The revolt of the public and the rise of Donald Trump

Donald Trump

The Political Apparition

Like the phantom at the feast, Donald Trump materialized at the head of the Republican presidential race without anyone quite knowing how he got there.  Once we overcame our embarrassment over his unexpected arrival, however, we haven’t been able to stop talking about the man.  He needs to be explained.  A veritable army of professional Trump explainers has thus been mustered into action.  He needs to be criticized.  A raging mob of Trump debunkers now howls by torchlight under the castle walls – comparing him, quite literally, to Frankenstein’s monster, but also, of course, to Hitler.

The extraordinary obsession with the higher meaning of Trump is as bewildering in its own way as his success.

It so happens that a number of people whose opinions I respect have brought up The Revolt of the Public in connection with the Trump phenomenon.  Virginia Postrel, Arnold Kling, and Tyler Cowen, among others, have suggested that Trump’s abrupt appearance on the threshold of power becomes less perplexing in the context of the sociopolitical conflict I described in the book.  Unhappily, I’m inclined to agree:  and that entails the responsibility to draw out the implications.

If, as I suspect, Trump is a blunt objet trouvé, an accidental instrument wielded by the public against the political institutions of the industrial age, then two additional propositions are likely to be true.  First, the public’s temper has moved much closer to nihilism than anyone not wholly deranged by conspiracy theories could have imagined.  Second, the disintegration of the institutions of American democracy has proceeded much faster than I, at least, would have thought possible.

The trouble with such assertions, of course, is that we’re dealing with a fast-evolving, vastly complex set of human relations, caught in the fever heat of political conflict, amid the muddle of events.  Analysis is hardly likely to be conclusive.  What follows, then, is not finished analysis, and is only indirectly another attempt to classify Trump as if he were an exotic new species of insect blown in from the rain forest.

My subject is the sickness of democracy in our country, which appears to have taken a dangerous turn for the worse since I wrote the last pages of The Revolt of the Public.

The Empty Vessel

A meticulous study of Donald Trump’s biography, statements, and policy “positions” will reveal no hint of political direction.  It’s not that Trump is contradictory or incoherent.  He’s ideologically formless.  His claim to business competence is nullified by inherited wealth and several bankruptcies.  His supposed nationalism consists of complaining about countries in which he has invested his own money (“I love China, but…”).  He’s going to make America great again – yet that’s a wish, not a program.  A run at the US presidency has been concocted out of a disorganized bundle of will and desire.

A candidate deprived of direction can only drift on the stream of public opinion.  Or to flip that around:  the dizzying rise of Trump can best be understood as the political assertion of a newly energized public.  Trump has been chosen by this public, for reasons I’ll have cause to examine, and he is the visible effect, not the cause, of this public’s surly and mutinous mood.  To make him into an American Hitler or a world-historical figure of any sort, let me suggest, would be to distort reality as on a funhouse mirror.

The right level of analysis on Trump isn’t Trump, but the public that endows him with a radical direction and temper, and the decadent institutions that have been too weak to stand in his way.

The American public, like the public everywhere, is engaged in a long migration away from the structures of representative democracy to more sectarian arrangements.  In Henri Rosanvallon’s term, the democratic nation has devolved into a “society of distrust.”  The reasons, Rosanvallon argues, are deep and structural, but we also have available a simple functional explanation:  the perception, not always unjustified, that democratic government has failed to deliver on its promises.

The public, I mean to say, cares a lot about outcomes and not so much about the legitimacy of the ballot box or the authority of elected officials.  And if the outcomes demanded are a tangle of contradictions that divide the public, the sense of being betrayed and abandoned by “protected classes” is shared across large majorities of mutually hostile persuasions.  The landscape in a society of distrust tilts steeply toward repudiation:  everyone, at all times, wants to stand against.

For this descent into reflexive negation, President Obama bears a measure of responsibility.  To the president, the democratic process is legitimate if, and only if, it promotes the advancement of progressive ideals.  Otherwise democracy is really manipulation.  In the heat of partisan battle, with the outcome in doubt, he has felt free to lash out at the system for being corrupt, racist, sexist, socially and economically unjust, and unworthy of his support.

By shrinking democracy to partisan dimensions, the president has extended an invitation to mayhem that far more radical characters than Barack Obama could hardly refuse.

Among them are the social justice warriors who have sought to budge the president leftward and now incline to Bernie Sanders.  The logic of the moment, however, more fiercely agitates Tea Partiers, evangelists, “alt conservatives,” and others on the right who find the status quo intolerable.  These groups tap into energy flowing away from the preferences and even the personality of the sitting president.  Repudiation, in their case, takes a special form that benefits Trump:  the search for the anti-Obama.

As for the specific issues under debate in the primaries – immigration, the economy, terrorism – their importance to the public is uncertain.  Exit polls have jumped all over the place.  Take Trump’s apparent signature wedge issue:  immigration.  There’s little evidence that it is an abiding obsession for Trump voters, and some evidence that it falls somewhat down the list of their concerns.  The same holds true for economic problems and terror.  These topics can hold the public’s attention, but don’t seem decisive to its voting choices.

My guess is that they are tokens of distance – of that sense of betrayal and abandonment by the institutions of government.  Ordinary people, for example, are not allowed to maintain that immigration might be connected to crime, or job loss, or terrorism.  Such opinions are condemned as racist and placed beyond the pale of political discussion.  If you happen to hold them, you are effectively silenced.  A majority of Trump supporters agree with the following statement:  “people like me don’t have any say in what the government does.”

Distance is decisive.  The transcendent aim of the revolt of the public, everywhere around the globe, has been to smash the elites and the institutions down from the protected heights, by whatever means necessary, regardless of the consequences.  So far, the US presidential elections of 2016 appear to be no exception.

The Lord of Attention

The attitudes just described are pervasive.  They cut across ideological and demographic boundaries.  Their relevance to the rise of Trump should be placed in perspective, however:  he has received slightly more than a third of the 20 million votes cast in Republican primaries so far.  He hasn’t yet been anointed maximum leader of the revolution.

But he is, politically, a stranger in a strange land, a man from nowhere who may soon become standard-bearer for the party of true world-historical figures like Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower – who may, conceivably, become president of the United States and so the most powerful person in the world.  Such fantastic improbabilities lead us to the obvious question.  Granted the zeitgeist of negation and repudiation, the failure of the institutions and the bad mood of the public:  why Donald Trump?

I’m not a fan of cosmic, single-cause explanations.  Let me offer instead a hypothesis about what I believe to be the most significant factor in the public’s reconstruction of Trump into a phantom of revolt.  The hypothesis comes in two parts:  one an indisputable fact, the other a lot more speculative.

The fact is this:  since June 2015, when he announced his candidacy, Trump has received massive, probably unprecedented, levels of media attention.  Though he has spent less on media ads than his Republican opponents, he has benefited from coverage so vastly more intense that the other candidates, by comparison, have suffocated from lack of exposure.  When it comes to television coverage, for example, the primary election season at times has felt like a contest between Trump and silence.

trump media chart 2The same disproportion held true in digital media.

trump web chart edited

So the question we should pose is what the effects might be of such immoderate levels of attention.  Academic scholars, as it happens, have studied that question for decades.

According to media agenda-setting research, volume of discussion about a topic must climb above a specific awareness threshold before it can enter the consciousness of the public.  Below that level the topic simply doesn’t exist.  The charts show Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump’s chief opponents, drowning deep below the awareness threshold.  They and their messages were largely nonexistent to the public.

To the degree that volume of discussion rises above the awareness threshold, the topic discussed becomes increasingly important to the public.  A Palestinian victim of violence, for example, will appear more important than a Congolese victim, because media coverage will favor one and ignore the other.  If this principle is valid, and I believe it is, then in 2015 Donald Trump exploded into the consciousness of the American public as an event of cosmic significance:  a media Big Bang.  The political consequences were equally explosive and are not in doubt.

trump media chart 1

The media fixated on Trump for a pretty straightforward reason:  he represented high ratings and clickbait.  The news business is desperate for an audience and willing to trade whatever remains of its authority for that mess of potage.  The web is an eternal shouting match between sectarian war-bands hungry for attention:  the outrageous Trump, as object of digital frenzy, lifted their game to a whole new level.

Media people pumped the helium that elevated Donald Trump’s balloon, and they did so from naked self-interest.  This has been widely noted – by now, it’s the favorite Theory of Trump among the commentariat.  Although true so far as it goes, it begs a whole series of questions:  for example, just how did Trump become such a magnet for high ratings and clickbait?  Why the fascination?  What separates him so sharply from the other candidates, in the eyes of both the public and the media?

