Donald Trump’s Dumb Tweets Matter

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There’s a whole genre of hot takes devoted to scolding the public for overreacting to news out of the presidential transition that’s of allegedly negligible importance, in particular, Donald Trump’s wacky tweets.

We saw the same kind of dismissiveness all through the campaign every time the Russian interference charge came up (still do, actually), often from the same people who clung to Neera Tanden’s every utterance as if her tweets could move armies.

The implication is that competition for public attention is a zero-sum game, and that articles and cable news segments and social media posts about Trump’s outrageous tweets are empty fluff that come at the expense of the real news about the incoming President, such as his $25 million Trump University lawsuit settlement, or the extremists he’s appointing to his cabinet, or the Republicans’ plans to gut Medicare and repeal the Affordable Care Act. A lot of people even believe that Trump’s Twitter feed is a trap he’s set to distract us from the big stories he doesn’t want the public to notice.

But here’s the thing: Trump’s tweets matter. They matter a lot.

The height of the tweet-to-distract theory accompanied Trump’s tweets last month scolding the Hamilton cast for being rude to Mike Pence. On the surface, it did seem like a silly thing to get worked up about, given the juggernaut of reaction the transition team was putting into place to steamroll the rights of immigrants, women, Muslims, racial minorities, the earth, and the human species in general.

But what would have been frivolous prior to Election Day takes on a whole new weight from the future leader of the free world. The Hamilton tweets showed that as President-elect, and, by all indications, as President of the United States, Trump is perfectly willing to single out critics personally, rebuke them publicly for voicing opinions unfavorable to him, and summon his millions of followers to do the same.

Maybe you can argue that the cast of Hamilton are celebrities and public figures, that since they have a little bit of star power with which to stand up to the President-elect of the United States, he’s within his rights to defend himself against their criticisms. But yesterday, Trump singled out Chuck Jones, a local union leader for the Steelworkers in Indiana, by name, and basically blamed him (and presumably people like him, though he didn’t say that), personally, for decades of job flight from the United States. Since then, Jones has been receiving thinly-veiled death threats:

“Calling me names, wanting to know if I have children,” he said. “I better watch out for myself, and they know what kind of car I drive, that I better watch out for my kids.”

Jones isn’t a celebrity. He’s not a public figure. He’s not a Democratic Party bigwig or a member of Congress or a famous cable news pundit. He’s just somebody who disagreed with Trump’s characterization of the deal he and Mike Pence made with Carrier, and was in a position to know something about it. But Trump draws no distinctions between a critic like Jones and a critic, like, say, Hillary Clinton. His attack apparatus is indiscriminate, and it has only one setting: destroy.

Given the near-shooting over the “Pizzagate” lie, if Trump keeps this up, it’s only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt. But even more dangerous than that is the damage that Trump’s individualized, frontal attacks are likely to have on dissent overall. As a candidate, Trump showed no compunction about calling out journalists by name, knowingly putting their personal safety at risk:

At the rally in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Trump howled about the dishonest media, calling out Tur by name. “She’s back there. Little Katy. She’s back there,” Trump said, referring to a grown woman as “little.” Trump continued, calling Tur a “third rate” reporter and her tweets a “lie.” Tur writes that the crowd began booing her, quickly turning on her “like a large animal, angry and unchained.” The Secret Service walked Tur to her car and that, Tur notes, is when the reality of the “incident sank in.”

Since Trump singled her out, Tur says that she’s been on the receiving end of threats and an endless stream of harassment on social media, another aspect of covering the Trump campaign that’s, by now, familiar to a number of female reporters, including Megyn Kelly, Julia Ioffe, and Michelle Fields.

Unlike Trump, journalists who are not in war zones don’t walk around with bodyguards, or have half-million-dollar-a-day security details guarding their personal residences at taxpayer expense. How much personal risk is the average reporter going to be willing to take on to do their job over the next four years, under a vindictive President willing to name them individually on a platform in which doxxing and death threats are routine occurrences? How about a regular person like Chuck Jones, who isn’t even a reporter?

Policy isn’t the only thing presidents do that has consequences. Norms matter, too. Trump has no regard for the norms that have historically constrained the way that American presidents handle criticism. Trump has the norms of an autocrat — someone like Putin.

Trump’s Twitter feed is a glimpse into how the next President will impose his will on a free society. That’s not a distraction; it matters. A lot.

