Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Trump is not going to abandon NATO

Abandoning NATO "would reverse decades of bipartisan American leadership and send a dangerous signal to friend and foe alike" - and this is exactly what will happen, Hillary Clinton warned, "if Mr. Trump gets his way".

Since that speech in 2016, we've heard the warning time and time again. It came most recently after Trump's first NATO meeting, when The New York Times editorial board suggested that "the United States might not defend [NATO] allies under attack" - a concern echoed by pundits like Zack Beauchamp, Josh Marshall, and Ned Resnikoff, among others. Among the liberal commentariat, at least, the consensus is clear: Trump pulling out of NATO and reneging on our military obligations under Article 5 is an actual possibility that could really, actually happen.

This is madness. Donald Trump is not going to abandon NATO. If Donald Trump wanted to abandon NATO, his advisors would talk him out of it. If Donald Trump tried to abandon NATO, he would be impeached almost immediately, by a bipartisan vote. The US is far too invested in NATO for any president to who does not want a revolt on his hands to sever ties.


"We need to look at the facts"

The reasons for this aren't particularly mysterious. As the New York Times laid out earlier this year, What the U.S. Gets for Defending Its Allies and Interests Abroad is substantial: trillions of dollars in trade and uninhibited access to energy supplies and other resources. Simply maintaining NATO with arms sales is a multi-billion dollar industry, and the profits go to companies with armies of lobbyists and powerful PACs.

That's why Trump won't even try to leave NATO. It's why he's not even inclined to, Elliott Abrams writes in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs:
...after repeatedly disparaging NATO, Trump backtracked...The alliance, Trump now declared, was "no longer obsolete."...it is already clear that this is not a revolutionary administration. The broad lines of its policy fit easily within those of the last few decades...the Trump era will be marked more by increasing adherence to traditional U.S. foreign policy positions than by ever-larger deviations.
Abrams is a Republican, but he's no isolationist - he's a neoconservative hawk, and if he saw any danger of Trump abandoning NATO, he'd be among the first to panic. Similarly, consider how someone on NATO's front line - Kersti Kaljulaid, the President of Estonia - responds to the usual alarmist hyperbole from Sarah Kendzior:
“In the new administration's steps, I see not a single U-turn,” said Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid, referring to Washington’s historical defense of Baltic states. 
She crisply and dryly upbraided a couple of American panelists including writer Sarah Kendzior, who warned Baltic nations to be “wary” of a president “with obvious autocratic leanings…who is not rational, who is destructive.” 
“When we're done with synchronizing all our gossip about the new administration, then we need to look at the facts,” [Kaljulaid] said.

Business as usual

As it turns out, the facts of Trump's military don't much resemble his campaign rhetoric. Abrams highlights Trump's reversal on Syria, but the evolution of his military budget is even more instructive.

As recently as February, Trump promised a "historic" increase in military spending, and on the campaign trail he made even more elaborate promises: for example, calling for a 350 ship Navy. But in his first actual budget, Trump simply continued Obama-levels of spending. And in a revealing article for The Hill, multiple sources outlined a budgeting process that barely involved Trump at all:
There is also wide speculation that the defense plan is the work of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney...Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense analyst with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it’s unlikely Trump even knows the details of his defense request or the ways it does not follow through on his promises.
Kendzior may imagine Trump as some kind of tyrannical autocrat, but autocrats don't delegate major defense decisions out to accountants and second-tier wonks. In fact, despite his role as Commander-in-Chief, Trump has now found himself entangled in one of the greatest bureaucracies the world has ever known: the military-industrial complex of 21st century America. He is now utterly reliant on a massive apparatus of advisers, managers, and political operatives to guide and enact his decisions, and as Abrams observes, "Trump’s national security team embodies 'the Establishment' as much as John F. Kennedy’s or Dwight Eisenhower’s did."

