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.

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.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Why is everyone talking about America’s Reichstag Fire moment?

Why is everyone talking about America’s Reichstag Fire moment?

Interwar Germany seems to be on the minds of many commentators as they contemplate the direction that the American administration has been heading since Trump’s inauguration (just three weeks ago, yes its only been three weeks…).  And one moment from 1933 seems to be particularly concerning. Both Paul Walderman in a piece in This Week magazine and Roger Cohen in the New York Times  this past week brought up the possibility that there might be a “Reichstag Fire” moment in the future and mused what the consequences of that might be. 

Monday, 6 February 2017

When “misspeaking” is really doublethinking

When “misspeaking” is really doublethinking
Trump’s team is ramping-up their efforts to delegitimize the press and maybe taking a page out of George Orwell's playbook.   In Orwell’s dystopia, 1984, the workers in the Ministry of Truth practice doublethinking when they falsify public records, and then believe in the new history that they themselves have just rewritten.   It appears that Trump’s proxies are using, or are trapped within, a comparable system of doublethink.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Autocracy in America won’t come with jackboots

Discussions of Trumpism in the United States have used a lot of terms, many of which are freighted with historical resonances – autocracy, dictatorship, authoritarianism, but most especially, "fascism".  People who have any notion of what fascism actually entails no doubt think of it in terms of the European dictatorships of the 1920s and 1930s – Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, Franco's Spain, Salazar's Portugal.  For others, it is merely a term of abuse: anyone on the far right of the political spectrum might be so labeled.  But so far, the most remembered symbol of interwar fascism -- masses of uniformed Party members willing to do the leader's bidding -- hardly fits with what we have seen of Trumpim.

Monday, 30 January 2017

And so the purges begin…

The Trump administration signals it is moving against opposition within the government bureaucracy
Today, resistance to Trump’s attempt to govern by degree began to meet resistance from within the US government itself.  First, this morning, members of the US State Department leaked news that they were preparing a ‘dissent memo’ on the Administration’s executive orders concerning foreign relations, and most particularly the intensely controversial ‘extreme vetting’ order.  Then this evening, Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates publicly announced that she would be instructing the Justice Department’s lawyers to not defend the President’s executive order from Friday that has caused such chaos at US airports, because of her fears that Trump’s order was not in fact legal.  In both cases, these government officials were not being especially partisan, but fulfilling the obligations of their jobs.  Its just been reported that Yates has just lost her job, and from statements made by Trump’s press secretary the hundreds of State Department officials who have signed the dissent memo have put their jobs at risk.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

So what exactly is going on in Trump’s ‘Extreme Vetting’ measures?

So what exactly is going on in Trump’s ‘Extreme Vetting’ measures?
First, the sad ironies.  The executive order, entitled “Protecting the Nation From Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals,” directs federal agencies to block the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, and suspends the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for refugees from all countries for 120 days. The total number of refugees admitted in 2017 will be lowered from 110,000 to 50,000. The order also temporarily bans citizens of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia from entering the United States until a review of the visa and refugee vetting process occurs and a more stringent alternative is implemented.  

