The Republican Base’s Malevolent Algorithm

An entirely unsurprising poll shows that sixty-seven percent of the registered Republicans in the US support the current administration’s policy of separating children from their undocumented immigrant (or asylum seeking) parents at the border. (Those children are then imprisoned in cages in concentration camps with no plans for their release or reunification with their parents.) This poll supplements an essay on Stephen Miller whose headline reads ‘The Outrage Over Family Separation Is Exactly What Stephen Miller Wants.”

It will ‘fire up the base,’ you see, and bring them out in numbers for 2018.

The ‘base’ is, of course, why Trump will never be impeached by the Republican Party; it brought Trump to power; it will keep him in it. This is democracy in action; at its ‘best.’ The ‘people’ have spoken–through an electoral system of sorts–and we know what they want. The ‘base’–the ‘fuck your feelings’ crowd–reliably dislikes its Other: the libtards, the bleeding hearts, the snowflakes, the gays, the blacks, the Spanish-speaking, the feminists, the social justice warriors, the Marxists, the postmodernists, the coastal elites, the teachers, the unions, the gun control freaks, the atheists, the campus radicals, the brown, the immigrants (undocumented or otherwise.) The list goes on.

The reason for cashing out the content of the vox populi as a long list of dislikes and resentments is quite simple: this animosity toward its Other animates the ‘base’; apparently, it is the only policy justification it requires. A simple mechanical test for policy evaluation emerges: Does policy X cause fear, anger, dismay among members of the list above? Does it cause them to issue denunciations and condemnations of the Great Leader? Then it must be Good; if not, it must be Bad. Legal academics and concerned philosophers of technology spend a great deal of time pondering the problem of how to regulate automated decision-making; this is one algorithm for political decision-making that seems to have slipped under their radar. The perversity of this politics might make some parents recall the days of using the infamous ‘reverse psychology’ on a recalcitrant toddler; if you want them to do X, you must suggest that they do Y; the immature toddler, unable to realize he or she is being played, does instead. But comparisons and analogies with toddlers are ultimately unsatisfying; toddlers are also quite cute and entertaining and cuddly at times, and the Republican ‘base’ is anything but. Toddlers grow and mature; the ‘base’ appears to prefer curdling.

The presence of the ‘base’ and its frightening acquiescence to any moral atrocity as long as it meets the requirements noted above render wholly ineffective any political strategy that aims to change the Republican Party’s course by shaming it or pointing out its hypocrisies or inconsistencies. (On Twitter, a whole phalanx of tweeters is dedicated to racking up high RT counts by indulging in precisely such activity.)

Fortunately for the US, not all of its citizens are members of the base. Unfortunately for the US, all too many are. Trump will serve at most till 2024; the ‘base’ will be around much longer.

Trump Till 2020: A Republican Vision

This presidency’s end stage has been talked about ever since the election results came in on that depressing ninth day of November, 2016. There has been much hopeful talk of impeachment, and of ‘the final days of the Trump presidency’ as each administration official resigns, is indicted, or is implicated in some sordid scandal or the other. The Robert Mueller Investigation grinds on as the slow wheels of justice must; and the nation has turned its lonely eyes to FBI Bob, waiting for him to bring political manna to the masses. Now, Stormy Daniels has entered the frame and talk of firing Bob Mueller has received new life thanks to the repeated invocation of that mantra by Fox and Friends. Indeed, the Stormy Daniels affair has finally lent some teeth to this embarrassingly frenzied speculation about the eviction of the current tenant of the White House. Unfortunately, such hopes and prognostications run up some unrelenting political and cultural realities.

First, as Iran-Contra reminds us, as Americans, we are too embarrassed to punish the truly powerful; it would be too déclassé, too sordid, in excessively poor taste. It would be a reminder that our judgment was flawed, that we were wrong to trust the rich and the powerful, that we had once again, mistakenly put our faith in the powerful, trusting that their ‘magic’ would rub off on us. For us to punish the powerful would be to punish ourselves; after all, we have ambitions of becoming powerful too, one day, and we do not want to set a bad precedent. Our tastes run more to punishing lackeys and assistants, the ones who usually take the fall and then mumble, hopefully publicly, some words of contrition and repentance.

There will be no premature end to the Trump presidency; he will serve out his term till the 2020 electoral season, during which at some point, he will dramatically declare that with all his work ‘done’ he will now retire to spend more time with his family. (That is, he will seamlessly and smoothly move on to a new television talk show, the lecture circuit, and a ginormous advance from the trade house ‘lucky’ enough to publish his memoir. This is a classic American tale and it will only get better in the retelling.)

