2017: The Year of Lying Brazenly

For connoisseurs of 21st century dystopian humour, there is a bleakly amusing clip doing the rounds showing Pete Hoekstra, the US Ambassador to the Netherlands, apparently being well and truly hoist by his petard.  Hoekstra is a diplomat appointed by Trump and forged very much in the template of his master.   Asked by a Dutch journalist whether he said that there were Muslim ‘no go areas’ in the Netherlands, Hoekstra denies that he said any such thing, and accuses the interview of spreading ‘fake news.’  Said interviewer then shows said ambassador a 2015 clip in which Hoekstra can be found saying exactly what he has just said he has not said.

When the interviewer shows Hoekstra the clip and asks him why he characterized it as as fake news, Trump’s man in the Netherlands immediately denies that he said it was fake news even though the interview that he is participating in clearly shows him saying exactly that.

This exchange tells us a number of things about the state we’re in.  The good news is that there are still good journalists who are prepared to hold lying politicians to account.  That might be grounds for optimism, were it not for the fact that Hoekstra doesn’t appear to care that his falsehoods have been exposed in full public view.

Hoekstra may be little more than his master’s lickspittle, but the contempt, arrogance and total indifference to truth or fact-based argument on display here are another indicator that 2017 has taken us into a new political territory, whose implications have yet to be fully absorbed.  ‘Post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with the election of Donald Trump.   Tony Blair and George Bush worked up one of the great political lies in modern history, and neither of them paid any serious price for it.

But Blair, Bush and their defenders have repeatedly denied that they were lying about WMDs and tried to make excuses for their catastrophic decision to invade Iraq.    In the Trump era excuses and apologies are not required.   We now have an American president can lie openly and brazenly on an almost daily basis without any consequences whatsoever:  a president who can ignore and reject photographs demonstrating that his inauguration was poorly-attended as ‘fake news’; who denies that he was in a ‘pussy-grabbing’ video in which he can be clearly seen and heard – and crucially, a president whose power base ignores and rejects whatever he ignores and rejects.

This isn’t some kind of American aberration.  David Davis has clearly lied through his teeth all year about the Brexit impact studies that turned out never to have been made.  Asked by the Brexit select committee early this month what had happened to these studies, Davis denied that they had ever been carried out, even though he himself had said on various occasions that such studies did exist.

As early as November 2016, Davis’s department said that it was preparing impact studies ‘ on over fifty sectors of the economy.’  Yet Davis sat before the Brexit committee looking bored, smug and utterly indifferent to the discrepancy between what he had promised and what he was offering that was being presented to him by his shocked interlocutors.

There are various reasons why we have ended up like this.  Part of the explanation lies in the common decadence of British and American politics, which increasingly produces politicians without any intellectual grounding or moral compass,  who no longer feel any motivation even to go through the motions of telling the truth.   But the arrogance shown by Trump, Davis et al is also the product of a deeper cultural and political shift, in which political arguments have become so tribalised that truth no longer matters even to their supporters.

Trump and Davis know that the people who support them don’t care if they lie, and don’t care if they are found out, as long as their lies suit and reflect their common agenda.  So if Davis lies about Brexit, that’s fine, as long as his lies are seen to further the cause of Brexit.  When Trump lies about…anything, that’s ok too, as long as his lies rub salt in the wounds of ‘liberals’, ‘leftards’ or ‘the elite.’   And when Hoekstra is caught lying about Muslim ‘no go areas’ in which ‘cars and politicians are being burned’, that doesn’t matter either because there are many people who want to be believe that such things are true.

This is why the likes of Katie Hopkins have continued to claim that October’s car accident outside the Natural History Museum was a terrorist attack, even when it was absolutely clear that it wasn’t.  After all, if you believe that the media and political class are so cowed by Islam that they will actively cover up a major terrorist attack to avoid causing offense, then you will believe anything, and politicians like Trump, Davis and Hoekstra appeal to an audience who are prepared to believe whatever confirms their prejudices.

