Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The road to perdition.

Why, exactly, is anyone surprised? FBI Director James Comey did as Congress asked on Monday when testifying before the House Intelligence Committee. He confirmed that neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice have any information supporting Donald Trump's tweets accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones.

This cannot have come as a surprise to anyone. Since Trump first tweeted his accusation two weeks ago, defenders of the President have been scurrying to his defense. As President, they argued, Trump must have sources of information that the rest of us don't know about. Yet it was apparent from the outset that it was just more of the same old, same old. Trump's information source for the first tweet--accusing Barack Obama of bugging his phones--was a rant by right-wing talk show star Mark Levin that was written up in Breitbart. Levin did suggest that phones in Trump Tower may have been under surveillance, but all of the information he cited referenced legal investigations--a fact that Trump omitted from his comments on the matter. The second tweet was more egregious--accusing the British spy agency GCHQ of tapping his phones on Obama's behalf--and Trump himself later acknowledged that his only source of information was comments made by Fox News "analyst" and Trump groupie Andrew Napolitano that Trump saw on TV.

This was vintage Donald Trump, full of bluff and bluster, and animated by conspiracy theories for as long as he has been in the public eye. This is the man who boasted that he got his military intelligence from the Sunday morning shows, who claimed to know more about ISIS than the Generals, and who eschewed the daily intelligence briefings. This is the man whose rivals in the Republican primaries warned that he was a con man, a pathological liar, and a cancer on the Republican Party. Yet any number of senior, respected Republican members of Congress still saw fit to place their own credibility on the line in his defense.

And, true to form, in the wake of Comey's testimony giving the lie to the entire episode, the White House responded by confirming that Trump has no intention of withdrawing--much less apologizing for--his accusations. The only question that was left at the end of the day was how on earth could anyone be surprised?

For all the build up, we actually learned little new from this week's testimony by James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. They confirmed what had long been concluded by any reasonable observer: that Russia's President Vladimir Putin led an information operation targeting our presidential election, and that the FBI was continuing to investigate Russia's actions, as well as potential collusion in Russia's operations by Trump campaign operatives. Comey described Putin's strategy as having three distinct objectives: first, to seed chaos in our election and damage public confidence in U.S. democratic institutions; second, to undermine Hillary Clinton as a candidate and--presuming she was expected to win--her credibility and capacity as President; and, finally, to support Donald Trump's campaign. In response to Republican pushback, Comey specifically emphasized that it was not just that Putin deeply detested Clinton and wanted her to lose, Putin wanted Trump to win.

Republicans have been dragged kicking and screaming to accept the fact of Russia's efforts on Donald Trump's behalf. It was not enough that Republicans won the presidency, they seemed determined to feel clean and righteous about how things transpired. Even as many Republicans ultimately came to acknowledge over the past few months that the Russian operation was real, they were always quick to caveat any discussion of Putin's efforts with the disclaimer that, 'of course, nothing Russia did impacted the results of the election.' If nothing else, that codicil to the discussion of Russia's efforts was debunked by the tenor of Monday's testimony.

We will, of course, never know what the impact ultimately was of Russia's operation on the outcome of the election. Donald Trump lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College by virtue of a combined 77,000 vote margin in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, representing a mere 0.06% of the 127 million votes cast across the country. It was an outcome that has been attributed by some to Clinton's lack of an effective campaign message and evident disdain for the white working class voters who flocked to Trump, and by others to James Comey's own interventions into the race. But given the closeness of the race--Republican disclaimers notwithstanding--one simply cannot dismiss the impact of Russian intervention as a factor that may have tipped the balance. Russia's cyber and disinformation efforts--including the steady stream of WikiLeaks disclosures--had the effect of a months-long campaign of attack ads designed to drive up Clinton's negatives.

Even as Comey and Rogers were testifying before the House committee, Trump tweeted out in his own inimitable fashion to try to spin their words as an affirmation that Russia's operations had no impact on the outcome. Told of Trump's tweet, Comey retorted in real time that Trump was misstating his and Rogers' conclusions. Rogers had testified that there was no evidence that voting machines were tampered with, but, Comey stated to correct the record, neither he nor Rogers meant to suggest that the Russian efforts had no impact on the outcome. The target of the Russian campaign was not the voting machines, it was the voters. And in that regard, Comey suggested that it was likely that Russia will be back again in two or four years, seeking to wreck further havoc in our elections, for the simple reason that they will conclude that their efforts this time around were successful.

