“’You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.’”Charles Dickens. Our Mutual Friend. 1865

Ernest (angrily): “When you come to think of it, it’s extremely injudicious to admit into a conspiracy every pudding-headed baboon who presents himself!”—W.S Gilbert. The Grand Duke. 1896

220px-Fire_and_Fury_Michael_WolffI love politics. And I love unreliable narrator stories. So reading Fire and Fury was like a dream come true for me—not only are all of the book’s subjects unreliable narrators, presenting contradictory views and advocating mutually exclusive objectives, but the author himself is a sketchy character with questionable ethics and suspect motives. I’ve not witnessed such a kaleidoscope of political and journalistic deception since the movie Jackie.

But while the Kennedy administration was retroactively known as “Camelot”, the present one would be more accurately branded with another three-syllable word beginning with “c”. Forgive me if I shock you, but such vivid language is often employed by the President and his staffers in this book, especially Steve Bannon–certain quotes from whom helped drive sales of the book as well as end Bannon’s career at Breitbart.

For the first part of this review, I’m going to write as though everything the author reports is true, and provide analysis based on that. After that, I’ll discuss some of the weird things that cast doubt on Wolff’s account.

The central thread running through the book, which spans from Election Day in November 2016 to sometime in early Autumn of 2017, is the struggle for power between two factions: The President’s self-described “nationalist” strategist Steve Bannon on one side, and his adviser/daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared (“Jarvanka”, in the Bannon side’s terminology) on the other.

Behind most of the strange day-to-day details, the gossipy infighting, and Machiavellian backstabbing, this is the driving force of the whole drama, even more than the President’s fixation on what the mainstream news outlets are saying about him.

Most of the bizarre occurrences that we remember from the first year of this administration were the results of proxy wars between Bannon and the President’s daughter and son-in-law. For example, the infamous ten-day tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications director was a move by Ivanka’s side against Bannon’s. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was a victory by the Bannon side against Ivanka’s.

Bannon is motivated by resentment against the permanent government in Washington, which, in the Bannon version of history, has sold out the interests of the United States to foreign powers, and become a corrupt network of out-of-touch intellectuals and bureaucrats.

The Ivanka side’s motives are a little less clear. Preservation of their family business combined with horror at the President allying with a man so closely tied to the openly racist “alt-right” movement seem to be the main ones. (Cynical observers might say that it’s really their horror at what being associated with the alt-right does to the family brand.)

The mainstream Republicans—represented for most of the book by then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus–are mostly offstage, and only intermittently have contact with the President, who does not like to be bored by the complicated business of hammering out legislation. He prefers to watch television and gossip with other businessmen about his problems.

While Bannon sees the world as a clash of civilizations, his boss sees it as a clash of personalities—in particular, media personalities, like himself. To him, politics is just the New York business scene writ large; and the political press just an expanded version of the New York tabloids, to which various competing interests leak stories—sometimes “fake news”—to get better deals.

Over all of the gossip, be it Bannon constantly insulting Ivanka or the President’s various complaints about the accommodations or the servants or the press or whatever else is bothering him that day, the book paints the President as an easily-distracted man who changes his mind seemingly every hour, and his staff as a group of people feverishly scrambling to achieve their own goals by trying to curry favor with him.

And then, of course, there is Russia. Wolff actually takes a semi-sympathetic view to the administration on this point, arguing that they are too disorganized to carry out a massive conspiracy with a foreign government, and that the press has made this conspiracy up out of a few disjointed bits and pieces of evidence that don’t really add up to much.

Curiously, this is also Bannon’s view of the Russia issue, and he repeatedly stresses the facts that (a) the Mueller investigation is all the fault of Ivanka and Jared for urging the firing of FBI Director Comey and (b) that he, Bannon, has no ties to Russia whatsoever, and doesn’t know any Russians and is totally not involved with anything to do with Russia.

Given that Bannon is constantly likening the entire administration to Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps he’d be familiar with the concept of “protesting too much”. It’s true you rarely hear his name in connection with the Russia ties, suggesting he’s either innocent or better at covering his tracks than the rest of them.

