We need to be as skeptical of Silicon Valley billionaires as we are of any other billionaire

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Elon Musk meeting with President Obama, courtesy wikimedia.org

We all know billionaires have a disproportionately weighted amount of power and influence in our society. That’s no secret. Billionaires like the Koch brothers and the Adelson family have bought and influenced elections across the country for years. While I’d argue this influence needs to regulated and reigned in, it’s not new.

Some billionaires however – particularly the new class of Silicon Valley billionaires – seem to feel their wealth lays upon them a responsibility to change the world. Jeff Bezos bought the most influential political newspaper in the country, the Washington Post. Mark Zuckerberg has been mysteriously touring Iowa, which just so happens to be the most important state in the Democratic primary. Mark Cuban has also not ruled out a run for president.

Elon Musk is the perfect example. One of the founders of Paypal, and the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, he feels that since he has earned tremendous wealth, that he should do his part to fix the world’s problems. Musk is typically well loved among members of the public, and has used his wealth to take on a number of challenges from global warming, to the colonization of other planets, to traffic congestion in California. He feels that he should be using his wealth to make the world a better place.

Then we come to Peter Thiel. Another cofounder of PayPal with Musk, Peter Thiel feels that it is also his responsibility to use his billions to fix the world’s problems. Thing is, Thiel has a totally different worldview than Musk, and along with it, a totally different set of “the world’s problems” which need “fixing.”

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Peter Thiel, courtesy flickr.com

Thiel is notoriously a neoreactionary – which means that he believes our democracy and institutions have failed us, and that humanity needs an authoritarian strongman to lead it towards greatness. Thus it should be no surprise that he has supported Trump, and holds some of the same views against a free press that Trump holds. Thiel is largely responsible for taking down the website Gawker, either out of vindictiveness for stories published about him or out of motivations to curtail the perceived “bullies” of the free press, by funding the Hulk Hogan lawsuit against the company.

Can we not see how dangerous this thinking is? Believing that it is your responsibility to fix the perceived problems in the world is all well and good if your perceived “problems” align with the rest of our perceived problems. But what if they don’t? What if you perceive the “problems” in the world to be the first amendment and the people’s right to assemble and petition their government?

Being a billionaire does not give you authority – given that this was the fuel behind Trump’s candidacy for president, we see how flawed that argument can be. All it does is give you wealth and power. We the public need to be much more skeptical of these Silicon Valley billionaires. It is easy to want to see the founders of the devices and websites we love as leaders and heroes, but they don’t know any better about how to run society than you or me. And the more skeptical we are of Silicon Valley billionaires, just like any other billionaire, the better off we’ll be, and the less likely the left will get caught up in an all too familiar populist wave behind an incompetent leader.

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If the plan was to undermine Comey’s credibility, it already failed

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James Comey appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, courtesy dailywire.com

Today, Comey gave an unwavering, consistent, believable account of his interactions with the president and why it gave him pause. All of his stories and accounts line up with what we already know, none of it contradicts, and the intelligence community has his memos to back them up.

Trump’s plan (or at least, the RNC’s plan) was to undermine Comey’s credibility today to save face. To label him a showboat, question his motives, and try to give the American people a reason to doubt his testimony. However, Trump and the people defending him couldn’t help but push that they feel “vindicated” by his account of telling Trump he was not under FBI investigation.

Trump’s outside lawyer, Mark Kasowitz, today released a statement in defense of Trump’s actions. The point of the statement was to try to remove Trump from the appearance of wrongdoing, and he does this by using much of Comey’s testimony as evidence. He cites Comey’s own account of what took place, the exact quotes and wording Comey used, and that Comey told the president he was not under investigation personally, in order to try to paint a narrative. However, Kasowitz claims Comey, while telling the truth (even down to the exact wording) on the rest of his testimony, was lying about the part where Trump asked him to end the Flynn investigation.

The problem with all of this is if you’re using Comey’s testimony to defend yourself, even down to the exact wording he used, then you are inherently reaffirming his credibility. You are telling the American people that Comey had consistently told the truth throughout the entirety of his testimony.  Oh, except for that one thing – probably the only thing that, if true, means that Trump is guilty of a crime. That’s the one and only thing that we are supposed to believe was a lie.

So who are we to believe? A man who has shown professionalism, integrity, nonpartisanship (even when we all thought his treatment of Clinton was partisan), consistency, and reliability – whose story has only been corroborated by the people attacking him? Or a president who consistently lies and contradicts himself, sometimes in the same sentence?