This audience has been around for a long time, fed on a diet of poisonous allegations and conspiracies that goes beyond the current world of shock jocks, Infowars and Prison Planet etc to the ‘UN black helicopter’ conspiracies that circulated in the early Clinton era.  Social media have merely widened that audience and made it easier to reach it and compartmentalize it, and the results are plain to see.

There was once a time when Americans were taught to admire the young George Washington, who  supposedly admitted to cutting down a cherry tree on the grounds that ‘ I cannot tell a lie.’  A 21st century Washington would simply deny that a cherry tree had ever been chopped down or call it ‘fake news’, and his supporters would agree with everything he said even if someone showed them a chopped-down tree and an axe with his fingerprints on it.

These tendencies aren’t exclusive to the right, of course.  Leftists can think and act like this too, but the brazen dishonesty of Trump, Davis and Hoekstra is essentially a product of the tribalism of the right and the far-right.  And 2017 is the year in which this toxic sludge burst from the social media fringes into the mainstream,  to the point when the whole process of reasoned argument and fact-based discussion that makes democratic life possible is now at risk.

Because if lying no longer matters, then why should truth matter?  Why bother even trying to prove that something is true or false if people will simply ignore your arguments if they don’t like them?

And if you no longer believe that truth has a role to play in democratic politics, then you run the very real risk of transforming political life into the playground of bullies, demagogues, populists, Twitter hatemobs – and liars.

 

 

 

 

Trump’s Christmas Message

This week the Trump non-presidency posted what may well go down in history as some of the weirdest photographs ever taken in the White House, featuring Melania Trump as the spirit of Christmas.  One of them shows the First Lady walking with a fixed grin through what looks alarmingly like a giant silver vagina, but turns out to be a corridor of Christmas trees.  In another she is standing on a marble floor surrounded by a little copse of snow-covered Chrismas trees in her white dress and heels, looking like the wicked witch of Narnia in search of a dancing partner.

But the most striking image shows Melania standing on a red carpet in a white dress  and her arms by her side staring through a phalanx of ballerinas.  It’s an image that is  both surreal and also an inadvertent homage to the horror film genre, because Melania looks an awful lot like Sissy Spacek with that stare and dress, and you can’t help wondering what might happen to those dancers if  a bucket of pig’s blood was thrown on her.

You certainly wouldn’t want to leave her alone with the baby Jesus for long.  As is often the case with Melania Trump, it’s difficult to know whether she is Rapunzel or Countess Dracula in this Mar-a-Lago winterval.  Is she reveling in her power or is she too a prisoner of the dystopian sci fi satire made flesh that we are all forced to inhabit?  Either way, these joylessly saccharine images are unlikely to win the ‘ War on Christmas’.  This is partly because this ‘war’ is a figment of Trump’s imagination, and also because nothing and no one can conceal the fact that the howling beast who inhabits the White House walls has nothing to do with the message of peace and brotherhood that Christ’s birth was intended to bring to the world.

Trump isn’t the first world leader to fail to get this message.  Hitler was also a big fan of Christmas:

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And he liked Santa too:

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I know I’m probably being a bit of a killjoy posting such images, or maybe even going over the top a little, when all the White House wants us to do is think of tinsel and reindeer.  But that isn’t the only Christmas message that’s come out of the White House this week.  Because Trump has now retweeted none other than our own Britain First – a fascist would-be paramilitary organisation that specialises in anti-Muslim hate speech, whose name was quoted by the man who shot Jo Cox to death.

Even our PM, who up to now would have swum naked through a lake of cold sick to get a trade deal from the US, has said that Trump was ‘wrong’ to do this, without going too deeply into what his ‘wrongness’ consists of.  May has too few friends to risk cancelling the state visit on which the British diet of chlorinated chickens depends.  But even what she did say was too much for Trump, who tweeted back contemptuously that May shouldn’t be focusing on him, but on the ‘ destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism Radicalism that is taking place within the United Kingdom.’

