U.S. midterm election day: why Trump’s closing argument on immigration works

As usual, the TV pundits are failing to understand why Trump’s BS about the “migrant caravan” is so pernicious; and, more to the point, why he is right to think this a more successful closing argument for the midterms than “it’s the economy, stupid!”.

The worst part is not the lies about the caravan itself: that its an imminent invasion threat full of middle eastern terrorist gang members coming to rape our wimmin, vote illegally, take our guns and drop anchor babies in transgender bathrooms or whatever the current line is. Yes, it’s all racist dogwhistling; and yes, it will rile up his base – even, as we have seen, to the point of violence. And that is bad enough; a wound on American society that no previous president would have contemplated inflicting for mere political gain. But it won’t win him any elections. Because it is obviously racist, and there is an obvious response to it in the form of the facts, which people outside of his base are indeed listening to.

No, the worst part is his lies about his opposition: that liberals want the caravan, the progressives are funding it, that the only alternative the Democrats have promised – even specific Democrats running in specific races – is open borders, the elimination of all border enforcement, and all manner of benefits lavished indiscriminately on all comers. It’s bullshit from start to finish. No one stands for any of those things. But there is no response to this, because the Democrats have yet to come up with a coherent counter-argument on what they do stand for when it comes to immigration.

Even people who are not racist want to be reassured that there is some semblance of order at the boundaries of the nation; even people who are welcoming to immigrants are legitimately concerned that there be some manner of control over who is coming in. And while the Democrats have far better ideas than the Trumpists as to how to accomplish this, they have yet to unify around a plan that includes any clear communication of these reassurances. Thus the contrived panic Trump instigates that there is no order, there is no control, and that he (and the military he feels empowered to use as a stage prop) are the only ones offering any order and control will indeed resonate beyond his racist base.

This is why the cognoscenti on both the left and the right mistakenly think that Trump would be better off talking about the economy, and why his instincts as a communicator are indeed superior to theirs. Yes, it would seem, if one is being sensible, that the economy would be his strong point, what with it seemingly going so swimmingly (at least for now). But the opposition has a clear and convincing counter-narrative on that front: that the successes are at least as much due to the recovery from the crisis under Obama; that they have a better plan to more evenly share and invest the fruits of that success, etc. They don’t have a narrative on immigration, which is a far more visceral, emotive issue.

That’s why Trump’s “closing argument” will indeed hurt them at the polls today in ways that the experts still fail to intuitively grasp as well as he does.

The Alabama Experiment: what will it take for a Democrat to win?

The Alabama special election for the U.S. Senate makes for a fascinating test of the extent of political polarization in the United States today. Political scientists couldn’t have come up with a better experiment if they’d designed it in a petri dish.

Take the reddest of red states, disproportionate in all criteria that favour the Republicans: rural, with a high proportion of white evangelicals. Even at the height of when Donald Trump’s candidacy for president was still a joke, the 538 never rated his chances of carrying Alabama at less than 90%.

Next, pick the worst human being imaginable to be that state’s Republican candidate for Senate; a comic-book caricature of what liberals see the conservative movement becoming in the age of Trump: an unrepentant bigot, sanctioned by the state multiple times for putting his personal religious beliefs above the rule of law and the responsibilities of his judicial office. Let’s even make him a child molester, just for good measure; just to be sure his odiousness is beyond reasonable doubt across all sides of the partisan divide.

The question being tested: is there anything – ANYTHING – that would convince a significant enough number of Republicans in the state to abandon him for a Democrat?

The concern is not that most voters in Alabama actually share Roy Moore’s bigotry and religious fanaticism, and are so dug in their belief system that they will reject all evidence that he’s a child molester as political fabrication. Sure, such people exist; they got him the nomination. They have been loud and visible in voicing their support for him, and his tactic in the face of adversity has been to appeal directly to their paranoia. But these people exist everywhere. And though they have no doubt grown in numbers and become better organized in recent years, the ease with which we assume even now that they could predominate enough to win a state-wide election even in the deep south is a product of our own prejudices.

And we do have such prejudices. It is easy to fixate on these loud and paranoid voices, amplified by a sensationalist media, and forget that we are not dealing here with a closed and uniform society. Keep in mind, for example, that Alabama is more than 1/4 black. It has cities and colleges much like anywhere else. 34% voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. That’s obviously not enough for her to have had even a fighting chance, but its also not an insignificant number. It represents a population of more than 700,000 who live and work in the community; maybe a third of the electorate who remain committed Democrats, or have at least proven willing to vote Democrat under some circumstance, even in this era of escalating polarization. Let’s guess that to be about the same proportion as those on the opposite end of the spectrum, locked into the belief system of bigotry, fear and conspiracy that our stereotypes associate with such places.