Try to imagine how this would hold up in court, let alone the court of public opinion.

Ronald Reagan is rolling in his grave

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Donald Trump abandoning the Paris climate agreement, courtesy businessinsider.com
Ronald Reagan viewed America as a “shining city upon a hill.” His vision saw America holding the torch of liberty for the world to see – a shining example of the power and prosperity that can flow from freedom, liberty, and democracy. That our power comes from our freedom, not despite it, and that our power will be used to protect and project the truth to world, along with our democratic values.

You might call this a “right makes might” worldview. A worldview that has grown and flourished in the years following World War 2, its basic assumption is that America is powerful because its institutions – freedom, democracy, capitalism – are right and just.

Compare this to the worldview shared between autocrats like Vladimir Putin and the alt-right, who see the world as a proverbial game board where those with the power to do so have not only the right to bully the others, but the moral obligation. Those who share this worldview believe that a nation should project whatever power it has on the world stage, and that this strategy, when followed by all nations, brings about peace and prosperity.

The problem with this is that it isn’t new. This nationalistic, might-makes-right strategy, has already been tested. And it failed miserably. What inevitably happens when many powerful nations believe they have more sovereignty over less powerful nations is conflict – and after industrialization, conflict is more costly than it is worth. The world has benefited tremendously from what was envisioned by Woodrow Wilson and has evolved since 1945 – a globe of interconnected, cooperating nations that work together for the common good. Through this cooperation, nations can achieve together what they cannot do alone.

This was the basic premise of the Paris Agreement. A nonbinding voluntary “gentleman’s agreement” that laid the framework for all nations to make a conscious effort at reducing carbon emissions for the benefit of all. The success of this agreement, being nonbinding, relied on the most powerful countries to lead the way.

America was supposed to be one of the leaders. Leading the world into a 21st century energy economy would have been another opportunity for the United States to prove that it is still “a shining city upon a hill,” an example for the rest of the world to look up to and emulate. Instead, the president Thursday rolled back that leadership, leaving the world to look for a new leader – a new “shining city upon a hill,” which now looks like it could be Europe, or China, or whoever may step into the leadership void. It was a powerful signal to the world that we don’t care about you any more, and that you are on your own.

Even more than this however, Trump’s foreign policy reflects a pivot away from what has treated the world very well in the years since World War 2. Abandoning global cooperation, abandoning leadership by example in an attempt to bully the rest of the world in a might-makes-right approach to foreign policy is already beginning to backfire. We are alienating the allies that have helped us push for democracy, freedom, and capitalism throughout the world, against the forces of totalitarianism and communism. This isn’t some left-wing “sissy” view of the world. This used to be bipartisan, shared by Republican and Democrat leaders alike.

Evan McMullin, the conservative independent presidential candidate in 2016, had this to say about it, “We left this model behind after the great world wars and have benefited from a lack of their return since. Our system since has been rules-based in which all nations, no matter how weak or powerful, have the same claim to sovereignty and justice. The ‘might makes right’ philosophy, whether in foreign or domestic affairs, is an assault on truth. It presupposes that there is neither right nor wrong, but only political or military power. Where political or military power determine what is ‘right,’ there is no truth because power is dynamic and changes hands regularly. Where there is no truth, there is neither liberty nor equality, thus the reason authoritarians adopt populism so readily. There is truth!”

Reagan knew this, he knew the power of leading by example, of truth, of supporting and cooperating with our strongest allies. Why are conservatives abandoning the philosophies of their heroes, the same heroes whose name they still cite as examples of what is possible with conservative leadership?

The country is potentially in a very dangerous situation

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Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to President Donald J. Trump, sits in on a meeting with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad, Iraq, April 3, 2017. ([Department of Defense] Photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro). Accessed via flickr.com.
The story of Jared Kushner’s attempt to open a back channel of communication with the Kremlin is the first glimpse the public has into the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin (which the FBI has been investigating for a year now).

Given that there is a possibility of illegal activity here, let’s explore a few scenarios of how Trump could leave office in the coming years:

  1. He loses a re-election bid
  2. He is impeached and removed from office forcefully
  3. He completes two full terms

In all but situation 3, we may have a problem here. Given that Trump has praised foreign dictators for being “strong leaders” by instituting martial law, killing their own citizens by the thousands, destroying checks and balances with questionable power grabs, and the like – we know that Trump does not believe in democracy. And since he does not believe in democracy, we can’t be sure that he believes in the peaceful transition of power.

