Tag Archives: Bannon

A Privatized Border Wall?

Both Politico and Common Dreams have reported on efforts by Trump’s most “MAGA” cronies to build his “big, beautiful wall” privately. (And no, I’m not joking.) From Politico, we read

It could have been an outtake from a hard-right reboot of “Ocean’s 11” for the Trump era: a gathering of some of President Donald Trump’s most notorious and outspoken supporters, who descended last week on the southern border town of McAllen, Texas.

In what amounted to a kind of #MAGA field trip, former Trump strategist Steve Bannon, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, baseball legend Curt Schilling, and former Sheriff David Clarke convened to plan construction of a wall along the southern border. Blackwater founder Erik Prince phoned in from South Africa.

With Congress refusing to pony up the $5.7 billion Trump has demanded for the project, his allies are now plotting to kick off construction with private money and private land.

The motley crew insists that they are serious.They shared plans to tout their project at a town hall in Tucson, Arizona and at the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). They’ve formed a nonprofit group called “We Build the Wall,” an outgrowth of an earlier crowdfunding campaign mounted by a Trump supporter.

As Politico noted, this smacks of political theater rather than a serious effort, but in a way, I’d like to see them try. Not only would they have to raise enormous amounts of money–several billion– for a project that polling tells us is unpopular everywhere, but especially on the border, but they would have to acquire the land from property owners without the ability to threaten eminent domain. They would also have to battle the EPA (which will presumably be reconstituted by a new President after 2020) over the wall’s damage to the ecosystem; Trump’s plan has already raised cries of outrage from environmentalists.

The men (and they are all men) involved in this fantasy are all well-known–or perhaps “notorious” is the more accurate description. (Politico’s recitation of their “colorful credentials” is kinder than they deserve.)

While Bannon’s involvement had been secret, Prince, Kobach, Clarke, Tancredo and Schilling all serve on the nonprofit’s board. Each of them brings colorful credentials to the mix: Prince, the brother of Trump’s Education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has performed extensive private security work in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere. Clarke, a former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wis., known for wearing cowboy hats, has a reputation for espousing extreme law-and-order views on the conservative media and conference circuit. Tancredo made his name as a five-term congressman with constant calls for tighter border security. And Schilling has pivoted from a storied major league pitching career to a failed video game startup to hosting a podcast for Breitbart News.

These are precisely the sort of people who populate the White Supremacy movement– outliers and losers with a desperate need to prove that they are better than those brown people they want to exclude from “their” country.

To use a term favored by “their” President, “sad.”

 

Why Language Matters…

On the most basic level, language matters because the ability to use words accurately to convey one’s meaning is a critically important skill in modern society.

And let’s be honest: we assess the probable intelligence of the people we meet based largely on their use of language. That isn’t simply snobbery–fuzzy language more often than not signals fuzzy thinking.

An individual’s use of language is a reasonably reliable clue to that person’s conceptual agility.

Those of us who are unimpressed with Donald Trump’s repeated assertion that he is “like really, really smart” often point to his lack of language skills. Newsweek recently compared the vocabularies of the last 15 U.S. Presidents, and ranked Trump at the very bottom.

President Donald Trump—who boasted over the weekend that his success in life was a result of “being, like, really smart”—communicates at the lowest grade level of the last 15 presidents, according to a new analysis of the speech patterns of presidents going back to Herbert Hoover….

By every metric and methodology tested, Donald Trump’s vocabulary and grammatical structure is significantly more simple, and less diverse, than any President since Herbert Hoover, when measuring “off-script” words, that is, words far less likely to have been written in advance for the speaker,” Factba.se CEO Bill Frischling wrote. “The gap between Trump and the next closest president … is larger than any other gap using Flesch-Kincaid. Statistically speaking, there is a significant gap.”

Of course, it’s also true that genuinely bright people rarely find it necessary to tell people how smart they are…

Effective propaganda requires the manipulation of language, and that’s another reason to be alert to its use. Trump’s former consiglieri, Steve Bannon, clearly understands that in order to change social attitudes, it is necessary to change reactions to certain words. As a recent, fascinating opinion piece in the New York Times recounts,

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

The author notes that this is a departure from the usual “dog whistle” approach taken by racists and xenophobes–Trump’s constant references to immigrants as criminals, for example, or the traditional, negative euphemisms for Jews and blacks. Bannon wants to eliminate the pretense, and change our reaction to words that convey straightforward bigotry.

Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous….

But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” …. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.

Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.

Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.

