weimar had the bad luck to start a social democracy by agreeing to reparations so crushing and extreme that Germany only made the last payment in 2010. Germany had just lost a massive expansionist war for which it was blamed (in reality, everyone started it), and with it they lost an autocratic, nationalist government most people had previously supported.  Many military veterans remained loyal to the old regime, and hated Weimar. The rapidity of change in governmental structure, combined with a radically liberalized social and artistic culture, caused rifts in German society. Although positive social programs were introduced, the hyper-inflation crisis of 1921-24 rocked the German economy and the lives of everyday citizens, and didn’t endear the democratic experiment to the public.  Although the Republic experienced some stable and popular years from 1924-1929, when the Great Depression caused another crisis, it was always an experiment many Germans treated with skepticism.

Voters and elites acted deliberately to end democracy

One of the most critical differences between America today and Weimar in 1930 is that Americans, especially those in power, are generally committed to our constitutional regime, and have never known anything else. The elites of German society – the aristocracy, large landholders, the military, and big business – never wanted a democracy, and they were the leaders of the conservative parties. By 1930, both the Communist Party on the left, and the conservative and Nazi Parties on the right, had paramilitary organizations engaging in political violence across the country.  Many other parties, especially conservative parties, did not object when the Nazis openly declared their intent to obtain the people’s consent to dismantle Weimar. The 1930 elections gave the Nazis sufficient power to demand a leadership in government, and when they didn’t get it, they prevented parliament from functioning. They effectively dismantled democracy before they even took power. In the last election of the Weimar Republic, in November 1932, only about a third of Germans voted for the traditionally pro-democracy parties, SPD and Centre. At that point, the decision was not between democracy and autocracy, it was between Hitler and another autocrat. The German people intentionally ended their system of government; Hitler did not hoodwink them into thinking he was going to govern cooperatively.

Not with a bang, but with a whimper

Trump may be borrowing manipulation tactics from Hitler’s playbook, but he will never be granted power by the public in the same way. Hitler’s Dictatorship erupted with a bang, and he rapidly consolidated power across German society, largely because people wanted power to be consolidated. If our democracy falls, it will fall with a whimper, in the piecemeal fashion common to flawed modern democracies like Russia and Venezuela. While there are indications some are losing faith in America’s republic, there is no indication half the American people are ready to vote it out of existence. So go ahead and make comparisons between Trump and Hitler. They are both germaphobes. They are both friendless narcissists.  Both prefer speaking at rallies to actually governing.  Both are ignorant of and disinterested in complex policy issues. Still, it’s really important to make a note of where the similarities end. We don’t have a Trumpenfuhrer, and fortunately we aren’t likely to get one.

Don’t laugh about “Terror” in Sweden: the results are anything but funny

It never helps to dismiss apparently ridiculous statements from the Trump Administration.  As this blog has previously asserted, they are not as ridiculous as they seem. Donald Trump made what appeared to be a hilarious gaffe during his campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Florida on Saturday. While discussing the difficulties faced by some European countries due to their acceptance of significant number of refugees, Trump implied that there was a refugee-related terrorist incident on Friday, February 17 in Sweden. There wasn’t.  However, that does not matter.  As hilarious as this statement may have seemed to Trump’s detractors, his supporters now believe that the media, which Trump is trying to discredit, is concealing a terrorist attack in Sweden. I would suggest to you that, like the Bowling Green Massacre, this lie, whether it was a mistake or not, contributes to the Trump Administration’s use of Muslims as a Scapegoat to unify his supporters and conceal his incompetence and ignorance of how government works.

The Courts have revealed that Trump can’t deliver

Trump’s scapegoating of Muslims is nothing new.  He famously called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. He called for a national registry of Muslims in the United States, including Muslim Americans. It spoke to the not insubstantial percentage of Americans who genuinely fear terrorism from abroad. However, Trump’s plans to unify the country against the threat of “Radical Islamic Terrorism” have been stymied by the Federal Judiciary.  The Executive Order on Immigration banning entry to the US for citizens of 7 Muslim nations didn’t work for anyone.  For Americans who value constitutional rights, the rollout was a disaster and the Order was, at best, overbroad.  For Trump’s supporters, it failed to fulfill a campaign promise to exclude foreign Muslims from the US.

When in doubt, point the finger!