Why is this so? Because little has changed in the American political landscape–despite the air of mounting scandal and electoral disaster. The Republicans will not impeach him as long as they control the House of Representatives, for reasons too often made to bear repeating there. The Democrats, for their part, remain unlikely to launch impeachment proceedings even if they come to power; they will be too easily distracted by talk of how they should ‘move on,’ not deepen the ‘partisan divide,’ not practice a ‘destructive politics,’ or ‘give the appearance of being vindictive.’ The electoral calculus predominates here as it has always; despite prognostications of a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, the President’s own approval ratings remain solid. No matter how his brand may affect others, his own remains relatively pristine.  The best, least damaging electoral strategy, one that minimizes their losses, is for the Republicans to keep Trump in power in return for a quiet promise that he will not seek re-election in 2020. This is something Trump can be easily persuaded to do; he will have spent enough time in the limelight to ensure himself a quiet retirement, and ensured enough money to secure his children’s future. He will also have realized that the presidency can be an unpleasant business.

The legal ground has been prepared for such a move. The presidential pardon has been tested and found to be adequate; it has been used on undesirables like Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby; there has been no opposition to its use; Trump now knows he can line up a few lackeys to take the fall for him, once they have had the  prospect of a presidential pardon held out for them. No revelation from the Stormy Daniels case, other than a good to honest legal indictment, will trouble Trump even remotely; his ‘base’ already thinks he has acquired baller status for having slept with a porn star–no matter what came afterwards. Trump’s legal advisers will undoubtedly put him on notice that his legal jeopardy is greater with him outside the Oval office than inside it; and Republican Party pollsters will support them in this claim by noting that no matter how bad the defeat in 2018 in the House, they will not lose by too big a margin thanks to Republican gerrymandering and vote suppression efforts. This is a party whose main platform is ‘stick it to the liberals!’; this party will not expel the man who won them the 2016 elections on this platform.

One response to such a claim is that the electoral and political calculus has changed over the course of the Trump presidency: the main tax bill has been passed, the Obamacare mandate has been rolled back, electoral losses in ‘red districts’ indicates the famous ‘blue wave’ – and so Trump is expendable, to be replaced by the doltish Mike Pence. This response does not add up; the Republicans might be facing a ‘blue wave’ in 2018, but they know that: a) the ‘blue wave’ is more swell, less tsunami and b) that the ‘blue wave’ they face in 2018 will be nothing compared the massive abandonment they will face from Republican voters in 2020 if Trump is made to resign or impeached. To hand a victory to the progressives, the libtards, the alt-left, the bleeding hearts, the Democrats, the left, liberals is political suicide. The many surprising electoral wins for Democrats in recent months, indeed, ever since Trump came to power, are less the result of Republicans abandoning Trump or suddenly developing a conscience or some compassion; rather, it is because energized Democrats have turned out in greater numbers. There is no indication that any Republican ‘defection’ has taken place.

America is stuck with the Trump presidency; it will be stuck with the Republican Party much longer.

Robert Mueller And The Cruise Missile: Ready To Be Fired

All–especially my fellow American citizens–praise the cruise missile. This marvelous weapon, “a guided missile used against terrestrial targets…remains in the atmosphere and flies the major portion of its flight path at approximately constant speed.” It is “designed to deliver a large warhead over long distances with high precision.” It can be launched off-shore from a ship, or from aircraft, obviating the need for the infamous ‘boots on the ground.’ The cruise missile allows foreign policy to be conducted from afar; no messy ‘contact’ with the ‘enemy’ is required. Launchings from ships typically take place at night, making for pleasing visuals tailor-made for display on the nightly news. There is something of the robot in the cruise missile; think of it as a self-driving car that likes to blow up other things. It is the modern saber; those who rattle it know its pleasing features all too well.  Patriotism and war-mongering might be last refuge of the scoundrel, but it is hard to resist the temptation to make war in the way that the cruise missile permits. US presidents are not the only ones seduced by cruise missiles; military planners the world over, going back perhaps to Adolf Hitler, whose fantasies most definitely included the legends V-1 and V-2, have long dreamed about winning wars by merely showering their enemies with enough cruise missiles to make other kinds of military intervention unnecessary.

