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The number one issue that humanity faces today is technological growth. If you look under the surface of most political issues, what drives them is the way technology has given us abilities we did not previously have, or information we could not previously have accessed.

What makes this especially powerful is that technology evolves much faster than human beings do. Technology can go through many generations in the course of one human’s lifetime.

This is important, because in evolutionary biology, new traits usually emerge over the course of generations. (This is why biologists usually study traits in organisms with short generations. You can observe multiple generations of flies over the course of a year.)

But since technology moves faster than humans can evolve new traits, it means that we are always playing from behind. When I was born, cell phones were huge, unwieldy things used by rich people, sales reps, and techies. Now they’re everywhere, and are more powerful than the top-of-the-line supercomputers of three decades ago.

For the last 200 years, technological progress has been increasing at an incredible rate. And humans have often suffered by being slow to adapt. This is illustrated most dramatically by wars: in World War I, the officers had all been trained in tactics derived from the Napoleonic era. This resulted in huge massacres, as cavalry and infantry charges–which would have worked against men with inaccurate single-shot rifles–were torn to pieces by machine guns. Technology had made a huge leap in the century between the battle of Waterloo and the battle of Artois. And that was as nothing compared to the leap it would make in the next thirty years, with the advent of the Atomic Bomb.

The thing is, while it may seem to us like a long time since the days of cavalry charges and flintlock rifles, in terms of human history, that’s a drop in the bucket. Homo sapiens first emerged roughly 200,000 years ago. On that scale, Waterloo might as well be yesterday, and the Roman Empire was just last week.

For the vast majority of our existence, life was pretty much the same: people worked the land and hunted and raised families. Periodically, they organized into larger tribes to make war or trade. If you took a citizen of Athens from, say, 450 BCE and transported him to Renaissance Italy—nearly 2000 years later–he’d still have a pretty good handle on how things worked once he got past the language barrier. Whereas if you transported somebody from 1890s London to the present day—a mere 128 years!—he’d have no idea what was happening.

When you read history, it’s easy to be struck by how human nature seems unchanged over the centuries. We can recognize things in the texts of the earliest historians and philosophers that seem analogous to modern phenomena. While it may seem like this means human nature is eternal, what it really signifies is that it hasn’t been that long, in biological terms, since what we think of as “ancient times”.

It’s commonplace to observe the technology changes, but human nature remains the same. But observing it is one thing; grasping the full implications is another.

For instance, there is a major “culture war” debate in the U.S. over the issue of transgender rights. Those who favor transgender rights view their opponents as closed-minded bigots. Those opposed see the others as radicals bent on destroying the social order. What both sides ignore is the fact that until very recently, transgender people had no medical treatment available to them. For hundreds of thousands of years, transgender people had no option but to live in the body they were born with. And the rest of the population scarcely even knew they existed; and so built whole societies premised on two rigid gender roles. It wasn’t until very recent breakthroughs in medical technology that any other option became viable.

Once you view it in these terms, you realize it isn’t a liberal plot to destabilize society, but simply a group of people able to access treatment that previously did not exist. Likewise, you also realize the reason so many people are responding with fear and suspicion is that history and tradition provide no guidelines for how to deal with the issue. It simply wasn’t possible in the past.

A number of social conflicts, I suspect, are in fact the result of people being optimized for a very different world than the one we actually live in. Ancient prohibitions against homosexuality, sodomy, and other non-reproductive sexual behavior made some sense in the context of their time—in the past, when mortality rates were high, people needed everyone who was physically capable of reproducing to do so, personal feelings notwithstanding. It was about survival of the group, not any one individual.

Nowadays humanity is threatened more by overpopulation than by extinction—but we’re still adapted to the world of thousands of years ago. That’s just one example. I think people in the developed world still have a slightly-irrational fear of famine; simply because we evolved over millennia where food was, in fact, extremely scarce. (This is why philosophies like the so-called “abundance mentality” seem so counter-intuitive. In the past, it would’ve been suicide to assume there were enough resources for everybody.)

