Monday, November 14, 2016

Some thoughts on hyperbole

Perhaps you've been deep in a cave for the last week or so, but just in case: A man with the lowest personal approval rating of probably any candidate for president of the US won election last Tuesday.  His approval rating was even lower than his opponent, who won the popular vote but wasn't able to carry enough state-by-state votes to win the thing outright.  It may be that she can still win the election, as the Electoral College is the final arbiter.  And, as many who voted for Hillary Clinton are aware, the Electoral College was invented to ensure the Presidency doesn't fall into the hands of the unfit.

Now the "hands of the unfit" two centuries ago were people who didn't like slavery.  Times change, of course; attitudes that were once acceptable are now unacceptable, and its a measure of the success of institutions that they're still useful when the country no longer thinks human beings can be treated as property.  I think I speak for generally almost everyone, though, when I think that counting on the Electoral College to choose the winner of the popular vote over the conventional winner is pretty weak.  That doesn't mean voters shouldn't pursue every opportunity to make the results work in their favor, and in this year of the unexpected who really knows?  Maybe the electors will do their actual constitutional duty and choose Clinton over Trump.  He has another month to demonstrate his unfitness, and while the many ways in which we all know Trump shouldn't be President - from the stated beliefs of his surrogates and allies to his conflicts of interest to his own personal issues - weren't persuasive to the large portion of the electorate that choose him, there's no telling what specific thing might bother a Republican member of the Electoral College.

Should it happen, and the angry right wing gets a taste of its own medicine, we can expect violence.  But we can expect violence anyway, and its already happening; the difference between fascists in triumph and fascists in defeat isn't all that evident, from the violence standpoint.  These are people convinced of their persecution, even in success.  Losing the Electoral College after having lost the popular vote to the decadent enclaves on the coasts is the perfect origin story for their own superhero series.

But the unthinkable has happened.  The media is already normalizing Trump; he's just another President, after all, but let's go back to worrying about what to buy for Christmas and isn't it great that Thanksgiving is coming up?

So let's talk a little about forecasting and likelihoods here, because its difficult to think through what might or might not happen.  My family and my neighbors are generally well-informed and experienced in the normal, and no one wants to overreact.  But what does overreaction consist of?

Many of the people who voted for Trump are under the impression that he doesn't mean what he says.  Leave aside the oft-pointed-out irony of their simultaneous attraction to a man who tells it like it is and isn't afraid of political correctness.  Trump has selected a bunch of lobbyists to help him pick his cabinet, which means more than likely we'll see massive deregulation and disassembly of what's left of the American regulatory state.  Gingrich has talked about busting the government employee unions, intentionally to ensure there's no exercise of conscience.  Trump's surrogates have already talked about jobs for coal miners and steel workers being just a handy myth, as empty campaign promises, so we can expect a particularly rapacious form of capitalism to follow the inauguration.

But so what?  We expected that under Bush, as well, and while things got bad they didn't get really worse.  In part that was because the Democrats were able to stall for time, and also because there were Republicans who showed some conscience.

But I think that's changed.  Its changed because many of the #NeverTrump people who came out against him - even people like Mark Kirk, who were douchebags in general but still didn't like Trump - either lost or faced violent threats from their own base and knuckled under.  They fell in line, eventually, or they lost to Democrats.  And so while its distinctly possible these people will have some degree of freedom to vote for agenda items that Preibus and Bannon agree on, its also likely they won't cross Bannon.

So one plausible, hopeful scenario is that the GOP forms a circular firing squad - that as Trump tries to push through a $500 billion infrastructure package, Bannon becomes enraged at McConnell and Ryan for not prioritizing the needs of the Herrenvolk and offends everyone, and the Freedom Caucus in the House decides they're not taking direction from a bunch of pointy-heads in the White House and shut the government down, all while Trump's stormtroopers threaten the families of GOP Congresspeople, and all of this demonstrates to the people with actual honest-to-God economic anxiety who voted for Trump that they made a mistake.  That hope isn't complex, and its well within the realm of plausibility.  One of the points Umberto Eco made repeatedly was Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy, and that observation applies as much to their enemies among liberals, leftists, and people of color as it does to their own natural allies.  When everyone is a fascist superhero its hard to work together.  When you're persuaded everyone is working against you, its hard to work with anyone.

