The Mathematics of Political Decline

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Benjamin Netanyahu: The Jewish Viktor Orban

A dreadful piece of legislation making its way through the Israeli Knesset sheds light not only on the Jewish state’s lurch to the right, but on the constitutional breakdown here in the United States.

Known as the Jewish Nation-State Bill, its purpose is to do away with the old rigmarole about Israel as simultaneously a Jewish and democratic state and shifts the balance decidedly in favor of the former.  Apologists say the bill will change little since the UN declared Israel to be a Jewish state  back in 1947, Israel’s own declaration of independence said the same thing a year later, while the entire world has routinely employed the phrase ever since.  So what does it matter if, instead of a “Jewish state,” Israel is now a “Jewish State” with a capital “S”?  What’s the big deal?

But, of course, it’s a very big deal.  An Israeli journalist named Lahav Harkov explained why – in back-handed way, of course – in an article in Commentary in 2013.  “For Israel to thrive uniquely as a Jewish democracy,” he wrote, “its institutions and laws must ensure that its democratic nature is never brought into irresolvable conflict with its Jewish identity.”  But democracy can’t help but conflict with Judaism, the basis of “Jewish identity” (whatever that may be), for the simple reason that two ideologies are mutually incompatible.  Political democracy was new and revolutionary when it burst upon the world in 1789 because it wrested sovereignty away from the church and crown and vested it with the people instead.  Various liberals, pluralists, pragmatists, etc., have tried to blur the difference ever since.  But the fact remains that there can be only one person, group, or entity in charge, either God or the people but never both.

It’s as simple as that.  So when Harkov says that democracy must never interfere with Jewish identity, what he’s really saying is that democracy must be pared back so that Judaism remains undisturbed.  This becane crystal clear when he went on to discuss an explosive Israeli Supreme Court ruling in the year 2000 declaring that an Israeli Arab couple named Adel and Iman Kaadan had a democratic right to purchase a home in a Jewish settlement, this despite the fact that the settlement is located on land owned by the Jewish National Fund, which, as a matter of deep principle, refuses to sell or lease to non-Jews.  Most people, and certainly most Americans, would regard the court’s decision as a ” no-brainer,” as they say.  After all, what could be more elementary than a citizen’s right to live wherever he or she pleases regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity?  But Harkov, out of devotion to Zionist national purity, sees it as a threat because it “erode[s] Israel’s Jewish nature in the name of preserving its democratic one.”

So there’s no question that the proposed new law will rein in democracy and tip Israel even further in the direction of ethno-religious authoritarianism à la Viktor Orban’s Hungary or Jaraslaw Kaszynski’s Poland.

But why now?  What is it about the make-up of the Israeli state that propels it in such a direction after seventy years of muddling through?

Demographics provides at least part of the answer.  After peaking at around eighty-nine percent in the late 1950s, the Jewish share of the Israeli population has edged downward ever since – to 85.5 percent in 1970, to 83.8 percent in 1980, to 81.6 percent in 1990, and, finally, to 75.3 percent as of early 2013.[1]  But the Six Day War in 1967 complicated matters by bringing millions of Palestinians under Israeli sway.  Inside “greater Israel,” the area from the Jordan to the Mediterranean that includes Gaza and the West Bank, Jews are now in the minority according to various estimates or will be shortly.

The result is nothing less than a sea change.  Back when Jews were 89 percent of the population, the concept of ethnos and demos overlapped so completely that it was easy to pretend that they were essentially the same.  Israeli society looked democratic, acted democratic, and even felt democratic, so it was easy to overlook the fact that one person in nine was a second-class citizen.  But now, with Jews slipping into an outright minority, the two concepts are pulling apart.  Instead of a demos, Jews are fast turning into a herrenvolk, a master race, ruling over a subordinate population of Palestinians and various other groups.

Ironies abound.  The Israeli position has never been more secure.  Palestinians are exhausted and defeated, the entire Muslim world is in disarray, while the economic gap between Israel and is neighbors has never been wider.  With twice as many scientists and engineers per capita as the US or Japan (as Perry Anderson noted a few years ago in the New Left Review), the Israeli economy has never been more dynamic.  One would think, therefore, that it could afford to be magnanimous.  But the numbers dictate otherwise.  They force it in a direction of a dark and brooding nationalism that is increasingly punitive and authoritarian.

But what of the US? What do the numbers tell us here?

The magic number as far as America is concerned is 4.4. That’s the percentage of the United States that lives in the thirteen least populous states, the minimum required to veto any constitutional amendment.  Like the Jewish share of the Israeli population, it, too, is on the decline.  In 1790, the equivalent figure was 9.8 percent, in 1860 it was 5.5, while by 2030 it is projected to fall to 4.0.  If we take these numbers and multiply them by the number of years the constitutional order has been in existence, then we can come up with something like a numerical index showing how much “we the people” have lost control over their political structure.  By the Civil War, for instance, Americans had lost 44 percent of their power over a system that was now past its seventieth birthday, while by 2018 they have lost another eleven points with regard to one that is well into its third century.