Most crucially, a cruise missile only costs a paltry couple of million dollars, thus making it the ideal weapon for any US president looking to bolster sagging approval ratings, unite the country around a surge of patriotism and xenophobia directed at unnamed external enemies, or, if needed, divert attention from an ongoing special investigation that is starting to look inquiringly in the direction of hush payments made to a pornographic movie actress during an election season.

The coincidence of an FBI raid on Donald Trump’s lawyer’s office and a chemical attack in Syria offers the best chance for the President to have his turn at firing a few of these cruise missiles again. An American destroyer–one with approximately five dozen Tomahawk missiles on board–has moved into position off the coast of Syria, and the president himself, in acknowledgement of the Very Serious Situation in Syria, has postponed his official trip to Latin AmericaThe Trump administration fired cruise missiles at Syria last April; a year has gone by, and the president’s fingers must be twitching by now. A considerable privilege of the president’s office is the chance to play with expensive, high-precision weaponry, and for a man with the sensibility of an eleven-year old, firing cruise missiles only once a year must seem like slim pickings for such an exalted office.

The firings of these cruise missiles might, for good measure, be accompanied by the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Fox News, that feeder of talking points, and indeed, entire scripts, to the Republican Party, has been beating the ‘fire Mueller’ drum for a while now. The Republican Party is well aware their base has been fed this line and is well prepared for the Mother of All Firings. So, I think, should be the American nation.

The Great Bob Mueller Seduction

Blood is in the water: the president of the United States appears to have committed ‘obstruction of justice.’ We know this because a ‘legal dream team’ headed by a special prosecutor, a former head of the FBI, is conducting a long, expensive, and detailed investigation of all the president’s men. The nefarious activities suspected to have been undertaken are varied and detailed; like most Americans, I’m entirely unsure of the precise particulars of the tangled web that is being unwoven for us. But those details seem unimportant; for at the end of it all lies deliverance, the impeachment of Donald Trump, the eviction of the carpetbaggers currently occupying the White House.

For some time now, via television and talk show and social media, we have been treated to the spectacle of–I do not think I exaggerate–millions of Americans salivating over the legal particulars of Bob Mueller’s investigation: how detailed and thorough its collection of evidence and marshaling of witnesses is; its skillful deployment of carrot and–a very big and threatening–stick in making legal plea deals; and so on. An entire cottage industry of tweeting experts has sprung up to inform us, in hushed and breathless tones, of how legally significant the latest development is and just how much shit is currently splattering various fans; these tweets go viral, urged hither and thither, as if merely by talking about how bad things are going to get for Trump and his men, their end can be hastened. There is much gleeful talk of how those  working in the Trump administration will be bankrupted by their legal fees as they are subpoenaed till the cows come home; you cannot escape the clutches of the ‘ace prosecutors’ that this paragon of virtue–a former FBI head–has lined up.

The worst features of our  legal system are on display: the staggering legal fees; the unfettered power of prosecutors. Give ’em hell, we say, because we know the legal system can destroy your life in all these ways; we’re just happy these big guns are turned against our political enemies. (Even if they have never been turned against the corporations that rule the republic’s roost.) It is a strange business for a nation which plays host to the moral and legal atrocity called ‘mass incarceration’ to be so cheering on a bunch of prosecutors–a demographic unfettered in its legal power, and persistently accused of misconduct. It is a peculiar business too that the FBI–whose investigations into political activists have, historically and currently, marked it out as anything but apolitical–is being hailed as the savior of the American Republic and our political knight in armor.

What Mueller’s investigation has done, of course, is turn political resistance to Trump into a spectator sport: we sit back–indeed, many have said just that–grab the popcorn and watch the shit show go down, and the superheroes, er, special prosecutors, will come to our rescue, ridding us of this blight. The legal system and its investigations appear to be working as a sponge, soaking up the political will and energy of Americans who otherwise might have been engaged in serious thinking about their political options. Instead, they have handed over their political agency to a bunch of lawyers appointed guardians of the state and our polity.

But it isn’t the lack of law that got us here; it is that plenty of institutional deformations are written into our laws and therefore respected; they demand for themselves a prima facie legal obligation, because they are burnished by the aura of the law, which is being enhanced by the ‘legal investigation’ under way. But the undemocratic Senate is legal; gerrymandering is legal; Supreme Court rulings that lock particular interpretations of the US Constitution into place are legal; the Electoral College is legal. Governments can be shut down legally; the US Senate can legally–under one interpretation–refuse to even consider a President’s nominee for the Supreme Court. The blocking of Obama’s nominations to the Federal Courts by the Republican Party and the corresponding stuffing of the Federal Courts by Federalist Society nominees was all legal. No dictator need abuse any legal American institutions in order to become a totalitarian despot. (This point has been made, quite eloquently, several times over, by Corey Robin; here is one variant of that claim.) That despotic power is built, legally, into American political institutions, all ready and ripe for hijacking by bad actors. Those bad actors are here, and they’ve hijacked the polity.

