The national security state that Obama inherited and broadened, and has now passed on to Trump, is so thoroughly protected by secrecy that on most occasions concealment will be an available alternative to lying. Components of the Obama legacy that Trump will draw on include the curtailment of the habeas corpus rights of prisoners in the War on Terror; the creation of a legal category of permanent detainees who are judged at once impossible to put on trial and too dangerous to release; the expanded use of the state secrets privilege to deny legal process to abused prisoners; the denial of legal standing to American citizens who contest warrantless searches and seizures; the allocation of billions of dollars by the Department of Homeland Security to supply state and local police with helicopters, heavy artillery, state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and armoured vehicles; precedent for the violent overthrow of a sovereign government without consultation and approval by Congress (as in Libya); precedent for the subsidy, training and provision of arms to foreign rebel forces to procure the overthrow of a sovereign government without consultation and approval by Congress (as in Syria); the prosecution of domestic whistleblowers as enemy agents under the Foreign Espionage Act of 1917; the use of executive authority to order the assassination of persons – including US citizens – who by secret process have been determined to pose an imminent threat to American interests at home or abroad; the executive approval given to a nuclear modernisation programme, at an estimated cost of $1 trillion, to streamline, adapt and miniaturise nuclear weapons for up to date practical use; the increased availability – when requested of the NSA by any of the other 16 US intelligence agencies – of private internet and phone data on foreign persons or US citizens under suspicion.....
How did America pass so quickly from Obama to Trump? The glib left-wing answer, that the country is deeply racist, is half-true but explains too much and too little. This racist country voted for Obama twice. A fairer explanation might go back to the financial collapse of 2008 when Americans had a general fear and were shocked by what the banks and financial firms had done to us. ‘In an atmosphere primed for a populist backlash’, as John Judis wrote, Obama ‘allowed the right to define the terms’. The revolt of 2008-9 was against the financial community and anyone in cahoots with them, but the new president declined to name a villain: when he invited 13 CEOs to the White House in April 2009, he began by saying he was the only thing standing between them and the pitchforks, and ended by reassuring them that they would all work together. No culprit would be named and no sacrifice called for. Trump emerged early as an impresario of the anger, a plutocrat leading the people’s revolt against plutocracy. The most credible explanation for the popular turn to the right – there are plenty of examples of people who voted twice for Obama but then for Trump – was offered by the Italian legal scholar Ugo Mattei. As he sees it, the resemblances between Trump and Berlusconi run deep, and in both cases the appeal derives from popular cynicism more than credulity. The voters have come to understand that the big banks, along with investment companies like Goldman Sachs and transnational corporations, are sovereignties as powerful as states and in some cases more powerful. By vesting a billionaire with extraordinary power, therefore, the voters are going straight to the relevant authority and cutting out the middle man – the politician....
I've had a lot to say about Trump, not much about the Trump-Russia sideshow that's been raging in Washington, which has seemed to me either a non-story or a distraction. Trump's admiration for Putin is easy to explain purely in terms of his psychological disturbance, without recourse to any of the tall tales circulating. Of course, the Russia issue may finally turn some Republicans against Trump, which would be salutary, but that's a separate matter.
In any case, philosophy PhD student Philippe Lemoine (Cornell) has undertaken a rather detailed examination of the allegations and the evidence for them; here's his summary with links:
I've not read all of this, but what I have read is interesting and usefully documented. You can comment at Mr. Lemoine's blog on his analysis. Refreshingly, he writes elsewhere on his blog, "I don’t believe that I should be protected from criticism for what I say by the fact that I’m a graduate student."
Some of this ugly and stupid behavior is the pleasure in power of petty tyrants in their little bureaucratic realm, otherwise powerless individuals who now find others at their mercy and whim. But it is surely exacerbated by the signals sent by the Idiot in Chief. One important takeaway: academics on tourist visas in the U.S. can receive honoraria. (Thanks to Benj Helli for one of the pointers.)
I'd be curious to hear what experiences readers may have had coming into the U.S. since Trump took office and began his immigration rampage.
