Sunday, February 19, 2017

Trump: from Cry-Baby populist to Paragon of the Establishment . .. .

Populist movements in Western democracies generally don't last long. Instead they usually morph quickly into their own version of the establishment. I think that the reason for the short lived populist aspect of a political movement is reasonably simple. Populist movements are expressions of anger, discontent, and fear rather than expressions of principle. When there is a welling up of fear and discontent, the conmen and shysters come out of the woodwork to take advantage of it because conmen look for easy marks, and when it comes to politics in particular, angry fearful people are easy prey. When these emotions take hold of people, they don't think straight. Instead, they look for people who sooth them, who provide easy answers to complex problems and make them feel like everything is going to be ok. Thus the followers of populist conmen are fervent in their belief and passionate in their commitment to their saviour. As a result of this combination of fervency and fear and anger motivated passion, populist leaders can basically do anything they want and their support will stay relatively steady for some time, as long as they keep spouting their simple, soothing message. In this regard, Trump's now infamous observation that it wouldn't hurt his popularity if went out on 5th Ave. and shot someone, is ominously revealing. The most diehard followers of a populist leader have zero interest in facts, and shockingly little interest in the actions of their leaders. This is because such followers are being feed the political equivalent of soma which puts them in a sort of trance, And as long as their leader proclaims the right trigger phrases, espousing simple ideas about how everything is going to be fixed and all the "bad stuff" and "bad hombres" will expunged, nothing else really matters.

Ironically, this is where populist movements tend to come unstuck. When a populist leader gets swept up in the adulation, even if their intentions were initially good (which they seldom are), they realize that they don't have to do any of the things that their followers want, or they only have to make minimal, often cosmetic efforts to maintain the drug-like trance in which they have put their followers. The problem is, of course, since most populist leaders are primarily interested in enriching themselves and their social/ideological allies at the highest level, they quickly become the establishment that they swept to power to oppose. Thus things don't really change, at least not for the better, and often for the worse. And when this happens, the soma trance wears off just enough people for the populist movement to lose its momentum and things become unstuck. One of the problems, of course, is that populist movements often leave in their wake a rightwing political establishment that can last for years.

This is precisely the scenario that played out in Canada. The populist movement known as the "Reform Party" swept into Ottawa with all sorts of populist promises, feeding off socially conservative ideas and white-privilege fears. The "Reformers" said that they wouldn't take the rich Parliamentary pensions, that they would allow all sorts of free votes in the House of Commons, they insisted that their leader would live in the luxurious housing due an opposition leader or a Prime Minster, and that they would enact legislation based upon its social popularity not based upon some niche interest group. All those commitments lasted about five minutes once the Reform leaders found themselves in the luxurious and complex world of actual legislative politics. But as the Reform movement burned, from the ashes was born an establishment party that enhanced and magnified the very things that people who supported the movement had rebelled against in the first place. So we were left with a party that was less interested in transparency than any government in history, ruled for a very small percentage of the population, was comically dishonest, lined their pockets and the pockets of friends like never before, and was more intrusively sinister than ever in people's personal lives.

 The reason that a political movement that started out of anger and claimed to be interested in more responsive and open government could quickly turn into its opposite is because of what we have come to know as "cry-baby conservatism."
Playing the victim is a integral part of modern day conservative parties and movements. Leaders like Harper and Trump continually harp on this idea that the establishment and the media is all against them and that they have to be mean and secretive and dictatorial because otherwise their opponents will win. And the cry-baby conservatives use this simple political strategy to consolidate their power and create a political machine that is often actively acting in ways that are contrary to their stated beliefs and those of their followers. Thus conservative followers in Canada barely noticed the irony when Conservative government cabinet members railed against the elites while at the same time riding in limousines to work. Similarly in the US we have a billionaire president with billionaire cabinet members who cry out against the establishment and have already instituted laws that will make them richer and the average person significantly poorer.

What is clear is that as the Trump movement progresses, the idea of "draining the swamp" and changing the political establishment will feature less and less in the Trumpian narrative. More and more of the Trump followers will accept the idea that the Trump government has to create their own establishment, their own "swamp" if you will, in order to overcome all those "liberal" and media forces that are arrayed against them. Thus people will accept much greater corruption and criminality, than they witnessed in those they initially sought to replace. As I said at the beginning, this is because the followers of leaders like Trump, are not motivated by a principled stance for better, more responsible, democratic, and transparent government. Rather, they are whipped up by anger and fear of a changing world.

