Hannah Arendt On The Rehabilitation Of George W. Bush

In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, p. 144-145, [1963], 2006), Hannah Arendt, making note of Heinrich Himmler‘s ‘change of heart’–as German defeat loomed in the Second World War–with regards to the Final Solution, as he considered suspending the mass killings at Auschwitz, writes:

It was about at this time that a “moderate wing” of the S.S came into existence, consisting of those who were stupid enough to believe that a murderer who could prove he had not killed as many people as he could have killed would have a marvelous alibi, and those who were clever enough to foresee a return to “normal conditions,” when money and good connections would again be of paramount importance.

George W. Bush is making a comeback, and he is being welcomed back with open arms. He has defended the media, under fire from Donald Trump as the ‘enemies of the people,’ he has bemoaned the ‘racism’ present in the American polity’s discourse; he has received hugs from First Ladies; he has been talked up by stand-up comics and liberal talk-show hosts. Welcome back, Dubya; we missed ya. (Even though you walked back your ‘criticism’ of Donald Trump.)

Love means never having to say you are sorry.

Apparently, we love George W. Bush, a mass murdering war criminal, who oversaw torture on his watch, who having bided his time during the Obama Presidency, has now chosen to speak up during the Donald Trump years, all the better to take advantage of an ostensible dramatic contrast with a crude buffoon. George W. Bush remembers only all too well that the scorn that that is now directed at Trump was once sent his way; he is grateful for the cover our Great Orange Leader has now provided him, especially as he count on the fawning admiration of the same commentariat and pundit class that saw fit to deem Donald Trump ‘presidential’ once he had provided proof of his ability to read a prepared speech for television and indulge in the oldest political clichés of all time, that of paying homage to ‘our troops.’

It is unsurprising that George W. Bush’s stock would rise on stepping down from the Oval Office. Our nation’s memory is short; we are all too eager to believe that everything that happens is sui generis and ab initio (and any other Latin phrases you’d like to deploy to make the same point), that all is unprecedented, extraordinary, novel, utterly lacking in historical provenance. Donald Trump is a singularity, appearing suddenly, dramatically, out of nowhere, posing a radical disjuncture with all that preceded him. We appear unwilling to consider that he is the product of a particular political party with an established track record, one whose leaders waged an illegal war and tortured, who were not prosecuted by the Obama Administration, which then went on to wage more war, and further expand the powers and reach of the executive branch, which now provides a veritable arsenal of loaded weapons to Donald Trump. (To his credit, Trump has not as yet ordered illegal war resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ‘furriners,’ though he might be sorely tempted to do so, given the standing ovation on Monday night.)

Why wouldn’t we forgive and forget? All the better to prepare ourselves for the next unprecedented moment in American history. The loss of memory is the best way to ensure novelty.

The ‘Pundits’ Are Right: Exploiting War Widows Is Presidential

It’s a hoary tradition; it’s what you do. You fight a war; you send men and women to their deaths (after they’ve sent other men and women and children to their deaths); then, at home, you make plans to fight another war, and you beat the war drums and fill up the war chests by parading the widows and the orphans out in the open for all to see. Here they are, the mourners; let us look somberly and seriously upon their grief-stricken faces, the evidence of the devastation of war all too apparent, and let us–while acknowledging their sacrifice–make plans to wage more war, kill more men and women and children, here and elsewhere, so we can find ourselves here, perhaps in a cemetery, perhaps in a legislative chamber, doing this all again, preparing to fight another war.

All those who wage war do it. It’s how you keep war going. The war dead are gone, consigned to the flames, or lowered six feet under; their families live on, as props in a grotesque stage-managed farce. The dead’s bodies are gone; but other modes of existence are still available to be called upon. As are those they leave behind.

Last night, Donald Trump invoked a poorly planned and executed raid that resulted in the deaths of a US Navy Seal and–let us not forget–several civilians, including women and children, to pay homage to the widow of William “Ryan” Owens, then attending Trump’s speech to the US Congress. Rather predictably, American punditry hailed this moment as ‘presidential,’ a sign that Donald Trump had acquired some new-found gravitas.