Instinct is a powerful thing, and incredibly dangerous when it gets outdated. To borrow an example from Paul Graham: because human beings haven’t had the power of flight until recently, it’s easy for our senses to be fooled in bad visibility.

Of course, this is something where we use technology to make up for our own shortcomings. A human being would have no idea how to fly a plane if not for instruments that correctly show the position of the aircraft. And this leads to another obvious point about technological evolution—it is, in many ways, nothing short of miraculous for humans. It allows us to accomplish things our ancestors could never have imagined. Whatever bad side effects it has, no one could ever rationally argue that we’d be better off getting rid of all of it and returning to primitive life.

The saving grace is that technology has been designed by humans and for humans, and so generally is compatible with the needs of humans. The things that conflict with human needs aren’t usually a direct result of this, but rather side-effects the designers never thought of.

But side-effects, almost by definition, are insidious. Any obvious, seriously harmful side-effect gets fixed early on. The ones that don’t usually fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Not obvious
  • Don’t seem harmful at first
  • Can’t be fixed without destroying the benefit

The designers of automobiles probably never thought the exhaust would cause pollution; even if they had, they probably wouldn’t have realized that cars would be widely used enough for it to matter. Marie and Pierre Curie had no idea the new element they had discovered was dangerous. It seemed like just a useful illuminative substance. And pretty much every communications technology in history, from the printing press on, has the potential to spread pernicious lies and propaganda just as much as news and useful information. But no one can figure out a way to remove the bad information without also getting rid of the good—the only option is censorship, which can pose a danger in its own right.

I’ll say it again for emphasis: technology is evolving faster than humans. As a result, our instincts will often lie to us when it comes to dealing with technology. It’s the same way modern junk food is engineered to please our taste buds while poisoning our bodies—it’s designed to set off all the right sensors that tell us “get more of this”.

The rise of nationalism throughout the world in the last decade has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of social media. It’s not a coincidence. Social media plays to an old instinct that takes human society back to its most basic state: the tribe, and the desire to win approval from that tribe. But in the past, when we were in tribes, we didn’t know what the rival tribes or nation-states were doing—they were in far-off lands and rarely encountered each other. But now, we always know what they are doing—they are just a click away. And because they are a different tribe, our instincts tell us to fear them, as our ancestors feared invaders from distant places.

What can we do about this? We can’t get rid of technology; nor would we want to. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to make it into a political question. Politicians want easy, non-nuanced issues, where they can cast themselves as leaders of a huge, virtuous majority against a tiny, vaguely-defined band of evildoers. That would be a terrible thing to happen on this issue. As we’ve already seen in the social issues I’ve mentioned earlier, politicians tend to cast these things as moral questions rather than technological change ones.

We’re going to have to deal with this one on our own. But how? After all, technology brings huge benefits. How can we keep getting those while minimizing the side effects? We don’t want to completely ignore our instincts—not all of them are outdated, after all—but we can’t always trust them, either.

The best advice I can give is to always be on the lookout for what side-effects technology produces in your own life. Always ask yourself what it’s causing you to do differently, and why. Then you’ll start to look for the same in the wider world. We know human nature doesn’t change that much; so when you see or read about a large number of people behaving in an unusual way, or a new cultural phenomenon, there’s a decent chance that it’s in response to some new technology.

It’s easy to look at the dangers of technology and decide you want to opt out, throw it all away, and return to the simple life. This is probably healthy in small doses but it’s impractical on a large scale or for an entire lifetime. What I’m advising is cultivating an attitude of extreme adaptability, where you are so flexible that you can both use new technology and see the potential problems with it coming before they hit you. Listen to your instincts, but know when you need to disregard them. Remember, your instincts are optimized to give you the best chance at survival in a world of agrarian societies and/or tribes of hunter-gatherers. And they are damn good at it; but their mileage may vary in a world of computers, nanomachines, and space travel.

“’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?

