Monday, January 30, 2017

Monster a Go-Go (politics)

From the film Monster a Go-Go (1965). Unrelated to the post, except
maybe as a metaphor for the savage ugliness of the last week (and
an appellation for Trump presidency thus far).

I'm a little emotionally wrung out, actually. Earlier today I forced myself to stop checking Twitter and the Washington Post for a while and numb myself with a couple episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

It was a good choice.
 
I don't have the stomach for even a superficial autopsy of President Trump's first ghastly week in office. My emotional state has been vacillating between disgust at his reptile-brained worldview and gasping horror at the ever-accruing evidence that we have a crazy person as our Commander in Chief. Sometimes I experience both states simultaneously. When that happens I have to close the browser and take a very long walk. At the rate I'm sucking in nicotine lately, I'll die of a heart attack before the midterm elections.

For the moment, let's focus on Trump's ideology—insofar as a bilious heap of grudges and gut feelings qualifies as a body of ideas about how the world works. You're familiar with it by now: "America First." Foreigners, particularly the non-white, non-Christian species, are job-stealers at best and terrorists at worst.  Diplomacy is a zero sum game. Things used to be better, back when only red-blooded, white-skinned men were trusted to run things, when America was booming and the rest of the world was convalescing from war, colonialism, and/or Stalinism, and when climate change wasn't a problem because nobody was talking about climate change because nobody was aware of climate change, so climate change wasn't a problem. (Returning to the latter state of affairs is precisely what the Trump administration hopes to achieve by muzzling the EPA, NASA, et al.)

So here we are. What happens now?

I'm finding plenty of cause to be afraid and a few reasons to be hopeful. For now I'd like to admire the silver lining before considering the thunderhead.

I do believe "Trumpism" and its sister-spawn (at least in the West) represent the last feverish thrashings of a moribund worldview. Trump campaigned on a promise to reverse globalization, but has a very narrow chance of actually succeeding. It will be as difficult a process to stop as industrialization, digitization, or hell, the spread of print material and vernacular literacy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The trade, transportation, and communications mechanisms we've built up and built upon for the better part of seventy years compel us toward globalism with the steady but irresistible pull of a riptide. Trump's nativist and protectionist allies and supporters are struggling fiercely against the current—but they'll go under long before they arrive back at the shores of an America where ethnic nationalism and jingoism are commonsense virtues. (We should, however, be very concerned about them dragging the rest of us down to the rocks with them in their panicked flight to the past.)

The good news is this: though I wouldn't recommend just waiting things out as a solution (#resist), the d/dx appears to be on our side. "Demographic trends favour pluralism," The Economist augured in November, shortly after the election:
In many countries the university-educated population——typically cosmopolitan in instinct——is rising. In the post-war period about 5% of British adults had gone to university; today more than 40% of school-leavers are university-bound. In Germany 2m citizens were in tertiary education in 2005; a decade later that number had risen to 2.8m. The share of 18- to 24-year-old Americans in that category rose from 26% in 1970 to 40% in 2014.

And immigration, which has done much to fuel ethnic nationalism, could, as generations are born into diverse societies, start to counter that nationalism. The foreign-born population of America rose by almost 10m, to 40m in the decade to 2010. In Britain it rose by 2.9m, to 7.5m, in the decade to 2011. Western voters aged 60 and over——the most nationalist cohort——have lived through a faster cultural and economic overhaul than any previous generation, and seem to have had enough. Few supporters of UKIP and the FN are young; the same is true for Alternative for Germany, another anti-immigrant party.
But youngsters seem to find these changes less frightening. Although just 37% of French people believe that “globalisation is a force for good”, 77% of 18- to 24-year-olds do. The new nationalists are riding high on promises to close borders and restore societies to a past homogeneity. But if the next generation holds out, the future may once more be cosmopolitan.
I trust you've also seen the map illustrating what the November election might have looked like if only millennials had voted. It's definitely not what it purports to be, and should be taken with a shaker of salt—but by and large, Generation Y rejects much of what Trump and the coerced and craven GOP stand for. Unless a majority of American twenty- and thirty-somethings do a political π in the next four, eight, twelve years, we're apt to see a blue shift in the polls. (There is a conversation about gerrymandering to be had, and I'd rather pound nails through my most sensitive tissues than examine that right now.)