The pundits are right. Trump was indeed presidential at that moment. Presidents declare war; they are the Commanders-in-Chief; they sign the orders that kill. And then, to keep fighting wars, they engage in public embraces of the families of the dead, clasping their hands tightly, delivering beautifully drafted and crafted speeches, calling for ovations, and invoking the notion of being ‘blessed.’ (Donald Trump was honest enough to make sure the spotlight swung back to him by making note of how the resultant standing ovation had been the longest ever, thus once again fueling intense speculation about whether his hands are the only small part of his body.)

These acts of exploitation are part of a long-standing tradition called ‘honoring the troops.’ They are ostensibly displays of patriotism and nationalism; they are how a ‘grateful nation’ shows its appreciation of the ‘ultimate sacrifice.’ Everyone stands up; everyone claps; the pundits watching sagely nod their heads and comment on how intensely moving the moment was, how the nation ‘comes together’ at times like these, putting aside their political differences, and preparing to move on.

Greater horse shit hath no man.

There is a simple, less mawkish, less exploitative, less expensive way to honor the war dead, to recognize their ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ to ‘support our troops’: stop fighting wars. Bring home mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. Get soldiers’ families off the stage, and back home.

The Trump-Bannon Executive Order ‘Strategy’ And Its Rhetorical Value

The flurry of executive orders signed by Donald Trump since January 20th was designed to accomplish several objectives.

First, on attaining office, establish continuity between the ‘campaigning candidate Trump’ and ‘President Trump’ by acting to ‘implement’ the most visible campaign trail promises–the ones packing the most rhetorical punch. This should be done without regard to the legality, constitutionality, or practicality of implementation of the orders. These orders should bear the distinct impress of dynamic, purposeful action; their signings should be staged in impressive settings reeking of power; the president’s pen should resemble a sword cutting through legislative red tape. Their failure, their rollback, their rewriting, will obviously proceed in far more subtle fashion, perhaps under cover of the night. In press parlance, the whopper makes it to the front page, the correction finds its way to page seventeen. Red meat, even if tainted, needs to be thrown to the ‘base;’ the resultant feeding frenzy will keep them busy and distracted for a while. Passing laws is boring and staid; it speaks of negotiation and compromise; executive orders execute. Or at least, they seem to, which in the present circumstances might amount to the same thing–at least as far as the spectators are concerned.

Second, when these orders encounter political resistance in the form of citizens’ protests, as they almost certainly will, emphasize the source and nature of the opposition, even if these demonstrations and protests appear to be large and organized: focus on the marches in ‘elite, out-of-touch’ cities like New York and San Francisco; emphasize that the protesters are opposing action and appear happy with the status quo, in direct opposition to the dynamism of the president. (Useful idiots in the media can be relied upon to offer commentary like “these protesters seem to have made up their mind to oppose the president no matter what he does” etc. A few close-ups of women yelling slogans–to emphasize the ‘hysterical’ nature of the protests, and some of black protesters to make the claim that ‘they have nothing better to do’ will certainly make the rounds.) This will also allow the deployment of the usual ‘anti-American’ tropes.

Third, when the orders encounter legal resistance in the form of pushback from legal advisers, civil liberties lawyers, and Federal judges, emphasize again, its ‘elite’ nature: meddling, lying, lawyers; unelected activist judges imposing their self-indulgent wills on the general will of the people; law will now become synonymous with ‘red tape,’ regulations,’ and ‘rules.’ The bureaucratic nature of the legal system will be emphasized.

This is all great grist for the Bannon propaganda mill. The executive orders might not ‘work’ in one sense; they certainly will in another.

These strategies are not new; they are old and honorable members of the Republican Party’s playbook. They will, however, be implemented with unapologetic ferocity by an ideologically determined crew, using all the available machinery–sophistical and sophisticated–of modern communications at hand. The only weakness in this strategy is that it might not have anticipated the resultant ferocity of the opposition to it, and the unintended consequence of uniting an opposition that before the elections appeared disparate and disunited.

