Trump, the view from Moon Zealand

For a while now I’ve wondered when exactly we should start taking seriously what is going on in US politics around Donald Trump. How foolish of me. The time is now. Right now.

Let’s be clear: Trump is not going to be President of the United States of America. He has terrified more people than he’s won over, and the demographics in the US have shifted against anyone who cannot appeal across ethnic lines. I don’t know how great this disparity is – it might be scarily close – but barring some late-stage game changer, I can’t see any path to the Oval Office for Trump.

Let’s also be clear, the fact that I had to write the above paragraph is *fucking terrifying*. Because look where we’re at: Donald Trump is quids in to get the Republican nomination and run for President with the banner of the GOP fluttering over his head. This is a man who is holding a series of rallies where the main entertainment is shouting down and ejecting protestors, loudly booing enemies, and cheering wildly at the prospect of building a giant wall between the US and Mexico. A giant wall! This is the act of a carnival barker crossed with a demagogue. There has never been a major candidate so floridly unfit for political authority of any kind, yet somehow he is not only in the contest for a Presidential nomination, he is very likely to win it.

“Somehow” is the loaded word, there, suggesting Trump has popped up out of nowhere like a Jack-in-the-box with orange skin and a combover. He hasn’t, of course. Trump has been on the scene for a long time, and has spoken of running for President for a long time. He was never taken seriously by sensible people, but it turns out he had the measure of the game the whole time. Trump saw the control systems of US politics are fundamentally broken, and someone like him could walk right in through the shattered glass and start kicking levers. And that is exactly what he’s done.

He will fail to get elected. With any luck, he will shrug off the failure like has has so many others and turn his attention to other things, depriving his supporters of an aggrieved leader to whom they might pledge themselves. The Republican party as a whole will be shaken and weakened. It might, in fact, seem like a happy ending. This could even be true, as an ending to the story of Trump’s political gambit. The problem is, this is not an ending at all. The events of 2016 are much better understood as a beginning, because Trump’s toddler-level manhandling of the sparking, smoking US political control panel is tearing the whole machine to pieces.

“Somehow”. There will be books and books written, trying to explain how the US ended up here, but sitting on the distant moon that is NZ, staring through the telescope, the narrative seems to run like this:

After the second world war, times were good in America, at least if you were white and straight and male. Most folks were reading from the same book, if not always the same page, about how the economy should be managed, whether business needed to be reined in to prevent another depression, and how society should look after the less well-off. For some, this was unacceptable. Government intervention in the economy, progressive taxation and the welfare state were the enemy, and starting from a base in the media (Willam F. Buckley’s National Review), a new conservative movement grew, spawning think tanks and an energetic force of College Republicans.

Movement conservatism began in furious opposition to socialism (which it identified with communism), and before long it found this base of paranoia could easily extend to other fearsome boogeymen. The movement cynically co-opted anxiety over the civil rights movement to annex the sympathies of poor white voters in the south, and over growing secularism and immorality to secure the evangelical Christian vote. The racial politics harmonized with Nixon’s southern strategy, and Ronald Reagan came up through the movement’s institutions to become the first movement conservative President. His Presidency interwove the small-government aims of the movement with the paranoid identity politics that energised it. This frame has remained in place to the present day.

This ideology – use paranoia over blacks, gays and commies to drive a free market agenda – was in place just in time for an enormous infrastructural transition. Communications technology had been slowly changing for a century, but deregulation and new technology in the 80s brought about the era of cable news, and in the early 90s, Fox News was created as a propaganda arm for the movement in the same way many newspapers carried water for certain ideological positions. The power of 24 hour news to shape how its audience saw the world was unprecedented, far exceeding anything the newspapers could achieve. Radio developed along the same lines. The internet followed and in short order it developed intense demographic sorting; political battlegrounds were fierce but the majority of political content online was about reinforcing partisan messages for an audience of allies. In the space of a decade, the conservative-inclined found themselves encased in a bubble of TV, radio and internet that presented a unified picture of civilization under assault, increasingly disconnected from anything resembling reality.

