Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Historical Precedents

“He praises dictators like Vladimir Putin and picks fights with our friends—including the British prime minister, the mayor of London, the German chancellor, the president of Mexico and the Pope.”
—Hillary Clinton, criticizing Donald Trump in a speech on June 2

“Do I have a problem when a sitting secretary of State and a foundation run by her husband collects many, many dollars from foreign governments—governments which are dictatorships? Yeah, I do have a problem with that. Yeah, I do.”
—Bernie Sanders, criticizing Hillary Clinton on CNN’s State of the Union on June 5
You cannot really call the current U.S. election campaign fun, but I do my best to find interesting or amusing bits where I can. Some things I enjoy are the various historical analogies people try to impose on the candidates.

Donald Trump in particular has been fertile ground for people reaching for historical comparisons. From the beginning a lot of people have likened him to the fascist leaders who rose in Europe in the 1930s, like Mussolini or, most provocatively, Hitler. I dealt with the Trump-as-fascist thing in this space seven months ago and do not have much reason to revise what I said then. He and his followers do not really fit the pattern of previous major fascist movements, which were characterized by heavy emphasis on detailed theory and ideology. Trump fits more in the populist mode which, to my mind anyway, usually involves an opportunist spotting a mob and running to get in front of it. Some people like to conflate fascism and populism, but populism is hard to pin to any particular ideology since it always focuses on whatever a large group of people are feeling disenfranchised about at a particular time. It often tends to be anti-globalist and anti-immigration but more out of an isolationist sentiment. That is different than the racism of Hitler, who used protection of ethnic Germans as a pretext for dominating the countries around him. Scottish historian/pundit Niall Ferguson made a very good case a few weeks ago for how populism and fascism are different in a UK Times piece (sorry, behind a paywall). While fascism led to World War II, Ferguson notes that the isolationist mindset of populists means that they are extremely adverse to getting into wars. Given Clinton’s record, which has always tilted toward the hawkish, that puts pacifist voters in the interesting position of considering a Republican who may well be less likely than the Democrat to use the military.

Having dismissed the fascist comparison, what other Trump comparisons can we find out there? An interesting one lately comes from conservative columnist (and recently resigned Republican) George Will, who compares to Trump to Charles Lindbergh of all people. In his analogy Vladimir Putin is Hitler, and Trump is the American celebrity who admires him and invokes the same slogan as Lindbergh, “America First.” Again, this comparison makes Trump the choice of those who are anti-war.

The comparison that really piques my interest has shown up here and there in publications like The Atlantic and Politico, where some writers have called him an American Peronist. This is a reference to Juan Domingo Perón, who was president of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and again from 1973 to 1974. An admirer of Mussolini, Perón best fits as a variant of the fascists. Presumably he gets brought up as a possible precursor to Trump because of his ability to whip up a crowd and tendencies that many see as dictatorial. Personally, though, I do not know if I would bring up Perón if I were a Clinton supporter.

For one thing he was known for using no-holds-barred tactics against his political opponents. Anyone paying attention to John Podesta’s recently released emails (courtesy of Wikileaks) or the recently released Veritas video in which a Clinton ally is heard to discuss hiring people to incite violence at Trump rallies? Perón and his second wife, Eva Duarte, also promoted their political fortunes through a charitable foundation that was not above strong-arming the well-heeled for generous donations.

The most interesting Perón/Clinton comparison is that, as with his latter-day successors Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Perón’s wife succeeded him in the presidency. It was not Eva, though she was extremely popular and would likely have succeeded him if she had not died of cancer at the age of 33. Instead her consolation was to become the subject of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Evita, of which one of the musical numbers is “And the Money Kept Rolling In (And Out).” It was Perón’s third wife, Isabel Martínez, who ended up succeeding him on his death in 1974. Her brief term was a disaster. Plagued by poor health, she eroded Argentines’ constitutional rights in a fight to eradicate leftist terrorism, presided over record trade and budget deficits, and watched inflation climb from 12 to 80 percent in a year. She was deposed in coup in 1976 and was suceeded by an army general, Jorge Rafael Videla, who proceeded to initiate Argentina’s notorious Dirty War against its own citizens.