Bury My Journalism At Bended Knee: The Press And Donald Trump

A journalist who speaks truth to power, not a megaphone, not a stenographer. That, hopefully, would be the identity a conscientious journalist would seek; such has not been the case with the US press corps for ever so long. (The Iraq War is the prime exhibit in this brief, but many others can be found with a little work.) Matters have not improved in 2016, a year which has seen the press continue to fawn over the powerful, to pay more attention to tawdry scandal than genuine political and moral crisis. The latest exhibit in this sorry display of sycophancy and servility is now upon us as we learn of the secret, off-the-record meeting that media executives held with Donald Trump this past week–the ‘optics’ of which suggested nothing less than courtiers lining up to meet the king.

As Glenn Greenwald notes:

[W]hy would journalistic organizations agree to keep their meeting with Donald Trump off the record? If you’re a journalist, what is the point of speaking with a powerful politician if you agree in advance that it’s all going to be kept secret? Do they not care what appearance this creates: the most powerful media organizations meeting high atop Trump Tower with the country’s most powerful political official, with everyone agreeing to keep it all a big secret from the public? Whether or not it actually is collusion, whether or not it actually is subservient ring-kissing in exchange for access, it certainly appears to be that. As the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone put it: “By agreeing to such conditions, journalists expected to deliver the news to the public must withhold details of a newsworthy meeting with the president-elect.”

As Greenwald goes on to note, such secrecy can only protect details of some kind of ‘working relationship’ the media hammers out with the president-elect, a relationship that is entirely irrelevant to their work: their job is to investigate and report. (Moreover, details of the meeting will be leaked eventually–selectively and strategically. As has indeed happened because the ‘media stars’ were upset at being–surprise!–harangued by a known loose-cannon, and ran hither and thither to complain about their hurt feelings.) Did the attending journalists imagine that they would receive some list of topics that were verboten and another of topics that could be covered? If so, they should have torn up any such list–and never have agreed to put themselves in a position where such ‘negotiations’ could take place. The press don’t seem to keen to assert their First Amendment rights; they’d rather accept them in curtailed form from those in power.

Greenwald makes note of the attendees’ rather precious complaints that they were subjected to a tongue-lashing, their claims that such criticisms would not sting for too long, and concludes:

The supreme religion of the U.S. press corps is reverence for power; the more Trump exhibits, the more submissive they will get. “I know I will get over it in a couple of days after Thanksgiving.” We believe you.

The right thing to ‘get over’ is the temptation to submit to power, and the right time to do so is now.

Donald Trump’s Allies: Our Craven Media (And Our Apathy)

Here are some damning statistics (reported by the Washington Post) from “the Tyndall Report, which tracks the airtime that the various flagship news programs on NBC, CBS and ABC dedicate to a variety of stories.”

Quick, depressing, highlights:

1. The Republican primary race received more than twice as much coverage as the Democratic contest. (The larger number of candidates perhaps necessitated this but undoubtedly their illiterate pronouncements made for better copy.)

2. Donald Trump has received more airtime (234 minutes) than the entire Democratic field (226 minutes).

3. Joe Biden, who is not running for president, got far more coverage (56 minutes) than Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (10 minutes), who is running.

4. As Nate Silver pointed out on Twitter: “There are (slightly) more Bernie supporters than Trump ones, but Trump has gotten 23X more network news coverage.”

(Donald Trump and the rest of the xenophobic, racist, nativist, Republican candidates have not just received ample, disproportionate prime-time coverage; rather, when they have gone on air, their fact-challenged assertions have gone unchallenged. )

Some twenty or so years ago, in the course of a conversation with a disgruntled academic whose career had been spun off into the backwaters–thanks to the usual depressing combination of overzealous gatekeepers, unimaginative senior academics, and unsympathetic university administration–I heard him blurt out in disgust, “Scum rises to the top.” Yes, well, it does, but it needs help too from forces that impel it upwards.

Fascists and demagogues don’t magically acquire power; they draw it from their environment. In his rise to the top, or his race to the bottom, depending on your perspective, Trump has been aided and abetted by a media corps that prefers sensation over substance. This is not a new complaint in the American political context, but it needs to be made and aired yet again just so that when the time for reckoning comes, when the smoke has cleared, and this nation will–hopefully–wake up from this nightmare, blame can be apportioned fairly. (Even if uselessly.)