Can you foresee a situation where Trump has to leave office against his own will? Will he gracefully step down if he loses his re-election or, especially, if he’s impeached? Or will we have a constitutional crisis on our hands?

Democracy is inherently fragile, and is only as strong as the integrity of those willing to defend it.

Let’s just imagine in our heads a situation where Donald Trump loses his re-election to a Democrat in 2020. Given how 2016 went, we know the campaign is probably going to be a long, ugly, a demoralizing bloodbath between him and whoever runs in opposition. Trump may even label his opponent as a danger to the country, painting a scary and dangerous picture for voters of the ugly possibilities of what may happen to America if we allow this opponent to take office. We may have sweeping breaches of voting rights by 2020, given that the Republican party as a whole has shown little interest in protecting them. Trump may call the results rigged, or illegitimate; he may use everything in his power to throw mud into the gears of what has always been a peaceful transfer of power in this country. And using “everything in his power” – he’s the president of the United States. He has a lot of power.

But this isn’t even the scariest possibility. Let’s say the FBI, or leaks to the press, or any of the other investigations into his campaign uncover something illegal and impeachable. What if Trump calls it all illegitimate, as he’s already done so far? What if Congress strips him of his power and he says “no?” Trump for the most part controls the military and the police. Using that power to hold onto the presidency might sound like a far fetched scenario, but democracy is inherently fragile, and is only as strong as the integrity of those willing to defend it. As I said, we know Trump isn’t interested in defending democracy; from the looks of things he is only willing to defend himself. And remember that this country has gone to civil war in the past.

Those hoping that Trump will be impeached don’t account for the fact that this country will be in crisis if it comes to that. Even if Trump was successfully removed from power against his will, the extreme partisan divisions that exist right now could very well turn into deep trenches. Our people could turn on one another in ways we haven’t yet thought possible – those who support Trump and those who support his impeachment. Even now, more Republican voters trust Putin, possibly more than they trust Democrats. To think we would be able to pick up the pieces, unite as a country, and go back to normal in a situation like this is a long shot. If it came to that, there would be significant harm done to this country’s institutions, one way or another.

Even at this moment, Trump is using a very familiar playbook. Evan McMullin, who ran for president as a conservative independent in 2016, had this to say about it: “Accelerating investigations place the Trump administration in a familiar authoritarian quandary. Remaining in power subjects them to increasingly compromising scrutiny while offering the best protection from its consequences. So they become evermore willing to take extraordinary, illegal steps to hold onto power as a matter of self-preservation. It remains to be seen what form this will take in the case of the Trump administration.”

Let’s hope that if it comes to this, there are enough Americans left to put the country before party loyalty. But at the moment, in our current hyper-partisan political climate, I’m not convinced that’s the case.

The left has a fake news problem

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“Louise Mensch MP, Corby and East Northamptonshire,” courtesy The Climate Coalition (UK), accessed via flickr.com

No, I’m not talking about CNN. I’m talking about conspiracy theorists who have found a following among news-starved liberals impatiently waiting for the FBI probe into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia to end in indictments or impeachment. It’s hard to even call them conspiracy “theorists” because they do not post theories, they post unfalsifiable “intel” from “sources” that claim that Trump, Paul Ryan, Mike Pence, and maybe even hundreds of others have secretly been indicted and that they will be arrested any day now.

The most prominent among these are Louise Mensch and Claude Taylor, who have amassed huge followings on Twitter and with their blog Patribotics. They make unverified and uncorroborated claims about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia by citing anonymous sources, or “insiders” as they claim. They put on the air that their claims have validity by echoing one another, and citing their own blog to back themselves up.

Mensch gained publicity by correctly identifying the existence of FISA warrants into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and Taylor did as well when he correctly identified the existence of grand juries looking into the same case. In both of these cases, Patribotics beat the mainstream media to the punch and were the first to report them. However, they use the momentum gained by being right once in a while to claim that they are just “ahead of the game” with the rest of their unverified stories – that the media just hasn’t published or caught up with them yet.

Typically in legacy news outlets – those with decades-long reputations to back up their credibility and trustworthiness – a story is only published with anonymous sources once it has been thoroughly vetted and corroborated. Anonymous sources will be corroborated by multiple staff members at say, The Washington Post, who will then publish the story. Typically, multiple other news outlets will also corroborate the story and independently vet the sources, and also publish it in a short period of time. This is how we as an audience know we can trust these sources without knowing who they are.

