Einstein’s God

By stancutler,

Dear Richard,

Awhile back, I mentioned that I was reading Walter Isaacson’s wonderful biography of Einstein. You asked whether it was true that Einstein believed in God. I responded that I’d have to finish the reading the book because Isaacson had not yet addressed the question. I’ve finished the book, and the answer – sort of – is “yes”. According to Isaacson, whose book is well worth your time, Einstein had an abiding belief that everything in the universe makes sense according to mathematical laws, that there is an awesome unity to all real things in the universe.

He famously said, “God does not play dice,” by which he meant that a fundamental principle of quantum physics was impossible. In the 1920s, experimental physicists had proven that a sub-atomic particle could be measured as mass (having weight) or as a wave (having energy) – but not as both. There were some astonishing findings that still have not been disproven. Until an observer measures one or the other – not both – the quantum has an undeterminable identity as either a wave or a particle, and that it is only the act of observing that determines which it is. Einstein would not believe this, and spent most of his life arguing against the idea.

Einstein characterized his way of thinking as being nothing more than intense curiosity. In his struggle to disprove the indeterminancy of quantum physics, he presumed that everything in nature behaved as it did for a knowable reason. He adamantly believed that there is an awesome ordering of things in the universe that may not be superficially apparent, but is absolutely there. He believed that his drive to make sense, his curiosity, was akin to religious fervor. He was awed by the universe, driven to know how it actually worked, always presuming that there was an underlying simplicity that could explain all of it. He characterized this as a “unified field theory,” meaning that gravity (mass, particles) and electromagnetism (energy waves) were not separate phenomena, but somehow obeyed the same rules, an ordering that could be understood if he worked hard enough at the math. He failed. But, until his dying day, he was convinced that the secret would eventually be discovered. He had faith.

His notion of God was Creation itself. He was awed by reality. He loved nature walks and solo sailing in a little boat. He loved music, parties, and sex. He never ceased to be amazed by gravity, electromagnetism, space and time. The rules of Newtonian physics are real. His contributions to physics added another layer to our understanding of reality: the simple relationships between energy and mass (E-Mc2) and the inseparability of space and time.

And he was intensely moral. I was interested to learn how much of his vitality was expended on a unified theory of international politics, how very much he cared about his fellow man. He had been composing an address to be delivered at the 7th anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1956 when he died. It began, “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew, but as a human being.”

He considered fascism to be a normal, evil political tendency, a common species of nationalism, that could only be suppressed by intelligent people who held freedom of thought and speech as an overriding moral imperative. At fourteen, he had rebelled against Prussian discipline by insisting that his parents take him out of the prestigious German school and place him in a Swiss academy that welcomed individual initiative.

He was outraged by the silence of the German intelligentsia during the Nazi era. He was outspoken and outraged by McCarthyism, by how it reduced thoughtful people to timid bystanders fearful of expressing their beliefs. During his entire adult life, he advocated the creation of a supranational world government. After atomic weaponry was invented, he argued even more passionately for a mechanism that would obviate the power of nationalism to wreak horror, even to destroy mankind. “Nationalism is a disease,” he said.

But he was also a realist. Fully aware that Israel was a nationalist endeavor, he supported it as a practical necessity in a world of anti-Semitism. In the 1920s, he’d been a pacifist. After the full horror of the Hitler regime became apparent, he supported American rearmament and, during the fight for Israel’s independence, the necessity of the IDF. But, he warned, the true moral test of Jewish identity would be peaceful co-existence with the Arabs. Even in the 1950s, he was alarmed by the attitudes of many Israelis toward non-Jews, particularly the Arabs.

Anyhow, it was a really worthwhile read and I commend it to your library. (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Walter Isaacson, 2007, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks)

Tech Giants and the Trump Presidential Election Victory

By stancutler,

The world wonders how Trump managed to beat the odds and win the 2016 Presidential election. An important element of his victory, perhaps the decisive piece of the puzzle, was the relationship between the giant technology companies and the Trump campaign.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter assigned full time staff to assist candidates during the 2016 primary and general elections. They organized their political staffing along partisan lines, Republican and Democratic, hiring former campaign workers with technical savvy and partisan leanings. As company employees, they offered enthusiastic customer service by directly manipulating the social media levers in response to events – crafting new messages and variations of the same messages with a few keystrokes.

The well-heeled Clinton campaign relied on in-house staff to strategize and implement its media campaign. In mid-summer 2016, Trump’s short-staffed and cash-strapped campaign rented an office space in a strip mall near the San Antonio airport, designated it as their social media hub, and invited the tech giants to locate teams there for their mutual benefit.  Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter quickly staffed up in San Antonio where they worked hand-in-glove with the Trump campaign until election day.

Having partisan teams favorably disposed to the success of the candidates was smart business. The tech giants had three motives. Foremost, they wanted to capture as much of the $2 billion dollar quadrennial expenditures for Presidential campaigning as they possibly could. The collaboration was a resounding success for the campaign and the companies. The Trump campaign spent $70 million on social media ads soliciting contributions and received $250 million in return.

