Trump makes an appeal to the fascistic right

4 August 2017

As the political warfare in Washington escalated, President Trump went to Huntington, West Virginia Thursday night for a campaign-style rally bringing together the fascistic themes that the White House has been developing over the past several weeks.

Posturing as the defender of coal miners and other working people against immigrants, environmentalists and unnamed “special interests,” Trump welcomed the Democratic governor of West Virginia, billionaire coal boss Jim Justice, who announced his switch to the Republican Party at the rally.

Trump invited other Democrats to support his right-wing policies and drop their campaign, backed by the military-intelligence apparatus, over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections. “The reason why Democrats only talk about the totally made up Russia story is because they have no message, no agenda and no vision,” he said.

This characterization of the Democratic Party is accurate as far as it goes. The maniacal focus of the Democrats on the Russia investigation leaves a political vacuum in which there is no opposition within the official political system to Trump’s right-wing rampage against democratic rights and the social gains of working people.

Trump seeks to exploit this rhetorically with demagogic boasting about the (nonexistent) revival of the coal industry and the (fictitious) growth of manufacturing jobs. The real content of his economic program is revealed in the “achievement” to which he gave first place in his litany of supposed successes: “the all-time-high stock market,” which enriches billionaires like Trump and Justice, but comes at the expense of the jobs and living standards of workers.

Trump combines bogus claims to stand up for working people with vicious law-and-order and anti-immigrant demagogy, featuring the usual list of villains: “radical Islamic terrorists,” “drug smugglers,” “human traffickers” and “vicious, violent gangs.” Of those actually responsible for the terrible conditions of life in areas like West Virginia—the giant corporations and banks overseeing mass layoffs, wage-cutting and the opioid plague that has ensued—Trump said not a word.

The visit to Huntington is the latest in a series of public appearances through which the White House has carried out a step-by-step campaign to mobilize support from the police, the military, Christian fundamentalists, white racists and outright fascists.

While there has been an authoritarian thrust to the Trump administration going back to his inaugural address, what has unfolded over the past two weeks is a calculated political maneuver, beginning with Trump’s July 22 speech to a naval audience at the christening of the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford.

Trump spoke last week before an audience of uniformed police on Long Island and urged them to be “rough” in treating people they arrested, particularly those involved in Latino immigrant gangs.

There have been open appeals to racism and anti-gay bigotry: Trump tweeted his decision that transgendered individuals will not be “permitted to serve in any capacity in the US military.” The Justice Department has taken the position that anti-gay discrimination by employers does not violate civil rights laws, and there are reports that it is preparing to charge that universities with affirmative action programs are engaged in “anti-white” discrimination.

On Monday, the new White House chief of staff, retired Marine General John F. Kelly, was sworn into office, replacing Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and putting a military man in the top White House job for the first time in nearly half a century.

And on Wednesday, Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller appeared at the White House press briefing to announce Trump’s support for legislation that would cut the number of legal immigrants by 50 percent while enacting an openly racist standard favoring speakers of English and those desired by corporate employers, rather than family members.

Increasingly, the administration’s political appeals are separated from any legislative or electoral agenda. The focus is on the persona of Trump himself and the building of a political movement around him.

Miller’s re-emergence Wednesday, after being sidelined for several months due to the initial debacle of Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, brought the most openly authoritarian of Trump’s top aides before the public and the press once more. He engaged in a widely publicized clash with Jim Acosta of CNN, in the course of which Miller inadvertently revealed the direct connection between the Trump White House and the fascist right.

In an exchange involving the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, embossed on the Statue of Liberty (which includes the line, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), Miller declared that the poem “was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.” As both the Washington Post and the Jewish Daily Forward have pointed out, Miller’s remark was not original to him, but reproduces positions circulating in the fascist and neo-Nazi right, voiced at different times this year by Rush Limbaugh of talk radio, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Trump and his closest aides are seeking to exploit the widespread hostility to the Democratic Party as the party of the liberal economic elite, including large sections of Wall Street, with an entirely bogus posture as the advocate of the “forgotten man”, as Trump put it during the election campaign and again on Thursday night. But Trump lacks even the semblance of an economic program to address the spread of mass impoverishment and social misery.

The Democrats are saying nothing about Trump’s fascistic appeals. Instead, they are doubling down on their anti-Russia campaign. There were reports Thursday that independent counsel Robert Mueller has convened a special grand jury in his investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections and Trump campaign collusion with Moscow.

Leaks from within the White House and the intelligence agencies continue at an unprecedented level; most recently, the Washington Post published transcripts of Trump phone conversations with leaders of Mexico and Australia, giving an embarrassing glimpse of the president’s bullying and double-dealing approach to his foreign counterparts.

These attacks are motivated by differences within the ruling elite over foreign policy. While Trump has sought to accommodate his critics, most recently by signing a stringent new sanctions bill directed against Russia, he is also seeking to mobilize his ultra-right base and push back against his ruling class opponents.

The Democratic Party will do nothing to oppose Trump’s effort to mobilize ultra-right and fascistic elements to attack the working class and destroy democratic rights. Their criticism of Trump is entirely within the framework set by the national-security establishment: he is soft on Russia, erratic overall, and preoccupied with his family’s personal financial interests rather than the interests of Wall Street and American imperialism as a whole.

At the same time, the Democrats are leaving open the possibility of working with Trump, particularly on a “tax reform” that will lead to a new windfall for the corporate and financial elite.

The struggle against the ultra-right and in defense of democratic rights is a struggle to unite all sections of the working class—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and immigrant—on the basis of common class interests, to defend jobs and living standards and oppose the growing danger of imperialist war. This is possible only through the independent mobilization of working people against the two big business parties, the Democrats and Republicans, to fight for a socialist and internationalist program.

Patrick Martin

White House shakeup: A further step toward authoritarian rule

31 July 2017

Friday’s announcement by President Trump removing White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and replacing him with retired Gen. John F. Kelly marks a further stage in the emergence of the military brass as the decisive political power in the Trump administration.

With General Kelly as White House chief of staff, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, an active duty officer, as national security adviser, and retired Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, military men hold three of the top four appointed positions in the executive branch.

Press coverage of the White House transition has focused almost entirely on the Twitter antics by Trump and the vulgar ranting by his new communications director, former hedge fund boss Anthony Scaramucci. A sober assessment of the actual political implications of the White House reshuffle reveals, however, that the events of the past week mark a major turning point for the Trump administration and the crisis-ridden US political system as a whole.

Trump fired Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, whom he chose as chief of staff to act as a conduit to the Republican congressional leadership and the party establishment. He has replaced him with a retired Marine general with no political record and an avowed and well-publicized contempt for civilian oversight of the military—one, moreover, who, as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has overseen the administration’s program of mass arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants.

The president coupled the removal of Priebus with a public blast against Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, over their failure last week to enact any version of a repeal of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.

Trump responded with a series of tweets saying Senate Republicans “look like fools” and demanding that McConnell trample on minority rights in the Senate and proceed immediately to push through White House proposals for slashing taxes on the wealthy and gutting social programs such as Medicaid.

Trump presents himself more and more as a ruler above the two capitalist political parties, while seeking to surround himself with uniformed audiences. He addressed 40,000 Boy Scouts assembled at a jamboree in West Virginia, then gave a speech Friday to police on Long Island in which he endorsed “rough” treatment for immigrants and others under arrest, touching off chants of “USA, USA” from the assembled cops.

While inciting police violence, Trump made direct appeals to ultra-right bigotry with a tweet calling for the expulsion of transgendered people from the military and new legal steps by the Justice Department directed against the democratic rights of homosexuals.

Added to this is the rancid atmosphere of palace intrigue in the White House. It is widely reported that Trump family members played a key role in the firing of Priebus, with son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump and First Lady Melania Trump all weighing in.

In all of this there is the stench of dictatorship. Trump is pursuing a definite political strategy. He is seeking to carve out for himself, as the representative of the financial oligarchy, a position of power independent of the apparatuses of the establishment political parties and the traditional institutions of bourgeois rule such as Congress, the courts and the so-called mainstream media.

Like all would-be Bonapartist autocrats, he seeks to establish a personalist regime based on the military and police. His use of Twitter is an essential component of this effort. He bypasses the establishment media and makes his appeal directly to the military and police while seeking to whip up national chauvinism and all forms of social and political backwardness. He seeks in this way to establish a base he can mobilize independently of the political parties.

