Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Trump and his Media Magicians

In the days since President Trump’s inauguration, news consumers have watched members of the press all but implode over the recent barrage of “alternative facts.”

In the administration’s first full day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, presumably under direction from Mr. Trump, used his first press briefing to claim the president’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history. Not long thereafter, Mr. Trump reiterated his belief that he lost the popular vote because 3 to 5 million illegal residents voted fraudulently, and has since indicated he plans to investigate this alleged voter fraud.

From all the available evidence, these claims are demonstrably false. And not false in the maybe-sort-of-kind-of way that has dominated our politics in recent years. Flat out false. Easily observable false. Unbelievable that anyone in a position of power would suggest them false.

That’s what journalists have found so utterly baffling. It’s not what Mr. Trump and Mr. Spicer said that so confounds them, but rather why they would say it. Writers, reporters and pundits’ heads are spinning frantically as they attempt to wrap their minds around these lies. In general, the narrative that has dominated the news cycle during this first week is that Mr. Trump would only make such assertions if he were incompetent, insecure or some combination of the two.

And therein lies the answer to the ultimate, “Why?” No, not that the president is incompetent or insecure – though he perhaps may be. The answer is that Mr. Trump has been able to dominate the news cycle. Or, to be more precise, he has dictated it.

Since taking office, Mr. Trump has taken a variety of actions, many through executive orders, that have potentially far reaching effects on numerous fronts: access to health care, abortion rights, trade policy, climate change. These are all crucial issues that may significantly impact the lives of American and global citizens alike.

To be fair, these actions by Mr. Trump have garnered some media attention, though that attention seemingly pales in comparison to time spent debunking and debating alternative facts – or falsehoods, in the old tongue.

But that’s the media magic of the Trump administration. Magic is the practice of slight-of-hand. We’re only mesmerized by the magic act if we focus so much attention on the magician’s left hand that we overlook what he does with his right. That’s essentially been the playbook for Mr. Trump’s first week. In the left hand are outlandish lies concerning voter fraud and crowd size, so ridiculous in nature that both the public and the press have paid too little attention to the orders Mr. Trump has signed with his right.

Whether Mr. Trump’s administration is putting on this magic show purposefully or by accident is hard to say. After all, much of the press response to these false claims has been understandably negative. However, if the primary and general election contests are any indication, this stunning behavior will be rationalized (The tax returns can’t be released because of an audit) replaced by something as, if not more, shocking (He grabs women where?!), and ultimately forgotten, buried amidst the seemingly endless array of past blunders.

I’m not arguing that media outlets should ignore these falsehoods. In fact, I think most journalists have done right by the public to hold the administration accountable. But there must be some perspective, some proportionality of response. Do we really need five days of around-the-clock coverage of the administration’s inauguration crowd claims when even cursory comparisons of photographs, Nielsen ratings data and DC Metro records can quickly and clearly demonstrate to any reasonable person that these statements are false?

Perhaps the limited resources of our press might be better spent in helping the public understand how sometimes complex bills and obscure executive orders might affect their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens. Adding context to Mr. Trump’s actions of public import is more greatly needed than adding conversation to Mr. Trump’s actions of self-delusion.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Trump's Inaugural Address: Adding Heat to a Failed Cold War Logic

Hope. That was the message Barack Obama rode into office eight years ago. Now, as Donal Trump transitions into office, hope is again the operative word. This time, however, the shades of optimism have been stripped away. In 2017, our national hope focuses less on what we might achieve than what calamity we might avoid.

Clearly I don't speak for everyone. Some will certainly greet Trump with enthusiasm, but it's certainly worth noting that group represent a minority. And even among Trump voters there likely exists some uneasiness about what he may or may not do as president. We know astonishingly little about his ideological grounding, and virtually nothing about policy specifics.

If you listened closely, you could almost hear the sphincters of 200 million Americans clinch simultaneously as Trump took his oath of office. For students of history, that puckering became tighter as Trump launched into his inaugural address, charting a course backward to revisit our national missteps, most notably those of the Cold War era.

No sooner did he finish shaking Obama's hand did he go about delegitimizing his tenure in office, and those of all the presidents who preceded him:
"What truly matters is not which party controls our government, but whether our government is controlled by the people. January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again."
When exactly did we stop being the rulers of this nation? As I recall, every president in our history was freely elected to one degree or another, up to and including Trump. Sure, there might be concerns about the influences of gerrymandering or a debate to be had on the necessity of the electoral college, but presidents have generally won fairly based on the rules of the time regarding who could vote. 

This democratic rule is one of the reasons Sen. Mitch McConnell's blocking of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland was so puzzling. The people should have a voice in the nomination, McConnell said. But they did. They voted for Obama.

This process of not only undermining but flatly denying the legitimate authority of elections not your own sets a dangerous precedent. Simply because polls are unfavorable doesn't make them rigged. Simply because the press treats one critically doesn't makes the coverage inaccurate. Simply because a leader shares a different view doesn't make him illegitimate. It's as irresponsible for Democrats to behave this way toward Trump as it is for Trump to behave this way toward Obama.

Frightening as this demagoguery may be, Trump at least made that accusation in more abstract terms. His specifics regarding America's place in the world and our right to assert that authority absolutely set the stage for reckless and dangerous action in the near future, not just for America, but for the entire globe.