Last Sunday, Meet the Press host Chuck Todd suggested that, in the wake of the ongoing controversy surrounding the tweets, Donald Trump was struggling with a credibility gap that was threatening his ability to push the healthcare bill through the House. The healthcare vote, scheduled for tomorrow, looms to be a crucial test of how badly Trump has been weakened by his continuing conduct and his nationally televised rebuke at the hands of James Comey and Mike Rogers.

It was not surprising that just a day after their testimony, the stock market suffered its worst one day decline of the year--as traders began to question whether Trump would be able to deliver on the tax cuts he has promised--and conservatives in the House began to push back against Trump's demands that they fall in line and support his healthcare bill.

Chuck Todd's comments raised the question of how a conspiracy theorist and demagogue who long ago sacrificed any claims to credibility could suddenly have a credibility gap. The answer, of course, is that Republicans have been steadfast in their to determination to convince themselves that Donald Trump is someone other than who he really is. Just ten months ago, Marco Rubio warned that they were dealing with a con man, and Ted Cruz warned that Trump was a pathological liar.

That was the Donald Trump who loomed in the background as the House committee listened to testimony, the man who Rick Perry suggested early on was a cancer on conservatism, a toxic mix of demagoguery and mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party on the road to perdition. Republicans--who sat shaken and ashen-faced as Comey spoke--had to be asking themselves how far down that road they are prepared to go.

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

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Putin, Trump and the rise of the deep state.

Last week, an Agence France-Presse news report published in Le Soir, a major French language daily newspaper, made the rounds on social media. The story suggested that the campaign of leading French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron was being funded by Saudi Arabia. The report was immediately retweeted by right-wing National Front candidate Marine Le Pen. It was fake news as it turned out--actual fake news, not the Donald Trump variety. It was clickbait mocked up to look like Le Soir, with the intention of slandering the leading presidential contender in the upcoming French elections. Like déjà vu all over again, it provided a stark reminder that ours are not the only politics that have been under attack.

Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front party as an extreme right-wing, nationalist movement. She has led the normalization of the National Front in France, and the parallel rise of right-wing populist movements cross Europe. The National Front's anti-immigrant, anti-globalization platform in the French presidential race mirrors that of the Donald Trump campaign.

The National Front has received significant funding from a Russian bank. Marine Le Pen supported Russia's annexation of Crimea, opposes sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, and proposes to pull France out of both the European Union and NATO. If Le Pen were to win the French elections beginning next month, it would change the face of Europe. She is currently in a dead heat in the first round of polling, though well behind in a projected second round runoff. If she does prevail, it would mark a dramatic victory for the cyber and information operations that Vladimir Putin has orchestrated against the West.

Russian fear of and hostility toward the West is not new, and not unique to Vladimir Putin. It may not seem relevant to Americans as they consider Putin's aggressive behavior, but Russia is a country with no natural defenses--neither oceans nor mountains--that has been surrounded over the centuries by innumerable external enemies. Only the Russian winter and spring mud enabled Russia to withstand invasions by Sweden, France and Germany in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. If Russians seem paranoid, it is not because people haven't been out to get them. In America, the attack on Pearl Harbor, 2,500 miles from the mainland, is our only experience with being invaded. We cannot relate to the impact on a national psyche of being invaded repeatedly over the centuries.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has been in a state of demographic decline and economic turmoil, and under political siege by the West, as the European Union and NATO have each expanded into former Soviet states that once protected Russia from the west. It is no secret that Putin has trying for years to push back against western encroachment into what he terms Russia's "near abroad," and Russia's efforts to influence and undermine elections across Europe over the past several decades are part of that effort.

Putin's objectives in recent years have included (i) undermining public confidence in core democratic institutions in the advanced western democracies , (ii) building support for opposition parties that might challenge the pro-western, anti-Russian political consensus across Europe, and (iii) driving a wedge between European public opinion and the United States, which has led the alliance of western advanced industrial democracies since the end of World War II.

