Trump & Civilizational Plate Tectonics
Here are a few thoughts about the Mueller report, with something to offend everyone.
First, it’s true: there was no collusion, or at least not enough evidence to make it worth bringing to a trial, either in court or in an impeachment proceeding. To learn this about the President of the United States ought to be a relief to everyone. It’s not, obviously, but it should be. The trauma of an impeachment proceeding hinging on whether or not the President of the United States was a de facto traitor would have been a terrible thing for the country to endure. We have dodged a bullet. I think this tweet by TAC editor Jim Antle is correct:
Mueller was unlikely to precipitate a constitutional crisis based on a close call. We know he viewed obstruction of justice as a close call. Big question raised by fuller report is whether collusion was a closer call than Barr summary implied.
— Jim Antle (@jimantle) April 18, 2019
I don’t understand, though, why so many conservatives are exultant. OK, so there was no smoking gun. Hooray. But good grief, look at the scuzziness that Mueller did find. It’s shameful, and it’s depressing to have to confront that this is the level to which we have sunk as a country. I’ve never been a Never Trumper, but Never Trumper David French is right: the president is a compulsive liar. French writes:
I’ve finished reading the entire Mueller report, and I must confess that even as a longtime, quite open critic of Donald Trump, even I was surprised at the sheer scope, scale, and brazenness of the lies, falsehoods, and misdirections detailed by the Special Counsel’s Office. We’ve become accustomed to Trump making up his own facts on matters great and small, but to see the extent to which his virus infected his entire political operation is sobering. And the idea that anyone is treating this report as “win” for Trump, given the sheer extent of deceptions exposed (among other things), demonstrates that the bar for his conduct has sunk so low that anything other than outright criminality is too often brushed aside as relatively meaningless.
Now the media and other anti-Trump partisans are going to perseverate on whether or not Trump obstructed justice during the Mueller probe. They should leave this alone. Having bet so heavily on the collusion narrative, and lost, nobody wants to listen to them bang on about collusion for two more years. Christopher Buskirk, a stalwart Trump defender, turns to Rene Girard to explain the mania animating the left these past two years:
The French philosopher and literary critic René Girard held that such scapegoating and ritual sacrifice is an essential part of group identity and solidarity. That seems to apply here. Mr. Trump ran against American elites and their insular culture. Their response was to load onto him all of the sins they see in American society and attempt to sacrifice him to appease their gods.
Mr. Girard asked a question that is pertinent today: “Why is our own participation in scapegoating so difficult to perceive and the participation of others so easy? To us, our fears and prejudices never appear as such because they determine our vision of people we despise, we fear, and against whom we discriminate.”
The National Review editors point out with satisfaction that the worst — that Trump colluded with Russia — is not true, and those who pushed the collusion narrative have been embarrassed. But, they add:
None of this is to deny the report’s distressing portrayal of how President Trump operates. He avoids potentially disastrous missteps, such as firing Mueller, when his aides ignore him and he fails to follow up. His dishonesty constantly creates dilemmas for those around him, forcing them to choose between lying for him or defying him. No president of the United States should ever applaud people for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors, or call someone who cooperates a “rat.” Most White House scandals involve presidents getting ill served by overly zealous, norm-defying advisers. In this episode, Trump flipped the script.
A certain kind of populist conservative is used to hating on David Brooks, who is a hardcore institutionalist. I’ve heard it all before, and it’s boring by now. David is a friend, and though I disagree with him at times, he is an honorable man; if you are going to criticize him in the comments, stick to the argument, and keep the ad hominem out of it if you want to see your comment appear. I am more sympathetic to Trump’s presidency than David is, for reasons I’ll get into momentarily, but I gotta say, his column on the Mueller report really resonates with me. Excerpts:
We are being threatened in a very distinct way. The infrastructure of the society is under threat — the procedures that shape government, the credibility of information, the privacy rules that make deliberation possible. And though the Chinese government does not play a big role here, it represents a similar sort of threat — to our intellectual infrastructure, the intellectual property rights that organize innovation.
It is as if somebody is inserting acids into a body that eats away at the ligaments and the tendons.
