Saturday, February 25, 2017

Man, superman.

Did anyone at the Conservative Political Action Conference asked Steve Bannon what he means when he calls himself an economic nationalist? Bannon, Donald Trump's chief strategist, firmly rejects the notion that he is a white nationalist, notwithstanding his tenure as the impresario of the alt-right while head of Breitbart News. But truth be told, unlike his boss, Bannon is not a guy who seems to care very much what label people assign to him.

Bannon's economic nationalist agenda has to be about more than cutting corporate tax rates and regulations to boost jobs and investment. That agenda would not require a wholesale attack on the media and the judiciary, and would place him foursquare in the mainstream of the Republican Party, which he deeply disdains. Jobs have long been the currency of politics--and no one in memory made them as integral to their campaign as did Donald Trump--but Bannon has more in mind than jawboning a few American transnational corporations to build a factory or two in America.

As much as he might play it down, Bannon was not kidding when he said he is a Leninist, and if you are a Leninist, your goals extend beyond bringing some jobs back to eastern Kentucky or the upper peninsula of Michigan. Rather, in Bannon's words to a reporter in 2013, "Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment." Lenin was not an economic visionary. His goal was power, and his purpose, like Bannon's, was the destruction of the established order. Lenin did not have a coherent plan in mind for Russia's future once he completed the destruction of the old order, and indeed it took Russia decades--until well after Lenin's death--to recover economically from the devastation of the revolution and the civil war that he set in motion. Now that he has reached the pinnacle of power, even as he declared at CPAC that his goal is "the deconstruction of the administrative state," Bannon continues to be opaque about what the nationalist economy might look like after that deconstruction is complete. But it has to be about more than tax rates, tariffs and deregulation; that's pretty banal stuff.

Taken together, Bannon's infatuation with power and Trump's "I alone can fix itinfatuation with himself stand in abject opposition to long-standing conservative principlesYet, there was Bannon--a man excluded from CPAC in prior years on account of his bomb-throwing affiliation with the alt-right--offering his Trumpian benediction to the gathered faithful: "We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being... that’s what unites us.” Bannon's language remains animated by alt-right nationalism, and his perspective reflects elements of Ozwald Spengler's century old treatise, The Decline of the West, and Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations which when combined together produced the dark tableau at the center of Donald Trump's inaugural address.

Bannon was excluded from participation at CPAC until this year, due to his alt-right affiliation, and his inclusion this year cast a pall of sorts over the proceedings. Dan Schneider, the Executive Director of the American Conservative Union--the ancestral home of the conservative movement dating back to the Goldwater defeat in 1964--railed against the infection of the conservative body politic by the alt-right on the opening day of the CPAC conference. He did not, of course, reference Bannon in his words, but the implications of Bannon's ascendency could not have been lost on many.

Board members of the American Conservative Union were left to grumble amongst themselves about the insurgency that has taken over CPAC. The board may have successfully ousted alt-right notables Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer from the Conference, but the turmoil in the ranks remained evident.

After a half-century, we are watching the devolution of the conservative movement, as it has fallen in line with a man who is leading less a movement than a cult of personality. 

Conservatism is about faith in the individual, not faith in one individual. Over the years, we have heard one president after another call for faith in the nation, for faith in one's fellow Americans, and for faith in God, as we face challenges. Never before have we heard one call for faith in him alone. In speech after speech, he called forth all that is wrong with our nation--more often than not relying on facts made up out of whole cloth or conspiracy theories that he picked up along the way--rather than all that is right. And then he pronounced I alone can fix it. And his followers roared. 1

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Enemies of the people.

The Tweet: Enemy of the People. In its heyday, that was grounds for sending people to the Gulag. Trump and Bannon don't have a Gulag, but they might wish they did if it could shut up the cascade of media stories raining down.

The Enemy of the People. Donald Trump cannot have come up with his dark, demonizing tweet on his own: The FAKE NEWS media... is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People. Perhaps to him they are just more words--just another in a long line of attacks on individuals and institutions that do not serve his interests--and no doubt he would deny any historic significance to those particular words.

It is what Trump does; he lashes out with inflammatory rhetoric that fires up the base, and coyly denies whatever meaning others might read into his words. He is not a religious bigot; he just says things that play into religious bigotry. He is not a racist; he just happens to say things that racists cheer on...

Trump may take pride in his lack of historical perspective, but not so his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. Bannon--who reportedly penned much of Trump's dark inauguration address--is an intellectual and self-described Leninist, whose political philosophy is deeply rooted in history. Unlike Trump, Bannon must have relished the allusions to the French revolutionary leader Robespierre--who coined the phrase in 1793 when he declared that his government "owed nothing to the enemies of the people but death"--and to Vladimir Lenin, who tipped his hat to Robespierre on the brink of his own reign of terror in his essay "Enemies of the People," published on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Bannon understands intellectually what Trump grasps intuitively, that their campaign--or their movement as Trump now prefers--requires an enemy. As the specter of Hillary Clinton slowly fades, she has been replaced by the media.

The reporting that raised Trump's hackles are two articles published last week that gave credence to collaboration between the Russian FSB and the Trump presidential campaign. First, the New York Times reported that, according to law enforcement and intelligence sources, the Trump campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials over the months leading up to the election. Then, the next day, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence officials withheld information on intelligence sources and methods from the White House out of concern that the intelligence might  be compromised. Both of these stories ultimately relate back to the Russia dossier compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele that purports to describe the inner workings of a Russian intelligence operation seeking to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential bid, with the collaboration of Trump campaign officials and associates.

Trump and Bannon clearly understand the threat that the growing focus on the Russia story constitutes to Trump's presidency. Trump began to push the fake news narrative at his first press conference as President-elect in direct response to the emergence of the Russia story on CNN and the publication of the dossier on Buzzfeed. His enemy of the people tweet escalated his effort to undermine the credibility of the media, which Trump and Bannon must view as critical to Trump's ability to survive should significant elements of Steele's dossier be verified and the suggested relationship with Putin and Russian intelligence become a threat to his presidency.

Bannon and Trump complete each other. Before Steve Bannon took over the leadership of Trump's campaign, Trump had a softer, more malleable demeanor. In front of massive crowds of supporters, he enjoyed playing the populist tough guy; stoking the economic fears and resentments of his supporters, while demonizing one enemy or another--Muslims, Mexicans, Washington elites. Away from the crowds, he worked diligently to sustain his symbiotic relationship with the media that dated back literally decades to his New York playboy days--he gave them material, and they gave him the attention that he craved. In his frequent calls into radio talk shows, Trump was affable and--dare one say it--rational. It was all part of the reality show that had become his life.