But Trump is not some aberration or accident, an interloper into the otherwise pristine precincts of American democracy. He is the product of decades of uninterrupted war, reaction and decay of political culture within the ruling class and all official institutions, including academia—a process that has been presided over by both big-business parties. This has coincided with the rise of a criminal financial oligarchy and a staggering growth of social inequality to levels incompatible with democratic norms.

The Democratic Party for its part welcomes the appointment of Kelly. Its opposition to Trump continues to be centered on demands for an escalation of the confrontation with Russia. It welcomes any sign that this is being done, such as the White House’s announcement that Trump will sign the bill passed last week with virtual bipartisan unanimity imposing new sanctions on Russia, as well as Iran and North Korea.

It fears no less than the Republicans the growth of social opposition and anticapitalist sentiment in the working class and supports the domination of the military over the political system as insurance against the threat of social revolution.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised General Kelly during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, while expressing the hope that he would improve the functioning of the Trump White House. “I will be speaking with him today and look forward to working with him,” she said.

On another Sunday interview program, CNN’s “State of the Union,” Democratic Representative Barbara Lee was grilled for remarking that by putting General Kelly in charge, “President Trump is militarizing the White House and putting our executive branch in the hands of an extremist.” Lee backpedaled from the suggestion that she was antimilitary, declaring, “Let me first say, I have come from a military family… And so I respect and honor the military and recognize the sacrifices that all of our military men and women make as well as General Kelly and his history and his sacrifices.”

Senator Bernie Sanders appeared on the same program and did not even make reference to the White House shakeup.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny financial oligarchy, personified by social criminals like Trump and Scaramucci, is completely incompatible with democratic rights. The defense of democratic rights falls to the working class, as a central element in its struggle for the abolition of the profit system and the socialist reorganization of society.

Patrick Martin

WSWS

The Reichstag Fire Next Time

The coming crackdown

When each day brings more news than we are used to seeing in a week, and the kind of news that only the most catastrophic imagination can accommodate, we find ourselves talking about the Reichstag fire. Time feels both accelerated and slowed down, and so we imagine that we have been talking about the fire for years. It is the new president’s new clothes: invisible, yet always present in our perception of him.

The Reichstag fire, it goes almost without saying, will be a terrorist attack, and it will mark our sudden, obvious, and irreversible descent into autocracy. Here is what it looks like: On a sunny morning you turn on the television as you make coffee, or the speaker in your shower streams the news, or the radio comes on when you turn the ignition key in your car. The voices of the newscasters are familiar, but their pitch is altered, and they speak with a peculiar haste. Something horrible has happened—it is not yet clear what—and thousands are dead, and more are expected to die. You hear the word “terror.” You feel it.

Illustrations by Lincoln Agnew. Source photographs: Adolf Hitler © Hulton Archive/Getty Images; crowd saluting Hitler © Visual Studies Workshop/Getty Images

You reach for your cell phone, but the circuits are busy, and will be for hours—it will take you the rest of the day to check in with your loved ones. They are safe, but changed. And so are you. So are all of us. Tragedy has cast its shadow over every space where you encounter strangers: the subway, your child’s school, your lunch spot. People are quieter, less frivolous, yet they are not subdued. They share a sense of purpose that is greater than their fear. They are experiencing something they’d only read about: War has come to their land. Everyone is a patriot now.

You used to scoff at that word, or argue that dissent was the highest form of patriotism. But now you find that the word expresses what you are. Now is not the moment for dissent. A couple of public intellectuals insist that it is, and you feel embarrassed for them. They quickly fade from the scene, and this serves to underscore an unprecedented sort of unity.

Nowhere is this unity more evident than in Washington. Bills are passed unanimously. These laws give new powers to the president and his security apparatus. The president, unpopular and widely considered incompetent before the attack, now steps up to direct the war effort. His demeanor—which some used to deride as primitive—is well suited for this new black-and-white era. His administration institutes sweeping surveillance to ferret out enemies at home, and wages one war and then another abroad.

American public life is profoundly transformed. The press becomes uncritical of the government. There is no outright censorship; correspondents are part of the effort now, as they were during the Second World War. American casualties pile up, the foreign carnage is enormous and unmeasured, but there is scant domestic resistance. Only at the margins of politics and the media do some people question the usefulness and legality of the war effort.

The government pushes the limits further, cutting off access to the judiciary for those deemed the enemy. The president is no longer unpopular, and he can impose his will on Washington and the country. The country is in a forever war, a state of exception that has taken away many American freedoms, some of which were ceded voluntarily.

That is what we talk about when we talk about the Reichstag fire, and it has already happened. Like sad versions of the characters in The Wizard of Oz, who set off in search of traits they already possess, we are living in fear of an event that will catapult us into a terrifying future, when the event has already occurred—and has given us our terrifying present.

The actual fire in the Reichstag—the German parliament building—burned on the evening of February 27, 1933. Adolf Hitler had been appointed chancellor four weeks earlier, and already he had begun placing restrictions on the press and expanding the powers of the police. Yet it is the fire, rather than Hitler’s toxic first steps, that is remembered as the event after which things were never the same, in Germany or in the world.

Hitler capitalized on the fire by taking an uncompromising militant stand: “There will be no mercy now. Anyone standing in our way will be cut down.” This, in turn, probably boosted his popularity, paving the way for a victory for the Nazi Party in parliamentary elections a week later.

Hitler immediately began cracking down on the political opposition. The day after the fire, the government issued a decree allowing the police to detain people without charges, on the grounds of prevention. Activists were rounded up by his paramilitary forces, the SA and the SS, and placed in camps. Less than a month later, the parliament passed an “enabling act,” creating rule by decree and establishing a state of emergency that lasted as long as the Nazis were in power.

Anschluss—the annexation of Austria—was still five years away, and the start of the Second World War six and a half, but the Reichstag fire was used to create a state of exception, as Carl Schmitt, Hitler’s favorite legal scholar, called it. In Schmitt’s terms, a state of exception arises when an emergency, a singular event, shakes up the accepted order of things. This is when the sovereign steps forward and institutes new, extralegal rules. The emergency enables a quantum leap: The sovereign has to have enough power to declare a state of exception, and then by that declaration he acquires far great­er, unchecked power. That is what makes the change irreversible, and the state of exception permanent.

Every galvanizing event of the past eighty years has been compared to the Reichstag fire. On December 1, 1934, Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad, was murdered by a lone gunman. The killer, Leonid Nikolaev, was arrested and executed, but the assassination is remembered as the pretext for creating a state of exception in Russia. Show trials and mass arrests followed, swelling the gulag with people accused of being traitors, spies, and terrorist plotters. To handle the volume, the Kremlin created troikas—three-person panels that doled out a sentence without reviewing the case, much less hearing from the defense.

More recently, Vladimir Putin has relied on a succession of catastrophic events to create irreversible exceptions. In 1999, a series of apartment bombings in Moscow and cities in southern Russia killed hundreds. This allowed Putin to proclaim that he could summarily execute those deemed “terrorists” and became a pretext for a new war in Chechnya. In 2002, the three-day siege of a Moscow theater served as a demonstration of the principle of summary execution: Russian law enforcement pumped the theater full of sleeping gas, entered the building, and shot the hostage-takers as they lay unconscious. The Kremlin also used the theater siege as a pretext to ban the already cowed media from covering anti-terrorist operations. Two years later, more than three hundred people, most of them children, died following an attack at a school in Beslan, in southern Russia. Putin used this catastrophic event to cancel the elections of local governors, effectively abolishing the country’s federal structure.

The thinking that transforms tragedy into crackdown is not foreign to the United States. During the crisis that followed the Alien and Sedition Acts at the turn of the nineteenth century, the ruling Federalists and the opposition Republicans accused each other of treason and a fatal lack of vigilance, of being Jacobin puppets. The courts, stacked with Federalist appointees, wasted no time shutting down opposition newspapers.

Half a century later, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned without civilian judicial review. He did this to be able to indefinitely hold rebels whom he judged a danger to the Union—but whom, he said, “the courts, acting on ordinary rules, would discharge.” It wasn’t until 1866 that the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.