Second, they wanted to promote their advanced products in the political space. In July, before and during the DNC Philadelphia Convention, they rented floor space in the re-purposed Power Plant on 2nd Street to show off their analytics platforms. These evolving technologies count user statistics and organize them as informative graphics. How is the ad you put up ten minutes ago doing? What topics are trending? What are Facebook users “liking”? How’s that tweet doing with veterans?

Microsoft did not send a team to San Antonio, but they deployed partisans to assist the candidates during the primary and general election campaigns by providing back office support, ensuring that the campaigns had fully functional, high-volume social media infrastructure. Microsoft also captured vital information for the candidates, second-by-second likes and dislikes of thousands of demographically identified viewers as the candidates were talking during the debates.

Google teams played a major role. If you did a Google search including a candidate’s name and one of hundreds of campaign-related topics, Google displayed ads that were specifically tailored to the search you had entered, and fresh content that was continuously updated by the campaign in response to the analytics.

The third motive, as a Facebook employee told a North Carolina University research team, was the development of working relationships with political campaign staff. The companies hope that the relationships will be leveraged as lobbying advantages in future government affairs, connections to legislators who will vote on media regulation. Given the ways of Washington, this is pretty smart strategy.

The Trump campaign was floundering in early August 2016, coming in a very distant second in every predictive category without exception. Thereafter, with the help of partisan teams from Google, Facebook and Twitter, the Trump campaign ran 40,000 to 50,000 variants of digital ads every day.  On the day of the third presidential debate in October, the campaign ran 175,000 ad variations. The cost of running a social media ad is ridiculously low in comparison to a TV ad, pennies to dollars. With almost as many voters relying on social media news feeds for political information as those watching TV news, investments in digital ads pay off in a big way.

The Democratic Party made quite a few strategic mistakes in 2016, not least of which was choosing a candidate with a lot of negative baggage. But perhaps their greatest mistake was relying on a huge internal team for social media expertise. In the final months of the campaign, they were simply outplayed by the tech giants.

The tech companies do not understand their role as partisanship, as servicing one party for political reasons. If we had a multi-party, parliamentary system, they would have done their best to match new recruits to as many viable (trending positively) candidates as had serious financial backing. The companies are apolitical in that sense. Their loyalty is to the dollar, and they would be incredibly stupid if they made partisan enemies. Clinton could have received services equal to Trump’s, probably at less cost than whatever the DNC paid its in-house staff. But the Democrats had already sunk much of their media investment on hiring and training. And those consultants were being led according to a sound business plan and marketing strategy. In other words, they were being led by generals re-fighting the War of 2012.

The ad hoc collaboration between the Trump campaign and the tech giants evolved on the fly. A few Trump managers were located in San Antonio, people who may have made decisions, but probably acted more as motivators and conduits than as decision makers. Having worked in the tech world, I’d bet my shoelaces that the lack of commitment to a fixed plan worked to the Trump Campaign’s advantage. Whereas the Clinton team was being led by the best that money could buy, they were probably handicapped by some form of top-down organizational structure. And I wonder whether the Trump team had an advantage as company employees, as the coders and content creators who understood the software logic, not just its functionality.

The Internet Revolution has compressed time, complex intellectual tasks are completed in microseconds. This means that facts change quickly. These facts  –  the results of the algorithms about what’s trending, what’s popular, who’s getting more favorable ratings – become the stuff of the news cycle. Viewer polls are constantly featured on news shows, and these computed “results” inform the next media buying decision and the next content decision, decisions that have to be made within minutes.  And the next news cycle begins.

President Trump, it has been reported, watches Fox News for up to ten hours a day. This is not because he’s stupid. He knows he’s not getting facts from the shows – he’s giving them the facts, the content. He watches as the boss, assessing the performance of his actors, deciding whether to tweak the message according to his superbly tuned sensitivity to publicity. In our current form of democracy, the instantaneous preferences of millions of viewers and social media users are the votes he cares about. The 2018 elections, in internet time, are light years in the future. His fixation on the news cycle, which he intends always to control, has been seen as a narcissistic personality flaw. To Trump, who could care less about what people using four syllable words think, it’s just good business. He knows how to win ratings wars, as the popularity of The Apprentice and his 2016 victory demonstrate. He is the branding king, the marketing magician, the greatest TV star of the 21st Century. And it’s not by accident.

His decision to fully exploit the resources of the giant tech companies during the 2016 campaign was not accidental. He operates by buying talent, keeping the top decision-making to himself and his inner circle. Historically, he has not bought companies that do things, he buys things like buildings, jet planes, property, and limousines. He buys companies that sell things, not the companies that make the things. He is used to contracting for services, avoiding the complications of owning a company that produces a tangible product. He does not own technology companies, he does not own Fox News. But he knows that everybody wants his money and that they are eager to do his bidding. His decision, in 2016, not to hire a huge in-house media staff was simply the way he does business.