Reporting in Politico gives a hint as to how this dynamic is playing out with respect to NATO. When Trump neglected to affirm America's commitment to Article 5 in a recent speech, Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott predicted "a very dangerous and damaging effect" - and in dire tones, Politico lays out "the ripple effects from the Trump NATO speech-that-wasn’t":
[a] rift...during the private dinner...unusually frank criticisms...Trump’s rebuffed national security leaders...left in increasingly awkward positions...
Despite these dinner feuds and frank critiques, however, Defense Secretary James Mattis still managed to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore. Mattis is just one of multiple pro-NATO voices in the administration, Politico notes, and despite Trump's ongoing bluster, it appears that he and everyone else are still proceeding with business as usual.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Capitalism protects bigots

Two weeks ago, talk show host Bill Maher used a racial slur on the air. This week, Nation columnist Joan Walsh declared that Palestinians are white and suggested that she is a person of color. Immediately, in both cases, the familiar mechanisms of liberal discourse discipline set in motion. Maher and Walsh were immediately called out for their offenses. Critics shamed them for what they said, educated the public about why it was wrong, and even called for boycotts of Walsh and Maher's employers.

Two weeks later, Bill Maher is back to saying gross things in public - and undoubtedly Walsh will be too, sooner than later.

Everyone knows why this is: Maher and Walsh are rich. And they are protected by people who are even wealthier, and by companies who are even richer still. Rich people don't care if you try to shame them and don't have to listen to your persuasive critiques. Usually they don't even care about boycotts, because rich people can afford to lose a little business. The richer they are, the less they have to care.

By the way: wealth also means influence. It means that your personal bigotries infect everything you control - including, as Maher and Walsh demonstrate, giant media platforms that can broadcast racism to a mass audience. So perversely, the people who have the most control over our culture are the people who are least subject to liberal discourse discipline. In this way capitalism becomes a massive engine of pathology, endlessly generating and amplifying oppressive discourses that are insulated from social regulation. The paradigm example of this dynamic, of course, is Donald Trump - a deranged sociopath whose astronomical wealth lifts him above shame, criticism, persuasion, and social pressure of any kind. And who, through his astronomical wealth, has become one of the most influential voices in America.


Will breaking up the big banks end racism and sexism? Probably not! But if your plan to fight bigotry involves a lot of education and social pressure and persuasion, it's clear that this would be a lot easier on a level economic playing field. In a world of extreme economic inequality, liberal discourse discipline may chasten the least influential among us - but it will tend to leave the most powerful untouched as they firehose their bigotry into our culture. An intersectional understanding of racism acknowledges capitalism's role in amplifying it - though we should not expect rich people like Walsh and Maher to talk about this, for obvious reasons.

Friday, June 9, 2017

The powerful aren't going to learn any lessons from Corbyn

Against incredible odds and pundit expectations, Jeremy Corbyn has won one of the most stunning victories in British electoral history. He won by running unabashedly to the left, promising nationalization, to tax the rich, to expand public services, and to expand worker rights. And he did all of this not only in opposition to the UK's radical right, but to his critics in the liberal center.

Corbyn's victory has so many direct implications for American politics that it's tempting to think of this as a victory for the American left as well. It demonstrates that instead of simply running to the right and trying to peel off their voters, a party can win by mobilizing voters who prefer left priorities and positions. It demonstrates that voters want to see their basic economic concerns substantively addressed, even in ways that reject capitalist orthodoxy. And it demonstrates that our political operatives, mass media and intellectual elites often have no special insight into political realities - and that they are systematically, overwhelmingly biased against the radical left.

In a sane, rationalistic discourse, this would all have a profound impact on American politics. Corbyn's victory would inform the efforts of our party leaders, policy planners, media managers, and rank-and-file activists, and the result would be a clear and immediate radicalization of American politics.

But this is not, of course, what will actually happen.

What will actually happen is that people who have an interest in learning the wrong lessons will tend to learn the wrong lessons. Liberal centrism has been terrible for most people, but it has been very good to a few, and these people do not want to learn anything that threatens their world. These people live extremely comfortable lives, and they believe that they have earned these comforts through hard work and personal talent. For this reason, they have a powerful incentive to rationalize away any political lessons that could hurt their self-image or take away their privilege.