Here we come to the more speculative bit of my hypothesis.

In American politics, Trump is a peacock among dull buzzards.  That should be apparent to anyone with eyes to see.  The one discernible theme of his life has been the will to stand out:  to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there.  He has clearly succeeded.  The data above speaks to a world-class talent for self-promotion.  The media noticed, and just kept the cameras aimed at the extravagant performance – allowing Trump to represent himself to the public, a rare commodity for a politician.  And the public, in its mood of negation, its hostility to the established order, also noticed.  Trump lacked a political past.  He was glamorous and a winner – he looked different and acted different.

He also sounded different from other politicians.  The most significant factor separating Trump from the pack, I believe, is rhetorical.  Trump is a master of the nihilist style of the web.  His competitors speak in political jargon and soaring generalities.  He speaks in rant.  He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes.  Everyone he dislikes is a liar, “a bimbo,” “bought and paid for.”  Without batting an eyelash, he will compare an opponent to a child molester.  Such rhetorical aggression is shocking in mainstream American politics but an everyday occurrence on the political web, where death threats and rape threats against a writer are a measure of the potency of the message.

The “angry voter” Trump supposedly has connected with is really an avatar of the mutinous public:  and this is its language.  It too speaks in rant, inchoate expression of a desire to remake the world by smashing at it, common parlance of the political war-bands that populate Tumblr, Gawker, reddit, and so many other online platforms.  By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the US electoral process.

I’m amazed by the rapidity with which this moment has arrived:  that we have come to it, however, will surprise no one who has been paying attention.

The Conquistador of Ruins

Trump has warned of “riots” if he is denied the nomination, but this seems unlikely.  The public that picked him up and now wields him like a sledgehammer against the status quo has never been deeply involved in his campaign.  There have been few spontaneous Trump events, websites, or online riffs – nothing equivalent to “Obama girl,” for example, or the social media activism that inspired protests in Spain, Israel, Venezuela, and elsewhere.  A Trump “occupation” sounds like a contradiction in terms.  Beyond the demographics of his supporters, Trump himself is the occupier:  he’s taken over all the available political space.  The news media aims its cameras at him, personally, because he’s the one who delivers the audience.  In social media, Trump has utilized his Twitter account, which had millions of followers before he became a candidate, to dominate digital buzz by the sheer outrageousness of his personal style.

The Trump uprising is less an eruption from below than an improvised performance, a demonstration of what is now possible for the public to accomplish.  Italy’s Five Star Movement, which became the second-largest political party behind a popular entertainer and blogger, Beppe Grillo, may serve as a reasonable parallel.

Put differently, the Trump candidacy is a test of democracy in America in 2016.  The public is agitated and willing to vote for this strange and formless man.  It is not directly engaged.  The structures of democracy, on the flip side, appear to be near collapse.  What should have been a brutal collision against unyielding institutions has turned into a strut over a landscape darkened by colossal ruins.  The news business is dying and desperate.  The primary elections are a crazy quilt of contradictory rules.  The Republican Party, by all appearances, is more of a historical memory than a living organization.

Donald Trump, anti-establishment wrecker, has been fortunate in his moment.  In 1960, 1980, even 2000, there would have been an establishment to oppose him.  In 2015, the putative establishment champion was Jeb Bush.  He had been away from elected office for nine years, “a longer downtime than any president elected since 1852 (and any candidate since 1924).”  The Republican worthies who endorsed and promoted him had been out of office for an average of 11 years.  If this once was the party’s establishment, it’s now a claque of political corpses.  The Bush candidacy, in brief, was a dance of the dead, and the Republican Party, at the national level at least, stands revealed as a ruinous graveyard over which nearly anyone, fitting any description, can lay claim.

The Revolt of the Public has been accused, with uncertain justice, of advancing a bleak vision of our political reality.  In that spirit, I want to conclude with a dismal observation.  At present, the leading candidates for the presidency are Trump and Hillary Clinton.  One is a reckless smasher of institutions.  The other is a fossilized specimen of the remote and protected elites.  Both are creatures of the society of distrust, divisive to an extreme degree.

So my observation is this:  regardless of who wins, the 2016 presidential election is shaping up to be just another episode in the grinding social conflict and disintegration of industrial forms that have defined our age.  Nothing much, I fear, will be decided.

Posted in democracy, the public | 62 Comments

Portrait of the nihilist as the sum of our negations

[I am re-posting this chapter of  The Revolt of the Public because it seems all too pertinent to our present electoral moment.]

What is this uncanny beast, born of the Fifth Wave and now stalking into the uncertain future?  After all the talk of public and authority, of network and hierarchy, where – you ask – does he fit in?

Above all, he is seized and animated by a very particular feeling.  I will characterize this feeling more explicitly later:  here, let me begin by saying that it partakes of alienation.  The world of the nihilist does not belong to the nihilist.  It belongs to the forces of selfishness and to repulsive people.

He considers his elected government to be a thing apart, and beneath contempt.  That is the view from below.  George W. Bush told him that the invasion of Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, but none were found there.  Barack Obama explained to him that the stimulus would cap unemployment, but millions more lost their jobs.  Jose Luis Zapatero refused even to mention the word “crisis” to him, while economic disaster ravaged Spain.  I called these episodes failures of government, but that is not how the nihilist sees them.  He thinks his rulers are liars and cheats, and he fills the web with angry rants on the subject.

He can do that because he’s extremely well connected, in the current sense of that word.  He’s Homo informaticus run amok.  At the high end of his communications skills, he might be a hacker in Anonymous, vandalizing Sony’s corporate database.  At the low end, he could be a young rioter coordinating a looting expedition on his messaging service.  The nihilist comes to life through his digital devices.  Without them he would sink to a condition identical to nothingness:  he would be silent.  Instead, he is fantastically well informed about those few odd topics that obsess him, and he produces a torrent of hard-core negations posted about the world around him.

Being connected, the nihilist is networked.  He can link to others just as destructive as him, and bring them together in a flash of real-time mayhem.  And there are always others:  the nihilist isn’t one but many.  He belongs with the public when he’s interested in an affair, as sometimes he is, but his predilections are sectarian to an absolute extreme.  He is morbidly, monstrously, against.  He imagines he would be happy, if the society in which he lives were wiped out tomorrow.

In politics, this impulse pushes him way beyond rejection or revolt.  The nihilist is a political black hole, allowing no light or mass to escape his violent embrace.  Yet he’s not a professional agitator, as he surely would have been in the last century.  He’s a private person, an amateur in politics moving among other amateurs.  Nihilism, in him, isn’t a full-time job – it’s a latent condition.  It erupts on a case by case basis.  The fuse might be lit by some news on his Twitter stream about the war in Afghanistan or the flood of immigrants into his country.  Or he might just reach a tipping point in that all-consuming feeling that partakes so much of alienation.  Then he becomes what he is:  an agent of annihilation.

In the assembly of protesters, his is the loud, irreconcilable voice.  In the peaceful demonstration, his is the hand heaving a Molotov cocktail through the shop window.  In confrontation with police, he is eager to shed blood.  In online forums, he is fertile with ideas to hack, expose, paralyze the institutions that run the world.  He is the bomber, the random shooter:  a terrorist without a cause.

I could go on.  He is possessed by a fuzzy but apocalyptic sense of doom, for example.  The world, he holds, is going to wreck and ruin.  To push it along is the best thing.  The government could fix everything and solve our problems if it tried – for all his alienation, the nihilist is convinced of that, and the most persuasive evidence he has of government corruption is that life keeps getting worse.

But enough:  I want to get to the heart of the matter.  I am arguing here that the nihilist haunts democratic politics like a specter portending disaster, but I don’t believe the most significant factor pertains to what he is, or what he thinks, or even what he has done.  The disquieting truth about his emergence is where he comes from.  The threat to the future, if there is such, originates in his past.

The nihilist benefits prodigiously from the system he would like to smash. He’s not marginalized – not a street person, not a forsaken soul, not a persecuted minority.  He stands in a very different relation to the established order than did, say, an industrial worker in Victorian England or a Catholic in Communist Poland.  He’s not a sufferer in any sense, whether relative to historical standards or to the world today.  On meeting him, you would not recognize him as someone alien to you.  Talking to him, I would not necessarily think that he’s a different type of person from me.  In the way such things get reckoned today – statistically, in the gross – he is you and me.

