Charlatans, delay, and normalization

On this day five years ago, Donald Trump wailed “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.” Obviously it did not work out that way.

I have remarked already that America basically normalized the Trump presidency. I think a lot lately about how “hypernormalization” is a defining feature of the culture, at this point; I don’t know how one can process contemporary America and not lose one’s mind, without understanding that “crisis” or “breaking point” aren’t really meaningful concepts.

In retrospect, the “Refuse Fascism” people were probably correct with their “Can’t Wait” for elections warning, if for the wrong reason. The big problem wasn’t what Trump would do in two more years or in three more months or in five minutes. The big problem was that the “wait patiently for the next scheduled election” approach meant that any and everything Trump did was thereby made part of “normal politics.” Imagine, again, if Ukraine had done that in response to a Putin crime capo being head of state. Fortunately, Ukraine didn’t. Unfortunately, we did.

Even more unfortunately, Americans were giving charlatans power over us well before Trump came along. Choosing a point when that began is an arbitrary selection, to some extent; some mild element of fraud at minimum is probably always present in political power.

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Walking back through political interpretation

I make and take a lot of notes. Even before the more or less daily news chronicle which I began in 2017, I have collected and organized political, economic and other notes throughout my adult life.

Lately I’m doing some spring cleaning, and in the process, this weekend I revisited two or three small, ad hoc collections of notes. They are interesting, especially cumulatively as a walk back through 10 years of struggling to make sense of political dysfunction.

A virtual folder on my Mac, which began as a catchall for interesting texts which I wanted to save and meant to file eventually, has turned into a cross section of 2011-20 political perspectives. Some just seems quaint. Remember when the “war on terror” or “free trade debates” were national preoccupations? One is a rant from February 2017, responding specifically to local affairs and posted on a local message board, but which rails against complicit unwillingness to say that a lie is a lie; a general relevance existed at a time but has grown since, I think.

Three or four excerpts from Vox articles published after the 2014 election seem, now, like the beginning of the conclusions I eventually arrived at in my recent book Nemesis.

  • …the Democrats hadn’t actually discovered dark arts of GOTV that allowed them to survive a GOP year. The polls were wrong — but they were wrong because they undercounted Republican support. As often happens, Democrats fooled themselves after the 2012 election into believing they had unlocked some enduring political advantage. They learned otherwise. (source)
  • If the economy drives whether people vote to re-elect the president, and presidential approval drives midterm voting, then surely the economy should should drive midterm voting through the mechanism of presidential approval, right? (source)
  • The last five elections, taken together, wreck almost every clean story you might try to wrap around them. They show an electorate that veers hard and quickly between left and right and back again — shredding any efforts one might make to draw deep ideological conclusions from a single campaign. They show that Democrats can, in the right circumstances, win midterm elections. They show that incumbents can win presidential campaigns. They show an electorate that seems to be searching for something it cannot find. (source)

One sentence, from the same period, is so exact: “American politics is descending into a meaningless, demographically driven seesaw.”

It’s humbling that it took me seven more years to process this even into what I hope is some kind of useful model for making sense of things.

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Transformers, Issue One

I didn’t get Transformers Issue One when it was new. I turned six in 1984.

No, I had to hunt this thing down, later on.

I don’t remember the exact process, or even when I acquired it. 1990, 1991, probably? But I know what it was like to get my hands on this, and how it felt when I did.

For me, this was not only a quest years before searchable back issue catalogs on the Web. It was also a quest undertaken in a small town, years before I had even a student driver’s license. I wasn’t hunting through bins at comic book stores, or at conventions. These were the days of mail-order from catalogs.

I ordered comic books that way a number of times. I may even have tried to order Transformers #1 multiple times. These were the days when you wrote what you wanted on a form, and which grades were acceptable to you, then wrote alternate selections because what the store had at the time of printing their catalog changed, obviously, in the time that catalog traveled to you in the mail and your order traveled back to the store.

I know that I wanted this for a while, and getting it at last felt like a quest accomplished. In all seriousness it felt a bit like Bart and his friends staring with awe at Radioactive Man #1, the real thing.

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Megatron, as Futurist

A Mastodon thread considering the origin of the Transformers’ civil war, and comparing it with contemporary Anglo-American division, has been all kinds of fascinating fun.

My first response was that “the origin of the Cybertronian wars” presents a complicated premise for comment, because writers have told many different stories of that origin, over the decades. I can think of at least a handful, without even counting a 2010 novel apparently published as “the official history.” Given this, I thought it worth going back to the beginning, i.e. Issue One of Marvel’s comic book, probably the first published account of the war’s origin.

I haven’t actually read this issue many times, and probably not in years, so a close read of the opening pages was actually quite interesting in this context. In the original account of how Transformers’ civil war began, Megatron and the Decepticons seem motivated by something quite a lot like Futurism.

Contrary to many later accounts, the Decepticons did not have anything like legitimate grievances from a liberal perspective. But they weren’t quite one-dimensional bad guys greedy for power, either.

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Why wasn’t Jan. 6 more disruptive

I highlighted this recent thread from Kamil Galeev because it’s insightful, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. One paragraph in particular has been on my mind as a big contrast with the US:

As a general rule, a large organisation suffering from the problem of attribution can start rewarding high and extremely high performance only if the organisation feels an immediate existential threat. Which happened in Ukraine after 2014. Fear changed the system of incentives…

I’ve seen Ukrainians say, quite plainly, that Russia has been waging war on their country for eight years. To review, for my own sake, Ukraine drove the corrupt Putin stooge, Yanukovych, out of the country. Putin then launched some Civilization shit in Crimea, combining Russian troops, a Russian-supported local insurrection, and a staged referendum for annexation. (Much the same program which Russia expected, based on this experience, that they could repeat with much more of Ukraine this year.)