[I’m going off of this CNN transcript. My comments in red italics.]
TRUMP [Responding to a question about why it took him two days to denounce the alt-right protesters in Charlottesville]: I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct, not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. And it’s a very, very important process to me. And it’s a very important statement. [Get all the facts.  Very important.  Remember he said this.]
So, I don’t want to go quickly and just make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts. If you go back to my…
(CROSSTALK)
TRUMP: I brought it. I brought it. I brought it. [He brought a copy of his remarks from Saturday]
QUESTION: What did you (inaudible)?
TRUMP: As I said on — remember this — Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. And when I went on from there.
Now, here’s the thing. As to — excuse me — excuse me — take it nice and easy.
Here’s the thing. When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet, as we were speaking. This event just happened. Before I make a statement, I need the facts.
So I don’t want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent. In fact, the young woman who I hear is a fantastic young women, and it was on NBC, her mother wrote me and said through, I guess, Twitter, social media, the nicest things and I very much appreciate that.
I hear she was a fine, a really — actually, an incredible young woman. But her mother on Twitter thanked me for what I said. And honestly, if the press were not fake and if it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. [This is unbecoming of the President. But we’re used to that.] But unlike you and unlike — excuse me — unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.
***
..
(CROSSTALK)
TRUMP: I didn’t know David Duke was there. [Well, he was. Missed that during all your fact-finding, eh?] I wanted to see the facts. And the facts as they started coming out were very well stated. In fact, everybody said his statement was beautiful; if he would have made it sooner, that would have been good. I couldn’t have made it sooner because I didn’t know all of the facts.
Frankly, people still don’t know all of the facts. [Would you mind telling us, since you apparently think you do?] It was very important that — excuse me, excuse me — it was very important to me to get the facts out and correctly. Because if I would have made a fast statement, and the first statement was made without knowing much other than what we were seeing.
The second statement was made after — with knowledge, with great knowledge. There are still things — excuse me — there are still things that people don’t know. I want to make a statement with knowledge. I wanted to know the facts.
OK…
QUESTION: Was it — two questions. Was it terrorism? And can you tell us what you’re feeling about your…
TRUMP: Well, I think the driver of the car is a disgrace to himself, his family and his country. And that is — you can call it terrorism. You can call it murder. You can call it whatever you want. I would just call it as the fastest one to come up with a good verdict. That’s what I’d call it. Because there is a question. Is it murder? Is it terrorism? And then you get into legal semantics. [Unusual to hear him use the word “semantics”]
The driver of the car is a murderer. And what he did was a horrible, horrible, inexcusable thing.
QUESTION: Can you tell us how you’re feeling about your chief strategist, Mr. Bannon? Can you talk about that?
TRUMP: Go ahead.
QUESTION: I would echo Maggie’s (ph) question. Steve Bannon…
TRUMP: I never spoke to Mr. Bannon about it.
QUESTION: But can you tell us broadly what you’re — do you still have confidence in Steve (ph)?
TRUMP: Well, we see (ph) — and look, look. I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that, and I like him. He’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets a very unfair press in that regard.
But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon, but he’s a good person, and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly. [Sounds like he plans to make Bannon the fall guy.]
***
QUESTION: Senator McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville.
TRUMP: Well, I don’t know — I can’t tell you. I’m sure Senator McCain must know what he’s talking about. But when you say the “alt- right,” define “alt-right” to me. You define it, go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, I think that (ph)…
TRUMP: No, define it for me, come on. Let’s go. Define it for me.
QUESTION: Senator McCain defined them as the same group… [Trump should really specify that on this game show, you only have 5 seconds to give your answer. I would have defined them as “tech-savvy ultra-nationalists”.]