Trump’s, and his lieutenants’, instinct to point the finger when things don’t go their way is pretty consistent with the behavior of Dictators past and present. As this blog has stated elsewhere, active use of scapegoating tends to be inversely proportional to a would-be autocrat’s success.  In other words, if he’s delivering on his policies, no scapegoats are necessary! If he’s not, he’s got to direct the public’s attention elsewhere. Let’s look at an example:

Good old gestating Dictator Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela came up against this very problem last year.  Oil prices were tanking. Inflation was soaring.  Homicides were up. No one was happy with him. What is an autocrat to do? Well, Maduro discovered that three border agents had been ambushed by two men on a motorcycle.  Within hours, this incident, which was not organized and didn’t kill anyone, had become a paramilitary attack, justifying a crackdown on Columbian “smugglers and drug dealers” throughout Venezuela. Of course this crackdown turned into the mass persecution of ordinary Columbians resident in the country, but that is not the point of this article.  The point is that Maduro did it in order to refocus public attention on an unpopular scapegoat in order to distract them from his failures as a leader.

Trump is playing the same game

Trump’s fictional Swedish refugee terrorist is the third fake terrorist the Trump Administration has invented in a single month. First, Kellyanne Conway gave us the Bowling Green Massacre.  Then Sean Spicer told us there was a terror attack in Atlanta.  Now we hear there was a refugee related terror attack in Sweden!  These could all be misstatements, as the White House says. I just don’t think it’s likely that all of them are. Lies this big tend to have a target.  Is it more plausible that Trump and his lieutenants are repeatedly misstating the nature or location of terror attacks, or is it more likely they have discovered that these lies are politically advantageous for them? We already knew that the majority of Trump supporters believe the Bowling Green Massacre actually happened. Now we know they believe an attack happened in Sweden.  The only real question is, exactly what political purpose does this serve? The answer is, they help the Trump Administration scapegoat Muslims in order to misdirect the public, and it’s one of the oldest tricks in the book.

 

The [Free Press] is not the Enemy of the American People, but it still might not be able to stop Trump.

Yesterday afternoon, Donald Trump tweeted “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” This is a turning point in Trump’s criticism of the Press. It is no longer just unfair to him, it is our collective enemy. We knew it was coming.  All the signs were there. Throughout the campaign Trump claimed he was running against a “rigged press.”  His supporters adopted a powerful and despised German term, the “Lügenpresse” or lying press, to describe the news outlets that brought down Richard Nixon.  Since his inauguration, he has called those same outlets “Fake News.” Yet still, even if it isn’t surprising, it is still shocking that Donald Trump, as an American President, is running Play #4 in the Dictator’s Playbook, and acting to discredit the Free Press as an institution of our democracy. Here’s what we can expect, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good

The American Press is pretty resilient, and at its best it has been heroic. Recently, our major news outlets have been running down every lead they can to hold Washington accountable, and they have been careful to substantiate each new bombshell story.  But for the Press to be most effective, reporters aren’t the only people who have to demonstrate heroism.  The great thing about our current situation is that we have an ample supply of the secret ingredient to Press effectiveness – whistleblowers .  From the unexpectedly bold National Park Rangers to the many members of the intelligence community leaking to the Press, the material is there for brave reporters and leakers to expose the Trump Administration.

People on the inside of a corrupt and dangerous administration are the ones who have to expose it, and that is happening. The reams of information seeping out of the executive branch have provoked comparisons to Nixon White House during Watergate.  It’s a great comparison, and it’s important to remember that Woodward and Bernstein could not have become Woodward and Bernstein without Deep Throat (Mark Felt) and their many other informants.    The New York Times and the Washington Post, in particular, have been delivering the hard, unbiased, factual reporting they delivered during the Pentagon Papers and Watergate stories.  They are rising to the occasion.  The problem is, 20 years of the scandal-ridden, unfocused 24 hour news cycle started discrediting the press corps before Donald Trump ever put on a red cap.

The Bad

On the day Trump took office, the credibility and effectiveness of the Press was already in pretty bad shape. This problem started before “fake news.” In fact, I would argue that fake news only took hold because the public had already lost faith in the Press. This loss of faith is dangerous, as any possible impeachment scenario will likely rely on evidence discovered by the Press. Two primary factors have left us in a position where the Press is one of two institutions that can hold the Republic together, but it may lack the credibility and effectiveness to do so.The first is the 24 hour scandal cycle, which dulls the public’s ability to separate a real threat from a minor political misstep and the second is the media’s alienation of individuals on the Left, Right, and Center of the ideological spectrum.

The first problem is that the salacious details of Bill Clinton’s sex life started a new Press paradigm of  seeking out and manufacturing scandal.  Gotta keep those ratings up! We impeached a President because he perjured himself over a blowjob.  The Press reported George W.Bush’s use of cocaine as if it were a major scandal.  Howard Dean whooping at a rally brought down his campaign.  To some extent, during Bush’s second term, the scandal manufacturing slowed down because actual scandals about the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina emerged, but the public as a whole paid less attention to the severity of those problems because every “scandal” was reported with the same seriousness and severity.  This got even worse under Obama.  The IRS “scandal” went on for months and the Benghazi reporting went on for years.  The public becomes numb to endless outrage.