The mortal riddle posed by the nihilist is that he’s a child of privilege.  He’s healthy, fit, long-lived, university-educated, articulate, fashionably attired, widely traveled, well-informed.  He lives in his own place or at worst in his parents’ home, never in a cave.  He probably has a good job and he certainly has money in his pocket.  In sum, he’s the pampered poster boy of a system that labors desperately to make him happy, yet his feelings about his life, his country, democracy – the system – seethe with a virulent unhappiness.

Feelings of this sort compelled Daphni Leef to pitch her tent on Rothschild Boulevard to demand the destruction of “swinish capitalism.”  She came from an affluent family.  She was a film school graduate and held a job as a video editor.  Compared to most people anywhere or anytime, hers was a privileged life.  Yet she seethed with a sense of injustice because he couldn’t afford her old apartment.  She felt the system was fundamentally rapacious, and she would bring it down to shorten her commute.  “We all deserve more,” was her one commandment.  In the clouded mind of the nihilist, that “more” stretched infinitely toward utopia.

Similar feelings drove the “neither-nor” indignados to turn their backs on representative democracy.  Historically, Spain had recently emerged from poverty and military dictatorship, and the current generation, even after the crash of 2008, was the wealthiest, best educated, and socially and politically freest the country had known.  Yet those who raised the banner of “neither-nor” seethed with an irreconcilable feeling of grievance:  like Leef, they felt they deserved infinitely more, and were willing to tear down a system that had failed to give it to them.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship.  “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

So here we have a privileged class in revolt against itself.  Here we have the beneficiaries of democracy loathing democracy and clamoring for its demise, even without an alternative in sight.  Like the character in the cartoon, the nihilist hates the knotty branch on which he sits, and conceives the idea that it should be sawed off.  Does he know he will plunge to earth and break his neck?  Maybe he does know:  nihilism is a suicide pact.  Or, possibly, does he think he will levitate on the air, defying the laws of gravity?  Maybe he does think this way:  nihilism is a call for the obliteration of history, and, at its most obdurate, a declaration of war on cause and effect.

I ask you to ponder the words of the young indignada I just cited.  She said her parents were grateful for electoral democracy.  Her generation was the first to make a virtue of ingratitude.  José Ortega y Gasset, a fellow Spaniard, once discerned a “radical ingratitude” in the type of modern person he called “mass man” and portrayed as the spoiled child of history.  Mass man is heir to a long and brilliant past.  The good things in life in the world he was born into – security, freedom, wealth, vacations to warm places – are in fact the outcome of a specific historical process, but mass man doesn’t see it that way.  Newly risen to education and prosperity, he imagines himself liberated from the past, and has grown hostile to it as to any limiting factor.  The good things in life have always been there.  They seem detached from human effort, including his own, so he takes them as given, part of the natural order, like the air he breathes.  Gratitude would be nonsensical.  Mass man accepts the gifts of the system as his due, but will tear up that system root and branch, present and past, if the least of his desires is left unfulfilled.

The nihilist is by no means identical to Ortega’s mass man, but both share certain family traits.  More accurately than alienation, a radical ingratitude describes the feeling that makes the nihilist tick.  His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless.  He expects perfection.  He insists on utopia.  He has, in Ortega’s words, “no experience of his own limits,” at least not as something he should accept in good grace.  Every encounter with the human condition, every social imperfection and government failure, triggers the urge to demolish.  Fortified by the conviction that he deserves more, he feels unconquerably righteous in his ingratitude – a feeling sometimes validated by late modernist governments bent on the promotion of universal happiness.

All this matters only diagnostically:  as a symptom of a sickness of the system.  The way I have characterized him, the nihilist looks to be a blurry figure, a part-timer lacking a program or an organization.  He might be networked but he is also nameless.  The riddle he poses is whether, in any sense, under any combination of events, he could gain enough momentum to damage or wreck the democratic process.

The answer shouldn’t be difficult to arrive at.  Follow the thread of this book to one possible conclusion, and you will be there.

The nihilist, it seems to me, isn’t necessarily an alienated individual, a clever “V” figure behind a Guy Fawkes mask, bent on blowing up the status quo.  A lone-wolf attacker like Anders Breivik, who killed 77 random persons in Norway because he hated immigrants, is only a glimpse, a warning, of more horrific possibilities.  From the evidence of the preceding chapters, it should be clear that the bundle of destructive impulses I have called the nihilist represents a latent tendency in the public in revolt.  Potentially, he is a multitude.  Under certain conditions, he could be you.

Every public in the story I have told mobilized from a privileged position.  That was true materially, politically, morally.  None were paupers.  None were pariahs.  The public was constituted in this condition:  it did nothing to achieve it other than appear on the scene.  The protesters in Tahrir Square were the sons and daughters of the well-off Egyptian middle class.  They were born to privilege.  The indignados, offspring of the first generation in Spain to rise out poverty and tyranny, cherished the ambitious expectations of a privileged class.  Tea Partiers, Occupiers, protesters in Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine – all wielded negation as a birthright.  Command of the information sphere, distinguishing feature of our moment, was bestowed on the public by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Born to privilege, the public must maintain some relationship to the institutions and individuals that raised it out of necessity and bondage.  If the past is acknowledged, that relationship must be one of indebtedness.  The Romans littered their homes with carved images of illustrious ancestors.  But when, as is the case today, the public rejects history and longs to start again from zero, its relationship to the institutions that sustain it will be one of radical ingratitude.  Once privilege is felt to be natural, a matter of birth rather than previous effort, the phantom that is the nihilist becomes flesh in the rebellious public – and any failure, any fall from perfection, will ignite a firestorm of discontent.

I called this a latent condition.  Latency has been sometimes actualized – this book can be read as a series of variations on that theme.  From above, governments have failed habitually, and are doomed to fail while they continue to promise the impossible.  The public, from below, has seized on each failure to batter the ruling institutions, on occasion with a nihilistic contempt for the consequences.  In between, attempting to mediate the conflict, stand the clumsy mechanisms of representative democracy.  The answer to the riddle of the nihilist, I said, wasn’t particularly difficult to arrive at.  Those who worry about the future of democracy – and I count myself in that number – have good reason to do so.

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Foreign policy in the age of the Fifth Wave

refugee riot.jpg

Foreign policy during the industrial age was conducted in great secrecy between governments which claimed to embody the nation.  For the purposes of global politics, the US government was the United States.  In reality, of course, elites and large bureaucracies ran the government:  but their will was the general will, and their interests became ipso facto the national interest.

From this claim of identity flowed the extraordinary powers of modern government.  It held all the meaningful information on any foreign policy question, and it could, at a moment’s notice, as a chit in the global game, mobilize entire populations and requisition the material resources of the nation.  The model was top down, like factory management.  The bottom of the social pyramid largely acquiesced in the symbolic claims of the top.  Most Americans a generation ago would have agreed that, when dealing with the world, their government was the United States.

The assumptions and conditions that made this system possible have been swept away by that colossal cataclysm I call the Fifth Wave of information.


Secrecy is gone.  In the age of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks, negotiations with foreign governments must be conducted before a surly domestic public.  Every point yielded brings an avalanche of criticism – but so does failure to conclude a deal.  The situation resembles that of the heroes of Star Wars, who are stuck between the crushing walls of a compactor.  Governments escape from this dangerous predicament by seeking isolation from their publics or dealing in bad faith.

In the old system, revolutionary regimes turned foreign policy into a propaganda weapon.  Today, relations between perfectly conservative governments must often be conducted on a propaganda footing.

The legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the public is gone.  The old social contract depended on a silent, passive public.  That time is over.  The public, which now commands the strategic heights over the information landscape, looks on government and sees only failure, and interprets failure in terms of elite conspiracy and corruption.  On foreign and domestic policy alike, nothing can be hidden and nothing is forgiven.

The ruling elites are demoralized and unwilling to lead where no one will follow.  Their natural instinct is to pretend to “do something” while maintaining a defensive crouch.  The French government’s “war” against the Islamic State and the US government’s unsigned “agreement” with Iran exemplify this pattern.  In both cases, theater has trumped reality, and worst-case scenarios have been pushed to the future, to become someone else’s headache, rather than being dealt with now.

The traumatic crack-up with the elites has driven the public to levels of hostility and negation that border on nihilism.  Governments will be tempted to follow the same dangerous path in foreign affairs:  targeting enemies for the public to rally against.  Vladimir Putin has done so with Ukraine, Adbel Fattah al-Sisi with the Muslim Brotherhood:  the two men are hard authoritarians responsible for broken economies, yet both are immensely popular – at least as of the present moment.

