Postscript to future historians from Xmas 2016 (OAG #8)

[T]he facts are what they are — email server management, rather than any deeper or more profound root cause, was the dominant issue in Donald Trump’s successful rise to power.

The facts are what they are: Even intelligent, knowledgeable, sophisticated, and articulate writers for successful websites dedicated to usefully explaining events and issues for well-educated readers were, in America 2016, utterly incapable of usefully explaining events and issues for well-educated readers.

Matthew Yglesias apparently believes, as the sub-head in his Christmas Day article has it, that “Big events sometimes have small causes.” The notion is suggestive of chaos theory, which describes how small variations in initial conditions can sometimes produce radically outsized differences in eventual outcomes, but the situation in question is better evoked by the saying on straws and camel’s backs. Yglesias tweet for his post re-stated its conclusion, quoted above, even more illustratively:

The “hook” is precisely the absurdity – and self-inter-exponentiating meta-absurdity – of the notion it entails, and of the co-absurdifying and absurdified political culture and political system it reflects.

A nation that could be plunged into “profound crisis” in such a way must have been a nation profoundly vulnerable to crisis, or crisis of this type. In this instance, we would be compelled to conclude that something must have been (and very likely remains) profoundly wrong with a political culture or political media – of which Matthew Yglesias and Vox are, of course, typical parts – that could be dominated by an issue to be judged intrinsically trivial, and dominated to the point of determining eventual collective decisions of undoubted significance. The story’s criticial sub-story, of a massively important inane interaction of commercial media with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s announcement of a pending absurd federal re-investigation and eventual announcement of confirmation of absurdity opened another dimension of all-enveloping vacuum, a new sub-zone of indistinction between content and absence of content, of the even more importantly even more trivial factoid of factlessness.

Such profound disability, or disabling self-inanition, of a democratic or aspirationally democratic nation’s chief means – commercial means as well as governmental means, in perfectly incompetent collusion – of informing its citizenry, or of sustaining its capacity for government, or their or our capacity for self-government, would potentially exceed and – one would expect, as we appear to have experienced and would seem to have been experiencing and re-experiencing – very likely in actuality must exceed almost any particular issue in importance, not least because the significance to the citizenry of any issue, or the status for the citizenry of an issue as an issue, is dependent (at some point, in theory, entirely dependent) on such means of information or self-information.

The “email story” would stand in this sense as an appropriately empty or absurd vehicle for conveying the emptying or absurdification of stories in general. The email story’s lack of content would be its true content, and our inability to process it appropriately, as absurd, its true significance. Indeed, everything about this story or non-story story as biggest story points to our self-absurdity, our collective idiocy. That, as though in homage to the arch-conservative Joseph de Maistre, we have inflicted upon ourselves a true representative of one typical form or expression of effective non-sentience, rather than inflict upon ourselves the other nominee and true representative of a different form or expression of the same, may be interesting, and in the short term materially significant, but the real Big Story of 2016 would remain the prevailing utter unconsciousness as prevailing inability to become effectively conscious of the real Big Story of 2016, of that same all-inclusively all-exclusive utter unconsciousness, the Big Story of our our apparent profound incapacity for collective self-consciousness against our remnant belief or expectation that such collective self-consciousness, a necessary pre-condition for self-government, should be within our power, and not just within our power but after more than 200 years under popular sovereignty well within our power.

In this peculiar way this real true big “email story” – not the particular inanely particularized story of an obscure private email server about which nothing is understood by anyone despite collectively manically obsessive attention to every aspect of it, and its somehow deciding our destinies despite and because of its triviality, but the story of that story or the story of the story of that story and so on, infinitely very regressively – would be utterly the right story for us as we really are or as what we really have become: a world-historically important insubstantial motion in the direction of abject nullity and invincible self-ignorance. The real true big email story would be a story about non-communication or simply non-community on matters of policy in the information age, in the event expressed as sheer banality, compulsive dishonesty, and superficiality to the point of invisibility of and among our leaders or would-be leaders, especially in relation to a citizenry which shares identical qualities of lack of qualities, as indelibly conveyed moment by moment and year over year by its or our media – or the complete lack on the part of leaders and would-be leaders in this would-be constitutional republic, and of all the Popular Sovereign’s reporters and all the Popular Sovereign’s pundits, of insight into and connection with a mass of likewise benighted and disconnected, self-absent citizens.