By the next major war, the First World War, speech perceived as critical of or detrimental to the American war effort was punished with prison sentences as long as ten years. Historian Geoffrey Stone has called Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918 “the most repressive legislation in American history.” Thousands of people were arrested—many without a warrant—and 249 anarchist and communist activists were deported to Soviet Russia. It wasn’t until later that Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and Louis Brandeis started on a dissenting streak that ultimately restored and clarified free-speech protections.

The Second World War brought another presidential assault on the Constitution: the internment of more than a hundred thousand Americans of Japanese descent. Then came the ­McCarthy era, when the government took up spying on the enemy within and accusations of treason, whether or not they were supported by evidence, ruined life after life. The next generation of Americans lived through the secrecy, deceit, and paranoia of the Vietnam War years, which culminated in a president who had his opponents prosecuted and wiretapped. For Americans in the twentieth century a state of exception came close to being the rule.

Not all the periods of exception are remembered as repressive: In State of Exception, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben notes that Franklin Roosevelt invoked emergency powers for the passage of the New Deal in 1933, arguing that economic catastrophe warranted “broad Executive power to wage war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Writing in 2005, Agamben drew a narrative line from the state of exception in Europe following the First World War to that in America following 9/11.

As long as war is raging, political consensus supports the crackdowns. Legal scholar Stephen Holmes calls this wisdom “the intuitive claim that grave emergencies require discretionary authority to act outside and against inherited rules and standard operating procedures.” There is no proof that such a response is effective—and there is even copious evidence that it leads to abuse of power and damage to society—but the temptation to both seize and cede power in the face of fear proves irresistible time after time.

Source photographs: Donald Trump © JB Lacroix/WireImage; Vladimir Putin © Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images; Barack Obama © Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images; George W. Bush © Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images; protest © Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto/Getty Images; drone © Erik Simonsen/Getty Images

The war that began in 2001 is unlike other wars: The enemy is not a nation or an army but a tactic, one that has existed for millennia. This war cannot be won, because a tactic cannot be eradicated. A war that cannot be won cannot end, and so it has not. Nor have the liberties surrendered by Americans in response to 9/11 been restored. Under President Obama, the war on terror morphed into the more grammatically sensible war on terrorism. The Patriot Act became the Freedom Act. The use of torture appears to have been largely discontinued, but the camp at Guantánamo Bay continues its shameful existence—with a reduced number of inmates, though numbers are never a good measure of liberty. Millions of Americans who voted in the last election have lived with the war on terror for as long as they can remember.

In his farewell address in Chicago, Obama could claim only that he had “worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing. That’s why we’ve ended torture, worked to close Gitmo, reformed our laws governing surveillance to protect privacy and civil liberties. That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans,” he said, interrupted by cheers before continuing, “who are just as patriotic as we are.” Over the course of more than fifteen years, the essential premise—that the United States is at war, and that the Other in this war is Muslims—has remained unchanged. Trump claims that Muslim Americans celebrated 9/11, while Obama says that they are just as patriotic as we are; that they are not us is one of the few things the two men agree on.

The current state of exception rests in part on the national state of emergency, which George W. Bush declared three days after the September 11 attacks, which he renewed every year of his presidency, and which Obama also renewed every September of his. The president’s ability to impose and renew a state of emergency is technically limited by the 1976 National Emergencies Act, which requires Congress to vote on the state of emergency within six months of the day it is imposed. But such a vote has never occurred—even though the act has been invoked at least fifty-three times. In practice, the president wields unilateral power over emergencies.

The National Emergencies Act can be invoked for disasters beyond an actual war—Obama declared a national emergency in anticipation of the swine flu epidemic in 2009—but it invariably represents both an outsized reaction to a perceived threat and a journey outside what we maintain is normal national and social conduct. At any given time in the past decade, roughly thirty simulta­neous states of emergency have been in effect. Dozens of executive orders, and numerous other directives and regulations, have stemmed from these states of emergency—all of them creating powers that would be impossible in the increasingly illusory normal state of things. A state of emergency allows the president to unilaterally seize control of the media, food supplies, and commercial vessels, for instance. The fact that Bush and Obama did not utilize some of the more extreme possibilities of the state of emergency testifies only to their restraint, not to the legal limitations. At the same time, we know less and less about the powers the government has exercised; since 2001, an ever-increasing number of these emergency powers have been classified.

The state of exception also rests on the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which was passed by Congress three days after the attacks in 2001. It gives the president sweeping power to

use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

The law, passed with a single dissenting vote, remains in force as the nation enters its fourth post-9/11 presidential term.

Today, when it is said that a terrorist attack is sure to happen, it is assumed that the attack will be carried out in the name of the Islamic State. The premise of inevitability is notable—one would think that such acts of terror occurred in the United States on a regular basis. Since September 11, 2001, however, there have been eleven attacks ostensibly driven by jihadist ideology; they have claimed a total of ninety-five lives. “The death toll has been quite similar to other forms of political—and even non-political—violence Americans face today,” a recent report from the New America foundation summarized. The report referred only to domestic terrorism and mass shooting incidents, but many more Americans have died at the hands of the state: In the first four months of this year, the use of deadly force by police claimed three times as many lives. These killings, extrajudicial by definition, are a symptom of the state of exception, which has turned the police into a military force. As a nation we insist on being united in fear of the one-in-millions chance of a particular kind of violence. That we seem so certain of the outlines of the Reichstag fire to come reveals the fact that it has already occurred.

Among the victims of the sixteen-year-old state of exception are hundreds of individuals identified, prosecuted, and sentenced under emergency rules. Since the war on terror began, the United States has prosecuted an average of forty terrorism cases per year, about half of them on the basis of informant operations. Convictions that result from such cases—and convictions result almost without fail, usually as the result of a plea bargain—fetch higher sentences because of something known as the terrorism adjustment in federal sentencing guidelines. The adjustment went into effect following the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 but was used most widely after 9/11. This was a law passed by Congress, yet it created an exceptional category of crime that could not be addressed by normal law. One example is the prosecution of two Iraqi refugees who were tried in Bowling Green, Kentucky, for allegedly intending to help insurgent fighters battling U.S. forces back home. The men were convicted of terrorism, even though the accusation against them—that they aided fighters confronting an army—doesn’t fit standard definitions of terrorism. They were sentenced to life in prison, in the case of a man arrested at the age of twenty-three, and forty years behind bars, for the one who cooperated with the prosecution. This was the case that Trump aide Kellyanne Conway presumably had in mind when she conjured the memory of the Bowling Green Massacre—something that never happened but, according to the logic the country has applied over the past decade and a half, could have happened.

A key characteristic of the most frightening regimes of the past hundred years is mobilization. This is what distinguishes the merely authoritarian regimes from the totalitarian ones. Authoritarians prefer their subjects passive, tending to their private lives while the authoritarian and his cronies amass wealth and power. The totalitarian wants people out in the square; he craves their adulation and devotion, their willingness to fight and die for him. Mobilization was just as important an element of Hitler’s 1933 consolidation of power as his crackdown. Victory rallies, national holidays, and parades demonstrated, even forced, the unity of a nation. In Germans into Nazis, historian Peter Fritzsche makes no mention of the Reichstag fire but devotes a chapter to the May Day parade of 1933, a daylong, citywide spectacle “carefully choreographed to .?.?. demonstrate the national sense of purpose that was now said to animate the German people.”

To totalitarianism watchers, Trump’s campaign rallies, which segued into his victory rallies, including his “America First” inauguration, have looked familiar and perhaps more worrisome than an imaginary future fire. To historians of the twenty-first century, however, they will likely look like logical steps from the years of war rhetoric that preceded them, not quantum leaps. A nation can be mobilized only if it knows its enemy and believes in its own peril.

It is not clear how many Germans attended that May Day parade because the spirit moved them and how many were compelled by fear or force. Four and a half decades later, in “The Power of the Powerless,” the Czech dissident Václav Havel described an individual who “lives within a lie,” the lie of the official ideology, without consciously accepting or rejecting it. Totalitarianism robs a person of the very ability to form an opinion.

Fear has a way of catapulting citizens into the inside of a lie. Following the apartment-building bombings of 1999, Russians huddled together, forming neighborhood patrols, eyeing strangers and neighbors alike with suspicion, and then threw their support behind the recently appointed prime minister, Vladimir Putin. In one of his first public statements, the unknown, gray little politician promised to hunt down terrorists and “rub them out in the outhouse,” rhetorically trampling the foundations of the justice system.