The DNC did business another way. They lost.

_____________(The study on which I based this piece was conducted by Daniel Kreiss and Shannon McGregor and published in the Journal of Political Communications on October 26, 2017, available via Taylor & Francis Online    www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10584609.2017.1364814



Is the Internet a Public Utility ?

By stancutler,

Last week, the Trump FCC overturned net neutrality regulations. Predictably, the Commission decided to allow internet companies to vary their service depending upon variable pricing. Henceforth, market forces alone will govern the internet.

Of the five Commissioners who authorize FCC policy, the two Commissioners who are not of the President’s Party are powerless by design. By law, no more than three of the Commissioners can be of the same political party, but those three are selected by the President subject to Senate approval. The other two are selected by the Senate minority. So this recent ruling is 100% Republican, with both wings of the Party bowing low to money. No surprise there, that’s the Republican creed.

The consequences of the decision will resonate throughout society, altering the media ecosystems in which people learn, conduct business, socialize, seek entertainment, and express themselves. The interconnected institutions of democracy – politics and government – will necessarily change as well.

Last week’s decision is the wrong answer to a fundamental question; should communication media be regulated as public utilities or are they merely a form of marketplace? In a marketplace, ethics adjust to financial motives. A public utility is regulated to ensure that the benefits of the service are shared equitably by the population as a whole – for the public’s welfare. With regard to media companies, I believe that other moral imperatives are more important than money, that the public interest is paramount.

The FCC was established in 1934 to prevent monopoly ownership of communications infrastructure. At the time, the civic risk posed by monopolistic media was unquestioned. Since the law was updated in 1996, big telecomm and media conglomerates have been permitted to join forces, resulting in profit-driven behemoths like Comcast, Disney, and cable news networks.

In 2014, the Obama FCC ruled that financial incentives could not influence the speed or volume of data provided to consumers. This is net neutrality – everyone who uses the internet gets the same service. Thanks to the Republican Party’s FCC, that will no longer be the case.

The effects will be significant. Obviously, the behemoths will have even greater influence as they reap profits from corporate customers. And those rich media sponsors will have influence in proportion to their ability to pay. Just as obviously, the smaller media companies will be disadvantaged. But that’s the marketplace outlook, independent of other social concerns. What will be the effects on public discourse and our democratic institutions? Does the public benefit from a purely profit-driven media environment?

I don’t think so. The decision tilts the marketplace in favor of the big, established companies. Fewer startups will succeed. In the zero sum world preferred by the Republican FCC, it’s right and natural for smaller companies to suffer as the bigger ones prosper. These smaller platforms are important components of social justice and cultural diversity. For example, the actions of the  Ferguson Police Department were exposed through social media, the events ignored by legacy news outlets until the hashtag started trending. Small online video services provide platforms for targeted entertainment, disseminating innovative content rejected by mainstream outlets. Secure messaging platforms, catering to small political groups, companies like Ceerus and WhatsApp, are essential to activist groups who can fearlessly organize without gatekeepers blocking them.

The loosening of anti-monopolistic media regulations has already had disastrous consequences. The 1996 changes, by enhancing the reach and power of media conglomerates, and by abandoning political fairness as regulatory criteria, degraded American politics. Primary election campaigns became reality TV. The 2016 “debate” shows were designed and produced to maximize viewership on commercial channels and to burnish the image of the Republican and Democratic Parties. A self-serving Debate Commission, composed of Party representatives and network executives, established the format and rules, but no public voice was represented. Serious debate was virtually impossible in the structure they devised. Trump, a reality TV star, flourished in that environment. Now he is our President.

The interests of media companies have superseded public interests. It’s past time to re-examine the proper role of government in media matters. Media companies play a fundamental role in a democratic society, a role so important that they should not evolve solely for the selfish benefit of their stock holders. The public has a greater stake.

Fake News is a Conspiracy Theory

By stancutler,

The 35% to 40% of Americans who support Trump believe in a conspiracy theory. They believe that the mainstream news companies are controlled by a cabal whose leaders have reduced America to an international patsy with a victimized citizenry. Trump, on several occasions, has declared “the fake news media” as the “true enemies of the American people, among the most dishonest people on the face of the earth.”

People who believe in conspiracies discount facts that contradict their grand notions of how the world works. If you are a Holocaust denier, for example, the thousands of pages of Nazi documents, the photographs, and the testimony of thousands of eyewitnesses are fake. They believe that Jewish people promote the fake Holocaust narrative to further their interests to the detriment of all others.

Last May, Rich Higgins, a National Security Council (NSC) staff member, wrote an essay that is frighteningly reminiscent of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  I have a copy of the memo because Higgins proudly disseminated it to people outside the government. One of them sent a copy to Foreign Policy, a news web site that published the complete text. I found it so remarkable that I made a copy that I’d be pleased to share. (Curiously, the 8-page text has been removed from the article and is no longer available through the Foreign Policy website.)