The global populist wave is not necessarily a right-wing one

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The National Review makes an interesting point about the global populist wave rolling over Europe and the United States:

Most of these parties have only the occasional issue in common with each other or with the Trump insurgents. What unites them is not ideology or policies (which are usually responses to specific national situations) but a raw spirit of revolt. If they were to attain power, they would start to look very different as they put their ideas into effect.

Not to sugarcoat what’s happening in Europe, but it’s a mistake to reduce it to something as simple as a “far right” political takeover of the continent. Doing so limits one’s imagination of how the left can respond to it.

The five stars of the Five Star Movement in Italy, which is the clear winner in this week’s failed constitutional referendum led by soon-to-resign Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, stand for the following: publicly owned water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to internet access, and environmentalism. Not a single one of those planks can be mistaken for an inherently “right wing” or “conservative” value.

And yet the collapse of the Italian government (which is almost a yearly occurrence in that country) is widely understood as of a piece with Brexit, the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and the rise of the Alternative for Germany party next door, the ascendance of the Danish People’s Party and other “far right” tides of change on the continent, as well as the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

And of course they are of a piece: each of them is a response to the failure of traditional political parties, with their bureaucracies and dogmas and entrenched leaders, to respond adequately to the complex and evolving cultural and economic changes brought by globalization.

But the way those failures, and the uprisings they provoke, look in each country varies widely by those countries’ respective cultures, political configurations, and economic circumstances. In no way is it pre-ordained that the outcome of a populist political shake-up in a given nation is a right wing takeover.

Even the Front National, so often castigated as “fascist,” has distinct left wing elements in its message and platform. Le Pen has put her party’s xenophobia, chauvinism and Islamophobia in the service (rhetorically) of defending the welfare state and safeguarding France’s commitment to tolerance and plurality. The FN may be a far right party, but only by co-opting parts of the left has it achieved the strength to seriously contend for national power.

The Five Star Movement, with its anti-immigrant bent, is hardly progressive (its leader is frequently compared to Mussolini). But nor is it “right wing.” It’s both, and it’s neither. To force it into one category or the other is to default to the antiquated political framework that parties like it are in the process of displacing. Doing so practically commits you to misunderstanding the whole phenomenon.

To an American observer, the lesson to draw from this puzzle is that there is nothing inherently right-wing about the populist wave that ushered in Trump, either. For a number of reasons that should set off alarm bells for Democrats, it was the right instead of the left that ultimately succeeded in capitalizing on the surge of discontent and organizing voters around it. But as Bernie Sanders’ unexpected success in the primary showed, racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria were hardly the only vehicles with which to shape and direct that anger. The Democrats just happened to choose as their nominee the most prominent representative of the ancien regime at exactly the time when the old order was being toppled throughout the Western world.

 

A Child’s Innocence and the Dogs of War

A 7-year-old girl from Eastern Aleppo has become a lightning rod for pro-regime and pro-Kremlin trolls after tweeting about life under the bombs in Aleppo

by Amr Salahi

In the past two months seven year old Bana Al-Abed has drawn global attention for her tweets from besieged East Aleppo, which is today under ferocious assault from Russia and regime forces, aided by Iraqi, Lebanese and Iranian militias. Hundreds of people have been killed in the past week, and according to her Twitter account, Bana’s house was destroyed on November 27. She has also seen other people, including one of her friends, killed.

Bana’s account, twitter.com/AlabedBana, was managed by her mother, Fatemah, and before it was shut down on December 4, it had 199,000 followers. The identities of Bana and her mother were verified by Twitter and the account had received a great deal of supportive interaction. Harry Potter author JK Rowling sent Bana electronic copies of her books on learning that she was a fan.

However, this seven year old girl whose life is at constant risk from airstrikes and artillery fire has been subjected to constant abuse from supporters of Russia and the Assad regime. The trolling attacks on Bana’s account come in various forms, ranging from crude death threats to accusations of forgery. Another account (twitter.com/alabed_banana) has even been set up to caricature it.

Continue reading “A Child’s Innocence and the Dogs of War”

Unpublished Tragedies: A Reply To Patrick Cockburn and Max Blumenthal.

The “Mainstream Media” Never Cared Enough About Syrian Civilians to Have an “Agenda.”

Whenever the media is accused of fabricating or exaggerating stories about bombs over Syria, as well as Yemen and Gaza for that matter, it reminds me of a man I met in Azaz, during the summer of 2014. I was reporting with an American friend, we drove up to a little street with our fixers. The block had been smashed in half by an airstrike no more than a day earlier. As we got out of the car we could see a middle-aged man sobbing in front of the rubble of his home, as a younger friend or relative picked through the dust.