Americans, too, have finely honed instincts for banding together in the face of an attack. Within hours of the September 11 attacks, 150 members of Congress gathered on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” Some of them held hands. The strongest country on the planet was making a spectacle of fear and resolve. The following day, a train traveling between Boston and New York was stopped because passengers had been alarmed by the presence of a Sikh man; he was removed. Two days later, enabling legislation—bills on war powers and the state of emergency—were passed.

Trump does not have to declare war—this has already been done—or even proffer an assessment of the danger. But he has already shown that he can deftly use the coercive power of the state of being at war—this is, possibly, the only political tool of which the president has instinctive mastery. During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump orchestrated more than two minutes of applause for the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. It was 125 seconds of naked cynicism that left no one in the audience any choice but to stand and applaud. The following day Breit­bart falsely claimed that several top Democrats had refused to do so. This was a preview of the coercion by national unity that we talk about when we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, but it was also reminiscent of the early weeks and months following 9/11, when Bill Maher and Susan Sontag were shamed for breaking rhetorical ranks.

In Russia, it took many years for Putin to consolidate power, and it wasn’t until 2012 that his regime assumed its current retro-totalitarian character. Over the years, the use of terrorist attacks to justify successive crackdowns has grown familiar and gradually transformed the country’s thinking. The lack of logical connections between events and their ostensible consequences, along with the general degradation of the judicial system and law enforcement, eroded all trust in the government—to the extent that every time a terrorist attack occurred, many Russians assumed that the government, no matter what it said, was behind it. When a bomb went off in the St. Petersburg Metro in April, killing fourteen people, journalists and Russia watchers instantly assumed that the Kremlin had organized the attack in order to detract attention from or to stifle emergent anti-corruption protests.

Over the years many Russians, including me, have come to believe that the apartment-building bombings in Moscow and elsewhere were organized and carried out by the FSB, the intelligence agency, in order to shore up Putin’s power grab. There has never been a transparent and satisfying investigation of the blasts, but the available evidence stacks up in favor of this theory.

When we talk about the Reichstag fire, we speak not only about an event that precipitates a state of exception and launches coercive national mobilization but also of a conspiracy. Many Germans were certain that the Reichs­tag fire was set by the Nazis themselves. So much evidence supported this theory that for decades after the Second World War a Nazi conspiracy was the historians’ consensus. During the same period, it was generally accepted that the Kirov murder was a secret-police assassination. But when all the available information on the Kirov murder was excavated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was no proof to back up the conspiracy theory: It is now believed that Kirov was killed by his assistant’s jealous husband. In the 1960s, reporting cast doubt on the theory that the Nazis burned down the Reichstag, but in the 1990s, a new wave of evidence suggested they may have been involved after all. Historians continue to debate the issue. (A young Dutch Communist was apprehended at the scene, tried, and sentenced to death by beheading.) It is certainly too early to exonerate Putin and the FSB for the apartment bombings, but the Russian autocrat may eventually be proved to have simply seized an opportunity, as he has done many times since. For now, though, we do not know enough, and this paucity of information, too, is one of the signs of an autocracy.

Autocracies thrive on and engender fear, ignorance, and—their combined product—conspiracy theory. Writing in his diary in January 1934, the linguist Victor Klemperer assessed a genre of joke. “Conversations in heaven are popular. The best one: Hitler to Moses: But you can tell me in confidence, Herr Moses. Is it not true that you set the bush on fire yourself?” The joke shows Hitler and the satirist sharing a conspiratorial worldview: The person telling the joke believes that the führer set the Reichs­tag fire and also that Hitler sees the world through the lens of his own deception. Everyone is both a conspirator and a conspiracy theorist.

The September 11 attacks, like all unimaginable events, spawned conspiracy theories. Trutherism spread far and wide; its younger cousin, birtherism, grabbed hold of a smaller but more vocal constituency. By the time Trump was elected president, America was living through an epidemic of conspiracy thinking. Some were convinced that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring from a pizza shop in Washington; others that every recently dead Russian man was connected to Trump’s election victory. No one now seems to believe that most things are what they seem: usually, a mess.

When we talk about the Reichs­tag fire, we talk about the consequences of a catastrophic event. But in our case, these consequences—a legal state of exception, a sense of living under siege, popular mobilization, and an epidemic of conspiracy thinking—are already in place. Indeed, they are the preconditions of our current predicament. Trump used the conspiracy thinking and the siege mentality to get himself elected. Once president, he used the state of exception to begin lobbing missiles, dropping bombs—nothing less than the so-called Mother of All Bombs. Mobilization, the popular sense of being together in constant battle, ensured that Trump’s first forays into war looked good on TV. At the same time, Trump overestimated the power given to him by the siege mentality. When he attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, for example, he encountered great popular and institutional resistance.

Here lies our best hope for reversing the effects of the next Reichs­tag fire: American civil society is strong—far stronger, paradoxically, than it was before the election. And something remains of what Hannah Arendt observed in a letter from 1946:

People here feel themselves responsible for public life to an extent I have never seen in any European country. For example, when all Americans of Japanese descent were locked up willy-nilly in concentration camps at the beginning of the war, a genuine storm of protest that can still be felt today went through the country.

What struck Arendt was the spontaneous and active expression of solidarity on the part of ordinary Americans who “declared that if something like that could happen, they no longer felt safe themselves.”

The comparison to contemporary protests may not be entirely straightforward. Leading arguments rested on the impossibility of religious discrimination; popular protest relied on a general sense of injustice and the rational argument that banning the entry of people from seven majority-Muslim countries would do little to protect Americans from terrorism. But by pointing to the ineffectiveness of the proposed ban, some of these arguments unwittingly reinforced the idea that Americans can make themselves safer by shutting out some part of the world.

Most recent protests share a fundamental flaw: They project the assumption that things were fine until America inexplicably elected Trump. The women’s marches, the immigrants’ marches, the scientists’ marches, the protests in defense of the Affordable Care Act and freedom of speech, and the earliest of the protests, which simply expressed outraged disbelief at the results of the election, all serve the purpose of staking out the current norms and vowing to defend them. It’s hard to argue with the urge; all indications are that the current norms are far preferable to the reality of the near and distant future. Yet most of the protests live within a lie—the fiction that the threats of the Trump presidency are not only grave but also new. His war against the national press is a grotesque blowup of many years’ worth of growing regimentation of access, concentration of power, and government opacity. Trump’s war on immigrants builds on the mass deportations of the Obama years, which were themselves built on the siege mentality of the Bush years. Trump’s casual bomb-throwing is enabled by the forever war begun nearly sixteen years ago.

To confront the threat we face, it is not enough to advance the rational argument that an American has a lesser chance of dying in a terrorist attack carried out by a refugee than of being struck by lightning. Nor is it enough to focus on the grave injustice of tarnishing immigrants as potential criminals and Muslim refugees as potential terrorists. It is most certainly not enough to revel in the beauty, intelligence, and wit of the many people who have come out to protest Trump’s attacks on humanity and its planet. There is, in fact, no room for self-congratulation in the actions we need to take.

To be worthy of the lofty name “resistance,” the opposition to Trump must aim to break the country’s post-9/11 trajectory. It must question the very premise of the war on terror, challenge the very fact of a perpetual state of emergency, and confront not only the Trump presidency but the legacy of the Bush and Obama Administrations. Organizations such as the A.C.L.U. have been doing this for years. The Trump presidency has not only, paradoxically, brought the group millions of dollars, it has also, potentially, rallied millions of people to the cause. Now is the time to stop waiting for the Reichs­tag fire and start battling the consequences of the one we already had—Trump and the legal and public conditions that are enabling his presidency.

 

 

This Is Where Obama Choked.

The American people had damn near an absolute right to know this information.

It so happens that Friday is an official Ratfcking Holiday, and a very important one. It’s June 23 or, as we who celebrate it like to call it, Smoking Gun Day. It was 45 years ago to the day that H.R. Haldeman stopped by the Oval Office and, with a tape recorder whirring merrily away in a drawer, he and Richard Nixon discussed how to get the CIA to turn off the FBI’s investigation of Watergate because that investigation was moving into “some productive areas.” They talked about ripping scabs open, and “that whole Bay of Pigs thing,” and having Walters tell Gray not to go into this thing any further, period. “All I can conclude,” Patrick Buchanan reportedly said when this tape finally came to light, “is that the old man has been shitting us.”