This was the culmination of a political project. Political leadership could have countered these developments, and steered the polity back towards a town square of mutual comprehension, but instead it was welcomed and encouraged by those in power. Karl Rove, a Buckley acolyte who had come of age through the College Republicans, positioned himself as the architect of George W. Bush’s ascension, and his contempt for the very idea of real-world conditions came through in the famous quote (attributed to him) about the reality-based community: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”

It did not take long for the movement’s representatives in power to strike the limits of their disregard for reality. Their Middle East adventures descended into a horrific quagmire, economic policy settings led directly to a series of shocks culminating in an economic collapse that wreaked havoc on the globe, and natural disaster in New Orleans showed the horrific consequences of running down civic infrastructure. As delegates attempted to navigate these checks on their ability to create their own reality, the movement’s popular base reacted in fury. Trained by two decades of media messaging within their bubble, they interpreted this hedging as moral weakness. The rise of Barack Obama – a black man with a middle name associated with Islam – only stoked this fury further. The Tea Party movement came into being, and immediately started influencing elections. The movement conservatives had created an electorate fuelled by paranoia, and now found themselves judged for insufficient purity. Things were by now utterly out of the control of any Rove-style planning committee, with the selection of the comically underqualified Sarah Palin as running mate for the Republican candidate in the 2008 election identifiable as the moment where the party’s elite officially lost their grip on the steering wheel.

The situation has essentially remained unchanged since 2008, although it has worsened, achieving even greater extremes of fearful division within the American polity. The movement conservatives spent decades encasing their supporters in a bubble of identity-based fear. They aimed to exploit these voters for economic ends, but lost control of them, and have no way of reining them in. The bubble is self-sustaining, cynically maintained by publishers and broadcasters who derive revenue from stoking the paranoia ever-higher. It is floating further and further away from ground.

And that brings us to 2016. Trump has come in speaking directly to the fears of those in the bubble, while ignoring entirely the economic policy settings that were initially the point of the exercise. Not only is he uninterested in connecting these voters back to real conditions in the world, he is propelling the bubble ever higher into the stratosphere. The many comparisons between Trump and fascism are appealing precisely because he is using fear as his fuel. And one of the consequences of fear is violence.

If Trump gets the nomination – and it seems unlikely he will fail to do so, now – he will not pivot. He has no other setting to pivot towards. He has no policy to discuss, no insight into social matters, no grasp of foreign policy, and no inclination to ever address these things. He will spend his time on the campaign trail perpetuating the same act he has been perfecting thus far, because it is the only one open to him. He will put on a show, and encourage fear and rage, and do everything short of openly inciting violence against his enemies.

He will lose, thankfully. But when he loses the election, what will follow him? Because, be certain, there are other demagogues eagerly preparing to harness the forces Trump is whipping into a frenzy. And those forces themselves will continue to swirl through the electorate, degrading any possibility of reconciliation between belief and fact, let alone between left and right prescriptions for solving the problems of society. Things seem like they are going to get worse, the kind of worse that reverberates out from the United States and affects everywhere else, because when the USA sneezes the entire rest of the world needs to wipe snot off their faces.

But, sitting here on Moon Zealand spying through my telescope, it seems to me there is hope, because that bubble, while becoming ever more vociferous, ever more divorced from reality, and ever more dangerous, is also becoming smaller. Steadily, slowly, surely smaller. The future is gay marriage. The future is Black Lives Matter. The future is Occupy. The future is interfaith understanding. The future is identity-based paranoia slipping away and a pendulum swing away from the extremes of economic liberalism.

It will take time. I like to talk about a “national conversation” when trying to make sense of events and how a society responds to them. The movement conservative paradigm deliberately disrupted this national conversation, which was already less than evenly-spread. The real world in the USA is heavily demographically sorted, and the communications world even moreso. But change is possible nonetheless. Witness the arc from Reagan Press Secretary cracking jokes when asked about AIDS, through to gay marriage becoming widely accepted. This change was never inevitable but the result of countless moments of work, first by activists, and finally by ordinary people who had come to know gay people as pretty much ordinary too. That’s the national conversation. Homosexuality defies demographic sorting, it can pop up like a glorious rainbow in any family, but even deprived of this benefit other identity barriers will also be ground down over time (if never overcome).