Of course, as the populist aspect of the Trump phenomenon wanes, many will come out of the political trance and realize that they have been had and this may result in a significant shift in a different political direction. Either way, the populist movement will be dead. The only question is, will it leave in its wake a political establishment that is able to hold on to power for a while or will it, with its criminality and corruption, undermine the delusional state that brought it to power in the first place, thus causing a kind of counter rebellion?

Friday, February 10, 2017

The White House Inc. (a division of Trump Enterprises) . . .

I think that one of the most fascinating aspects of the Trump presidency thus far is the general confusion that is generated by the blurring of lines between the private and the public (or one might say "strictly" political) aspects of the Trump White House. I think that many mainstream politicos (in both parties) assumed to some degree that once Trump took the oath of office, his tendency to blur those lines, which had been one of the most marked aspects of Trump the campaigner, would abate someone and that the Americans would still have a so-called "commander in chief." Not only has this abatement not occurred but the lines between the personal aspects of Trump and his family (and his minions) has become almost inextricable from the office of the president.

This blurring of lines has been on full display in the last few days, particularly in the fallout from the decision by Nordstrom, an up-market retail chain, to stop selling Ivanka Trump's line of clothing and accessories. This decision incensed the president, and what incenses the president must necessarily anger his minions too. Thus on Thursday morning, presidential advisor and spokes-demon Kellyanne Conway, appeared on Fox News and as she spoke with reporters about the Nordstrom decision she took a moment to explicitly and shamelessly plug Ivanka's clothing line, telling Americans to "Go buy Ivanka's stuff." Well, this little plug is a clear violation of the US Code of Federal Regulations (Specifically 2365.702) which states that "An employee shall not use his public office for private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service of enterprise." Ms. Conway's endorsement, one might even say promotion, of Ivanka Trump's products is such a gross violation of a fairly simple CFR code that it seems almost comical if it weren't so terribly sordid.

The lines of personal and political blurred further when Donald Trump himself used Twitter to disparage Nordstrom for its business decision. Trump had Tweeted on Wednesday morning, telling us that his "daughter Ivanka has been treated unfairly" by Nordstrom, and that she is "a great person." This Tweet is arguably also a violation of the same CFR code, though a more ambiguous one. What is most startling, however, is the degree to which this has already become the new normal. The idea of a President using personal time and presidential power to publicly argue about a business decision that financially impacts his daughter is totally amazing. And the silence on the part of congressional Republicans is deafening in this regard. If President Obama had issued such a Tweet concerning a family member of his, the impeachment hearing would have already begun.

But specific ethics code violations and impeachment issues aside, this blurring of the lines of the political and the personal at the very top of the US government should be deeply troubling to anyone. Of course, politicians (particularly executive one) are able to routinely enrich their friends and associates through public appointments. This phenomenon is so rife that even in the most tightly controlled democracies it seems almost impossible to stop. And after politicians leave elected office they commonly enrich themselves through things like paid speaking engagements etc. However, with the Trump administration the US has now entered the realm of the "banana republic" or modern autocratic nations like Russia in which wildly unqualified political donors are rewarded with federal cabinet positions, the President's children have found their way into the highest level international meetings, the President continues to have his hand in business processes directly affected by government decisions, the President is attempting to delegitimize other branches of government, and he and his minions are actually using their positions to directly promote the financial interests of the Trump family. And and troubling as these facts are, they don't even touch upon the way that the Trump administration has made lying a matter of course. And we are not talking about traditional political "spin" here, we are talking about simple, readily verifiable, falsehoods. The cult of personality that has so defined the autocracies and dictatorships of the past century has truly come to roust in Washington.

And if the US (and the rest of us) survives the Trump era intact, it seems clear that democracy has been severely (if not mortally) wounded in the process. Once the line between personal and public interests has become so blurred is very hard to see clearly again.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

White Privilege and Moral Indignation. . .