And this is where we have to start some meta-analysis of this book. Bannon, like the Shakespearean protagonist he apparently thinks he is, gives lots of soliloquies about a number of subjects. At least, that’s the impression you get from the book. But much as I enjoy imagining Steve Bannon wandering around the White House giving long philosophical speeches to nobody in particular, it seems pretty clear that he was willing to talk to Wolff all the time, more so than anybody else in the administration. Also, the fact that Wolff’s time in the White House ended shortly after Bannon left bolsters the claim that it was Bannon who was giving him all this access.

Why on Earth would Bannon do that? It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it, and when you factor in that Bannon lost his relationship with the President and his job with Breitbart as a result of the book’s publication, it seems even more peculiar.

One possible theory is that this was yet another in a long series of Steve Bannon schemes that had the precise opposite effect of the one intended. Bannon let Wolff in to glorify him and destroy his internal enemies, and wound up destroying his own career instead.

Another possibility is that Wolff tricked Bannon just as he tricked the President, and that the nickname “Sloppy Steve” is as much a comment on Bannon’s ability to keep his mouth shut as it is his style of dress.

Or maybe Bannon invited him in, thinking he would chronicle the glorious success of their first year in power, and when it didn’t turn out that way he forgot to tell him to take a hike.

The most interesting possibility is that Bannon wanted someone to give an account that would absolve him of any involvement with the Russia scandal. Maybe sacrificing his career was worth it to him to get the word out that he was totally not involved with any Russia stuff.

All of this speculation assumes that what Wolff has written is true, and there’s plenty of reason to doubt that as well. Throughout the book, there are snippets of conversation that, upon reflection, seem hard to imagine Wolff obtained any other way than downright espionage. (Assuming he didn’t just make them up.) How does he know, for example, what the President said on the phone in his bed at night? Does Wolff know which of his business associates he called, and interview them? If so, how does he know they are telling the truth?

There’s a chance that the entire thing is made up (although if it were, presumably Bannon would have denied the bits that got him in trouble). I think a big reason Wolff got a free pass from much of the press on checking his accuracy is that he doesn’t report anything contrary to the impression most people have of each member of the administration. Everyone acts pretty much like you’d expect them to, given everything else we have seen of them. So it seems plausible.

Which could mean either that all of them are exactly like they seem on TV, or that Wolff made up a story using the members of the administration as “stock characters” in a drama of his own invention. But I don’t think that’s what he did—at least not for the major players. Because the book doesn’t really have a story worth inventing, other than perhaps the story of Steve Bannon’s rapid and unlikely rise to a position of power, followed by his equally rapid fall after he was undone by his own arrogance. I guess it is rather Shakespearean after all!

donald_trump_signs_orders_to_green-light_the_keystone_xl_and_dakota_access_pipelines_bannon_cropA couple of quotes from Steve Bannon in Michael Wolff’’s upcoming book Fire and Fury have gotten quite a bit of attention recently. The headlines are all about Bannon calling Donald Trump Jr.’ meeting with Russian lawyers ““treasonous”” and labeling Ivanka Trump ““dumb as a brick””. These quotes drew a response from the President himself.

But those aren’’t the significant Bannon quotes from this book. No; the most interesting Bannon-ism is this, from a dinner he attended shortly after the election with Roger Ailes, the disgraced former Fox News CEO:

““China’’s everything. Nothing else matters. We don’’t get China right, we don’’t get anything right. This whole thing is very simple. China is where Nazi Germany was in 1929 to 1930. The Chinese, like the Germans, are the most rational people in the world, until they’’re not. And they’’re gonna flip like Germany in the ’30s. You’’re going to have a hypernationalist state, and once that happens, you can’’t put the genie back in the bottle.””

Hey, you guys! It turns out we had Bannon all wrong. We thought he was a Nazi, but actually he’’s trying to prevent the rise of the new Nazis! He’’s like Severus Snape!