Let’s just pause here and take stock of this.  The president of the United States retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a fringe fascist organisation – videos that don’t even depict what they purport to depict.  When accused of retweeting videos from said fringe fascist organisation, Trump ignored the fact that most of the videos were fake and told Theresa May off for saying that he was ‘wrong’ to retweet them and criticized her instead.

All that is bad enough, but I fear that its badness hasn’t been fully-digested. Because some commentators, our own government amongst them, continue to imagine that Trump ‘crossed a line’ or ‘went too far’ as if these retweets were some kind of gaffe that can be rectified.   But Trump’s retweets and his response to the criticism he received make it clear he hasn’t crossed a line.  On the contrary, he is moving very firmly along the tajectory that was established during his campaign, when he first reached into the fascistic underbelly of the GOP and US society: he is deliberately bringing fascism and racism back into the mainstream of American politics and pushing American society further towards the far-right.

He knows what he’s doing, and his closest supporters know it too. This is what the Bannon project is all about.  It’s what sexy/cool provocateurs and fake cultural insurrectionists like Milo Yiannopoulos are all about.  As the brilliant Buzzfeed investigation  into the Bannon/Yiannopoulos nexus recently showed, these people are conduits seeking to open up new channels through which far-right and even openly Nazi politics can re-enter the political mainstream and break down the barriers to such progress.

When Trump dubs calls CNN ‘fake news’ and tells the most jaw-dropping lies without even the slightest remorse or concern about whether he’s found out, it isn’t just because he is a narcissistic sociopath: he is deliberately shattering the intellectual context that makes evidence-based argument or rational discussion possible.

In Trumpland, there are no ideas that have to be respected, only feelings and instincts that don’t change when confronted with facts that contradict them.  Trump knows that his base has no interest in facts or truth and will love him as long as he sticks it to the ‘liberals’ or ‘lefttards’.  He knows that he can rely on the support of the intellectually and morally debased Republican Party, many of whose representatives either care only about their career or would not mind taking off their suits and putting on a paramilitary uniform should the opportunity arise.

They certainly don’t have to wear uniforms now, because 21st century fascists don’t do that until they are absolutely certain that they can get away with it.  Until then, they are content to allow their poisonous ideas to percolate,  until what once seemed abnormal and unacceptable becomes a new normal.  This is a long haul task, but Trump has powerful helpers: reactionary millionaires and Domininionist billionaires; Fox News, Breitbart, bullying shock jocks and many other fora that understand his game perfectly and have the same lack of scruples.

So Trump’s inadvertent tribute to the self-styled ‘Warrior for Christ’ Jayda Franzen isn’t just because he is a lazy, ignorant buffoon who can’t even be bothered to check a source – it’s exactly on a par with his tributes to the Nazis in Virginian and his praise for the Confederacy.  He is promoting her because he agrees with her, and because he wants to poison our politics as he’s already poisoned his own country.  Admittedly that isn’t too difficult to achieve in the toxic world of Brexitland,  and Trump has lots of willing  helpers swimming in the same dank waters.

These include not just the marginal crypto-fascist freakshow that is Britain First, which he has now transformed into a national brand.  Trump’s British co-enablers are way more mainstream than that.  They include Katie Hopkins,  Farage, Arron Banks, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch, all of whom have used anti-Muslim hatred as the acceptable face of racism and a kind of intellectual Trojan horse to insinuate far-right narratives back into the mainstream – just as Trump did yesterday.

All of them, like Franzen and David Duke, can look to the white supremacist fascist enabler in the White House who is clearly dreaming of a white Christmas everyday, and the sooner we recognize Trump for what he is and treat him accordingly, the better chance we have of stopping him – and them.

 

 

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Trump Goes to Westphalia

There is nothing entirely new under the sun when it comes to US presidents and US military power, at least since the end of World War II.  All American presidents, whatever their political inclinations, preside over a quasi-imperial system of military power that spends spends more than twice as much on the military as the rest of the world put together.   They take it for granted that America has the ability to destroy any country in the world many times over; that America, and only America, can maintain military bases pretty much wherever in the world it chooses; that it can use its military power whenever and wherever it chooses; that it can ‘intervene’ in the internal affairs of any state it chooses, and can act whenever it sees it necessary to eliminate potential threats or regional ‘challengers’ to its global dominance.