The election of Le Pen in France would constitute Putin's second major victory in his cyber warfare and information operations strategy, because he is already well underway to a first victory in the United States. By all accounts, Putin's objectives in operations against the United States have similarly been to undermine public confidence in democratic institutions, as well as to undermine the widely anticipated Hillary Clinton presidency by polarizing public opinion against her and undermining her political stature such that she would be less effective once elected.

The media and political focus continues to be on whether a collaborative relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign can be proven. Last week former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated that the U.S. intelligence services had no evidence documenting such a relationship, though reiterated as well that the intelligence community believed that Putin--whose animosity toward Clinton was well known--clearly preferred that Trump win.

And for good reason. If Putin's goals have been to undermine public confidence in and support for core democratic institutions across the U.S. public, Donald Trump has proven to be as good an agent of change as he could have hoped for. Whatever their relationship, Trump has systematically sought to undermine public confidence in our electoral system, the judiciary, the press and the intelligence services.

And it has worked. In the wake of Trump's continuing insistence that the American electoral system is rigged and rife with voter fraud--despite the lack of any credible evidence--two-thirds of Trump supporters, and nearly half of the electorate as a whole, now apparently believe, that voter fraud is significant.

With respect to the fourth estate, Trump's cynical campaign to brand major news outlets as purveyors of fake news--ultimately declaring them to be enemies of the people--has similarly worked, as recent polling suggests that 65% of Republicans and 44% of the general public have bought into Trump's contention that reporters makes stories up out of whole cloth.

Trump's ongoing war with the intelligence services has put Putin within reach of the Holy Grail of the Russian intelligence: driving a wedge between the U.S. intelligence services and the President, leaving the public uncertain of what information on the threats to the nation they should believe.

Putin understands well that public faith in the integrity of the election system, the independent judiciary and the free press are central to the stability of western democracies. It is what separates them from countries like Venezuela. Or, for that matter, Russia.

Most recently, in the wake of Trump's tweets claiming that Barack Obama bugged his phone, Donald Trump and his senior strategist Steve Bannon have begun to push the narrative that there is a "deep state" that is plotting to overthrow his presidency. The deep state--a cabal of the intelligence services in collaboration with the former president--is a conspiracy theorists dream. It likens the United States to countries like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, where real power is widely viewed as tightly held within the military and intelligence circles. Where the deep state rules, democracy is an illusory concept.

So far, the deep state narrative has had limited traction beyond Trump's most partisan stalwarts, though on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dutifully doubled down on it. But the Wikileaks dumping of the CIA Vault 7 documents should add credibility to the deep state narrative among conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters alike, suggesting that like the news media, the CIA is the enemy of the people. 

The fake news attacks against the French elections should serve as a reminder that we actually have real enemies, and they aren't the news media or the CIA. It may be hard for Republicans embroiled in the heat of our daily politics to keep matters in perspective, but investigating whether or not the Trump campaign was in cahoots with Russian intelligence is not about party loyalty. It is about, first and foremost, a very cunning foreign adversary who has succeeded in undermining the integrity of our election and those of our allies. And, second, it is about whether one political campaign conspired with a foreign adversary for its own political advantage. It is about the security and integrity of our democracy.

And then there is the very separate issue of Donald Trump's conduct. Whether out of some alignment of interests with Putin--or more likely for his own self-interested reasons--the Manchurian President who now sits in the Oval Office has repeatedly acted to undermine core institutions of our democracy to an extent that only Vladimir Putin could have imagined. Each time he has gone off with one more unhinged attack, various Republicans have spoken out, while a far greater number have tried to sweep the significance of what he has said or tweeted under the rug. But there is nothing insignificant about any of it, and taken as a whole--whether Russia was involved or not--it is a big, big deal.

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

Monday, March 06, 2017

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Donald Trump is a master troll, and Saturday was the pièce de résistance, his masterpiece. With a single tweet accusing Barack Obama of tapping his phones, Trump has thrown the nation's politics into a state of frenzied disarray once again.

In the ensuing fire drill, everyone assumed their proper roles. Major newspapers and investigative journalists headed off to respond to his claims. Senior members of Congress abandoned whatever they were doing to address the media. The Secretaries of State and Defense rushed to assure nervous allies across the globe that they should ignore the lunatic in the White House.