A number of friends and colleagues have been sharing this brief essay from the NYRB. The Nazi horror looms large over any discussion of fascism/authoritarianism for obvious reasons, and the author is right about the role exploitation of terroristic violence can play in authoritarian reversions, as happened in Nazi Germany. The essay omits mention of two rather important points, however, about the Nazi experience. First, the German Constitution had a clause specifically authorizing the suspension of all civil liberties, which was invoked after the Reichstag fire. The American Constitution has no such general clause, though Congress can suspend the right of habeus corpus (in the face of "rebellion" or "invasion" to protect "public safety"), which would be very serious. But Congress can not suspend freedom of speech, assembly and the press. (Note, however, that courts can decide that the state has a compelling reason to violate those individual rights, though it is very rare for them to do so. But this makes it more cumbersome for a would-be authoritarian to violate civil liberties.) Second, and this is also crucial, one can not forget the complicity of the German President, Hindenburg, in all this. For he alone had the stature with the military and the public at large to put a stop to Hitler, yet he aided and abetted Hitler's seizure of power at every turn. There is no one with similar stature in the American system, and there is every indication that the leading military figures, including those serving under Trump, believe in democracy, unlike Trump.
Two of my constitutional law colleagues, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, have examined how constitutional democracies slip into authoritarian regimes in comparative perspective (this is a shorter version of a longer academic paper to which they link in their essay).
There is a serious point underlying these parodies: Trump is barely literate, he makes George W. Bush look like a world-class orator. Trump is a bad human being, who wants to do many bad things, but those observing him have to resist over-analyzing his oral expressions: we are dealing with an inept middle school student when it comes to the spoken word.
A psychiatrist responsible for the DSM definition says he does not, but the reasons given are not very good ones. (See an earlier discussion of this topic here.) He claims that Trump does not suffer distress and impairment connected to his personality traits (note that the psychiatrist does not deny he manifests those traits). He appears to confuse the fact that money and lawyers shield him from the worst consequences of his psychological peculiarities with the fact that he does not appear to be severely impaired in his profession. But the impairment is apparent in other ways: he doesn't appear to have real human relationships (he's on his third purchased wife), his relations with others are wholly instrumental, and despite inheriting a huge fortune and investing in New York real estate in the 1970s, he was never able to become a real player in the New York real estate market because others avoided him because of his problems. (This bears emphasizing: he was never one of the top ten developers in New York, and those folks would not deal with him. Anyone familiar with the NYC real estate market knows this!) We have less evidence about the distress he suffers, but it is hard not to interpret the bizarre tweeting and other outbursts as signs of serious distress, which he then tries to mend via public displays of various kinds.
Psychiatry is an epistemically feeble discipline, and the connotations of "mental illness" complicate things further. Let's drop the question of whether his narcissistic personality disorder is a mental illness. What's useful about the personality disorders, when they are useful at all, is that they do identify stable patterns of behavior that some people do exemplify. Trump is one. Having a narcissistic personality disorder may or may not be incompatible with being President--so far, the evidence is that he's quite impaired in his ability to govern, but that's all to the good given the mischief he would otherwise pursue were he more competent.
Yes, there's someone occupying the office, but he's clueless and is even more out of his depth than George W. Bush, who had at least had some experience in government. The man occupying the office occasionally does things when instructed. Fortunately, there are a few adults around who have had real jobs and performed them professionally, like General Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, and Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State. Even the Vice-President, the otherwise morally abhorrent Mike Pence, actually governed a state, and got in trouble because of his bigotry, not because of sheer incompetence. The interesting thing is that it turns out the country, and the vast federal bureaucracy, can chug along despite not having a President. For how long though? I guess we're going to find out.
Several readers flagged for me this nicely done column by philosopher Karen Stohr (Georgetown) on the subject of "contempt" (it appears at the usually unreadable "Stone" blog at the NYT). It is well-written, smartly invokes some relevant philosophical concepts, and is broadly accessible to an educated reader.
I do think Prof. Stohr is largely wrong, however, and for reasons that may be worth explaining. I like that Prof. Stohr describes herself--no doubt accurately, but unusually honestly--as "a Midwesterner by birth and moral instincts." What I like about this confession of the relativity of moral sentiment is that it helps explain her column and makes clear that if you share her sentiments, then her points are probably compelling, otherwise maybe not. I would encourage lots of other philosophers to be as honest as Prof. Stohr: we are well past the point when kids whose parents were pastors, or kids from Toledo or South Dakota, should be able to pass off their local etiquette norms and associated feelings as morally obligatory. (Readers here know my moral sentiments: I'm from New York, I don't suffer fools or charlatans or "posturing preening wankers" gladly, and I enjoy a good evisceration of scoundrels and miscreants. I'm allergic to Kant, and an equal opportunity critic of anyone who enters the public sphere. But none of it's personal, it's all "business"!)