After the order was signed, students, visitors and green-card-holding legal permanent United States residents from the seven countries — and refugees from around the world — were stopped at airports in the United States and abroad, including Cairo, Dubai and Istanbul. Some were blocked from entering the United States and were sent back overseas.  The order prevented people who’d been living in the US for years from returning home; it cruelly prevented people who’d fled from war and persecution from crossing into sanctuary despite months or years of rigorous vetting.  There was even confusion about whether dual nationals would also be affected – and it appears that some in that situation were detained.
This executive order was issued on Friday afternoon, 27 January.  That date just happens to be the International Day of Holocaust Remembrance.  (The Whitehouse released a notice about the day that managed to omit any mention of Jews – the primary victims of the Holocaust – and when challenged by the press on this, Trump doubled-down with a vague statement about he’s “the most inclusive President.”)  A poignant commemoration of the day was the St. Louis Manifest Project, wherein the names and fates of all those Jewish refugees on board the ship the St. Louis turned away from the USA in 1939 were tweeted out one by one.  You can see this moving project here.  The poignancy of this project was made all the more stark by the actions of the Trump Whitehouse that afternoon.
Second, here is the stated purpose of the executive order that Trump claims required the US to introduce travel restrictions and ‘extreme vetting’ of citizens from 7 predominantly Muslim states:
Section 1. Purpose. The visa-issuance process plays a crucial role in detecting individuals with terrorist ties and stopping them from entering the United States. Perhaps in no instance was that more apparent than the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when State Department policy prevented consular officers from properly scrutinizing the visa applications of several of the 19 foreign nationals who went on to murder nearly 3,000 Americans. And while the visa-issuance process was reviewed and amended after the September 11 attacks to better detect would-be terrorists from receiving visas, these measures did not stop attacks by foreign nationals who were admitted to the United States.
Numerous foreign-born individuals have been convicted or implicated in terrorism-related crimes since September 11, 2001, including foreign nationals who entered the United States after receiving visitor, student, or employment visas, or who entered through the United States refugee resettlement program. Deteriorating conditions in certain countries due to war, strife, disaster, and civil unrest increase the likelihood that terrorists will use any means possible to enter the United States. The United States must be vigilant during the visa-issuance process to ensure that those approved for admission do not intend to harm Americans and that they have no ties to terrorism.
In order to protect Americans, the United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles. The United States cannot, and should not, admit those who do not support the Constitution, or those who would place violent ideologies over American law. In addition, the United States should not admit those who engage in acts of bigotry or hatred (including "honor" killings, other forms of violence against women, or the persecution of those who practice religions different from their own) or those who would oppress Americans of any race, gender, or sexual orientation.
This justification might seem a bit baffling if you remember that the four states from which all 19 of the 9/11 terrorists were nationals (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, Pakistan) are not on the list of countries on which travel restrictions apply.  Nor is there any actual evidence of ‘numerous foreign nationals’ committing terrorism-related crimes within the US after 9/11.  This has been confirmed by number of independent studies (such as by the New America Foundation and including in a comprehensive report by the libertarian Cato Institute (which you can read here) which demonstrated there's only a one in a 3.64 billion chance of being killed in an act of terrorism committed by a refugee of any nationality; that’s a 0.00000003 percent chance of being murdered by a refugee.  And the San Bernardino attackers (both of Pakistani origin, one a U.S. citizen and the other a lawful permanent resident), the Orlando shooter (a U.S. citizen whose parents were born in Afghanistan), and the Boston marathon bombers (one a naturalized U.S. citizen, the other a green card holder from Kyrgyzstan), came from none of the countries listed in the order.
The other justification about bigotry, hatred and sexual violence of foreign cultures (for Canadians this has shades of Kellie Leitch’s ‘barbaric practices’ tip line proposal during the last election) also seems completely at odds with other actions that Trump has promised, such as promising to cut funding to the Office on Violence Against Women and defunding Planned Parenthood. And this despite the fact that in the US, nearly 20 people every minute, the majority of them women, are victims of intimate partner abuse.  But Trump is not suggesting increasing protections for violence against women at home.
Moreover, for such an important document with such far-reaching implications, the haste and indeed incompetence with which it was pushed out is also stunning.  NBC reported that the document was not reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, the State Department, or the Department of Defense prior to its signing.   National Security Council lawyers were even prevented from evaluating it.  Further, the New York Times reported that Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, the agencies tasked with carrying out the policy, were only given a briefing call while Trump was actually signing the order itself.  To put this all in context, the Obama administration typically spent three or more weeks vetting his proposed executive orders to make sure they complied with all relevant laws and legislation. 
As Benjamin Wittes, a very conservative legal analyst noted in their own evaluation which is well worth reading in full, noted: “in the short term, the incompetence is actually good news for people who believe in visa and refugee policies based on criteria other than—let’s not be coy about this—bigotry and religious discrimination.” And clearly the courts have so far agreed: the ACLU was able to successfully petition a federal court for a national stay of deportations due to the executive order. As Wittes also stated:
In some ways, the most stunning incompetence in the document appears in one of the least discussed sections: The section at the end that mandates reporting on the nefarious terrorist activities of foreigners in the United States. This section requires regular reports from DHS on terrorism-related offenses by foreign nationals, and gender-based violence and honor killings by foreign nationals (because remember, Mexico sends us their rapists and Muslims all kill their daughters when they date Americans).  The White House appears to have included this section because the Trumpists think it will show that large numbers of foreigners are coming to the United States and committing acts of terrorism here.
But given the statistics showing the absence of such terrorism by refugees noted above, this reporting measure seems doomed to demonstrate the false premises of the entire executive order.
There will also be diplomatic fallout.  In addition to the catastrophic turn in the relations with Mexico, Trump’s new order will certainly raise tensions with countries whose nationals it targets (and Iran today restricted travel by U.S. nationals in retaliation, indefinitely separating a great many U.S. citizens from their family in Iran).  And what a gift to ISIS….I bet they are making their recruitment videos using this already.
So, what should we make of all this?  Was this just incompetent gesturing to a campaign promise by Trump?
Partly, I would suggest it was.  Throw the core supporters some red-meat: we will build the wall, we will stop terrorists coming here by banning people from the places that have terrorists.  Certain allied Muslim countries were left out because the diplomatic repercussions of including them would be too detrimental, or possibly because of Trump’s own business connections.  I don’t think it coincidental that most of the seven targeted countries are desperately poor – unlike those exempted.  Despite all the protests at the airports and the successful court challenges – in fact probably because of them – there is little to suggest that those core supporters will have changed their minds. 
But this tactic is not just a distraction or hamfisted effort to play to the base.
Witte again provides a key insight, I think:
in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process. You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives.
When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.
This vindictiveness will play well to Trump’s core support.  It will soothe their sense of grievance.  They will feel listened to, because the ‘othered’ are suffering, not them. Trump is basically telling his supporters "I told you I'd do something about this bogeyman and look, I am." And this something is doubly significant for people who believe we need to "make America great again", because it is not only standing against the evils of "Islamic extremism", but it is allegedly standing up for democracy and freedom and decency (as ‘they’ have been tarnished with barbaric honor killings…).  It also reaffirms that Trump et al are deliberately demonizing groups as incompatible with “America First”: a worldview where Mexicans are not welcome, and Muslims are not, and never can be, citizens of the west.
[If you are and American citizen and want to do something concrete, please check out this listing of US Senators and their stance on the issue so far.  If they have not come out in opposition to the ban you can contact them to protest.  Thanks to Jason Kelly for this link.]