Kidding aside, if this is true, it means Bannon sees China as the most significant threat to the United States, and indeed the world.

Which is weird, because throughout Trump’’s first year in office (for the majority of which Bannon was a key advisor) his administration has been consistently letting China get what it wants.

On the campaign trail, Trump talked a big game about punishing China for currency manipulation. Then he met Chinese President Xi at Mar-A-Lago and they had some delicious cake and all of a sudden that became water under the bridge.

Remember the Trans-Pacific Partnership? The one Trump withdrew the United States from? Well, that withdrawal allowed China to further increase its economic power in Asia.

I’’m not saying the TPP was necessarily a good idea, but by its withdrawal, the US has clearly served the interest of China’’s ruling elite. And what did Bannon have to say about it, when Trump withdrew from it mere days into his Presidency?

“”Great thing for the American worker, what we just did.””

Or how about Trump’’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement? By doing so, it allowed China to take the lead in new energy technology, and cleaning up their polluted cities.

In other words, Trump effectively set the stage for the US and China to swap roles, with the US now being the heavily-polluted manufacturing country with older technology and lower regulatory standards, and China being the high-tech, clean, “white-collar” nation.

How did old Bannon feel about that?

“”As Trump prepared to take the podium, chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, the man credited with keeping Trump on a path to Paris withdrawal, stood in the shade with a coterie of senior staff, surveying the scene. For Bannon, the United States’ exit from the deal wasn’’t just a policy victory, it was personal vindication.””

What is up with this? If Bannon thinks he needs to curb China’’s increasing geopolitical power, he has a funny way of doing it. All these major policy decisions that Trump made at Bannon’’s urging have benefited China.

Bannon may think the President’s daughter is dumb as a brick, but at first glance, his approach to fighting rival superpowers rather resembles the work of someone with block-like intelligence.

Is Bannon secretly a double agent for China, pretending to be super anti-China as a cover? Is he just a buffoon who has no idea how Foreign Policy works? Or is he some 13-dimensional-chess-playing mastermind who knows something everybody else doesn’’t, and thinks that whoever has the least influence in Asia will somehow dominate the globe?

There’s an interesting article by Prof. Julia Azari at FiveThirtyEight that argues Trump is more like a 19th-century President. What’s really good about the article is that it’s about more than just Trump–it illustrates how the Presidency has expanded in power in the century:

“Modern presidents have exercised considerable influence over the nation’s policy agenda and the legislation Congress considers and passes. They also communicate with the nation about their policy priorities — we see this, for instance, in the evolution of the State of the Union, which started as a written message to Congress and has become a nationally televised speech. But when the Constitution was written, it wasn’t necessarily designed to give presidents this kind of sway over domestic affairs. The tools for policy influence that presidents now have, such as the Office of Management and Budget, didn’t used to exist.”

And what’s more, this expansion of the Executive’s power came at the expense of Legislative power–which, as I discussed here, is actually in the interest of both branches. (Though perhaps not the nation itself.)

This gradual erosion of the Legislative branch–with its consent!–is a major reason why the government is so dysfunctional.

On CNN this morning they were talking about the fact that Trump has been golfing far more than previous Presidents.  What makes this especially ironic is that before he ran for office, he tweeted all sorts of insults at then-President Obama for how much time he spent golfing. And before that, Democrats criticized George W. Bush for this:

(Bush quit golfing shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

As I’ve discussed in the past, I don’t actually mind that Presidents (or other executives) play golf.  Their jobs mostly involve giving people orders, and as long as they have working communications equipment, that can be done from a golf course.

The problem with Trump’s golfing is that he plays at courses he owns, which means his company charges his government support staff for the use of equipment and facilities while they are there to provide security and other support to Trump.

This is a massive conflict of interest, but seemingly no one in government can be bothered to make Trump stop doing it and go play on a course he doesn’t own instead.  The press should focus more on that and less on the raw amount of time that Trump spends golfing.

What I expected to happen in the 2016 election was that Clinton would win, but Trump would do better than most people expected, and it would scare the political establishment into making some concessions to the nationalist movement that had propelled Trump to the nomination.