The more powerful, ornate, and all-embracing the constitutional order grows, the more democratic control shrinks to zero.  Despite the enormous constitutional restrictions imposed by the founders, “we the people” still had some sense in 1860 that they were still in charge.  They had created the Constitution in order to further their own interests, and now they were prepared to act independently to remove a slaveholder dictatorship that was increasingly intolerable.  The upshot was a revolutionary explosion that was both democratic and extra-constitutional.  The people suspended the Constitution in order to destroy the slaveholder elite and then, once the job was done, re-imposed it on a subjugated South after implementing significant structural changes.

Now, however, all memory of popular sovereignty has been expunged, with the result that “we the people” are lost in a legal-constitutional maze with no idea how to get out.  Nothing works.  Congress is paralyzed and corrupt, the popular will has been disregarded in two of the last five presidential elections, while the judiciary increasingly leans toward a concept of “original intent” that is designed to tighten constitutional restrictions even more.  Economic polarization is shooting through the roof, mortality rates are rising, while a 1914 moment is playing out in the Middle East as Donald Trump prepares to engage Russia and Iran in a regional war over unproven allegations of poison-gas use in the suburbs of Damascus.

Yet the people can do nothing other than fasten their seat belts as a decrepit ruling class careens toward destruction.  For those who don’t remember their history, this is what a pre-revolutionary moment looks like.  If I was a member of the American ruling class, I’d be very worried about where all this chaos is heading.  But, fortunately, I’m not.

[1]Statistical Abstract of Israel 2012,Central Bureau of Statistics, Table 2.2.  See also Sergio DellaPergola, “Demographic Timebomb? People Power and the Future of Israel as a Jewish State,” Middle East Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, February 14, 2013.

 

Are More Elections A Good Thing?

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Sorry, Tip, all politics are NOT local.

The Nation recently posted an article on its website by Marshall Ganz, an ex-union official turned Harvard sociologist, that was interesting for all the wrong reasons.  Entitled “How to Organize to Win,” its subject was the upcoming midterm elections.  Here is its key argument:

“Hope has begun to focus on November 6, 2018, when we can return to the polls to choose occupants of 435 House and 33 Senate seats, 36 governors, mayors of 23 of our largest cities, and 6,066 state legislators.  Pundits speculate on whether this vote will deliver a verdict on the Trump presidency and, if so, what that verdict will be.  Democrats hope for a blue wave and Republicans hope their tax cut will turn into votes.  However, the real question that we need to ask ourselves now is about how we can organize ourselves to win.  We have a choice: Do we invest millions of dollars in dueling algorithms, polls, and advertising that leave nothing behind after Election Day?  Or do we invest in organizing millions of people to rebuild our power in city, state, and nation?”

What’s intriguing about this is the way Ganz assumes what needs to be proven, i.e. that myriad political contests are a positive good or at the very least a fact of life, and that all Americans need to do to turn their society around is turn out in sufficient numbers in a sufficient number of contests.  Commitment and enthusiasm — those are the essential requirements.  America’s super-baroque political structure goes unquestioned, meanwhile, as does the issue of why America needs all those thousands of legislators in the first place.  But for anyone with a sense of history, this is more than a bit curious.  After all, the Declaration of Independence, the document that gave birth to the United States, blamed George III for “erect[ing] a multitude of new offices, and sen[ding] hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.”  If swarms of officials were bad then, why are they uncontroversial now?

In fact, the swarm is even worse than most people imagine.  All told, the US has more than 90,000 governmental units at the federal, state, and local level along with more than half a million elected officials.  If all those politicians provided America with far-sighted and intelligent leadership, all that duplication and waste might be tolerable.  But they don’t, needless to say.  Each political contest is more parochial than the next, every debate is more fragmented, while every last candidate is trained the art of prevarication and double talk.  The result is parochialism raised to the nth degree.

This is not democracy.  To the contrary, it’s a kind of electoral mob rule, something the Founders strove strenuously to avoid but wound up encouraging regardless.  Candidates who go through the school of bourgeois American politics undergo stringent training in how to avoid thinking, analyzing, or anything else that might get in the way of one-upping one’s opponent.  Rather than broadening one’s outlook to include the whole of society, the idea is to screen all that out so as to focus on the task at hand.  Check out Marco Rubio, Adam Schiff, or Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia the next time they crop up on CNN.  They are all products of the same rigorous process, one that teaches that all politics are local and that prevarication, double talk, and disciplined mindlessness are the key to success.