And this is just the beginning....

The organizers of The Resisterhood found out yesterday that Trump filed the necessary paperwork to set up a campaign for re-election in 2020, FIVE HOURS after his inauguation.  To put this in context, Obama filed this paperwork for his 2012 re-election campaign in April 2011.  An incumbant doing this before the midterms is apparently unheard of.

Here is the letter, which is posted on the US Federal Election Commission pubic site. 

Beyond its arrogance and narcissism, this is actually a very significant development with rather dire implications.

As the Resisterhood explain, by establishing himself as a candidate already, Trump can curry favor with PACs, businesses, and other organizations as Trump the candidate, not Trump the president. And by doing so it means that different rules apply to how non-profit organizations can handle him.

For non-profits registered under IRS 501c3 rules cannot "campaign" against a registered candidate -- that is speak negatively in public about Trump -- or risk losing their nonprofit status.   Here is the rule in question:

Just think about what this means for an organization like Planned Parenthood.....

It also further muddies the ethical swamp that is Trump's entangled business, political and government interests.

The bottom line is that it appears that Trump, or (more likely) Bannon and Jared Kushner, are already thinking about how to use every legal loop hole to silence dissent. 

And while the furore over the 'Muslim Ban' kept everyone's attention, this happened...

Yesterday Trump reshuffled the US National Security Council (NSC) the main group advising the US President on national security and foreign affairs, downgrading the role of the military chiefs of staff and giving a regular seat to his chief strategist Steve Bannon.  Trump appointee, retired lieutenant-general Mike Flynn heads the body.

According to reporting by the BBC, the director of national intelligence and the joint chiefs will only attend when discussion is pertain to their areas. Bannon, it seems, will be a permanent presence. Under previous administrations, the director and joint chiefs attended all meetings of the NSC's inner circle, the principals' committee.