Remember “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”? It was wrong.

Language matters.

More Than Just Worrisome

The Guardian recently had a chilling account of the tools available to today’s purveyors of what we used to call the “big lie,” and the people using those tools. As the reporter began,

Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the world’s press before him and told them they were liars. “The press, honestly, is out of control,” he said. “The public doesn’t believe you any more.” CNN was described as “very fake news… story after story is bad”. The BBC was “another beauty”.

That night I did two things. First, I typed “Trump” in the search box of Twitter. My feed was reporting that he was crazy, a lunatic, a raving madman. But that wasn’t how it was playing out elsewhere. The results produced a stream of “Go Donald!!!!”, and “You show ’em!!!” There were star-spangled banner emojis and thumbs-up emojis and clips of Trump laying into the “FAKE news MSM liars!”

The reporter then consulted Google, typing in only “mainstream media is.” The first several “autofills” were negative: “dead” “fake” “biased” and the like. SEO (search engine optimization) at work. (Search engine optimization is a technique that catches Google’s attention, and ensures that a site’s URL will be prominent among search results.)

The reporter clicked on the first of the sites that Google returned; it was an obscure website named CNSnews.com.

Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding – more than $10m in the past decade – from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money – $13.5m of it – behind the Trump campaign.

Since just 2010, it turns out that Mercer has donated $45 million dollars to Republican political campaigns, and another $50 million to an assortment of rightwing, ultra-conservative nonprofits. As the reporter noted, he is a billionaire who, “as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.”

And he evidently possesses both the money and the technological skills to reshape a good portion of it.

Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.

Mercer’s money funded Breitbart; the express intent was to “take back the culture.” (I shudder to think just how far back.)

But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

I encourage you to click through and read the entire Guardian article. It goes a long way toward explaining what I have found inexplicable: popular beliefs and attitudes that legitimize the antics of a man whose increasingly obvious mental illness has allowed him to be used as the tool of ideologues like Mercer and Bannon.

According to Andy Wigmore, a key figure who worked for the Brexit “Leave” campaign,

Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

There has always been propaganda. There hasn’t always been the Internet or Facebook. We’re about to find out just how malleable and gullible we are.

Fear–The Demagogue’s Friend

When people are afraid, they do unfortunate things.

As recent paper from the Brookings Institution points out, fear is a demagogue’s best friend. That’s why so many of Donald Trump’s actions in just the first few weeks of his disastrous presidency have been so dangerous.

President Trump’s Executive Order severely restricting visa-holders and refugees’ freedom to enter the United States is not only immoral and un-American—it’s also likely to fail on its own terms and lead to an increase in terrorist attacks against Americans. Yet if terrorism does increase, support for Trump and for harsh and self-defeating policies are likely to grow.

Although I doubt Trump is capable of that level of strategic planning, Actual-President Bannon clearly is.

The paper was written before several courts interrupted enforcement of the Order. As a number of observers have noted, should there be a terrorist attack during that interruption–or after the Order is finally invalidated, as I expect it will be–Trump has already telegraphed his intention to blame the courts and “so-called” judges.

The article reiterates many of the well-known criticisms of the Executive Order–the fact that zero terrorists have come from the countries subject to the ban, and –coincidentally, I’m sure (cough)–the countries that have produced terrorists and whose citizens weren’t banned happen to be countries where Trump has business interests; and the fact that refugee screening is exceptionally thorough, even draconian.

Refugees get the most scrutiny and Syrian refugees get the most scrutiny of all. So the vetting procedures are working. Refugees from other countries affected by the ban—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen—have been involved in few plots since 9/11.

In different ways, all these countries have a terrorism problem, but that’s not the same as saying that the people visiting America are terrorists. Indeed, residents of these countries know first-hand the evils of terrorism and loath the groups accordingly. Some of the fiercest anti-Communists came from Cubans fleeing Castro or Russians fleeing Stalin: should we be surprised that Muslims who experience evil firsthand have a visceral loathing of it too? If you don’t believe me, go to an Iranian-American neighborhood in Los Angeles and praise the Iran’s ayatollahs and see what happens.

As the article also points out, saying a country has a terrorism problem is  not the same as saying that the people visiting America from that country are terrorists. Quite the contrary: people who have experienced the evils of terrorism are the people most likely to hate and oppose them.

Some of the fiercest anti-Communists came from Cubans fleeing Castro or Russians fleeing Stalin: should we be surprised that Muslims who experience evil firsthand have a visceral loathing of it too? If you don’t believe me, go to an Iranian-American neighborhood in Los Angeles and praise the Iran’s ayatollahs and see what happens.

