Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Conspiracies to the left of us, conspiracies to the right, and Russia….in the middle?

Recent political campaigns, particularly the 2016 British Brexit vote, the 2016 US and 2017 French Presidential elections, are now all under scrutiny for potential meddling by Russia operatives and allies.  In all three cases an influence and propaganda campaign has been detected, with operatives directed by or sympathetic to Russia trying to manipulate social media and release hacked information thought damaging to the party not favoured by Russian interests.  Russian interference has led to a multitude of conspiracy theories about Russian influence, on both the left and right of the political spectrum, on social media manipulation by shady elites, on the rise of ‘alternative’ media outlets with Russian connections or pro-Russian views, and rapidly proliferating fake news about fake news. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

We are Approaching a Dangerous Moment in the Trump Presidency

Right now, Trump still has too many powerful defenders for him to face a political or legal reckoning, but he is getting seriously frustrated with the political crisis he has himself wrought, and wants desperately to ‘change the channel’ to distract attention from his manifest troubles.  And when he is on the defensive, Trump lashes out.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Trump throws out some red meat to his base

While everyone is (rightly) obsessed with the Comey firing... Trump appoints another white nationalist ideologue to lead his dangerous “election commission”.

Yesterday (May 10), just before basically conceding the White House lines on the Comey firing over the past 48 hours were fabrications, Trump launched a long-promised commission on “election integrity,” rekindling a controversy over the prevalence of voter fraud at US polls.  The commission, established by executive order, is the upshot of Trump’s unsubstantiated claim shortly after taking office that more than 3 million undocumented immigrants illegally voted in November’s election.  The new commission includes Republicans Connie Lawson, the secretary of state of Indiana, and Kenneth Blackwell, who formerly held that post in Ohio; Democratic election officials William M. Gardner of New Hampshire and Matthew Dunlap of Maine.  Christy McCormick, a Republican member of the nonpartisan US Election Assistance Commission appointed by President Barack Obama, has also been selected to serve on the panel.  All these officials seem entirely reasonable choices, but he has appointed Kris Kobach to co-lead (along with Vice President Mike Pence) this commission and its investigation.  Kobach is a white nationalist, anti-immigrant ideologue with a long and notorious career of voter suppression efforts.  The new commission is unlikely to find much evidence of real voter fraud, but with Kobach’s guidance, it could entrench voter suppression measures nonetheless.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Comey's Firing: A Moment of Truth for America

A Key Turning Point for Trumpism and Democracy

James Comey’s firing by Trump was lawful, and for some legal experts even overdue, but the now former FBI Director's role in leading the Trump-Russia investigation means that Trump’s action has brought his presidency to a turning point moment – a very dangerous moment for American democracy.  It really all depends on whom Trump nominates to succeed Comey.  If he tries to nominate a loyal stooge, then a constitutional crisis, or worse, the slide into authoritarianism, lies ahead.  If he nominates a credible, independent replacement (or a special prosecutor), or if the Republican controlled Senate insists on an independent replacement, then this will eventually blow over and Trump’s shambolic presidency will limp on. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Grand Jury Investigations into the Russian Connection

Are there Grand Juries already investigating the Trump-Russian connection?

A number of Washington insiders certainly think so.  And FBI Director Comey’s comments to the Senate on Wednesday seem to indirectly confirm such suspicions.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The Ruin of the Twentieth Century Returns: Exclusionary nationalism and Brexit

Brexit, Nationalism and the International Far Right

This is the lightly edited text of a talk I gave at Hamilton Third Age Learning on exclusionary nationalism and Brexit. It's a long, illustrated, post explaining the connections between the far right, the rise of nationalism and Brexit, Trump and anti-EU movements in Europe today.

Brexit refers to the referendum held on 23 June 2016 regarding Britain’s continuing membership in the European Union.  A relatively simple question was asked:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” 
Voters had two choices:

1. “Remain a member of the European Union” 

2. “Leave the European Union”  

The Result:  17,410,742 voted to leave; 16,141,241 voted to remain. 