For all of us, not just in the United States but especially here, the “information age” appears to have turned, as in fact often predicted, into the “nonsense age,” all facts flattened into congenitally equally absurd bits in an unimaginably vast, inexpressibly inexpressive cloud of them. This Big Event is also, however, not to be thought a cause, small or big, of what has transpired in the United State of America, for it must likewise be an effect, a realization via the digitization of communications, of a prior nullification of whatever could be or might have been communicated.

Leaving a much broader discussion aside, perhaps for future additional pointless re-consideration, we can venture here only speculatively that the cloud, or infosphere, has proven unbreathable. An onset of mass intellectual asphyxiation was certain, and will remain the “big” thing for politics and governance, with all of the big as well as small as well as simultaneously or alternatingly or interchangeably big as well as small causes gathered behind it.

Put differently, in the counterfactual format of which Voxian intellectuals are usually quite fond, if Hillary Rodham Clinton had won a close election but was left to face Republican-controlled government all around her, including a sizable mass of voters who deemed her and her people irredeemably corrupt and even murderously evil, the prospects for progressive good governance under her presidency would have been minimal. Given past history, it seems very likely that we would collectively-idiotically have held all failures against her, discounted her political successes and blamed her when they were sabotaged, put the inevitable effects of our own incoherence regarding domestic and foreign policy at her feet, and have remained profoundly vulnerable to accepting or opting for even the most idiotic and incredible promise of a change for the better or of any change at all next time around, presuming there was one. Whether whatever event or issue deemed most proximate to the likely eventual shiftless shift to that other idiocy was intrinsically trivial or intrinsically important could not matter less, or, to say the same thing, could not matter more.

Merry Christmas.


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Trump actually congratulated Erdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.

Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.

For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:

  1. Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
  2. Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
  3. The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
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He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...

There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.

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As they war with the right, though, Trump and Kushner would gain no quarter from Democrats—unless Democrats were allowed to set the all the terms. This is Bannon’s central point. Democrats have no incentive to prop up Trump’s presidency for half-loaf compromises that many will suspect are contaminated with seeds of Trumpism. Trump can adopt or co-opt the Democrats’ infrastructure platform outright if he likes, but he can’t easily entice them to compromise with him, and he can’t entice House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to advance a trillion dollar direct-spending bill filled with environmental and labor protections that the GOP exists to oppose.

Which is just to say, Kushner wants Trump to chart a new course that leads to a substantive dead end for at least another 19 months. Bannon’s path, at least, preserves the hope of keeping his base consolidated through the legislative ebb. He can deregulate, scapegoat, and unburden law enforcement to turn his Herrenvolk fantasy into reality—all while keeping congressional investigators at bay.

There’s no real logical rebuttal to this, except to point to three months of chaos and humiliation as indicative of the futility of continuing to do things Bannon’s way. That is really an argument that Trump should get rid of both of his top advisers, but Trump is unlikely to grasp that in a contest between loyalists, both might deserve to lose. Family loyalty, and the beating his ego will take when the stories of his first 100 days are written, will pull him toward his son-in-law. And that’s when the real fun will begin.

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State of the Discussion

+ Wade, your last paragraph is crucial to your argument. Certainly it expresses economically the source of the weight of a country's foreign policy, and [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
CK MacLeod
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ Not sure where you got the idea that I ever wrote “[President Trump] doesn’t know what he’s doing!!!!!!" - bob's idea for a possible rallying [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic
Wade McKenzie
Comments this threadCommenter Archive
+ The conversation that you and Bob were having at the time that I wrote my comment had everything to do with the recent missile strike [. . .]
Jeffrey Goldberg: The Obama Doctrine, R.I.P. – The Atlantic

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