I am disappointed about recent political/social events. Ok, disappointment is far too week a word. Perhaps existential dread is a better word for my prevailing emotion. But then I think to myself, if I feel so overwhelmed by these events, what must racialized and marginalized people be feeling? I am a well-educated, white man. In social terms, it doesn't come more privileged than that. If I feel a sense of dread, I can't imagine the anger and disappointment of those who don't enjoy such privilege.

I grew up in the US in the 60s and 70s so I am certainly no stranger to open and overt racism. I heard the "N" word hurled at kids and adults and I understood, even as a child, its import and implications. But my youthful experiences in the US were mostly in Santa Monica, California and a mostly white neighborhood of Denver Colorado, and as racist epicentres go these were hardly crawling with racist sentiment, (at least not overly). When I came to Canada I actually saw more open racism among my peers, aimed almost exclusively at indigenous people and those whose "heritage" was Indian or Pakistani. But despite all of this, I assumed (I suppose like most privileged, white liberals) that we were on the road to a society where racism was vanishing. Now, I've always understood how painful the process was, and with what snail-like slowness it was proceeding. But I assumed, perhaps naively, that we were on the way down that path.

Suddenly the ground of that naive certainty has been pulled out from people like me. Again, this is probably itself a form of white privilege. While I blithely assumed things were genuinely changing, those who suffered the effects of real racism knew the score; they knew that blatant and structural racism continued in many cases unabated.

But I have never been particularly sanguine about progress or the goodness of human beings. So, at some level, I am not that surprised to see a resurgence of white supremacy, nor am I surprised at the cavalier attitude of many people at what amounts to a supremacist takeover of the White House. But what I suppose I am disappointed at is the way that structural racism has so insidiously seeped into people's consciousness, to the degree that self-professed liberals often hide their racism behind security concerns or, even more insidiously, behind moral indignation concerning black activism.

A case in point is the moral indignation that white liberals hurl at Black Lives Matter in general and at the Toronto chapter co-founder of that organization Yusra Khogali in particular. Now, I am very consciously not going to rehash white people's criticism of BLM or Khogali because that would be to fall into the very white privilege that I so despise. What amazes me is the ease with which white liberals make these criticisms, even to the point that a prominent white blogger on the Huffington post openly called for Khogali to resign in a recent post.

Here's the thing - it has always been a central element of racism and white privilege that white people feel that they can tell racialized or oppressed groups how they should protest, be politically active, or who they should chose as their leaders. But telling racialized people what to do is the very problem that racialized activists are reacting against, it is the very thing they are protesting. For white liberals to tell BLM who they should choose as a leader is a grand confirmation of racism and white privilege! As a white person you may not like who BLM (or any such activist organization) chooses as their leader, and my response is, tough luck, get over it! For centuries white people have brutalized and enslaved racialized people, raped them, imprisoned them, and lynched them. In the US this process continues almost unabated. The system of slavery and lynching has been replaced with a national prison system that is as brutal and de-humanizing as slavery ever was. In the face of this kind of violence and brutalization (here and abroad), moral-indignation at the actions of BLM and Khogali is the height of white privilege. Such indignation is like someone subjecting their neighbors to daily verbal and physical abuse and then being righteously upset if the neighbors or their kids egg the abuser's house.

Struggling against oppression has always been a messy, sometimes violent, business. That's because oppression is itself a messy and violent business, and the desire of liberal white people to keep it nice and tidy is a massive element of their privilege. It's easy to call for calm forgiveness and gentle inclusiveness when you're on the winning side of history. My answer to white people who have a sense of moral indignation at BLM is, get your own house in order and remember you have little or no sense what a daily ubiquitous experience of racial oppression feels like.

If Yusra Khogali hates me, I don't blame her. White people have given her plenty or reasons to hate us. Even if I disagree with BLM strategies, I'm not going to white-splain some notion of "appropriate" political action. When white Americans elect a white supremacist government, it amazes me to hear white people tell racialized groups to "calm down" and play nice.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

History is long, and so is the Struggle. . .