I see hope but that hope cannot be taken for granted. The bubble of fear created by Buckley and Rove and Trump and so many others will wreak havoc if it isn’t fought. Resistance is necessary. The fight has already begun, with massive protests against the hate-filled Trump rallies just a sign of what is ahead.

Those in the USA who have to step out into this bubble of fear: you’re doing the hard work. Respect.

Everyone else, around the world: our job is to watch, and to listen, and to support. For even though we are far away, the world is made of connections between people, and we can contribute to the communications environment around those stepping to the line against Trump.

So be reasonable, be considerate, be thoughtful, be kind. Listen. Celebrate difference. Refuse fear. Give. And go into the world with love.

The racism in the Trayvon case is here:

The justification [of self-defense]… is not available to a person who… initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless… Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm….

There’s the racism. Right there.

It all hinges on that “reasonable belief”. In the culture of racial anxiety and safety paranoia that dominates certain swathes of the USA, it is much easier for a jury to accept that a white man reasonably believes he is in such danger from a black man, than the reverse.

(Note that the accused doesn’t need to be a racist for this to have an effect. Nor does the judge, nor the prosecution or defence, nor the jury.)
(Yes, Zimmerman wasn’t white. Still counts.)
(Yes, the legislation says that the basis of the belief must be the degree of force. Still counts. A punch from a black man is straight-up more terrifying than a punch from a white man.)
(The blockquote above is my selective quoting from the relevant Florida legislation, as excerpted by Ta-Nehisi Coates – read his post too.)

Occupy Wall Street

(Sitting here in New Zealand, I am obviously well-placed to Give Advice to the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Here on my blog I address an audience of as many as TEN different people, and I’m sure the weight of these multitudes will carry this message to the people who need it most. You’re welcome, freedom.)

OWS does not have a list of policy and process demands (yet) and it houses enormous diversity. This movement, says the media and political establishment, is incoherent and without focus.

But the OWS protestors do have a clear single focus; an overarching unified goal of which they share pursuit. The goal is this: getting the powerful to admit there is a fundamental problem with the economy.

This should be the core message of the protests. Every time a camera gets turned on someone at OWS, we should hear this demand. (I’m sure someone has said these words, somewhere, but I haven’t seen it and that means it isn’t high enough profile.)

The protesters all know there is a fundamental problem. They say to the camera: “We are here because our society is broken”. But I haven’t heard anyone say “and we demand that the bankers, the politicians, the media pundits, admit this!”

If this was the message, then perhaps the TV cameras would spend a little less time asking protesters what policy changes they want, and a little more time confronting bankers and politicians with the realities of the system they have created.

(OWS is changing the discourse anyway.)

Quick Shots

I miss being able to blog about things in the world. Writing here helps me process and understand things. My comprehension of reality has reduced while I’ve been busy. Anyway, to spare you lengthy tortured posts, here’s some quick thoughts.

Shipwreck: A ship on a reef leaking oil, and the election just changed again. Our PM is under pressure from the media for a change, and he’s not coping. Key has been protected from tough questions his entire premiership for this reason – he can’t handle the pressure while keeping his smiling “nice Mr Keys” persona going. It won’t cause a huge desertion of the National party by voters, but expect Key’s preferred PM #s to drop and the Greens to continue to gather up votes.

OvalBall: I’ve never seen our country like this. The Rugby World Cup really has become a national celebration (even as the promised economic benefits fail to appear, SURPRISE). When we roadtripped up to Hastings and back a few weeks ago, the whole route was lined with festive signs. All Blacks flags in so many windows, flying from so many cars. And so many other flags! And every little town dressing up in global-village finery for the visiting rugby teams. A genuine spirit of love for the game, huge applause for the little-guy teams when they play well. It’s quite a wonderful atmosphere. I’m genuinely delighted. (Of course, if the All Blacks lose to Australia this weekend, there’ll be… well, not riots. But it will be rough. And hard to avoid even if you care not one tiny fig about rugby.)