Instead of concentrating political energy on the problem at hand, namely America’s deepening political crisis, the effect is to divert it into a swamp of pettiness.  Because all this frenetic activity takes place within what is considered to be an unchanging constitutional structure, it serves to insulate the structure itself from scrutiny.  The roof is leaking, the beams are sagging, and the entire building is in danger of collapsed.  But everyone’s too busy squabbling over some neighborhood issue to notice.

The Constitution doesn’t just permit such myopia but enforces it.  The problem of who is responsible for society at large is one the Founders ultimately fudged.  The Preamble implies that “we the people” are in charge since they have the ability to “ordain and establish” new constitutions in order to restructure society in their own long-term interest.  This would seem to be the textbook definition of popular sovereignty.  But the Preamble  fails to mention the obvious fact that the people were not only instituting new government but overthrowing an old one in the process, i.e. the 1781 Articles of Confederation.  Even better, they did so contrary to the existing law of the land since the Articles said that any constitutional change must be approved by all thirteen states whereas the Constitution said it would be ratified when approved by just nine.  It was like telling a cop when he pulls you over for speeding that it doesn’t matter because you’ve decided to change the speed limit.  By acting illegally, the people declared their status as the source of law rather than its subject.  The people were on top and the Constitution was below, even if the drafters were reluctant to spell out the relationship in too much detail.

But then they muddied the waters even more by installing a fiendishly difficult constitutional amending clause – one requiring approval by two-thirds of each house plus three-fourths of the states to change so much as a comma – in Article V.  The effect was to cripple the people’s ability to modify a document made in their name.  Rather than above the law, they were now back below it.  Popular sovereignty was stillborn.  Americans established a swarm of offices to create the illusion of democracy and then cursed and grumbled whenever the constitutional structure careened out of control, which it did quite frequently.  But there was nothing they could do because the Founders neglected to provide them with the necessary controls.

This is the American predicament in a nutshell, no matter how much liberals like Ganz pretend otherwise.  After nearly a decade of what the Marxist economist Michael Roberts calls “the great recession,” political structures are buckling under the strain – the EU, the UK thanks to Brexit, and so on.  But the US is buckling worst of all.  The political culture is exhausted, economic polarization is shooting through the roof, while a 240-year-old political structure is grossly at odds with the needs of modern society.  It wasn’t the people who voted Trump into office, but the Electoral College.  But the college is unchangeable for the simple reason that by doubling or tripling the clout of under-populated states in presidential elections, it insures that they will block anything by way of a constitutional fix aimed at removing their special advantage.  So liberals focus their ire on Russia, Cambridge Analytica, or some other villain du jour, anyone and anything, that is, except a yellowing piece of parchment ensconced in the National Archives that is known as the US Constitution.

The “real question,” Ganz goes on, is “how we can organize ourselves to win.”  But what does winning mean when the political system is in a free-fall?  “Do we invest millions of dollars,” he continues, “in dueling algorithms, polls, and advertising that leave nothing behind after Election Day?  Or do we invest in organizing millions of people to rebuild our power in city, state, and nation?”  But how do you rebuild power that never existed in the first place other than in the most ephemeral sense?  How does one construct democracy without a stringent analysis of how the current system has gone wrong?

Ganz’s prescription is incorrect.  More voters turning out in more elections will not cure a thing.  Indeed, it will only add to the cacophony.  America’s working people need to take their society in hand, not just bits and pieces of it in countless state and local political contests, but the whole thing from the Constitution on up.  Until they do, the crisis can only intensify.

 

Trump vs. the liberal war machine

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Trump: Not confrontational enough for the Democratic “resistance”

America, it’s often said, has a two-party system.  But it’s not true.  In fact, it has a zero-party system for the simple reason that the Republicans and Democrats are not political parties in any proper sense of the term.  A political party is a group of citizens who band together to fight for a common political program.  Whether your goal is socialism, free marijuana on demand, or free markets, the point is to win others over to your perspective and ultimately take over the government.  But the Dems and GOP are not citizens’ associations.  One can’t march down to one’s local Democratic Party office, take out a membership, pay dues and then participate in weekly or monthly meetings to plan activities and debate party policy.  These are things that a Green or Social Democrat can do in Germany or a Laborite in the UK, but not a Republican or Democrat in the US.  Indeed, if you ask an elected official to point you to the nearest meeting of the Republican or Democratic rank-and-file, he’ll look at you as if you were speaking Greek.  There is no meeting.  The concept doesn’t exist.