The leave campaign thus earned 51.9% of the 33.5 million votes cast – a turn out of 72% of the 45 million people eligible to vote.  Thus, 37% of the total eligible electorate cast a vote to leave the European Union [or EU].  This result was widely seen as surprising.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Trump by the numbers: The First 100 Days

A selection of his ‘achievements’ with some sources.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Come Sail Away

Trump’s Administration produces chaos even for the US military 

Remember 10 days ago when the US administration raised global anxieties (at least those following the news) because it claimed that Trump had ordered a carrier strike group to head towards North Korea in advance of that regime’s sabre-rattling missile tests?  Well it turns out the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its supporting ships were actually conducting exercises off the coast of Australia, a US defense official acknowledged today. Indeed it was actually traveling in the opposite direction — towards the Indian Ocean, not to the northwestern Pacific — as recently as four days ago.  Trump and his spokespeople thus either lied or were totally confused about the warships’ whereabouts.  Given the track record and general ignorance of Trump and his proxies, either likelihood seems possible; both are laughably ridiculous if the brinkmanship deployed by Trump in this episode wasn’t so frightening. 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Behold Trump, Bringer of War

Trump has reversed his pre-election non-interventionism and seemingly embraced Republican foreign policy hawkishness. 
Is this a good thing?  No.
Even before the missile strikes in Syria, Trump’s unknowledgeable, unpredictable and combative approach to foreign relations raised alarm amongst foreign policy experts about the possibility of armed conflict with Iran, China or North Korea.  After the Syria missile strikes and the unleashing of the unprecedented use of the MOAB weapon in Afghanistan, those worst fears are now nearer to being realized.

Friday, 7 April 2017


Trump, Syria and Distraction
Last night, Thursday 6 April, Trump flip-flopped on a major campaign plank and intervened directly in the Syrian civil-war quagmire by ordering a missile strike on the air base understood to be the launch point of the Syrian air force’s chemical weapon strike against its own civilian population earlier this week.  While ostensibly reacting to the most recent atrocity and war crime of Assad’s regime, I think there are good reasons to be sceptical about the purpose and ongoing commitment of Trump’s apparent turn of heart.  There is also reason to be extremely anxious about this impetuous and instinctual use of American military might by Trump.  In several ways, this action – even though it is directed at a murderous, criminal regime fully deserving of punitive treatment – confirms some of the worst fears expressed before the election about handing to a man like Trump the keys to the world’s most powerful arsenal.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Russia Again (updated to April 30)

 The Russian Connection, revisited, and a timeline of the links
You may have heard about reports that indicate that former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn is trying to cut a deal with the FBI, copping a plea in exchange for telling everything he knows about Donald Trump’s team and Russia, including possible collusion in that country’s interference with the 2016 election.  The Wall Street Journal reports that Flynn has offered to be interviewed by the agency and the congressional intelligence committees in exchange for immunity, “but has so far found no takers.” His lawyer told Bloomberg that, “Gen. Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit.”  As many have noted, this is somewhat ironic since Flynn told Meet the Press last September, “When you are given immunity, that means you probably committed a crime.”

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Trump's Ideologues 4: Bannon and Miller and Islamaphobia

Trump's advisors and Islamaphobia

Islamaphobic ideologues now hold some of the most powerful positions in American government.  As a group, these figures understand the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims entirely through the lens of its most extreme outliers.  In an oft cited and telling analogy, its akin to suggesting Christianity should be understood by taking the views of the Klu Klux Klan as the norm.  Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller’s anti-immigration views, as I outlined in my previous blog, stem from a concentration of far-right views that have also viewed Muslims as a particular threat to the far-right’s peculiar understanding of Christian Western Civilization.  In this blog I’ll be outlining some of the sources and implications of their views on Islam.  