It doesn't take much analytic imagination to notice that Trumpism is basically a mutation of the Gamergate ethos transferred from hobbyists to national politics. Here's the thing: Gamergate was so vicious, so vehement in its insistence that the video gaming scene should turn back into a hetero boys' club because it already wasn't anymore. In other words, Gamergaters were fighting a battle they'd already lost. These neo-nationalists are much the same. They're not triumphant: they're desperate. They're like a frenzied, mortally wounded animal, dying but still dangerous.

The troglodytes can't bring video games back to the 1990s or America back to the 1950s any more feasibly than the music industry can decide .mp3s just shouldn't be a thing anymore—for better and for worse.

And there is a "for worse" to bear in mind: globalization has not been a boon for everyone. Trump's rust-belt support base voted as they did because they felt screwed over and forgotten, and they have every right to be angry: they've been imperiously brushed aside by the Invisible Hand. Though we can't discount the millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty, the primary beneficiaries of globalization have been multinational corporations and the cadre of elites in their orbits. It was international commerce that dictated and facilitated the advance of globalization, and the actors certainly weren't motivated by altruism.

Nativism and protectionism and are one of two potential traps into which we risk falling. The other would be to continue to allow the capitalist process to run its course on a global scale without stern but surgical intervention. When left uninterrupted, capitalism tends to consolidate a larger and larger portion of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people. (Two excellent books, each with "Capital" in the title, explain how this works.) Unless means are devised to equitably redistribute the mountains of wealth piling up in the accounts of the upper percentiles, Trump will not be the last populist demagogue trying to build walls and blame foreigners for stagnant incomes and grim prospects.

Compelling multinational corporations to work for everyone—not just their stakeholders—will require multilateral cooperation between nation-states. Trump and his neo-nationalist ilk abroad are making it unlikely that such coordination will be possible any time soon.

Let's call this the worse-case [sic] scenario: Trump's enablers are repudiated in the midterms and Trump himself is given the boot in 2020. The reins are taken up by some bland Democrat who may argue for raising the minimum wage, tries to nudge our healthcare scheme back in the right direction, and wags his or her finger at Wall Street while continuing to let The Market serve the interests of its masters amid vague promises of Tech Jobs For All. Incomes remain stagnant; good jobs remain scarce, and another Republican in Trump's mold wins the White House in 2024.

The best-case scenario, then, is that Trump and his cronies are exposed as the morally bankrupt and atavistic con-men they are, the United States returns to some semblance of sanity, and international relations are restored (under the condition that we never let this shit happen again). We work with our allies and frenemies to take effective measures to dilute income inequality (Piketty recommends a global tax on capital), cut carbon emissions, prepare for the consequences of climate change that are already coming down the pipeline, and then everyone joins hands and sings "Get Together."

A bit of a pipe dream, isn't it? Hard to imagine that actually happening.

I'm inclined to suspect the worst-case scenario is more likely.

Imagine: Trump remains in office until 2024. (I'll leave the macabre circumstances to your imagination.) Eventually the United States regains a somewhat even keel, but the damage to the national economy and global stability has been done—and then all of a sudden, the effects of climate change come crashing down sooner and harder than anyone anticipated (barring the scientists who Trump silenced). Against a backdrop of fractured alliances and international distrust, the rising oceans overtake coastal cities, changing weather patterns disrupt agriculture and lead to food shortages, millions of displaced people migrate across borders. "Trade wars" should be the least of anyone's worries when resource wars are looming on the horizon.

There's also a chance of a shorter-term worst-case scenario. Globalization is not a linear process: it can advance, and it can recede. It's unlikely to recede today, since, again, the mechanism driving it forward has seven decades of gathered momentum behind it. But it could happen, and there is precedent for such a thing. The last time globalization was abruptly reversed, it was called World War I. Had you asked an expert in 1910 about the possibility of a war in Europe, he would have laughed at you. "The economies of Britain and Germany are too interconnected for them to start a serious fight with each other," he would have told you.

To quote the man whom President Trump appointed to oversee the United States' nuclear arsenal: "oops." I wonder if Trump will have the decency to stay "oops" if (and hopefully not when) his ego and from-the-hip vindictiveness get us entangled in an avoidable war in which pretty much everyone will come out the loser.