To be absolutely honest, that’s a big deal. I presume it’s at least on the order of e.g. a dodgy Mexican annexation of Arizona, if we imagined Mexico as the seemingly stronger military power and the US kind of stuck for any immediate options to retaliate. Nothing remotely like that has happened to the US in ages, if ever.

But then, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were not at all like a hostile foreign power annexing an entire state. Despite that—and despite my own belief then and now that they should have been treated more like a crime than like an existential threat—they produced plenty of panic and change.

So it seems like a violent insurrection invading the nation’s Capitol itself, at the prompting of a defeated president and his political allies, could qualify to change the usual approach of the same people doing the same things. It really did not in this case, at all.

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What if: Ukraine in a Trump Second Term

I think that I was relatively realistic about the outlines of how bad America’s possibilities were even before the 2020 election, whatever its outcome. Experiencing it still feels awful, but I can’t claim that I really expected far better. What did I write, among other things, how about “I only know that in any and every realistic scenario I can imagine, America will blow up.” I wrote that the election still mattered because a Biden presidency could prevent various atrocities; I probably meant in the sense of preventing them for a while, which seems like the most generous thing which can now be said of how it’s working out.

I certainly can not claim that I was thinking about the fate of Ukraine, ahead of the 2020 election. It is nonetheless arguable that the fate of Ukraine, and maybe partially Europe, has turned on the 2020 US election result. Jonathan Chait argued a month ago that “If Trump Was Still President, Ukraine Would Be So Screwed Right Now,” and it does not seem unthinkable.

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Perspective on Groupthink

A recent thread by Kamil Galeev is so amazingly good. People are familiar with the concept of “groupthink,” yet Galeev essentially proposes that this is not so much an error into which people can fall, as it is the normal human default, from which exceptions are possible but very challenging, and that there are reasons which explain why this is the case.

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Asymmetric belief in authority

Most people on the mainstream center-to-left spectrum have been successfully trained, to respond to the paralysis of this Congress, by parroting the names “Manchin and Sinema.” Supposedly Democrats are soundly for change—even in the US Senate 96% of them want to do something!—and all the responsibility for obstruction lies with the Evil Bobbsey Twins plus all the Republicans.

There are multiple reasons why this excuse is unsatisfactory, and I will note some others below. But first, I want to revisit something I have posted about here, before.

If you take them at their word (and in this regard I believe that we should) then Democratic elites genuinely believe that Mike Pence, alone, could via some sleight of hand with note cards have literally made Donald Trump the president for 2021-24. They may also profess that this act would have violated the rules, yet the degree of alarm in references to that prospect, combined with other patterns, convinces me: they really believe that one (lame duck) authority figure could have declared that down is up, and obliged the rest of society to stand on its head.

Yet these same Democrats profess that Senate President Harris and Senate Majority Leader Schumer are essentially powerless observers. Their hands are tied.

Say what you like, but this is an extremely asymmetric belief in authority.

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Nonsense, BS and outright lies

Today marks three years since the US House asserted its completely valid right to examine Donald Trump’s tax returns. Despite which, those returns remain locked in a vault even after America elected a U.S. House, U.S. Senate and president purportedly committed to oversight and accountability.

This seems like a good day to survey the degree of dishonesty which prevails generally even within the “responsible” portion of US politics, at this point.

I don’t imagine that this is really a new phenomenon, but we’re now years into perma-crisis; did that shock anyone into shaping up? Not a bit of it.

One can insist that there’s a continuum from reasonable errors, through nonsense, bullshit, and denial, to outright lies. On February 6, 2021, when Representative Marcy Kaptur proclaimed that “Our union remains strong. Our democracy may bend, but it will never break,” maybe that was just nonsense. Maybe it was a reasonable error when Nancy Pelosi said obtaining Trump’s tax returns would be “one of the first things we’d do” if voters gave Democrats a House majority.

But at some point, the volume and consistency of statements which don’t fit reality is just too much for positioning on the continuum to matter very much.

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Journalists get it, partly

Friday’s “The Morning” e-mail from The New York Times is interesting for how it mixes up a flicker of “getting it” with plenty of the ordinary obtuse fare.

Much of the e-mail carries on the braindead political “analysis” which was a big inspiration for my book Nemesis. German Lopez writes an extensive e-mail about “why Biden is unpopular,” walking backward through the past year and a half of covid and covid policy, without ever considering

  • The obvious question of what, exactly, “unpopular” is being defined against; voters have rapidly turned against every president for decades, and more significantly they punish the president’s party consistently, even when presidential approval is much more favorable than Biden’s.
  • To the extent that presidential popularity is variable, at all, could disdain for Biden have anything to do with the fact that even mainstream journalism is so relentlessly affixed to narratives of scandal and (Democratic) failure that the result wildly misleads people about reality?
  • “Analysis” mostly just makes up its premises of what’s supposed to move public opinion and how. From month to month, “The Morning” tells us that Democrats are disappointing the public because of Afghanistan, no because of covid, actually it’s the economy, and they’re out of touch with public fears of “CRT,” etc. The claim, in Friday’s email, that the Biden administration committed itself to firm promises about freedom from covid also seems suspiciously unfamiliar to me as a fairly regular reader of “The Morning.” It feels like “truthiness.”
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