TRUMP: OK, what about the alt-left that came charging them (ph)? Excuse me. What about the alt-left that came charging at the — as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt? [“Semblance” is an unusual word for him to use. Also, I have not seen any video of the counter-demonstrators charging. I’ve seen one of some of the surrounded by the torch-wielding alt-right people. Are there any videos of a charge like Trump describes?]
QUESTION: Mr. Trump…
TRUMP: Let me ask you this. What about the fact they came charging — that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? [Did this happen?] Do they have any problem? I think they do.
QUESTION: Sir…
TRUMP: As far as I’m concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day.
Wait a minute, I’m not finished. I’m not finished, fake news. That was a horrible day…
TRUMP: I will tell you something. I watched those very closely, much more closely than you people watched it. And you have — you had a group on one side that was bad, and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent, and nobody wants to say that, but I’ll say it right now. You had a group — you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent. [Does anyone have figures on how many injuries were reported, and on which sides?  Are these the much-ballyhooed “facts’ that Trump claims to know about? Could we get them? And if the counter-protesters were so violent, why was the only death that of a counter-protester at the hands of an alt-right sympathizer?]
(CROSSTALK)
TRUMP: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you think that the — what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?
TRUMP: Those people — all of those people — excuse me. I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. [Often without hesitation.] But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were White Supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.
So — excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups and you see — and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. [Everyone knew that.]
So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. [I suspect Bannon talked to him shortly before this and gave him a quick history lesson. I doubt he knew who Stonewall Jackson was until yesterday.] I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? [Indeed, there have previously been calls for the removal of monuments to Jefferson on college campuses.]
You know, you all — you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop? But they were there to protest — excuse me. You take a look, the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. [Either no one asked or he didn’t answer any questions about why so many people were carrying the Nazi flag in order to do that.]
Infrastructure question, go ahead.
QUESTION: Should the statue of Robert E. Lee stay up?
TRUMP: I would say that’s up to a local town, community, or the federal government, depending on where it is located. [Least helpful answer imaginable.]
QUESTION: Are you against the Confederacy? [I really wish he’d replied to this. It would have been fascinating.]
***
QUESTION: Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?
TRUMP: I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. [There are no moral planes in Trump’s world.] What I’m saying is this. You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch.
But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
***
(CROSSTALK) TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. (inaudible) themselves (inaudible) and you have some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group — excuse me, excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name. [You can see just how deeply he researched this.]
(CROSSTALK)
QUESTION: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same (inaudible)…
(CROSSTALK)
TRUMP: George Washington was a slave-owner. Was George Washington a slave-owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down — are we going to take down statues to George Washington?
(CROSSTALK)
TRUMP: How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? [No. He seems cold and distant.]
(CROSSTALK)
TRUMP: OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave-owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. [How can we tell which is which, though?]
OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. [That sounds like the police, but…] You’ve got — you had a lot of bad — you had a lot of bad people in the other group…
(CROSSTALK)
QUESTION: … treated unfairly (inaudible) you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? (inaudible) understand what you’re saying.
TRUMP: No, no. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.
But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know — I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit.
So, I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country (sic). [“There are two sides to the country”. While inadvertent, this is a great summary of Trump’s worldview. Compare with then-Senator Obama’s quote from 2004: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America.”]