This point may seem obvious, but its implications are easy to forget when we are immersed in the ideology of liberal rationalism. If you think that the central arena of political struggle is the "marketplace of ideas", and that progress is just a matter of education and intellectual persuasion, then you'll be inclined to downplay the role that motivated reasoning plays in our politics. This is an odd mistake to make, because the research is quite clear about how political bias distorts our perception and reasoning; because Marxist theory explicitly rejects this notion of rationalism; and because our ordinary experience interacting with other people demonstrates the problem constantly. It's extraordinarily rare that anyone changes their mind in a political discussion, or learns anything that radically changes their beliefs.

And unfortunately, this problem of ideological investment is most pronounced among the people who are in the best position to change our politics. If you are a decision-maker in the Democratic party, you almost certainly got to where you are by embracing and fighting for Third Way liberalism. If you make major editorial decisions at a national media outlet, it's probably because you adhered to bourgeois norms of professionalism and insisted on an editorial direction amenable to shareholders and marketers. If you build a career in an influential think tank, you will spend a lot of time deferring to your director, and your director will spend all of her time worrying about political access and large-donor funding. All of these people, moreover, will be handsomely rewarded for their efforts: they'll have a comfortable, stable, well-paying job with good benefits, and they'll constantly be showered in praise for their intelligence, professionalism, diligence, and so on, by networking colleagues and magnanimous bosses.

That's why we're already seeing all kinds of ridiculous, tryhard arguments in America against the obvious lessons of Corbyn. We're hearing that Labour would have done even better than its already spectacular win if it had only run a completely different centrist campaign. That UK voters did not actually care about the issues that affected them at all, but were simply voting for Corbyn as a weird symbolic gesture against Donald Trump. That British politics are so different from what happens in America that there are no lessons to be learned here - even though the same people, when Corbyn was losing, insisted that he was demonstrating the futility of leftist politics in the US.

To be sure, Corbyn's win is a victory of solidarity for the American left, because we have a stake in what happens to our comrades all over the world. And certainly there are people in the US who are not invested in centrist-liberalism, who will see what Corbyn did, and who may decide that it can happen here, too. But the people in control - the people with power - aren't going to change their minds because of Corbyn. Which is why we have to do precisely what the British left just did: take their power away.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What do liberals mean by "Russian" propaganda?

Eric Boehlert at Media Matters warns that Trump has moved "from lies to authoritarian-style propaganda", and hints darkly at connections to Russia:
Increasingly, this White House’s propaganda operation looks like an authoritarian one found in other countries, such as Russia...like Russia’s president, Trump has a built-in media infrastructure that will obediently echo his lies and present them as news.
If this critique of a media that obediently echoes the president's lies sounds familiar, it's because Boehlert wrote an entire book about it - more than ten years ago. In Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over For Bush, Boehlert insisted that
the compliant press repeated almost every administration claim...that virtually every one of those claims turned out to be false only added to the media's malpractice. (209)
Reading through Lapdogs in 2017, his critique of Bush sounds awfully like his critique of Trump. Today, for instance, Boehlert writes that Trump
staged a faux bill-signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House...The whole event was just Kabuki theater.
And here's what he was writing about Bush in 2003:
The entire press conference performance was a farce - the staging, the seating, the questions, the order, the answers...the calculated kabuki press conference [was] stage-managed by the White House... (207)
Almost to the letter, Boehlert is rehearsing the same media critique he's written about for years: Republicans are waging a propaganda campaign. They are lying a lot - or in the parlance of elite liberal media, they are gaslighting / spinning / promoting fake news / building an alternative reality. They are staging elaborate press spectacles, repeating slogans, and using other standard PR tricks. A conservative media infrastructure is disseminating and signal-boosting all of this, and they are being abetted by a credulous and unduly submissive mainstream media.