I believe it was Georg Friedrich Hegel who first opined that "we learn from history that we don't learn from history." And I admit that it certainly looks that way sometimes. But the arc of our learning is, unfortunately, extremely gradual and it often seems, for us who live such short lives, to be going nowhere. The brevity of our time here makes it difficult for us to see ourselves as part of a historical process; we are like animals living our short lives in the middle of an evolutionary process. When we work to make society more just and fair, less bigoted and less violent, we seldom get to see the fruits of our labour. If historical change happen more quickly, I am certain that many people would be significantly more inspired to be activists. But we slog away nonetheless, and though we have difficult and disheartening setbacks, the indispensable justice seekers from each generation lace up their boots and start again where their parents left off.

Of course, we may, in the long run, be doomed to failure as a race. Nuclear war and environmental disaster could cut short our efforts to make a more just and peaceful society. But we have come so far, it seems like a terrible shame, and perhaps a betrayal of those who came before us, to give up now. Things seem particularly dark at the moment, I think, because on some issues we seem to have been making no progress or even going backward for some time. But again, if we are to maintain our spirit, we have to try to place ourselves into an historical arc and remember that though our lives are short the effort is long.

It is also important to recall that despite the efforts of the Neanderthalish  rightwing, things have gotten better. I have a particular interest in the Georgian period of English literature, especially the so-called "Romantics." I continually read accounts by English writers like Paine, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Thomas Spence, Coleridge, Thomas Hood, and especially Shelley, and I am amazed how they strived for democracy, justice, fairness, and progress, despite the near total dictatorship of the church and state that could exercise arbitrary and violent power with almost total immunity. Shelley used to carry loaded pistols, not against the threat of thievery but because of the dangers he felt from government agents who followed him incessantly. And given his progressive (one might even say revolutionary) views, it was only his status as the son of a minor aristocrat that kept him safe from murder or imprisonment by the state. But the things that Shelley advocated (like universal suffrage, religious tolerance, women's rights) are taken today by most as essential to a modern society. He had no reasonable prospect for the success of these efforts but he was eternally optimistic nonetheless. Shelley had been de facto driven from England and was living in Italy when he was drowned in a boating accident. The poem that he was working on when he died was entitled The Triumph of Life is melancholic yet still brims with spirit and fortitude.

At the time of Shelley's death, most people around him lived in unbelievably filthy, difficult, ignorant, oppressed conditions. But even with little access to good food, clean water, education or healthcare, the people fought back and made gradual progress. Today millions of people still live in terrible conditions, but the struggle continues. It can, and it must, go on. And though we suffer indignities and difficulties, though we are fighting against unbridled ignorance even in a time of infinite information, the past that the rightwing so adores is gone and there is no way to bring it back.

I leave you with a rendition of Shelley's Masque of Anarchy, an ode to those who struggled and died in the Peterloo massacre. Remember the past and fight for the future!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

We Will Not Normalize Authoritarianism. . .

I think that one of the most important things to remember, particularly for our American cousins, in these troubled times, is that Donald Trump is only in the White House because of an antiquated electoral system. The very simple fact is that a not insignificant majority (by US electoral standards) of those who voted, rejected Trump - and that happened despite the fact that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was herself fairly unpopular even with many in her own party. If the US presidential elections had taken place by the rules of almost every other republic in the world, Trump would not be president. This is important to remember, if only for the issue of our morale.

Remembering this electoral anomaly should encourage us because in tells us that despite Trump's success in taking over the Presidency, racism and misogyny are not necessarily undergoing a renaissance. Despite the new profile of racist discourse, the numbers of the 2016 presidential election should remind us that people are actually rejecting racism, homophobia, and misogyny. It is, I admit, a very slow process, but despite the return of these evils in the mainstream political discourse, I think change is taking place gradually, particularly with the younger generations.

The fact is that Trump didn't gain widespread support of the American population and he received a significantly smaller percentage of support than the last Republican president, George W. Bush. What got Trump elected was a growing disappointment with the Democratic Party, particularly in a small group of states that have suffered economic hardships in the wake of globalization, hardships that the Democrats have almost uniformly failed to address. Given this fact, there is a lot of talk that people have to "empathize" with the cohort of voters who voted for Trump because they felt "left behind." I think this is largely nonsense; not because empathy isn't important, but because those who have criticized the Democrats for the past 25 years for selling out to neo-liberalism, have been arguing all along that people were getting left behind in the new, globalizing capitalism. Furthermore, empathizing with the more deplorable elements in the Trump camp will get us nowhere. The racists and the misogynists have been voting for the Republicans for generations (particularly since the Democratic Party jettisoned its Southern racist elements during the 1960s). This is not going to change for the foreseeable future.

