Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Poe's Law: The Republican Party Doesn't Have a Trump Problem. It Has a Post-Trump Problem

The most important political phenomenon of the early 21st century is the resurrection of the Western far right. This is not obvious to many commentators so far because they cannot see the forest for the trees, and because the professional commentariat is paid to look the other way anyways.  This is not the same thing as saying that Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are fascists. Fascism was the core ideology the last time the Western far-right rose to prominence. This time it's something else, something we don't yet have a name for.

This inability to perceive actual problems is in itself a problem. American politics offers us the perfect example. Donald Trump is not going to become President next year. Maybe he will lose in the primaries. Maybe he will lose in the general election. But he will lose; the only question is, to whom. Senior Democrats have, I am quite sure, been praying for months now that Trump's star will continue to rise. Because even an excessively unimpressive candidate like Hilary Clinton will most definitely squash him like a bug.

No, Trump is not the problem. The real problem is hinted at by the fact that the so-called "establishment" types -- senior and moderate Republicans, journalists, and so on -- are increasingly prepared to support a demonstrable anti-government political extremist like Ted Cruz because he's a "safe" alternative to Trump.

But the real problem isn't Cruz, either: the real problem is what happens afterward. What happens after Trump goes down in flames, and then either Cruz gets beaten by the Democrats, or some other Republican candidate - maybe Cruz, maybe Rubio, maybe anybody, maybe even Trump himself - wins power and then "betrays" the "base" by behaving too much like a moderate.

Those of us who are in favour of science and of skeptical, critical thinking are quite fond of saying, smugly, that the authoritarian far right are a bunch of under-educated, ignorant fools. Now, certainly many of them are quite ignorant. And if we go by the polls, a disproportionate number of them are uneducated. Those two things more or less go hand in hand.

But one thing they are not, is stupid. Slow, perhaps, but not stupid. These are people who have been disappointed for decades now. They have a vision. It's inchoate, and inconsistent, and pretty much guaranteed never to come true. They sense that America isn't great, and they want it to be great. They sense that the economy is rigged against them, and they want to tip the scales back in their favour.  They sense that politicians lie to them, so they gravitate to politicians who seem so outspoken in their views, so willing to buck the boring consensus, that they seem "authentic" by comparison.

And they're not alone. There are people on the left, potential authoritarians, who exhibit the same manner of thinking. As I say, that shouldn't surprise us, because in the past two centuries there have been both dangerous far-right movements and dangerous far-left ones. It's just that right now the ones that are biggest and closest to seizing political power are far-right ones.

So let's say Trump loses the primaries to an establishment candidate who goes on either to lose the election, or to win but then (from these people's perspective) govern as a moderate. I don't mean an actual moderate. From the Tea Party's perspective, George Bush was a moderate and Ronald Reagan was a socialist.

This will merely persuade them that next time around they need to pick someone even more extreme, even more authentic.

And the more the rest of us tell them that they are wrong to do so, the more right, in their own minds, they really are.

So you have to wonder. Trumpism is what happened because "the establishment" drummed out people like Herman Cain and Rick Perry and Rick Santorum. 2012 is what happened because the liberal media took down Sarah Palin in 2008. McCain-Palin is what happened because George Bush promised to guide these cranks to the promised land and then betrayed them while in office.

Trump will be defeated but the political base that he spoke to won't vanish. It's worth wondering who will appeal to them next, and how extreme he will have to be in order to demonstrate his authenticity to them. It's a sort of real-life political iteration of Poe's Law.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year's Resolution: Job's Folly's Theory of the Human Condition

This began as a Canadian politics blog because that's what I used to blog about at Sixth Estate, but to be honest, I tire of the meaningless pap.  Plus, there is no longer a dictatorship to oppose, which makes the whole subject rather boring.  I can already predict what will happen over the next four years.  Most importantly, I can predict what will happen on the only political policy front that matters: electoral reform.  There will be no such reform, no meaningful reform anyways.  We will have First Past the Post next election, and the one after that too.