That side of Donald Trump disappeared with the exit of Corey Lewandowski and the arrival Steve Bannon. As much as Lewandowski might have put some people off, he was fundamentally a moderate New Hampshire Republican whose mantra was "Let Trump be Trump." Bannon arrived with a fundamentally different perspective. He found in Trump the perfect vehicle for his own dark vision of the country. At the same time, Trump found in Bannon a person who could perfectly articulate and focus the populist message that had up until then been a political act that grew out of his intuitive connection with his audience.

The affable side of Donald Trump is now long gone. Instead, we have watched the deepening mind meld, where Bannon's philosophical stance and strategic vision has been merged with Trump's deep need for self-aggrandizement. At the hastily planned "campaign event" in Florida this past weekend, Trump was back in his element, only more so, as he embraced by the trappings of the presidency. When Air Force One finally arrived, Trump paused briefly with Melania at the top of the stairs and, at the proper moment, began to descend the steps as the Battle Hymn of the Republic played: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord..." As blasphemous as it might be, the intention was clear to the gathered masses. If not the Lord, at least the savior had arrived.

Donald Trump was in full demagogue mode. As parroted by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the Sunday morning shows the next day, Trump wrapped his latest attack on the media in the traditions of our greatest presidents, as he described how Lincoln, Jefferson and Adams had each fought with the press. At the Florida rally, Trump quoted Thomas Jefferson. "Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself, becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

The irony of Trump's quote was remarkable. Thomas Jefferson--as Bannon surely understood--was a staunch believer in the free press. The particular quote came at a moment toward the end of his presidency when the press was exposing Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, his slave whom historians believe bore him six children. Trump, therefore, was citing an attack on the press by Jefferson in a specific circumstance where the story at issue was correct, while then-President Jefferson--fully knowing that the press reports were correct--was claiming otherwise. This may well mirror the current circumstance, as Trump may have launched his most vociferous attack yet on the media knowing full well--as Thomas Jefferson did--that the substance of the issues raised by articles in question are true.

As I watched Reince Priebus on Meet the Press and Fox News Sunday, I was unnerved by his vociferous attacks on the NYT and WSJ, and began to question whether those stories were as well sourced as I wanted to presume they were. Priebus was not questioning elements of the stories or their sourcing, rather he asserted outright that the stories were made up out of whole cloth, and--it is worth noting--described "treasonous" behavior by Trump campaign officials. I found myself torn between my inherent trust in the reporting of those two publications, and how difficult it was for me to believe--despite watching the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Iran Contra, and myriad other scandals unfold over the years--that an official of Priebus' stature would lie outright, without hedging his assertions. Creating that doubt, I quickly realized, was the essence of the administration's strategy. Trump and Bannon know exactly what they are doing; labeling the media the enemy of the people is a significant step with dangerous historical precedents.

The Russia story underpins much of what has been transpiring. Perhaps there is nothing there, as Trump and the Kremlin keep telling us, but neither Trump nor Putin enjoys a high level of credibility outside of their own base of supporters. For his part, Donald Trump has trafficked in lies and fake news for so long that he will be hard pressed to get the benefit of the doubt. That is why his only option is to do whatever he can to make sure that the credibility of the media is lower than his own. But try as he might, he cannot elude the question that keeps gnawing at people who are paying attention to this story: If there is nothing there, why do so many of the people involved--Donald Trump first and foremost among them--continue to act as though they have something to hide.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Defund California? Defund Alabama instead.

The Tweet: Trump wants defund California? Better he should defund Alabama and all those red states that have failed their citizens for so many years.

Donald Trump thinks California is out of control. He has suggested that withholding federal funds from the University of California at Berkeley and from the State overall might be his "weapon" of choice for dealing with the left coasters.

California's crimes? Protests at Cal against alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulis speaking on campus, and Governor Jerry Brown's push to make California a sanctuary state in the face of Trump anti-immigrant rhetoric and I.C.E. enforcement raids in southern California.

This is just California being California. Donald Trump may not like it, but Californians take it all in stride. For well over a century, in the face of earthquakes, social upheaval and high taxes, people have voted with their feet and moved to the Golden State seeking economic and educational opportunities. Since 1968, the state population has doubled to 38.8 million, and the share of the nation's population that live there has grown from 9.7% to 12.2%.

Trump's threats to "defund" California, which, he suggested, depends on the feds for a "ton of money," has raised the hackles of Californians who view the situation in quite different terms. Supporters of "Calexit" – a proposed constitutional exit from the United States supported by nearly one-third of respondents in a recent Reuters poll taken prior to Trump's inauguration – are quick to point out that it is not the federal government that provides a ton of money to California, rather it is California that provides a ton of money to the federal government.

The claims of Californians who are disgusted with being hectored by Donald Trump are not without merit. California is one of many states that routinely pay more to the federal government than they get back. As the conservative Tax Foundation has observed, the federal government has for years operated a massive system of income redistribution, draining money from more economically successful states, which, it points out – and is illustrated in the graph below – tend to be blue states, and transferring those funds to less economically successful states, which tend to be red states. In particular, California has seen the return on its tax dollars decline steadily over a quarter century, and according to Tax Foundation data has been among the states that receive the lowest amount of federal funds relative to taxes paid for several decades.

For example, according to the National Priorities Project analysis of federal taxes and spending in 2014, Californians sent the federal government approximately $6,671 in personal income taxes per capita, while receiving back $4,855 in federal direct aid per capita, resulting in a net payment with respect to individual taxes paid and direct benefits received of $1,816 per person. These data, along with the Tax Foundation study, suggest that Californians pay into the federal kitty as much as $50 to $70 billion more than they received back – though it is important to point out that the Federal Financial Statistics program that the Tax Foundation and others relied on in their analysis was terminated, making good data less reliable. To put that number into perspective, $50 billion in tax revenues that was otherwise shipped out of state would have been enough to pay for a 50% increase in State funding of K-12 schools and colleges and a one-third cut in the State personal income tax.

By way of comparison, the State of Alabama – the deep red home of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and a state that the Tax Foundation data suggests has been consistently among the states with the best "deal" – got back $2,836 per person more in direct aid than its residents paid in personal income taxes, resulting in almost $14 billion being pumped into Alabama by Californians, New Yorkers and other blue state taxpayers.

The Tax Foundation data suggests that Alabama – along with many of its sister red states – is essentially a welfare state. Decade after decade, the federal government has taken money from more economically productive states and poured it into Alabama to try to boost the state's economy and socio-economic outcomes. Military bases. Water projects. Rural electrification. Hospitals. And the massive flow of federal support and entitlement payments to individuals, as described above.

As if to prove the oft-stated conservative belief that throwing money at problems doesn't work, the expenditure of federal funds has been to little avail, as the socio-economic indicators of the State of Alabama remain near the bottom of all of the states.

