Ronald Reagan is rolling in his grave

rtx38lko.jpg
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 left has a fake news problem

7419675760_6c75616eae_b.jpg
“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.”

How_To_Spot_Fake_News.jpg
“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.

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. 

The Rise of American Authoritarianism

32716034346_af691307c8_b.jpg
Steve Bannon, White House Chief Strategist, source: Time Magazine

Think of your average super villain. Dr. Doom, Lex Luthor, Magneto, Loki, Darth Vader. Typically they share a common motivation: autocratic power. They are villains in our stories because they don’t believe in liberty and democracy, and instead try to “take over the world” and consolidate global power under their own rule.

Before I lose you because you think I’m going to call Donald Trump or Steve Bannon a comic book villain, I’m not. But there’s a very good reason this type of power is considered villainy in our culture. Modern democratic societies, since their inception in the 18th century enlightenment and the American Revolution, have for the most part shattered all other power structures in a very short period of time and spread like wildfire throughout the world. Critics will tell you that democracy is not morally superior to other forms of government (democracy is just as capable of genocide as fascism), but it is a superior power dynamic due to its most critical aspect – peaceful transition of power, which allows for a new party or movement to take power of the government without revolution or civil war.

There is a growing movement in our country and around the world right now that is opposed to democracy. There is a body of authoritarian movements – movements with a unifying theme of placing a strongman in power who will “set us straight again” and ignore or outright defy the systems meant to check his power – that are not just gathering momentum, but have already steamrolled their way into our government. The rest of us who believe in the tenets of representative democracy, in checks and balances and equal branches of government, in civil and inalienable rights, have been behind the 8 ball because we have not taken this seriously enough.

This might sound like hyperbole, but if you don’t believe me, look into neoreaction. Abbreviated “NRx,” neoreaction teaches that democracy is inefficient, ineffective, and has outlasted its welcome on Earth. They believe that this system must be replaced by a power structure based on autocracy, with power held in a single leader, and with clear ownership and chains of command. They believe the government must be run much like a private company, where the owner or CEO makes decisions independent of any other bodies, that are then executed unquestioned by his staff.

This might just sound like a bunch of edgy teenagers on the internet just beginning to develop their politics… that is, until you take a look at the White House inner circle. Particularly Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart editor, now White House Chief Strategist, who has inserted himself into the National Security Council and inserted his worldview into government policy. Bannon is reportedly a reader of neoreactionary thought, and his former outlet Breitbart is considered “alt-right.” We’ve all heard of the alt-right by now, which is a loose far right political ideology that questions or rejects egalitarianism, and roughly believes that all races, genders, and national identities have the right to compete independently for dominance in society.

We can’t be 100% certain what Bannon’s worldview is, but we can deduce. And being a key adviser in the Trump Administration, we can see that play out in the anti-democratic hands all over their policy and political strategy. Any entity that acts as a check on the power of the Executive Branch is treated as an enemy – the press, the courts, the popular vote, the opposition party, facts. We can argue all day whether or not the President truly believes in this, or whether he “gets it,” but it is clear that the people surrounding him do. And they’re not stupid.

This administration is quickly showing one of the following to be true: it either doesn’t know about the tenets of democracy, it doesn’t care, or it is actively opposed to it. And unfortunately, the most likely explanation so far seems that they are actively opposed. Anybody who is hoping for change through the traditional democratic means – voting, elections, free expression and assembly, petitioning their government – should have their eyelids shooting open. There is a powerful threat to democracy right now, one that usurped immense power before our very eyes, and we need to catch up. This is not a joke.

If you believe that your positions are right and true, that they truly benefit the most people on Earth, then why be opposed to democracy? Democracy has proven itself to allow for change in government philosophy, over time – through dialog and critical thought, through spreading your ideas and getting as many people as possible on board with your version of change. Democracy allows for the strongest ideas to filter to the top. If your philosophy is strong, if it can survive the tests and strains put on it by questioning and political challenge, then it can cause change in government rather easily compared to other power structures.

There is only one reason that you would be against democracy, and that is to force your worldview onto everybody else, regardless of whether it hurts them or not. Authoritarianism does not account for the minority, for the marginalized, for the smallest voices in our society to have their issues recognized and attended to. It does not account for issues that affect groups large enough to assemble and petition their government. Most of all, it does not account for the ability of a country’s people to cause change, because throughout history the only way change occurs in these autocratic societies is through bloodshed and war. And that is where anti-democratic thought fails.

However, the anti-democracy movement itself will not fail unless it is resisted, powerfully. The traditional means of petitioning our government have not failed yet. The checks on the Executive Branch have flexed their muscle – namely the courts and the press. Congress is under immense pressure from their constituents to investigate ties to foreign dictators (though they are also under immense pressure to pass conservative legislation, which is holding them back from doing so).

The first step to fixing a problem is acceptance. We have not yet accepted, collectively, that this is no longer a fringe meme constrained to internet forums. We must collectively accept that we not only have an anti-democracy problem in this country, but that this movement has infiltrated our government like never before. Regardless of how you feel about Donald Trump, please recognize that at the very least, the people around him and in his ear are pushing him to authoritarian, autocratic tendencies. The resistance to this is not just “the corrupt establishment fighting back against the man of the people,” or the Democrats whining about their election loss. Many were willing to work with Trump on areas where their beliefs coincide. Instead, the resistance is to these authoritarian tendencies that threaten to undermine our democracy. These are dangerous precedents to set, and in a lot of ways the damage has already been done. Going forward it is up to us to collectively, and firmly, say “no.”


If you like what you’re reading here, I’d like to invite you to please sign up for the email list. I will be updating this blog weekly. If you agree or disagree with my points, have anything to add, have any questions, or have something to say at all, feel free to leave a comment. Thanks for reading and sharing your time.