And there’s those pesky little things…I think they call them “facts”–that suggest most terrorist attacks in the U.S. come from home-grown, white right-wing extremists.

So we have alienated the allies around the world on whom we depend for intelligence information, we have sent a message to moderate Muslims that we make no distinction between the millions of peace-loving adherents of that religion and the radical fringe, and we have dramatically increased the likelihood of a terrorist attack that can only help Donald Trump.

The horrible reality, however, is that a terrorist attack, especially one at home, is likely to “prove” that Trump is right. Terrorists’ successes are always a bit random, but at least some low-level attacks would be likely regardless of who was president. Trump, however, ran a campaign of fear and dishonesty about the terrorism threat and the attitudes of U.S. Muslims (for example, the false claim that thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks). Polls show fears of terrorism were at near-record levels before the election despite the small number of attacks and deaths in the U.S. since 9/11, and this fear increased support for Trump’s candidacy.

Once an attack happens, Trump will probably tweet that he called for vigilance and tough measures only to be opposed by bleeding heart liberals, the failing New York Times, and Muslim-lovers naïve to the true danger. The fact that his policies made the attacks more likely will be lost in the uproar.

Nothing will please President Bannon more.

 

Are We the Poisoned Darts?

Vox recently had a good analysis of an increasingly pertinent question: is the chaos emanating from Washington part of a diabolical plan to generate social unrest that can then be used to justify the imposition of martial law or its equivalent, or is it evidence (as if we needed any) of the incompetence and ignorance of the embarrassing buffoon sitting in the Oval Office?

That argument is already taking shape around Trump, as he ham-handedly issues executive orders poorly understood by his own bureaucracy and fires members of his administration. It is aptly captured in two recent essays.

The first is by Yonatan Zunger, a Google privacy engineer. It’s called “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” and it reviews the news of the past day or two through the lens of a unifying theory: By putting confidant Steve Bannon on the National Security Council, cutting agencies out of rule-making, and defying a court order, Trump is systematically attempting to reduce any checks on his power. He’s trying to concentrate power in a small counsel of trusted advisers (the “coup”) and avoid legal review.

The second essay is by political scientist Tom Pepinsky, in response. It’s called “Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders,” and it makes a simple point: The very same actions Zunger interprets as a devious, coordinated plan can also be interpreted as the bumbling, defensive moves of a weak leader who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.

As Pepinsky points out, all we have to go on is “observable” action. For example, perhaps Trump put Steve Bannon on the NSC to consolidate power, part of his intent to sideline the establishment figures who actually know something about American foreign policy. On the other hand, perhaps he brought Bannon into the NSC because he doesn’t understand the discussions occurring in that venue (or perhaps everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging their feet and otherwise trying to keep him from doing something that will trigger a diplomatic crisis or a war), and he brought in Bannon because he felt the need for a loyal “interpreter” he could trust.

The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.

The author of the article, Dave Roberts, prefers the latter explanation; as he notes,

[N]arcissistic, paranoid tribalists are rarely geniuses, because genius requires a certain detached perspective, an ability to step outside oneself, which is precisely what narcissists lack.

In any event, Roberts says that the consequences of Trump’s behavior will be determined not by his intent, but by the strength of the institutions that have shaped our ability to resist.

If we’re looking to understand the course an authoritarian takes through a country and its history — what’s he’s accomplished, what’s likely to happen next — the place to look is not his intent, but the institutions and norms of the country he seeks to dominate. They, not his ultimate goals and desires, are what most determine the ultimate shape and consequences of a regime.

Think of a bull loose in a china shop. How much damage will it do? The relevant variable is not the bull’s intent. A bull’s gonna bull. The relevant variable is how equipped the china shop is to stop the bull. How many tranquilizer darts does it have, or, I don’t know, nets? (I didn’t think this analogy all the way through.)

The point is, how far an authoritarian can blunder forward, violating norms and degrading institutions, is determined by the strength of the norms and institutions he encounters. They determine when, or whether, he is constrained….

What will happen next depends not on Trump, but on America’s institutions and norms — the courts, the military, Congress, civil society, journalism. It is their strength, not his, that will determine how this story ends.

I like this analogy, muddled or not.

Trump is a raging bull. (As Jon Stewart memorably told Stephen Colbert a few nights ago on the Late Show, the “official language” of Trump’s America is bullshit.)

We the People must be the poisoned darts.