election-map-3d-by-county
Credit: Max Galka, Metrocosm.com

Before you do anything else, read this Andrew Sullivan column. It’s a few months old, but still incredibly relevant in many ways, and it’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.

All done?  Good.

The part I loved most was this:

“In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.”

This is a highly significant point.  On a superficial level it’s related to what I wrote about here–the fact that so many of America’s problems stem from the high concentration of young, talented, well-educated people in a few cities.

But there’s also a deeper significance to it–the Oswald Spengler quote I referenced here that “the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old [culture] and the appearance of the new one,” applies.

Sorry to reference my own posts, but my point here is that Sullivan has very clearly articulated something I’ve subconsciously thought about but have never been able to express.  It’s a fundamental change in the culture of the United States, and it’s something that needs to be understood to ensure a prosperous future for the nation.

We know that Russian Intelligence worked to increase Donald Trump’s election chances by spreading propaganda. And we now know that they also attempted to tamper with US voting systems. And we know that President Trump has long spoken approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we know that Trump campaign personnel met with various Russian officials during the campaign.

All of this looks highly suspicious, and suggests that something was going on between Trump and Russia.

However, there is one thing about the “Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to steal the election” theory that doesn’t add up.  Namely, if Russia was covertly influencing the election, why would they bother to tell the Trump campaign about it?

Think about it: there’s no reason for them to have any contact beyond perhaps an initial meeting to lay out the plan.  Why keep having these meetings between Trump’s people and Russia’s people?  All it did was increase the likelihood of the plot getting exposed.

This is actually the best argument the Trump people have in their favor, as far as I can see.  If they were committing such a serious crime, why leave such incriminating evidence?

The “Trump’s campaign is innocent” scenario could be something like the following: sure, they met with Russian people, but it was nothing to do with election-hacking. Trump’s platform and Russia’s interests in promoting a new nationalistic world order just happened to align, and they were hashing out details of what they would do in the event that Trump won. Russia independently carried out their manipulation of the election without the knowledge of the Trump campaign.

Which would be the way to do it, if you were running a remotely competent espionage operation.  You don’t tell people stuff they don’t need to know, and from Russia’s perspective, the Trump campaign wouldn’t have needed to know that Russia was attempting to influence the election.

But this leads to the question: why did the Russians meet with them at all?  Presumably, Russian officials knew about the plan, even if the Trump people didn’t. And they would therefore know how bad the meetings would look if word of the Russian interference ever came out.

This points strongly to the conclusion that the Russians suckered Trump, or at least Trump’s people. They knew it would make them look bad when these meetings came to light, and so would undermine the American people’s faith in the entire government and the electoral process.

If this is the case, Trump and his personnel, rather than being willing pawns of a Russian plot, are actually naïve victims who fell into a Russian trap.

Personally, I find it hard to imagine the people working for Trump were that unbelievably easy to trick.  But it’s hard to see any other explanation.

What he said:

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?”

Like so many things Trump says, this makes no sense.  But I think I know what he meant.

I think he is alluding to the Nullification Crisis–a conflict between the Federal Government and South Carolina during Jackson’s presidency.  The stated reason for the crisis was that South Carolina claimed they didn’t have to abide by Federal tariff laws.  The real motives were a bit deeper, and are an obvious prelude to some of the issues that sparked the Civil War.

Jackson himself wrote: “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object.”  It was sort of a trial run for the South, which would later use similar states’ rights-style arguments as a reason to preserve slavery, ultimately leading them into conflict with the North.

Trump, of course, knows none of that.  But Stephen Bannon, an admirer of Andrew Jackson, probably does know it, and Trump vaguely remembered him saying something about it once.  Of course, he couldn’t remember specifics, like that it was about the issue of Federal vs. State power, or that it led to Southern states claiming they had a right to preserve slavery. He just remembered “Andrew Jackson” and “something that led to the Civil War”.

(I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect Bannon is one of those guys who argues that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but was instead about “states’ rights.)

The end result is the totally rambling and nonsensical quote above. But I think on this one, it’s pretty easy to trace Trump’s incoherent babble back to the primordial Bannon-stew that spawned it.

My friend Thingy objected to applying the word “charisma” to Trump, saying:

“I want to use another word for him other than charisma, because it doesn’t seem the right one for me. I always thought charisma was a positive trait, someone people turn to and smile.”

She’s not alone.  Several people to whom I’ve told my theory disagree that Trump has charisma.

So, first, I should define what I mean by “charisma”. I’m using Max Weber’s definition:

“[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”

Interestingly, Weber defined charisma as something that originated more with the followers rather than the leader. As the Wikipedia article puts it:

“In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers. The validity of charism is founded on its “recognition” by the leader’s followers.”

That’s my first reason for arguing that Trump has charisma: he’s able to inspire devotion from his followers independent of any specific thing he says or does, but simply by being him.