The real danger of the Trump presidency is not that there are suddenly a bunch of new racists and misogynists around. The danger is the normalization of these views. The Germans have a great word - Gleichschaltung - which is usually translated as Nazification. In English intellectual circles we often use the phrase "anticipatory socialization." These two ideas address the notion that change occurs through the socializing or normalizing of certain behaviors. In other words if nasty, violent racists see that their opinions are shared by political leaders, this gives them space to voice their opinions because they seem them as becoming "normal." You don't get rid of racism by convincing racists that they are wrong, you get rid of it by making it socially unacceptable to be openly racist so that successive generations see such opinions as abnormal and objectionable. In other words, you don't rationalize people out of racist beliefs, you socialize them out of them. The Trump administration, on the other hand, presents the very clear and present danger of socializing people into racism. Furthermore, it presents the danger of Gleichschaltung, of normalizing authoritarianism in the political system itself. The only way to avoid the dangers that this rightwing socialization presents is if the public as well as elected officials continually resist the normalization of the authoritarianism that the Trump regime is constructing. Already we are way ahead of our historical peers in the 1930s. Though people politically resisted fascism in the 30s, they did so in traditional political terms; these resisters were initially largely unaware of where fascism was really heading. But the discourse of resistance this time is armed with the knowledge of the past, we know what the outcome of this rightwing movement can be and a large portion of the population is coming to this fight with implied slogan of "not again." If forewarned is forearmed, we are in a fairly good position to resist being socialized once again into fascism.

Trump enjoys about the same level of popularity that Hitler did when he was elected. As long as the people of the US and other Western states don't allow themselves to be manipulated by fear of "the other," we stand a very good chance of not letting authoritarianism become once again normalized. This goes for us in Canada too. It is no small coincidence that a white, rightwing, fascist went on a shooting spree in a Montreal Mosque a day after the Trump immigration bans, and in the wake of the white supremacist rhetoric of Kellie Leitch. This is what happens when rightwing racists see their hate being normalized. It is not a large step from this to kristallnacht. Conditions demand vigilance.

In the meantime, let Keith Olbermann remind us that lots of Americans know what is going on and are actively resisting.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

A Hurricane is Coming. . .

I haven't blogged since Trump lost the vote but won the election. Like many people, I have been disheartened. But I have been disheartened before, and I had very little faith in humanity to begin with. But at this point it all seems so absurd, so surreal, that blogging seems to me almost silly. I know intellectually that it is important to continue the fight, to maintain the struggle, particularly in the face of these terrible developments. But I am having trouble getting the gumption to keep thinking about it or even considering doing anything. I suppose it is because I feel like we are in a historical eddy, the kind of backwash that occurs every few generations, driven by fear of a changing world, in which the worst kinds of human emotions come to the fore and the barbaric philistines try to take us back in history using hate and anger to inspire their troops. The pessimist in me suggests that there is really not much we can do. I look back to Nixon as an example. Nixon was a horrible, profoundly corrupt and damaged human being. But for all the anti-war, and anti-Nixon efforts on the part of activists, what brought Nixon down was his own misdeeds, an informant, and two investigative reporters. And I suspect that the only way that Trump will fall is basically in the same manner. Frankly, it is difficult to imagine that someone with Trump's childlike lack of impulse control, someone with such a selfish and corrupt nature, can maintain himself in the position of president for very long without something going drastically wrong. And someone with Trump's self-centred manner is really not the type to inspire loyalty, so the rise of informants is pretty easy to imagine.

But, obviously there is something much bigger at stake here than Trump. All over the world, people are succumbing to their worst instincts and turning toward the dark side, so to speak. And if we are going to avoid an apocalypse and save civilization from people like Putin, Erdogan, Durerte, Paul Ryan, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Modi and others, we are going to have to work hard because, make no mistake, these people are determined to destroy everything with hate and violence. I have no idea what form this effort to save civilization must take, but the work has got to be done. It is work that depends on the up-coming millennial generation which, I very much hope, are beginning to learn the importance of the things my generation was foolish enough to take for granted.