Both worst-case scenarios are possible, of course, one after the other. Another dark age would be the best outcome.

As usual, the best-case scenario is unlikely to happen. But I agree with Naomi Klein: "The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times." Donald Trump's presidency itself proves that "unlikely to happen" and "hard to imagine" don't equate to "impossible."

Let's see what week #2 brings and what we can do about it.

8 comments:

  1. It is important and heartening to me that there has been such an immediate revulsion and resistance to Trump. Not just against his general bigotry and endless displaces of narcissistic machismo, but especially against his policies as shown through the protests against his recent "Muslim ban". But to the extent that the left can resist and later shape a potential future after Trump, there are a couple of comments I want to make:

    1. It's important to remember that a lot of the support for Gamergate, and why it was intentionally used by figures like Milo Yiannopoulos as a platform for recruiting new conservatives, did not just come from alt-right types. The most sympathetic were reacting to the decadence of gaming media. Decadence where journalists would promote games by their friends and by people in their inner-circle that had the "correct" politics. Or the shallow, poorly researched feminism of Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu's dubious "Samus is trans" article not just being given space by the media, but promoted as revelatory and important (even if I do agree there are a lot of issues in game media and its culture). Not to mention the shutdowns of discussion on 4chan and reddit and the visible bullying coming from anti-gg as well as gg. It was a red pill moment that 4chan types like Internet Aristocrat and Breitbart seized upon very successfully.

    And the Clinton campaign was nothing if not the DNC's own decadence. The clearing the way of any meaningful competition by the DNC to ensure Clinton as their nominee, the hostile treatment of Sanders supporters and the manufactured Bernie Bros narrative by Clinton hacks, the voter suppression in New York, the endless pandering to Wall Street, the investigation by the FBI, the bizarre meeting between Bill Clinton and Loretta Lynch, the complete abandonment of labor and the midwest by the Clinton team, and finally - similar to Gamergate - the dismissal of all of these criticisms by claiming they're driven by bigotry and sexism. I don't doubt the ugly forces that degrade women in male spaces - or just spaces in general - and how they shaped many fears and hostility toward Hillary Clinton. But it is repelling when you feel your concerns are legitimate, and you're still lumped in with the troglodytes. It's very easy to get cynical about social justice when its arguments are used so recklessly, if not cynically, for their emotional power.

    And Gamergate is still a force (I would dispute that their battle has been lost, or that gaming culture has changed meaningfully in the last decade. If anything it's regressed in my mind, and probably less diverse in the mainstream), Trump has won the White House and is shaping policy, the Democrats barely have enough power to stop Constitutional Amendments, and suspicions toward feminism even on the left have never been higher. At the very least, I feel the left needs some rethinking here. Not everyone on the outside should be treated as a monster that doesn't deserve to be listened to. It would do a lot I think to deflate these movements before they have teeth to not immediately treat the other side as deplorables.

    (Part 1)

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    1. But it is repelling when you feel your concerns are legitimate, and you're still lumped in with the troglodytes. It's very easy to get cynical about social justice when its arguments are used so recklessly, if not cynically, for their emotional power.

      That's orthodoxy: you're either a believer or a heretic. And it SOUNDS TO ME LIKE YOU'RE TRYING TO TONE POLICE. Only saracens tone police.

      Not everyone on the outside should be treated as a monster that doesn't deserve to be listened to. It would do a lot I think to deflate these movements before they have teeth to not immediately treat the other side as deplorables.

      purism > realism. Didn't you get the memo?


      I have to agree with you on the "Samus is Trans" commotion. The whole thing was a whole lot of nonsense that a whole lot of people took a whole lot of seriously. (Gosh, I think I just figured out pop culture and pop cultural criticism.) It was fascinating to watch in a kind of structuralistic despair kind of way.