These sorts of historical comparisons can be fun, but at the end of the day they are of no real help for figuring out how to vote. Worse, too much studying of history can be so discouraging that it may actually provoke the dangerous decision not to bother voting at all.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


“We can and must write in a language which sows among the masses hate, revulsion, and scorn towards those who disagree with us.”
—Vladimir Lenin
Twenty-five years ago the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation was in its fifth season. The second episode of that season was called “Darmok.” It was about the Enterprise crew making first contact with the Tamarian race. (Trivia note: that episode happened to feature the screen debut of Ashley Judd. She played Ensign Robin Lefler.)

Normally, language is not a problem in Star Trek because the Federation has a universal translator that can instantaneously translate any language, but in this case the universal translator was not much help. It translated the Tamarians’ words just fine, but the words were incomprehensible because the Tamarians spoke in allegories. The Tamarian captain Dathon (played by Paul Winfield) expected Captain Picard to understand what he meant when he said simply, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” To Picard, however, those were just unfamiliar names. After 14 years in rural Ireland, I can now fully emphathize with Picard’s frustration.

That Star Trek episode is actually a pretty good allegory for what is currently going on in American society and politics. The opposing political camps keep speaking in their own allegories. And nothing said by one side registers at all with the other side. Instead of seriously debating policies, we keep telling ourselves—and each other—stories about email servers and border walls and, more recently, basement-dwelling baristas and capital loss carry-forwards. You cannot really blame people either. It is not as though the presidential candidates have been carrying on a substantive debate.

Donald Trump has no record of office-holding and is not particularly consistent in his positions. If he is elected, we can probably expect to see him on TV—a lot. I suspect—and that’s all one can do with Trump—he will be the least day-to-day involved chief executive ever and that whomever he picks as his chief of staff will be running the country. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has a lengthy political career, although she has served as an elected official only eight years, two of which were spent campaigning for the presidency. Her stated positions have been known to change drastically, particularly in the case of global trade. She has a web server full of policies, but as cartoonist/blogger Scott Adams says, “[D]on’t fall for the claim that Clinton has plenty of policy details on her website. She does, but it is organized to mislead, not to inform. That’s far worse than having no details.” If her term as secretary of state is any indication, we can expect President Clinton to do a lot of traveling and hiding from the press. It is fair to guess that she would sign a lot more international agreements than Trump—including probably some form of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The country is as polarized as ever, but this time something is different. It is not the usual Democrat/Republican or liberal/conservative poles attracting and repelling. One pole is now the political/corporate community (establishment politicians of both parties, Democratic interest groups, corporate journalists and Wall Street fat cats) lining up in opposition to Trump. The other pole is what used to be called “the Republican base” augmented by disaffected people who had stopped paying attention to politics. These are not people with ready access to the media, so we do not hear much from them. They are largely working class, but not the working class that liberals like to talk about. These are the kind of working class that continually disappoint Marxists.

This shift has caused some interesting side effects. For example, the Republican candidate is actually running to the left of the Democrat (who keeps focusing on an old Howard Stern interview to deflect from her vote for the Iraq War) on foreign policy. Also, while Democrats are the ones who rail about too much money in politics, Clinton is far outpacing Trump in sucking in super PAC money from large donors, while Trump is leading in small donations.

There is really no point in trying to argue policy in this election. Most people are genuinely unhappy with the choice in front of them, which seems paradoxical since the candidates were each selected by millions of voters. People are instinctively going to their corners. Their hearts or their guts are telling them whom to vote for. They are just following the news to hear the sound bite that gives them permission to vote the way they really want. For some it’s Trump’s talk about the wall and Obama’s birth certificate. For others it is four dead Americans in Benghazi followed by blame heaped on a YouTube video. Will any new information about either of the candidates—no matter how outrageous or shocking—change anyone’s mind at this point?

All the strategists are doing at this point is trying to discourage a few people on the other side so much that they do not mail in their ballots and/or stay home on Election Day.

No word that I can think of does justice to the frustrating state of American politics these days. At least no word in English. So what would be the Tamarian term for this state of affairs? Probably this: Trump and Clinton on the ballot.