Tag Archives: Bannon

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.

The Big Lie Era

The expression “the big lie” was coined by Adolf Hitler; in Mein Kampf, he defined it as the use of a lie so “colossal” that no one would believe that someone “could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”

These days, Americans are so swamped with lies, big and small, that nothing surprises us. Our problem is that we are increasingly reluctant to accept anything as the truth.

Fake news. “Post-fact” analyses of issues. An unremitting war on science and evidence. “Alternative facts.” Self-serving lies by politicians to obscure the reality that they are carrying water for donors and special interests. Big business enterprises peddling confusion and dangerous disinformation (as the tobacco companies famously admitted, “doubt is our product”) to protect their bottom lines.

The debates over Obamacare provide recent examples. Aetna made big news when it announced that it was pulling out of all but four of the 15 states where it was participating  in the Obamacare exchanges because it was losing too much money. A federal judge ruled that was a blatant falsehood— Aetna made its decision primarily in response to a federal antitrust lawsuit blocking its proposed $37-billion merger with Humana. Aetna had threatened federal officials with the pullout before the lawsuit was filed.

Obamacare has its flaws, but rather than fixing them–rather than providing the tweaks that all new programs require as implementation discloses problems–our lawmakers also chose to lie, in order to escape blame for denying twenty million Americans continued access to healthcare.

The Trumpists have indeed scrubbed the White House’s page detailing the accomplishments of the Affordable Care Act. The previous White House, knowing this was coming, took the precaution of archiving it and saving it for posterity, and for everyone who knows better to have it to point to.

But make no mistake, the theme from the Trump lie machine is going to be that Obamacare was doomed to fail, as Charles Gaba points out. Republicans started this back in December, figuring out how to make the disaster they create when they repeal the law without a replacement all Obama’s fault. And they’re moving forward with that plan.

Today, peddling “big lies”–about Obamacare, about global climate change, about “terrorist threats” or American “greatness”–is much easier than it was in Hitler’s day, because we not only have “alternative facts,” we have “alternative” news sources. A friend who decided to sample news coverage of the massive, spontaneous airport protests following Trump’s horrific Executive Order discovered that Fox News simply didn’t cover them. People who get their (mis)information exclusively from Fox wouldn’t even be aware that the protests occurred.

Steve Bannon, who is effectively running the country while the delusional “President” watches movies and tweets compulsively, ran a propaganda “news” organization prior to his fortuitous (for him) elevation to power. He clearly understands–and embraces– the power of the Big Lie.

Unfortunately, that isn’t his only area of agreement with Hitler.

There has never been a time when real journalism–and the ability of ordinary citizens to distinguish between truth and lies, propaganda and reality–has been more important.

This is a Test..

Many years ago, there was a television mini-series about the Holocaust. My mother came over and watched the final episode with me and my (very young) children, and I still remember her firm declaration after it concluded, to the effect that she couldn’t understand the “good Germans” who kept quiet, went along and declined to get involved. She was adamant that she would not have been one of them–that she would have resisted.

I remember telling her that I wished I could be so certain. It’s easy to watch injustice and horrific behaviors from the safety of the sofa and reassure ourselves that we would be among the “good guys,” the ones who did what they knew was right no matter the consequences.

Incredible as it seems, it appears we’re going to have a chance to find out what kind of Americans we really are. Will we be among the apologists who dismiss what is happening (after all, the President isn’t coming for people like me…) and characterize the shock and anger displayed by millions of Americans as “hysteria” and “over-reaction”? Will we be like the pious “Christians” who evidently believe that morality only involves what happens below the human waist, and who evidently skipped over all those biblical references to taking in the stranger and caring for the poor and weak? Or will we go along with the self-proclaimed “patriots” we have elected–the ones who always wear a flag pin and ostentatiously carry copies of a Constitution to which they give lip service but which they read selectively, if at all?

Several readers noted that the unAmerican Executive Order refusing to admit refugees and “certain others” wasn’t even the worst thing Trump did yesterday. While that order got most of the attention, he placed his chief political strategist, Stephen Bannon, on the National Security Council, and limited the roles of both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Bannon–the White Nationalist and neo-Nazi sympathizer who ran Breitbart, the far-Right propaganda site– will now be a regular attendee of the Cabinet-level forum that deals with national security. The Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, however, won’t be.