The upshot is millions of people saying millions of different things, but with zero freedom to organize debate along more coherent lines.  Argument is vociferous but de-ideologized thanks to the absence of anything resembling a party structure.  But this is not to say that it’s entirely formless.  To the contrary, order is imposed from without by capitalism and its political-constitutional apparatus.  If the system wants war, the great American herd of independent minds will move to a pro-war position.  Instead of debating war itself, debate will be limited to which pseudo-party is the more dutifully militaristic.  We are, say the Dems.  No, we are, says the GOP.  When voters go to the polls, they’re thus free to choose between competing militarists who may disagree on a few particulars but otherwise adhere to the same fundamental point of view.

All of which is a roundabout way of discussing a fire-breathing editorial that ran in last Friday’s New York Times.  Entitled, “Finally, Trump Has Something Bad to Say About Russia,” it was a comment on the White House’s decision, under congressional prodding, to impose sanctions on nineteen Russian individuals and five Russian organizations “for spreading disinformation and propaganda” during the 2016 presidential election.  It coyly suggested that “Mr. Trump, for reasons that have never been made completely clear, has until now resisted a congressional mandate that he expand the penalties.”  But the Times knows perfectly well what those (alleged) reasons are since, along with the rest of the corporate press, it has spent the last year and a half shouting from the rooftops that he’s a puppet who can’t resist Russian aggression because he’s basically on the Kremlin’s side.  But while the sanctions were nonetheless a good start, the editorial went on, they “need to go further, subjecting Mr. Putin’s wealthy cronies and their families to sanctions like travel bans and asset freezes that would put even more pressure on the Russian leader.”  It concluded:

“Mr. Putin, an authoritarian leader who is expected to be re-elected easily to another six-year term on Sunday, has paid little or no price for his aggressions, including annexing Crimea, destabilizing other parts of Ukraine and enabling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.  He won’t stop until he knows that the United States will stand up to him and work with its allies to impose stronger financial and diplomatic measures to rein him in.”

So Trump’s problem is that he isn’t confrontational enough and therefore isn’t taking the measures necessary to put a stop to Putin’s misdeeds, which include opposing a US-backed, Nazi-led coup in the Ukraine, saying yes to the Crimea’s overwhelmingly Russian population when it sought Russian protection against American-sponsored anarchy, and helping the Syrian government resist a takeover by ISIS and Al Qaeda, both heavily armed by the US and its Arab gulf allies.  (For more on the US and Saudi origins of ISIS’s weaponry, see a recent report by a Swiss and EU-funded group known as Conflict Armament Research, which I wrote about in Consortiumnews.)  What Trump should do to roll back such aggression is not specified.  But clearly it involves ratcheting up the bellicosity to who-knows-where.

Pause for a moment to let this sink in.  Trump is a reactionary blowhard who has threatened to incinerate North Korea, who maintains a growing military presence in Syria, who has cheered on an invasion by Turkey, and who has armed neo-Nazis with sophisticated anti-tank weapons against pro-Russian forces in the eastern Ukraine.  Yet according to the Times, he isn’t confrontational enough.  Democrats are attacking him from the right, the entire corporate press is joining in the chorus, while congressional Republicans wring their hands nervously on the sidelines.  Of all the idiotic things that Trump said on the campaign trail, his bourgeois opponents have managed to zero in on the one thing that made a modicum of sense, i.e. the need to lower tensions with Russia and put off the campaign to depose Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.  After more than a year of chaotic debate, the choice has thus come down to a demagogue who engages in sword-rattling against a growing number of targets and a liberal war party that wants even more.  If you want to know what democratic breakdown is like, look no farther.  It’s right there under your nose.

 

Russiagate: Much ado about zilch

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Leonid Brezhnev: Democratic role model?

Cas Mudde, an associate professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, had an interesting news analysis about Russiagate recently at the otherwise execrable Guardian website.  It managed to make two all-important points in less than 800 words.

One concerned the nature of the investigation.  Rather than an objective, unbiased inquiry into foreign meddling, it argues that Russiagate is nothing less than an effort at regime change.  Since Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s much-ballyhooed Feb. 16 indictment of thirteen Russian individuals and three Russian corporations, Mudde wrote, “social and traditional media have exploded with speculations about the next step, because, in the end, the only question everyone really seems to care about is whether Donald Trump was involved – and can therefore be impeached for treason.  Democratic party leaders once again reassured their followers that this was the next logical step in the inevitable downfall of Trump.”

The purpose of Russiagate is thus not to get at the truth, but to toss out a legally elected US president.  This makes it no different from the US-backed putsch against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.  Mudde’s other point, however, is that, unlike the Ukraine, the dump-Trump movement is going nowhere because it lacks the requisite political support.  To be sure, 53 percent of Americans said in a recent poll that exposing Russian meddling should be a top or at least an important priority.  But as impressive as that may seem, Mudde points out that it is substantially less than the 75 percent who assign the same importance to fixing healthcare, the 74 percent who believe that infrastructure investment is a must, the 65 percent who think that the financial system needs straightening out, and  so on.  Democrats are expending vast energy on an issue that voters regard as second-rate.