Why?  Nobody can come up with a good argument in defence of FPTP.  Most of us love to criticize its clear distortion of results.  The present government consists of both politicians and supporters who, for the most part, won election fully convinced of the importance of doing away with FPTP and plainly have the constitutional prerogative to achieve that end.  So the Trudeau government will fail to achieve an objective that most voters endorse, or have endorsed at some point in time anyways, even though it has the power to achieve that objective and even though if it did so it would virtually assure the successful election of Liberal majority governments for the foreseeable future.

At Sixth Estate, one of my big themes was that money shaped public discourse and that part of the reason the country was veering so sharply right-wing was because monetary interests who supported the witch's brew of free market economic policy and authoritarian-style governance exercised vast influence and sometimes even direct control over the media. That isn't entirely false -- or put more simply, it's true that most of the major media outlets in this country are overtly Conservative and wish to see the election of Conservative governments in the future.

But increasingly my thoughts have turned to a more basic sociological and even biological level, and that's what I'm going to be pondering over the next year.  I no longer see any point in the sort of blogging I once did because I am increasingly persuaded by the research evidence that there is simply no point trying to convince adults to change their thinking.  Not, anyways, unless you have massive resources to commit to the project, boundless patience, and a willingness to accept unforeseen results, because society is chaotic. I'm always up for the third, but not so much the first or second. If I'm going to preach to the choir, I might as well grump about the end of civilization rather than beat about the bushes.

I'm hardly the first to move in this direction, and it won't disappoint me in the least if I'm not the first to be proven wrong for doing so, either.

In Africa, cape buffalo have a problem: they are sometimes killed and eaten by lions.  There is no particular reason for this.  The cape buffalo are large and aggressive.  They should get together and kill all the lions. They should ally with the hippopotamuses and destroy all the crocodiles too, just to be extra safe. The rational basis for such a strategy is obvious.

In every part of the world where humans reside, we also have a problem: we are, collectively, unable to take action against a slough of existential problems that will certainly destroy our present way of life within the next 200 years, including climate change and the end of antibiotics. The rational basis for taking such action is obvious, and at least some of the possible courses of action which could certainly achieve the necessary results are equally obvious.

The reasons why crocodiles, lions, climate change, and antibiotic resistance persist are probably more similar than any of us would care to admit.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Donald Trump is Not a Fascist. He's Also Not America's Real Problem

One word floats to the top of the "mainstream" discussion about Donald Trump now: "fascist." He's a fascist? Is he a fascist? CNN yanked a list of supposed fascist characteristics out of somewhere and diagnosed Trump as a "proto-fascist," whatever that might mean.

Donald Trump is not a fascist. As a historian you'd think I'd be a big fan of historical analogies, but I'm really not. They encourage lazy thinking. They make us imagine that problems are simple and that we know how to solve them because we solved different problems in the past. Some problems, it's true, are simple.

However, most problems governments face are not simple. If they were simple, we would not need governments to face them in the first place. Take the argument that we can't afford to appease the enemy - the Soviets, the terrorists, whoever the enemy might be - "because Munich." Appeasement started World War II! We all learned about it in school! Well the last half of that is true anyways. The rest isn't. The most important historical effect of the Munich/appeasement story is that it damned near caused World War III in 1962, when the Americans were so obsessed with "remembering the lessons of Munich" that seriously contemplated initiating an objectively unnecessary nuclear war over a few soon-to-be-obsolete missiles in Cuba.

So then. Fascism is a specific political movement. It grew in Europe between the two world wars. And Donald Trump is not part of that movement. Neither is any politician today, really, although maybe some of the European far-right parties come close. Trump saying he wants to ban Muslims isn't fascist. Fascism isn't really racist. Nazism is racist. Benito Musslini, Hitler's favourite fascist pal, thought the Nazis' obsession with biological race was kind of comical.

There is, however, an important lesson we can learn from the history of fascism. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany not because he was overwhelmingly popular, but because government was seriously divided, the mainstream political factions had lost popular legitimacy, and the conservatives thought that the political benefits of temporarily latching on and riding his wave of popularity would be better than the political costs of denouncing him as the inane populist bigot that he was

That, plus the assumption that in the long run they'd be able to control him and shoot his feet out from under him before he ever got his hands on real power.