In the chaotic aftermath of the Fifth Wave, foreign policy will be driven by tactical considerations within a combustible environment.  Timid governments that favor theatrical postures will tempt aggressive governments engaged in enemy-mongering.

The dissolution of the top-down model means that no government can know the fateful hour when the public will secede.  None wish to put the matter to the test:  mobilization on an industrial scale hasn’t occurred for decades.  At the same time, mobilization on a micro and tribal basis is a fact of everyday life today – sometimes virtually, in advocacy groups like the Save Darfur Coalition, but just as often in bloody reality, as a glance at the horrors in Syria and the Islamic State should illustrate.

This ability of small-scale units to mobilize is a symptom of a deeper, more consequential change.


Even the integrity of the nation is gone.  The public in the industrial age was herded into masses that obliterated significant differences of interest and opinion.  Elites insisted on a particular standard of identity:  either national or alien, that is, belonging to people and places under their jurisdiction or to those beyond their reach.  Since they monopolized power and attention, the arbitrariness and artificiality of the system was noticed by few.

But elites and the institutions they control no longer monopolize much of anything.  The great reversal in the information balance of power has allowed the public to fracture along the lines of its true interests, and to pursue, with obsessive dedication, its favorite causes.  Vital communities, organized around some topic of abiding passion, form, dissolve, and re-form at the speed of light, without regard for national borders or national governments.  Often, the shared fascination concerns events in the world.

The political war-bands mobilized by these causes ride the digital whirlwind, but also have at their disposal the machinery and technology of the industrial age.  They can communicate and organize instantly across the globe, and they can travel there in large numbers if they so wish it.  To their eyes, the world looks very unlike the geopolitical map:  nothing is fully national, nothing is really alien.  In their minds, the line drawn by the elites between foreign policy and domestic politics has lost all meaning.

British, French, and Belgian nationals are among the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have joined the Islamic State.  They belong to a vital community that cuts across borders on behalf of a transcendental cause.  In the old days, they might have done so clandestinely.  Today, they post jihad selfies.  Their actions take place on center stage, where all can see:  for Europe’s governments, they represent an internal security crisis and a foreign policy catastrophe in the Middle East.

Syrian, Iraqi, and Libyan nationals are in the hundreds of thousands streaming toward Europe.  Panicked governments and media in the continent have labeled the wanderers “refugees” – but the term, I think, is misleading.  This human tidal wave has been mobilized at the micro level, among local communities that ride the cell phone and digital communications to evade the flimsy barriers erected by European governments.  The people involved aren’t passively pleading for refuge:  they self-righteously demand satisfaction for their cause.  Demographically, they appear identical to the east-bound IS fighters – young and mostly male – only headed in the opposite direction.  Their sudden appearance inside Europe’s borders, result of a foreign policy disaster, may well shatter whatever remains of the European Union’s political integrity.

The forces of negation have driven ruling elites to seek shelter in transnational and international organizations that serve as scapegoats for failure.  Elites have also tried to restore their broken authority by striking poses of moral superiority, as in the immigration question, or by pretending to stand between the public and doomsday, as with climate change.  The public is having none of it.  The flight of national governments into transnational hiding-places has ignited a powerful and contrary movement among the governed.  The war-bands at the vanguard of this movement have been labeled “nationalist” – but this too is a misleading term.

Groups like the Sweden Democrats and UKIP are uninterested in the greater glory of the nation.  They have no wish to see Sweden or Britain cut a more heroic figure in the world.  Instead they stand firmly against.  They are against the EU.  They are against immigrants.  Above all, they are against their national elites, whose pious vacillations they perceive to be self-serving and public-destroying.

That’s how vital communities are mobilized today:  by negation.  They rally forever against.  Pushed to the extreme, negation becomes nihilism – the barbarian’s faith that destruction is a form of progress.  The jackhammering of antiquities by the IS, and the soccer hooliganism of Golden Dawn in Greece, are just two of many current examples of this temper in action.

I find it hard to imagine that such suicidal urges can come anywhere close to the levers of power in democratic countries.  However, a resurrected Caliphate once seemed like a zealot’s pipe dream.  Given enough failure from the top, a radical convulsion at the bottom must be considered a possibility.  Since revolution, on the mass movement model, is now obsolete, doomsday by absolute nihilist negation will assume the aspect of a political ideal.


While elites temporize, the initiative has passed to an unruly public.  The only consequential battles over foreign policy occur between vital communities on the warpath in pursuit of a sacred cause.  Such advocacy is often conducted in coordination with foreign groups and in defiance of national policy.

Pro-Palestinian students at elite US universities have sought to punish Israel, a US ally.  Pro-Israeli groups maneuvered an address to Congress by the Israeli prime minister, against the wishes of the sitting American president.  The incapacity of central government to impose its will on events could scarcely have been more clearly demonstrated.

As the solidarity of the nation fractures along a thousand slivers, the authority of government bleeds out of a thousand cuts.  Government still offers a stage for elites to strut on, and acts as employment service for millions:  but it’s a body without a soul.  In global politics as in much else, the actions of government often resemble those of a movie zombie:  a loud but aimless staggering about that often achieves the opposite of what was intended.

Government agents patrol the border but somehow the “alien” hordes pour in.  Government officials inspect visa applicants but miss the irreconcilable enemy.  The female shooter at San Bernardino received three separate background checks from immigration officials, and then was waved in.  François Hollande called for “vigilance” after an Islamist attack in Paris, but a second attack came and was ten times deadlier.

Governments are responsible for the established order of the world – the framework of nations – but order has collapsed in the Middle East, and nations there are cracking apart, in blood and misery, before the advance of sectarian war-bands.  The butcher’s bill was 100,000 deaths for 2014 alone.

In fact, the world order cobbled together in 1945 and 1991 has been battered beyond the possibility of repair.  Now there is only world disorder.  The US government, protector and guarantor of the old system, is consumed by its own negations and in full retreat from responsibility.  The European democracies are also in flight from a dangerous world.  The void has been filled by governments adept at enemy-mongering – Russia, Iran, North Korea – and by a vast patchwork of vital communities infused with a zeal for holy war.

A new system of global power is thus likely to be more hostile toward the democratic principle.  But no new system is in sight, nor do the laws of history mandate that one emerge.  Deepening and prolonged disorganization is a possibility.  Such a chaotic geopolitical environment would favor small, fast units of action over lumbering institutions.  It is that confrontation, in any case, that imparts to our moment its peculiar turbulence and unpredictability.

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Staring into the pit: The European malady

angela merkle


Even after two world wars, the nations of Europe were a force to be reckoned with.

Seventy years ago, the European democracies joined the United States in an Atlantic Alliance that held off the imperial advance of the Soviet Union.  Fifty years later, after the collapse of communism, these nations stood side by side with us in forging the world order that followed the Cold War.  That order was to be democratic, prosperous, and free.

Today Europe is indeed far wealthier and freer than at any time in its long history.  It should be proportionately more powerful as well:  but that is not how matters stand.  Europe’s governments fail abjectly in many of their primal duties.  Europe’s elites seem afflicted by a strange political pathology.  They wish, desperately, to reinvent harsh reality according to their subjective fantasies.

And their fantasies are all about atoning for the sins of their fathers, in a world that is fraternal rather than democratic, placid rather than free.

NATO, the European Union, the immigration question, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the bloody chaos close at hand in the Middle East – on each, the European governments, jointly and alone, have taken the path of least resistance and of short-term comfort.  Ugly truths are met with uncomprehending silence.  All arguments lead to inaction.  Even the gestures that substitute for action appear ridiculous and confused.

This is the final episode of a series in which I stare into the pit of geopolitical hell, and faithfully report what I find there.  The first two concerned American abdication.  That remains in the background – but here I tell the story of how democratic Europe, forsaken by the US, has been unable to save itself from a rare, debilitating malady.


Let me use the immigration question as a stand-in for all the indecisions that afflict Europe today.  The symptoms are largely the same.

Start with France, which in 2015 endured two major Islamist attacks, both in Paris, city of light.  Some of the perpetrators were Arab immigrants, but most were second-generation:  the children of immigrants, French citizens, French speakers, able to navigate confidently in the society they wished to destroy.  Their defection, no less than the atrocities they committed, posed a terrible question for the French ruling elites.