We are witnessing an old maneuver, one oft-repeated: take an existing political or social problem, subject it to the law, and pretend it has been solved. The authority of the law, its ideological entrenchment is reinforced, but the social or political problem remains unsolved. What will Bob Mueller’s team rid this republic of? A president, and very optimistically, his vice president too. Mueller cannot impeach the Republican Party (which will, in any case, not impeach Trump.) How then, will this nation’s political crisis be resolved? Mueller’s actions will not bring the Republican Party’s nihilism to heel. Indeed, an even worse hangover awaits us, if as is likely, this entire expensive legal investigation will end only with Trump riding out his term unscathed and going on to greater riches ‘outside.’ When the smoke clears and this prosecution is over, we will be left with the same severely compromised republic we had before. No team of special prosecutors can bring that to heel. We have outsourced the hard work to someone else, expecting to be rescued from a mess we made ourselves. This is ours; we have to clean this up.

Hypocrisy And The Unequal Weighing Of Political Preferences

‘We’ are shocked time and again by the hypocrisy and political incoherence on display: Trump voters help elect a man who seems to act against their economic interests; they prop up a serial sexual harasser and abuser even as they claim to be fine, upstanding, family types dedicated to stamping out immoral behavior of all stripes; Republicans speak up for Roy Moore, a man accused of the sexual abuse of a minor, even as they claim to be the defender of religious family values; every new evidence of political scandal and misbehavior on the part of this administration is met with a shrug of the shoulders from the Republican faithful; and so on. (I have listed merely a selection of those examples that occur to me as an occupant of ‘this’ side of the political spectrum; the ‘other side’ will be able to supply some of its own.)

Such seeming incoherence is anything but; accusations that those who hold such views are hypocrites or inconsistent rest on a widely mistaken view about how political subjects rank their political preferences and value their political goods: it is assumed that citizens assign a ‘flat’ ranking to their political preferences, that they assign the same value to all perceived political goods, so that  a failure to provide one political good is as damaging as a failure to deliver another political good. A moment’s reflection will show that this is not the case. None of us rank our desired political goods as equally valuable–this is precisely why our political parties of choice send us survey questionnaires in election season, asking  us to rank our political priorities so that they may better focus their limited resources on pursuing those agendas of most interest to their constituents.

Viewed in this light, the seeming ‘incoherence’ or ‘hypocrisy’ of our political opponents becomes more understandable; they are not any more unprincipled or inconsistent than we are; failure to sever a political alliance is not evidence of political dishonesty; rather, the seeming offender has not committed any truly ‘deadly sin’ just yet by failing to deliver a truly valuable political good, one ranked much higher than the less-worthy ones that have not been delivered. If Donald Trump ‘grabs pussies’ and stuffs his family’s coffers while ensconced in the White House, this is of little import to a constituency that simply does not rank respect for women or financial propriety as important as the rhetorical or material protection of an established social order of say, ‘whiteness’ or ‘Judeo-Christian nationalism’ or anything else. If Donald Trump and the Republican Party can be perceived as continuing to supply those political goods, ones granted a weight orders of magnitude greater than that granted to say, the protection of women’s rights to live their lives free of harassment, then all is good. Politicians are not perfect; they cannot ‘do it all’; but if they do what we most want, we are willing to overlook their ‘minor’ failings. Especially if paying attention to those ‘minor’ failings will compromise the delivery of the truly important political goods.

There is a method to the madness.

‘Jokes’ About Country Music Fans’ Taste In Music Is All I Got For Now

Because–in the wake of Sandy Hook and Las Vegas–talking about gun control, gun regulation, background checks, mental health, institutional capture by the National Rifle Association, the Republican Party’s gun lobby, gun culture, toxic masculinity, American cultures of violence, racist understandings of ‘terrorism,’ white privilege, political hypocrisy, the rural-urban divide, and all of the rest seems to have run its course. It says something about the nature of mass shootings in America–of real, live, people who then proceed to fall down dead, their vital organs perforated by bullets–that reactions to their occurrence descends so quickly into the hunt for the perfect one-liner that will capture the stupidity and futility of ‘debate’ on ways and means to prevent them. Ideologies forestall debate; they present a state of affairs as necessary and not contingent; they deny the agency of man and the historicity of our present seemingly fixed realities. By these standards ‘gun ideology’ is wildly successful; it has constructed a vision of reality that appears immutable, impervious to intervention by political and moral actors. And thus prompted the title of this post.