Trump also ordered a restructuring of the Homeland Security Council, and in two seperate orders:
  1.  banned administration officials from ever lobbying the US on behalf of a foreign government, and a separate five-year ban on other lobbying.  (a 'draining the swamp measure')
  2. Called for a preliminary plan by the secretary of defence to defeat so-called Islamic State (IS) to be presented within 30 days.  (this is presumably the same plan Trump claimed he had already formulated during the campaign....)
These moves, especially the appointment of Steve Bannon, were criticized by Sen. John McCain on CBS's Face the Nation this morning.  McCain referred to the move as "radical" because it minimizes the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As the Senate Armed Services chairman, McCain said it was concerning that Trump has centralized power around Bannon and that the  most important decision-maker on the National Security Council, Gen. Joseph Dunford, is now being shut out of critical meetings.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer chanelled Trump directly in his defence of the move today, saying that the new structure will "streamline" decision-making and praised Bannon as having a "tremendous understanding of the world and the geopolitical landscape that we have now."

What to make of the first week?

Trump's first week as President has been eventful: does it answer any questions about what kind of regime has been installed in Washington?  In a word, yes.

During the election campaign and throughout the period of transition critical pundits wondered if Trump was simply a bullying misyognist narcissist without any ideology at all, or a shrewd manipulator with a Orwellian program and the wherewithal to implement it, or a ‘useful idiot’ himself manipulated by a foreign power and domestic far-right extremists.  At the end of the election, in an effort to explain his election, one observer noted that Trump’s critics (especially in the media) had taken his platform literally but not taken his candidacy seriously, while his supporters had taken Trump’s candidacy seriously but not taken his platform literally. 