It is hard to believe the extent of Trump’s assault on American values and institutions in just ten days. And it is dispiriting to see the cowardice of our elected officials in the face of that assault.

It is telling that neither Ryan nor McConnell have spoken out.  No profiles in courage there, or among most GOP Senators and Representatives. (Credit where credit is due: Lindsay Graham and John McCain have spoken out, and strongly.)

So much for checks and balances.

I have no idea what will happen to this country I love over the next few months and years. We are in uncharted territory. But I do know one thing: this assault on the rule of law will challenge the strength of our democratic institutions, our American commitment to liberty and equality, and the willingness of each of us to stand up for those principles.

This is our test, and it’s pass/fail.




A Dilemma With No Easy Answer

As Talking Points Memo and the Daily Beast have both recently reported

The Trump campaign is apparently having lots of trouble finding first tier people to fill scores of national security jobs.

Here’s a new piece from The Daily Beast saying this continues ..

Team Trump is struggling to fill numerous key slots or even attract many candidates because hundreds have either sworn they’d never work in a Trump administration or have directly turned down requests to join, multiple current and former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the transition efforts told The Daily Beast.

As the DB suggests, this isn’t terribly surprising since numerous Republican national security experts have already signed public letters saying they would never serve a President Trump.

As the article pointed out, however, someone will eventually fill those positions, and the reluctance of people who actually have the necessary skills to work for a Trump/Pence Administration means that the jobs will not be filled with competent public managers.

Since the TPM article, we have learned the identities of several people on Trump’s list of potential cabinet appointments, and he has announced that Rance Priebus and Steve Bannon will have important roles in his White House. The choice of Bannon was greeted with cheers by the KKK and the Nazis–and with shock from decent Republicans and Democrats alike.

So here’s the dilemma: if you are a responsible conservative Republican with skills relevant to and needed by the new administration, do you swallow hard and figure that you are really working for the American people, not the Orange Buffoon? Do you hope–against all evidence–that Trump will listen to your knowledgable advice, that you can prevent him from taking actions you know will be detrimental to the country and the world?

Eliot Cohen, a national security expert who served in George W. Bush’s State Department, initially counseled that approach. After conversations with Trump’s “team,” he has changed his mind.

The tenor of the Trump team, from everything I see, read and hear, is such that, for a garden-variety Republican policy specialist, service in the early phase of the administration would carry a high risk of compromising one’s integrity and reputation.

In a normal transition to a normal administration, there’s always disorder. There are the presidential friends and second cousins, the flacks and the hangers-on who flame out in the first year or two. There are the bad choices — the abusive bosses, the angry ideologues and the sheer dullards. You accept the good with the bad and know that there will be stupid stuff going on, particularly at the beginning. Things shake out. Even if you are just blocking errors, it is a contribution.

This time may be different. Trump was not a normal candidate, the transition is not a normal transition, and this will probably not be a normal administration. The president-elect is surrounding himself with mediocrities whose chief qualification seems to be unquestioning loyalty. He gets credit for becoming a statesman when he says something any newly elected president might say (“I very much look forward to dealing with the president in the future”) — and then reverts to tweeting against demonstrators and the New York Times. By all accounts, his ignorance, and that of his entourage, about the executive branch is fathomless. It’s not even clear that he accepts that he should live in the White House rather than in his gilt-smeared penthouse in New York.

After noting the implications of Bannon’s hiring, Cohen concludes that conservative politicians and policymakers “should not volunteer to serve in this administration, at least for now. They would probably have to make excuses for things that are inexcusable and defend people who are indefensible.”

In the past few days, several media outlets have reported that Trump’s team was astonished to learn that the White House staff leaves when a Presidential term is over, and that they would have to hire people to fill those positions. Other reports suggest a transition team with a striking resemblance to the Keystone Kops.

If the likely consequences of Trump’s monumental ignorance weren’t so dire, this exhibition of gross incompetence would actually be funny.