He followed the authoritarian (if not autocratic) playbook to perfection:

  1. Assert the rightful dominance of your nation relative to others.
  2. Claim absolute -- if not divine -- right to exercise that dominance.
  3. Define that dominance largely in military terms.
  4. Select an enemy toward which to direct that military might.
  5. Overstate the existential threat of that enemy, and in so doing create a baseline of fear from which to rule and expand your authority.
These elements were present in Trump's inaugural at varying moment, but I'd like to present some specific exerts emblematic of this patter:

1. Assert the rightful dominance of your nation relative to others.
"At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other." 
"Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs. Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength."
2. Claim absolute -- if not divine -- right to exercise that dominance.
3. Define that dominance largely in military terms
"We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world -- but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first."
"We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement and, most importantly, we are protected by God."
4. Select an enemy toward which to direct that military might.
"One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world."
"We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones -- and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth."
5. Overstate the existential threat of that enemy, and in so doing create a baseline of fear from which to rule and expand your authority.
"For many decades, we've enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we've defended other nation's borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America's infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay."
We may gather some understanding of Trump's ideology from his speech: He's defined America as a hellscape and himself as the only one capable of rescuing us. For now, we possess military and economic dominance that, despite waning over the past decade, can still be exercised to unilaterally advance our national interests while ignoring the interests of other nations. We will advance our interests by standing up to nations that hurt us economically, largely through stealing our jobs and crippling us through poor trade treaties, and defeating the existential threat of terrorism -- specifically Islamic terrorism.

There are a variety of problems with this worldview, not the least of which being the falsity of its underlying assumptions. From an economic perspective, the American recovery from the Great Recession could certainly have been stronger, but unemployment sits below 5 percent and, at least relative to other nations, we've outperformed. It's also worth noting that our military is the best, most well-equipped of any in history. That's unsurprising considering we spend more on our military than the next seven greatest arms-spending nations combined.

Then there's the inherent danger of overstating the power and influence of our nation's enemies. I'm not going to argue that terrorism isn't a threat. It absolutely is, and not just the radial Islamic variety. But it's not an existential one unless we treat it as such, nor is it one we can defeat with traditional military might.

The current face of terror, ISIS, has been steadily losing ground for the last two years. The manner in which the world deals with the crisis in Syria, both within the nation and regarding its refugees, will play a major role in how much this brand of terrorism proliferates. Regardless, the defeat of ISIS in Syria will not mark the defeat of terrorism, just as the weakening of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban didn't. Ideologies don't surrender on aircraft carriers. To some degree or another, the war on terror will continue in perpetuity. We will never win in the traditional sense. We can curb and contain the influence of radicalism through intelligent and cooperative efforts, but that's about it.

Unless terrorist groups gain access to nuclear or biological weapons, their threat is minimal at best. However, it may become an existential threat if we allow fear to grip us and fundamentally alter our way of life, turning American against American, or overcommitting our resources to unneeded militaristic responses -- the very resources that could be allocated to rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure Trump claims to care so deeply about. I worry that we'll make the same mistakes with Islamic terror that we made with the USSR. Yes, the USSR was a threat, but we responded disproportionately, developing an unnecessarily large missile gap. The effects of that response continue to shape our foreign policy today. We only remember that we won the Cold War, not that we could have potentially avoided it, deescalated it sooner, or fought it more efficiently.

But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Trump's ideology is the extent to which he puts "America first." I'm all about domestic growth and investments, but we must strike a balance between nationalism and globalism. We can't simply role back 70 years of globalization just because we feel like it.

Trump likes to complain about China and Mexico stealing our jobs, but they didn't steal anything. U.S. business leaders moved factories freely to save money on labor, resources, and distribution. If recapturing those jobs requires a race to the bottom, forcing workers to accept lower wages with poor benefits, I don't see that as a victory. Perhaps the better approach would involve leveraging our international influence to improve working conditions globally, making outsourcing less profitable while simultaneously raising the working class' quality of life worldwide.

Moreover, outsourcing isn't the only reason why many blue collar factory jobs have vanished. Increased efficiency through changing production practices and automation has played a massive role. Instituting tariffs and launching trade wars will do nothing to slow these factors.

And a trade war, which I assume would be Trump's economic "America first" response, would be equally shortsighted. For better of for worse, the American economy is inextricably entangled with those of several other nations, China especially. Economic harm to one invariably causes economic harm to the other, and China is more apt to deal with that downturn than the U.S. for a variety of reasons, in particular it's ability to adjust economic policies quickly due to its dictatorial ruling style. Talking tough on China makes for a great soundbite, but what happens when acting tough on China causes skyrocketing prices on consumer goods?

All of these factors taken together point to the inability of Trump and his supporters to grasp the nuances of global affairs. America cannot unilaterally dictate terms to advance its own interests. We don't have, nor have we ever had, that power. Our interests are intertwined with those of other nations, so oftentimes putting America first necessarily means putting China, Japan, Mexico, or the EU first as well -- or at the very least taking their national interests into consideration to preserve the larger global peace and prosperity.

The free-for-all, every-man-for-himself approach that may have served Trump well as a businessman will doom him as a president. Defeating your enemies in corporate America means putting them out of business. Defeating your enemies as the leader of American government means crushing them economically -- which we can't do without the support of other nations -- or wiping nations off the face of the earth -- which we can't do without a level of brinksmanship that seriously endangers the survival of not just our nation, but our species.