This time, Trump amped it up a notch, suggesting that the FBI and the former President orchestrated illegal surveillance against him. And they rose to the bait. FBI Director Jim Comey demanded that the Department of Justice refute Trump's claim and defend the integrity of the FBI. Caught between defending the integrity of Jim Comey and Donald Trump, officials apparently checked to see who signed their paychecks and declined to come to Comey's defense.

Then--no doubt to Trump's glee--Barack Obama denied Trump's accusation. Trump's trolling worked; by his denial, Obama gave Trump supporters all the evidence they needed to know that Trump's claim must be true, and no doubt deepened their resolve to defend him in the escalating battles that are inevitably in store.

Perhaps the most successful impact of Trump's tweets on Saturday is that he has framed the story as being about illegal actions by the FBI and Barack Obama. There is no evidence, people are screaming, there is no conspiracy. But they are wrong. There may not be a conspiracy, but there certainly is evidence.

The story began last Thursday evening on Mark Levin's radio show. Levin, a conservative talk radio star and former Reagan administration official, laid out his case that Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump prior to the election and orchestrated a "silent coup" against him. On Fox News, Levin walked through public newspaper accounts of the FBI seeking FISA court approval for surveillance because of evidence that suggested collaboration between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to support the election of Donald Trump. Notably, Levin did not suggest the taps were illegal or done without warrants, he simply connected that fact of FBI surveillance of Trump associates to Obama's presence, and concluded "police state."

Trump is an eager consumer of right-wing conspiracy agitprop, and by Saturday morning the Obama silent coup theory was the subject of a Trump twitter storm.

The facts are in Trump's favor, but facts and truth are not the same thing. By all accounts, it appears that the FBI did have active wiretaps that included individuals in Trump Tower. When those taps were put into place, Barack Obama was the President, and the FBI by definition worked for him. Therefore, by Trump's syllogistic logic--sufficient logic for his followers to buy in--Obama "had" the phones in Trump Tower tapped.

But the facts as laid out by Mark Levin actually describe a somewhat different story. Unlike Donald Trump's intimation that the taps were illegal and orchestrated by Obama, Levin's own argument described them as legal taps approved by the FISA judge, specifically targeting Russian banks suspected of wiring funds to the Trump campaign.

Levin never makes the case--or even suggests--that Barack Obama directed anything the FBI did. The fact that the White House received information on the investigation--which Levin does highlight in a manner suggesting there was a conspiracy--is well known. The fact that Barack Obama knew of the investigation into the relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign and did not make that information public, or otherwise act on it, remains a particularly sore point for the Clintons and many Democrats.

The evidence Levin complied pointed to the Russia dossier, which was first made public earlier this year. The 35 page dossier comprises a series of intelligence memoranda--prepared by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele--regarding communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign over a seven month period from June through December of last year.

The dossier was originally published by Buzzfeed on January 10th, the same day that CNN reported that Donald Trump had been briefed about its contents by the Director of National Intelligence and the heads of the FBI, the CIA and the NSA. The contents of the dossier were widely greeted by the media with skepticism, as the information could not be independently verified. Clearly, however, by the fact that the most senior members of the intelligence community briefed the President-elect about its contents, the substance of the dossier was not being dismissed out of hand.

And now, Mark Levin and Donald Trump have reminded the world that the FBI has indeed taken the dossier seriously, and that it has been leading a coordinated criminal investigation into evidence connecting the Trump campaign to Russian efforts to subvert the American presidential election. Somewhere, in hiding for his life since the publication of the dossier, Christopher Steele must be smiling at the irony of Trump's tweet.

The irony is that through his raucous defense of the President last Thursday, Mark Levin unintentionally smoked out the new, presidential Donald Trump, who had made an appearance before a joint session of Congress just two days earlier. The world understood that the test of the new Donald Trump was whether, in the wake of his widely acclaimed speech, he could show the self-discipline to avoid one of his 6 a.m. off-his-meds tweetstorms, lashing out at who-knows-who for having done who-knows-what. And there it was, at 6:35 a.m. on Saturday, an enraged Trump took Levin's bait and ran with it, insinuating that Barack Obama and the FBI had illegally tapped his phone; accusing his predecessor in the White House of "police state" tactics.

