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.

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.