The answer was silence and denial.  In France, democracy and equality entail fraternité – the magic bond that holds together, in common purpose, all the citizens of the republic.  Clearly, that bond was already shattered in the case of the second-generation terrorists and the milieu that supported them.  They had sworn allegiance to the Caliphate and turned their backs on the tricolor.

Yet this was unthinkable to the French elites, literally so:  they couldn’t hold that thought in mind without trauma.  Against all the evidence, they insisted that there were no officially recognized cultural, social, or political conflicts between second-generation immigrants and the ancestral French.  Fraternité trumped a life-and-death threat to the public.  The answer must be found somewhere else.

Disregard of reality was facilitated by physical separation.  The French elites live in a France where life is sweet. Most French Muslims live in “zones sensibles” – the vast blighted ghettos that ring Paris and other cities in the country and the continent.  There, second-generation citizens are out of sight and in control.  They are Muslims more in identity than faith, but they delight in bullying local women into wearing the veil, and they wreak violence on Jews and gays.

From this underclass, out of the zone sensibles, came the young Islamists responsible for the two massacres in Paris.

The French government’s reaction to the first attack was to do nothing.  President François Hollande declared a day of mourning.  Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that France was “not at war against Islam or Muslims.”  The embrace of fraternité was more important than self-preservation, at least to those not personally at risk.

The second attack, in which 130 innocent people died, was monstrous enough to require a rhetorical escalation.  Hollande called it an “act of war” by the Islamic State, and vowed “pitiless” retribution.  “France is at war,” he kept saying, as if by repetition he could make it so.

But the war against IS doesn’t much resemble – say – the national mobilization with which the French met the German invasion of 1914.  One bold wartime measure is to end the cuts in defense spending Hollande himself had introduced.  Any increase is beyond the pale.  Another measure, which would strip convicted terrorists of French nationality, was considered too un-fraternal by the Justice Minister:  she resigned in protest.

In truth, French elites live in a fantasy of universal values, and the French government, having exhausted its rhetorical arsenal, has no clue about how to extricate itself from a conflict that is real on one side only.


Move on to Germany, where in 2015 Chancellor Angela Merkel invited into her country a million fugitives from the broken societies of the Middle East.  This gained Merkel the adulation of the elites and a “person of the year” award, but the decision had unintended consequences.  By the rules of the European Union, aliens entering one member country can enter any other.  Merkel, without consultation, imposed her open-door policy on every elected government in the union.

The gesture brought stresses within the EU to the breaking point.  The Hungarian government refused to be led by Merkel:  it built a fence to keep the intruders out.  Poland, Slovakia, and much of East Europe took a similar stand.  The invasion of a million mostly young and male Arabs was unpopular with the public everywhere in Europe.  It bolstered nativist movements and political parties, some of them quite hard-edged.

Merkel hasn’t budged.  She seems intent on expiating the racialist sins of her grandparents’ generation.  By custom, purification of the past requires sacrificial victims from the present:  these have been found and offered up to the gods of universalism.

At a New Year’s Eve festival in placid Cologne, a mob of Arab men, many of them recent arrivals to Germany, sexually assaulted hundreds of young women.  Two of the women were apparently raped.  One 17-year-old described the experience graphically:  “We were surrounded by at least 30 men… I had fingers on every orifice.”

Strange as an Arab sex riot in an ancient German city sounds, the extraordinary part of the episode began when the violence ended.

In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the horrified people of Macondo are lectured after a massacre:  “Nothing has happened in Macondo, nothing has ever happened, and nothing will ever happen.  This is a happy town.”  The same principle was applied in Cologne.  Nothing had happened there, because nothing could ever happen.  Local police did nothing.  The German news media said nothing.  The politicians, lighter than air, floated above such earthly concerns.  Cologne was a happy town.

When, days later, social media broke the news, the overwhelming concern of the authorities was to avoid anti-immigrant “vitriol.”

So it has come to this:  for the political and media elites of Angela Merkel’s Germany, insulting the ethnic sensitivities of criminals is a graver offense than the crime itself.  These delicate, image-obsessed people can conceive of nothing more shameful than to be accused of racism.  Any decisive action involving non-Europeans was sure to end in such accusations.  Better to do little:  best to do nothing at all.

They are fortunate to lack a sense of irony.  The worthy desire for gestures that repudiate the Nazi past has, in practice, produced some unsettling repetitions.  The Nazis attacked Jews and communists behind a wall of silence – a fate the humanitarian elites appeared willing to inflict on the young women of Cologne.

I don’t want to imply that this is a peculiarly German attitude, or that one needs a Nazi grandfather to indulge in it.  The facts of the case in Rotherham, England, were more appalling than anything that transpired in Cologne:  they involved the prostitution of 1,400 underage English girls by Pakistani men, and the abuse went on for 16 years.  The police knew but did nothing.  The British elites, like their German counterparts, floated like balloons far above the happy town of Rotherham.


On the immigration question, the leading governments of Europe wrap themselves in a fantasy of moral superiority that can’t conceal the reality of political prostration.  If nobility of spirit really defines the contemporary European, these governments appear unwilling to promote or defend their own ideals.  If the whole thing is a fraud, and the continent in truth lives by nothing nobler than the pleasure principle, the ruling elites are unwilling to accept that.  The contradiction has dislocated geopolitical decision-making to a field of dreams, where theatrical gestures play the part of effective action.

Let me end with a few additional manifestations of this malady.

NATO, sword arm of democracy, is now a petrified fossil that may crumble apart at the next contact with aggression.  It was not invoked by France in its “war” against IS.  What purpose would that serve?  It has met Russia’s gobbling up of Crimea and constant pressure on Ukraine with a barrage of words.  NATO can’t defeat the Taliban – what hope does it have to push back Putin’s Russia?

European elites aren’t interested in the old Alliance.  They feel that the world – or at any rate, Europe – or at any rate, themselves – have transcended war, and risen to a loftier plane of existence in which democracy can disdain military force.  For this daydream, too, Angela Merkel bears much responsibility.

The European Union, the continent’s grandiose “project,” resembles the rickety Holy Roman Empire on the day before its dissolution.  Fatal divisions have been inflicted by Merkel’s stand on immigration, but there are economic fissures as well.  The Greeks will never be able to pay off their debt.  Instead of offering debt relief or managing Greece’s exit from the union, the EU has chosen a torturous middle ground – a death by a thousand crises, without resolution in sight.  The process has radicalized Greek politics:  the country elected an anti-everything Marxist president.  Spain and Portugal are heading down the same path.  Britain is committed to a referendum on the EU.  If it votes to go, Scotland will almost certainly secede.  Catalonia claims it will break away from Spain regardless.

The consequences of these multiple fractures to the body politic are, literally, incalculable – but few outcomes are likely to make Europe a safer or more prosperous place.

The wealthy nations of Europe could have opted for energy independence.  They chose instead to make an expensive gesture toward “sustainable” energy sources – and, as a result, are now at the mercy of that hydrocarbon despot, Vladimir Putin.

At the level of basic instinct, the Europeans aren’t making enough babies, or working enough hours, or growing enough wealth to sustain a “social economy” that lavishes benefits on worker bees and idle drones alike.  Growth is flat.  Unemployment, particularly among the young, is high.


I come to the end of my strange tale.  Rich, populous, technologically advanced nations are retreating in confusion and failure from a dangerous world.  Does it matter?  Only yesterday I would have answered:  not very much.  The Europeans were valuable allies, but the protection of democracy against global predators was the business of the United States.  Loss of European support was a burden we could carry.

That is no longer true.  In the first two posts of this series I have shown the US itself to be in retreat from global responsibilities.  Our elites, after Iraq, have lost their bearings and their confidence in the American mission.  Sensing opportunity, despotic regimes – China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, the Caliphate – are on the march.  As they tramp over our red lines without penalty or consequences, it would be a good thing if other democracies were to step into the breach.  The European malady ensures that help won’t come from that quarter.

We take the present order of the world for granted, but it’s breaking down in pieces even as I write these lines.  What comes after is unknown:  maybe just turbulence and disorder.  Since the great material power of the Western democracies has been largely nullified, we should expect to see a decline in the reach and influence of Western ideals such as rule of law, personal freedom, and mutual toleration.

Americans and Europeans once fought and died together to preserve those ideals.  The fervent hope here is that we won’t come to that pass again.