Once again, Donald Trump has trolled the country to great effect, but the substance of what he and Mark Levin have done is to bring the focus of the FBI investigation to light. Up until now, Jim Comey has been reluctant to talk in detail about the FBI investigation into the relationships between Russia and the Trump organization. Now--particularly if the Department of Justice declines to refute Trump's allegations--Comey may have little choice but to acknowledge the direction of the FBI investigation into the substance of the relationships laid out in Christopher Steele's dossier. Tweets that Trump imagined might put Comey in a corner and neuter the investigations underway by the intelligence agencies might, at the end of the day, have the opposite impact.

Since Saturday, the media has focused on whether there is evidence to support what they suggest is Trump's claim that the FBI and Barack Obama conducted illegal surveillance against him. But they are missing the point. Trump never actually suggests in his tweets that anything illegal was done. The real story is the one hiding in plain site: The Russia dossier. That is the story that Trump has been seeking to evade since Carter Page--a long-time Trump associate who appears several times in the dossier--disappeared from the campaign in mid-2016. It is the story Donald Trump and Mark Levin inadvertently brought back to life this week, and that--because of Trump's Saturday morning tweetstorm--we now know that the FBI is continuing to pursue.

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

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Donald Trump's extraordinary, extraordinary moment.

For a moment there, it appeared that Donald Trump had turned a corner. He delivered a speech to Congress last Tuesday widely acclaimed to be presidential in tone. Pundits had suggested in the hours leading up to the speech that Trump would unveil a softer tone on immigration. He was going to heed the words of his new National Security Advisor and eschew the use of the term radical Islamic terrorists. A New Donald Trump was going to emerge.

When I listened to Donald Trump's speech to Congress, the extent of my halo effect problem with him made it difficult for me to buy into the New Donald Trump theory. After several years of listening to him, I have developed a pretty bad attitude. I am predisposed to not believe anything he says. It is a terrible admission--particularly now that he is sitting in the Oval Office--though not one that I believe is unique to me.

Trump has worked hard to earn my distrust. For years, all I heard from Donald Trump were words that were consistently, demonstrably, and most of the time intentionally, false. For the past half decade or more, back to the Birther movement, he has been the most aggressive practitioner of rumor mongering and fake news as a political tactic in the country, enthusiastically repeating or promoting one conspiracy theory or another.

As he started to speak on Tuesday, reading from a teleprompter, he spoke to the threats against Jewish communities across the country and the shooting of two Indian software engineers in Kansas. He spoke with a presidential tone about a nation "that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms." He evoked the words of JFK and the responsibility of each generation to continue the pursuit of truth, liberty and justice. "I am here tonight," he pronounced, "to deliver a message of unity and strength, and it is a message deeply delivered from my heart."

I recognized the voice, but the words seemed out of place. The simple act of saying that the message of unity was deeply delivered from my heart, highlighted how at odds his words were with the persona that he cultivated so assiduously. I could not help but recall a tweet from David Duke earlier that day. David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the KKK and a prominent personality within the alt-right, tweeted, "President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these [threatening] calls to get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda." Then, a few hours after Duke's tweet, Trump floated the idea to a group of states attorneys general that the rash of threats to Jewish communities might be "false flag" efforts "to make others look bad."

That was the Donald Trump I knew; the Donald Trump who has spent years walking a fine line between his flirtations with racists and bigots, and adhering to the standards of civil society; the Donald Trump who, in direct contradiction to his words in that speech, has given license to the rise in hateful actions we have seen across the country for months now, against immigrants, against minorities, against gays and trans people, and against Jews. Tuesday, it appeared, was just one more day. In the morning, Donald Trump was David Duke's guy; that evening, he gave a speech that pundits declared proved that he had finally embraced the mantle of the presidency. But it was all just words.

He read the speech from a teleprompter, and it was clearly a speech with input from those close to him who were trying to clean up his act and put words in his mouth. He stuck to the script diligently, and he delivered it well, but I just knew that this was not the @realDonaldTrump. It was just a matter of time and we would hear the @realDonaldTrump slip into the speech.

And it happened. He could not control himself. "Tonight, as I outline the next steps we must take as a country, we must honestly acknowledge the circumstances we inherited. Ninety-four million Americans are out of the labor force..."

Busted. As the Gipper would have said, There you go again.