The concern, then, is over the last third: the otherwise principled conservatives who are reliable Republican partisans, but who live in the real world. They are sensible enough to recognize that their candidate is a bigot and a fanatic and most likely a child molester. They just feel none of that as bad as being a Democrat; that voting for a bigot, a fanatic and a child molester might well be an acceptable thing to do if it’s what it takes to keep the Democrats away.

The nutters alone have never been able to take down a democratic system without the continued co-option of that third group. For so long as they remain reliably co-opted, there is no longer any intelligent debate or compromise to be had over issues like health care, taxation or immigration – issues wherein victory for the other side is merely a temporary setback rather than a civilization-ending cataclysm to be avoided by any means necessary. Rather, from now on there is and will be only one issue on each and every ballot: which political tribe controls the state at the expense of the other.

If it turns out on December 12 that we’ve really reached such a pinnacle of frenzied tribalism, America is already lost.

What’s next for Bannon? A surge of Antisemitism unlike anything in modern American politics

“If there is any confusion out there, let me clear it up: I’m leaving the White House and going to war for Trump against his opponents on capitol hill, in the media, and in corporate America.” – Stephen K. Bannon (Aug.18, 2017)

Anyone who expects Stephen Bannon, bitter on his removal as White House Chief Strategist, to turn on Donald Trump through his platform at Breitbart News is going to be disappointed.

Bannon will not turn on Trump. He will turn on the Trump Administration.

What’s the difference, you ask? My prediction is this: Bannon will proceed to catalogue all of the failures and foibles of the White House with insider knowledge and pinpoint accuracy. He will be much better positioned to heap this kind of vitriol from outside than within, and opponents of the regime will be encouraged and amused at the infighting and disarray.

Don’t be fooled. For through it all Trump himself will be presented as blameless. Blame will be directed solely at his advisors, primarily senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner, chief economic advisor Gary Cohn, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

If you noticed something in common between those names then you’re keeping up with the plot. We will soon be introduced to the latest iteration of the figure of the court Jew; the worm-tongued advisor who infiltrates court due only to the kindly tendencies a well-meaning but naive king. Former Generals Kelly, Mattis and McMaster will come in for criticism too, no doubt, but will get a lighter touch. Though no less inimical to Bannon’s agenda, the institution best associated with them is the U.S. military which must command deference and respect. When an abstract corporate entity of treasonous intent and malevolent power is needed to explain the administration’s failures, the “deep state” will be given a Jewish face.

Am I being overly alarmist? Jews, you may object, have not been significantly targeted by the Trump movement up to now, which has been characterized more by racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant xenophobia. Instances of anti-Semitism have appeared, sure, but they don’t seem to be informing the movement’s core ideology, at least not yet. True enough. And honestly, we’re still a long way from where actual Jews will be targeted with actual violence or discrimination such as is already a concern for other groups. Yes, we will continue to see anti-Semitic hate groups emboldened to agitate openly, but on a state level we’re not looking at concentration camps or Nuremberg laws any time soon.

Nonetheless, members of other vulnerable groups will ignore the significance of the coming anti-Semitism at their own peril, as will Jewish Trump-supporters who don’t feel personally threatened. It will become a significant keystone, crucial at this stage in the descent to authoritarianism, for the maintenance of the rest of the movement’s ideology and agenda.

For the bulk of Trump’s supporters, who are not anti-Semitic, there will remain plenty of room for deniability, such as in the administration’s unrelenting support for Israel and because the word “Jew”, as such, will never be used (nor, of course, will “Zionist”, the favorite stand-in term for the anti-Semitic left). The word used instead will be “globalists”, but the content of the mythology – who and what these “globalists” are, and why they do what they do – will resonate with anyone who has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the International Jew. The hard core of the movement’s supporters – those who surround confederate monuments with torches and Nazi flags – will know exactly what is being said when the names of perpetrators are singled out, alongside “the media” and “corporate America”.

And this myth will enable both groups of Trump supporters to overcome cognitive dissonance and adjust to reality, finally confronting the myriad failures and hypocrisies of the administration without having to jettison their undying support for the leader and his movement. For it is not his fault; it is the fault of evil advisors serving another master, who can be driven away only if the People are strong enough to stay loyal and united.