Mudde clearly thinks that Dems should get their priorities straight and concentrate on the things that count, a belief that this blog does not regard as quite so self-evident.  So let’s re-examine these two points from an anti-Democratic, plague-on-both-your-houses viewpoint and see where they lead.

First, regime change.  Hillary Clinton could have blamed any number of things for her 2016 loss.  Since she carried the popular vote by nearly three million, she could have attacked the Electoral College as an eighteenth-century relic that should have been fixed ages ago.  She could have attacked FBI Director James Comey for re-opening the investigation into her misplaced emails just two weeks prior to the vote.  She could even have blamed herself for not campaigning in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, the three states that narrowly put her opponent over the edge.  But instead she blamed Russia.  As Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes put it in their bestseller Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign:

“That strategy had been set within twenty-four hours of her concession speech.  [Campaign manager Robby] Mook and [campaign chairman John] Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up.  For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public.  Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument” (p. 396).

But why Russia?  The answer is that for a divided and dysfunctional party, there was no other way out.  Russia is America’s chief competitor on the international scene; hence, an anti-Kremlin campaign was a way of overcoming the party’s divisions by projecting them onto a foreign rival.  It was a means of sidestepping the issues that have split the Dems down the middle, starting with HRC’s 40-year record of support for US imperial adventures from the Nicaraguan Contras on.

So Democrats decided to run with it.  Obviously, they had no hope of actually convicting Trump of treason.  But they counted on a steady drip, drip, drip of evidence to either drive him out of office or cripple him until the midterm elections, at which point they would move in for the kill.

But there was a problem.  Not only is there zero evidence of treason – which the Constitution defines as nothing less than “levying war” against the United States (Art. III, sec. 3) – but there is no sign of even lesser forms of collusion.  As even the Christopher Steele dossier admits, Trump’s efforts to do business in Russia were unsuccessful while there is no evidence of Russians using bank loans, sex tapes, or any other items either to cultivate him or compel him to do their bidding.  To the contrary, his admiration for Putin as a fellow tough-talking nationalist seems to be entirely unforced.  He looks up to him as a Russia-firster who ran circles around Obama, Clinton, and John Kerry in the Ukraine and Middle East and therefore as someone worthy of emulation.

This is why months of screaming headlines have come to naught — because there’s no “there” there.  The latest indictments are a case in point.  Not only do they describe an operation that was even more inept and amateurish than skeptics had imagined, but they notably fall short of establishing a connection with either the Kremlin or the Trump campaign.

After nine months of labor, Mueller has brought forth a mouse.  So Mudde is right: what started out as a no-brainer has turned into an all-but-certain loser.  As for his point about the widening gap between the Democratic elite and the broader electorate, the situation is even direr than he imagines.  It calls to mind what a smart French sociologist named Emmanuel Todd said about the Soviets back in the 1970s:

“Certain ruling groups, because of the way they are organized, seem to develop a mentality which is irredeemably stupid.  They are totally unconscious of the nature of social relations of which they form a part.  Bureaucratic organizations strongly encourage indifference to the fate of the masses, because they depersonalize the relations of economic exploitation. …  Structurally induced stupidity is generally manifested in the odious behavior of the privileged toward the exploited, during a prerevolutionary period.  Afterwards, one speaks of the blindness of the class which was overthrown.”  (The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere [New York: Karz, 1979], 130.]

Todd was not just slinging insults.  The Soviet bureaucracy was exhausted by the Brezhnev years.  Socialism had fallen by the wayside, and, as a consequence, the “apparatus” had no idea what to do with itself, what its historical mission might be, or even why it existed at all.  It was indifferent to the fate of the masses because it was socially and ideologically cut off and therefore incapable of attending to anyone’s concerns other than its own.  Stupidity did not flow from the individual, but from the system as a whole – hence, it was “structurally induced.”

How different are today’s Democrats?  America’s 230-year-old political system is also exhausted.  The House is distorted by gerrymandering while the Senate is the most malapportioned major legislative body in the putative democratic world.  (Thanks to the principle of equal state representation, the 53 percent of the US that lives in the ten most populous states has the same voting power as the three percent that lives in the ten least,)  Two of the last five presidential elections have been stolen thanks to the Electoral College while the judiciary is firmly in the hands of conservatives dedicated to the principle of original intent.  (Where Evelyn Waugh once complained that Tories always promise to turn back the clock but never do, the US Supreme Court is proving him wrong.)  Yet even though a structural overhaul is long overdue, the problem is unfixable thanks to an amending clause that allows thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the country to veto any repair, no matter how minor.