Back in August of 2015, on Sarah Palin's cable show, Trump rolled out this meme, an alternative fact which would become a stock piece in his stump speech and elemental to his American carnage leitmotif. There are, he insisted then, foreshadowing his speech on Tuesday, “93 million people out of work. They look for jobs, they give up, and all of a sudden, statistically, they're considered employed.” 

It was a meaningless number then, and it is a meaningless number now. His number includes students, retirees, the infirm and those working in the home. But Trump is addicted to hyperbole, the mundane facts of the world as it is bore him. It is a lot more interesting to paint a picture of a nation in ruins than talking about the 7.8 million officially unemployed, or even the somewhat larger number including underemployed and discouraged workers. Trump's interest was not then, and is not now, in accurate information. 93 million out of work was emblematic of his deceptive, deceitful use of fake news and alternative facts to rile up his base. Mexican rapists. Syrian terrorists. Muslim presidents. False flag attacks by Jews. All part of the bombastic dissembling of the man who is now our president.

Yet lo and behold, in the hours after the speech, cable news pundits confirmed that which they had predicted. Donald Trump came off as presidential. His tone and bearing exceeded that very low bar that has been set for him. As it turned out, he hardened, rather than softened, his tone on immigration, and he uttered the words radical Islamic terrorists with particular relish--as if to rebuke H.R. McMaster for suggesting that he should do otherwise--but he placated those pundits and network analysts by giving a nod to paid family leave.

For more than a year now, over the course of the campaign, and now into the early weeks of his presidency, we have been promised at critical moments that, this time, Donald Trump is going to pivot. And like Charlie Brown lining up to kick the football, each time people believe that this time will be different.

And yet, the pivot never comes. This Tuesday, we were duped again, suckered in one more time. For twelve hours or so following the speech, it looked like he had done it, he was softening his tone, managing his Twitter finger, becoming presidential. He was pivoting! A measure of his success was the vitriol launched from the left against Democrat activist turned CNN analyst Van Jones who declared Trump's recognition of Carryn Owens "one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics. Period." To those that feared that Trump would finally rise to the occasion and become a unifying president, the notion that Trump might get his act together as Jones suggested was terrifying.

But they needn't have worried. By the next day, the illusions of a normalized Donald Trump faded quickly. The Washington Post turned the attention of the political world to Jeff Sessions' dissembling about his Russian contacts, and Donald Trump returned to full coverup and deflection mode. The tweeter-in-chief resumed his morning ritual. And there was Lucy, walking away with the football, shaking her head and laughing, as those who had bought into the New Donald Trump story lay flat on their backs, like Charlie Brown taken in once again.

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

Monday, February 27, 2017

The elephant in the room.

The Tweet: The conservative movement sold its soul to the Trump Presidency. Together, Trump and Steve Bannon stand in abject opposition to everything conservatism once stood for. Each day conservatives fail to confront the President brings them a day closer to the complete undoing of the conservative movement.

At the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, Dan Schneider, the Executive Director of the American Conservative Union (ACU)--the ancestral home of the conservative movement--railed against the growing influence of the alt-right within their ranks. They were, he insisted "hate-filled, left-wing fascists... They are antisemites. They are racists. They are sexists. They hate the Constitution. They hate free markets. They hate pluralism. They hate everything and despise everything we believe in." 

It was startling to hear Schneider raise the specter of fascism in a public forum. While it is a term thrown around frequently on the left these days, on that end of the political spectrum fascism is generally viewed as a hate-filled, right-wing movement. No one, it seems, wants to own fascism, but it is clearly on many people's mind.

Commenting from London last week on the rise of populist insurgents in the United States and Europe, Philip Stephens of the Financial Times recalled a review of Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf written by George Orwell in 1940, reflecting on the urge at the time to resist calling fascism what it was: "The obvious intention of the translator's preface and notes is to tone down the book's ferocity and present Hitler in as kindly a light as possible. At that date [1939] Hitler was still respectable. He had crushed the German Labour movement, and for that the property-owning classes were willing to forgive him almost anything. Both Left and Right concurred in the very shallow notion that National Socialism was merely a version of Conservatism."