Some presidents, such as Reagan and George W. Bush,  depict this military power as an instrument of divine will, that is always used for benign ends in moral confrontations between good and evil – a rhetorical tradition that reaches all the way back to the ‘evil empire’ to the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘moral clarity’ espoused by Bush’s two administrations.

Most presidents have tried to align with the wider interests of the ‘free world’, the ‘West’, civilization, the international liberal order etc, and many US allies share this assumption, at least most of the time.  Even when pursuing American economic or strategic interests, the more intelligent US administrations have always prefer to project military power within a multilateral format, building coalitions and working within international organisations like NATO or the United Nations where possible.

When this is not possible, or when these organisations don’t behave the way the United States wants them to behave, then it will act alone, perhaps dragging in a few partners as a multilateral fig leaf.  Given these precedents, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised by Donald Trump’s performance at the UN yesterday.  As in George Bush’s big international speeches there was a lot of theology and God, accompanied by Old Testament divisions of a world divided between  the ‘righteous many’ and the ‘wicked few.’

Taking a cue from Flannery O’Connor, Trump even warned that some nations were already ‘going to hell’.  There were some spectacularly crude explanations for this hellishness, from Trump’s suggestion that ‘international criminal gangs… force dislocation and mass migration; threaten our borders’ to his  crude analysis of Venezuelan ‘socialism.

There was also a lot of emphasis on about ‘sovereignty’, and ‘sovereign nations’, such as the assertion that ‘Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny, and strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.’

Such observations have been interpreted by some commentators as a reaffirmation of the old ‘Westphalian’ international order after the R2P interventionism of the last few decades.  This is giving Trump far more coherence and credibility than he will ever deserve.  One minute he was suggesting that the best way to ensure international order was to allow ‘sovereign’ states to act selfishly.  At the same time he persistently singled out members of the ‘wicked few’ such as Syria, Iran and Venezuela, because of the way their governments treated their ‘own people.

At one point, Trump told his audience that military action might be necessary against Iran, not only because of its supposed role in exporting ‘  violence, bloodshed and chaos’ – something the US itself knows a great deal about – but also because ‘The longest suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are in fact its own people.’

So are we ‘Westphalian’ or still ‘post-Westphalian’?   No point in asking Trump because he probably doesn’t know.   Still it’s worth remembering that R2P was never the altruistic ‘post-Westphalian’ phenomenon it was supposed to be.  After all, the US had been intervening in the affairs of other states for decades before such ‘humanitarian’ interventions were justified as an international ‘responsibility’ that  supposedly overrode the notion of the sovereign Westphalian state.

From Clinton to Obama, the US flirted with R2P when it suited its national interests or geopolitical agendas, ignoring some dictatorships and autocracies and only targeting the ones that were seen as potential ‘challengers’.  Yesterday Trump was more or less arguing exactly the same thing.   Nevertheless his speech left a lot of jaws dropping, and there was an unmistakable sense when it was over that the world had become a more dangerous, unstable and unpredictable place than it was when he took the podium.

Such anxieties aren’t entirely unfounded. American politicians have often reveled in their ability to ‘destroy’ countries that opposed them.  A drunken Nixon once talked about nuking North Vietnam and flooding dykes.   Hilary Clinton warned that the US could ‘obliterate’ Iran.  John McCain composed a little ditty about doing the same thing. Even Obama once politely reminded Iranians that the US could destroy their country if it chose to.

Few presidents have issued such threats with the same bullying arrogance that Trump displayed yesterday.  There was no talk of ‘regime change’ or ‘surgical strikes’ to ‘take out’ missile sites.  Just a little joke about ‘Rocket Man’ and the casual, almost bored suggestion that the US might have ‘no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.’