Take for example the story that broke Wednesday night about Greg Gianforte assaulting the Guardian reporter, Ben Jacobs. There were multiple refutations of the claim that Gianforte “bodyslammed” Ben Jacobs, both from Gianforte’s staff and from other conservative talking heads. However when the story was confirmed by Fox News, whose journalists had witnessed the assault first hand, we as an audience knew the truth. This level of corroboration is what makes the typical criticisms of anonymous sources weak.

This level of corroboration is also what the Patribotics team is missing, and why their stories can’t be trusted. Often times you won’t be able to find their sources and claims anywhere but Patribotics and their individual Twitter accounts. Sometimes they will post stories that are downright false, and once proven false, Mensch and Taylor bend over backwards trying to retroactively prove them true, or even just edit the original post to make it reflect new info. This is intentionally misleading and false, but it gets into strange territory when they attempt to undermine (or even outright harass) anybody who criticizes the weaknesses and veracity of their “reporting.”

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“How to spot fake news,” courtesy http://www.factcheck.org, accessed via commons.wikimedia.org

The stories about the FBI investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign are true. But be careful what you read out there. The internet is an environment where anybody can publish anything, so fake news and outright nonsense are prevalent. Make sure the reports you read are corroborated by more than one legacy news outlet before believing them. And most of all use extra scrutiny when reading reports that you hope to be true.


Edit 5/27/2017, 3:30 PM: Since it is a popular line of defense that Patribotics and their followers use to defend their unverified reporting, I felt the need to address this. Even if it comes out later that what they have reported is true (which has happened a few times), my points about their intentionally misleading reporting still hold. The fact that the Patribotics team is constantly posting “told ya so’s” when any small part of their reports happen to be true, the fact that they are constantly going back and editing old reports to reflect new information (often times even distorting the original false point to make it sound true given new facts), the fact that they are pushing potentially explosive ideas before having all the facts, and the fact that they lash out against critics – these are all intentionally misleading activities, regardless of how true any of it is, and should be red flags. The truth should be able stand on its own merits.

The Comey firing is not normal

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James Comey, courtesy https://www.flickr.com/photos/girardatlarge/28048181871

The James Comey firing is not normal. The President of the United States fired the man tasked with investigating him for crimes. The importance and weight of that sentence cannot be overstated.

Comparisons to Nixon have been floating around since the news came out. Nixon, in his Saturday Night Massacre, asked his Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor who was assigned to investigating Watergate. Elliot Richardson chose to resign rather than comply, thus yielding Department of Justice authority to his Deputy AG, William Ruckleshaus, who also resigned for the same reason. Finally authority of the DOJ fell to the Solicitor General, Robert Bork, who then (finally) fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.

The problem was that Nixon had ordered Cox fired because Cox was getting too close to honing in on Nixon for crimes related to Watergate. Instead of facing up to these crimes, Nixon abused his executive power and ordered Cox fired. Two acting Attorneys General chose to resign instead of follow this order because it was just that – an abuse of executive power. While Comey was not a special prosecutor, and thus there could have been any number of reasons to fire him – in a democracy, you cannot fire the person tasked with investigating you.

Well, actually, you can. It is within the powers of the President of the United States to fire the FBI Director. Investigations are carried out by the executive branch, and the President runs the executive branch. The reason I say you “can’t” do this is because it is an abuse of power. At this point it is up to Congress to hold the President accountable for these actions. But our current Congress is controlled by the Republican party, and Mitch McConnell as the Senate Majority Leader already shut this down, speaking of it as if it is no big deal, and as if we should all just move on.

McConnell has been very good at making extremes and abuses of power seem normal. He has made historic obstruction of government seem normal, even denying the sitting President from nominating a Supreme Court Justice to replace Antonin Scalia for a full year. Now he’s even making it seem normal for the President, whose campaign is under investigation for its ties to Russia and the Russian hacking of the 2016 election, to fire the FBI Director who is leading this investigation. He does this by brushing it aside, and moving onto other topics of discussion, thus nullifying any opposition or press narratives as time, and the news cycle, passes.

[T]he outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired.

And the spin machine is now running on full blast. Fox News has been trying to disarm the criticism with a lot of Whataboutisms from the start, and Trump has been throwing confusion into the narratives to get people arguing. Trump has been masterful at this for years now, and it is a major reason why he’s President today. The letter he wrote to fire Comey even stated that Trump had been informed by Comey on “three separate occasions” that he was not under investigation, even hinting that these conversations were recorded in a tweet yesterday. Which is bizarre, not only because it was brought up at all, but because Comey isn’t worried about any such tapes. This didn’t stop the press from running with the story, feeling the need to give legitimacy to these remarks, and thus the narrative is effectively mucked. Our divided country is once again divided along party lines on this issue.