The second problem is that since the 90s, almost everyone on the ideological spectrum has lost faith in the Press.  In the scandal industrial complex the news has become, people with different ideological beliefs want to pick the scandals they hear about.  The Right hasn’t trusted mainstream outlets since the Drudge Report broke the story of Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. During the Bush Administration, the Left began to seek out media that would report on issues like Bush’s attacks on gay rights and abortion.  Finally, the center lost faith in the Press when, during the run up to the Iraq war and invasion, it traded its integrity for government approved access, and failed to expose the Bush Administration’s use of faulty evidence to lead the American People into a costly war, the consequences of which are still haunting us.  The Press put itself in its present position. As Radiohead says, you do it to yourself.

The Ugly

If the Press is or becomes truly discredited, and Trump really wants to seize power, he will likely act to limit its ability to disseminate information.  For some would-be Dictators this takes the form of legally rescinding the freedom of the Press, as Hitler did in the Reichstag Fire Decree of February 1933.  Others restrict content by opening a state media outlet, as Vladimir Putin did with RT, or purchasing hostile media while requiring transmission of government statements, as Nicolás Maduro has done in Venezuela.  Often, emerging autocrats muzzle the Press by simply murdering journalists, as Putin has unquestionably done. Knowing that Trump admires and consistently defends Putin casts Putin’s tactics vis-à-vis the Press in an alarming light. It is not inconceivable that Trump sees Putin’s tactics as a model. However, the Ugly hasn’t happened yet, and until it does, we have to read, support, and share reliable, fact based articles from reputable sources like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Economist. In a very real way, the ability of the Press to hold Trump accountable, as it did Nixon, depends on each of us, and our willingness to believe that it can.

 

Branding the Left: McConnell’s meddling and Warren’s rise

There have been a lot of reports in the past week about how Sen. Mitch McConnell made a tactical mistake by censuring Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the Senate during the debate over Jeff Sessions’s nomination as Attorney General. However, two things I have seen have made me question whether McConnell’s mistake was a mistake at all. The first was Donald Trump’s statement to Democratic Senators that “Pocahontas is now the face of your party.” The second is a poll reported by the Hill today, taken the day after Warren was censured, which found that in a 2020 matchup, Donald Trump trailed an unnamed Democrat by 8 points, but led Elizabeth Warren by six.  It’s certainly possible that McConnell, after 40 years in politics, unthinkingly censured the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party for opposing Trump’s nominee for Attorney General.  However, I think it is more likely that McConnell and Trump were running play #2 of the Dictator’s Playbook: Marginalize the Opposition.

How do they marginalize the opposition?

The “opposition,” in this context, means both opposing political parties and institutions, like the Press or the Courts, that a leader wishes to discredit (Trump’s White House has already declared the Press the opposition). In order to expand a leader’s power beyond its intended scope, especially if he has a small but fanatical base of support, he needs to make the opposition look radical and dangerous to voters’ interests while making himself look like a savior. This reduces the support of opposing political parties to their fringes and leaves the center with no other perceived choice than to support the leader’s increasingly authoritarian policies and actions. Where a large portion of the population, left and right, have lost faith in a democracy’s core institutions, he can remove those institutions as a check on his power if he links them to a marginalized political opposition.

Silencing Warren was over the top, and predictably elevated her with the base

I’m not saying Elizabeth Warren is a radical.  However, she does represent the most left wing faction of the Democratic Party, and she can be painted as a radical by even a mediocre propagandist, given that faction’s anger and active resistance to the Trump Administration.  With that in mind, review the events of last week:

Tuesday night,  McConnell silenced Warren on the floor of the Senate for reading a damning letter submitted by Coretta Scott King during Sessions’s failed 1986 nomination as a federal judge.  He said “she was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The next day, he allowed two male Senators, Sherrod Brown D-OH and Tom Udall D-NM, to read the same letter into the congressional record.  Over the course of the day on Wednesday, McConnell’s words were put on memes, T-Shirts and everything else they could be printed on, and “nevertheless she persisted” became a feminist rallying cry.  The left went wild in support of Warren.  Then, on Thursday, Trump said “Pocahontas is the face of your party.”

It seems, at first glance, like a blatantly sexist faux pas, doesn’t it?  However, McConnell is not an idiot – in fact he is a pretty gifted political tactician.  I think Mitch McConnell knew exactly what he was doing, and that he intended for Elizabeth Warren to go viral and become the face of the Democratic Party.