Now, does that remind you of a few people in today's Republican Party?

If Western civilization wants to survive the next few decades, sooner or later there is going to have to be some sort of reckoning over the Right problem. I mean the right wing there. The left has its historical demons. There was a time -- long beyond memory now -- where people didn't accuse the left of being pacifist pansies. There was a time when if you thought of a terrorist, you pictured a left-wing Marxist or anarchist. There were left-wing terrorist groups, setting off bombs and assassinating politicians. And there are plenty of people on the left who are unbelievably anti-science and prefer magical thinking to reality. If you want to see what I mean, go to an environmental gathering and point out the blindingly obvious fact that we should be building more nuclear power plants.

But right now most of the world's problems can be squarely laid at the feet of far-right political movements. The Islamic far right is the root and branch of Middle Eastern terrorism. When Western people go on shooting rampages because they hate cops and abortion clinics, they are almost invariably far-right. Science denialism and opposition to public education emerges from the far-right. Donald Trump is from the far right. The Tea Party is far right.

Fascism, interestingly, is only sort of far-right.  When it got started the left was actually a fairly powerful political force. So powerful that Hitler called his party the "National Socialist Party." That word didn't get in there by accident. It's not a mistranslation. There were some pretty far-right people in the Nazi Party, but they wanted to appeal to disillusioned leftists, too. And they did, because plenty of those people figured that despite Mein Kampf Hitler would give the country a much-needed kick in the pants and then he could be safely got rid of before anything too serious happened.


The Rob Ford scandal ought to teach us that it's hard to remove even the most incompetent buffoon from even the most formally nonpartisan kind of parliamentary assembly in Canada, even when he himself freely confesses to conduct rendering him objectively unfit for office.  Once a personality cult has got started, the more outsiders condemn the cult, the more it simply confirms in their own minds how right they must be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Former Right-Wing Cabinet Minister Invents New and Exciting Rationale for Government Secrecy

Geoff Plant in the Globe & Mail: government is secret because when we're open people criticize us for our dumb ideas, and that hurts our feelings.

I wish I was kidding.

I think when people Plant's age publish such self-serving piffle it is the height of hypocrisy for his generation to ponder why today's youth are so shallow and self-obsessed.

Trump's Rubicon

Only a couple remarks need saying in the wake of Donald Trump's latest remarks, which I'm sure you already heard about.

First, despite Trump's supposedly soaring poll numbers, his active supporters in the Republican primaries were a very small fraction of the American voting public: voters, minus Democrats and independents (which is most of them), minus Republicans who aren't paying attention to the campaign yet (which is most of what's left), minus Republicans who support other candidates (which is most of what's left over again), minus the people who answer randomly to telephone surveys.

Which is encouraging, because it means that no matter how Trump's small fringe support group might feel about his new Nazi-esque policy platform, his chances of winning election were already almost zero. Now they probably are zero.

Second, however, it's important to see what happens next. Trump's support will decline, but it won't go to zero. Personality cults form around people who seem profoundly unlikeable all the time -- Stalin, Kim, Rob Ford, Trump. People who can be persuaded that the world is their enemy and that he will protect him won't mind if he gets condemned by the prime minister of France or the editors of the New York Times. In fact, those condemnations will simply confirm in their minds that he's the right guy.

The term "Rubicon" comes from ancient Rome. In Roman law, it was the river that a general's army cannot cross except as an act of treason; once that is done, there is no going back. Trump has crossed the Rubicon and must face his fate.

The question is, how many Americans will be willing to go with him.

Fifteen years ago this would have been utterly unthinkable. Now there's almost certainly a constituency for it.

What happens fifteen years from now?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

How Stupid Does One Have to Be to Write for the Globe & Mail?