These forces are motivated by self-interest, but their common feature is an operational nihilism. They are trying to sow disorder at the foundation of society. The goal is not really to convert anybody to a cause; it is to create cynicism and disruption that will open up the space to grab what you want to grab. They rig the system and then tell everybody, “The system is rigged!” And therefore, all values are suspended. Everything is permitted.
And today, across society, two things are happening: Referees are being undermined, and many are abandoning their own impartiality. (Think of the Wall Street regulators, the Supreme Court, the Senate committee chairmen, even many of us in the blessed media.) Things begin to topple.
… Trump doesn’t seem to have any notion of loyalty to an office. All power in his eye is personal power, and the government is there to serve his Sun God self. He’ll continue to trample the proper systems of government.
It’s easy to recognize when you are attacked head-on. But the U.S. is being attacked from below, at the level of the foundations we take for granted.
This is true. And yet, I still maintain that Trump is a symptom of a much deeper sickness in the system. I don’t say that to exonerate Trump. He only makes manifest, and exacerbates, things that were already present before he descended the Trump Tower escalator to declare his candidacy.
How far back do we need to go? Democratic readers don’t like to hear it, but the nexus of Wall Street and the Democratic Party occasioned by the Clinton administration, in concert with Republican leaders in the Senate, laid the groundwork for the economic crash in 2008. (Watch this 2009 episode of PBS’s Frontline for the background here.) This continued under the George W. Bush administration. The tearing down of regulatory walls erected in the aftermath of the Great Depression was a bipartisan endeavor. It’s not necessary to prove that anybody lied to make that happen. It was simply a matter of elites trusting in their own wisdom and fitness to rule, and in neoliberal ideology.
Who was held accountable for the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression? Do you believe that justice was done? Really?
The Iraq War, the greatest US foreign policy disaster since Vietnam, was also a matter of hubris, but there were lies too. Consequential lies. The Mueller report gave us a glimpse of the rottenness in the Trump White House … but what if we could have seen a report on the rottenness of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld emerging for his daily Pentagon briefings during the war, lying to the press? That’s somehow not as bad as Trump because Rummy was a consummate creature of the system? Because he was respectable? Because he played by the rules, and still lied, and helped lead this country, and the world, into a needless catastrophe?
You may still trust the US national security establishment to tell you the truth. I don’t, and I don’t care which party holds the White House. I’m old enough to have lived through most of the Vietnam War, though it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I came to understand it. Now, in comes Donald Trump, carrying hopes that he was going to be different, but here we are still in Syria, and … you know?
Back in the 1990s, a friend of mine who was just starting out as a financial reporter, and who has now risen to the top of her field, told me that she used to think that the real journalistic action was in covering politics, because that’s where the decisions that changed history were made. And then she was assigned to cover the global currency markets. It opened her eyes to how the world really worked, and how blind most people are to it, because few of us can comprehend the workings of global finance.
I was thinking about her yesterday when I was continuing to make my way through Shoshana Zuboff’s great new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. It’s not an easy book to read, in part because the things Zuboff, a former Harvard Business School professor, talks about can be somewhat arcane, but also because it’s damned depressing. This is a book about how a business model pioneered by Google has come in less than 20 years to dominate everything, with consequences we can scarcely comprehend. I’m not going to get into the book’s weeds here; there are lots of weeds, and I am not sure that Zuboff is going to be able to offer a plausible way out of this mess.
The gist of it is that nearly everything we do and say is monitored by multiple corporations, who are taking that data — usually without our knowledge or permission — and using it to figure out how to sell us things and, more crucially, to guide us toward behaving in particular ways without knowing that we are being manipulated. There is no real way to opt out of the system. It is overwhelming — and Zuboff shows how the tech companies have spent ungodly sums to manipulate politicians and regulators in order to maintain maximum access to the personal data of everyone. (The Obama administration was in Google’s pocket, for example.) Zuboff likens it to the Spanish conquistadores arriving in the New World.
I bring this up in light of Brooks’s column because if you want to talk about the foundations of society being attacked, believe me, we should all worry about Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Silicon Valley on the whole a lot more than we worry about our buffoonish president. What the surveillance capitalists have done, and are doing, matters far more to the future of our democracy and its legitimacy than does Trump.