Occupy: Yes yes, the Occupy Wall St movement has a vast overrepresentation of university-educated hipsters, and elides differences between middle class and working class, and hasn’t articulated unifying principles, and harbours madness on its fringes. It is important to note all of these things. But for heaven’s sake, don’t mistake these concerns for justifications not to celebrate the appearance of a genuine grass-roots societal justice movement that is driving the conversation in the US. (The US being the society whose abject brokenness all other Western societies are striving so hard to match.) There isn’t a completely different movement that does a better job waiting in the wings. This is the shot we get. Wish it well.

Who: loved Matt Smith’s performance this season of Doctor Who, but my enthusiasm for the show as a whole is at a very low ebb. Moffat as showrunner has lost me completely. His big villains are a complete failure of storytelling craft, and the more you try to forgive that, the more holes show up elsewhere. I stand by my earlier call: Torchwood season 4 > Doctor Who season 6.

World Avoidance

Having a baby in the house is endlessly involving, and it’s a convenient excuse not to think about (and blog about) all the nonsense out there.

Like the NZ government announcing it’s gonna sell off big chunks of state assets that make reliable income for the state, simultaneously throwing away future money for a mere handful now, and pushing national infrastructure towards an unprotected environment.

Like the UK discovering that Clegg’s choice (of the shark’s eyes monster) has proved more destructive to the nation than anyone could have dreamed, as he and the Lib Dems enable an eager dismantling of the public infrastructure.

Like the US descent into broken politics continuing at rapid pace as the response to horrific politically-rationalised violence has been even more incitement to violence by political voices.

Like the fact that increased environmental disruptions are costing the world huge sums, and global warming predicted this and predicts even more to come, but climate change response is off the agenda completely after the embarrassment that was Copenhagen.

So I’m not going to think about any of that stuff. I choose to live in a bubble a little bit longer. I’ll play The Game with myself, and hopefully I won’t lose too often. My tiny little girl giving smiles? That’s all the reality I want to think about right now.

Wikileaks: Infowar

It feels like a long time since I posted about Wikileaks five days ago. Things have gotten pretty serious, pretty fast.

It’s a complex business, and unsurprisingly, the main media channels aren’t keeping up. That’s part of the point, actually – d3vo commented to me in email that what’s driving the Wikileaks furore is the failure of the media over the last two decades. I think it’s undeniable that he’s right. Wikileaks has the power it does because the fourth estate has become part of the power apparatus; it is the culmination of the idea that distributed communications technology itself forms a fifth estate to keep the other four in check. Dylan Horrocks wrote a powerful open letter to journalists imploring them to step up and cover this effectively – definitely worth a read.

From my perspective, the main line of the story is the U.S-led assault against Wikileaks. It is many-pronged and conducted through back-door pressure or through outright illegality. Assange and his team have been preparing for this for a while and are fully prepared to exploit the internet to make a laughing stock of these shutdown attempts. But still, the scope of the attacks is shocking.

Greenwald gives a good overview. In just a few days, private companies and banks have withdrawn Wikileaks’ DNS record, site and file hosting, and bank and payment accounts. All of these have cited breaches of “terms of use”, while giving other clients a pass for the same sins. All are the result of backroom pressure, whether imposed from without or conducted voluntarily in solidarity with the wishes of power.

As Greenwald points out: Wikileaks has broken no laws. It has done nothing illegal.

More: sex charges against the face of Wikileaks. Charlie Stross goes over the evidence and makes it seem like these are trumped-up, to say the least; certainly the fact that charges were levelled, then withdrawn, then levelled again is cause for doubt. [EDIT: subsequent post about this]

And of course prominent political voices in the US openly using the word “assassination” in respect of Assange, or alluding that way with phrases like “any means necessary”.