So, in honor of the day, The Washington Post comes up with an amazing tale of the way ratfcking is done in the modern era. It begins with a top-secret communique delivered to President Barack Obama last August.

Inside was an intelligence bombshell, a report drawn from sourcing deep inside the Russian government that detailed Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s direct involvement in a cyber campaign to disrupt and discredit the U.S. presidential race. But it went further. The intelligence captured Putin’s specific instructions on the operation’s audacious objectives — defeat or at least damage the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and help elect her opponent, Donald Trump.

The dynamite, she go boom.

At that point, the outlines of the Russian assault on the U.S. election were increasingly apparent. Hackers with ties to Russian intelligence services had been rummaging through Democratic Party computer networks, as well as some Republican systems, for more than a year. In July, the FBI had opened an investigation of contacts between Russian officials and Trump associates. And on July 22, nearly 20,000 emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee were dumped online by WikiLeaks.

I seem to remember this remarkable coincidence.

The piece is too long, too well reported, and too detailed to summarize in block quotes, but what it makes sadly clear is that the culture of secrecy within the intelligence community worked invariably to empower the ratfcking, rather than to hinder it.

Over that five-month interval, the Obama administration secretly debated dozens of options for deterring or punishing Russia, including cyberattacks on Russian infrastructure, the release of CIA-gathered material that might embarrass Putin and sanctions that officials said could “crater” the Russian economy.

All well and good. Go get ’em, tiger.

However, like so many things about the Obama administration, the response to what the Russians did was measured and allegedly proportional. (“I feel like we choked,” one official told the Post.) But, you may ask, what about the election that was going on at the same time the Obama administration was retaliating for Russian interference in its process?

They were concerned that any pre-election response could provoke an escalation from Putin. Moscow’s meddling to that point was seen as deeply concerning but unlikely to materially affect the outcome of the election. Far more worrisome to the Obama team was the prospect of a cyber-assault on voting systems before and on Election Day. They also worried that any action they took would be perceived as political interference in an already volatile campaign. By August, Trump was predicting that the election would be rigged. Obama officials feared providing fuel to such claims, playing into Russia’s efforts to discredit the outcome and potentially contaminating the expected Clinton triumph.

This, right here. This is where they choked. The American people had damned close to an absolute right to the information their government already had. The most fundamental act of citizenship is the right to cast an informed vote. The idea that the Obama administration withheld the fact that the Russians were ratfcking the election in order to help elect a vulgar talking yam is a terrible condemnation of the whole No Drama Obama philosophy. Would Donald Trump have raised hell if the White House released what it knew? Of course, he would have. But, as it was, the American people went to vote with only about half of the information they needed to assess his candidacy. This was a terrible decision.

Before departing for an August vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, Obama instructed aides to pursue ways to deter Moscow and proceed along three main paths: Get a high-confidence assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s role and intent; shore up any vulnerabilities in state-run election systems; and seek bipartisan support from congressional leaders for a statement condemning Moscow and urging states to accept federal help.

Ah, yes. “Bipartisan support.” The brilliant snow-white unicorn pursued by that administration for nearly eight years. How did that work out? How did it ever work out?

On Aug. 15, Johnson arranged a conference call with dozens of state officials, hoping to enlist their support. He ran into a wall of resistance. The reaction “ranged from neutral to negative,” Johnson said in congressional testimony Wednesday. Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state of Georgia, used the call to denounce Johnson’s proposal as an assault on state rights. “I think it was a politically calculated move by the previous administration,” Kemp said in a recent interview, adding that he remains unconvinced that Russia waged a campaign to disrupt the 2016 race. “I don’t necessarily believe that,” he said.

Really, now. How did it ever work out?

The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble.

“The Dems were, ‘Hey, we have to tell the public,’ ” recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. Through a spokeswoman, McConnell declined to comment, citing the secrecy of that meeting. Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.

So they choked a second time, scared out of what they should have done by Mitch McConnell, ace conniver. (What the hell did they expect? Patriotism?) I repeat: the American people needed to know this before they voted, spin and fauxtrage and punditry be damned. They had a right to factor the question, “Why does Putin want this guy to be president?” into their thinking in the voting booth.

When U.S. spy agencies reached unanimous agreement in late September that the interference was a Russian operation directed by Putin, Obama directed spy chiefs to prepare a public statement summarizing the intelligence in broad strokes. With Obama still determined to avoid any appearance of politics, the statement would not carry his signature.

It’s at moments like this that I wish he’d never given that speech in Boston in 2004. It froze him into a public persona and a political stance that made even justifiable partisan politics look like base hypocrisy. It is entirely possible that, at what we must now believe was a critical moment (if not the critical moment) of his presidency, the better angels of a president’s nature were the voices he should have avoided at all cost.

Anyway, read the whole thing. It’s a fascinating window into presidential decision-making on the fly, as well as a look at how intelligence is gathered and managed. The 2016 presidential election was corrupted at its heart, and we do not know yet how fully it was corrupted, and that’s the most lasting scandal of all.

http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/politics/news/a55836/obama-russian-interference/

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience

Lauded for its clear vision of the future, “RoboCop” just gave the plutocratic philanthrocapitalists of today cover

Fascism for liberals: “RoboCop” at 30 and the problem with prescience
Peter Weller as RoboCop in “RoboCop”(Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios)

We have become obsessed with prescience. Or rather, a kind of reverse-prescience that sees old books (from Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer”) invested with a new vitality. These works, and their authors, are hailed for their farsightedness and acute judiciousness, for their ability to “speak to our troubled times.” But more often than not, it’s a case of too little, way too late.

Reading the Stalinist parable “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to make sense of Trumpism feels about as useful as scanning the instructions on a bottle of bear spray while your torso’s already half-digested by a savage Kodiak. Still, we laud the old works and the old masters for their seeming ability to forecast the present, even if they do so in hazy, generalizing terms. The esteemed quality of prescience thus reveals itself as conservative, keeping us fixed on the past, lost in our fantasies of foregone foresight. Damn, if only we could have seen it coming back then.

Few pop-cultural objects carry this burden of prescience like “RoboCop,” Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire/Detroit dystopia/Christian allegory, which turns 30 this summer. Set in a near-future Motor City beset by corporate greed, with slums being rebuilt as privatized skyscraper communities and public services seized by profiteering private contractors, much of “RoboCop’s” critical legacy hinges on its seemingly spooky ability to predict the future: from the militarization of American police forces, to the collapse (and rebirth) of Detroit, to the way in which politics has become increasingly beholden to private money.

Never mind that all these things were already happening when “RoboCop” was released theatrically at the ass-end of the Reagan administration. What matters is how the film is regarded as effectively anticipating what’s happening now. Problem is: claims of the film’s prescience aren’t just overstated. They’re fundamentally incorrect. And if we’re to believe — as many seem to — that “RoboCop’s” near future is meant to be our present, then we must reckon with one of its greatest oversights: its depiction of business-suited capitalists as crass, corporatist, unfeeling heels. What “RoboCop” got wrong was its depiction of the bad guys — of those greedy corporate profiteers looking to razz Detroit’s crumbling ghettos, quarterback private police militias and trap the hearts and minds of good, honest, working men inside hulking robotic exoskeletons.

***

On the commentary track bundled with Criterion’s now out-of-print 1998 home video release of “RoboCop,” producer Jon Davison summed up the movie’s message. He called it “fascism for liberals.” As Davison puts it: “The picture is extremely violent, but it has a nice, tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” Indeed, “RoboCop,” like many of Dutch expat Paul Verhoeven’s other films (“The Fourth Man,” “Starship Troopers,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” even the recent “Elle”) function through this sort of deeply embedded irony; this “we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” The sex, the violence, the way they flirt with ideological reprehensibility — Verhoeven’s films are calibrated to invite reaction, even disgust. And yet that’s never the end in itself.