Nothing can be done.  As result, today’s Democrats stumble through the motions not unlike the Brezhnevites of the 1970s.  They pretend to fight Trump while the base pretends to care.  Given that the integuments that once held the system together have long since frayed, the two layers are heading off in opposite directions.  While Hillary Clinton’s summers in a $29-million house in the Hamptons next door to Harvey Weinstein and her daughter rakes in a hefty salary heading up the family foundation, the sons and daughters of those who voted for her are sent off to fight in meaningless wars in the Middle East.

No one cares because “structurally induced” stupidity doesn’t permit them to care.  Instead, it locks them in a system of induced atomization in which the only “realistic” option is to look out for number one.  Trump is stronger than ever, the bogus “resistance” is collapsing, while Democratic prospects for the midterm elections are looking none too bright.  In other words, events are following their expected course.

 

The New York Times goes to war

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NYT Edit Page Editor James Bennet: Trump in league with a hostile power.

American politics are in a trough.  The Trump administration has passed the one-year mark while midterm elections are still nine months off.  So there’s nothing for Congress and the press to do for the moment other than snipe, complain, and engage in intricate maneuvers on Capitol Hill.  The result is a steady state of boring, low-level hysteria.  Typically, Trump will do, say, or tweet something that rouses liberals to a fury.  They’ll then scream and shout that they can’t stand it anymore before going back to sleep for a day or two until the next outrage occurs.  Tweet, scream, repeat.  It’s a mindless cycle that promises to go absolutely nowhere.

Indeed, Trump sometimes doesn’t have to do anything at all to get the ball rolling.  An example occurred Tuesday when Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, FBI Christopher Wray, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and other intelligence heavyweights appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify about Russian cyber meddling.  Vice Chairman Mark Warner, a Democratic tech magnate from Virginia, led the charge:

“What we’re seeing is a continuous assault by Russia to target and undermine our democratic institutions.  And they’re going to keep coming at us.  Despite all this, the president inconveniently continues to deny the threat posed by Russia.  He didn’t increase sanctions on Russia when he had a chance to do so.  He hasn’t even tweeted a single concern.  This threat I believe demands a whole of government response and that response needs to start with leadership at the top.”

Next up was Coats: “Frankly, the United States is under attack….  While Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea pose the greatest cyber threats, other nation states, terrorist organizations, transnational criminal organizations, and ever more technically capable groups and individuals use cyber operations to achieve strategic and malign objectives.  Some of these actors, including Russia, are likely to pursue even more aggressive cyber attacks with the intent of degrading our democratic values and weakening our alliances.  Persistent and disruptive cyber operations will continue against the United States and our European allies using elections as opportunities to undermine democracy, sow discord, and undermine our values.”

And so on for more than two hours.  No evidence was offered, no facts presented, merely faith-based assertions that the Kremlin is “engaged in a coordinated attack to undermine our democracy,” as Warner put it, and that something must therefore be done.

But notice that it wasn’t anything Trump said or did that set Warner off, but what he didn’t, i.e. the fact that he didn’t tweet, didn’t impose sanctions, and didn’t display that the requisite remorse that he’s in the Oval Office and Saint Hillary isn’t.  For Warner, this amounts to a failure of “leadership at the top.”  Warner, whose presidential ambitions are well known, seemed saddened by it all.  The New York Times seemed concerned.  As it worriedly noted in the next day’s news story:

“The warnings were striking in their contrast to President Trump’s public comments.  He has mocked the very notion of Russian meddling in the last election and lashed out at those who suggested otherwise.”

How disturbing.  Bad as this was, a follow-up editorial on Thursday was even worse.  Entitled “Why Does Trump Ignore Top Officials’ Warnings on Russia?,” it began by declaring: “No one knows more about the threats to the United States than” Coats, Wray, Pompeo, et al., “so when they all agree, it would be derelict to ignore their concerns.  Yet President Trump continues to refuse to even acknowledge the malevolent Russian role

But of course Trump refuses to acknowledge Russia’s role – presuming it even exists – since doing so would mean agreeing that he was illegitimately elected.  This strange refusal to place his own head on the chopping block proves that he’ more illegitimate than ever.

The Times flailed away at the president for failing “to confront an insidious problem that strikes at the heart of the democratic system,” which is to say Russian interference, and for refusing “to impose sanctions for election meddling and aggression against Ukraine.”  It thus blames Trump for refusing to escalate an international conflict that is already dangerously out of control.  Then came climax.  Why has Trump failed to act?  “Some have said he is giving Russia a green light to tamper with the 2018 elections,” the editorial concluded.  “That would have once been an absurd suggestion.  It can no longer be dismissed out of hand.”