Over time Bannon will shape this narrative into the rhetorical backbone of the Trump reelection campaign. It is just coherent enough to work. And in so doing, bring anti-Semitism into the mainstream of American political discourse for the first time in a long time.

Post-Charlottesville musings on why I have more hope now than before…

My social media seems to be in despair over the events surrounding Charlottesville, VA this weekend, especially the president’s shocking response at his press conference on Tuesday. Friends are at a loss over what they can do. Strange as it may seem, these events – as with many of the calumnies of the Trump administration over the past nine months – have left me more hopeful about the resilience of the American spirit than I was before, convinced that most of us are already doing what needs doing in these turbulent times, whether we know it and are satisfied with it or not.

The source of my hope, this time around, comes from the unconditional condemnation of “alt-right” neo-fascist demonstrators, and (if, at times, obliquely) of the president’s weak response, by even Republican members of Congress.

It’s not that I think this shows their ultimate decency and integrity. Quite the contrary, I’m sure they’d sell their own grandmothers to the KKK to fend off a primary challenge. But that is precisely why their reaction gives me hope. These are savvy political operators, who got to where they are with their ears to the ground of local politics. Their reaction signals, first of all, that democracy, however battered, remains the guiding principle of the American political system. They still have to answer to their voters before Dear Leader. Second, and related: it shows that even in the reddest of red states, no one senses any political capital to be gained by equivocating over overt expressions of fascism and white supremacy.

This is not to deny that there remains a great deal of racism in American society, as well as systemic racism embedded in its institutions. But so long as the population universally rejects racism as a value, those problems – daunting and pervasive as they are – can be addressed, if more slowly than some of us would like.

As for Trump, fuck him. He’s nobody. There is little reason to pay him any attention anymore, except to occasionally heap the ridicule on him he deserves. There was a time, not long ago, when I could understand the argument that one must still respect the office if not the man. But the man himself has so defiled the office, time and again, that case now sounds hollow; the only way to maintain the dignity of the office is to reject its incumbent. Leave him to his isolated tower to tweet obscenities and sign executive orders. Sure, he can still do a fair bit of damage from that vantage point – to race relations, civil rights, democratic norms, the environment, the economy and America’s standing in the world, among other things. But chances look better and better that it won’t be anything that can’t be undone. Though still technically president, he has no political capital, no moral standing, and even his bureaucratic authority is being increasingly curtailed by the adults in the room; while states, municipalities and civil society pick up the slack and proceed with the real work of governing.

So impeach him. Or don’t. Or defenestrate him. Or don’t. I don’t care, and it would probably just amount to massive effort spent on a quixotic task; effort better devoted to protecting health care, developing clean energy, addressing inequality, and so on. And in the meantime, take heart in the observable fact that under the radar of all of the shouting about excessive partisanship and crumbling social capital, the vast majority – liberal and conservative – who reject fascism, respect democracy, and value facts do indeed appear to be finding common cause. Not just in the streets, and in new civil society movements, but in local and state government, in the courts; even, though it’s little remarked on, in Congress. With each attack on the norms of democracy, we get a deeper sense of what democracy really means and what is needed to preserve it. With each attack on the principle of diversity, we get a deeper understanding of why those attacks threaten the core of the nation. With each bizarre fantasy that comes out of the White House, we’re treated to a new lesson in critically distinguishing reality from fiction.

What we can do then is listen, learn, and participate in the work being done at the community, city and state level. These are the truly lasting legacies that this era will bequeath to the future. And under the anxieties that events evoke, our desire to fix what looks to be breaking, we lose sight of how naturally these behaviours seem to be coming to most of us. That’s why I have hope.

France’s Presidential Election: the Long Long View

The runoff round of France’s presidential election takes place this Sunday, and for the first time in the establishment of the Fifth Republic, neither of the two candidates hails from either of the two parties that between them have governed France for the last 60 years. Naturally, the top story is that Marine Le Pen of the right-wing anti-immigrant National Front (FN) is one of the two runoff candidates, though she is widely expected to lose to Emmanuel Macron of the newly formed liberal and pro-European movement En Marche! (exclamation point in original). Parallels have already been drawn between the current contest and 2002 when the whole of the political spectrum united overwhelmingly around Jacques Chirac when Le Pen, Sr. squeaked his way into the second round. But 2017 is a different world.