Thus, with a little flourish of a speechwriter’s pen, 25 million lives were rendered worthless, invisible and disposable – to say nothing of the devastation and carnage that will spread through South Korea and beyond if anyone attempts to resolve this crisis militarily.

No doubt Trump would just munch on a piece of chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago through all that, but the rest of us should be genuinely alarmed to hear such bloodthirsty Al Capone-like language delivered at an institution that,  for all its failings, still embodies the possibility collective security and multilateral, non-military solutions to international crises that was first mooted after World War I with the failed League of Nations. .

The US cannot be held uniquely responsible for the disastrous game of chicken that is now unfolding with Korea, but the Trump administration has made a bad situation worse and yesterday’s speech does not suggest that it has any intention of changing course. Trump declared yesterday that ‘No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.’  True, but the experience of the last two decades suggests that when it comes to the axis of evil, only countries that have them can guarantee their survival.

To say that this is not a desirable outcome does not even begin to describe it, but Trump’s frat-boy belligerence will do nothing to prevent it.  And North Korea isn’t the only looming conflict on the horizon. Trump’s attack on the Iran nuclear deal made it clear that sections of the US military and political establishment are still intent on ripping up that agreement –  regardless of whether there is any evidence to prove that Iran has breached it.

Trump is not interested in evidence.  He is listening to Saudi Arabia, to  the likes of John Bolton and Benjamin Netanyahu, whose applause blew like tumbleweed through the stunned auditorium yesterday, and that is very bad news indeed.

Because whether or not Trump has gone Westphalian, this is a president who combines the emotional empathy of a toddler with the instincts of Lucky Luciano and the military hardware of a superpower, and unless some serious diplomatic and popular pressure can be brought to bear on this administration soon, he and his fellow plotters stand a very good chance of unleashing precisely the kind of catastrophic confrontation he has been boasting about.

 

 

 

The Madness of King Donald

Even by the wild standards of what may well be the most deranged individual ever to inhabit the White House, the man who calls himself Donald Trump has had a prolific and remarkable week.  Just to recapitulate.  In the space of five working days Trump has:

a) publicly humiliated the admittedly creepy attorney general he himself appointed

b) suggested that immigrants are criminals who cut up the bodies of beautiful young women

c) turned a Boy Scout Jamboree into an anti- Obama hatefest

d) given the police permission to smash arrestees’ heads against the wall even though many police chiefs have stated that they don’t want this ‘right’

e) tried and failed to take medical care away from millions of  Americans

f) threatened Congressmen who didn’t do what he wanted

g) fired his chief of staff because his chief of staff didn’t ‘return fire’ after one of the most blisteringly foul-mouthed rants that any press secretary has ever made

h) kept said press secretary in post instead of firing him – as any president with even the faintest glimmer of decency and political nous would have done

i) banned transgender people from the armed forces even though his own generals don’t want this

No one can say that Trump isn’t productive, even if what he produces is chaos, confusion and mayhem. But what one can also say is that this must the worst anti-establishment rebellion ever.   After all, this is a man who came to Washington to ‘drain the swamp’, and who positively reeks of the swamp itself, a man whose stupidity, narcissism,  incompetence and downright malice are so spectacularly grotesque and egregious that it is difficult to believe he is actually a real character and not some fictional monster from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Preacher.

After all, if you were going to make some kind of sci fi fantasy film about Satan getting himself elected to the presidency of the United States, you could do a lot worse than pick Donald Trump for the role.   Watching this insanity unfold would be entertaining, in a blackly comical kind of way, were it not so dispiriting and so dangerous.

First of all, one cannot contemplate Donald Trump without being constantly reminded that this was the man who millions of Americans used their democratic right and voted for, supposedly in order to give ‘the establishment’ a bloody nose.

That is difficult enough to swallow.  But then there is the very real possibility that an administration in crash and burn, that is painfully headed for historical ignominy on an epic scale, might just do something really, really bad – far worse than the lunacy that we have seen so far – in order to silence its critics and prevent the inevitable meltdown from occurring, or at least ensure that we all meltdown with him.