According to Higgins, Trump is conducting an all-out information war against the enemies of the people: Mainstream Media, Academia, Cultural Marxists (secular humanists), The Deep State (non-elected government), Global Corporatists & Bankers, Republican Leadership (elected government), and Islamists. Like Hitler, Higgins urges an unrelenting propaganda war to legitimize an alternative narrative and to discredit the entrenched manipulators of public perception. Higgins urges Trump to attack the media relentlessly by controlling the daily news cycle, else his mission will fail. He declares information warfare – not governance – as the President’s most important task.

The “Fake News” concept is more than a convenient way to deny the truth, it is an essential element of a worldview. If the news is “real”, then Higgins’ alternate narrative cannot be believed. There is more to the information war than ‘breaking news’ and ‘new information reveals”. The stunning manifesto, written in the bowels of Trump’s White House, is as clear as Mein Kampf. It is an alternative narrative absolutely antagonistic to the way I see the world.

This is not politics as usual. As a few intelligent Republican Senators have said, “This is not normal”. Relegating universities and news companies as “fake” is an attack on, the nature of evidence, the basis of Reason, the foundations of civilization. This is the real news, this is what’s happening before our eyes in 2017 – a deliberate, managed effort on the part of the Trump Administration to change the way we know the truth. The Higgins memo is a strategy for winning the information war. The war is not a possibility, not something that could happen. It is happening now.

Trump’s choice to lead the NSC was General Michael Flynn, a maniacal pro-Russian, Christian (anti-Islam) crusader. When his speeches were published by the media (NYT, WP, CNN, ABC, NBC, etc.), Flynn was replaced by General H. R. McMaster, a militarist less rabid than Flynn. To ensure that Flynn’s concepts continued to influence NSC policy, Trump insisted that the alt-right theorist Steve Bannon occupy a seat at NSC meetings. Last June, when General H. R. McMaster learned that Higgins had sent his memo outside the government, he fired him. Trump, according to Foreign Policy, was furious. In July, Bannon left the NSC to run Breitbart News and lead the campaign against non-Trump Republicans in 2018. I don’t know what happened to Higgins, but I’ll bet you that he’s working with Bannon.

Bannon will be far more destructive in his current role than as a glowering presence in meetings as Trump’s alter ego. The 2018 elections will be a war for leadership of the Republican Party. Should Trump’s candidates win, which seems likely under Bannon’s management, America will be in even deeper trouble. Conservatism is rational. Progressivism is rational. Trump’s view is paranoid. He believes that America is a victim, that HE is a victim. Of whom? Of people like me.



The Dis-United States of America

By stancutler,

Inline image 1

Americans are more likely to define themselves by political party in 2017 than ever before, a trend that began in the mid-1990s. This trend is dangerous because it makes civil discourse more difficult as time passes. Alarming studies by the Pew Research Institute show American attitudes clustering around political party affiliation as never before. We are socially separating as Republicans and Democrats to an unprecedented degree. We find the “others” more different, more infuriating, more wrong, than ever before.

When populations divide along partisan lines, emotions are more easily triggered. Fewer people remain neutral and dispassionate when considering public matters. Where you stand politically becomes an element of your identity, the way you differentiate yourself from “those other people”, those human beings with whom you have ever less in common.

In 21st Century America, party affiliation tends to drive rhetoric down to matters of values and identity, things we take very personally, and away from the loftier realms of logic and reason. If differences of opinion are discounted as typically partisan, resentment is generated and we are driven farther apart.

There is so much disturbing about our current political environment. Underlying all of the incivility and nonsense that dominates the 24-hour news cycles, is our need to understand issues in binary ways, as contests. Even traditionally non-political news like mass-shootings and natural disasters are being presented through the lenses of partisanship. Where do you stand? Who are you as an American? Encouraged by these commercially-driven “realities”, Americans are increasingly separating as Republicans and Democrats.

This is not an issue of the political moment. Rather, it is a social trend already a generation in development. The Pew studies show that divergent attitudes on every issue are more likely to cluster around party affiliation than any other personal or demographic characteristic. This graph, developed four years ago, will show an even more extreme divergence when Pew publishes its 2016 findings. The 2012 version shows that other elements of identity – race, education, religiosity, income and gender – are pretty much as they were during Reagan’s second term. What has changed significantly is the degree to which partisan identity is a predictor of one’s attitudes about everything else. “Party” is now the most telling demographic.

There is nothing good about this rearrangement of America. It has already played a significant role in the dysfunction of our state and national governments. Not only are the politicians incapable of stating attitudes that offend their voter bases, we the people are more than ever likely to blame members of the other party for bad news. Social media enable ever more partisanship as people are drawn to the echo chambers of the like-minded.