But we know that ‘anti-gun’ groups do real, substantive work; they are able to bring about legislative change and regulation of firearms; there is nothing magical prima facie about firearms as an object worthy of regulation and control–sure, they are big business, and a powerful lobby works hard to keep this country awash in guns, but these are not insuperable barriers; so why the pessimism? One problem, of course, is that gun-related violence is an intersectional issue of sorts; the regulation of firearms in a country like the US, while it might bring reductions in gun-violence-related deaths at roughly the same levels that strict gun-control legislation in Australia produced following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, is also likely to suffer from all-too-American problems of its own.

For one, gun-control will almost certainly be implemented selectively with many rough edges; crackdowns on already heavily policed populations will be a distinctive feature of the new regulatory regime. White suburban owners, the demographic that produced Stephen Paddock–the Las Vegas shooter–and his ilk, will get off lightly; they will ‘surrender’ their guns last in line. This supplementation of an already brutal system of mass incarceration seems ill-advised. Given that the country’s prisons also function as a replacement mental health system, this move appears even more like a very bad idea. Moreover, in this US, an increasingly militaristic nation whose police forces resemble armed-to-the-teeth paramilitary organizations, whose political institutions have been captured by a nihilistic political party, and whose economic inequality indicators continue to decline, there is a reasonable case to be made by the political radical that speaking up for the ‘disarmament’ of historically oppressed civilian populations is an act with troublesome ramifications; such moves are likely to be acts of unilateral surrendering of future political options.

These objections make it sound like gun-control is a hard task in a racist, militaristic society with rampant economic inequality running a racist mass incarceration system; which would be an accurate assessment of affairs.

The Trump-Republican Legacy: Institutional Capture And Degradation

There might be some disputation over whether the Donald Trump-Republican Party unholy alliance is politically effective in terms of the consolidation of executive power or actual legislative activity–seasoned political observers consider the Trump administration to have been an utter failure on both fronts–but there can be little doubt about the extent of the damage the combination of the Trump administration and the Republican Party have done to American political institutions. They have done so in two ways: first, they have systematically captured components of the electoral and  legislative process, exploiting their structural weaknesses and their dependence on good-willed political actors (which the Republicans most certainly aren’t); second, they have engaged in a wholesale rhetorical condemnation and ridicule of central and peripheral political institutions like the judiciary and the press.

In the former domain, we find a bag of dirty tricks that includes gerrymandering of state electoral districts, wholly fraudulent investigations into voter fraud, repression of voter registration, filibusters, supermajority requirements to call bills to vote on the floor, the stunning refusal to vote on a Supreme Court nominee following the death of Antonin Scalia, and so on. In the latter domain, we find the ceaseless vilification of judges who do not align their votes in the ideological dimensions preferred by Trump, an utter disregard for all manner of ethical proprieties (c.f. the absence of any sensitivity to the non-stop conflicts of interest that are this administration’s trademark political maneuver), and a wholesale rejection of any standards of truth or evidence in the making of substantive factual political claims.

The American polity will be rid of the Trump administration via resignation or electoral rejection soon enough; perhaps it will even remove the Republican Party from power  from all three branches of government. It will not, however, be rid of the damage caused to its political institutions any time soon; it will take a long time to for this damnable stain to be removed, if at all. Cynicism about political institutions and practices is as American as various species of fruit pies; it is the natural result of a systematic effort by the political class to bring about widespread disengagement with national and state-level political processes, thus clearing the field for those seeking greater control over them. That effort has been spectacularly successful over the years; low voter turnout is its most visible indicator. The efforts of this administration and the Republican Party, aided and abetted, it must be said, by the Democratic Party, have pushed that cynicism still further, into realms where the abdication of political responsibility and the loud proclamation of moral bankruptcy has come to seem a political and intellectual virtue.  So overt has the abuse of the political system been that a collective weariness with politics has prompted an ongoing and continuing abandonment of the field; better to walk away from this cesspool than to risk further contamination. That abandonment clears the way for further capture and degradation, of course; precisely the effect intended (see above.)