My assumption was that it would be similar to what happened in the 1990s when Ross Perot ran a highly successful campaign based on reducing the budget deficit.  He didn’t win, but his support was sufficient to convince both parties they needed to balance the budget. (At least for a while.)

I figured that the Republicans and Democrats would realize they had to do something to appease the fury Trump had awakened.

Looking back, I think this might have been a better outcome for the nationalist faction than the Trump victory has been.

Via the Associated Press:

“Over the past 48 hours, the outsider politician who pledged to upend Washington has:

— Abandoned his vow to label China a currency manipulator.

— Rethought his hands-off assessment of the Syrian conflict — and ordered a missile attack.

— Turned his warm approach toward Vladimir Putin decidedly chilly and declared U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low.”

— Decided NATO isn’t actually obsolete, as he had claimed.

— Realized the U.S. Export-Import Bank is worth keeping around.”

In the aftermath of Bannon’s fall from… well, not “grace” exactly, but you know what I mean–Trump has abandoned many of the nationalist ideas he campaigned on.

I’ve often thought that even if I supported nationalist policies, Trump is one of the last people I would want advancing the cause. As I wrote back in October:

Trump himself, the de facto nationalist candidate, has even less interest in the merits of globalism vs. nationalism.  His decision to promote nationalist policies is purely pragmatic.  He adopted it when he discovered it would enable him to win the Republican nomination. I think that the only reason he won’t abandon it now is because, for a host of reasons, only ardent nationalists will support him at this point. If he drops nationalism, he is left with nothing.

Well, things have changed since then.  Now, instead of nothing, Trump’s potential reward for abandoning nationalism is the adulation of the Washington establishment, the political press, and most of the government.

Also, it means he gets to put the most powerful military on earth to work destroying stuff on his command.

Given this, combined with everything we know about Trump’s personality, it’s easy to see why Trump now refuses to, as the expression goes, “dance with the one that brought him”.

The former governor of California wrote:

“Gerrymandering has completely broken our political system and I believe my best platform to help repair it is from the outside, by campaigning for independent redistricting commissions.”

He’s right on the first part–gerrymandering has completely broken our political system. It has created a bunch of sharply divided, non-competitive districts that are designed to favor one party or the other. (Usually the Republicans, obviously) This results in extreme polarization in the Congress.

Will Schwarzenegger’s plan to fix it actually work? Not bloody likely, in my opinion.

First of all, even if somehow someone manages to create an “independent redistricting commission”, the political pressure on it will be enormous.  And any decision they reach will be immediately attacked as unfair by whichever party stands to lose seats as a result of it.  (And again: that party will be the Republicans. I know this because they benefit from the current arrangement, and so any meaningful change would have to come at their expense.)

Moreover, and for all the same reasons, it is unlikely that anyone would be able to create such a commission with any meaningful power.

The Republicans have absolutely no incentive to support such a project, and every reason to oppose it. And they control all the levers of power, so they have the means to thwart the initiative.

So, to summarize: Schwarzenegger has a nice idea. But it’s not going to happen.

What should he do instead to try to fix the problem? Well for starters, he should look into my suggestion from this post:

[T]he liberal entertainment industry… could make other cities have the same brand power as New York and L.A. [and] help to attract other Democrats.

That strategy could work not only for Democrats, but also for anti-Trump Republicans such as Schwarzenegger. It is easier to change the demographics in the existing districts than it would be to change the shape of the districts themselves.

nineteen_eighty-four1

We take the existence of political parties as a given.  Even dictatorships usually have one party, which is strange if you think about it–a bit like having a sports league with only one team.  Why do you need a party if it doesn’t have to compete with any other party?

Nevertheless, political parties are everywhere.  They are clearly very popular. And yet, when you think about it, there is no obvious need for parties in a functioning democracy.

To run for office, you just need to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot in relevant districts.  After that, you need to get your message out somehow–usually through press interviews, ads, campaign rallies and speeches.  And you don’t need a party to do any of that.