When a heavy artillery “urban pacification” tank shoots up a boardroom meeting early in “RoboCop,” in one of the film’s most legendarily over-the-top sequences, the joke isn’t the display of gore itself, but rather the reaction. When the scowling CEO of Omni Consumer Products (referred to with mock-affection as “The Old Man,” and played by Dan O’Herlihy) witnesses the wanton display of machine-on-man violence and mutters to sniveling underling Dick Jones (Ronny Cox), “I’m very disappointed in you,” that’s the joke — a critique of the corporate world’s utter disdain for human life, packaged in a parody of Reagan-era paternalist condescension. This, presumably, is what Davison is talking about. “RoboCop” offers visions of violence, of top-down, totalitarian corporate control, and the crumbling of the American Dream itself that proves fundamentally comforting in its cheekiness and ironic distance. Yes, the world it depicts is bad. But we know it’s bad. And that’s good.

Yet this idea — fascism for liberals — runs even deeper into the movie’s DNA. What its capitalist parody doesn’t anticipate is the current entanglements of corporatism and politics. While the ascent of celebrity capitalist Donald Trump may play like something out of a direct-to-video “RoboCop” sequel, the film fails to address the more pressing threat of smiling, do-gooder philanthrocapitalists: guys like Michael Bloomberg or Mark Zuckerberg who increasingly set the agendas of American (and global) politics, while retaining the image of selfless saviors. These are the people who, increasingly, represent the corporatization of everyday life, albeit in a way that “RoboCop”-style corporate villainy can’t account for.

When Donald Trump announced that America would be backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, ex-NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg promised to pick up the tab with his private money. Likewise, before Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced he was buying the Whole Foods supermarket chain last week — a move that boosted Bezos’s stock while sapping that of competitors like Wal-Mart and Target — he canvassed Twitter for ideas on charities to which he could donate money. This is the face of modern consumerist capitalism: lead with a benign-seeming charitable gesture, follow through with a massive, bottom line-boosting buyout.

The fundamental weakness of ’’80s-era, “RoboCop”-ian businessman bad guys is their conspicuousness. They are vulgar and cruel, they divulge their scheming master plans in Bond villain-style monologues, and mainline cocaine and throw their henchmen out of moving vehicles. They are obviously (too obviously, maybe) villainous. They are unabashedly wolfish and competitive. This is not meant as a dig at “RoboCop” itself, which is a perfect film. Rather, it’s a critique of the automated reaction to praising the film for its farsightedness in a way that seems blinkered and myopic, even from the perspective of today.

Because today, things are altogether different. The billionaire super-capitalists seeking to monopolize the experience of daily life tend to appear not as smirking super-villains with spindly fingers steepled together as if it say “I’m scheming.” Rather, they’re the “good guys.” They donate money to charity (while exploiting tax loopholes), they care about the environment and schools and LGBTQ rights and the health and wellbeing of the Democratic Party. Some even want to go to Mars. They orbit around politics without seeming overtly political. (The obvious exception in this glad-handing rogues gallery is Bloomberg, though his move from mayor of America’s largest city back to private citizen and super-rich guy tends to be regarded as just that, a return or a retirement from political life.) And this seeming isolation from the sphere of politics is their greatest strength.

***

In 1831, French bureaucrats dispatched Alexis de Tocqueville to America to study the national prison system. He skipped the prisons, surveying instead the whole broad expanse of American society. The resulting study, “Democracy in America,” is an exhaustive account of life and liberty and the then-fledgling republic.

One thing that struck de Tocqueville was the cleaving of church and state. Unlike France, where the Bourbon Restoration had reinstated privileges of nobility granted to the clergy that had been largely stripped during the Revolution, and where the Catholic Church was state religion, America’s deep religiosity existed outside (or alongside) the political realm. “In America,” de Tocqueville observed, “the clergy never hold public office and are not politically active. While the power of religion seems diminished without an alliance with political power, it is actually stronger.” Where “the political sphere is constantly in a state of flux and is always changing according to public opinion,” religion provides a stabler “common morality.”

De Tocqueville’s observations on the American clergy’s power were explicitly translated to the political-social realm by economist Friedrich Hayek and other so-called “Austrian School” economists. As Linsey McGoey writes in her 2015 critique of philanthropy “No Such Thing as a Free Gift,” these economists “grasped the that in order to wield lasting power it was important to make sure their efforts appeared as non-political as possible. Unfailingly, whenever confronted with a choice between overt political engagement and more surreptitious political lobbying, Hayek would recommend the second strategy.” This sense of standing outside the muck and mire of politics itself, of living above the fray, grants billionaire corporatists inordinate power in the public imagination (to wit: during his presidential campaign, Donald Trump successfully spun his lack of experience in politics into a virtue, and similarly framed his inordinate wealth as a mark of his incorruptibility).

Capitalism, or even just gauzier ideas of “business” and “the market,” provide their own contemporary “common morality” (or they appear to, anyway). This is the ultimate liberal fantasy: that all we need to solve massive social problems is more money, that the way to fight against billionaires is with different kind of billionaires. And this is not even to say that Bloomberg, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Bill Gates, Carlos Slim et al. are necessarily bad or evil. But this altruism and aloofness is the essence of their menace. They use wealth, power and influence that results in a net negative of the democratic experiment. While appearing benevolent, they set the agenda, all without the consultation of the broader public (save for the occasional Twitter poll). They consolidate their power and restrict possibilities, delimiting democracy and wrangling into a plutocracy of smirking good Samaritans. This is the sort of stuff that never frighten liberals, who are happy to see their vested interests fortified in the hands of those who think just like them.

And this, perhaps, is why I reserve a certain fondness for director Fred Dekker’s often-mocked 1993 sequel “RoboCop 3.” There, the film’s namesake robotic constable functions not as a metalloid Christ cleansing the temple of American industry from conspicuously chicanerous capitalists, but as a hero of the disenfranchised. He’s an android golem, fighting on behalf of a ragtag revolutionary army of down-and-out Detroiters and pensionless public servants against the encroachment of corporate control (both domestic and foreign) and the steamrolling of Old Detroit. 

Despite the film’s arch-cartoonishness and family-friendly feel (it pares back the blood and gore for scenes of Robo battling Japanese ninja androids and whooshing around in a jetpack), “RoboCop 3” has little in the way of the original’s beloved “tongue-in-cheek, we’re-just-kiddin’ quality.” It’s fueled by a more intersectional, revolutionary energy, in which everyday people band together to defend their retirement funds and stand up for their communities. It’s the sort of story that might actually trouble institutional liberals and do-gooder philanthrocapitalists, one in which a legitimate #Resistance rises up and asserts itself, with or without the help of a reprogrammed robotic police officer. It’s a message that, one might hope, will one day too be trumped up and over-hyped as acute and totally visionary.

Or maybe the better hope is to forgo the backward-looking fetish for prescience altogether, to turn away from Oceania and Gilead and Delta City and cast a caustic eye on the present, to ferret out the culture that will seem ahead of its time well down the line, and to see what’s coming — right now.

America’s Real Red Scare

We’re witnessing the slow-motion collapse of the American empire.

America’s Real Red Scare

US and Russian flags wave in the wind upon US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow on April 11, 2017. (Photo by Gleb Schelkunov/Kommersant via Getty Images)

This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.

Jump into your time machine and let me transport you back to another age.

It’s May 2001 and The Atlantic has just arrived in the mail. I’m tantalized by the cover article. “Russia is finished,” the magazine announces. The subtitle minces no words: “The unstoppable descent into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance.” Could it be that the country I had worried most about as a military officer during all those grim years of the Cold War, the famed “Evil Empire” that had threatened us with annihilation, was truly kaput, even in its Russian rather than Soviet guise?

Sixteen years later, the article’s message seems just a tad premature. Today’s Russia surely has its problems — from poverty to pollution to prostitution to a rickety petro-economy — but on the geopolitical world stage it is “finished” no longer. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has recently been enjoying heightened influence, largely at the expense of a divided and disputatious superpower that now itself seems to be on an “unstoppable descent.”

More than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.

Sixteen years after Russia was declared irrelevant, a catastrophe, finito, it is once again a colossus — at least on the American political scene, if nowhere else. And that should disturb you far less than this: more than a generation after defeating the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the United States of 2017 seems to be doing its level best to emulate some of the worst aspects of its former foe and once rival superpower.