Our translators talked to the man, soon it became clear he had lost more than one of his family members. At some point one of the fixers asked if we could take a photo of the site. The man’s sadness quickly turned to blind rage. He started screaming(I’m paraphrasing from a combination of what we could make out and what was translated) “My family was one of the first to join the revolution. Journalists just want money! FUCK OFF!”

The man didn’t want us to take a photo of his destroyed house, he wasn’t afraid of the people we were with, he didn’t want anyone to use his tragedy to fit any agenda. His heart must have been full of more hatred for the government that had blown his home to smithereens than anything we can imagine, yet he just wanted us to leave him alone so he could sob and come to terms with the loss of whoever had died in that rubble. Was it his wife? His children maybe? We never got to ask the question, he was screaming at us so we tried to apologize and left. There were no other western journalists in Azaz that day. There was no “Mainstream Media” rushing in to pay for footage of tragedy in Syria anyways. In the mind of Cockburn or Max Blumenthal there would have been “think tanks” and “Zionists” and “Saudis” all lined up to give me a bunch of cash for photos, to prop up the illusion that the people hate their government. Instead it was a man alone in the universe sobbing over his dead family.

Continue reading “Unpublished Tragedies: A Reply To Patrick Cockburn and Max Blumenthal.”

Robert Fisk’s crimes against journalism

Bullets and bombs it seems aren’t the only things doctors in Syria have to fear; they also have to endure the poisoned pens of regime friendly journalists.

A version of this article first appeared on The New Arab. It has since been updated with three case studies of Fisk’s journalistic malpractices. 

The Syrian war has been deadly for healthcare services. Physicians for Human Rights (P4HR) has recorded 382 attacks on medical facilities of which 344 were carried out by the regime and Russia; they were also responsible for 703 of the 757 medical personnel killed in the war. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned their targeting of hospitals “as a strategy of war”.

In its report to the UN Human Rights Council last September, the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Syria wrote that the “pattern of attacks [by pro-regime forces], and in particular the repeated bombardments, strongly suggests that there has been deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities during this reporting period”.

The report adds: “Perhaps nowhere has the government assault on medical care been felt more strongly than in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo city and governorate, where at least 20 hospitals and clinics have reportedly been destroyed since January. By October 7, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had recorded “at least 23 attacks on eastern Aleppo’s eight remaining hospitals since the siege began in July”.

In this context when one of Britain’s more celebrated war correspondents—a person known for his acerbic diatribes against docile western journalists—enters Aleppo and sees a destroyed ambulance righteous fury is sure to erupt. And Fisk doesn’t disappoint. There is the familiar bombast of superlatives. Things are “ghostly”, “ghastly”, “frightening”, and “horribly relevant”.

But it is the object of Fisk’s fury that is a surprise. Fisk is not angry at an ambulance being bombed. Indeed, he heavily implies that the bombing was merited. Fisk devotes much of the article to implicating the Scottish charity that donated the ambulance. In his curious legal brief against medical aid, Fisk’s allies are not facts but suggestion, insinuation and innuendo. His method is insidious and part of a pattern. It merits closer scrutiny.

Continue reading “Robert Fisk’s crimes against journalism”

Wedging Trump

Anthony Scaramucci — his friends call him “the Mooch” — is a blow-dried, gold ringed hedge fund trader straight out of Central Casting. Last summer, when Donald Trump dismissed finance people like him as parasitic swindlers who “move around papers,” Scaramucci snarled that Trump was “another hack politician” who would “probably make Elizabeth Warren his vice-presidential nominee,” considering his “anti-American” insults to the finance industry. “You’re an inherited money dude from Queens County,” the Mooch taunted Trump on the Fox Business Channel, doing his best impression of a guy asking another guy if he’d like to step outside for a minute.

Today, Scaramucci is a member of Trump’s presidential transition team.

Scaramucci’s journey from trash talker of presidential nominee Trump to economic advisor to President-elect Trump tracks Trump’s own abrupt transformation from firebrand populist outsider to Wall Street-friendly insider — an about-face that wasn’t just predictable but repeatedly predicted. As a man without an ideology, Trump is not a change agent but an opportunistic pragmatist. His goal is not to reshape the American economy or even the Republican Party, but to use the presidency to build his global brand and enrich himself and his family in the process. People like Scaramucci and Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s choice for Treasury Secretary, a former Goldman Sachs mortgage banker who made his fortune and his legend exploiting the pain of the foreclosure crisis, may have been odd choices for the grenade-lobbing, drain-the-swamp-and-burn-the-whole-system-down presidential candidate version of Donald Trump. But they’re just the right kind of advisors for the self-dealing, oligarchical, President-elect version of Trump: the real Trump, the one who will be crowned Leader of the Free World next month.