How does Warren’s rise help Trump?

Elizabeth Warren, whatever her actual policy prescriptions, is the face of the Left.  The Left and the Democratic Party are not synonymous, and the more Trump can associate the Democrats exclusively with the Left, the more he can associate them with, for instance, the undocumented workers he has sworn to deport or the violent protests at Berkeley. He can use that association to damage their chance to retake Congress in 2018 and undermine core institutions, especially the Press, as agents of radical opposition to a duly elected President.  Trump has already been calling mainstream, traditional news outlets “fake news.” He and his administration have consistently alleged that the Press is biased toward the Democratic Party, and is therefore illegitimate.  The more Trump can define the Democratic Party as radicalized, the easier it is for him to dismiss the Press.  The more he can show that the Courts are delivering progressive results, apparently in response to protests led by Warren and other progressives, the more he can paint them as the enemy of change and the policies his voters asked for.  The Press and the Courts are his greatest obstacles to expanded power, and I think it just got easier to undermine them. Perhaps these developments were just a happy accident for the Trump Administration, and perhaps they were not.  Either way, I think it makes sense for all of us to look for the deeper motives behind any shocking political event, and ask how it benefits Trump.

 

 

Flynngate and Impeachment: Lots of smoke, but no fire

No one loves a good round of Schadenfreude more than I do, but the enthusiastic talk of impeachment surrounding the demise of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn is a tad premature. Flynn’s abrupt resignation in the wake of revelations that he lied about his communications with the Russian Ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, before taking office, has undoubtedly concerned Democrats, the intelligence community, and some Republicans.  Hopefully, this incident has refocused them on finding out whether any crime has been committed by Trump or his lieutenants with regard to Russia (or anything else).  However, according to what we currently know, it does not provide grounds for legal action against Flynn or Trump.

What we know as of February 14

Let me give a quick recap of how we got to Flynn’s resignation: During the transition, the Obama Administration imposed sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its hacking of the DNC and individuals associated with the Democratic Party. Shortly thereafter, Mike Flynn spoke to Ambassador Kislyak on several occasions, and questions arose in the Press about whether they discussed Obama’s sanctions. On January 15, then Vice President-Elect Mike Pence told CBS that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak. On January 26, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House Counsel there was evidence that Flynn did speak with Kislyak about sanctions. On February 9, the Washington Post reported that Flynn had lied to Pence about the content of his conversations, and Trump denied he had any knowledge of it. On February 13, Flynn resigned his post, essentially stating that he unintentionally excluded the full content of his communications with Kislyak when briefing Administration officials. On February 14, the New York Times reported that Trump had known about Flynn’s misconduct for at least two weeks.

Why Flynn’s actions probably are not criminal

Neither I nor anyone else outside the intelligence community can say for sure whether any of Flynn’s actions are criminal, because we do not yet know the content of those conversations.  However, we do know that the only statute applicable to the facts as we know them, is the Logan Act of 1799, and that it probably won’t be applied in this case.

The Logan Act, frequently raised in political infighting, has only seen one indictment in 218 years, when, in 1803, a farmer advocated the creation a new western state allied with France. Since then it has been thrown around a lot: Ronald Reagan suggested using it against Jesse Jackson and Speaker of the House Jim Wright; Congressman Steve King suggested using it to limit Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s international travel; and it was widely argued that when 47 Republican members of Congress wrote a letter to Iran trying to sink the Obama Administration’s nuclear deal, they violated the Act. The Logan Act is a political football, and Flynn’s actions don’t seem sufficiently severe to inspire prosecutors or Congress to use it as anything else.

Although Trump was not yet President and Flynn not yet his adviser, Flynn’s conversations took place after a valid election, and it is normal for transitional administrations to talk to foreign leaders. The DOJ has said it is unlikely to bring criminal charges. Frankly, it would be shocking if they did.  Even when Richard M. Nixon, who definitely had a copy of the Dictator’s Playbook on his bedside table, sent a representative to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks during the 1968 presidential campaign, neither he nor any of his associates were prosecuted. This is not a law to hang our hopes on.

Where there’s smoke, there is fire … somewhere

There is definitely something rotten in the State of Trumpmark.  We may not be able to indict Michael Flynn or impeach Donald Trump for Flynn’s conversations with Russia, but there is a lot of circumstantial evidence of some sort of misconduct.  In addition to the many examples of Trump’s bias toward Vladimir Putin, the New York Times reported today that Trump’s aides regularly spoke to Russian Intelligence operatives during the course of the campaign. Hopefully, this will lead to further investigation by the Press, Congress, and the intelligence community into whether prosecutable crimes were committed.  Until then, we need to hold our guns on impeachment talk.  This is like building any criminal case.  We have to find evidence Trump and his associates violated the law. We cannot afford to jump at every plume of smoke we see.  We have to go find the fire.