But that is not the whole story. Alabama's politicians are no fools. As illustrated here, one reason that all that federal funding might appear to be for naught is that Alabama –like many of the states that are subsidized under this massive federal income redistribution scheme – uses the opportunity created by all that money flowing in to keep its state tax rates much lower than the blue states that those politicians ridicule for their high tax rates, but which nonetheless continue to send them money, year in and year out.

Donald Trump won thirty of fifty states this past November. Those thirty states represent thirty of the thirty-four states with the lowest per capita incomes in the country. According to Tax Foundation data, twenty-five of those states were net recipients of federal funds, and only two of them – in comparison to twelve of the twenty states he lost – got back less than $0.90 for every dollar they paid in Federal taxes.

The economic productivity of states – or lack of economic productivity in the case of Trump states – directly mirrors the levels of educational attainment of their populations. Twenty-eight of the states that voted for Donald Trump were among the thirty-one states that had the lowest percentage of their population over the age of twenty-five with a bachelor's degree. And, as illustrated here, all thirty of those states were among the thirty-three states that had the lowest percentage of the population over the age of twenty-five with an advanced degree.

This is not about elitism or snobbery, but about the direct correlation between educational attainment and personal incomes in the United States. Educational attainment and personal incomes in states are as much a function of state policy over time as federal policy, as education funding and policy remain primarily state and local responsibilities. Therefore it is not unreasonable to suggest that levels of individual and family incomes, educational attainment, and economic performance of states over time reflect state policy and investment decisions.

This is as true in California as it has been anywhere in the country. For a half-century, dating back to the Kerr Commission in the early 1960s, the State of California has focused on the development of an integrated system of higher education including everything from its expansive network of community colleges to the funding of its world-class research universities. That higher education system has in turn supported the development of world class industries across the state from aerospace to toys to Hollywood to the Silicon Valley.

In a world where educational attainment is closely linked to economic outcomes – as illustrated in this graph, which plots unemployment rates against educational attainment over time – red states that have boasted about low taxes for decades, but underinvested in education, turn out to have undermined the economic prospects for their residents and communities. Those states are like the less productive countries of Europe, known as the PIGS – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – that have dragged down the economic performance of the European Union as a whole.

But unlike in the EU, where the large, successful economies are in control, we have put the PIGS in charge. Every one of the elected officials appointed to Trump's cabinet come from red states whose incomes and educational attainment lag the nation as a whole. The Trump administration's economic development policies focus heavily on corporate tax cuts and deregulation, as well as Trump's belief in his own personal powers of persuasion. Yet tax cuts, deregulation, and jawboning companies into shifting manufacturing back to the United States do little to address the issues that less educated workers face in their own lives. Trump's oft-stated belief that he alone can fix things is a poor long-term substitute for assuring that those workers understand the factors that are critical to their and their families' economic success over time, and that they have the tools available to control their own destiny.

Donald Trump knew he could score cheap political points with his base by lashing out at California. But as always seems to be the case with Trump, talk is cheap. It should come as no surprise that millions of Californians take to the idea of Calexit. They know it will never happen, but it has to get tough, year after year, to pay taxes to support your own state, knowing that on top of everything, you have to pay extra to support someone else's state. And now they get mocking tweets and I.C.E. raids. Instead of giving California a hard time, perhaps Trump should point out to his supporters that those reviled blue states and their educated elites are the ones who are ponying up the money to pay for those checks they get in the mail every month.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Trump is all that. And more.

The Tweet: His supporters are thrilled, but the GOP is growing fearful. Trump has proven in three weeks that whatever their worst fears might have been about his temperament, the reality is far worse than they imagined.

It is disheartening and demoralizing. It has only been three weeks and it is getting a bit unnerving.

Donald Trump's first week in office was a virtuoso performance for his followers. Executive order by executive order, he ticked each campaign promise off the bucket list. Obamacare--done. TPP--done. Keystone pipeline--done. Deporting immigrants--done. Sanctuary cities--done. The wall--done. You get the point.

Then there was Nikki Haley taking names and kicking ass at the despised United Nations. And last but not least, the long-promised Muslim ban.

This is what disruption looks like. It is what Trump promised, and what he has delivered. Maybe. These were executive orders, so it remains to be seen what impact they have--after all, Barack Obama's first executive order was to close Gitmo, and look how that turned out--but to Trump's followers it has been heaven on earth.

And to Trump as well. He is a true believer in his words and in his executive orders. Veni, vidi, vici. As he said to a group of County sheriffs this week, the border is already more secure and the vetting of immigrants has already become much tougher. "It's already being done, believe me." Did they believe him? Perhaps they took him seriously, but not literally. The more important question is whether he believes it himself.

Kellyanne Conway admonished us last month to not take Trump's words too seriously, but instead to look into his heart--whatever that means. But he disagrees.“You like the tweeting, right?" he apparently commented to a supporter in Florida this week. “It’s the only way you get the real truth.” He is probably right, and that is what is so unnerving.

To the rest of us--including many who voted for him and just wish someone would close his Twitter account--as well as much of the world, Donald Trump shows all the symptoms of being a self-absorbed lunatic with no self control. And things only got worse this week.

First he pronounced that all negative polls are fake news. Trump is obsessed with polls, but he is equally obsessed with denying any form of criticism. His perversion of the notion of fake news itself has been disheartening, as he has redefined it from intentionally fake stories written as click bait for profit or political gain into any story that he does not like. Truth, in particular.

Then, after Senator John McCain suggested that the Yemen raid was a failure, Trump and his Press Secretary Sean Spicer determined that anyone who said that the Yemen raid was not a victory was dishonoring the Navy SEAL who died in the raid. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised his followers that America was "gonna win so much people will say we can't take it anymore." He did failed to mention that he alone would be the arbiter of what constituted a victory. In his defense of Trump's tweets attacking McCain, Spicer used his earlier crowd size defense: a victory is what they say it is, period.

Over the last two days, the Trump reality distortion field reached new heights after Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch commented to Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) that he found Trump's tweets attacking and demeaning the federal judiciary demoralizing and disheartening. All things considered, it was a fairly mild response by the jurist. But perhaps to no one's surprise, Trump could not stand for it. Despite Gorsuch's spokesman confirming the comments, Trump went off. 'Who you gonna believe,' he seemed to suggest, 'me or that lyin' judge.' 

Trump then demonstrated an astonishing capacity for irony, defamation, and disparagement, all in 140 characters, with a tweet attacking CNN's Chris Cuomo, disparaging Blumenthal, and raising once again the specter of fake news. There was nothing wrong about any aspect of Cuomo's story, except for Trump's inability to tolerate the truth. This from a truth-challenged man who evaded military service and boasted that he felt that he had served because he attended a military boarding school.

