Sound and Fury

Sound and Fury

Amid the uproar over the book “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff, documenting (supposedly) the inner workings of the Trump White House and campaign, two incidents have not gotten the attention they deserve. And they portend grave ills in our political system.

First, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke exempted the state of Florida from natural gas and oil drilling off its coast. Republican governor Rick Scott met with Zinke and afterward Zinke indicated that he had allowed the exemption at the governor’s request. Zinke has not indicated that democratically-run states could get similar exemptions. Along with the tax bill recently passed this is a clear example of Republican punishment of blue states.

Second, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein unilaterally released testimony by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS (commissioners of the infamous Steele dossier) without the consent and approval of Republicans. This action outraged the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. Partisan clefting in the Committee displays an utter lack of cooperation and shared goals by the individuals tasked with running our government.

Winner-take-all

Key to these two incidents is evidence of intensifying winner-take-all effects in American political life. Laws are not passed and policy changes are not made unless one party controls majorities in the branches of government.

This fact is salient: Government has shifted from the mean to the outliers. While it may be true that our government was not as bipartisan in the past as it may seem from our current perspective, the political parties no longer shift to the middle in order to enact policy or win votes. Intolerant minorities now control policy and because of people’s political tribalism they will vote with a party or candidate with an extreme view as long as they are labeled Republican or Democrat. That is to say: people would rather vote and support a viewpoint with which they do not strongly agree as long as those candidates and policies are labeled and marketed as being part of their party.

Going as far back as the Affordable Care Act’s passage under the Obama Administration, passed with no Republican votes, the political parties have shown an inability to compromise. While this changing landscape has been analyzed, remarked-upon, and derided it has recently lost some attention due to the abhorrent and tumultuous Trump Administration. It is clear that the Trump Administration is a symptom, not the disease.

Going Forward

Partisanship, particularly the takeover of the Republican Party by an intolerant, radical minority, will stretch beyond the current administration. It is myopic to believe that all will be well after the inevitable downfall of President Trump – the American people and political system are not dealing with the causes of Trump’s rise in the first instance.

It is an irony that part of Trump’s appeal was in not belonging to a political party, that he was not part of the stagnant and dysfunctional establishment, but that his election has exacerbated the partisan divide in the country.

Dysfunction in Washington is here to stay, and while the issues of collusion and incompetence are important, in the arc of history it will be remembered as being “sound and fury” and not the central issue of the time.

The Megyn Kelly Mistake

In a television interview of Alex Jones, the radio broadcasting conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars.com, NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly tore into him over his support for the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a government-backed conspiracy. By all accounts she acquitted herself well and made Alex Jones look bad. But none of that matters. She was broadcasting to the wrong audience, and in turn, received no viewership for her new flagship program.

In a stinging stab of irony, the same people who listen to Alex Jones are probably the people she was most effective in appealing to in her previous career at Fox News.

Megyn Kelly was successful on Fox News as an anchor – she is intelligent, dogged, beautiful, and persuasive. Her profile continued to rise as an anchor and fill-in on Fox News and she received her own program, The Kelly File, on October, 7th, 2013. She did very well on the program being tough and probing (she was formally a prosecutor) and had excellent ratings, occasionally edging Bill O’Reilly. But when her contract ended with Fox News she chose to go to NBC and was elevated to the position of a lead anchor for three separate broadcast efforts.

NBC and Megyn Kelly failed to understand the new political-media landscape. There are no more trusted, non-partisan figures who can draw audiences. Its all about the audience, and bending your performance to suit their beliefs. The people who surrounded Megyn Kelly on Fox News were indicative of this media terrain. Tucker Carlson (who took Kelly’s time slot) and Sean Hannity have abandoned any pretense of moderation or fairness and appeal directly to the Trump/conservative political base.

Many on the right of the political spectrum understand the new realities of finely divided demographics. There are a host of provocateurs who have targeted Trump supporters and right-wingers as if they were a business targeting their products toward a certain demographic. These people are engaging in a scheme to make money, not to uphold their political beliefs.

Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Paul Joseph Watson are the foremost examples of people who have taken advantage of the internet and the media of political affirmation to benefit financially from targeting the “alt-right.” They spread lies, disinformation, and back Trump unreservedly in an attempt to attract an audience.

Megyn Kelly will probably fail as a news anchor for NBC in drawing audiences because liberals will not watch her because of her association with Fox News, and conservatives and Trump supporters will not watch her because she is not unabashedly backing their view points.

Pardons, the Law, and America’s Future

The United States of America sprung full grown from the Enlightenment as a nation-state like Athena from the mind of Zeus. It became a nation without going through the complexities of the European nation-states, which grew through feudal and class systems under aristocracies and absolute rulers to form modern states. America’s ideological foundation is firmly centered on the idea of the supremacy of ideas and ideals – primarily the idea of the nation as a system of laws and legally-established structures.

Intellectuals driving the ideology of the Trump movement (people like Steve Bannon) believe that the US is held together by white, Anglo-Saxon, and Judeo-Christian values. They are terribly wrong. They have misread the diversity of America as a weakness, or as a threat to the life of the nation. In the United States there has been diversity for much of the history of the nation, and fears that immigration from Latin America threatens the values and cohesiveness of the nation are histrionic. Without the concepts of justice and limited government, there is nothing to hold the nation from spinning apart.

Trump has consistently played to his base, and his pardon of Joe Arpaio is no different – many politicians and presidents over the history of the United States have played to their key supporters. But this is different than previous pardons and pandering. In several key ways the pardon undermines the rule of law.

Firstly, Joe Arpaio is a key political supporter of President Trump, especially on the divisive issue of immigration. Pardoning any key political supporter convicted of ignoring a federal court order is weighted with undermining the impartiality of the justice system. By doing this Trump is essentially placing political allegiance above the law and the separation of powers.

Secondly, the specific crime which Joe Arpaio was convicted for violating was a court order. “America’s toughest sheriff” flaunted the judiciary’s authority to determine whether or not his actions were constitutional. So the pardon was a direct challenge to the constitutional position of the judiciary, one of the three pillars of balanced government.

Thirdly, Joe Arpaio was pardoned without going through the normal legal process. Normally pardons are issued after a person has been sentenced and after they have appealed to the president to be pardoned. Furthermore, the individuals are normally pardoned in the interests of justice.

A key argument of Trump supporters is one of equivalency. This is an argument used with consistency by those supporting Donald Trump, and it is a dangerous form of sophistry. False equivalency blurs obvious moral and legal boundaries. In philosophical logic this is known as the “tu quoque” fallacy. Rather than addressing the logic of the argument presented against them, in this case “President Trump used his power to pardon to undermine the separation of powers and the ‘rule of law,'” supporters of the President will respond: “where was the outrage when Obama pardoned thugs and criminals?”

To address this fallacious argument it is instructive to examine some of the most controversial pardons and acts of clemency in recent American history. The first one that comes to mind is the pardon of Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate Scandal and forced to resign the presidency, was pardoned by President Gerald Ford shortly after he took office. Because Nixon had so poisoned the public perception of the Republican Party and the reasons for pardoning him were for the interest of the nation, it has generally been excused and vindicated by historians and politicians. This act, though enormously controversial at the time, was not made to a political supporter, and could not have been made for any feasible reason besides to move the nation past the tragedy of Nixon’s presidency. There was no personal loyalty, quid pro quo, or undermining of the law – the outcome of Nixon resigning the office and the implication of guilt were more in the public’s interest than his conviction in a trial.