Trump, you see, has invited Russia to mount a hostile takeover of US democracy.  It’s no longer out of the question that he’s helping a foreign power to wage war against his own country.  That’s means he’s not just a lousy president, but something far worse.

How seriously are we to take over-the-top rhetoric like this?  After all, it’s the winter doldrums when politicians and editorial writers will say anything to stave off the boredom.  But the answer, unfortunately, is that it’s worth taking seriously indeed — very seriously.  It’s rather like Trump’s absurd sabre rattling toward North Korea.  It may not result in an actual shooting war now.  But it will eventually if he keeps at it long enough.

Calling Trump a traitor obviously makes the Times feel good about itself.  It makes it feel like it’s doing something – speaking truth to power and all that.  But the effect is to undermine democracy as much as anything done or said by Trump.  After all, a traitor is not someone you vote out of office, but someone you take outside and shoot.  Accusing the president of acting in concert with a hostile foreign power means that the time for talk is over and that moment has come to pick up the gun.  The more the American system breaks down, the more US society is beginning to resemble the antebellum period when the only way to resolve a constitutional deadlock over slavery was via civil war.  Is this really where the Times wants to go?

Mea culpa

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Fasten your seatbelts, America.  You’re in for a bumpy night.

Plainly, I’ve let this blog lapse for far too long.  The  United States seemed to be a stable place when I started it back in 2014.  To be sure, foreign policy was disintegrating at a rapid clip, particularly in Syria.  But all seemed more or less normal at home.  Barack Obama’s approval rating by the end of the year was a respectable 48 percent, Hillary Clinton was living quietly in Chappaqua, Bernie Sanders was an obscure senator from Vermont, while Donald Trump was still a hugely entertaining buffoon whom no one took seriously.

 

Since then, a few things have changed.  Obama is writing his memoirs and giving speeches on Wall Street, Clinton is in semi-exile, Sanders is gearing up for 2020, and instead of holding forth on “The Apprentice,” Trump now does so from the Oval Office.  Politics have cratered, particularly on the Democratic side of the aisle where idiots like Adam Schiff and Chuck Schumer have passed the GOP on the right when it comes to beating the drums for a new Cold War with Russia.  The infighting on Capitol Hill has intensified as Republicans charge their opponents with attempting to drive Trump from office and liberals fire back that anyone saying any such thing is clearly on the Kremlin payroll.  While no one knows where all this will end, the one certainty is that the breakdown can only intensify.

 

All of which is perfectly in keeping with my thesis, first propounded in my 1996 book, The Frozen Republic, that America’s 1787 constitutional arrangement has entered the last stages of senility and that a massive overhaul is both overdue and impossible under anything resembling present circumstances.  Only a clean sweep will do, one proceeding from the assumption that the Constitution is hopelessly out of date along with the ideological assumptions behind it.  If history has an iron rule, it’s that change is unstoppable and that any attempt to halt the process only insures that it will be all the more radical when it finally arrives.  Yet this is just what the US has attempted to do by tying society up in a constitutional straitjacket for close to a quarter of a millennium.  Now that the arrangement is coming undone, we will all have a chance to see what happens when the old rules collapse and society is forced to begin again from scratch.

 

There is much to explore here, e.g. the relationship between political structure and economics, the role of law amid a growing constitutional breakdown, and so on.  Meanwhile, we can all sit back and watch as the gaudy spectacle unfolds.  Will Trump fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller?  Or will Mueller save his own neck by forgetting about Russiagate and charging former FBI Director James Comey with perjury by falsely introducing the famous Steele dossier as evidence before a federal court?  How long before the war of nerves in Washington leads to fighting in the streets?  And what will the effect of a growing blowout on Wall Street?  (Hint: it can only cause the crisis to intensify.

 

Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night….

 

Charlie Hebdo and Blowback

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

There’s been a bit of Internet chatter lately about the Charlie Hebdo and Porte-de-Vincennes attacks as false flag operations by intelligence agents eager to poison relations with France’s Muslim community and pave the way for deeper intervention in the Middle East.  After all, the French police had the Kouachi brothers under surveillance for years, one of them (Chérif) had been arrested for attempting to bust an Islamic militant out of jail, while Amedy Coulibaly actually met with Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009. So who can’t help feeling a mite suspicious? The fact that all three have since been “liquidated” seems to clinch it for certain types of conspiratorialists. Since dead men tell no tales, it seems we will never know who really put Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers up one of the most sensational crimes since 9/11.

But there’s a problem with scenarios like this since they assume that intelligence agencies are masterminds effortlessly manipulating events behind the scene.  But as we know from repeated intelligence foul-ups from the Bay of Pigs to the Edward Snowden affair, these people are the kind of royal screw-ups who couldn’t put together a two-car funeral.  Not that it’s entirely their fault, though.  The real incompetence lies further up the food chain where imperial leaders have promised different things to different people and are in quandary now that the bills are coming due.