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Staring into the pit: Or, how we learned to love the Iranian bomb

captive sailors iran.jpg

 [Second of a series in which I stare into the pit of global politics, circa January 2016, and write down, without euphemisms, the horrible things I see.]

Sometime last week I came upon a disturbing image.  US Navy sailors, hunched and on their knees, groveled before gun-toting Iranians.  I wondered what it might mean.  Were we at war with Iran?

The Iranians certainly behaved as if they were at war with us.  They had captured two Navy patrol boats, claiming these trespassed on their territorial waters.  They humiliated the crews and took videos of the humiliation, then forced the commander of the unit to apologize on Iranian TV.  All of this was an egregious violation of the laws of war, but hey – it’s great propaganda.  They looked strong.  We looked pathetically weak.

Our response was even more disturbing than the incident itself.  Did we warn about a possible act of war against the United States?  No.  We did not.  Did we at least voice outrage because American servicemen had been ill-treated?  Just the opposite.  Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “gratitude” to Iran, because the captives were “well taken care of” and returned after one day.

In fact, Kerry tried to brag on the episode.  He said it showed “the critical role diplomacy plays in keeping our country safe, secure, and strong.”  In the world according to the Obama administration, having US sailors attacked, detained, and paraded on TV was a propaganda point on our side.

America’s allies in the region must have gazed on this strange spectacle with a horror scarcely diluted by disbelief.


In The Revolt of the Public I described Iran’s system of government in the following way:

In theory, the Iranian regime is a Platonic republic, with wise guardians protecting the moral and material welfare of all.  In practice, it resembles a sterile hybrid begot on the mafia by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The men in charge of the system are ungainly creatures:  half revolutionaries, half gangsters.  For both sides of their divided selves, however, “Death to America” is a supreme necessity, not least to their survival.

As revolutionaries, they wish to overthrow the present order of the world, which they believe, with good reason, to rest on American principles backed by American power.  As gangsters, they wish to enjoy their regional vendettas and their big mansions without having to look over their shoulder at the global cop, Uncle Sam.

It doesn’t help that all are fanatical Shia, consumed by a sense of cosmic injustice presently focused on that Great Satan – us.

Nothing is forever in world politics, but the Islamic Republic’s conflict with the US is existential, part of its genetic endowment, so it’s hard to imagine peace breaking out without political change in Iran.  The patrol boat aggression took place during supposedly sensitive negotiations with the US.  The Iranians were making a point:  those negotiations were more important to us than to them.  From their side, the war continues.

As for our side – it isn’t.  We reject the reality of the conflict.  Our strength (as Bob Dylan sang) is not to fight.  Washington today abides on a higher plane of being, and the official view here is that affairs between nations are trending to happy.  Progress on this front is irreversible and beyond the possibility of debate.  Why so?  Because President Obama and the clever people of his administration, like John Kerry, desperately desire it to be so – and the charming eccentricity of our age is to confuse the wish for the thing.

The president, as might be imagined, holds definite views about the causes of Iranian hostility.  These hark back to a bunch of dead white guys.  They are irrelevant to the present.  So all he has to do is demonstrate that he, Barack Obama, represents a radical break with everything and everybody that came before, to make Iran’s bearded rulers smile and bring US-Iranian relations into his peaceable kingdom.

“The question now is not what Iran is against,” he told the gangster-revolutionaries of Tehran, who are passionate, as we now say, about being against a great many things, “but what future it wants to build.”

Accordingly, at the earliest opportunity – his January 2008 inaugural address – President Obama offered to “extend a hand” to these hard men if in return they would “unclench your fist.”  Here was an apt metaphor for the new approach.  Like the awkward boy at the party, the president has kept extending his hand, only to be met with the clenched fists and trash talk of the ayatollahs.

Policy, for Barack Obama, is never a question of trial and error, but of squeezing empirical reality into the framework of his desires.  At times he must perform acrobatic maneuvers around hard obstacles – like facts – but this is something he’s very good at.

He wants to deal with the hard-liners.  For all I know he believes in the justice of their anger, but he certainly wishes to prove that his new method, based on US generosity, can soften their hearts.  When massive pro-democracy protests erupted in Iran over disputed elections, President Obama refused to dignify them with even rhetorical support.  It was “up to the Iranians” to decide “who Iran’s leaders will be,” he shrugged, leaving it for the world to guess just how, under a system of clerical despotism, that was to happen.

The protesters were mowed down with fire and force.  Whether any hand extended toward the Islamic Republic happened to be stained in their blood, we have not been told.


We have known for some time that the Iranians are looking to develop nuclear weapons.  It makes strategic sense from their perspective:  the bomb will place them eyeball to eyeball with the satanic superpower they insist is oppressing the world.  That appeals to their revolutionary instincts.  No doubt the prospect of nuclear blackmail brings a gleam to the eyes of the more thuggish types in the regime.

For the ruling clique, a nuclear Iran would be a grand thing all around.

The US has responded by applying sanctions and engaging in negotiations.  Predictably, the negotiations, conducted in Vienna, have gone round and round for years.  We would like the Iranians to disarm.  The Iranians want us to go sleep with the fishes, and have rejected basic conditions – ending uranium enrichment, revealing the extent of their nuclear program – even the maniacal Muammar Qaddafi tolerated in his day.

On this dialogue of the damned, Barack Obama has imposed his dream of universal salvation.  At every step, he has treated Iranian truculence as a test of American inclusiveness and generosity.  Rather than hold fast to our positions, we have learned to live with rejection.  We have taken no for an answer.

Ronald Reagan once said that he negotiated with the Soviet Union on the basis of “trust but verify.”  The Obama method towards Iran might be characterized as “hug and hope”:  act extra nice to the other side, and accept whatever follows as proof that niceness has had the intended effect.  Even the Islamic Republic’s seizure of US patrol boats and bullying of American sailors, on this scheme, turns out to be proof of its good intentions.

The agreement that emerged from the Vienna talks lacks a mechanism to achieve its objectives, and may turn out to be the greatest foreign policy disaster of an era notable for many failures.  Kerry has defended the outcome, arguing that “there isn’t a better deal to be got” out of the obdurate Iranians.  That’s probably true so far as it goes – but in the present context, “better” looks pretty terrible.  The US traded strategic security in exchange for warm feelings among our elites.  The Iranians got the sweetest of all possible deals.  They can have their treaty, along with a $150 billion check for the end of sanctions – and they can build their bomb too.

We have bartered away even the pretense of surprise when they do so.


Kerry also said that the agreement was an assertion of US leadership and a first step to “a more humane world.”  But our strongest allies in the Middle East feel forsaken rather than led, and the effect has been an increase in turbulence and bloodshed in the short time since the deal was struck.

The princes of the House of Saud, flabby but mega-rich, defenders of the Sunni, in a panic of abandonment have assumed an unusual posture of aggression and bluster.  They have broken all diplomatic relations with the Shia bastion, Iran.  They have taken to bombing the Shia rebels of Yemen, to bad effect.  Certain that the Iranians will get the bomb, the Saudis now talk out loud about obtaining their own nuclear arsenal.  They can afford the price.  Mutually assured destruction in the Middle East, in a quite literal sense, may be a feature of our more humane world.

The Israelis, our stoutest friends in the region, also believe that Iran has been given a free pass to go nuclear.  They are aware that the bloody-minded anti-Semites who run the show in Tehran have pledged to “annihilate” them.  The Israelis already have their bomb:  if they strike before the Iranians get theirs, who can blame them?

The geopolitical structure of the Middle East continues to fly apart with appalling speed.  Syria, Iraq, and Libya are gone.  Egypt teeters on the brink.  Saudi Arabia and the mini-monarchies of the Gulf, so far protected by their oil wealth, may well be next.  Even in a time of cheap oil, the trauma to the global economy if that happens will make 2008 look like a walk in the park.

Where are we in all this?  We are stuck in a wonderland that very much resembles the inside of President Obama’s head.  While our enemies prosper and our friends strike out on their own, we see history trending to happy, and we preen about our leadership and the triumph of humane principles.  Bad actors, for us, are trials of our virtue.  Unreformed hostility is a challenge to our story-telling capacities.  All roads lead to inaction.

Reality is sometimes ugly, disheartening, unkind.  Here’s reality:  the United States, as a large object absorbing everyone’s attention, has acted as a dampener to the explosive local frictions of the Middle East.  This meant dealing with unpleasant regimes like Saudi Arabia’s.  It meant managing headstrong allies like Israel.  The result was near-universal criticism of our actions:  with great power comes great animosity.