To begin with, polls notwithstanding, Le Pen v2.0 has a clear shot at the Élysée. I don’t consider it a likely outcome, but, as many have observed before me, neither was Trump or Brexit. Her path is more or less the same as theirs, where complacent leftists who cannot fathom that the unthinkable might happen assert their moral purity by sitting out the election or casting an anti-system protest vote over the fact that her opponent is little more than a laundered and media-spun carbon-copy of the hated incumbent administration. There are enough Mélenchon supporters prepared to opt for smash-the-system working-class solidarity over a former investment banker, along with Fillon supporters prepared to tack to the pro-Russian right, to overwhelm Macron’s soft support base if the latter fails to turn out. I wouldn’t place a bet on it, but unlike in 2002 it’s not unimaginable.

In light of this, several commentators (not least my good friend Daphne Halikiopoulou) take the long view in pointing out that even if Macron wins as expected, complacency is hardly called for. The political culture of France remains deeply divided, and what is most concerning about the current electoral season, in France and elsewhere, is the extent to which it has been characterized by the mainstreaming of the far-right agenda. This has come in part in the form of hitherto mainstream parties, recognizing the growing electoral threat of the radical right, co-opting much of their program and rhetoric. But it is also reflected in the resigned certainty of many that even if Le Pen doesn’t win the election this time around, her chances will be better for the next.

So I’d like to take an even longer long view, by stepping back and asking why we think so. Does it reflect a lack of faith in our own principles? To some extent, yes. Macron is, after all, the quintessential social and economic liberal. If we really believed in the efficacy of these ideological systems our narrative should be that his election will restore or reaffirm sensible policies in France; policies that will move toward solving the country’s problems and generating a renewed prosperity that will entrench support for the liberal democratic system for generations to come. This brief and unfortunate flirtation with fascism will soon be forgotten.

The thing is, no one really believes that. Whatever our political leanings, we all know that Macron is destined to fail; if not on Sunday, then soon after. I say this not because I think his policies are wrong or misguided (though I could find plenty to criticize if I thought it mattered). I say it, rather, in much the same way that the godfather of the British far-right, Enoch Powell, said it of all politicians; they are destined to end in failure, as this is the nature of democratic politics. The time-frame of such failure is merely accelerated in the current times, much to the benefit of Powell’s ideological heirs.

We know that Macron’s policies won’t solve France’s problems, because deep down we know that no set of policies can solve France’s problems, at least not to the point of securing ongoing faith in the efficacy of the system. Europe is at the vanguard of a planet functioning beyond its carrying capacity. The EU, as a whole, has not seen rates of economic growth consistent with maintaining the stability of a capitalist society in at least a decade. Such levels of growth are not coming back, in absence of significant inward migration which comes with its own problems of cultural and economic disruption. There are things that can be done to effect some improvement, sure, but not to the point of mass satisfaction. And there’s at least as much chance that the world will also confront another major financial crisis over the period of the next presidential term. No politician has ever won an election in any democratic system on a platform that things are just going to get shittier, and we have to find the best way to manage the decline so as to make it somewhat less shitty for as many as possible.

Hence the crisis of dissatisfaction is destined to persist, during which time more people will be lured away from support for the democratic system and toward the next thing. Sooner or later, whether the next election or the next one after that, the electorate will opt for the populists. Those who point to the failure of Geert Wilders to gain power in the Netherlands as evidence that this wave has crested should take note that his Freedom Party still gained seats in the last election, even if not as many as some expected. And whatever happens on May 7, Le Pen will have secured more votes than any presidential candidate in the FN’s history. Overall, the trend remains in the populists’ favour. Should it continue, the question isn’t if but when.

And once that tipping point is reached, we’re stuck; we won’t be waiting for the next election for the pendulum to swing the other way. Politics will have been fundamentally transformed into a new self-sustaining equilibrium. Not because the populists will dismantle the democratic system (they may well do, but would have to already acquire significant mass popular consent to pull it off successfully). And not because the populists are right, any more than the liberals are wrong; their policies will lead to even more failure and disaster.

They will endure because when the core tenet of your ideology is to blame problems, failures and disasters on external Others, that ideology is more resilient in the face of failure and disaster than any constructive set of policies testable against a metric of success (cf. Trump’s persistent base of support). Such an ideology already has a built-in explanation for failure and disaster, along with a program for perpetual mobilization: we just haven’t gone after the elites, the liberals, the media, the traitors, the immigrants, the foreign enemies enough. The more failure and disaster, the more urgent the crusade.

This, I submit, is the deeper cause behind the apparent resignation, even among its most principled supporters, that liberal democracy is a dinosaur. And the populist meteor is still coming.