Yes, the US has a Soviet problem, and I’m not referring to the allegations of the moment in Washington: that the Trump campaign and Russian officials colluded, that money may have flowed into that campaign via Russian oligarchs tied to Putin, that the Russians hacked the US election to aid Donald Trump, that those close to the president-elect dreamed of setting up a secret back channel to Moscow and suggested to the Russian ambassador that it be done through the Russian embassy or even that Putin has a genuine hold of some sort on Donald Trump. All of this is, of course, generating attention galore, as well as outrage, in the mainstream media and among the chattering classes, leading some to talk of a new “red scare” in America. All of it is also being investigated, whether by congressional intelligence committees or by former FBI director — now special counsel — Robert Mueller.

When it comes to what I’m talking about, though, you don’t need a committee or a counsel or a back channel or a leaker from some intelligence agency to ferret it out. Whatever Trump campaign officials, Russian oligarchs or Vladimir Putin himself did or didn’t do, America’s Soviet problem is all around us: a creeping (and creepy) version of authoritarianism that anyone who lived through the Cold War years should recognize. It involves an erosion of democratic values; the ever-expanding powers exercised by a national security state operating as a shadow government and defined by militarism, surveillance, secrecy, prisons and other structures of dominance and control; ever-widening gaps between the richest few and the impoverished many; and, of course, ever more weapons, along with ever more wars.

That’s a real red scare, America, and it’s right here in the homeland.

In February, if you remember — and given the deluge of news, half news, rumor and innuendo, who can remember anything these days? — Donald Trump memorably compared the US to Russia. When Bill O’Reilly called Vladimir Putin “a killer” in an interview with the new president, he responded that there was little difference between us and them, for — as he put it — we had our killers, too, and weren’t exactly innocents abroad when it came to world affairs. (“There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”) The president has said a lot of outlandish things in his first months in office, but here he was on to something.

My Secret Briefing on the Soviet Union

When I was a young lieutenant in the Air Force, in 1986 if memory serves, I attended a secret briefing on the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan was president, and we had no clue that we were living through the waning years of the Cold War. Back then, believing that I should know my enemy, I was reading a lot about the Soviets in “open sources”; you know, books, magazines and newspapers. The “secret” briefing I attended revealed little that was new to me. (Classified information is often overhyped.) I certainly heard no audacious predictions of a Soviet collapse in five years (though the Soviet Union would indeed implode in 1991). Like nearly everyone at the time, the briefers assumed the USSR would be our archenemy for decades to come and it went without saying that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture in a divided Europe, a forever symbol of ruthless Communist oppression.

Little did we know that, three years later, the Soviet military would stand aside as East Germans tore down that wall. And who then would have believed that a man might be elected president of the United States a generation later on the promise of building a “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our shared border with Mexico?

I wasn’t allowed to take notes during that briefing, but I remember the impression I was left with: that the USSR was deeply authoritarian, a grim surveillance state with an economy dependent on global weapons sales; that it was intent on nuclear domination; that it was imperialist and expansionist; that it persecuted its critics and dissidents; and that it had serious internal problems carefully suppressed in the cause of world mastery, including rampant alcohol and drug abuse, bad health care and declining longevity (notably for men), a poisoned environment and an extensive prison system featuring gulags. All of this was exacerbated by festering sores overseas, especially a costly and stalemated war in Afghanistan and client-states that absorbed its resources (think: Cuba) while offering little in return.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

This list of Soviet problems, vintage 1986, should have a familiar ring to it, since it sounds uncannily like a description of what’s wrong with the United States today.

In case you think that’s an over-the-top statement, let’s take that list from the briefing — eight points in all — one item at a time.

1. An authoritarian, surveillance state: The last time the US Congress formally declared war was in 1941. Since then, American presidents have embarked on foreign wars and interventions ever more often with ever less oversight from Congress. Power continues to grow and coalesce in the executive branch, strengthening an imperial presidency enhanced by staggering technologies of surveillance, greatly expanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Indeed, America now has 17 intelligence agencies with a combined yearly budget of $80 billion. Unsurprisingly, Americans are surveilled more than ever, allegedly for our safety even if such a system breeds meekness and stifles dissent.

2. An economy dependent on global weapons sales: The US continues to dominate the global arms trade in a striking fashion. It was no mistake that a centerpiece of President Trump’s recent trip was a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. On the same trip, he told the Emir of Qatar that he was in the Middle East to facilitate “the purchase of lots of beautiful military equipment.” Now more than ever, beautiful weaponry made in the USA is a significant driver of domestic economic growth as well as of the country’s foreign policy.

3. Bent on nuclear domination: Continuing the policies of President Obama, the Trump administration envisions a massive modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, to the tune of at least a trillion dollars over the next generation. Much like an old-guard Soviet premier, Trump has boasted that America will always remain at “the top of the pack” when it comes to nuclear weapons.

4. Imperialist and expansionist: Historians speak of America’s “informal” empire, by which they mean the US is less hands-on than past imperial powers like the Romans and the British. But there’s nothing informal or hands-off about America’s 800 overseas military bases or the fact that its Special Operations forces are being deployed in 130 or more countries yearly. When the US military speaks of global reach, global power and full-spectrum dominance, this is traditional imperialism cloaked in banal catchphrases. Put differently, Soviet imperialism, which American leaders always professed to fear, never had a reach of this sort.

5. Persecutes critics and dissidents: Whether it’s been the use of the Patriot Act under George W. Bush’s presidency, the persecution of whistleblowers using the World War I-era Espionage Act under the Obama administration or the vilification of the media by the new Trump administration, the US is far less tolerant of dissent today than it was prior to the Soviet collapse. As Homeland Security Secretary and retired four-star Marine Gen. John Kelly recently put it, speaking of news stories about the Trump administration based on anonymous intelligence sources, such leaks are “darn close to treason.” Add to such an atmosphere Trump’s attacks on the media as the “enemy” of the people and on critical news stories as “fake” and you have an environment ripe for the future suppression of dissent.

In the Soviet Union, political opponents were often threatened with jail or worse, and those threats were regularly enforced by men wearing military or secret police uniforms. In that context, let’s not forget the “Lock her up!” chants led by retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at the Republican National Convention and aimed at Donald Trump’s political opponent of that moment, Hillary Clinton.

6. Internal problems like drug abuse, inadequate health care and a poisoned environment: Alcoholism is still rife in Russia and environmental damage widespread, but consider the US today. An opioid crisis is killing more than 30,000 people a year. Lead poisoning in places like Flint, Michigan, and New Orleans is causing irreparable harm to the young. The disposal of wastewater from fracking operations is generating earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma. Even as environmental hazards proliferate, the Trump administration is gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. As health crises grow more serious, the Trump administration, abetted by a Republican-led Congress, is attempting to cut health-care coverage and benefits, as well as the funding that might protect Americans from deadly pathogens. Disturbingly, as with the Soviet Union in the era of its collapse, life expectancy among white men is declining, mainly due to drug abuse, suicide and other despair-driven problems.

7. Extensive prison systems: As a percentage of its population, no countryimprisons more of its own people than the United States. While more than two million of their fellow citizens languish in prisons, Americans continue to see their nation as a beacon of freedom, ignoring Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In addition, the country now has a president who believes in torture, who has called for the murder of terrorists’ families, and who wants to refill Guantánamo with prisoners. It also has an attorney general who wants to make prison terms for low-level drug offenders ever more draconian.

8. Stalemated wars: You have to hand it to the Soviets. They did at least exhibit a learning curve in their disastrous war in Afghanistan and so the Red Army finally left that country in 1989 after a decade of high casualties and frustration (even if its troops returned to a land on the verge of implosion). US forces, on the other hand, have been in Afghanistan for 16 years, with the Taliban growing ever stronger, yet its military’s response has once again been to call for investing more money and sending in more troops to reverse the “stalemate” there. Meanwhile, after 14 years, Iraq War 3.0 festers, bringing devastation to places like Mosul, even as its destabilizing results continue to manifest themselves in Syria and indeed throughout the greater Middle East. Despite or rather because of these disastrous results, US leaders continue to over-deploy US Special Operations forces, contributing to exhaustion and higher suicide rates in the ranks.

In light of these eight points, that lighthearted Beatles tune and relic of the Cold War, “Back in the USSR,” takes on a new, and far harsher, meaning.

What Is to Be Done?

Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union.