How can we have rational elections if we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same? We are all human beings driven by the same needs, all of us American, all of us the same under the skin. But those similarities decrease in importance when we see those with whom we disagree as “not my kind people”. More than ever, my kind of people belong to my political party. There can be nothing worse for democracy which depends, above all else, on the quality of political discourse.

The commercial and political incentives that stoke the flames of partisan polarization are enormously powerful. The political parties and the commercial media depend fundamentally on a polarized, competitive perception of affairs. Would we even listen to a candidate who values civility and decorum above winning?


Politics, Government & Weather

By stancutler,

NOAA image of Hurricane Irma, 9/5/2017


Hurricane season is an annual reminder of how small we are. Even if we are not in harm’s way, the satellite images of Earth’s atmosphere in motion inspire awe. This year, with its massive storms, I’ve been thinking about the technologies that allow us to see the weather before it happens.

The benefits of these technologies are undeniable. In 1900, a powerful hurricane struck the same Texas coast as Harvey, causing the deaths of between 8,000 and 12,000 people. Harvey’s final death toll is likely to be under 100.  This remarkable alteration in our relationship to the planet is the result of seeing it from orbit. Governments at all levels prepare emergency and relief services on the basis of satellite data and images. Satellite observations shown on TV convince millions of civilians to take precautions as storms approach, precautions that protect property and save lives.

And, of course, extreme weather gives politicians opportunities to promote themselves. They don’t mention the scientists, engineers, and government workers responsible for these wonderful technologies, they’re much more concerned with demonstrating their compassion and leadership. Even though no laws require elected officials to show up at storm-damaged locations, they always do. Cynically, I don’t think they show up as much to comfort the population or to assess the problems as to be in front of the camera.

Of course, there are risks. G.W. Bush’s “You’re doing a helluva job, Brownie” comment in New Orleans hurt him when it became apparent that FEMA, the agency Mr. Brown headed, was totally unprepared to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The most famous case of weather hurting a politician was the New York City blizzard of 1969, when the residents of Queens shouted, “Get away, you bum,”  when  Mayor John Lindsay came to inspect conditions in his limousine. He’d been seen as a Presidential hopeful, but he was never able to escape the stigma of his handling of the storm, in particular that moment when the residents of Queens chased him away.

Weather satellites require years of research and development and billions of tax-payer dollars. Most Americans do not know that these observing platforms in space belong to them – not The Weather Channel or Accuweather. NASA and NOAA give away the data and images for free. You can find more pictures, videos, charts and graphs online than on TV, anytime, without having to endure the advertising surrounding the TV shows. Commercial broadcasters reproduce what they get for nothing and sell the airtime to advertisers.

Weather information is enormously profitable because all of us are always interested. The weather segments of news shows reliably attract the greatest viewership, even more than the headline segments. The TV personalities who stand in front of the weather maps are typically the highest paid among the members of on-air news teams. It helps if they are as interesting to look at as the maps.

When Congress passes a budget, it authorizes expenditures for satellites. The National Weather Service (NWS) gets its data from the satellites of a sister agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the 2018 budget, Congress is being asked to allocate $1.2 billion for the continuation of NOAA’s two satellite programs, one polar-orbiting and the other geostationary. These two systems provide all of the data we see on TV or get online, as well as the raw material for research in hundreds of universities, real time forest fire data, volcanic ash data, wildlife tracking, search and rescue missions, soil moisture measurements, and many other civilian uses.

By far, the Department of Defense (DOD) outspends NOAA on satellites. But we don’t know by how much because the allocation is deliberately unknowable, hidden within the Department of Defense’s $60 billion “black budget” for military intelligence. DOD’s entire 2018 budget request is $621 billion dollars. Within that larger budget, there are dozens of secret line items that might well hide more satellite costs. We just don’t know. In comparison, NOAA’s $1.2 billion allocation is peanuts.

We do know that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps each has its own constellation of weather satellites, measuring exactly the same phenomena as the civilian observatories. Why not share? In 1993, a joint DOD/NOAA weather satellite program was initiated by the Clinton Administration as a way to save billions. DOD dropped out of the program in the mid-2000s, unwilling to cooperate with the civilians, ostensibly for national security reasons.

NOAA is the oldest scientific agency in the US Government, established by President Jefferson in 1807 to map coastlines. In 1878, weather data collection was added to its mission as The Coast And Geodetic Survey. In 1970, the older agencies were reorganized as NOAA and given the additional mission of observing weather from orbiting satellites. As an indication of the political stakes involved in this kind of science, President Nixon put NOAA inside the Department of Commerce, where it remains. All of that NOAA data, going back to 1807, is archived in Asheville, North Carolina. That’s why we can categorize the 1900 hurricane as a 4 and how we know the extent to which it flooded the region. Far less, by the way, than Hurricane Harvey because there were still wetlands to absorb the deluge.