Faction and partisanship have always been a threat to democracy and good government in America. Our Founding Fathers were concerned about the establishment of political parties and their ability to undermine the principals of republican government. Instead of ruining the government however, parties throughout the history of the United States have tended to operate within general bounds of fairness and legality, and as institutions have helped to channel a diverse and dissimilar population into orderly groups that can fight for general political principles. Several times the political parties have broken down, most catastrophically before the Civil War, where the regional demands on a single government became so great that the country was torn in half. Recently the rise of Donald Trump both displayed the weaknesses in the modern Republican and Democratic parties, and then tore them to shreds. Without the political parties channeling differences into governmental policy and actions the United States is left with the aimless politics of the dynamic politicians who rise to the top. In this case we have Donald Trump – not attempting to placate a political party who is willing to work within governmental structures, but appealing directly to his loyal, self-made political base of disaffected white Americans. Without a tradition, understanding, or respect for the government and law, he appeals directly to this political base. This is how democracy is undermined in America: it is done by breaking down the legal and heuristic edifices that keep the passions of people channeled and within recognized bounds of justice and fairness. Donald Trump doesn’t need to abolish the Constitution or rule by fiat to crack the United States of America’s foundations of individual liberty, limited government, and sharing of power.

The threat Trump poses is beyond the scope of contemporary conservative or liberal issues, he is his own class of threat. It started with denigration of the media – this allowed his supporters to feel that Trump was being misrepresented and victimized no matter his actions or words – making him nearly immune from criticism from his new political base; it was followed by the destruction of the coalitions that made the political parties (which they themselves are largely responsible for by growing so far from the people and interests they purport to represent); and now has moved on to the elevation of his political views over the laws of the nation.

Pornography is not Harmful

A resolution was passed condemning pornography in Utah several months ago and a number of conservatives have recently spoken out about the harmfulness of pornography. Pornography is not inherently harmful, though studies show that many people view it as immoral. In that way it is similar to drugs and drug use. It can be harmful, and may be viewed as immoral, but it is not necessarily so. Leaving out outdated notions of sinfulness, pornography does produce something that doesn’t exist in nature and releases endorphins in a rush familiar to drug users – and it also reveals men’s connection to ancient dominance and misogyny.

Sex is hardwired into some of the deepest and most animal parts of our brains, and it makes sense that the pleasure derived from sexual gratification would be so similar to the euphoria provided by drugs. Some of the most popular search terms for pornography on the internet involve acts that are commonly seen as degrading to women. In modern society, largely based on systems and law, which have replaced bestial and pack nature, or sublimated them into unseen systems – raw expressions of dominance, sexual desire, and pleasure are connections directly to our ancestry. Men are, apparently, inherently misogynistic and violent.

Perhaps people are afraid of biblical sin, but it seems like some conservatives and politicians are horrified by the idea of unfettered access to the deepest parts of our minds, untouched by modern social and political systems.

If there is actually a problem with pornography it is the same problem that is permeating the rest of our culture and society. An abundance and easily accessible cache of drugs, media, food, and pornography has either been designed or made available on demand and drives deep into our pleasure centers. Our potential for addiction to pornography, and everything else, has never been greater. This is the true threat of pornography, not misguided and outdated moral outrage.

Homelessness and Nazi Rallies

In my previous post I discussed how extremist groups have managed to elevate themselves to a semblance of respectability and find common cause with regular conservatives, in this one I will discuss how to best counter their propaganda.

We should all just stay away. That is the obvious solution to preventing the rise and spread of extremist groups in the United States. It is unlikely in this country that popular support for Neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan could reach a proportion where they could take over the country, a la Nazi Germany. So with that in mind, the best way to prevent them from gaining any sort of mainstream foothold is to do what experts have recommended for years: ignore them. Without the massive counter-protest, which exacerbated and enflamed the violence, the extremist protestors would have gotten little press.

People want to resist, they want to do something to show their disapproval of neo-Nazis, but by doing that they’re playing directly in to their marketing strategy. For years advocates for homeless people have told citizens that the best way to prevent the scourge of panhandling in cities is to stop giving homeless people money. Without the incentive to panhandle the homeless are more likely to seek help and to leave commuters alone. Honest, good people contribute to the social problems of homelessness because of their impulses to help people, or to be seen as virtuous and moral. It is that same twinge of self-interested moralism that leads people to protest a Nazi rally.

I can’t help but think that if people weren’t going to post things on social media, they wouldn’t attend such rallies in such large numbers. Our society is obsessed with displaying each individual’s personal morality and virtue over communications technology, and because we are obsessed we can’t starve the beasts of extremism of what they crave most: exposure.