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Trump’s Ideologues 3: Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller on Immigration

Trump’s Ideologues 3:  Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller on Immigration
Stephen K. Bannon is acknowledged as the chief ideologue in Trump’s inner circle even if, as FiveThirtyEight has detailed, there maybe as many as eight potential power centres within the Trump administration and they all have different perspectives and (in part competing) agendas.  But as his chief advisor (and, significantly, an outsider to the Washington establishment) Bannon is the most important of the ideologues at this moment.  His young and aggressive protégé, Stephen Miller, is also an ideologue, but Miller’s views parallel Bannon’s so it makes sense to look at them together.  (To put another way familiar to historians: If Bannon were Robiespierre then Miller would be St. Just.) 
Looking at his overall worldview, it is apparent that Bannon seeks to influence Trump under four broad headings: restricting immigration, Islamaphobia, economic nationalism, and the destruction of the political establishment.  Although all four headings are related in Bannon and Miller’s worldview, I’ll be devoting a separate blog post to each heading, ending with how they all fit together.  This first post will set out the place of restricting immigration to the United States since this has been a priority acted on during Trump’s first 50 days.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

The Russian Connection

The Russian Connection

Just in case you are having trouble keeping track (I was), here is some information on the current Trump advisers, appointees and aides either reportedly under investigation by the FBI for having contact with Russian agents, or have had significant business and/or political ties with Russia. 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Trump’s Idealogues 2: Michael Anton

Trump’s Ideologues 2: Michael Anton

Michael Anton is Trump’s Deputy Assistant for Strategic Communications on the United States National Security Council.  He has been a Republican insider for several decades, serving previously as a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and in a similar role for Rudy Giuliani.  He has also been identified as the one figures in Trump’s inner circle that qualifies as a genuine, non-Alt-Right, conservative intellectual.  But for the neoconservative leader of the Never Trump movement, William Kristol, the intellectual Anton most closely resembles is German political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, a respected conservative political and legal thinker in 1920s Germany, who joined the Nazi Party in 1933. Kristol tweeted on hearing of Anton’s appointment by Trump: “From Carl Schmitt to Mike Anton: First time tragedy, second time farce.”

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Trump's Ideologues I: Sebastian Gorka

Trump’s Ideologues

While there is some doubt as to the extent and depth of Donald Trump’s own ideological views, we are now coming to know quite a bit about the individuals promoted to positions of personal influence over the President.  His inner group of advisors – none of whom required Senate confirmation – hold what amounts to an ideological perspective that is distinctive to the Trump’s administration (and at some odds with traditional Republican views).

The key ideologues that have emerged during the first month of the administration are: Stephen K. Bannon; Stephen Miller; Michael Anton; Sebastian Gorka; Jared Kushner and K.T. McFarland.  Other close aides like Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Counsellor/Spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway, appear to be more enablers than policy/ideology advisors.  The views and role of Trump’s daughter Ivanka is much less clear.

Over the next series of blogs I’ll profile the views of this inner circle one at a time, starting with Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon’s protégé Sebastian Gorka.

UPDATE:  Gorka's past has been subject to much more scrutiny since this post was first written, and his past is pretty unsavory.  Here is a long and well evidenced piece from April 3 detailing Gorka's support for violent anti-Semetic paramilitary groups in Hungary in 2007-8.  Other reports have claimed leaders of the Nazi-collobarating organization Vitézi Rend say Gorka has a lifetime membership in the group.

Friday, 17 February 2017

An update to Leaks, Damn Leaks and Distractions

I posted earlier today in Leaks, Damn Leaks and Distractions, that the White House had already tried to turn the issues of leaks against the press and might start deliberately leaking untrue information to counter the stream of whistleblower leaks currently coming out of the Administration. This afternoon, another tactic of using (real) leaks to delegitimize the press was used, as detailed in this story from the Huffington Post about the memo on using the National Guard as de facto immigration officers.

Leaks, Damn Leaks and Distractions

Schadenfreude due to the leaks about Trump’s Russian connections is, sadly, premature.

Over the course of the last week numerous anonymous leaks, some coming from the intelligence agencies, have kept the media’s attention on Trump’s connection to Russia.  While Trump and his key advisors have railed against these leaks, it is not hard to figure out why they have become so numerous.  A month ago, prior the inauguration, Politico’s Jack Shafer predicted: “The intelligence establishment, which Trump has deprecated over the issue of Russian hacking, owes him no favors and less respect. It will be in their institutional interest to leak damaging material on Trump.”  And The Wall Street Journal reported on 15 February, that intelligence officials have also been withholding sensitive intelligence from Trump “because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised”.