I’m not saying this to minimize the meaning of Trump. What I’m saying is that if Trump had lost the election in 2016, we would still be in a world of trouble. Brooks is talking in his column about a specific threat to the legitimacy of the system, to repeat
The infrastructure of the society is under threat — the procedures that shape government, the credibility of information, the privacy rules that make deliberation possible.
Funny, but this is all in Zuboff’s book, by the way, and it has nothing to do with Donald Trump. You can’t read her well-documented, detailed explanation of what these tech companies have accomplished over the past 20 years and come away feeling good about “the procedures that shape government, the credibility of information, [and] the privacy rules that make deliberation possible.” Digital information technology has so radically changed the way we live, and what is possible, that our ways of thinking about society and democracy simply cannot cope with this new reality, at least not yet. Take a few minutes and read this David Samuels piece from Wired (January 2019), talking about how Big Tech is becoming Big Brother. Excerpts:
The machines and systems that the techno-monopolists have built are changing us faster than they or we understand. The scale of this change is so vast and systemic that we simple humans can’t do the math—perhaps in part because of the way that incessant smartphone use has affected our ability to pay attention to anything longer than 140 or 280 characters.
As the idea of a “right to privacy,” for example, starts to seem hopelessly old-fashioned and impractical in the face of ever-more-invasive data systems—whose eyes and ears, i.e., our smartphones, follow us everywhere—so has our belief that other individual rights, like freedom of speech, are somehow sacred.
Being wired together with billions of other humans in vast networks mediated by thinking machines is not an experience that humans have enjoyed before. The best guides we have to this emerging reality may be failed 20th-century totalitarian experiments and science fiction. More on that a little later.
The speed at which individual-rights-and-privacy-based social arrangements collapse is likely to depend on how fast Big Tech and the American national security apparatus consummate a relationship that has been growing ever closer for the past decade. While US surveillance agencies do not have regular real-time access to the gigantic amounts of data collected by the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon—as far as we know, anyway—there is both anecdotal and hard evidence to suggest that the once-distant planets of consumer Big Tech and American surveillance agencies are fast merging into a single corporate-bureaucratic life-world, whose potential for tracking, sorting, gas-lighting, manipulating, and censoring citizens may result in a softer version of China’s Big Brother.
These troubling trends are accelerating in part because Big Tech is increasingly beholden to Washington, which has little incentive to kill the golden goose that is filling its tax and political coffers. One of the leading corporate spenders on lobbying services in Washington, DC, in 2017 was Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spent more than $18 million. Lobbying Congress and government helps tech companies like Google win large government contracts. Perhaps more importantly, it serves as a shield against attempts to regulate their wildly lucrative businesses.
But the cozy relationship between mainstream Democrats and Silicon Valley hit a large-sized bump in November 2016, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton—in part through his mastery of social media platforms like Twitter. Blaming the election result on Russian bots or secret deals with Putin betrayed a shock that what the left had regarded as their cultural property had been turned against them by a right-wing populist whose authoritarian leanings inspired fear and loathing among both the technocratic elite and the Democratic party base.
Yet in the right hands, progressives continued to muse, information monopolies might be powerful tools for re-wiring societies malformed by racism, sexism, and transphobia. Thinking machines can be taught to filter out bad information and socially negative thoughts. Good algorithms, as opposed to whatever Google and Facebook are currently using, could censor neo-Nazis, purveyors of hate speech, Russian bots, and transphobes while discouraging voters from electing more Trumps.
The crowdsourced wisdom of platforms like Twitter, powered by circles of mutually credentialing blue-checked “experts,” might mobilize a collective will to justice, which could then be enforced on retrograde institutions and individuals. The result might be a better social order, or as data scientist Emily Gorcenski put it, “revolution.”