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  2. 2. I think you touched on this a bit in another post, but a large part of why the media is so ineffective in combating Trump is that they can't stop overreaching, and continue to degrade into tabloid sensationalism. Previously respectable outlets like Slate are a sea of endless clickbait headlines. Worse, escalating the fear of Trump is incentivized by clicks. So every Trump story under the sun is treated with the same serious weight by these institutions, from sexually assaulting women to scamming people with a fraudulent university to...plagiarizing a cake and getting upset over crowd sizes. If I may make one more comparison to Gamergate, as Techdirt noted it's was a mutually parasitic relationship. People obsessed with Trump/Gamergate obsess over every negative story, attracting clicks in the process, while inflating Trump/Gamergate ever larger and granting them more exposure and significance. Worse, in their rush to fear, many of the stories the media reports on Trump turns out to be false, and fairly blatantly too, which makes it harder to fight his own misinformation (see how ineffective the Fake News narrative has become). As popular media (meaning cable news, online magazines, etc) continues to race to the bottom with tabloid, vaguely culturally left fears about Trump, they make it harder to fight what's actually repelling about him.

    3. Finally, while much of what's awful about Trump is unique to him, a lot of what's awful is just him making explicit what was already implicit in the United States, something that figures like Greenwald and Freddie deBoer have already covered in some depth. Outrage about Trump when preceded by concerned indifference to stories like this are not a strong basis for a moral movement:

    https://theintercept.com/2017/01/30/obama-killed-a-16-year-old-american-in-yemen-trump-just-killed-his-8-year-old-sister/

    So I hope, as you said, we get more than the bland Democrat successor. Because we need to do better.

    (Part 2)

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    1. So every Trump story under the sun is treated with the same serious weight by these institutions, from sexually assaulting women to scamming people with a fraudulent university to...plagiarizing a cake and getting upset over crowd sizes. If I may make one more comparison to Gamergate, as Techdirt noted it's was a mutually parasitic relationship. People obsessed with Trump/Gamergate obsess over every negative story, attracting clicks in the process, while inflating Trump/Gamergate ever larger and granting them more exposure and significance.

      Schadenfreude sells. (Schadenfreude and pitched conspiracy theories, and good god, it's not just the right anymore.) Sad to say, I'm as guilty of buying as anyone else.

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  3. Michael Moore, in his canny prediction of a Trump win several months before the fact, made a list of the reasons why such occurrence was likely. One of them was "the last stand of the angry white man". Feeling alienated by the rising tides of globalisation, race and gender equality and many other progressive movements, a significant amount of white men had been festering their resent and lack of validation into a force to be reckoned. Given a candidate that represented the Ur-men they fancied themselves to be (or should, if other people stopped undermining their "rights"), it was unavoidable that they would jump to vote for him.

    A net positive, I believe from the whole Trump debacle, is that these angry men are coming out in droves from their metaphorical cabins in the wood. People who once felt shamed or threatened should they make public their noxious ideals now feel legitimised by the Man on the Chair who purportedly is just like them.

    People who may have been respected (or at least ignored) within their communities are fully coming into the spotlight and letting the world know about the hatred in their hearts. I've had the displeasure of interacting with a few of them and when pressed on the matter, they'll gleefully drop any pretence of civility and accept that they want full eradication not only of foreigners (or people different to them in other ways) but also of their fellow Americans who support them ("libs" in their pejorative words). When pressed even further about how can they go so far, their response have been frighteningly similar: "This is /war/, we must do what needs to."

    So yeah, these people know that this is their last stand and chance and that they need to use it to eliminate the opposition or things will revert to normal once Trump is out. Unfortunately for them, they don't realise that Trump is not a man with an agenda or ideology, but merely a validation-starved narcissist who'll abstain of supporting such "war" on half the American people, if only for the damage it would cause to his "brand".

    Then, once Trump is out and things go back to normal (or better, as the country recoils in disgust from those 4 years), all these people will have publicly outed themselves and won't be able to go back into their anonymous hating and plotting.

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    1. Here's hoping. But we'll see. Thanks to the Big Sort and Filter Bubble phenomena, the odds aren't terrible that these "angry white men" aren't going to go into exile anytime soon. They're already surrounded by likeminded (or at least tolerant) people. Trump country will stay Trump country for a good long while unless some seriously savvy outreach is conducted.

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  4. Aren't you working at a grocery store in your thirties? Sure sounds like you're one of the losers of globalism to me

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    1. (1) I am not working at a grocery store, actually.

      (2) The grocery store I worked at was Trader Joe's. Good company. They take care of their people.

      (3) I'm less a victim of globalization than a victim of poor life choices.

      (4) If working in a grocery store pays the bills, why should it be any more or any less shameful a job than mining or coding?

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