Slowly, seemingly inexorably, the US is becoming more like the former Soviet Union. Just to begin the list of similarities: too many resources are being devoted to the military and the national security state; too many over-decorated generals are being given too much authority in government; bleeding-ulcer wars continue unstanched in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere; infrastructure (roads, bridges, pipelines, dams and so on) continues to crumble; restless “republics” grumble about separating from the union (Calexit!); rampant drug abuse and declining life expectancy are now American facts of life. Meanwhile, the latest US president is, in temperament, authoritarian, even as government “services” take on an increasingly nepotistic flavor at the top.

I’m worried, comrade! Echoing the cry of the great Lenin, what is to be done? Given the list of symptoms, here’s one obvious 10-step approach to the de-sovietization of America:

1. Decrease “defense” spending by 10 percent annually for the next five years. In the Soviet spirit, think of it as a five-year plan to restore our revolution (as in the American Revolution), which was, after all, directed against imperial policies exercised by a “bigly” king.

2. Cut the number of generals and admirals in the military by half, and get rid of all the meaningless ribbons, badges and medals they wear. In other words, don’t just cut down on the high command but on their tendency to look (and increasingly to act) like Soviet generals of old. And don’t allow them to serve in high governmental positions until they’ve been retired for at least 10 years.

3. Get our military out of Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Reduce that imperial footprint overseas by closing costly military bases.

4. Work to eliminate nuclear weapons globally by, as a first step, cutting the vast US arsenal in half and forgetting about that trillion-dollar “modernization” program. Eliminate land-based ICBMs first; they are no longer needed for any meaningful deterrent purposes.

5. Take the money saved on “modernizing” nukes and invest it in updating America’s infrastructure.

6. Curtail state surveillance. Freedom needs privacy to flourish. As a nation, we need to remember that security is not the bedrock of democracy — the US Constitution is.

7. Work to curb drug abuse by cutting back on criminalization. Leave the war mentality behind, including the “war on drugs,” and focus instead on providing better treatment programs for addicts. Set a goal of cutting America’s prison population in half over the next decade.

8. Life expectancy will increase with better health care. Provide health care coverage for all using a single-payer system. Every American should have the same coverage as a member of Congress. People shouldn’t be suffering and dying because they can’t afford to see a doctor or pay for their prescriptions.

9. Nothing is more fundamental to “national security” than clean air and water. It’s folly to risk poisoning the environment in the name of either economic productivity or building up the military. If you doubt this, ask citizens of Russia and the former Soviet Republics, who still struggle with the fallout from the poisonous environmental policies of Soviet days.

10. Congress needs to assert its constitutional authority over war and the budget, and begin to act like the “check and balance” it’s supposed to be when it comes to executive power.

There you have it. These 10 steps should go some way toward solving America’s real Russian problem — the Soviet one. Won’t you join me, comrade?

William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), is a regular contributor to TomDispatch. He has taught at the Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School, and now teaches history at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.

http://billmoyers.com/story/americas-real-red-scare/

Understanding the geopolitics of terrorism

8 June 2017

The latest in a long series of bloody terrorist attacks attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) unfolded in Iran early Wednesday with coordinated armed assaults on the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) and the mausoleum of the late supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, Imam Khomeini. At least 12 people were killed and 43 wounded.

The reactions of the US government and the Western media to the attacks in Tehran stand in stark contrast to their response to the May 22 bombing that killed 22 people at the Manchester Arena and the London Bridge attacks that claimed nine lives last Saturday.

The Trump White House released a vicious statement that effectively justified the killings in Iran, declaring, “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” an attitude that found its reflection in the relative indifference of the media to the loss of Iranian lives. It is clearly understood that terrorism against Iran serves definite political aims that are in sync with those of US imperialism and its regional allies.

For its part, Tehran’s reaction to the attacks was unambiguous. It laid the responsibility at the door of the US and its principal regional ally, Saudi Arabia. “This terrorist attack happened only a week after the meeting between the US president (Donald Trump) and the (Saudi) backward leaders who support terrorists,” Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said in a statement, published by Iranian media. The attack was understood in Tehran as a political act carried out in conjunction with identifiable state actors and aimed at furthering definite geostrategic objectives.

The same can be said of the earlier acts of terrorism carried out in Manchester and London, as well as those in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere before them.

The Western media routinely treats each of these atrocities as isolated manifestations of “evil” or religious hatred, irrational acts carried out by madmen. In reality, they are part of an internationally coordinated campaign in pursuit of definite political objectives.

Underlying the violence on the streets of Europe is the far greater violence inflicted upon the Middle East by US, British and French imperialism, working in conjunction with right-wing bourgeois regimes and the Islamist forces they promote, finance and arm.

ISIS is itself the direct product of a series of imperialist wars, emerging as a split-off from Al Qaeda, which got its start in the CIA-orchestrated war by Islamist fundamentalists against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. It was forged in the US war of aggression against Iraq that killed close to a million Iraqis, and then utilized in the 2011 war to topple Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi. Fighters and arms were then funneled with the aid of the CIA into the war for regime change in Syria.

The latest round of terror has its source in growing dissatisfaction among Washington’s Middle Eastern allies and its Islamist proxy forces over the slow pace of the US intervention in Syria and Washington’s failure to bring the six-year war for regime change to a victorious conclusion.

The people giving the orders for these attacks live in upper-class neighborhoods in London, Paris and elsewhere, enjoying close connections with intelligence agencies and government officials. Far from being unknown, they will be found among the top ministers and government officials in Damascus if the US-backed war in Syria achieves its objectives.

Those who carry out the terrorist atrocities are expendable assets, foot soldiers who are easily replaced from among the broad layers enraged by the slaughter carried out by imperialism in the Middle East.

The mass media always presents the failure to prevent these attacks as a matter of the security forces failing to “connect the dots,” a phrase that should by now be permanently banned. In virtually every case, those involved are well known to the authorities.

In the latest attacks in the UK, the connections are astonishing, even given the similar facts that have emerged in previous terrorist actions. One of the attackers in the London Bridge killings, Yousseff Zaghba, was stopped at an Italian airport while attempting to travel to Syria, freely admitting that he “wanted to be a terrorist” and carrying ISIS literature. Another was featured in a British television documentary that chronicled his confrontation with and detention by police after he unfurled an ISIS flag in Regent’s Park.

The Manchester suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, was likewise well known to British authorities. His parents were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), who were allowed to return to Libya in 2011 to participate in the US-NATO regime-change operation against Muammar Gaddafi. He himself met with Libyan Islamic State operatives in Libya, veterans of the Syrian civil war, and maintained close connections with them while in Manchester.

What has become clear after 16 years of the so-called “war on terrorism”—going all the way back to the hijackers of 9/11—is that these elements move in and out of the Middle East, Europe and the US itself not only without hindrance, but under what amounts to state protection.

When they arrive at passport control, their names come up with definite instructions that they are not to be stopped. “Welcome home, sir, enjoy your vacation in Libya?” “Bit of tourism in Syria?”

Why have they enjoyed this carte blanche? Because they are auxiliaries of US and European intelligence, necessary proxies in wars for regime change from Libya to Syria and beyond that are being waged to further imperialist interests.

If from time to time these elements turn against their sponsors, with innocent civilians paying with their lives, that is part of the price of doing business.

In the aftermath of terrorist actions, governments respond with stepped-up measures of repression and surveillance. Troops are deployed in the streets, democratic rights are suspended, and, as in France, a state of emergency is made the overriding law of the land. All of these measures are useless in terms of preventing future attacks, but serve very well to control the domestic population and suppress social unrest.

If the mass media refuses to state what has become obvious after more than a decade and a half of these incidents, it is a measure of how fully the linkage between terrorism, the Western intelligence agencies and the unending wars in the Middle East has become institutionalized.

Innocent men, women and children, whether in London, Manchester, Paris, Tehran, Baghdad or Kabul, are paying the terrible price for these imperialist operations, which leave a trail of blood and destruction everywhere.

Putting a stop to terrorist attacks begins with a fight to put an end to the so-called “war on terrorism,” the fraudulent pretext for predatory wars in which Al Qaeda and its offshoots are employed as proxy ground forces, operating in intimate collaboration with imperialist intelligence services and military commands.

Bill Van Auken

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/06/08/pers-j08.html