Read the whole thing. The power these tech companies have because they surveil us constantly is something we’ve never dealt with before. If these data hegemons decided to move against individuals, organizations, or classes of people its leadership designated to be problematic, they could do many things to punish and marginalize them, without having to involve the government. Someone in a position to know recently told me that the Chinese government has a strategy of compelling its citizens who work in the US to cooperate with its corporate espionage schemes by using the leverage it has over their “social credit scores” — which they and their families back home in China need to be able to buy and sell and get along in daily life. This kind of thing doesn’t happen (as far as we know) in the US as a matter of political will. The data have already been collected, and are being collected daily. The technology exists.
See, this is why I find Donald Trump — lying, unstable, barely competent Donald Trump — to be less of a threat than I find the kind of progressive elites who hate him. He has the presidency, which is a powerful thing to have. But they control Silicon Valley. They command the US economy. They control major American institutions, including higher education and the media. And they trust in their own goodness. Here is what data scientist Emily Gorcenski tweeted (linked above, by David Samuels):
I am confident that Gorcenski’s class, in their power centers around the globe, are sooner or later going to convince themselves to deploy the power of data in an aggressive way against deplorables like me, and every other person that they identify as an “oppressor.” They are already tearing American universities apart. In Barcelona, progressives in charge of schools have begun purging wicked non-progressive books from children’s libraries. In British Columbia, the provincial Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that parents cannot block minor children who wish to receive hormone injections to change their sex. In the Spanish province of Navarra, the left-wing provincial government is dismantling the concepts of male and female by compelling all schools, even private and religious ones, to teach radical left-wing gender theory. I could sit up till daylight citing particular egregious actions undertaken by progressive governments and private entities.
The bottom line is this: I have very little faith that the men and women who administer these institutions can be trusted to use their power justly. I have fear and loathing of the technocratic elite and much of the Democratic base. Donald Trump didn’t make me have this. Watching and listening to how progressive technocrats and those who hold power in the institutions they dominate made me have this.
Believe me, I don’t trust the Republican Party either. It will give Big Business whatever it wants, and it’s embarrassed by Bible-thumping troglodytes like me. But at least its members don’t openly despise us, and usually don’t work to tear us down. That’s about as good as it gets, I’m afraid. And Donald Trump? Yeah, he’s terrible. But he stands, however uncertainly, in the way of the Controllers — and gives them fits. And that’s good enough for a lot of us to consider casting a vote for Trump in 2020, not out of love for him, or admiration for the way he’s governed, and nor is it to “own the libs.”
It would be solely out of self-protection. Many on the left are blind to this sort of thing, because they are so convicted of their own goodness, and the uncomplicated righteousness of their cause, that they think the only opposition to them is in bad faith. I don’t trust Trump … but I do trust him not to go after people like me, and the institutions we love. At Harvard a few weeks back, a friend of mine who studies there described a campus and classroom culture in which many topics cannot even be discussed, because the woke elites are so traumatized by the existence of such deplorable facts that they have consciously, and structurally, eliminated them from their sight and hearing. This is America’s current and future ruling class. Trump is the corrupt man I can see coming. I’m far more afraid of the progressive, mission-minded zombies emerging from the knowledge-and-privilege factories. I’m not kidding. It is not necessary to pretend that Donald Trump is good, honest, or competent in order to affirm that he is the lesser evil.
“Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16) To repeat: I fully endorse David Brooks’s take on the corruption of the system, and his judgment on Donald Trump as a moral catastrophe. Trump is not a discrete phenomenon. The U.S. is being attacked from below, at the level of the foundations we take for granted — but this is not simply the fault of Wikileaks, or the Russian FSB, or the Chinese, or the Bluth family living in the White House. It’s happening because of the loss of collective virtues needed to sustain a republic. It’s happening in part because of what technology is doing to us. We are disintegrating. This could take a while.
I’ll leave you with a look back to my “Learning From The Spanish Civil War” post from January, in which I talked about an excellent 1980s-era, six-part documentary about that conflict. It’s available for free on YouTube. I’m going to quote this at length, because it’s necessary to understand why a simplistic Good vs. Evil narrative simply doesn’t work here. The fractures that led to open warfare were long present in Spanish society. The evil of the times brought them to the surface. I wrote, in part:
Maybe it’s an American thing, but it’s hard to look at a conflict like this without imposing a simple moralistic narrative on it, between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Certainly the received history of the conflict frames it as an unambiguous fight between democracy and fascism — and the evil fascists won. The truth is far more complicated.