Take for example an article that Aaron David Miller, vice president of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson Center, published recently on The Wall Street Journal website.  Entitled, “Why the U.S. Prefers Assad to ISIS in Syria,” it argued that Obama has decided that leaving Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in power is the least-bad option since removing him would effectively turn the country into a jihadi state:

Islamic State would take over its first major Arab capital, and recruitment would skyrocket.  Alawites and other minorities would flee, further stressing neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, which are already burdened with refugees.

 

Syria, moreover, would turn  into a launching pad for attacks on neighboring states — Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, and most especially Saudi Arabia, a nightmare society that I think is just an inch or so away from collapse.

So Miller is correct – the idea of an ISIS state in the middle of the Levant staggers the imagination.  But while he’s right about ISIS, he’s wrong about Obama.  Rather than leaving Assad in place, the U.S. has merely decided to kick the can down the road, putting off his removal to some future date when Washington will be in a better position to dictate the terms of a post-Baathist government and see to it that a compliant pro-American (and pro-Israeli) regime takes control.

Indeed, the same day that Miller’s article ran on the WSJ website, an excellent piece by Journal reporter Dion Nissenbaum ran on the newspaper’s front page describing how the U.S. is following a two-pronged strategy aimed at pushing ISIS out of Iraq but merely bottling it up in Syria.  “Certainly ISIS has been able to expand in Syria, but that’s not our main objective,” Nissenbaum quoted an unnamed “senior defense official” as stating.  “I wouldn’t call Syria a safe haven for ISIL, but it is a place where it’s easier for them to organize, plan and seek shelter than it is in Iraq.”

In other words, Syria is a safe haven for ISIS, a place where it can regroup and expand its territorial control, as Nissenbaum makes clear.  The article adds that “U.S. strategy in Syria is also constrained by a reluctance to tip the balance of power toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting Islamic State and other rebels.”  Washington wishes ISIS would leave its client government in Baghdad alone, but at the same time it wants ISIS to keep the heat on the Baathists in Damascus.  It is thus using ISIS to keep Assad on the defensive — to soften him up until the time is ripe to finish him off.

Although some might see this as some sort of fine-tuned policy-making, it’s really a case of driving with one foot on the accelerator and the other on the brake.  Obama is torn.  He’s frightened of what will happen if Assad goes and frightened of what the Republicans and Hillaryites will say in Washington — not to mention the Saudis in Riyadh — if he stays.  So his response is to straddle, allowing ISIS to enjoy a little R&R in Syria, leaving Assad in office in Damascus a little while longer, and promising to train some 3,000 “moderate” rebels under Saudi auspices to insert in the Syrian battlefield as soon as the right moment comes.

But the results are disastrous.  ISIS is growing stronger, the addition of several thousand Wahhabist troops can only add to the combustibility, while the violence continues to overflow into other countries — as the recent carnage in Paris shows.  The idea that the violence can be contained in Syria is ludicrous.  When veterans of the Saudi-backed fighting return to their families, they do not leave their jihadist doctrines behind.  To the contrary, they take them with them.

The upshot has been a growing “Syrianization” of the banlieues complete with radical imams spewing hatred at all and sundry, extremist camps and schools, and ISIS-style attacks on everyone from freethinkers like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to religious minorities like the Jews.  Yet François Hollande is just as paralyzed as his mentor Obama, declaring war on Islamic fundamentalism while at the same time siding with the Saudis, the ultimate jihadist state, in its efforts to overthrow one of the few secular regimes left standing in the Middle East.  The civil war can only intensify in its latest venue.

Although Chérif and Saïd Kouachi never got an opportunity to fight in Syria and Iraq, they reportedly rubbed shoulders with mujahideen who did.  But Chérif did succeed in traveling to Yemen, an other war-torn society in which the U.S. is also playing both sides of the fence, i.e. bombing Al Qaeda militants while at the same time joining with the Saudis in backing local Wahhabists in their fight against Shi‘ite insurgents known as Houthis  Since Wahhabists and Al Qaeda are often difficult to tell apart, Saudi money has wound up flowing to both, with little or no protest from the Americans as far as anyone can discern.

Benefiting from both U.S. and Saudi largesse, Chérif Kouachi used the money and training provided by the Wahhabists and Al Qaeda to assemble his little venture against Charlie Hebdo.  This doesn’t make it a black flag operation, but, rather, a classic case of blowback.  After financing Islamic-fundamentalist violence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and numerous other placesl, the U.S. and its allies can hardly be surprised that it is now washing up in Paris.