Now it’s true that Trump’s appeal is definitely not even close to universal.  Many people find the mere sight of him repulsive.  That argues against the idea that he has charisma. At the very least, shouldn’t people not be repulsed by him if he’s so charismatic?

I’ll admit: part of the reason I say he’s charismatic is that otherwise, it’s hard to see what enabled him to beat not only Clinton, but also all the other Republican primary contenders.

His policies were (and are) vague and change depending on the day, he had no political experience, he had a bad temper, and he had scandals like the Trump University case hanging over him.  And all that was before the Access Hollywood tape.

He wasn’t even the most extreme conservative in the primary–that was Senator Ted Cruz. So it’s not even possible to argue that his ideological purity was what got him through.

You might argue, as Thingy does, that Trump’s appeal to racist and ethno-nationalist elements was what propelled him to victory, rather than charisma.

This is very plausible. After all, we know that racist and nationalist groups did endorse Trump. So maybe that was the key to his success.

My counter-argument is that Trump isn’t the first politician to appeal to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Patrick J. Buchanan famously ran on a nationalist platform that attracted the support of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other such groups. Buchanan had a strong-ish primary showing, but never got close to the Republican nomination; let alone the Presidency.

(Ironic historical trivia note: Buchanan ran for and ultimately got the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000. During the Reform party primary, Buchanan was labelled a “Hitler lover” by one of his rival Reform party candidates…. Donald Trump.)

Buchanan was a veteran political operative who had previously worked for Richard Nixon.  And his nationalist message in the 1990s was very similar to Trump’s message in 2016. The major differences were that Buchanan’s policies were more detailed, and his speeches were much better-written than Trump’s.

Yet Buchanan never had the kind of electoral success that Trump did. Why not?

One possible explanation is luck.  Maybe Buchanan had stronger primary opponents; or maybe the increase in sheer number of primary opponents worked in Trump’s favor.

Let’s say that hypothesis is correct and that Trump just got lucky and drew a better hand than Buchanan did in the primaries.  It was still a one-on-one contest in the general election.

“Well, that’s easy to explain,” you say. “Trump lost the popular vote! He only won the election due to a convoluted set of rules about apportionment of Congressional seats being equal to the number of Electors. He won on a technicality.”

True, but even so, it’s kind of amazing that he could even get close enough to be able to win the Electoral College.  This is why I resort the charisma theory–because it’s the only thing that explains how he was able to win both the general election and the primaries. Plus, charisma has a strong historical track record that makes it very compelling as an explanation for an election outcome.

All that said, there are other terms that you could use besides “charisma”. “Showmanship” is one that some people have suggested to me.  “The gift of the Blarney”, as they say in The Music Man, is what I always think of.

Actually, The Music Man isn’t a bad analogue for Trump.  It’s about a con man who gets money by convincing people the youth are being corrupted, and they need to pay him to organize a band to keep them from going bad.

The concept of someone whipping people into a frenzy and profiting off of it is nothing new–this being perhaps the most remarkable example:

This is the thing about Trump (Donald, I mean; not the guy on Trackdown.): He so clearly fits this specific stock-character mold that I think at some level, it became part of his appeal.  People like to see a larger-than-life character like that, even when they sort of know he’s lying to them.

Trump may have started out as a property developer, but his real skill lies in entertainment and promotion.  He learned some things from his time as a TV star, and he knows how to put on an entertaining show for his audiences.

Call it charisma, call it showmanship–call it a cult of personality.  Ultimately, Trump’s one notable talent is his ability to make the crowd look at him.

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”.

electoralcollege2016-svg

 

There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016.  All the major groups have their version of it.  The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:

“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization.  Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”

That seems pretty reasonable.  But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:

“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted.  This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”

This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.

The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well.  It can be summarized as follows:

“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”

All of these explanations are fairly similar.  In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.

Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.

But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis.  If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbart or some other site.  You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.

In other words, you want to know what really happened.

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