Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Lure of Despotism and Its Failure

Look, I understand to some degree Donald Trump's appeal, which is to say, the appeal of setting aside democratic norms in favor of an elective despotism.  Democracy is hard.  It requires habits and discipline that are difficult to learn and easy to forget such as acceptance of dissent as normal, recognition of the need for that seeming oxymoron, a loyal opposition, and a willingness to be gracious both in victory and defeat.  Democracy is best seen, not as something people desire for itself, but as an uneasy compromise, not as good as a dictatorship by Us, but infinitely preferable to a dictatorship by Them.

But that isn't all.  Democracy is ugly.  It airs out its dirty linen in the most distasteful manner that tends to undermine respect. New scandals always seem to be breaking out.  As the saying goes, two things you never want to see made are laws and sausages.  When lawmaking takes place in public, you get to see all the petty, spiteful, self-serving activity that goes into it, all the actors who seem more interested in advancing their partisan interests -- or, worse, their personal egos -- than the public good.  Factions,  petty squabbles, procedural tricks, and countless other distasteful matters are carried on in full public sight.  And, worse, when things take place in private, the public can only assume that politicians are hiding something worse than the ugliness on full display.  Besides, the democratic process is demonstrably inefficient.  Important goals get tied up in petty procedural squabbles and important work remains undone.  In times of deep ideological divide (as we have been experiencing) the inefficiency becomes much worse.

In times like this, people tend to lose faith in democratic institutions like Congress or their state legislature and admire authoritarian institutions like the military or the police, which are presumed to be disinterested patriots above petty, personal motive.  Or they long for a nice dictator to cut through the red tape and get things done.  Dictators, its is assumed, by eschewing the cumbersome democratic process, can exercise real efficiency and make the trains run on time.

There is just one little problem with this theory.  It isn't true. Dictatorships, as well as armies, police forces, and other inherently authoritarian institutions in a democracy, are just as petty, just as given to self-serving motives, and just as prone to factions and self-serving behavior as any democratic legislature.  The difference is that these things take place in private so the public doesn't see them.

I seem to recall a quote from one of the Founding Fathers to the effect that he was not concerned about efficiency in government because all the efficient governments he knew were despotic, but if so, he was wrong.  Free governments vary greatly, from grossly inefficient and incompetent to as good as can be expected in an imperfect world,*  but despotic government are always grossly incompetent and inefficient.  Any account of the Soviet Union is staggering in the degree of incompetence an inefficiency on display.  The Czars were also notorious in that regard, as were the Turkish sultans.  Nazi Germany is likewise proving to have been wildly inefficient.  After the conquest of Saddam Hussein's government, the US was able to lay bare the nature of his regime by studying the documents of his government and the pathology and incompetence is staggering.**

There are reasons why despotism always leads to inefficiency.  A leading one is that when institutions are kept from any outside scrutiny, they invariably become corrupt, sclerotic, and incompetent.  The only way to make government efficient is to subject it to openness and accountability.  Another is that under despotism, people invariably fear giving their leaders unwelcome news.  The result is that leaders live in a fantasy world.***  Yet another is that despotic leaders tend to fear and distrust any person or institution that is too competent as a possible threat and therefore deliberately set out to undermine any show of competence.  And finally, despots have serious internal security problems and are always setting up countless rival internal security organizations, each designed to infiltrate and undermine the others.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued by a blogpost I saw (no longer linkable) which postulated that bureaucratic orderliness is synonymous with the rule of law, and that snarling of the bureaucracy is the inevitable result of despotism.

In short, any sort of despotism is incompatible with efficiency.

But if despotism invariably breeds inefficiency, inefficiency also breeds despotism.  At the time the US was founded the Baron de Montesquieu, the political scientist who most influenced the Founding Fathers, had postulated that any government over a large territory was inherently despotic.  (This was one of the reasons many Americans so feared a strong federal government).  He acknowledged in exception in cases of a confederation, in which a large number of locally self-governing territories joined under a single partial government.  Montesquieu, it should be noted, distinguished between monarchy, meaning one-man government under the rule of law, and despotism, meaning one-man government run arbitrarily.  He considered liberty to be compatible with  monarchy, but not with despotism.  Perhaps one can see, then, why large territory and despotism went together.  Technology being what it was in the 18th century, there was a limit to how large a territory could be and still be efficiently administered.  In a confederation of self-governing sub-states, each local government is answerable to the population it governs and therefore prevented from being despotic.  In a monarchy of manageable size, local rulers are answerable to their bureaucratic superiors and can bound by laws and subject to administrative punishment for illegal or oppressive conduct.  In a territory under a single central government, but too large for efficient oversight, the central rulers have little choice but to appoint local official and leave them to their own devices.  These viceroys are accountable to neither the local population nor the central government and act as local, petty despots who are invariably despised.