Continue reading “Wedging Trump”

The Gamble: The Left’s Bet on a Trump Loss

How leftists were blinded to Trump’s winning prospects

The gamble was this, and many on the left were sure the odds were stacked: Hillary Clinton would overcome the sweeping forces of global reaction and be the next president of the United States, liberating the politically savvy to focus on her–the locus of real power, the fascist, but with a smile and a pantsuit–and come out looking prescient as all hell for having never bought into liberal hysteria over Donald J. Trump. Say what you will about Trump, this woke-as-fuck cadre claimed, at least he wouldn’t nuke Moscow over the proxy war in Syria.

Gambling that Clinton was the one and Trump just a boogeyman distraction did, at some point, seem reasonably safe, and so we were confidently assured. “It’s obvious she’ll win,” Salon’s Benjamin Norton observed in a late June microblog. “Wall Street, most media, State Dept., foreign policy elites, neocons, etc. all back Clinton.” Striking a similar tone, Zaid Jilani of the Intercept dismissed the possibility of a proto-fascist billionaire’s ascendance to the White House as “theatrics.”

“Trump has no policies, no real team, no real campaign,” Jilani argued. “He’s about as dangerous as a fruit fly.”

The ballots having been cast, we can confidently state: Shit.

The left isn’t alone in having gotten this wrong, but what might be cause for introspection is why the political subculture that prides itself on its superior analysis of reality didn’t grasp what was happening. It’s not that criticizing the neoliberal hawk in the race was not the right thing to do, but that the dogma that she was a shoo-in led some to lay off the man who was to become president.

Glenn Greenwald spent the weeks leading up to the election portraying the far-right demagogue who was set to become the world’s most powerful man as a victim of mainstream media bias and center-left anti-communism. At the same time, he compared the media’s inquiries into Trump’s Russian oligarch ties to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee (which Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich actually wishes to revive).

Trump, Greenwald told Slate, adheres to a “coherent philosophy that is non-interventionist.” This, at the time, was offered as part of the explanation for why the liberal establishment was going so hard on Trump over his alleged ties to Russia. Greenwald stuck to this line even after Trump called for many more airstrikes around the globe and “bombing the hell out of” Libya, Iraq and Syria in particular. As with other contemporary leftist apologism for a fascist, this one began with a liberal. (“Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk,” was the title of Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times.)

The Green Party’s Jill Stein took it further, saying America’s Berlusconi would keep us out of World War III. “Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy is much scarier than Donald Trump’s,” she tweeted alongside the hashtag #PeaceOffensive, contrasting the fascist with the neoliberal by saying that at least the former “does not want to go to war with Russia.” By the end of the campaign, it was commonplace to see Trump–say what you will–referred to as a practitioner of “know-nothing isolationism,” as journalist Rania Khalek did, contrasting that ideology with his opponent’s bombs-away neo-conservatism.

We have a few weeks to go before Trump gains the power to drone strike weddings abroad, a modern presidential rite of passage that, judging by the rise in global defense stocks since his election, investors are convinced he will continue as the next Commander-in-Chief. His desire for peace with Russia, the smart money says, won’t mean peace elsewhere, like Syria, where he has proposed an escalated bombing campaign in alliance with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad.

Without any Trump-embossed missiles having yet been fired, it already seems like a singularly dumb, quaint, and naive idea that he would drop less of them than Hillary. Why, then, did some on the left suggest the guy on the right would be a man of relative peace?

Because it wasn’t about him, and he wasn’t supposed to win.

“I’d assumed that the danger of Trump and the danger of Clinton were of two different orders,” explained British leftist Sam Kriss in a post-mortem. Trump was a danger because of what he said, but “Clinton was dangerous because of what she would actually do, because Clinton was going to win the election. I was a sucker, the kind who gets duped precisely by believing himself to be too smart for any kind of con.”

The problem wasn’t that it was wrong to believe Clinton a danger, but that dwelling on the evils of the horrible, neoliberal status quo she represented blinded some to the fact that things could get worse. In some cases, this led to a failure to effectively critique and prepare for the next President, from the left.

Trump won, Kriss argues, “because the standard formula of American liberalism–eternal war abroad coupled with rationally administered dispossession at home and an ethics centered on where people should be allowed to piss and shit–is a toxic and unlovable ideology.” As rhetoric, it pleases those who adhere to the leftist consensus: Yes, racism is a real problem and social justice matters, but neither is as important as the class war. Scratching away the smarm, though, yields no better understanding of U.S. politics.