Today's militarist spiel is brought to you by Jeffrey Simpson, a columnist who is normally but obviously not always rather more sensible.  Simpson's argument against the Trudeau government's cowardly and devastating withdrawal of our six fighter jets from the Syrian Civil War is, boiled down to the key points:
  1. ISIL is dangerous because it wants to destabilize a region and kill "apostates (Westerners, Shia Muslims, and other non-Sunni Muslims)."
  2. Bombing is a way of fighting ISIL so we have to keep bombing, even in the absence of realistic objectives or any indication that bombing will achieve them.
  3. The war against ISIL can only end with a peace agreement in Syria and the deployment of ground troops.
Let's leave aside his apparent ignorance of ISIL's ongoing campaign against other Sunni Muslims, and for that matter his belief that he and I are apostates from Islam (which we aren't, unless he's a former Muslim, and I doubt it).

If the only way this war is going to end is to deploy ground troops and negotiate peace agreements, then surely our six fighter jets weren't helping much anyways. On the other hand, if the threat is so dire as Simpson claims, and bombing COULD do something about it, then surely our six fighter jets were a paltry, pathetic, and insignificant contribution anyways, in which case, withdrawing them don't hurt much either (a point which he acknowledges, in passing).

The most hilarious part, though, is his casually sweeping conclusion that eventually we'll have to negotiate a peace agreement and in the meantime we should just keep bombing. Okay. A peace agreement with who?

Is Simpson proposing that we sign a peace agreement with ISIL? How? When? On what terms would this be acceptable to him, given that he has just finished explaining what an existential threat ISIL poses to him?

Or if not, what about just a peace agreement with everyone currently at war with ISIL? Does that mean a peace agreement with Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah? Because they're at war with ISIL. Is Simpson proposing we sign a peace treaty with Al-Qaeda?

Is Simpson saying that the people who have deployed ground troops should be the ones who lead the drive for "peace"? Because the groups that have deployed those troops so far are Hezbollah and Iran.

 Or perhaps Simpson is saying that the way forward is to sign agreements with the militia groups who are opposed to ISIL. In that case, it would certainly be a damned good idea to focus on improving our relationships with those groups. One ideal way to do that would be to send them special forces trainers and equipment, but in this article, Simpson says that's a meaningless and unimportant adjunct to the real war, which is in the air.

And if Simpson really does think the way forward is more anti-government militias, then I have to question his sanity, just like I have to question the sanity of everyone else taking that approach. Let's say that the government of Canada collapsed for some reason. Does anyone seriously think that the best way to stitch Confederation back together would be to have foreign powers start shipping arms directly to separatist groups in Alberta and Quebec and whatever radical First Nations groups might be persuaded to start stocking an arsenal?

Friday, December 4, 2015

A Humble Prediction about the Pending Editorial Campaign Against Electoral Reform

I would like to venture a not particularly crazy opinion: the National Post and the Globe & Mail will oppose electoral reform. Their stated reasons for doing so will be confusing, contradictory, and occasionally quite silly. But they will oppose it.

The real reason they oppose it is because, as they both made perfectly clear during the last election campaign, the positions of both papers is that they wish to see the Conservative Party elected to office. In the explicitly stated views of both papers' editorial boards, this objective takes clear precedence over any pretense of impartial and non-partisan analysis of issues.

Worth remembering that.

Indeed, this is hardly a valuable prediction because this campaign has already begun, courtesy of the likes of John Ivison. Ivison gives us two reasons for fretting about electoral reform: the public might oppose it (though he gives no evidence to support this conjecture), and the Conservative Party will suffer because of it. That's it. Even Ivison is seldom so partisan as to pen a column hoping that a government will break an election promise because doing so might harm his party of choice.

The real question I have here, though, is for the Conservative partisans who are behind this silliness: what is it about electoral reform that frightens you so much? Ranked ballot is not an existential threat to the Conservative Party, despite the crowing in some Liberal circles. Ranked ballot is only a threat to parties who are deeply unpopular with the majority of voters, run scare campaigns devoid of meaningful popular policy promises, and consequently are so despised outside of their core support base that nobody will pick them as a second choice.

If the Conservative Party wishes to be a deeply unpopular and despised party devoted to fearmongering rather than responsible policy-making, then yes, I can see why they might be feel threatened.

But why does the Conservative Party have to stand for such narrow and absurd principles? What the fuck is wrong with you people? If your party is so hated by Canadians that it cannot get the support of a majority of Canadians, perhaps it's time to reflect on why you think your party deserves to govern in a democracy in the first place.