It’s much more challenging for politicians to address climate than weather. It’s not just that the issues have become hotly political. Climate doesn’t offer eye catching photo ops – no streets filled with debris, no suffering people in shelters to attract the cameras. Civilian satellites, NASA’s and NOAA’s, measure “radiation budget”, how much sun energy enters the atmosphere in comparison to the amount radiated back into space. These measurements indicate, without doubt, that the earth is warming in proportion to the amounts of carbonaceous gas we add to the air.  And because we have satellite measurements of the atmosphere’s chemical composition, we know that burning carbon fuels is the cause. Some politicians just don’t care.

Americans Suffering from 21st Century Battle Fatigue

By stancutler,

Since Trump’s inauguration, we have been at war. We may not want the war, but Trump does. The battlefields are the media of communication. At stake is control of the American Government in an epochal contest for the future of civilization. The daily assault on our credulity and attention is a calculated tactic in the war.

I am not reading tea leaves, not guessing by piecing together bits of evidence. Theorists in the Trump Administration publicly espouse total communications warfare.  According to statements by thinkers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, the 2016 Presidential campaign waged by Trump was to be the first in a perpetual series of belligerent acts, his Presidency, if won, to be an extension of that horrible campaign, the most vicious in modern American history. In better times, a Presidential election provided citizens with relief from the rhetoric. As far as Trump is concerned, the war has just begun.

I encourage readers to access a memo written by a senior member of The National Security Council, Rich Higgins, before he was fired by General H. R. McMaster in May. The memo was reproduced in full by the highly-respected Foreign Policy blog,

It is a remarkable document. It articulates the alt-right ideology completely and comprehensively.  Higgins is correct in so many ways. He accurately exposes the various channels of communication used in political warfare. In one sense, the document is rational and astute – even brilliant. But it is an evil manifesto because its author believes that people have a malleable moral center that can be influenced by controlling the daily news cycle. He (and presumably Bannon, Miller and Trump) does not acknowledge an absolute distinction between political right and wrong, between good and evil.

Rich Higgins Alt-Right Theorist

Rich Higgins, Alt-Right Theorist

Higgins unabashedly espouses the legitimacy of racism, xenophobia, sexism, nativism, militarism, etc.. According to him, people (like me) who consider such attitudes morally repugnant are duped victims of “cultural Marxism”. They are convinced that people who speak of Trump as illegitimate, corrupt and dishonest do so because they are misguided, because they have been persuaded by “pseudo-publicity” (fake news). They give no credence to the notion that people have deep-seated values that are impervious to the news cycle.

Higgins provides a list of entities that collaborate and inter-operate against the Trump regime. This is sickeningly reminiscent of Hitler’s worldview expressed in Mein Kampf. The list includes governments participating in international trade groups like the EU, their citizenries, Academe, news organizations, urban real estate owners, the “deep state”, Islamists (non-Christians), traditional Republicans, Democrats, and others. These powerful groups are THE ENEMY. Higgins does not agree to disagree with us according to the norms of a democracy. Rather, he justifies a crusade and invokes the norms of total war, a moral climate in which countless harmful and evil actions are justifiable in order to win an ultimate victory. To an amoral theorist like Higgins, polarization (our enemies vs. us) is a good thing and democracy be damned. This is war!

The Foreign Policy article explains that there is a power struggle within the White House. Higgins’ firing reflects the National Security Council (NSC) Chief H. R. McMaster’s more traditional worldview – fewer enemies, diplomatic tactics, decorum. McMaster fired Steve Bannon’s man Higgins when he read the memo and wants to fire the people to whom the memo was circulated.  Trump and Bannon have said no to further dismissals. Bannon, who McMaster recently ousted from the NSC,  is conducting a  propaganda campaign on the alt-right internet hoping to incite anti-McMaster sentiment.

That’s interesting, inside-baseball stuff. But Trump is Commander in Chief in this 21st Century war, and his daily tweets and on-camera statements are clear evidence that he fully embraces the wartime tactics and strategies espoused by Higgins, Bannon, Trump Junior, and Stephen Miller. I suspect that General McMaster himself has not been fired because the Department of Defense and the United States Senate still hold considerable power in Washington.  Firing McMaster would be seen as an attempted coup d’état by the two institutions who remain capable of thwarting some of Trump’s agenda.

Higgins believes that controlling the daily news cycle in a perpetual campaign is the primary function of Trump’s Presidency, an overriding objective that supersedes any other. We can expect daily outrages for the foreseeable future. (Aargh!) Ideological Trumpists consider the distinctions between campaigning and governing to be inconsequential and counter- productive. They do not care whether their governing decisions are harmful so long as those decisions can be represented as consistent with the racist, chauvinistic, sexist, militaristic, etc. memes to which their voting base adheres.

The anxiety and tension we suffer these days is a form of battle fatigue. Be prepared for much more of the same.


By stancutler,

We’re in the early months of the 2018 political campaigns. Yes, it’s sad. The times when campaigns only lasted a few months are over. Seventeen months before the next election, I’m already thinking about the political wars to come. My hope is that  Americans elect enough people to Congress to reverse the effects of Trump’s 2016 victory.