The difficult with Prof. Stohr's approach is that its argument rests on "armchair political science," a much feebler discipline than empirical political science. She is right, of course, that contempt generally "is directed at the entire person," and so involves "dismissing" the person as not worth engaging with. (How much it has in common with Strawson's "objective attitude," as she suggests, is an interesting philosophical question, which I will bracket here.) But she goes on to claim that:
Contempt expressed by the socially powerful toward the socially vulnerable is a much greater moral danger than contempt that flows in the opposite direction. As president, Trump occupies a position of exceptional social power. Contempt bolstered by such power becomes far more effective and hence, far more threatening to our grounding democratic values....
Trump’s [mocking] imitation of [disabled journalist] Kovaleski reinforced a specific social inequality that most people now recognize as morally abhorrent; namely, the marginalization of people with disabilities.....
It may seem as though the best response to Trump’s contempt is to return it in kind, treating him the same way he treats others. The trouble, though, is that contempt toward Trump does not function in the same way that his contempt toward others functions. Even if we grant that Trump deserves contempt for his attitudes and behaviors, his powerful social position insulates him from the worst of contempt’s effects. It is simply not possible to disregard or diminish the agency of the president of the United States. This means that contempt is not a particularly useful weapon in the battle against bigotry or misogyny. The socially vulnerable cannot wield it effectively precisely because of their social vulnerability.
If there is empirical support for these claims, I am not aware of it and none is cited. Take Trump's pathetic mockery of the disabled journalist: it damaged Trump, not the journalist, so much so that even Trump and his supporters had to deny that he was really mocking the journalist. Kovaleski was not marginalized, he won support from all corners and across partisan lines. Prof. Stohr's characterization bears no relationship to what actually transpired in the court of public opinion, as best I can tell.
NYT story here. I have not had an opportunity to read the opinion, but there is a link to it in the article. My impression is that the executive order is most vulnerable on religious discrimination grounds, given the ordinarily wide latitude given to the executive branch in immigration matters (though not as wide as the government lawyers are trying to argue). I am pleased on the moral merits that the courts are pushing back against the Idiot-in-Chief, but the ultimate legal merits are trickier here. I'm quite sure Trump has not helped himself with the judiciary by his initial responses, and that may yet carry over to the Supreme Court, which will get this case next. The religious discrimination argument could, in fact, persuade some of the more conservative Justices--and add to that the fact that they may also feel the need to make clear that the Idiot-in-Chief can not do whatever he wants.
We know how Trump thinks, and a distinguishing feature of it is that it includes precious few ideas, and no ideology: it is driven mainly by personal relationships and loyalties, plus the quirks of his psychological disturbance. Bannon, by contrast, has ideas and an ideology, and this is the best synthesis of what they are. (See also this and this, and recall an earlier post about his speech to the Vatican traditionalists.) It is a strange brew, about what you would expect from a working-class Irish-Catholic kid without any real intellectual discipline or sophistication. He notices real events--e.g., Wall Street bankers being bailed out after the 2008 fiasco while working-class Americans see their retirement savings or their property values collapse--but has no serious diagnosis about cause and effect, instead interjecting as an interpretive rubric various petty bigotries and prejudices that he probably learned in his youth with crackpot theories about the "real" trends of history. He correctly sees that there are elites, but fails to see that he shares with them the most crucial commitment, namely, to capitalist relations of production. He understands too little about capitalism to realize that his silly nationalist bromides are actually incompatible with the capitalism he cherishes, that the "Davos class" of elites he bemoans are the necessary consequence of the economic system he still supports. This is apparent to other members of the ruling class, e.g., this billionaire investor:
“President [sic] Trump may be able to temporarily hold off the sweep of automation and globalization by cajoling companies to keep jobs at home, but bolstering inefficient and uncompetitive enterprises is likely to only temporarily stave off market forces,” he continued. “While they might be popular, the reason the U.S. long ago abandoned protectionist trade policies is because they not only don’t work, they actually leave society worse off.”
Bannon once professed that, like Lenin, he wanted to destroy the system. He should read some more Lenin, and then he might even develop a coherent world view and understand the actual role of Republican policies in it.