This is a taste of a new kind of war – an information war, conducted on two fronts: within the global infrastructure, and within the court of public opinion. There will be more of these. (Some might predict that we’re heading towards a state of perpetual infowar. Lets hope not.)

This war is happening RIGHT NOW. It will have huge consequences not just for Wikileaks but for every organization that speaks up against power. Right now, the USA and other govts are training themselves to control information dissent. These lessons will not be forgotten. The next organization to make itself a target is unlikely to have the resources or wide support of Wikileaks – and it will be hard-pressed to survive this kind of assault.

Here’s another aspect of that infowar: the botnet. Wikileaks was hit hard by a botnet, which is a global network of infected “zombie” computers. Ordinary home computers with a virus are secretly using their internet connections and computing time to serve the goals of the botnet; mom-and-pop at home just wonder why their computer runs a bit slow sometimes. Usually botnets just send spam, but this one has been trying to destroy Wikileaks by overloading it. In the linked article it says this botnet wasn’t particularly large, but the possibility is certainly there that it was deployed by a state actor, perhaps even the US itself, to shut down Wikileaks.

Think about that for a second. There is a distinct possibility that right now your mum’s computer has been secretly weaponized by the United States of America.

(No, seriously. Here’s a 2008 article in the Air Force Journal saying that the USA should invest in a botnet. This response to that article says that if intelligence agencies don’t have botnets already, they really should. Google will reveal many more such discussions.)

If you’re only gonna read one thing about Wikileaks and related issues, then, make it this piece by Clay Shirky. Here’s the bit that both Dylan H and I identified as the money quote:

I am conflicted about the right balance between the visibility required for counter-democracy and the need for private speech among international actors. Here’s what I’m not conflicted about: When authorities can’t get what they want by working within the law, the right answer is not to work outside the law. The right answer is that they can’t get what they want

What’s going on with this matters. It matters far more than the latest juicy revelations in the diplomatic cables – those are, and always were, a sideshow. Really at stake is the landscape for international information freedom.

So, even more than usual, don’t accept the mainstream media framing of the Wikileaks story. There’s more going on, and there’s far too much at stake.

Wikileaks: No thoughts

Jon wondered why I hadn’t commented on the new Wikileaks “cablegate” affair. A fair question, especially given the last Wikileaks thing turned this blog into a genuine internet sensation (for about 3 seconds) (and not due to any editorial effort on my part, I literally just cut and pasted from their twitter feed, go figure).

Answer is: I don’t know what to make of it. This is clearly a more complex action than previous Wikileaks releases. My instinctive feeling is that this is a good thing as a one-off targeted at a country that rationalises itself as a global policeman, but in general this is a dangerous precedent. Diplomacy needs to function out of public view, and losing that assurance of discretion is certain to have a limiting effect on positive as well as negative efforts.

But I find it hard to feel bad about this if it puts the UK govt’s handling of Iraq in the pooh. My fury over that whole affair remains undimmed, seven years on.

So ultimately – I don’t know what to say. I’ll wait to see how things shake out. Assange is clearly a tosser, and yes he may be a sex criminal too but that doesn’t mean he’s not doing good work.

Jon’s own post on the matter is well worth a read – a good summary I think.

Making Light do some good coverage of the issues, particularly the response of the US media.

Glenn Greenwald has been getting a lot of attention for this firebreathing attack on the US media coverage of Wikileaks and what it says about the state of the fourth estate in the USA.

But the most interesting thing I’ve read yet is this article that looks at Assange/Wikileaks’ motives. Short version: Assange’s stated view is that authoritarianism must inevitably rely on a conspiratorial approach. The contradictions between authoritarianism and conspiracy provide a vulnerability that can be exploited by wikileaks. So the point of the cablegate affair is not the cables themselves, but the response they force in the US government.

All these articles give me some interesting starting points but I don’t feel I’m anywhere near understanding the depth of what this affair means. Too complex, too soon, too something. I dunno. Opinions & interpretations welcome.