Once you are in office, you have even less need for a party because, well… you are in office.  Now you just need to use the office to accomplish your goals.  Periodically, you need to campaign for re-election, but as we just saw, that can be accomplished without a party.

The obvious point is that you need money in order to run for office, and parties are a convenient way of raising money and in general providing the infrastructure for a successful campaign.

But there are other ways of raising money. If you’re a really effective and charismatic speaker–a major asset in politics–that in itself can be a fundraising mechanism. And if you are already wealthy, you may be able to self-finance campaigns for some offices. The super-rich want to control politics anyway; why don’t they just cut out the middleman and do it themselves?

Also, the rise of mass media means that it’s cheaper to get the word out than it used to be. Donald Trump famously got billions of dollars worth of “free advertising” for his campaign by dominating both mainstream press and social media headlines.

So, what are political parties for?

One thing they obviously do is provide a way of associating oneself with certain goals, policies and philosophies.  If someone is a Democrat, you can generally guess where they stand on most issues. That can save a candidate a lot of time–you know you’re guaranteed a certain number votes just from your party affiliation. More on that later…

Parties also provide a framework for running campaigns.  This is also a time-saving function.  Everyone knows the Republicans and Democrats are both going to field some candidate in the race for state governor, for example.  So they have some campaign infrastructure already in place–they just need to sort out who the candidate will be.

In this respect, political parties have surreptitiously taken over the political process simply by virtue of providing candidates with credibility.

It works like this: the press knows that either the Republican or the Democrat is going to win, and so they focus their coverage on them.  Similarly, donors know the same fact, and so donate primarily to one of the two candidates.

Thus, while it’s not apparent why you need a party apparatus, it is clear that once you have one, it’s hard to get rid of it.

Politicians have tried to challenge various parties over the years, and some have succeeded in radically changing what a given party’s platform is, or even in creating an entirely new party. But to my knowledge, nobody has ever challenged the party infrastructure itself.

H. Ross Perot challenged the Republicans and the Democrats in the 1990s.  His signature issue was the national debt and deficit. To some extent, he made his point–after he gained a sizeable share of the vote, the parties cooperated to balance the budget in order to placate the Perot voters. (It didn’t last long, but still.)

Even Trump, much as he tried to play the role of Outsider Underdog taking on the Establishment Machine, didn’t truly challenge that parties from outside.  Instead, he played divide and conquer, first taking over the Republicans and turning their infrastructure to serve him in defeating the Democrats.

The core Republican party system remained (and remains) in place; Trump just took charge of it and directed how it should be used.

If you define a party–as I suggested above–as a team of people interested in accomplishing some set of goals, it makes it hard to understand how this type of takeover is possible. There was a sizeable anti-Trump faction in the party, but most of them ended up supporting Trump anyway. You would expect that parties would be more fluid if they were truly about political philosophies.

Parties are much more tribal things–akin to supporting a sports team. Being a member of a given party is more a matter of one’s cultural values and upbringing than it is any specific political agenda.  Just as someone will cheer for their team even if the players and coaches are bad, they will support their party even if the candidate is bad.

People wonder why politicians are, in general, so ineffective.  There are a couple reasons for this, but I suspect one is that they are tremendously insulated from constituent pressure thanks to the power of the party system.  Once you have support of the party machinery, the job gets a lot easier because a certain number of people will support you just because you are from their party.

People always try to fix this problem by mounting primary challenges. Which is great, except that it has only two possible outcomes:

  • The challenger loses. This is usually what happens; it’s called the incumbent advantage.
  • The challenger wins, and then enjoys all the same benefits of the party machinery that his or her predecessor did, thus turning them into another cog in the machine.

The only office that doesn’t work like this is President, because the President has more power to shape the party’s agenda.

This is yet another cause of the weakening of the Legislative branch relative to the Executive. Over the decades, the party system produces weaker and weaker legislators, until finally Congress is populated by people who are totally beholden to their party, and thus, to their party’s leader.