Orwell's words are mirrored in the struggles in the conservative movement to respond to the rise of Trump. During the presidential campaign, the Board of the ACU was split between those who successfully argued that the group must endorse him because he was the Republican nominee, and those who were repelled by both Trump and the alt-right fringe he brought with him. Last week, the Board finally took a stand, deciding to deny a platform to alt-right notables Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer.

But it was too little, too late. The actions by the Board resolved little. The elephant in the room was Steve Bannon, Donald Trump's chief strategist, who had been excluded from CPAC in previous years on account of his bomb-throwing affiliation with the alt-right. Schneider did not specifically mention Bannon by name in his jeremiad against the alt-right influences permeating the conservative movement, but Bannon's presence at CPAC as the power behind the throne in the new Republican administration was not lost on anyone.

Steve Bannon firmly rejects the notion that he is a white nationalist, claiming instead the more politically correct monicker of "economic nationalist." But truth be told, unlike his boss, Bannon is not a guy who seems to care very much what label people assign to him. As much as he might play it down, Bannon was not kidding when, in 2013, he told a reporter that he is a Leninist"Lenin wanted to destroy the state," Bannon reportedly said at the time, "and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment." Bannon has barely moderated his taste for hyperbole since achieving the apex of power. This week, he declared at CPAC that among his goals is "the deconstruction of the administrative state."

Bannon is opaque about what his notion of economic nationalism entails, or what he imagines the U.S. 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. 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 to have more in mind than jawboning a few American transnational corporations to build a factory or two in eastern Kentucky or the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Bannon is an obscurantist--that is to say that he talks and acts in a manner to deliberately obscure what his intentions are--and then he bemoans the "smear campaigns" by the media who he claims do not accurately portray him or his intentions. Then he carries those smears as a badge of honor, adding to the dark, enigmatic persona that he appears to cultivate.

Listening to Bannon's talks and reading interviews from over the years, one can glean a number of themes woven into the tapestry of his world view. These are his words, his own framing of his world view. At the Liberty Restoration Foundation in 2011, he discussed the pall that the nation's staggering unfunded financial burdens cast on our future, and which our political system has proven itself incapable of tackling. Appearing before a symposium organized by conservative critics of Pope Francis in the Vatican in 2014, he suggested that modern capitalism had been undone by greed--that it has lost its grounding in Judeo-Christian morality that once tempered its worst instincts--and by crony capitalism that enabled elites in government and business to profit at the expense of the rest of society.

The economic decay of the west, as symbolized by this over-leveraging and degradation of capitalism--challenges for which, it is important to note, he has actually offers few apparent solutions beyond nationalist rhetoric--combines with his view of the civilizational war between the "Judeo-Christian West" and Islam to produce the dark vision of America and the world evident in Donald Trump's inaugural address. As Bannon explained at the Vatican"We’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict... against this new barbarity... that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years." 

And then there was Bannon's interview with Donald Trump on Breitbart News in 2015, early on in his cultivation of the President. In that discussion, Bannon expressed his opposition to legal and illegal immigration alike, his view of American Muslims as a fifth column, posing an existential threat to the nation, and the problems of Asian ownership and influence in the Silicon Valley. When Trump demurred mildly, Bannon pushed back. “A country is," he argued to Trump, reflecting his ethno-nationalist argument that the United States and its culture are being undermined by the forces of globalism and multiculturalism, "more than an economy. We’re a civic society.

Bannon has found in Trump a means to rescue a nation that is in economic decline, has drifted away from its moral grounding, and is under siege from a hostile, barbarian civilization. Taken together, Bannon's radical, millennialist vision and infatuation with power, and Trump's "I alone can fix it" infatuation with himself, stand in abject opposition to long-standing conservative principles. Dan Schneider's words may have resonated with those movement conservatives who have not been seduced by the lure of a Republican presidency, but it was way too little, too way late. The conservative movement, or what was left of it, had been subsumed under the Trump banner.

There was Steve Bannon, sharing the CPAC stage with Reince Priebus--Trump's dutiful factotum, who has no grasp of the historical moment. Bannon described the new political order that they were bringing together and warned the audience of the battles that lay ahead. Then he issued his call to arms in the ethno-nationalist language of the populist movements sweeping across Europe: "We are a nation with a culture and a — and a reason for being. And I think that is what unites us."

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

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.