The Russian connection

In fact, when you read through Boehlert's writing on the media, only one thing has really changed: the connection to Russia. For instance, when Trump stages a kabuki bill-signing, Boehlert pointedly quotes Mike Mariani in Vanity Fair:
Trump’s team is finding ways to shrewdly approximate [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s capacity to shape narratives and create alternative realities...
There is nothing like this in Lapdogs, or in any of Boehlert's writing about Bush - even when the Bush administration stages its own kabuki press-conferences, and relies on its own politically friendly media infrastructure. No suggestion that Russia invented "authoritarian propaganda", or that these tactics are evidence of some kind of connection to the Kremlin. Just the opposite - in one remarkable passage, Boehlert actually connects Bush to anti-Russian propaganda:
...the bureau, anxious to play up Cold War fears, interviewed defectors from Russia but sometimes fabricated the details of their tales. "So the whole concept of fact checking was moot," said Heidenry. "They created their own facts." (143)
It's possible that this "fake news" approach to propaganda is still distinctly Russian in nature - perhaps it was originally invented by Soviet Russia, and then co-opted by Bush-era cold warriors, and then reclaimed by Putin's Russia, and now it's being mimicked by Trump.

But there's also a less complicated explanation: as Jacques Ellul put it in his seminal work Propaganda, "Propaganda as a phenomenon is essentially the same in China or the Soviet Union or the United States or Algeria." There is nothing historically, tactically, or conceptually Russian about the Trump administration's lies, and there is zero insight to be gained in making comparisons between the two, or suggesting that one is inspired by the other. When liberals like Boehlert do this, it's not because they've studied the Russians - it's because they studied Republicans, and learned just how useful it is "to play up Cold War fears".

Sunday, June 4, 2017

You can't fix climate change without big government

Trump is pulling the United States out of the Paris climate deal, but Juan Cole is optimistic about state-level progress on wind:
Governor Sam Brownback...wants 50% of Kansas electricity to come from wind by the end of his term. The state already gets 24% of its electricity from wind...these advances in clean energy are coming from the states, not the Federal government...Those are goals Trump has nothing to say about.
Cole also praises "the good kind" of billionaire, who invests in fighting climate change. On CNN, Al Gore echoed those remarks:
We're seeing civic leadership, businesses - Apple, Google, General Electric - you can go right down the list. We are going to see continued reductions in emissions in the US...regardless of what President Trump does.
It's understandable why the liberal-left, shut out of Congress and the White House, would search for other ways to fight global warming - but ultimately, this is a fool's errand. We already know what a small-government response to climate change looks like.

For example, when Hurricane Matthew hit North Carolina, it killed 28 people, caused $1.6 billion worth of damage, and left 80,000 plus households applying for aid in its wake. And when the state asked Washington for help, Trump rejected 99% of their request. Months later, WFMY reports, the situation is still dire:
The state says there are still 140 families living in hotels, and many more people displaced, but living with family or friends, still not able to go home. In Lumberton volunteers are still working to clean up the $7 million dollars worth of mess.  In Fayetteville roads are still blocked off after they were essentially washed away. Princeville is dealing with more flooding from recent rain, before they ever even had a chance to recover from Hurricane Matthew. The elementary school is one of many buildings that have been shut down for months.
Or consider how the private sector responded to Hurricane Sandy: in New York, private donors gave about $600 million. This may seem impressive until one notes that the total damages came to about $50 billion.

Consider Hurricane Sandy, and then imagine Manhattan under a foot of water. Because according to research published just last year, that's how much the ocean will likely rise at 3 degrees of global warming. And even if we meet our international obligations, we'll hit the 3 degree mark by 2100. More realistically, Thorvald Moe writes, since "the United States does not seem to be able to deliver a consensus on climate politics," we'll likely stick to something resembling the Trump-Obama status quo - and that means we'll hit 3 degrees by the mid-21st century.

If the private sector couldn't handle Hurricanes Matthew and Sandy, there's no way it will be able to handle permanent flooding in New York City. And Boston. And Miami. And all along the Gulf Coast. Instead, what we can expect is the destruction of multiple major coastal cities; local budgets completely overwhelmed by prevention and relief funding; and minimal philanthropy from the private sector, coupled with the usual profiteering. And none of this, of course, even touches on the droughts, wildfires, refugee crises, civil unrest, and all of the second, third, and fourth-order problems that will mount on top of them. Local governments aren't ready for this, and our "good" billionaires aren't going to bail us out. There is no path to fighting climate change that doesn't go through the federal government.