Trump is a master manipulator of the media and has dominated the country unlike anyone in memory. As many have observed, it is like a car wreck: you don't want to keep looking, but you can't help it. All of it--the executive orders, the controversial tweets, the fights with the judiciary and the media, the conspiracy theories surrounding illegal voting--has thrilled his base. In his short time in office he proved himself to be everything they imagined he would be. To his detractors as well, he has exceeded expectations: he has been worse than anything we might have imagined.

Yet, ensconced in power as they are, Republicans in Congress have to be growing fearful. They gave up the ghost on their never Trump inclinations and convinced themselves that he would enable them to hold power and get done what they wanted to get done. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may insist that Republicans could not be happier with the Trump administration (though it is important to note that McConnell's wife received a cabinet position), but the character issues are far worse than they can have imagined. As much as many in the party believed during the presidential campaign that he lacked the character and temperament to be president, Donald Trump has proven in three short weeks that whatever their worst fears might have been, the reality of the situation is far worse than they might have imagined.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Politics, terrorism and fear.

The Tweet: Fear is good politics. It is the formula that got Donald Trump to the White House. Mexicans are rapists. Muslims want to cut your head off. That kind of thing. The reason Trump's supporters believe that banning Muslims is essential to national security is because he told them so.

“America is a proud nation of immigrants," Donald Trump declared in defense of his controversial executive order banning travel from seven countries, "and we will continue to show compassion to those fleeing oppression, but we will do so while protecting our own citizens and border." Terrorism and immigration were two core issues in Trump's successful presidential campaign, as he seamlessly melded the the politics of terrorism, of immigration and of border security. Whether or not it is upheld by the courts, his executive order last week banning immigration from seven countries honored a central commitment to his base, many of whom believe that banning Muslims is essential to national security and to their security. They believe that, at least in part, because he told them so.

In the 2016 election, according to Pew Research, terrorism was the second most important issue influencing people's votes--the first being the economy--as 70% of those polled said that it was a very important factor affecting their vote. But perspectives on the issue break down, as in all things these days, along highly partisan lines, with 58% of Republicans suggesting that the nation is more vulnerable to a major attack than on 9/11, as compared to 31% of Democrats and 34% of independents.

While the politics of terrorism are now tightly linked to the politics of immigration, as Trump's words suggest, the actual links between terrorism and immigration are far more tenuous. This week, Kellyanne Conway tripped herself up in an interview on MSNBC as she sought to justify the newly instituted travel ban by citing a "Bowling Green massacre," ostensibly committed by two Iraqi immigrants that, as it turned out, never took place.

If Conway resorted to alternative facts to justify the immigration ban, it may be because the real facts surrounding high profile terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since 9/11 do not fit the Trump campaign narrative. Most notably, Syrian refugees--the nationals specifically excluded from entry to the United States in the executive order--have committed no recorded terrorist attacks in the United States. It is an inconvenient fact that none of the terrorist attacks in recent years have been committed by either refugees or immigrants from the targeted countries. Each of the high profile attacks since 9/11--Boston, Orlando, San Bernardino, Charleston, Fort Hood, Chattanooga, Fort Lauderdale--were committed by perpetrators that were either native born or came to the United States as children.

As the Pew data above suggests, terrorism--or more accurately, fear of terrorism--is an intensely political issue. Fear of terrorism, a study by the CATO Institute suggested, has led to a disproportionate public response with respect to immigration, particularly relative to the history and real risks of terrorist attacks. According to the CATO Institute report, of the 154 foreign born terrorists who killed 3,014 people during the period 1975 through 2015--of whom all but 37 of whom were killed on 9/11--ten were immigrants who entered the country illegally, 54 were legal, permanent residents, 19 were students, 20 were refugees, 34 entered on tourist visas, and three were from Visa Waiver Program countries.

Over the past 40 years, the study concluded, the odds of an American being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist was 1 in 3.6 million a year, while the odds of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was a thousand time less, or 1 in 3.6 billion a year. In comparison, the odds of being murdered by anybody other than a foreign-born terrorist was more than 250 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist. As many similar studies have observed, car accidents, accidental gunshot wounds, slipping or drowning in a bathtub, and being struck by lightning are far more likely causes of death than terrorist attacks.

Fear of terrorism is, of course, the prime objective of terrorism. It is, in part, why data such as that provided by the CATO Institute is almost never a material consideration in any public discussion. Fear of terrorist attacks among many Americans is palpable. This past summer, at the Republican National Convention, I asked Dianna, a delegate from Massachusetts, what drew her to Trump. "It was the Muslims." She replied. She was not talking about some Muslims, she was talking about all Muslims. She wanted them all out of the country. She was deeply affected by the Boston marathon bombing--which left five dead and 280 injured--and when Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslims entering the country in December 2015, she was sold. She loves Trump because he said what she felt. There was none of the political correctness stuff, just what she believed to be the truth.

Trump's language in his December 2015 manifesto was incendiary. He justified his call for a ban by suggesting, first, that more than half of American Muslims would like to be governed under Shariah law, and then, in the next sentence, arguing that Shariah law "authorizes" murdering non-believers who refuse to convert, beheadings, "and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women." Trump then concludes that "it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension... our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life." 

In the months that followed, Trump succumbed to political correctness and softened his call for a ban, but his followers like Dianna knew where he stood and loved him for it. In crafting last week's executive order banning Muslims from seven targeted countries from the United States, Trump was keeping faith with his supporters. For Dianna, as for millions of his most dedicated followers, Trump's commitment to pursue a ban on Muslim entering the country was unchanged. It was what they wanted and it was what he directed Rudy Giuliani to accomplish, as far as legally possible.

Rudy Giuliani has insisted that what makes the Muslim ban not a Muslim ban is that it rests on a "factual" basis focused on "sources of danger," not on religion. His words, 'this is about factual sources of danger, not about religion, is a legal formulation that may or may not survive court challenges, but it is also an old fashioned "dog whistle." It lets Trump and his supporters discuss the executive order using relatively politically acceptable language--and deny any intention to target Muslims--knowing that his supporters will hear and understand that it is intended to do exactly that.

It's just that Donald Trump has never been one to use a whistle, subtlety  is not his style. He prefers a bull horn: Mexicans are rapists. Muslims want to cut your head off. That kind of thing. The problem with trying to claim that the ban is not about Islam is that for Dianna and a large part of Trump's base--to say nothing of his chief political strategist and alter ego Steve Bannon--it is avowedly about Islam. Fear is good politics. It is the formula that got him to the White House; there is no reason to expect him to stop now.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Generalissimo Trump.

The Tweet: As much as Donald Trump appears to relish demanding that private companies do his bidding, it is a role that cannot last. As much as Trump admires Vladimir Putin, this is America not some fascist dictatorship. He can't get away with it, right?... Right?

We have never had a self-styled strongman in the Oval Office, or at least not in my lifetime. Sure, Republicans like to call Barack Obama a tyrant--often just a few moments after they called him feckless and weak--and Democrats certainly bristled at what they saw as Dick Cheney's authoritarian tendencies, but we are entering new territory now.