This latter view seemed to be born our during the period of transition, when Trump’s nominations for top cabinet positions suggested perhaps the new administration would be a more traditional Republican regime of market-first, reduced regulation, science-denying conservatives cloaked in a populist language – albeit a more obvious kleptocracy than even before given the number of otherwise unqualified billionaires proposed.   The events of the past week could still be seen as hewing to one of these views in the eyes of some commentators – for instance, PBSNewshour’s Mark Shields and David Brooks. 
But for me, this past week’s events has indicated something far more malignant and terrifying.
Trump is absolutely a self-obsessed narcissist with a continual need for his ego to be stroked, and any slight against his self-perception, however minor, to be rebutted and avenged.  This narcissism is sociopathic and now that Trump is the most powerful man in the world, this is dangerous for absolutely everyone.  But, unfortunately, that is not the end of it.  For, whether he is fully aware of it or not, Trump’s agenda has been forged largely by his ‘alt-right’ advisors – most particularly Stephen Bannon.  This fact, combined with the slavish devotion to the idea that Trump will bring ‘real change’ to Washington amongst his core supporters, means that Trumpism is the manifestation of the same dynamic that produced fascist movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. 
Consider Trump’s full range of actions of this momentous week:  First the narcissism:
On the day after the inauguration Trump stood in front of the CIA’s Memorial Wall – a memorial which honours those who have died in the line of duty – and spent most of his speech praising himself for attracting such a big crowd to his inauguration, laid into the media for lying about him, boasted about the number of times he had appeared on the cover of TIME magazine, and generally talked far less about the CIA or intelligence issues more generally than he did about himself. 
Reporting that the CIA had cheered hi speech were followed by rebuttals indicating that the front three rows had been stuffed with Trump supporters to ensure the president received applause. Evidently this was not the first time his team had done this.
At his very first press briefing, Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer lambasted the media for accurately reporting the size of Trump’s inauguration crowds.  Kellyanne Conway later clarified that Spicer was not lying, but merely presenting “alternative facts”.
Trump himself presented more alternative facts, this time about TV ratings and has preferred source of news and intelligence briefings:  
"Congratulations to @FoxNews for being number one in inauguration ratings. They were many times higher than FAKE NEWS @CNN - public is smart!” 9:16 PM - 24 Jan 2017
Spicer’s office then released an email rounding-up positive press coverage.
During an interview Trump said the following:
  “I can be the most presidential person ever, other than possibly the great Abe Lincoln, all right?”
But apparently still stung by the fact that he did not win the popular vote, announced his intention to investigate voter fraud in this pair of tweets:
“I will be asking for a major investigation into VOTER FRAUD, including those registered to vote in two states, those who are illegal and.... 7:10 AM - 25 Jan 2017
even, those registered to vote who are dead (and many for a long time). Depending on results, we will strengthen up voting procedures!7:13 AM - 25 Jan 2017
There is no evidence that any such voter fraud exists.  But several commentators have pointed out that this particular exercise in narcissism has potentially more sinister implication – the likelihood that the ‘investigation’ of voter fraud will result in the actual disenfranchisement of Trump non-supporters – that bleeds over into the fascist dynamic.    
As many historians of Fascism have detailed, this could be summarized under the headings of a) populist overtures and cult of the strong leader; b) hyper masculinity, sexism, anti-feminism, and racist scapegoating; c) an appeal to violence and valorization of martial values; d) corporatism, autarky, protection of economic supporters; e) emotional appeals and denial of rationality/science.  (Not all of the features of interwar fascism are present in this list -- a militarized political machine and the overt willingness to use political violence, and the desire to overturn democracy itself, are missing....for now). 
a) In an effort to demonstrate his populist/leadership credentials:
On the day of his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order instructing agencies to minimize the cost of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) in an effort to make good on a key campaign promise, despite the fact that there is evidently no plan ready to replace the ACA, and many of Trump’s core support stands to be hurt by this order.  
Second, Trump’s team hung a portrait of President Andrew Jackson (1829-37) in the Oval Office, apparently a nod to the populist sentiments of the new administration.  Jackson is remembered for signing the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced the native American population of the south eastern United States to relocate to reservations west of the Mississippi, the so-called “Trail of Tears” in which thousands died.  Jackson also introduced the Spoils System, under which new administrations purge the civil service and stuff it with their own supporters. 
b) Sexism, anti-feminism and racist scapegoating:
On Monday, Trump signed an order re-introducing a Reagan-era gag policy which prevents federal funding from going towards any international organisation that offers or promotes abortion.
Later in the week Trump signed an executive order calling for the “immediate construction of a physical wall on the southern border” between the US and Mexico.  The same executive order includes a section mandating the Department of Homeland Security to publish weekly lists of crimes committed by immigrants.   This is truly terrifying for what it signals to Trump’s core supporters.
Another executive order on Friday blocked the government from offering visas to anyone visiting from six Middle Eastern and East African countries (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen).  The administration is also temporarily blocking refugees from entering the US.  Except for those fleeing Syria, who will instead be banned indefinitely.  (As I write this a Federal judge has put a stay to this particular order after massive protests at US airports).
c) On Tuesday, President Trump threatened the city of Chicago with martial law:
“If Chicago doesn't fix the horrible "carnage" going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!" 9:25 PM - 24 Jan 2017
On Thursday officials indicated that the administration wanted to reinstate the CIA’s “black site” prisons, where “enhanced interrogation techniques” – torture, basically – were used. President Trump later told ABC’s David Muir that torture techniques like waterboarding “absolutely” work.
d) corporatism, autarky, protection of economic supporters.  
Trump resurrected plans for two oil pipelines – the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines – which had been rejected by the Obama administration.
Despite questions about conflicts between the president’s political and business interests, the head of Trump Hotels is talking about ambitious plans to massively expand the company’s operations in the US.
e) emotionalism and denial of rationality/science
The administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to remove the climate change pages from its website.  It will also require all scientific studies and data from the EPA to undergo review by political staff – that is, not scientists – before publication.  The administration also attempted to ban government agencies from tweeting about climate change, thus sparking a Twitter feud with the National Parks Service.
Many other things happened this week and, of course, many of these actions will be challenged (and hopefully overturned).  But it seems to me the pattern has been set.  Trump and his administration needs to be taken BOTH literally and deadly seriously.  Trump’s narcissism is being played upon by his closest advisors to enact an agenda that goes beyond populism: essentially, America now has a  movement that embraces many elements of fascism leading its government.