Those defending these actions will have arguments like, “Comey needed to go for politicizing the Bureau, and Democrats are only up in arms about this because of partisan politics.” There is some semblance of truth to that. I agree that Comey overly politicized the FBI, both with his letter to Congress last November about the Clinton email case that probably turned the election in Trump’s favor, as well as constantly being in front of the camera and making news. However, the outrage isn’t over the fact that Comey was fired, it’s why he was fired. And the White House narratives to explain that don’t add up (especially since Trump and Sessions, who made the decision to fire Comey, constantly praised his handling of the Clinton email case until last week).

The more likely conclusion people are drawing is that he was fired for investigating the Trump campaign.

If you have any doubt about this, ask yourself how you’d feel if Obama fired Comey last year when Hillary Clinton’s email investigation was still ongoing. Let’s even say he had some other reason for doing it. Wouldn’t you find it suspicious? Would you take the President at his word?

***

The Democrats are in a tough spot. On one hand, if they blow this up and grandstand about it, half of the country will think it’s all just partisan politics and the criticisms will fall on deaf ears. On the other hand, however, if they don’t do enough then they are rolling over in the face of an abuse of executive power. Especially since so few congressional Republicans have joined in the criticism, the onus falls on the Democrats.

One option, as Adam Jentleson described, is to use every opportunity they have in the Senate to question Republicans about their denial of this abuse of power. Republicans can choose not to comment when asked by the press, they can hide from town halls, but hiding from the Senate floor is much more difficult. Mitch McConnell hopes this will go away with time (as it usually does), but the Democrats need to decide if this is a big enough problem to use all of the power at their disposal to resist.

And most of all – maybe the only way to truly ensure Congress acts as a check on the Executive – people need to vote. Vote for candidates who pledge to hold the White House accountable for their actions, in 2018 and always. Turn up the electoral pressure on those who refuse to acknowledge these problems, and all of a sudden we will see their attitudes – or their seats – flip.

Why has Steve Bannon been removed from the National Security Council?

Steve Bannon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Today we received the news that Steve Bannon has been removed from the National Security Council. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I’m sure many others have as well who have any interest at all in the United States’ role in global security. A former executive editor for a far-right online media outlet, with no national security or foreign policy experience, should have never been appointed to the role in the first place, but at the very least I’m glad he’s been removed and H.R. McMaster (a career military professional with vast experience) is in control.

However, the reasoning is unclear. The White House explanation is that Bannon was appointed to the NSC as a check on Michael Flynn, and now that that job is no longer needed, he has stepped down. This is obvious nonsense, given that Flynn hasn’t even held a job in government since he stepped down from his role as National Security Adviser on February 13th. This explanation also begs the question, why was Flynn appointed the highest national security position in government at all if he wasn’t trusted and needed to be babysat?

Furthermore, looking deeper, why is the White House now throwing Flynn under the bus? A few weeks ago Trump was defending Michael Flynn as if he was some kind of hero, and now they’re putting out statements that make him sound like a rat who needed Steve Bannon to keep him in line on the NSC. Could this have anything to do with Michael Flynn offering to testify in exchange for immunity? These narratives don’t add up.

Since the official explanation is illogical, and I know Steve Bannon didn’t altruistically step down for the good of the country, then why has he stepped down? When Michael Flynn resigned, it was hours before the story broke in the New York Times that the Trump campaign had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence, involving Michael Flynn and others. I’m not saying that there is a story about to break on Steve Bannon, but it makes one wonder.

With growing humanitarian crises in Syria (under the Assad regime, who Trump has refused to denounce), a growing nuclear threat in an unstable and unpredictable North Korea, and maybe most of all, the growing threat of an imperialist Russian government who is undermining elections and fostering division throughout the west, including our own country – I for one am happy the adults are back in charge, at the very least in the National Security Council. Hopefully this is a sign that things are moving in the right direction, but somehow I have my doubts.

Update 4/6/2017:

Multiple outlets (including the New York Times and the Washington Post) are reporting that this is part of a broader push by the Trump Family and some of the more “traditional” members of the administration like McMaster to push out extremists like Bannon from positions of power. Trump may be getting on board with this after Bannon’s failures with the immigration ban and healthcare act. I am simultaneously hopeful that this means Trump’s worst tendencies are going to be quelled, and fearful that this will make him more effective at passing the worst parts of his agenda. We will see.