 

Steve Bannon, the Big Lie, and the Useful Idiot

In the first weeks of the Trump Administration, we have seen a flood of lies, confusing the public and sending the Press after a school of red herrings. From ludicrous disputes about inauguration crowd size to the Bowling Green Massacre, the Press has been trying to cover each of these lies equally.  They shouldn’t.  For one thing, I don’t think it’s possible.  But more importantly, there seem to be two types of untruths: 1) clearly strategic lies designed to undermine our institutions and justify administration policies and, 2)  off the cuff rants from Trump associated with his narcissistic need to be popular and avoid criticism. The beauty of it, from Steve Bannon’s perspective, is that Trump’s tweets and self-serving lies both obscure the deeper strategy behind the Administration’s actions and spread its propaganda. The lies don’t seem strategic because Trump’s statements are reactionary and self-important.  There is no longer any doubt about it; Steve Bannon and is using Play #1 in every Dictator’s Playbook – The Big Lie – and Trump is his Useful Idiot.

Steve Bannon has mastered the Big Lie

According to recent reporting, Steve Bannon is running the show in Donald Trump’s White House.  He is drafting executive orders, overruling the Secretary of Homeland Security about excluding green card holders from the United States, and placing himself on the National Security Counsel Principal’s Committee.  I say he placed himself there because Trump apparently didn’t even read the order.  It’s safe to say that any strategy is coming from Bannon, and the Big Lie is a big part of that strategy.

The Big Lie is a political tactic first articulated by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, and was used extensively by the Nazis and every dictator since.  The idea is that a politician or political party can manipulate the masses by telling a colossal lie, because most decent people would only ever lie on a small scale, and they are not willing to believe anyone would tell a massive untruth.  The Big Lie doesn’t eliminate the public’s ability to evaluate facts rationally, but we have presumptions about how most people behave, and about how people in public life behave.  When the press, for instance, presents evidence disproving the lie, it does make at least some people question who’s telling the truth.  Why would anyone make something like that up? The answer is, to undermine opponents and justify controversial or illegal policies.

While all the lies coming from Trump and his mouthpieces serve to undermine our ability to understand what is true and what is false, only some of them are part of a larger strategy.  The lie that Trump won in a “landslide,” which first showed up in his post-election speech in Cincinnati, is designed to give Trump a mandate to govern decisively.  “Alternative Facts” give supporters an excuse to listen to the Administration instead of evidence based reporting by the Press.  Bannon’s declaration that the Press is “the opposition” indicates his desire to undermine their ability to function as a check on Trump. The “Bowling Green Massacre,” which is a complete fiction, serves to justify a Muslim ban, and stokes fear in the population. Much of the reporting I have seen on these untruths treat them as a joke.  They aren’t, and they should not be reported as such.  They are a clever manipulation designed to undermine our institutions, and that fact is being obscured by Donald Trump’s displays of impulsive narcissism.

Donald Trump is anyone’s Useful Idiot, as long as they know how to play him

The “Useful Idiot” is a soviet term for Marxists/Leninists in the West, who spread Russian propaganda and serve Russian interests by voicing their own opinions without the intervention or direction of Soviet leadership.    So why am I calling Donald Trump a Useful Idiot? Donald Trump does not believe in anything other than the status and popularity of Donald Trump, but his predictable impulsivity and narcissistic obsession with popularity make all the lies coming from the Administration seem less strategic.  For instance, his obsession with the size of his inauguration crowd (not to mention his hands) is a matter of vanity.  Yet it was covered more thoroughly in the Press than our introduction to our allegedly increased crime rates.  These silly, venial lies lend authenticity to the interpretation that all lies, whether about fake inauguration numbers or the destruction of the judiciary, are equally the result of Donald Trump’s character defects.  Trump makes the lies easy to dismiss as the work of a self-important buffoon.

Bannon’s implementation of the Executive Order on Immigration is a great example of how he uses Trump to create propaganda. By getting Trump to sign a poorly written, expansive Executive Order, Bannon used Trump’s temperament to cause chaos and attack the judiciary.  Bannon apparently wrote Trump’s executive order on immigration, and he prevented the DHS from interpreting it narrowly. He knew what he was doing. Once chaos ensued, all criticism was directed at Trump. Trump can’t cope with criticism.  In retaliation, he’s now alleged that any future terror attack will be caused by a judge who stayed implementation of the EO, and alarmed his own Supreme Court nominee to the point where Judge Gorsuch felt the need to criticize Trump (which Trump, of course, refuses to believe).  Bannon has successfully undermined the judiciary with a large portion of the population just by setting Donald Trump up for criticism.