MOVING TO FRONT FROM FEBRUARY 4--SOME INTERESTING COMMENTS (AND LINKS)
This is a happy development, and even happier is that the government is complying with the order. (Meanwhile, President [sic] Trump had another one of his twitter outbursts about the decision, which will only hurt him with all judges, not just this one, as he's going to find out.) Reader James Osborn called my attention to a video of the argument before Judge Robart in the federal district court in Seattle, in particular the exchange starting about 39:00 between the lawyer for the Department of Justice and Judge Robart. (The DOJ lawyer isn't very good, and seems ill-prepared. Judge Robart is clearly a very nice judge.)
The Judge's position is that this executive order on immigration must be subjected to "rational basis review," which is generally a very undemanding standard, but as the Judge notes it is not clear this order is based on "fact" as opposed to "fiction." (That the order is not rationally related to any security objective is, in essence, the conclusion of the damning analysis by Benjamin Wittes we've linked to previously.)
By contrast, DOJ's position appears to be that this order falls within the President's power over foreign affairs, and so is not to be subject even to rational basis review. I'd be interested to hear from some of my lawyer/law professor readers what they make of that argument; Judge Robart isn't impressed. (I would have assumed that immigration law is not within the executive's foreign affairs power, but I really do not know much at all about this.)
President Trump, asked by an interviewer on Saturday why he respected President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia even though he is “a killer,” seemed to equate Mr. Putin’s actions with those of the United States.
“You got a lot of killers,” he told the interviewer, Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. “What, you think our country’s so innocent?”
Thousands of academics have pledged not to attend U.S. conferences because of the immigration ban. The only effect of this is to punish U.S. academics--who, overwhelmingly, did not and do not support Trump--who might benefit from foreign scholars participating in conferences. It will have no effect on Bannon polices, since Herr Bannon and his lapdog have nothing but contempt for knowledge and academics. So what is the point? I'm opening comments, I'm genuinely curious to hear what people think. There's also a poll to gauge reader reaction:
UPDATE: With over 350 responses in just the last five hours, sentiment here is pretty negative: 17% favor the boycott, 70% are again, 13% are undecided. I would like to hear from supporters about their reasons in the comment section. I'll let this run into tomorrow, so that more readers in Europe and Australasia can participate in the poll.
SO AFTER 24 HOURS and nearly 600 votes, the results are not much changed from yesterday afternoon: 19% favor the boycott, 70% oppose, the remainder are undecided. (A couple of readers pointed out that Justin Weinberg [South Carolina] ran a similar poll on his blog, which again revealed only minority support for the boycott. [Advertisers take note: that poll got only about 250 votes, despite being open for more than 48 hours!])
Some Breitbart bozo named Milo Y. (I can't be bothered to figure out how to spell the last name) runs around to college campuses being an arse and insulting people, and students protest. (The student groups that invite this malevolent clown ought to try something novel: think about what you're doing.) At Berkeley, there was a large, and peaceful, student protest in advance of the bozo's speech, and then about 100 outsiders also showed up and started a riot, started fires, destroyed property etc. Berkeley went to great lengths to try to permit the event to take place, but when the riot started, they cancelled the event out of legitimate concerns for safety. The Ignoramus-in-Chief then tweeted that Berkeley should lose federal funding. This has no basis in existing law.
Republicans, please impeach this pathetically stupid and inept person before it's too late for you too.
ADDENDUM: Whether Berkeley students were involved in the rioting, I should add, is irrelevant: existing law does not authorize withholding federal funds from Berkeley because of this incident.
...which is the best thing to be said about America these days! Mike Pence, his VP, is a reactionary Christian zealot, but we know what those folks are like in America: they are predictably wicked! And Pence is the guy who could not get re-elected as Governor of Indiana--Indiana!--so he will be a political loser going forward. But he will at least be a "regular" Repug, i.e., someone not intent on annihilating the world as a result of mental instability or venal stupidity a la Bannon.
This is a useful account of why she is in trouble. Even Senator Murkowski (R-Alaska) was hearing from constituents alarmed about her! She knows nothing about public schools, indeed, is bent on destroying them quite clearly--which doesn't pay well in states with large rural populations. If you're in one of those states, call your Republican Senator's office to express your concern that the nominee is ignorant about and appears hostile to public schools! (Earlier post on this topic.)
Continental Philosophy Farhang Erfani, a philosopher at American University, provides a useful set of links to news, events, interviews, reviews, videos, etc. related to "Continental philosophy" (broadly construed)