No candidate was running on a platform of peace: Clinton had a record of supporting war while Trump was running on the promise of doing war more brutally and efficiently, stripped of limp-wristed anchors like democracy promotion and nation-building. People who voted on either the Republican or Democratic ticket were not casting their ballots against empire. Nor were they voting against an ethics “centered” on where people relieve themselves, by which Kriss means the revanchist crackdown over transgender Americans using bathrooms that match their gender identity.

Not only is the implication that Trump votes were a response to “politically correct” defenses of basic human rights morally wrong, but it’s also at odds with the complementary claim that they voted for jobs. Neither claim is backed by what happened on Election Day. In North Carolina, both the Republican governor and Republican lawmaker who prided themselves on a law banning transgender people from using public bathrooms lost to Democrats whose opposition to the transphobic law was a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Kriss and others nodding at the “piss and shit” shorthand for “identity politics” do not, presumably, oppose people using bathrooms that match their gender, much less believe a group of oppressed people, nearly half of whom have attempted suicide, deserve to be discriminated against and assaulted for that choice.

But what this leftist cadre dismissive of Trump’s prospects represents, above all, is an antiquated ethics that centers and romanticizes a proletariat class that doesn’t really exist in the U.S. In this ethics, issues pertaining specifically to the rights of racial minorities or the LGBT community are seen as neoliberal deflections from what really matters. As Jacobin editor Connor Kilpatrick argues, claims of prejudice among the white rural electorate are an elite tactic to deflect from elite failures. “Diversity rhetoric,” he maintains, “has obscured that 63 percent of [the] USA is white,” while “only 3.8 percent LGBT.” By this math, it’s just political correctness that has been alienating all those budding socialists who wear t-shirts emblazoned with the Confederate flag.

It’s not that Trump voters lacked material concerns. The neoliberal consensus has failed, pushing millions of Americans into precarious lines of work. This is part of the reason why Trump did better with members of unions than Mitt Romney did in 2012. But their class politics shouldn’t be overstated either: Trump only did four percent better than the last Republican presidential nominee, losing union workers by 19 points to Clinton, according to the AFL-CIO. Likewise, Trump did better with those making under $50,000 by about 3 percent compared to Romney. Most working-class voters sided with Clinton over Trump, who won thanks to 290 electors, but which is expected to be 2 million votes less. Others looked at them both, felt nauseous, and decided to stay home.

U.S. liberalism is a toxic ideology, at home and abroad, but jettisoning “identity politics”–the defense of vulnerable people on issues that are matters of life and death–is the absolute wrong lesson to take from a four percent swing among registered voters who actually decided to vote. Trump’s campaign was itself based on identity: whiteness. The response is not abandoning identity in politics, but developing a more radical version of it that advocates equality within a socialist critique of an economic system designed by and for predominantly white men with capital.

What the left needs, is to be defined by more than just its necessary anti-liberalism, wherein explanations for right-wing revanchism that rely on racism are written off as neoliberal excuse-making. Sure, Trump’s voters may not be 60 million Klansmen, but we shouldn’t whitewash the fact that millions had no problem expressing their discontent with a vote for a racist misogynist whose campaign events looked like Klan rallies. The latter were okay with expressing whiteness–and the whiteness of the final vote tally was overwhelming–at the cost of everyone who didn’t look like them.

Clinton’s Death Star liberalism was the most progressive policy platform yet in a general election, thanks in no small part to the push from Sanders. But that’s not saying much, and ultimately, anything she promised was already tainted by her embodiment, to right and left voters, of everything that’s wrong with the status quo. But it would be a ghastly mistake to take from her loss the lesson that the left ought to ignore the human rights of the most vulnerable in order to make short-term gains with a racist white minority.

As leftists, our ethics must be centered not on the four percent, but on the growing, soon-to-be majority of people excluded from the Trump voter coalition–those who were under assault from white supremacy and “traditional” bigoted values long before November 8 and will only continue to be assaulted under his regime. A lot should be thrown out in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss, beginning with the candidate herself, but detoxing this country of liberalism should mean replacing her brand of center-left corporatism with an economic program of radical wealth redistribution based on anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic, and anti-transphobic values. We don’t need to wait until after the class war to do things as basic as naming white supremacy or letting people use the bathroom that best corresponds to their gender identity.

Charles Davis is a journalist whose work has been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Nation and The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter: @charliearchy