How should Democrats and sensible Republicans conduct the upcoming campaigns? They will have to win seats in districts wherein a substantial number of voters seem unshakably devoted to “their” President? How do you reason with people who resent reasoning? How do you persuade those who refuse to recognize the difference between a fact and an opinion? Are there campaign strategies available to anti-Trump candidates that could work? And did the 2016 campaign provide indications of how to win the next one?

Classical Rhetoric is a venerable academic discipline that describes the problem space as a sort of Venn diagram with at least three overlapping domains: the speaker, the message and the audience. As the campaign progresses, I’ll be writing from a Rhetorical perspective, as someone who analyzes public persuasion as communication. (I used to teach the discipline at Penn State.)

When I consider any audience, let’s say Trump voters, I imagine that each of the individuals in it has a hierarchical belief system. The foundation of the hierarchy is Identity. A winning candidate is perceived by a majority of voters as a personification of group identity. This level is illogical, by definition it is impervious to reasoning. Trump’s appeals are pandering – their effect is to amplify the self worth of individuals as belonging to a just and powerful group – “the best” of all groups – good ol’ fashioned hard-working patriotic Americans. Trump does this by mocking and belittling The Others, those who “are not us”.

Part of the genius of the Trump phenomenon is recognition that his overbearing executive style, perfected over 14 seasons of The Apprentice, his macho shtick, his ethos, seems Presidential. His supporters will stay in his camp for as long as they perceive him as a winning champion on their behalf. They dismiss his personality flaws as inconsequential. They cannot be dissuaded by a Chuck Schumer lecturing about the consequences of pending legislation. Why? Not because Schumer is illogical, but because he is perceived by Trumpites as challenging to deeper levels of their belief systems. If Trumpites were to agree with Schumer, no matter how logical his positions, it would constitute a betrayal of their identities.

I am, by no means, suggesting that candidates running in 2018 copy the Trump playbook. But they have to craft and deliver messages that seem as all-American as Trump’s, and they have to exude absolute certainty in their ability to succeed as the voters’ champion. This is not a new playbook, it is why any successful candidate wins an election.

So, assuming that candidates can come across as all-American and confident, how can they communicate sound ideas in ways that win elections in districts with many Trumpites? I think they have to simplify. They have to remember that they are not in classrooms or courtrooms. They have to be entertaining. They should glorify their vision for America and their districts. They should say what they are for in a loud, clear and dignified manner. They must make voters feel better about themselves for believing in them. And they must not present themselves as Trump antagonists.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders do it, but both are flawed. My sense is that Warren is too “holier than thou”, a teacher’s pet, a goody-two-shoes. Younger versions of Sanders could win. But both may be too left-wing for the right-leaning American electorate. We need American Emmanuel Macrons.

Macron is a highly-trained public servant with experience as a senior government official. It was certainly an advantage that he was 39 years old, articulate and physically attractive. In the French elections, Macron’s most powerful opponent was Marine Le Pen, the champion of the “true French” much as Trump is the champion of “true Americans”.

Many 2018 American candidates will be tempted to run against Trump. But Macron demonstrated that such a strategy would be ineffective, particularly in pro-Trump districts. Macron did not campaign against Le Pen, he did not present himself as a polar opposite, but rather as a pro-business centrist. We desperately need candidates who know that there are more votes in the moderate center than on the polar extremes.

Macron did not publish a Platform until a month before the first of the two Spring elections. And then he devoted only a single day of his campaign to defending it in a structured public forum. It is always better to describe problems afflicting the audience rather than specific solutions that are easily attacked as unworkable or unrealistic. On the campaign trail, he avoided the wonky weeds of policy. He did not exaggerate the problems, he did not try to scare people into voting for him. Rather, he emphasized goals – a vision. People voted for him because they wanted to make France great again. 2018 American candidates would do well to follow his example.


The Politics Show

By stancutler,

We are fascinated by the President’s shtick. When we tune to our favorite news channels or read what’s printed, his latest mockeries are the headlines and top-of-the-show stories. As defined by Google, “shtick is a gimmick, comic routine, style of performance, etc., associated with a particular person”. Trump’s shtick attracts more interest than any other topic on planet Earth. It’s huge. He perfected it as a reality TV performer. In the commercial entertainment environment, ratings are the only measures that matter.

I think about the similarities between  theater and politics when I retrieve the newspaper from my doorstep every morning. As I work at my computer, I avoid checking the newsfeeds. If I relied on my smart phone to feel connected on social media, I’d have to resist clicking links to Trump’s latest bit of shtick as I went about my business. I avoid cable news. I feel as if I’m hunkered down in a blizzard of Trumpnews, shoulders hunched against the bit storm.

We are being intentionally manipulated by the President to keep his show at the top of the ratings lists. In Trump’s value system, our opinions are less significant than our attention. In our media ecology, in which Trump is the dominant creature, it matters far less what we think of him than that we think of him at all.