Early on in the transition, as one CEO after another made the obligatory pilgrimage to Trump Tower, excitement over the prospects of tax cuts and regulatory reform slowly gave way to trepidation. It did not take too many tweets before the new reality of life with Donald Trump in the White House began to set in. Never mind that he killed the Trans Pacific Partnership, he was pulling no punches in demanding that companies that have spent decades streamlining costs and developing global supply chains dismantle that infrastructure and bring the jobs home.

This week, Trump sent the same message to leaders of the pharmaceuticals industry: production must come home and prices must come down. In his introductory comments, he reiterated his complaints against the world at large: that other countries have taken advantage of the United States for decades, and that we have been the victim of currency manipulation by China and Japan, and predatory trade practices that have destroyed our middle class. Sitting round a table with the titans of Big Pharma, one could hear the mix of intimidation and threats that he has honed in his interactions with corporate visitors since election day, and sense the fear of his early morning Twitter attacks.

This is new territory for corporate leaders, who are used to talking about global supply chains and commitment to shareholder value, and to being the big dog in the room. One after another, the drug industry CEOs tried their best to frame their company's domestic operations in the most positive light to appease the President, while downplaying their global operations. Even as they suggested regulatory reforms and tax law changes that might benefit their companies and their industry--and the prospect of which has led to the strong stock market rally since election day--Trump made no bones about the fact that he intended to see them bend to his will, not he to theirs.

None of the executives in attendance came to the defense of their role as global companies. None suggested that what Trump described as a world that has taken advantage of the United States was a world of our making. None of them hailed the global system of research and development that has integrated the brainpower of scientists across the world in the pursuit of new cures to the ravages of disease. None observed that they and other companies, through the systems of free trade and globalization that Trump had just finished attacking, have contributed to a half-century of American leadership in the world during which an estimated billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.

Company struggles this week with how to respond to Trump's executive order on immigration illustrated how the ground has shifted. CEOs found themselves torn between offending their employees and consumers if they failed to speak out, and "poking the bear" and risking retribution if they crossed the President. The President's attack on Rexnord, an industrial company in Indiana that had plans to shift production to Mexico, and then support for L.L. Bean, stood out as examples of the President plowing new ground in impacting--helping or hurting as his mood dictates--even smaller companies using his social media presence.

In the wake of a bitter election, boycotts have been springing up from pro- or anti-Trump groups, bringing our politics squarely into every day commerce. Trump's tweet in defense of supporter and campaign contributor Linda Bean came in response to an anti-Trump boycott targeting the Maine retailer. This week, Trump supporters, angered by Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz's announcement that the company would hire 10,000 refugees in response to Trump's executive order, launched #boycottStarbucks.

Non-Trumpian Republicans--including many corporate leaders--supported Trump despite concerns over his temperament. They knew he had ranted and raved against free trade and free markets and Muslims and immigrants, but they convinced themselves that he would moderate when faced with the awesome responsibilities of the job. They convinced themselves that Donald Trump would pivot. Now, these titans of industry are quickly waking up to a reality that they should have learned long ago: Donald Trump does not pivot.

Even this new evolution of Donald Trump--the self-styled strongman--should not come as too much of a surprise. After all, as with the executive orders that have streamed out of the White House, he is merely acting on what he said he was going to do through more than a year of campaigning. He said he was going to bring back jobs, and we are watching him in real time use the tools available to him to try to coerce companies to do exactly that. It is just that few people can have imagined that within days of his election he would actually begin strong-arming corporate leaders in the manner that he has.

Trump's public and aggressive efforts to coerce private companies to do his bidding may not have garnered the headlines or the protests of other steps he has taken--after all, deep down, Bernie Sanders and other Democratic activists must love watching corporate big shots squirm --but this is perhaps as dramatic a turn of events as anything we have seen yet, and one with enormous implications for the economy and the country.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The last days of the Grand Old Party.

The Tweet: Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President, while George H.W. Bush, the 41st President lay in a Houston hospital. Bush watched as Trump tore his son Jeb apart, and this inauguration has to break his heart, as both he and the Republican Party he loves are in their dying moments.

It was hard to watch the Inauguration of Donald Trump and not reflect on the health of George H. W. Bush. Ever the gentleman, the elder George Bush wrote a generous, even humorous letter to President-elect Trump, explaining why he and Barbara would be unable to attend the Inauguration. My doctor says if I sit outside in January, the 41st President told the man who would soon be the 45th, it will likely put me six feet under

Donald Trump's inaugural address was a stark contrast to Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural was an understatement. Lincoln's sweeping words, with malice toward none and charity toward all, gave way to a darker, insistent America First rhetoric with its threatening sense of malice toward many, foreign and domestic. Inauguration invitations featured an official portrait of Trump with a glowering visage, while tickets featured the new President behind the words A Hero Will Rise. For George Bush, a self-effacing, former WWII fighter pilot, a deeply charitable internationalist, to see the mantle of Lincoln--as President and leader of the Republican Party--pass to the self-aggrandizing, mean-spirited Donald Trump must break his heart

For all the abuse heaped upon George H. W. Bush, mostly by Republicans, Bush was a Republican to his core. He represented the Republican Party that stood for something. It was the party of free trade, open markets and growing the pie. It was the party of personal responsibility, limited government and liberty, at home and abroad. Americans unhappy with their plight were advised to take personal responsibility for lives, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job.  It was also--it is important to add--the party that supported the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts over a Democrat filibuster.

George H. W. Bush, scion of two powerful Republican families, was a loyal soldier and staunch defender of that Republican Party. But that Republican Party, the party that took seriously its lineage back to its founding by Abraham Lincoln, is withering before eyes. When Donald Trump toyed with Mitt Romney, like a cat playing with a mouse, it marked the symbolic triumph of Trumpism over the dying ambers of the political party to which George Bush dedicated his life.

In 1968, Richard Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, which set the Republican Party on the path that would lead a half a century later to the rise of Donald Trump. Beginning with the Nixon's Southern Strategy, the GOP lured the white working class from their historical Democratic roots with an appeal centered around a mix of racial, social and religious issues. Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan confederate Grover Norquist translated Phillips' theoretical work into what became the GOP electoral strategy of appealing to a small number of single-issue voter groups that endured for the ensuing thirty years.

Even as the GOP leadership cultivated its new white working class "base," the party continued to adhere to its long-standing core economic values of free trade and open markets. Nowhere in Norquist's coalition--pro-life, anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-faith--were the economic issues of the white working class taken into account. Their votes were secured by appeals to social issues--and no small amount of racial code--even as decade after decade, from the 1980's onward, their economic circumstances deteriorated.