In fact, the filmmakers make a point of saying that ideologues and others who project certain narratives onto the conflict do so by ignoring aspects of it that were particularly Spanish. That is to say, though the civil war did become a conflict between fascism and communism (and therefore a proxy war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union), that’s not the whole story. Its roots have a lot to do with the structure and history of Spain itself.
The first episode covers the years 1931-35, which covers the background to the war. In 1930, the military dictatorship was overthrown, and municipal elections across the country the next year led to a big win for combined parties of left and right who favored a democratic republic. (N.B., not all leftists and rightists wanted a republic!) After the vote, the king abdicated, and the Republic was declared. Later that spring, leftist mobs burned convents and churches in various cities, while Republican police stood by doing nothing. This sent a deep shock wave through Spanish Catholicism.
The Republic, in typical European fashion, was strongly anticlerical. It quickly passed laws stripping the Catholic Church of property and the right to educate young people. There were other anticlerical measures taken. Anti-Christian laws, and violent mob action, were present at the beginning of the Republic. Prior to watching this documentary, I assumed they happened as part of the civil war itself. Imagine what it was like to see a new constitutional order (the Republic) come into being, and suddenly you can’t give your children a religious education, and your churches and convents are being torched. How confident would you be in the new order?
According to the film, Spain was still in the 19th century, in terms of economics. It was largely agrarian, with a massive peasantry that was underfed, and tended to be religious and traditional. On the other hand, they were dependent on large landowners who favored the semi-feudal conditions. These landowners were extremely conservative. Their interests clashed, obviously, and became violent when the land reform promised by the liberal Republicans did not materialize fast enough for the peasantry. Mind you, the Republic was declared in the middle of the global Great Depression, with all the political and economic turmoil that came with it.
The urban working class was organized along Marxist lines, though the left was badly fractured, and unstable. There were democratic socialists, but also communists who hewed closely to the Stalinist line. Plus, anarchists were a really significant force in Spain, something unique in Europe at the time. They competed politically, and usually aligned with the left in fighting the right. But they refused to compromise their principles by taking formal power, even when the defense of the Republic required it.
Regional autonomy also played a role in defining sides. When the civil war started, Catholics supported the Nationalist side (the Francoists) … but not in the Basque Country, which was religious, but which wanted more self-rule — something the Nationalists despised. Catalonia also wanted more independence, which meant it was firmly Republican. Barcelona, the Catalan capital, was a Republican stronghold for left-wing reasons, to be sure. I bring up the situation with the Basques and the Catalans simply to illustrate the complexity of the conflict.
Anyway, the 1933 elections resulted in a swing back to the right, with a coalition of center-right and far-right parties winning control, and reversing some of the initiatives of the previous government. Socialists, anarchists, and coal miners in the province of Asturias rebelled against the Republic. They murdered priests and government officials; the military, led by Gen. Franco, brutally suppressed the uprising. All of this radicalized the left even more.
By 1935, left-right opinion had become so polarized that there was practically no middle ground left. Both sides came to distrust democracy because it was the means by which their enemies might take power. And, as one Nationalist interviewed in the documentary puts it, people on the left and right just flat out hated each other. The whole country was a powder keg.
Emphasis mine above. It is hard to shake the feeling that we are caught in similar dynamic. I wish I could conceive of something that could arrest the dialectic of destruction. Can you? The center is not holding, and technological changes (as well as cultural evolution) are rendering us unable to recreate a sustainable center. Whether he leaves the White House in 2021, or 2025, after Trump, I believe that the US will be more or less in a Spain 1931 situation. Trump has done nothing to prevent that, and much to hasten its arrival. But then, the underlying dynamic of corruption, bad faith, and dispossession has been rising to the surface for at least half a century, as waves from traumatic ruptures in the tectonic plates of our civilization finally reach the surface.
Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong. I just know that I’m a lot more worried about Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg, and the class that they embody, than I am of a crooked real estate magnate from New York who is the weakest and least effective president since Jimmy Carter.