But it is not just the intelligence agencies.  The leakiness of the White House itself has become big news too.  The Washington Post speculated on the motivations for these other leaks (more on this below).  That the content of the leaks – particularly the possible connections between the Trump presidential campaign and the Russian government – are potentially explosive, but the optimism expressed earlier this week after the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn that the press might finally be able to hold Trump administration to account is, I fear, a bit premature.  Trump has been damaged by the leaks, but when Trump is under attack he lashes out.  This was the pattern on the campaign trail, but now as President he has immensely more power.  He will try to wield that power against the leakers themselves, by targeting the US intelligence community (on Twitter on 15 February he referred to them as “Very un-American”), and minimize the impact of the leaks by continuing his campaign to delegitimize the mainstream press.
With regards to the leaks, the White House clearly struggled in their messaging on the Russia story and have even effectively conceded that the basic facts being reported as true, but over the last couple of days, Trump, Republicans in Congress, and the conservative media generally have launched a counter-offensive.  The damaging details of the Trump campaign’s regular contacts with Russian intelligence is being dismissed as not newsworthy, replaced by the narrative that the intelligence community is working against the interests of national security by illegally leaking to the press.  The far right press has gone further and claims an anti-Trump conspiracy is at work.
Then there was yesterday’s (16 February 2017) press conference.  Trump “ranted and raved” about the dishonesty of the mainstream media, and took (some) questions over nearly 90 minutes (spending less than 5 minutes on the ostensible purpose of the press conference, the announcement of his new nominee for secretary of Labor).  He then claimed that he was not ranting or raving, but that the press would claim that he had – as it dutifully did.  You can see some of the low-lights of Trump’s answers to questions in the lists compiled by Vox and Rolling Stone.
Trump seems to believe he is at his best when he has a clear opponent whom he can blame for the dystopian vision of America that he holds; during the election Hilary Clinton, the Washington Establishment and the mainstream media made excellent internal foils for his policy ideas (along with the external threats of undocumented immigrants and radical Islam).  Having won the election and now installed in the White House, two of those three internal foils are no longer as readily available to Trump (even though he continues to try bring up the election and Clinton at every opportunity).  The mainstream media, however, by just doing its job is still available, and given the improprieties of his administration that the press, via leaks, are turning up, it has become a target of utmost importance for Trump and its advisors.
It was thus no accident that Trump used an event designed to take questions from the media to attack the media.  He didn’t need this event to send out his message to his base: he does that constantly through prepared statements, friendly interviews on Fox, and through his tweets.  But the press conference gave Trump an opportunity to scapegoat the press for all the problems of the first month of his administration in the most direct way possible.
In addition to worrying sabre-rattling against Iran, it started with the following statement (again, remember this was an event supposedly announcing a cabinet nomination): “Many of our nation’s reporters and folks will not tell you the truth and will not treat the wonderful people of our country with the respect that we deserve. … Unfortunately, much of the media in Washington, DC, along with New York, Los Angeles in particular, speaks not for the people but for the special interests and for those profiting off a very, very obviously broken system.”  Note it is the media of the liberal coasts that are the problem, not those in the conservative heartland.  But then, to make his point, he took questions from those same media outlets that he sees as so hostile (sometimes with a joke about how “terrible” the particular media outlet was).  The purpose of doing so was to elevate the media into the prime opponent to himself and his administration: that only he could fight back against the corruption that the press supposedly represented.  That he even targeted the British BBC with negative comments suggests there is no particular rhyme or reason to his claims of partisanship.  In reality, all the press that asks “hard” questions (that is, asking critical questions) are bad – or in Trumpese, “failing” and “SAD”.
Asked by one reporter how he could call leaks of accurate information fake news, he responded: “The leaks are real; you’re the one that wrote about them and reported them. The leaks are absolutely real. ... The news is fake because so much of the news is fake.”  He continued his approach of gaslighting by claiming that what is obvious to any observer is just not true: “I turn on the TV, open the newspapers, and I see stories of chaos, chaos,” he said. “Yet it’s the exact opposite. The administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.”
Trump’s performance at this press conference was compatible with his performances on the campaign trail: a mixture of aggressive put downs of the media, bragging about himself, outright lies, and simplistic, even trivial explanations of his aims and priorities.  It didn’t play well for the mainstream press, nor probably to most of the American public, but it will have worked, just liked his campaign stops did, among his core supporters. As he noted:
 “I won with news conferences and probably speeches. I certainly didn’t win by people listening to you people. That’s for sure. But I’m having a good time.
Tomorrow, they will say, ‘Donald Trump rants and raves at the press.’ I'm not ranting and raving. I’m just telling you. You know, you’re dishonest people.  But -- but I’m not ranting and raving. I love this. I’m having a good time doing it.”