The problem, of course, is the insanity created by the election ‘season,’ which with each passing year becomes lengthier, more expensive, and as such, ever more vapid and offensive. Television channels run twenty-four hours a day; they need content and ratings and sponsors; and political candidates supply it. A vicious feedback cycle is rapidly created: Trump says outrageous things; other candidates try to match the bid; supporters in the respective camps take the rhetoric to newer depths; and all of this then makes it back to the newsroom. (I’ve never been happier about my decision to have cancelled my cable subscription a few years ago.)

Over at Corey Robin‘s blog, he asks what is to be done, besides gnashing our teeth, were Trump to come to power.  This is an excellent question (even though Robin seemingly only directs it at the ‘professoriat’): after all, it is unclear whether Trump will provoke serious in-the-streets resistance were he to become President. This is a nation that let a presidential election get stolen in 2000, which does not punish mass murderers and war criminals like the Cheney-Bush-Rumsfeld troika, and whose population is narcotized by television and long working hours.

Long dark nights and all that.

The Non-Existent Fourth Estate

In his review of W. Sydney Robinson‘s Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of W. T. Stead (‘The Only True Throne’, London Review of Books, 19 July 2012), John Pemble writes

‘Nothing like being an editor for getting a swollen head,’ the Fleet Street veteran A.G. Gardiner wrote in his memoirs. He must have had W.T. Stead especially in mind, because no editorial head was bigger than Stead’s. In the 1880s, first as deputy editor then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, he’d been able (he said) to ‘wreck cabinets [and] let loose a tide of war upon helpless populations’. He was responsible – in his own words – for ‘ministers driven into retirement, laws repealed, great social reforms initiated, bills transformed, estimates remodelled, acts passed, generals nominated, governors appointed, armies sent hither and thither, war proclaimed and war averted’. It’s no wonder he had such a high opinion of himself: Victorian journalists were always being told how important and powerful they were. Bulwer-Lytton’s lines of 1838 – ‘Beneath the rule of men entirely great/The pen is mightier than the sword’ – coined a proverb, and by common consent no pen was mightier than that employed by ‘the press’. This 18th-century term, originally used to refer to periodical literature in general, by early Victorian times meant first and foremost the daily papers. In 1828 Macaulay identified the press as ‘a Fourth Estate of the Realm’; by the 1850s, when William Russell was reporting from the Crimea for the Times and his editor, John Delane, was fulminating against the mismanagement of the war, nobody could argue with it. ‘This country is ruled by the Times,’ the Saturday Review declared. ‘We all know it, or if we do not know it, we ought to know it.’

Does the ‘press’ still rule? Can editors still claim the powers that W. T. Stead claimed for himself? It depends, I think, on what we take the referent of ‘press’ to be. If by ‘press’ we are referring to the gigantic media conglomerates that are the result of a never-ending process of corporate mergers of television, newspaper, magazine, and now digital services, then the answer is perhaps still ‘yes.’ The presidential candidate most likely to be elected is the one who can buy himself the most television time; the legislation most likely to pass is that which has been hawked the most successfully by its proponents on that same medium; wars are more likely to be declared if the press can be counted on, as in the case of the Iraq war, to faithfully parrot the talking points of the warmongers; a media frenzy over a politicians scandalous behavior can still bring end an career; a press conference remains the obligatory performative ritual for a disgraced leader; and so on.

But a great deal of what I’m describing above does not sound like what Macaulay had in mind in his ‘Fourth Estate’ formulation. All too often the media behemoth does not monitor the political process as watchdog, but rather manipulates it as active interested partner. How could it be otherwise given its monopolistic nature and corporate ownership?

Note: Pemble’s summation of the non-existence of the Fourth Estate, even in W. T. Stead’s time–unfortunately behind a behind a paywall at the LRB–makes for interesting reading: ‘the political weight of the press had declined as its circulation increased’ i.e., as it became subject to market forces.