Kevin Phillips warned the GOP of the simmering rage within its base. In three books published during the decade following the Reagan Revolution, The Politics of Rich and Poor, Boiling Point, and Arrogant Capital, Phillips documented the growing alienation of the middle class and anger at Washington, DC as the GOP agenda benefitted the wealthiest Americans, while undermining the domestic manufacturing sector and economic upward mobility.

In the 2016 election, only Donald Trump seemed to understand the rage that Phillips had warned about two decades earlier. The lessons of Ross Perot's independent candidacy and Pat Buchanan's insurgency in the intervening years--which each challenged the GOP orthodoxy--were disregarded within the GOP, until this election cycle, when Donald Trump ran away with the GOP nomination by campaigning in opposition to nearly every core principle that the GOP had long stood for.

Trump largely adhered to the Norquist rules--the long-time New York liberal changed his stripes and endorsed the pro-life, anti-tax, and pro-gun GOP standards--but on the other issues that defined the GOP--the issues that mattered most to Republican elites over the years--he made an about face. He ran against free trade, immigration and free markets, and in favor of massive infrastructure spending and new taxes on the rich to an extent that would make a traditional Rust Belt Democrat proud. He threatened tariffs against companies with overseas operations. He decried unlimited campaign contributions and insider influence. And even as he demanded the repeal of Obamacare, he stated early on--as he reiterated recently--that the GOP replacement must provide insurance coverage for all Americans. And, of course, there is Russia, where Trump seems closer to a Fellow Traveler of the 1950s than to GOP Senators Marco Rubio, John McCain or Lindsay Graham.

Each week now, we are seeing Trump's policies--that is what a tweet is in this new era--confound his GOP compatriots. He is insisting that the GOP provide health insurance for all Americans, and at a lower cost. He is demanding that the Federal government negotiate drug prices. He is jawboning military contractors to reduce costs. And then, of course, there is Russia.

Many Republican Party leaders--notably Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, and perhaps even Trump insiders Mike Pence and Reince Priebus--continue to hope against hope that if they wait Trump out, things will return to normal. But Trump has come to believe that he is leading a movement, not just a political campaign, and his objective is to throw out the traditions of the party and remake the GOP in his own image. Steve Bannon's role as his political strategist is, among other things, to orchestrate the takeover of the apparatus of the GOP on the ground, state by state.

Last week, Trump supporters ousted the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. Next week, Trump backers are taking the fight to Massachusetts, where the leadership of the Republican State Committee is up for grabs. “They didn’t want anything to do with Trump—they were embarrassed by Trump—they thought he was going to lose,” commented Trump's candidate for chairman of the state committee about Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker and the old school Bay State blue bloods.

As George Bush watched the humiliation of his son at the hands of Donald Trump, he had to know the end was near. For GOP traditionalists, the barbarians are not longer at the gates, they are occupying the White House. Many would argue that the old Republican Party sold its soul long ago--when it took the trade that Kevin Phillips suggested, swapping its moderate New England roots for the new, socially conservative southern and working class Democrats--and that George Bush similarly abandoned his principles when he embraced the coded racial politics of Lee Atwater.

Through it all, George Bush and the elites of the GOP refused to let go--as evidenced by the nomination of Mitt Romney just four years ago. With the swearing in of President Trump, the last battle for the soul of the GOP looms. McConnell and Paul Ryan, as the leaders of Congress, may yet resist Trump's efforts--though truly only Ryan has the breadth of support within the party, if not the stomach for the fight, to challenge the President--but Donald Trump and Steve Bannon have the mainstream party infrastructure firmly in their crosshairs, and their success in Ohio and Massachusetts suggests that the GOP of George Bush will soon be gone for good.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The end of the New World Order.

The Tweet: Once the ink is dry on the swearing in of the 45th President, it will only be a matter of time before Putin tests his new relationship. When he does, we may see the end of the New World Order of the first President Bush and the rise to the Trump Doctrine.

To hear Vladimir Putin rise to the defense of Donald Trump, as Putin lays the blame for the Russia dossier at the feet of Barack Obama, was remarkable. Why would Donald Trump need our prostitutes, the Russian leader actually said in his purported defense of his new BFF, when he runs all those beauty contests and obviously has plenty of women to choose from. Assuming Putin had nothing to do with the dossier, is there anything he could have said to better draw attention to it?

To hear Donald Trump embrace the words of the Russian President in righteous defense of his own credibility was even more remarkable, particularly as it came in the wake of his announcement that his first foreign trip will be to Moscow, and as he pronounced that he is in favor of removing sanctions levied against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Assuming that Trump is not actually in cahoots with Putin as the dossier suggests, is there anything he could have done to suggest more emphatically that he is?

Jejune is the word that sticks in my mind, courtesy of Woody Allen. Naive and immature. What a combination for our new Commander-in-Chief, and what a gift to Vladimir Putin. A man who the Russian spymaster has been able to engage and manipulate simply by appealing to his abject narcissism. Trump's infatuation with himself and his own instincts may yet change the trajectory of history. Imagine the incomprehension in the minds of world leaders who have observed the machinations of Vladimir Putin over the past two decades, as they watch the new American President tumble farther and farther into the abyss of his own making.

Trump has proven to be easily baited, and will predictably do the opposite of whatever those he views as his adversaries suggest he should do. Thus, the more the intelligence community, along with Senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, point out Putin's transparent duplicity, the greater Trump's determination to continue down the path he has chosen, and the greater the risks that he will drag much of the post-Cold War western democratic order with him.

Is this an overreaction? Is it possible that Donald Trump knows what he is doing, and will succeed in remaking the relationship between the United States and Russia in ways that both George W. Bush and Barack Obama imagined, but failed to do. We will see. But I imagine that Putin will not wait for the ink to dry on the swearing in of the 45th President of the United States before he tests that new relationship.

Who knows how things will transpire, but we do know that President Trump will be tested.

Estonia would be an attractive target. It has a large ethnic Russian population and the country's major population centers are an easy drive by tank from the Russian border. "Estonia is a suburb of St. Petersburg," Trump supporter and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich pronounced last July, as he mirrored Trump's disdain for the NATO alliance and mocked our commitment to come to the defense of the Baltic nation should Russia choose to act.

Perhaps it will begin with riots that erupt in Estonia in response to a cyber attack on its utility grid, leaving the population without power. As the government struggles to contain civil unrest, violence erupts as protesters are shot in the street by armed gangs. Putin reacts swiftly, decrying the loss of life and growing chaos near its border, and sends in military 'peacekeepers' as a humanitarian effort to protect the population--including its minority ethnic Russian population--and successfully quells the violence. Donald Trump applauds Putin’s swift action to restore order and save lives.

By the time a meeting of NATO allies is convened to debate whether Article 5 should be invoked, the moment is passed. Putin agrees to meet with Donald Trump, following which Putin agrees to leave Estonia--noting of course that he never intended to occupy the country--while Trump announces that he has directed the CIA to cease activities in Ukraine.