When it came to the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, Trump merely evaded the issue.  He suggested that even though he didn’t ask Flynn to talk about sanctions with Russia, he wasn’t bothered by the fact that he had done so.  But Flynn “didn’t tell our vice president properly and then he said he didn’t remember, so either way it wasn’t very satisfactory to me.”  What Trump didn’t say is that the leaks demonstrate he had known about Flynn’s misleading of the vice president in mid-January, and yet he did not fire Flynn until the leaks this past week.  When pressed on other reports that indicated that his top advisors had had contact with Russian intelligence prior to the election, Trump simply waived the claim away with the charge that the report  came for the “failing New York Times”.  “Speaking for myself,” he claimed, “I know nothing in Russia, I have no loans in Russia, I don’t have any deals in Russia.” He insisted again, “I had nothing to do with it! I have nothing to do with Russia, I told you!” He added: “Russia is fake news.” The “real news” was the leaking of information from “confidential investigations.” Again, Trump and his handlers are consciously trying to spin the story about the leaks into a scandal about the press, not about his administration.
On the other hand, Trump has signaled that he will use the leaks as an excuse to crack down on an intelligence community that he has long perceived as his enemy.  On Wednesday, Mr. Trump blamed leaks from the intelligence community for the departure of Flynn.  And he then re-raised again the possibility of putting a crony into a watchdog position over the intelligence agency.  As The New York Times reported:
President Trump plans to assign a New York billionaire [Stephen Feinberg] to lead a broad review of American intelligence agencies, according to administration officials, an effort that members of the intelligence community fear could curtail their independence and reduce the flow of information that contradicts the president’s worldview....
Reports that Mr. Feinberg was even under consideration to run the clandestine services shook the intelligence community, raising the prospect of direct White House control over America’s spies at the exact moment that Mr. Trump’s ties to Mr. Putin are under investigation by the F.B.I. and congressional committees.  The fact that the head of the Justice Department (which overseas the F.B.I) is Jeff Sessions, a prime Trump supporter, also has chilling implications.
Feinberg has absolutely no national security experience.  He has close ties to Stephen Bannon.  As the New York Times reported: “Bringing Mr. Feinberg into the administration to conduct the review is seen as a way of injecting a Trump loyalist into a world the White House views with suspicion. But top intelligence officials fear that Mr. Feinberg is being groomed for a high position in one of the intelligence agencies.”

His potential appointment is also notable because many of the damaging leaks are not coming from the intelligence community at all, but from the White House itself.  But that fact is largely irrelevant if you’re looking for a scapegoat, and a way to shift the conversation away from a damaging story suggesting collusion with a foreign government.
It seems likely that Trump will try to move to stop whistleblowing leaks: we can only hope that the general ineptitude of the administration so far will mean that their efforts will be less than effective.  But we should also worry that Trump’s advisors will start deliberate leaks of their own.  Whereas prior administrations routinely used leaks to disclose accurate, though classified, information for political or strategic gains, it seems likely that the Trump administration will use leaks to sow chaos and undermine the leaks of accurate information by planting lies.  As this administration is clearly willing to lie, the administration might well exploit leaks to further obscure the truth. 

So while Flynn’s departure and Trump’s train wreck of a news conference might seem like hopeful signs of a turn towards accountability, I think we should expect to see the Trump White House stepping-up the campaigns of blatant lying, ad hominem attacks, and aggressive efforts to delegitimize the very institutions that make-up America’s system of checks and balances.  Hopefully, those institutions (the Judiciary, Congress, and the Press) will not buckle and allow this White House’s behaviour to become normalized