That’s right folks, I’m talking about a war, because if there is any one thing that can pull a failing president out of the fire and give him credibility, or even a political halo, it’s a war, the bigger the better.  You know the kind.  The one you have to fight because national security is at stake.  The one you fight because if we don’t get them they will get us. The one where you can’t stand idly by.

Who could that war be fought against?  As Trump might say, whatever.  It could be North Korea, because apparently the Trump mafia have decided ‘the time for talk is over’.   It could be Iran, of course.  After all so many people have been itching to whack Iran for years, and if Trump did it, who would care?  It could even be Russia, despite (because of?) the ongoing Russia investigation.   And why not throw China in for good measure, because as Trump keeps saying, they haven’t done everything they can to stop North Korea.

Wait! I hear you sceptics say.  Would Trump be prepared to start a war that might destroy much of South as well as North Korea, and possibly drag in China as well? Would he, perhaps with his Saudi buddies,really  start a major war with Iran and possibly Syria that would set the Middle East on fire, just to protect his presidency and his reputation?   Come on!

Well that is exactly what I’m saying.  After all, do you really believe that Trump’s son-in-law sold the Saudis $110 billion worth of weaponry just to bomb Yemen into a state of near-famine?  Consider that the only time Trump has been popular since taking office was when he fired a brace of missiles at Syria.  That’s all it took to make him ‘presidential’, according to  CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.   Yep, it really is that simple.

And consider this also.  For all Trump’s lunatic freakshow, he has yet to inflict the levels of mayhem and destruction that his far more sensible and ‘presidential’ predecessors left behind them in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and many other places.  George W. Bush turned a crime against humanity – the 9/11 attacks – into an excuse for endless war against an array of targets that had nothing to do with the attacks.  I

His administration was stacked with political schemers who were far more ‘sensible’ and intelligent than Trump’s insane clown posse.  They were ruthless, cunning and utterly amoral, and had absolutely no hesitation about manipulating intelligence in order to justify the wars they had always wanted and pave the way for the ‘new American century.’

They lied openly and blatantly, and they were aided and abetted by the very sensibly British Tony ‘ I did the right thing’ Blair.  Between them they unleashed a swathe of violence of which the ‘liberation/destruction of Mosul is just the latest chapter.

All of us are paying the price for their decisions, and many many people have paid that price in blood.   Yet oddly, none of those responsible have ever paid a serious price for it.  On the contrary, some of them have become respected elder statesmen – in certain circles at least.  Their crimes and mistakes are largely forgotten or glossed over. They write memoirs, cut sagebrush on their ranches, get jobs with the World Bank, pontificate about Brexit.

No one really cares about what they did, at least no one who matters.   No one spurns them.  No one holds them to account.   True, their reputations have been tarnished, but a bad reputation needs people to identity and recognize the disgrace in the first place and then to remember it afterwards.  Fortunately for them, we have too many politicians and too many journalists who are experts at forgetting, who are all too willing to put aside a few bothersome facts like the destabilisation of the Middle East and the destruction of entire countries in exchange for some sage advice on our contemporary predicament.

So no one should discount the possibility that this could happen even to the orange-haired freak howling, bawling and spewing demented tweets at the White House. Because as freakish as he is, he is the product of systemic failure and systemic impunity that goes beyond the vagaries of personality.  It’s a system in which you can inflict limitless ‘creative destruction’ on the rest of the world, start wars in which tens of thousands of your own countrymen and women are killed and maimed, and a few years later Bono will pop on your ranch for a selfie.

In such a system, even an administration that has gone completely off the rails can still find its way to greatness or at least to some kind of rehabiliation, still find a way to ensure loyalty, compliance and even approval. All it takes is a blaze of cruise missiles at dawn, the steely glint of fighter planes on the runway, the appearance of yet another evil enemy who we have no choice but to fight before it’s too late.

We discount that possibility at our peril, and we should watch the madness of Donald Trump very closely, and be prepared to do anything we can to prevent him from dragging us down into the swamp that he crawled out from.