Throughout the 2015-2016 primary election season, he kept his place on the podium because we tuned-in to see him play The Fool, a stock theatrical character whose role is to mock The King. He won the ratings war and, contrary to common sense, succeeded in converting his ratings into enough votes to win the general election. The problem, of course, is that he is now The King, but still plays The Fool. It’s his shtick.

Another parallel to theater has to do with our emotional investment in the outcome. We watch the show if we care. There are no stakes higher than the United States Presidency. In every plot, whether it be a children’s story or a Shakespeare play, the audience has to believe that the outcome matters. Our interest intensifies in proportion to the level of danger or to the value of the prize. In the media world, intense interest is the coin of the realm. Trump’s “great again” boasts inflate the likelihood of reward. Similarly, his exaggerated warnings heighten our perception of risk. He refers to the threat of terrorism and the likelihood of a North Korean attack out of all proportion to the actual risks because these exaggerations intensify our focus on him.

We can take the parallels between politics and theater too far – one is pretense and the other painfully real. But that doesn’t mean that the similarities are inconsequential. Many Americans, almost half of us, choose not to vote. Some of the non-participants think the news is only theater. To them, all politicians are acting with no more concern for their interests than someone playing a character on a TV show. Despite all the bluster from our capitols, they are convinced that their daily lives are not influenced by whoever wins an election. For these citizens, it’s just another show.

Our urges to be entertained and to learn are both powerful. In combination, they are the basis of a kind of addiction that the news media and Donald Trump feed in partnership. There are important and meaningful distinctions between entertainment and learning, but they are distinctions that matter little in the news business. The news shows have to be sensational and emotionally engaging else the ratings plummet. Trump’s shtick got him to the Presidency, our fascination so great that all other stories were minimized to satisfy our interest. He hijacked the news. Call me old fashioned, but I think we have to be able to distinguish between shtick and substance.

I still harbor a hope that Trump can change from Fool  to King. I watch the news now to learn whether the Chorus, the sensible populace, will prevail as it did in ancient Greek comedies. When the Chorus failed, it was a tragedy.


The Testosterone President

By stancutler,

Imagine that there is a simple psychological difference between men and women, a continuum with placid passivity at one extreme and headlong aggression at the other, yin and yang. Now imagine that the recent exercise in American democracy was a campaign in which a winning margin of voters opted for a male leadership style, deliberately rejecting feminism. Viewed as an exercise in gender identity, the 2016 election was not about policy or issues – it was about national character.

When voters rejected Hillary Clinton for President, they were rejecting the ethos of female government. Anti-Clinton voters were tired of  ambiguity and nuance. Trump is not so much a Republican, or a billionaire, or a conservative as he is All-Male, near the loony end of the male/female continuum. Trump voters wanted their personification to be emphatically male: aggressive, fearless, obsessed with winning. Many of these voters were women.

From the earliest days of the campaign, when Trump floated down on his golden escalator, he has consistently behaved as a deranged male, a gleeful bull in a china shop of fragile egos. His tweets are calculated aggression, a way for him to seize the initiative every morning. His appearances before the TV cameras are the same – aggressive, on offense, combative.  Lots of Americans believe that is precisely how a strong national leader ought to behave. This belief is pre-rational, arising from a bedrock of identity deep below the conscious level at which “rational” decisions are made. Gender is as fundamental to political choice as patriotism, religion, or values. Trump’s supporters are less concerned with what he does than they are with the way he does it.

The 2016 election was the culmination of a century of gender revolution, a period during which the social distinctions between men and women departed radically from the norms of our ancestors. Birth control and the replacement of muscle by machines had much to do with the changes. In 1916, the overwhelming majority of women were at home all the time, mothers, housekeepers. In 2016, more women than men had salaried jobs outside the home, many earning more than the men in their families. Women were increasingly holding elected office and running companies. Homosexuals and lesbians were getting married. For many people, these trends had personal impacts that were deeply disturbing, testing their notions of a core American identity. A Presidential election is always about national character, a choice of who best personifies the American nation.

Much has been made about the current political power structure, the dominance of Republicans in State Governments and in the US House of Representatives. In thousands of election victories since 2010, Americans expressed discomfort with the Democratic Party style.  The Democratic Party is bewildered – how can they have gotten it so badly wrong? Of course, gerrymandering and political tactics were influential. Yes, there were bad court decisions and big money. Global economic changes had an impact. But something more fundamental was also taking place. As much as 2016 was about issues, the rejection of Clinton in 2016 was also a rejection of feminism as national character.

I am aware that this is an extreme simplification of an enormously complicated phenomenon. But to ignore the gender dimensions of recent elections would be a mistake. And, as we watch Trump’s behavior as President, it would be well to keep gender in mind. His blustering is  calculated. His is the testosterone Presidency, and he’s not going to let us forget it.