And this puts us hot on the trail of figuring out what a political party actually is: it is a means of simplifying the complex business of government into a more understandable form. Namely, it turns a complicated system of numerous offices into a very simple hierarchy with one ultimate executive.

This explains what a political party is and, incidentally, explains why they have them even in dictatorships.  Political parties are what produce dictators.

That sounds like a pretty wild idea, doesn’t it?  It does to me.  I was surprised when I realized it as I was thinking about this. However, some other people in history have come to the same conclusion regarding political parties. For example:

“All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities… serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests…

[…]I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.”

George Washington’s Farewell Address. (1796)

  • Purely as a piece of rhetoric, I liked his Inaugural Address more.  For one thing, it was shorter. In general, the fewer words you use to make your point, the better.
  • That said, the pundit class that this speech was clearly designed to impress obviously prefers long speeches that cover too many topics to have any punch to them.
  • I suspect Bannon wrote most of it.  It sounds like him.
  • I have never liked the “Free Trade / Fair Trade” line, which Democrats have often used in the past and which Trump used here. “Fair Trade” in this context is a meaningless phrase that can be used to justify virtually any tariff or other protectionist measure, whether warranted or not.
  • Of course, I’m sure it will play great with the “Reagan Democrats” (or now, I guess, “Trump Democrats”) who are the linchpin of his coalition.
  • It was woefully short on specifics, but no one expects that out of these anymore.  They are just glorified performances of political theater, and have been as long as I can remember. (And Trump excels at theater.)
  • I am not sure why the Press is so surprised by the style of the speech.  I guess they were expecting him to do his usual rambling and improvisational monologue.  I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting more or less what we got.
  • Moreover, this is not the first time Trump has done something like this. He gave “normal” speeches both at the convention and in his victory speech on election night. Trump has never had an issue acting like a normal politician for brief periods of time–it’s just that he’s never sustained it. And there’s mounting evidence to suggest he doesn’t need to.

Historians are familiar with the “Miracle of Dunkirk”: the fact that Hitler ordered a halt to the Nazi advance, allowing the British time to evacuate men from the port.  Some argue that had the British been annihilated at Dunkirk, they would have surrendered to Germany.  At any rate, saving all those men was obviously a huge boon for the Allies.

What’s less clear is the reason for the Nazi “halt” order.  Some say it was given because Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, wanted a chance to demonstrate that air power could annihilate the enemy, and wanted ground forces to halt so eh could make his point. (Which he then failed to do.)

Others argue that the order was given because Hitler, being a megalomaniac, wanted to make it clear that he was the one in charge, and by ordering his generals to halt, he could demonstrate supreme authority.

Still others say it simply came down to a matter of logistics.  German armor had advanced so far so rapidly that their supply lines were stretched too far, and they needed to stop to be re-supplied.

Still others argue it was because the Nazis, caught up in their pseudo-scientific, quasi-mystical racial delusions, saw the British as being of the same or similar “race”, and were reluctant to annihilate them, preferring they should surrender with few casualties and become part of the Aryan empire they envisaged.

Whatever the reason, the order was given, and it was obeyed.  And that’s the part I find interesting.

Heinz Guderian
Image via Wikipedia

The German advance through France had been led by the rather sinister-looking fellow pictured at right, Heinz Guderian. Guderian was famously a proponent of advancing very fast and unrelentingly surprising the enemy with speed. It’s probably partially thanks to his style that the term blitzkrieg got so famous.

Guderian was also not hesitant to ignore orders.  Higher-ranking officers were shocked by just how quickly he was moving through France, and ordered him to halt.  Guderian would ignore them and advance anyway, looking to press his advantage and not give the French time to regroup.

So, my question is: why did Guderian finally obey the order to halt at Dunkirk, when he had a golden opportunity? It seems wildly out of character for him. Was it simply that an order from Hitler himself he felt he had to obey? Had he in fact stretched his supply lines to the breaking point, and really was incapable of continuing to press the attack?

It’s nothing more than a footnote in the larger historical context, but it’s very interesting to me.

star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

amidala
Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”