But hoping for the fascists to burn themselves feels about as flimsy as hoping the Electoral College will do a job it hasn't done, ever.

I think its always helpful to see who these guys think they are.  They think they're part of an Alt-Right International.  Trump hangs with Nigel Farage of UKIP.  Marine Le Pen is hopeful she'll win in the spring, just like Trump.  Vladimir Putin, a right-wing authoritarian's authoritarian, is also hopeful and supportive.  That means the modern GOP will behave like right-wing authoritarians, and that script isn't hard to figure out.

In no particular order:

First, they'll attempt to gut the civil service and the "educated middle class."  We see comments to that effect already, and if Ben Carson is Secretary of Education it's difficult to see how a university system dependent on the largesse of DOD contracts isn't brought to heel.

Second, they'll further militarize the police forces.  Border guards are already fans of more and more powerful border guards, and that's Trump's signature issue.  The police unions like Trump's positions.   The FBI has taken a side.  And those forces are arrayed against people dismissed as paid provocateurs, so there's really no reason to demonstrate any restraint.

(So far none of this is much different than what could have happened under the Bush administration.  But what's different is the degree to which much of this news is faked, or can be faked.  The mass-media is dramatically weaker than it was in 2004, and the success of Drudge and the Swift-Boat campaign as well as the outright manufacture of click-bait has meant there's literally no connections to reality in many American's new feeds.)

Third, the mainstreaming of bigotry and hate crimes will continue and expand.  Its not just that these white-supremacists feel validated by the Trump campaign, and encouraged - Trump put Bannon into the top political spot in the White House, after all.  But the norms have been broken.  Why should anyone not be a bigot or misogynistic?  If a woman doesn't immediately physically fight back what prevents a man from doing whatever he wants to her?  It isn't just that Trump won with a record that should have put him in jail; he won, the media ignored what he said and did, and his supporters supported him anyway.  The same dynamic is in play with racism, a general sense that the targets of this violence are deserving of it.  This is true whether Trump is even a man of good will - which he almost certainly isn't - because Trump is an incurious man, insulated from most of what is happening in the world and the US even before he entered the bubble of the Presidency.  There will be no condemnation of unacceptable acts because the definition of "unacceptable" has shifted, under Bannon's management, and because Trump himself won't even know they've occurred.

Consider how dangerous it is, as a side note, for the President of the US to consume news filtered through a man infamous for detaching the American right from empirical reality.  There are long term issues, of course, such as climate change, Russian and Chinese aggression, hurricanes and earthquakes.  But there's just immediate acute concerns too.  What happens if there's an attempted coup?  Who does Trump trust - the guy who might be behind the coup, or who may be invested in not believing in it, or the entire national security state charged more or less with keeping everyone from having to go through that sort of thing in the first place?

And so with no check on violent racism and sexism there's every reason to think it will get worse.  Is the FBI going to investigate these things when their boss tells them the reporting is fabricated by George Soros and Michael Moore to make him look bad?

This is where I'm not sure at all what to think about the future.  I mean there's obviously an issue for the near term: The last ice age ended, by some estimates, in ten years, which means a mile-thick ice sheet melted pretty quick.  The planet's climate can change as fast a presidential candidate's prospects. But these Trump guys have no filter.  Bush saw himself as a revolutionary but not a racist.  The new guys don't see themselves that way at all.

Fourth, as Al Giordano pointed out (though not in so many words), there's a long tradition of resistance to fascism in the US.  African-American people have lived through this before, and this reaction from Trump's supporters isn't really anything new.  Its just out and proud.  But people still managed to produce great art and comedy.  Louis Armstrong didn't just survive he excelled; Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughn beat the system arrayed against them and produced works that will awe people for centuries.  To Giordano's point, we need to listen to people who've been through this before and beaten it, and do what they say.

So there's that.

More on this as I think it through.

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