Focus on the strategy, not the tweets

When lies come out of the White House, our first question should be “which institution does this undermine and/or which policy does it enable?”  We have to identify the dangerous lies that undermine core institutions, and let the rest go hang.  The “Bowling Green Massacre,” laughable at first, is now cited by the majority of immigration ban supporters as the justification for their position.  These tactics worked on Germans, and Argentinians, and Russians, and we, as Americans, won’t be any different.  There is, however, a silver lining!  For some reason, autocratic propagandists can’t seem to resist following the “he who smelt it dealt it” school of lying.  Breitbart “News” is the propaganda wing of the Trump Administration, and if you’d been reading it on November 22, 2016 you would have seen that it accused the Democrats of using the Big Lie.  So read Breitbart, people.  See what they accuse the Press, the judiciary, or the Democrats of doing, and you’ll know that’s what Bannon is up to.

 

 

 

 

Terrorist Whack-a-Mole and the Illusion of Safety

We need to stop throwing that old Ben Franklin quote about liberty and security at each other, and not just because Ben Franklin wasn’t talking about privacy rights.  When the Right advocates a new domestic security policy, the Left trots it out.  When the Left proposes new gun restrictions, the Right trots it out.  The fact that both “teams” are using the same argument against one another indicates neither has ideological consistency about either liberty or security.  The arguments about border security on the Right and guns on the Left are about which illusory solution each team reaches for to feel like they can control the uncontrollable. They are also not about radical islamism or white nationalism or mental health.  They are about fear of the unknown and the false notion that the government can protect us from each other.

Our security apparatus only creates an illusion of security

The Right’s big bête noire is “radical islamic terrorism,” and many are willing to sacrifice significant liberties (like the right against wireless search and seizure) and accept illiberal policies at home to play terrorist whack-a-mole.  Putting a pin in the discussion of how many moles we’re whacking abroad, it’s important to note that the security measures taken within the US, while designed to make people feel safer, don’t really achieve much more than that.

The TSA is the best and biggest example of a completely pointless security agency.   It is ineffective and reactionary.  The TSA was created in response to 9/11, and has succeeded only, as far as I can tell, in annoying passengers by trying to make sure they aren’t replicating tactics used by previous would-be terrorists. (Really?  We’re still taking off our shoes?)  These measures do not provide an effective screening program. TSA has a 95% failure rate in detecting explosives and weapons in luggage.  It may make people feel like they are safer, but it does not actually prevent anyone from getting on an airplane and blowing it up.

Likewise customs and border patrol displays selectively rigorous (usually *highly* profiled) vetting designed to make the public feel safe.  In airports, where most people see customs agents, they are able to conduct pretty thorough screening.  There are also crossings on the Mexican border that have significant screening. However, CBP is also responsible for all of our ports, 12,383 miles of coastline, a 5,525 mile border with Canada, and an approximately 2,000 mile border with Mexico.  Trump’s solution to this is to build a wall with Mexico.  This makes absolutely no sense.  For one thing, given that terrorism is one of the justifications given by the Right for this policy, it is worth noting that more terrorists enter the US from Canada than from Mexico.  Moreover, where there is an existing border wall in San Diego, the border patrol has found 30 tunnels in the last 10 years.  Trump’s wall is not going to keep radicalized terrorists out. It is not functional, it is psychological.

Fertilizer not butter

When domestic terror attacks occur, whether they are committed by white nationalists as in Charleston or Denver, or radicalized Muslims in Orlando or San Bernadino, the Left starts talking about guns.  They gin up mental health legislation trying to prevent access to guns, they talk about how their gun policy would have prevented the mass shooting (questionable at best), and explain how the NRA is preventing the US from eradicating terror attacks. This is complete nonsense.

Now I’m not suggesting that background checks and smart guns and any number of precautions are bad or that they will not help keep domestic abusers from buying guns or toddlers from shooting their friends. I am saying that they are not going to stop isolated, angry, disaffected humans, usually young men, from seeking out extreme ideologies or using violence to attack personal or ideological “enemies.”  It’s hard to predict who will be radicalized in this way, so immigration bans aren’t going to fix it.  These people won’t necessarily go to a psychologist, so mental health restrictions won’t always catch them. The ideologies vary, from Elliot Roger, the misogynist who blamed women for his pain, to Dylann Roof, who blamed black Americans, to Omar Mateen, who trained his hate on LGBT Americans.  The profile remains the same.