Trump applauds the negotiated agreement, blaming prior administrations for having instigated events in Ukraine and Georgia for no reason other than to provoke Russia. Trump goes on to suggests that the great powers of the world should henceforth treat each other with respect and deference to their regional issues, which is quickly dubbed the Trump Doctrine, and wildly applauded by his base, while decried by the U.S. and European foreign policy establishment.

Having effectively proved NATO article five to be a dead letter and gotten American advisors out of Ukraine and Georgia, Putin and Trump meet again in Trump Tower, where together they announce the end of sanctions and a new Partnership for Prosperity.

Across Europe, right wing parties celebrate and stock markets collapse as the implications of the new world order begin to settle in. Back in fortress America, Donald Trump cheers the collapse of the old, rigged world--to the wild accolades of his base--while investors and corporations rush to return to the United States, the only safe haven in a new, far riskier, world.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Russia dossier.

The Tweet: Golden shower or no, Russian agent or not, Donald Trump is proving to be a gift beyond Vladimir Putin's wildest dream.

Is Donald Trump a witting or unwitting agent of Russian intelligence as I posited in this space six weeks ago? Former CIA head Michael Morrell raised the issue of Trump being an unwitting agent of the Russian FSB in a New York Times op-ed last August. Now, the question of a more direct relationship has been asserted by the now-infamous dossier on Russian efforts to influence the Presidential election. The latter suggestion is a ludicrous notion on its face, and one that most Republicans and many Democrats must view as lying in the realm of conspiracy.

"Fake news!" was Donald Trump's response to questions about the dossier at his press conference last week. Yet the fact that the dossier was presented to Trump and FBI Director James Comey personally briefed him about it the Friday before the press conference made it news, regardless of how one assesses the content. Fake news is now the stock response of our President-elect to any news that paints him in a negative light, not simply blurring the line between the onslaught of real fake news stories that abounded during the presidential election and the serious institution of journalism, but wiping away the line altogether.

Donald Trump promised that he would disrupt our politics, and he has delivered. His press conference this week was a contentious, chaotic demonstration of what we can expect as a matter of routine going forward. Things will be combative and chaotic because our new president loves combat and chaos. Keeping people on edge is one of the ways he asserts control. He shows no respect for the institution of the press, both because, ironically, denigrating the press assures him more attention and more press, and because attacking the media plays well with his base. As Donald Trump has shown us, he cares about two things--media attention and the adulation of his base--and last week both were on display in spades.

The chaos of the press conference was a further reflection of the fundamental disregard that Trump has for the core institutions of our democracy. Over the past year and a half, he demonstrated repeatedly--in his attacks on Judge Curiel and the Central Park 5--his disdain for the judiciary. And he demonstrated time and time again his willingness to the undermine public confidence in our electoral system if it served his own interests. And then there is his disdain for the press. Not freedom of the press, but the institution of the press itself.

"You know," Trump went on, apparently oblivious to the irony of his words, "I’ve been hearing more and more about a thing called fake news and they’re talking about people that go and say all sorts of things." This from a man who built his public persona and political power base through the cultivation of fake news and conspiracy theory. Years before he became a national celebrity on The Apprentice, Donald Trump honed his craft of cultivating media attention as a fixture of the New York tabloids. He made his bones nationally as a fake news impresario as he single handedly made the Birther movement a force in our politics. He used a false story linking Ted Cruz's father to the assassination of JFK to dispose of his last Republican rival on the eve of the Indiana Primary. Yet there he stood last week, railing away at the assembled media.

"I will tell you, some of the media outlets that I deal with are fake news more so than anybody. I could name them, but I won’t bother, but you have a few sitting right in front of us. They’re very, very dishonest people, but I think it’s just something we’re going to have to live with." 

Yes, if nothing else became clear at his press conference this week, as Trump announced his plan to put his business interests in the hands of his sons, fake news and dishonest people are going to be part of our future.

Trump's ire--though it was not ire at all, but rather theatre--effectively sidetracked much discussion of the dossier on purported Russian efforts to influence the Presidential election. That dossier, prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele for a private client, is a series of memos ostensibly written from June through December of last year.

The memos claim to report on discussions with sources in the Russian government as well as Trump associates. The memos describe Putin as motivated both by visceral hatred of Hillary Clinton as well as long-standing Russian hostility toward liberal democracies encroaching on Russia's borders and influencing its neighboring states. There is nothing inherently implausible about the descriptions in the memos of Russian efforts to influence our election, and the dossier is an interesting read if only on the perspective it suggests on Russian motivations at the highest levels.

The objective of the Russian information operation as described in the dossier was to achieve long-standing Russian objectives to undermine NATO and liberal western democracies through a combination of psychological, cyber and propaganda efforts that it had been unable to achieve through diplomatic initiatives or military intimidation. As stated in the dossier:

The Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting US Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP for at least 5 years. Source B asserted that the TRUMP operation was both supported and directed by Russian President Vladimir PUTIN. Its aim was to sow discord and disunity both within the US itself, but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance which was viewed as inimical to Russia's interests. Source C, a senior Russian financial official said the TRUMP operating should be seen in terms of PUTIN's desire to return to Nineteenth Century 'Great Power' politics anchored upon countries' interests rather than the ideals-based international order established after World War Two.

The report is silent on what other Americans had been cultivated during the same period as Trump, and indeed there is no reason to imagine that the operation dating back years--if it existed--would have only chosen him. Ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, new American Presidents have imagined that they could build a new relationship with Russia, yet each failed to recognize the singular Russian obsession with encirclement by the west and its territorial integrity. The core Russian objectives described in the series of memos of sowing political discord within and between the western democracies and weakening NATO has been a long-standing Putin project, and is one that may well reach full flower with the election of Trump and the rising influence of right wing political parties in Europe that are less antagonistic toward Russia. One Russian source is cited by Steele as explaining why the Kremlin initiated such an aggressive effort on Trump's behalf:

Russia needed to upset the liberal international status quo, including on Ukraine-related sanctions, which was seriously disadvantaging the country. TRUMP was viewed as divisive in disrupting the whole US political system: anti-Establishment; and a pragmatist with whom the could do business.

Notably, the dossier suggests that while Trump had been willing to share information with the Russians over the years, he declined to bite on their offers of financial inducements. This was the context of the aspects of the dossier that are most salacious and have accordingly received the most attention in the media here, but ultimately are the least convincing or interesting aspects of the dossier with respect to what they illustrate about Russian intentions.

The Kremlin's cultivation operation on TRUMP also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia, especially in relation to the ongoing 2018 World Cup soccer tournament. However, so far, for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these... However, there were other aspects to TRUMP's engagement with Russian authorities. One which had born fruit for them was to exploit TRUMP's personal obsessions and sexual perversion in order to obtain suitable 'kompromat' (compromising material) on him.