The fatal fantasy of the present administration has been to take this criticism at face value, and to assume that peace and tranquility in the region will follow if only we tiptoe away.  In reality, the opposite has happened.  Chaos has swept in behind us.  Meanwhile the president and his advisors have punted terrible decisions, like what to do about a potentially nuclear Iran, to the next political crew that takes over Washington DC.

They will need all the good luck we can wish on them.

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Staring into the pit

kim laughing obama crying

I’m a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist.  Tomorrow and tomorrow may be a tale told by an idiot, but in the long run, I believe, sanity will prevail.  That is true at least of the American people.  I have lived among others in many ways more lively and gifted, but we, unlike them, historically have come to terms with reality and with ourselves.

That may mean turning a slave into three-fifths of a human being.  It may mean abolishing booze or abolishing the abolition.  In the long run, we come to terms with reality, with what is possible, and with ourselves.

But I confess to some trepidation over the present hour.  The moment we are living through, I believe, is one of unprecedented lack of seriousness and terrible peril.  Life and death matters are being settled around the world, often in bloodshed, while we are lost in a labyrinth of petty disputes.  The American people today resemble two persons fighting over a penny they found on the floor of the theater – only the theater is in flames, and the fiery roof is crashing down on their heads.

Prophecies of doomsday follow a customary pattern, ending with:  “Repent your sins.”  This post is not in that mold.  It’s an attempt at description, not prophecy.  Lack of seriousness is contagious:  sometimes I feel that I, too, have been infected, that, through sheer exposure to the trick, I now mistake subject for object, and will for reality.  So I want to avoid euphemisms and etiquette, even to myself.  I want to gaze steadily into the pit that is our moment in history, and write down what I see as faithfully as I can.

There will be no calls for repentance.  If you have eyes to see, you will know what to do.


A few days ago, North Korea announced that it had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb.  I looked for our government’s response, and came on a photograph of President Obama crying.  What – was he devastated by the spread of apocalyptic weapons?  No.  He was crying about the lack of gun control.  What – gun control, here in docile America, preoccupies the president more than the power to end the world, placed in the hands of ruthless anti-American despots?  Yes.  It does.

Here’s news:  on the plane of empirical reality, gun control is an irrelevance.  For or against, it doesn’t matter.  If the extreme of one side or the other won today, nothing would be different tomorrow.  We would find ourselves then much as we find ourselves now.  To endow gun control with the aspect of a cosmic political question is a subjective derangement of our moment in time.

Later we were reassured by our government that, for technical reasons, the North Koreans couldn’t really have tested an H-bomb.  Kim Jung-Un, that naughty Millennial, was just listening to the voices inside his head.  That’s irrelevant too.  Kim and his ruling clique have the atomic bomb.  They told President Clinton they didn’t, and they told President Bush they didn’t, but now they do, and they have the missiles to deliver it.

The rickety nonproliferation regime that half a dozen US presidents struggled to keep in place has finally come undone.  The Indians and Pakistanis have the bomb.  The Iranians are practically being invited to get their own.  The Saudis won’t stand for that, and they have plenty of money to build one too.  Disreputable regimes on the model of Kim’s will seek a lifeline in nuclear weapons.  Nobody will push them around, if they possess the capacity to obliterate a continent.

A nuclear Islamic State is possible.  Why on earth should that shock anyone?  Like Saudi Arabia, the Caliphate has lots of oil.  Like North Korea, it’s disreputable and needs a lifeline.  With enough bombs in anti-American hands, the probability of nuclear terrorism increases exponentially.  If true believers are willing to self-detonate with TNT, why not go for a big bang?  The target will be us.  Why?  Because we play cop and daddy to the world, so taking us down will turn the contest between nations into a predator’s paradise.

Much of this is not President Obama’s fault.  Time worked against us:  a forever quarantine of the nuclear plague was never really possible.  But the president has earned his measure of blame by his abdication of responsibility and his blindness to the consequences.  A man who cries over nothing then shrugs off a potential holocaust of millions has lost contact with reality.

That’s my portrait of the president as an American statesman.  Immersed in a fog of fatuous ideas about history and progress, he’s walking confidently toward the abyss.


In February 2011, as Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak wobbled under a wave of protests, the Obama administration, in the person of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, demanded that he step down.  Mubarak was an old and trusted US ally.  He was soon gone, and Egypt toppled into chaos.

Later in the same year, as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad began mowing down his protestors, President Obama informed him that it was time to go.  Assad, a second-generation anti-American thug, gave the US the middle finger.  He’s still there, propped up by Russian forces – while Syria, never a pleasant place, has been transformed into a charnel house.

Between these misadventures, the president was persuaded by his NATO allies to intervene militarily on behalf of rebels who had risen up against Libyan dictator Muammad Qaddafi.  The aim was to avoid “the prospect of an imminent massacre.”  The method, famously described by the White House as “leading from behind,” led to months of indecisive war and thousands of deaths.  Qaddafi was a maniac, but he had been defanged during the Bush administration.  Five years after his death, Libya has cracked apart, and much of its surviving population is heading for Europe.

In January 2014, President Obama called the Islamic State “the JV” compared to Al Qaeda’s burly terror varsity guys.  He got that exactly wrong.  Osama bin Laden had been a charismatic figure, but Al Qaeda’s recruiting process was chancy, and the numbers were never large.  Yet tens of thousands of young people from all over the world have taken up arms for the Caliphate.  Those tens of thousands now control a territory larger than Great Britain, with a population of eight million, and a lot of oil under the ground:  they uphold a system of life that endorses slavery, female bondage, and crucifixion.

The Middle East today is an unforgiving dance of death – 100,000 killed in 2015 alone.  The bonds of human society are snapping under the strain.  Political structures that only yesterday towered over populations have been erased as if they never were.  Islam is less a community of believers than a bloody battleground.  Those not killing or killed are fleeing, a vast tide of cultural debris about to engulf the European Union.  Those not content with slaughtering their neighbors and smashing local museums seek to export their finest product:  death.  It’s coming our way.

The change is epochal, and it has scarcely begun:  there’s no telling what fresh horrors will emerge from the wreckage to torment a distracted world.

To this human and political catastrophe the present administration has been a major contributor.  In 2008, when Barack Obama was sworn in, the Middle East looked much as it had for 50 years.  That the region disintegrated so far so fast is due, in part, to the astonishing levels of cluelessness shown by the president and his people.

Every word from our government has been falsified by events.  Every policy has resulted in the worst possible consequences.  When we acted, as in Libya, the result was chaos and the triumph of terror.  When we abstained, as in Syria, the result was worse.  When we withdrew, as in Iraq, it was to cede large portions of the country to the Islamic State.

Few allies are left in a region that once looked to the US for protection.  Even the Israelis have been alienated.


How is this possible?  Incompetence is an obvious answer – but I think it’s more troubling than that.  I think failure on such a colossal scale entails a bad divorce with reality.  Parse the words of the president and his supporting cast:  they seem to originate in a place ruled by subjective urges, where will and truth are identical.  The world, for them, is not the world, but what they desire the world to be.

President Obama wants history to evolve towards a humanitarian global hug.  Events that contradict this desire get reinterpreted and minimized.  Russia swallows Crimea?  That must mean it’s “on the wrong side of history.”  Syria massacres hundreds of thousands and scatters millions to flight?  Condemnation falls on American politicians “scared of widows and orphans” fleeing to the US.

What about the Islamic State, with its tens of thousands of young assassins?  Good news:  it has been “contained.”  But what of the IS atrocity in Paris, carried out the day after that cheerful statement?  Not to worry:  the American people should “have a good holiday” because “we have hardened our defenses.”  So how are we to deal with the IS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, California, which killed 14 innocent Americans on the very day of that presidential assurance?

Barack Obama knew exactly how to respond to San Bernardino.  First, he expressed his disappointment in the country over which he presides, for mass violence “that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”  This extraordinary assertion was made in Paris, a city in a country that, for the record, is not ours, where a far deadlier massacre had taken place only days before.  Then he warned us, as he often does, not to “turn against one another,” as we apparently often do, by going crazy on Muslims.

Finally the president proceeded to the heart of the matter.  Did it concern the Islamic State, the rise of domestic terrorism, the senseless violence in California?  No.  It did not.

He wanted to talk about gun control.