People with this radicalized profile are the same across the West, and there is no reason to believe removing guns from the equation is going to stop them.  The 7/7 bombings in London did not use guns.  Anders Breivik’s 2011 attacks in Norway did use a gun, but he used a car bomb too.  Attackers in Nice and Berlin have begun driving trucks into crowds of people as a means of inflicting terror.  The Columbine shooters created bombs as well as using guns, as did James Holmes. Tim McVeigh, the deadliest domestic terrorist in US history, used fertilizer to blow up a federal building.  Fertilizer.  Are we going to ban that too?  Radicalized individuals will find a way to inflict violence if that’s what they want to do.  This solution is no more narrowly tailored to address the problem than border walls.

There is no such thing as safety

Americans have never been able to understand, probably because of our oceans, that the world is dangerous, the government cannot completely stop that, and terrorists are just one of life’s dangers. When we had one large terrorist attack, we cracked down on our own citizens, invaded two countries, pissed off the entire world, and stuck ourselves with a really big tab.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ll never forget the first time I visited London in 1996 – there was a bomb threat in the Tube.  No one panicked.  Everyone just went about their day.  Likewise, on the day of the 7/7 bombings, when I called to check on friends, they were amused I felt the need to call, and said that they, like the rest of the city, were in a pub.  100+ years of terrorism by the IRA taught people they shouldn’t allow fear to affect their lives. As long as we allow our ideological teams to rile us up and entrench us in our camps fixating on islamist terrorism and border security on one hand, and white nationalism, mental health, and guns on the other, we will never find any kind of solution.

The government cannot prevent radicalization with security measures or gun restrictions.  In fact, both will probably create more anti-government radicals like Tim McVeigh. Americans have to let go of the idea of George W. Bush’s War on Terror.  The War on Terror is a war on disaffected, isolated, angry people, and we are never going to run out of them. They will never stop using violence to frighten people unless it stops working. The more we pursue them, the more they proliferate. When you whack one mole, another one is going to pop up. Our only solution is to stop being afraid.

Free Speech and Civil Disobedience, or how we should stop worrying and learn to love the fire hose

It’s time to talk about the purpose of peaceful protest in a democracy.  I have noticed that on social media and in some articles like this one, advocates of resistance to the Trump Administration are failing to distinguish between two types of protest: lawful protest, and civil disobedience.  The difference is not semantic; they are distinct tools with distinct impacts. The purpose of protest in democracy is both to convince those in power that there is overwhelming support for a cause, and to persuade one’s fellow citizens that the cause is just and they should support it. To achieve that purpose, a resistance, like the military, needs individual campaigns, each with an objective, a strategy, and tactical resources. Among our most powerful tactical resources are lawful protest and civil disobedience, and we need to employ them effectively.

The Difference between Lawful Protest and Civil Disobedience

Lawful protest is planned in coordination with the local government, and is intended to obey local laws and ordinances. The Supreme Court has consistently allowed restrictions on speech based on the time, place, and manner of the speech, including restrictions on blocking traffic and sidewalks, harassment, and loud noises. This means that although local government cannot pass laws affecting the content of your speech, they can pass laws requiring permits for large gatherings that will interfere with traffic and the business of other citizens.  In contrast, Civil Disobedience involves deliberately disobeying a law, usually peacefully, in order to protest government action or injustice.

How is Lawful Protest most Effective?

Two great examples of permitted lawful protest are the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the Women’s March on Washington.  The first obviously had a significant historical impact and is talked about to this day; I suspect the impact of the second will fade with time, no matter how many people participated.  There are two primary differences between the two: 1) the March on Washington had a specific goal – to obtain a civil rights act from Congress and to help oppressed African Americans get jobs, and 2) it had a very disciplined and controlled message.

The March on Washington stuck to its goals and its message.  It talked about jobs and civil rights.  Its leaders forced John Lewis to edit out “militant” sentences in his speech.  It opened the march to all allies who supported its specific objectives. Indeed, Malcolm X criticized it in his Message to the Grassroots for refusing to demonstrate black anger and for allowing white people to participate (female speakers were also excluded, probably for less lofty reasons).   Then, when it concluded, the leaders went directly to the White House to speak to the politicians to whom they had just proven popular support for their positions.

In contrast, the Women’s march had no concrete objective, and the opposite of a controlled and focused message.  Instead of communicating a purpose, it focused on ensuring every issue affecting every woman in America was heard.  Consequently, although politicians did participate, they were not pressed to pursue any specific policy to achieve the goals of the assembled people.  They were simply presented with a policy platform pretty much lifted off the Democratic Party’s books.  The Women’s March did a great job of irritating the hell out of Donald Trump, and that’s a great start, but future protests need to aim to achieve a concrete result. For a template, we can look to the original March.