Unfortunately, media focus on the few salacious paragraphs has overshadowed the light that the dossier claims to offer on Vladimir Putin's determination to destabilize and undermine public faith in democracy in this country. It may be that the entire document is itself an information operation concocted to stir up anti-Russian animosity by parties opposed to Donald Trump's apparent inclination to build an alliance with Putin, but the aspects of the dossier that reflect Russian motivations pursuing their own national interests ring true. Christopher Steele, the author of the dossier, is not a 400 pound Macedonian teenager making up fake news in his bedroom; his British colleagues attest to his credibility. He describes the anger within the Trump camp that their collaboration with Russia might contribute to the overarching  Russian objective of undermining U.S. democratic institutions:

TRUMP's associate also admitted that there was a fair amount of anger and resentment within the Republican candidate's team at what was perceived by PUTIN as going beyond the objective of weakening CLINTON and bolstering TRUMP, by attempting to exploit the situation to undermine the US government and democratic system more generally. 

If undermining our democratic system is Putin's objective, Donald Trump is his man whether or not the dossier is fake. Under the guise of disruption and change, Trump has continued to demonstrate his disdain for the core institutions that support our democracy--the electoral system, the independent judiciary, and the media--and encouraged his supporters to share that disdain. Over the course of his campaign, and now as we approach his inauguration, Trump has managed to take a nation that was already deeply divided and deepen those fissures. Public faith in those institutions is critical to the strength of our democracy. Without that faith, we risk becoming closer to Russia that we might imagine to be possible, which is exactly what Vladimir Putin has in mind.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Manchurian President.

The Tweet: Did Putin recruit Trump as his unwitting agent? Putin won a major information warfare campaign and all Trump seems to care about is whether it makes him look bad.

During the recent angry exchanges between Trump and Clinton campaign operatives at a forum at Harvard University, Kellyanne Conway asked Democrat operatives, “Hashtag he’s your president. How’s that? Will you ever accept the election results?" Perhaps the more important question is will Donald Trump.

Donald Trump won big, and--to paraphrase former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan--he just can't take yes for an answer. Winning has not been enough. As in all manner of things, Trump is driven to claim that he won a victory of historic proportions--despite the fact that his electoral college victory ranks 46th out of 58 elections in our nation's history. First, there were the tweets spurring on the faithful to believe that millions voted illegally. Then, Trump directly asserted that but for those purported illegal votes, he won the popular vote as well.

Now, in response to reports of a CIA assessment--subsequently embraced by the FBI--that the Russian government worked to support his election, Trump and his team shifted into overdrive, turning their fire on the CIA, asserting, inaccurately, the historic proportions of the Trump victory: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history." 

The frailty of Donald Trump's ego has been on display for more than a year now--both his love for those who shower him with praise and his instinct, in Melania's words, to "punch back 10 times harder" when he is attacked. The CIA report was not about him, but rather the conduct of a global adversary, yet Trump felt compelled to view the CIA report as a personal attack, authored with the intention to impugn the legitimacy of what he is now framing as a titanic victory. Oddly, by his tweet storm it was Trump who focused public attention on the notion that without the help of Vladimir Putin, he might not have won the election.

Donald Trump has never won--or lost--an election before. Close elections in particular are replete with accusations and explanations for what affected the results: the ad that someone ran, or the ad that they decided not to run; heavy rain on election day that suppressed turnout; national events that refocused voter attention. There are any number of things that supporters of a losing campaign will bring up as they try to explain their loss in a close race. But it is hard to recall a race where the winning side spent so much effort to explain why they won.

There is nothing new in suggestions by the intelligence community that Russia was attempting to meddle in the U.S. election, or that Vladimir Putin felt a particular animus toward Hillary Clinton. He viewed her as the instigator of U.S. efforts to meddle in Russia's 2011 election, and a significant threat to Russian interests. The Russian information operation against Hillary Clinton involving first the theft and then the strategic leaking of opposition research and emails stolen from the DNC and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta began well before Putin had any idea who the Republican nominee would be. As hard as it is for Trump to imagine, it really was not about him. The emergence of Trump and the prospect of supporting the election of an American President who routinely went out of his way to praise the Russian leader has simply been icing on the cake.

So far, Putin's efforts have produced results beyond anything he could have imagined when he set out to undermine Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. Trump's election and the ensuing nomination of Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State have offered hope to the Russians that a wedge can be driven between the U.S. and the European Union, leading the U.S. to drop economic sanctions imposed in the wake of Russia's intervention in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. But Trump's rejection of the CIA report and his general disdain for the intelligence community has suggested to Putin and the FSB--the successor agency of the KGB--the prospect of achieving the Holy Grail of driving a wedge between the CIA itself and the American President.

Last summer, former CIA head Michael Morell suggested that Vladimir Putin "had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation." To recruit Trump, Morell noted, "Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated." Witting or otherwise, playing to Trump's vanity--his characteristic that makes him both susceptible to flattery and enraged by insults--has become a proven effective strategy, and when you win over Trump, he brings the enthusiastic embrace of his core supporters along for the ride.

“Why not get along with Russia?” Trump asked in his recent Man of the Year interview in Time magazine, as he has at myriad rallies over the course of the campaign. And his supporters who are now driving the Republic Party have dutifully responded. Based on a recent Economist/YouGuv poll, GOP attitudes toward Putin have shifted significantly to align with Trump. Putin's net "favorable/unfavorable" rating among Republicans has improved from -65 (meaning something on the order of 17% positive/83% negative) to -10 (roughly 45%/55%), while only 12% of Trump supporters share the consensus view of the intelligence community that Russia was responsible for the election hacking.

It is hard to know at this point, after 18 months of the Donald Trump for President reality show, if it is his arrogance, narcissism or ignorance that Vladimir Putin found to be the greatest vulnerability that he could exploit. After 18 months during which Donald Trump has trampled whatever rules used to exist for those who aspire to be President, the President-elect has learned that he can do literally whatever he wants and no one will challenge him. Over the past two weeks, he has been unable to resist his overwhelming need to attack the intelligence services because he views their analysis of the evidence--embraced in a bipartisan manner on Capitol Hill--as a personal attack on him and a blemish on the defining nature of his electoral triumph. He is incapable of considering that Vladimir Putin might be playing him.

Donald Trump won the presidential election. Kellyanne Conway should stop yelling at Democrats and try to get her boss to understand that. If he insists on viewing CIA assessments that don't comport with what he wants to hear as acts of insubordination against the Commander in Chief, Vladimir Putin will have scored the biggest victory of all--whether or not his information operation against Hillary Clinton was a determining factor in her defeat, and Donald Trump's victory.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.