There is no purity in politics. At any moment in history, even the very best societies are full of terrible shortcomings. But we hold on to what is good and we fight against the bad. It is the way it has always been done. The US was a nation born out of terrible crimes against humanity, slavery and genocide. And it has continued that blood-letting and ruthlessness throughout its history. But it is also a nation that has brought us remarkable people and ideas. And all the other nations of the world have their own dark-spots as well as inspirational individuals and notions. Of course, we are now facing potential extinction as a result of the new generation of dictators and rightwingers, people who have nuclear weapons and seem to have no intention of stopping climate change.

But, on the good side, the rise of these ruthless and horrible men and women, is a sure sign that they and their followers are deathly frightened. They know that society, and particularly the upcoming generation is more liberal than ever before, and over the past ten years or so the neo-liberal model of economic control has begun to falter and implode. Even in traditionally conservative and orthodox realms such and economics, people are saying that capitalism needs to be reformed or it will be a threat to its own existence. We are, undoubtably, in a dark moment. But dictators, autocrats, haters, and those who look backwards have a remarkable way of destroying themselves. When they have a free hand, they can't help but to reveal their true intentions and desires. And when they do that it is like the antagonist in a story who has gotten too comfortable and thus slips up by revealing who they really are, and when this revelation occurs all is lost for them.

None of us want the crisis at which we are arriving. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it is the only way that many people are going to see that what Trump and his ilk really want is a ruthlessly dehumanized society where most people have nothing and the select few enjoy unbelievable wealth and decadent prosperity. My dad used to say that history has a remarkable way of turning around and bitting the powerful in the ass just when they think that they are home free. You can be active with the activists or sleeping with the sleepers, but either way, the fight isn't over, it's just beginning anew.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Will the US slip into Fascism?

Well, we survived another long American political campaign and tomorrow it will (we hope) all be over. I believe it is pretty simple, people who are voting for Trump are crazy and/or stupid. At this point I really don't know how to sugarcoat it. This is a racist, misogynistic, profoundly crooked, tax evading, violence inciting, serial lying, sexual predator, with the attention span of a gnat, and an anger management problem, who has actually called for nuclear proliferation. And if anyone thinks, at this point, that Hillary Clinton's faults are even vaguely comparable to Trump's they are deeply delusional.

Make no mistake, Trump could turn the United States into a fascist bloodbath. The scenario could play out multiple ways - here's one way: Trump comes to office and actually believes that he can deport the 30 million or more undocumented immigrants. He starts the process and it becomes clear fairly quickly that the US is not logistically prepared to undertake such a massive effort. To complete such a task the federal government would literally need hundreds of thousands of INS officers working around the clock, and even then it is not clear it could be done. In his frustration (an emotion that he seems to have in the same abundance as a three year old), Trump makes an off the cuff remark, maybe on twitter, that the government needs the help of patriots to complete the task. Armed vigilante groups appear overnight all over the country, but especially in the southwest. In their patriotic fervor they begin rounding up anyone who looks vaguely like they are from south of the boarder. In an effort to defend themselves, racialized people begin to band together in groups, some of them armed. Sporadic violence begins to break out. Many law enforcement agencies who clearly side with Trump and the vigilantes refuse to act in their roles as police. The violence quickly escalates and spins out of control. When it becomes clear that it is out of control, bang, Trump calls out the national guard and declares martial law under the NDAA. Now, provided that the military was willing to stand with him, this would be the beginning of a de facto fascist government.

If you have spent any time in the US, you know that this is not a wildly far fetched scenario, particularly given Trump's rhetoric so far. It's not complicated. It's fairly simple. It is already clear that Trump says that he will do things that he clearly has no right to do under the Constitution. You can't, for example, restrict people from entering the country based on religion. The president has no authority to build a wall on the border of Mexico. The president certainly has no authority to restrict press freedoms, as well as no authority to put opponents in jail on a whim.

I'm not saying that this is exactly what would happen if Trump were elected president. I'm saying that this is a perfectly believable scenario given what we know so far about him and the people he has empowered.

I don't know how the vote will go tomorrow, but I hope calmer heads will prevail. And even if Trump loses, it is clear that the US is teetering on the brink of disaster and the next decade or so will be a make or break point for the nation and maybe the world.