How is Civil Disobedience most Effective?

Civil Disobedience is most effective when the disobedient citizen peacefully presents himself  to suffer a disproportionate response by those in power. People don’t like watching other people get abused, and the public is usually, if not always, able to identify a disproportionate response.  Some Americans may have initially dismissed the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters as trespassers, but people took notice when the police used water hoses in 28 degree weather. Obviously, this tactic was also used extensively and to great effect by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and was a huge agent for convincing middle America that it, through the government, must act.  These images are part of our national consciousness now: dogs and fire hoses being turned on unresisting people walking down a street in Birmingham;  marchers being beaten for walking across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma; Rosa Parks refusing to sit at the back of the bus.  That kind of suffering makes a lasting impact.

Unlike legal protest, civil disobedience often requires sacrifice. You have to put your personal needs aside in favor of the greater goal. It requires time in jail.  It requires harassment and sometimes physical assault.  And to be most effective, the protester cannot resist. It is probably the most powerful tool available to convince our fellow citizens that the government is wrong, and we are right, because it makes them see government through our eyes.  You can watch a nonresistance training video from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) here.

How to Protest in Trump’s America?

There are going to be a lot of causes we can support with lawful protest and civil disobedience in the coming months and years.  Going forward, we need to focus one protest campaign against each unconstitutional or unlawful overreach by the Trump Administration, because if we focus each campaign on a specific violation of law, we can mobilize across the ideological spectrum.  We will not succeed if we impose an ideological test on resistance. If constitutional conservatives agree that there should not be a religious test on Muslim immigration, work with them.  If a pro-life feminist group believes that access to contraception is essential to the equal protection of America’s women, work with them.  And if Donald Trump orders the executive branch to disobey a federal court order, work with every single American – evangelical christian or radical socialist – who is afraid of losing a functional branch of government and put a human barrier between Trump and his objective. Like the protesters and lawyers in airports across the country have sought to do in response to the Muslim ban. Massive protests and acts of civil disobedience are powerful tactical tools, and in this era of perpetual outrage, the fire hose is our new best friend.

Calling People Nazis: walk softly and carry a big example

I think at this point everyone is familiar with Godwin’s law, or the idea that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches.” Lots of people love comparing their opposition to Hitler. We certainly saw plenty of Obama posters with tiny mustaches during the rise of the Tea Party, and the Left definitely called George W. Bush a fascist on more than one occasion. The problem is, the comparison is now incredibly commonplace, and has therefore lost a lot of its potential impact.  Up until now, when people called each other Nazis, what they really meant was “your guy is the most evil guy to run a country ever.”Now that we have an Administration that is actually acting like Nazis, everyone who thinks Trump is a genuine threat to our Republic needs to be selective about comparisons and use real examples.

Obviously I do not personally have a problem with calling, for instance, Steve Bannon a Nazi.  I am writing a Dictator’s Playbook almost exclusively based on Nazi tactics because I think the Trump Administration has been running some of those plays.  However, I think it’s important to explain why we are making these comparisons.  When people hear “Nazi” or “Hitler” they think of the murder of 13 million people.  I don’t think anyone is saying Trump is going to murder 13 million people (although it’s worth noting that the Final Solution was actually a “solution” to a failed deportation program – chew on that for a second).  The important comparison here is to the Nazi Party’s tactics from 1932-1935.  That is when they destroyed a constitutional republic.  Even if Hitler had lost power in ’34 or ’35, Germans still would have had to go back to the drawing board and create a new system of government.  That is the concern with the Trump Administration.  That it will so undermine our constitutional regime that we will lose the institutions we have valued for over 200 years.

So, when you call someone a Nazi, talk about how they intentionally scapegoated marginalized groups, undermined their political opposition, played the victim, discredited the press, co-opted or removed judges, created an extrajudicial  prison system to undermine courts and lawyers, used violence to intimidate political opponents and keep the people afraid, and lied to justify administration objectives (all of which are soon to be added to the Dictator’s Playbook).  Explain that the significance of the Nazis isn’t just the horror they inflicted on the Jews or the rest of Europe; it’s that they produced a template for how to turn a literate, informed, democratic society into the enablers and supporters of a deranged dictatorship.  Fake news isn’t new people – between 1933 and 1944 Germany went from 4,700 newspapers to 1,100 newspapers.  The Nazis shut down opposition papers, and everyone else stopped talking about politics or fell in line.  So walk softly unless you have a big example, because we can’t let that happen to us.