Posted in cataclysm, democracy | Leave a comment

Google looks on the face of the public, sees the pictures inside its corporate head

Caitlin Jenner and Donald Trum

Caitlin Jenner and Donald Trump

Enter Public and Elites, Fighting

In the struggle that defines our moment in history, the correlation of forces, I have argued, pits public against elites.  The public is any group of ordinary people that, in Walter Lippmann’s words, is “interested in an affair.”  The public is us, or some of us at least – and we are in a bad mood.  The elites are those highly-accredited, super-educated, starched-collar persons who run the great institutions of authority, including government.  They are nervous and demoralized.  They know the public is coming after them.

The public today speaks with the booming voice of Donald Trump, a billionaire but also a reality TV star, a political nobody, and something of a buffoon.  Trump utters plebeian nonsense that, in style and tone, sets him apart from the elitist nonsense of the other candidates.  His job seems to be to send the media and political establishments into a swoon every other day.  He does it well.  Trump has often been compared to Marine Le Pen of France, but a more apt evolutionary progenitor would be Beppe Grillo, the ex-comedian leading Italy’s largest protest party, whose name means “Jiminy Cricket.”

Public and elites dwell in mutually exclusive universes.  For elites, it’s always 1989 and the internet hasn’t been invented yet.  As for the public – which, let us note, is quite affluent, well educated, well fed, well dressed, and widely traveled – it believes the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and someone should pay for it.  To say that out loud in mixed company is the indiscreet charm of a Trump, a Le Pen, a Beppe Grillo.

Against elites, the public has wielded digital devices like the smart phone, and digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr:  source of the tsunami of information that has caused the great upending I call the Fifth Wave.  Although these devices and platforms are controlled by a business elite, the public, understandably, tends to give this clique a pass in its blanket condemnation of the established order.

Thus Steve Jobs of Apple was beatified soon after death.  Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, by giving away his possessions in the manner of St. Francis, is taking the first steps in the same direction.  One in three Americans think the government would be run more efficiently by Apple Corporation.

Yet the Palo Alto business elites, those “sovereigns of cyberspace,” turn out to be just as alienated from the bottom of the human pyramid as their political kindred in Washington DC, with whom they often consort.  They want the world to be the way they think it should be:  and when they gaze dreamily on the public, they see only the reassuring pictures inside their own heads.

Don’t See Evil:  The Techno-Elites Take a Bow

A good measure of the astronomical distance between the techno-elites and the public can be obtained from Google’s “Year in Search 2015.”

The material made public by Google consists of a hodgepodge of search data – arrayed separately for the world and the US – together with a video purporting to summarize it.  The search data captures the true interests of the public, unmediated by authority.  It’s fascinating.  The video is Google’s attempt to create a public in its own image and likeness.  It betrays the myopic vision of the elites, and it partakes, stylistically, of Stalinist propaganda films about smiling tractor drivers and of crude parody worthy of South Park.

In the hive mind of Google, the public resembles an almost robotic aggregation of socially progressive attitudes.  The public of the video lacks existential fears or trivial pursuits, but cares passionately about the refugee crisis, about Black Lives Matter and taking down the Confederate flag, about women’s place in the workforce, about ending the Cuban embargo, about allowing same-sex persons the right to marry, about hugging your transgender child.

The narration utters inanities that would embarrass a Viagra TV commercial:  “it’s not about one person – it’s about thousands of people,” “it’s about all of us, accepting one another,” “we’re all different – that’s not a bad thing – that’s a good thing,” “if we only do it together.”  Near the end, the narrator’s pleasant tenor voice is shown to emanate from the world-historical body of Caitlin Jenner.

The images are even more bizarre.  They depict a world that can exist only in the hallucinatory recesses of elite wish-fulfillment.

google search1 refugees

google search 2 blacklivesmatter

google search 3 women engineers

google search 4 gay marriage

goggle search 5 mechanical arm

google search 6 transgender

Like all successful corporations, Google nurses certain illusions about itself.  The founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, like to be characterized as “Montessori kids” who “disrespect authority.”  The company’s famous informal motto, “Don’t be evil,” asserts the aggressive, semi-hippie idealism of the Bay Area technical culture – also its neo-Victorian sense of moral superiority.  The “Googleplex,” near San Jose, with its lap pools and free food stations, feels like a corporate commune.  Google’s fond illusion is that it has transcended hierarchy and power in delivering innovative goods to the world.

Reality is less egalitarian.  Google’s valuation in 2015 was around $365 billion.  The company has muscled its way to the top of the global economy.  Page and Brin speak with enormous authority, and are seldom disrespected.  They and their upper echelons subscribe to a perfectly commonplace elite worldview:  the academic style of progressivism exemplified by Barack Obama.  High Google executives advised the 2007 Obama campaign for the presidency.  Several joined the administration in 2008.

Wealth and passage through elite schools helped shape the concerns of this crowd:  obsession with victim groups and “saving the earth,” coupled with indifference to pocketbook issues.  That obsession and indifference co-directed the “Year in Search” video.  Only a combination of progressive idealism and extreme alienation could have conjured a narrative so magnificently detached from the facts it sought to represent.

And Now, Data:  The Public Takes Center Stage

Problems of method obscure Google’s presentation of the search data.  The company selected the categories, and the selection criteria is by no means clear.  Some categories are accompanied by numbers, while others are reported in “most popular” lists relative to one another.  So we know, for example, the exact tally of searches for Adele, but not for Donald Trump – and no explanation is given for this disparity.  Google is famous for its reticence in sharing information:  the last global search totals we have are from 2012.

A major categorical omission leaps out from what has been revealed.  Nothing is said about economics:  buying, selling, making a living, investing money, looking to hire or looking for work.  We are entitled to doubt that, in 2015, the global public lost all interest in material advancement.  Google clearly didn’t wish to share this information – again, for reasons that are left unstated.

Even with these caveats, the public that emerges from the search data is a wholly different organism from the utopian creature of the video.

The public is anxious about Islamist terror.  By far the most-searched category concerned the January and December terrorist attacks in Paris:  897 million searches in total, more than double the next highest category.  The video, by contrast, contains none of the dramatic images of the attacks or their immediate aftermath, though it does show, for a few seconds and without explanatory text, a candlelight “I am not afraid” gathering.

The public is not particularly interested in the refugee crisis.  Although featured very prominently in the video, this issue received only 23 million searches.  The public cared more for Cecil the lion, whose untimely death inspired 32 million searches.  The public cared much more about the record-breaking length of Queen Elizabeth’s reign – it received 100 million searches.

The public favors entertainment and sports over social justice.  Adele was the object of 439 million searches – second place, right behind terrorism.  The 2015 Academy Awards received over 406 million searches.  The Cricket World Cup sparked over 323 million searches, the Rugby World Cup over 246 million, the Mayweather-Paquio championship fight 216 million.  These figures easily outshone the 189 million searches for “Black Lives Matter” and the 108 million for same-sex marriage.

As Cecil and the Queen illustrate, the public can engage in bouts of silliness, and pay attention to trivial things.  Royal births and that strange phenomenon known as “The Dress” received attention disproportionate to their importance.  But the public also focused on what was significant to its future:  the early stages of the 2016 presidential elections generated 338 million searches.  This data point receives zero footage in the video.  By far the most-searched-for candidate was Donald Trump:  he too is ignored by the video, and no numbers are provided to measure actual interest in him, in other candidates, or in specific issues.

Given an opportunity to throw light on those questions that matter to the American public, Google chose instead to present its data in a peculiarly opaque way.

Finally, we come back to that inescapable presence, the mellow voice of the video:  Caitlin Jenner.  That she was an object of intense interest by the public is beyond doubt:  more than 336 million searches attest to the fact.  The question we should ask is whether Jenner falls in the category of social justice or trivial pursuits.  The top five searches using Jenner’s name offer a pretty good indication of the answer.  Number two in popularity is “Who does Caitlin Jenner look like?”  Number five is “What do the Kardashians think of Caitlin?”  None of the top searches contain the term “transgender.”

Jenner, like Trump, is a reality TV personality.  Both have ridden social and political controversies to garner astonishing levels of attention from the public.  That attention, I suspect, has been lavished on their persons, not their causes.  The tectonic collision of public against elites has had consequences:  the battle over permissible speech, an inexhaustible hunger for rage and rant.  This chaotic, fiercely contested environment has camouflaged with meaning two individuals who are, at heart, professional celebrities, and who add up to nothing more than the sum of the attention paid to them.

Expect more of their kind to surface in future “Years in Search” – and expect Google, and their kind, to misread and misrepresent them utterly.

Posted in new media, the public | Leave a comment