A milder version of these factors can be seen even in democratic governments.  The rampant corruption in the Grant Administration, for instance, appears to have resulted at least partly from Grant's authoritarian, military style of administration and failure to abide the the normal bureaucratic division of labor, i.e., its snarling of the usual bureaucratic orderliness.  McCarthyism made State Department officials fear to give accurate reports to their superiors.  Although their fear was merely for their careers and not for life or liberty, the result was nonetheless to undermine the quality of information that made its way up the chain of command. And George W. Bush was notorious, both for cutting himself off from unwelcome news and for administrative incompetence.

Which leads to the subject of Donald Trump.  The article begins:
We’re all aware of the movie supervillain cliche, coldly murdering his top lieutenant while seething, “You have failed me for the  last time!” You see that, and you’ve got to wonder: Who are these stupid henchmen? Why would anyone work for that asshole? 
In real life, people don’t want to work for that asshole, particularly not when they have better options. 
Obviously, operating in the US, and without the power of the state, Trump is at the milder end of the despotism scale.  Barred from murdering his top lieutenant, he settles for strict non-disclosure statements and sues employees who break them.  He also promotes rivalries among employees on a "divide and conquer" theory, and tends to favor yes-men who tell him what he wants to hear.  In short, denied a the opportunity to be a true despot, Trump nonetheless rules in the most despotic style he has available, with the resulting -- and predictable -- distortions and inefficiencies.  He may very well win the election despite all that.  But, as I have commented countless times before, if he can't even run a campaign, what sort of job will he do running a government?  My answer would be, as despotically inefficient a job as our institutions permit.

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*And, incidentally, despite libertarian theories of the perfectly efficient private sector driven by perfect markets, really "as good as can be expected in an imperfect world' is as good as can be expected from the private sector, either.
**To the extent that it made me think Hollywood understands evil overlords better than we give it credit for.  (Cue jokes about Hollywood having lots of evil overlords, known as "producers."
***Following the movie The Last Emperor, I read an abbreviated translation of the Last Emperor Pu Yi's autobiography, which contained an extraordinary example.  Under the despotic Dowager Empress Cuxi believed that Europeans had no knees!  (My father believes this was an excuse that exempted them from kneeling in the presence of the emperor).  As a result, when China's highest ranking officials were planning support for the Boxer Rebellion, someone suggested that if they pushed Europeans over with a stick, they would be unable to get up!  Needless to say, it did not work.

Trump: The Worst of All Possible Worlds

Sure enough, Donald Trump's fear-mongering speech is swinging public opinion in his favor.  The latest polls show him nearly pulling even with Clinton.  Nate Silver now shows his chances of winning at 42.3%, with the critical swing states of Ohio, Florida and Iowa all narrowly trending Trump and Nevada too close to call.  Whether this is merely a convention bounce or a permanent trend remains to be seen.  Panic may premature now, just as it was when Trump had his post-nomination bounce.  But we are getting into the home stretch when every little jiggle of the polls really does mean something.

But I will reiterate my view that even if the US really is in as much peril as Trump claims (which it is not), the last thing it would need would be to put Trump in charge, because Trump is utterly and absolutely unqualified to be President.  His complete unfitness for the office, whether in knowledge, temperament, or ethics, is what his opponents should be hammering on just as much as the Republicans focused on bashing Hillary.  Is our country in peril?  Then don't turn it over to a man who knows and cares nothing about any important issue facing it, who can't concentrate more than a few minutes on any subject except his own self-aggrandizement, and who hasn't shown himself competent to run a campaign, let alone a government.  Is our system rife with crony-ism?  The don't turn it over the the biggest crony of them all.  Is Hillary corrupt?  Then don't prefer instead a man whose corruption reaches unprecedented heights.  Is Hillary wrong?  Well, at least she is wrong within normal parameters.

Trump is not a normal candidate.  This was acknowledged in the primaries, but is largely forgotten now.  He is being treated as a perfectly normal candidate as the polls above show.

Sometimes Trump almost seems to be deliberately combining the capital flaws of all our previous Presidents.  Someone on a comments thread accused GW Bush of being:

  • More egotistical than Johnson
  • More vindictive than Nixon
  • Stupider than Ford
  • Less competent than Carter
  • Lazier than Reagan
  • Less honest than Clinton
(They probably had some unfavorable comparison to his father, but I don't remember what it was).  Well, in the clear light of hindsight, this is grossly unfair to Bush.  (Also to Ford, who was not stupid at all).  But it is a perfect description of Trump.  Consider:
  • More egotistical than Johnson.  Check.  Even his supporters would presumably not dispute this.
  • More vindictive than Nixon.  Again, check.  He has been openly threatening to use the power of the federal government against personal enemies if elected.
  • Stupider than Ford.  This one calls for some qualifications.  First of all, Ford got the unfair reputation of being stupid, but it was never true.  As for Trump, I certainly don't think he could have gotten so rich by being stupid.  But, as with Ben Carson, intelligence is not indivisible. Carson is literal brain surgeon, but that doesn't mean he knows anything about public policy, any more that than even our best any most brilliant President (choose for yourself which one) was qualified to perform brain surgery.  Trump is obviously highly intelligent in terms of exploiting all publicity to his advantage and capitalizing on name recognition.  In terms of parting fools from their money, he is a rare genius.  But in terms of his knowledge of public policy, he is a world-class ignoramus.  So, yeah, take whatever President was least conversant in public policy, and Trump is considerable less knowledgeable.
  • Less competent than Carter.  Let anyone who doubts this just look at the utter hash he has made of his campaign.  Granted, he easily coasted to victory in the primary despite his utter lack of a campaign structure, and my win the general election as well despite this deficiency.  But if he can't even manage a campaign, consider how well he will manage a government.
  • Lazier than Reagan.  This one, too, calls for some qualification, because it again raises the question of how Trump could have gotten so rich by being lazy.  Reagan was a notoriously disengaged, hands-off manager.  Trump certainly seems willing to work hard in terms of giving speeches, pressing the flesh, and the like.  But in terms of the nitty gritty work of actually learning about policy, Trump has made amply clear that he has no interest whatever in doing this.  In fact, he apparently intends to let his Vice President set all domestic and foreign policy while he works at "Making America great again," presumably by making speeches to adoring audiences.  There is a certain trade-off to be made in levels of engagement.  One reason for Carter's legendary incompetence appears to be that he failed to recognize just how much more difficult and complex the US government is than the government of Georgia.  As a result, he failed to delegate enough and took on more than he could handle.  Ronald Reagan, by contrast, delegated too much and let his advisers run out of control.  It led to a different kind of incompetence.
  • Less honest than Clinton.  Trump has taken lying to unheard-of heights.  Politifact rates his statements as 4% true, 10% mostly true, 15% half true, 16% mostly false, 37% false, and 17% pants on fire.  In other words, over half the things he says are completely and utterly false, and 70% are at least mostly false.
As for George W. Bush, in the clear light of hindsight, his capital flaw was his incuriosity or, if you prefer, his willingness to ignore the evidence and go with the gut.  He knew in his gut that Saddam Hussein just had to be involved with Al-Qaeda, just had to have a huge stockpile of weapons of mass destruction and just had to have re-started his nuclear program.  And he knew in his gut that we just had to be welcomed as liberators and that removing Saddam Hussein just had to work a democratic and US friendly transformation in the Middle East.  If there was no evidence to support any of these beliefs, that was simply the result of incompetence by our intelligence agencies or Saddam's skill in covering his tracks.  This certainty was matched by Bush's confidence that there just couldn't be an insurgency in Iraq when our intentions were so good.  Such confidence in his gut in the absence of any evidence proved disastrous.  But here again, Trump is more incurious, more fact-challenged, more confident that his gut instincts are superior to facts and evidence, whatever you want to call it, than GW Bush.

What is Obama's capital flaw?  Some might say when he first ran for President that it was his lack of experience, as he was only a freshman Senator.  Trump, by contrast, has no experience in government whatever, so he compares unfavorably to Obama in that regard.  

For a long time, many Republicans talked about Obama's teleprompter problem.  By this they meant that he was just an empty suit, reading lines from a teleprompter and not actually knowing what he was talking about.  Their main reason for this assumption was that Obama genuinely did stumble in debate and in more spontaneous formats.  But this was because Obama tended to over-think in those situations, rather than because he was uninformed.  With practice, he got a lot better at the more spontaneous give-and-take of debate. There was some truth in the accusation, though, that Obama was an empty suit who made people feel good about themselves without actually committing to anything, and that he thus let people project their aspirations onto him without actually standing for anything.  That necessarily meant that once in power he would disappoint.  Well, Trump has a teleprompter problem, but it is exactly the opposite.  He thrives in the spontaneous give-and-take of debate, but is not cut out for reading speeches from a teleprompter.  On the other hand, he really is uninformed.  Obama's opponents falsely accused him of reading speeches off the teleprompter without understanding them.  When Trump reads speeches off the teleprompter, he really doesn't understand them.  He has taken clear and definite, though not very practical, positions on immigration and trade.  As for other issues, he really doesn't have a position, but instead channels, not people's aspirations, but their resentments.  

So Trump is less experienced and more of an empty suit than Obama.

Clearly Trump has capitalized on corruption as Hillary Clinton's capital flaw.  But given the stories that have come out about his business practices, it is clear that Hillary is a babe in the woods by comparison.  Indeed, he seems to have no concept of the public interest as separate from his private interests.  Looking back for a point of comparison to the level of corruption Trump is promising, there is really none in US history.  Historically, our most corrupt administrations are considered to have been Warren G. Harding and Ulysses S. Grant.  But the corruption in the Harding Administration appears to have been limited to his Secretary of the Interior and not implicated the President or his appointees in general.  Grant, by contrast, ran an administration rife with corruption from top to bottom, but he personally was honest.  The only point of comparison I can think of for Trump is patrimonialism, i.e.,  "a type of rule in which the ruler does not distinguish between personal and public patrimony and treats matters and resources of state as his personal affair."  Those seem to be the terms in which Trump thinks, although I have some confidence in our institutions and their ability to prevent the worst abuses.

Throwing in other candidates in recent times, Trump seems to exceed all their flaws as well.  He is certainly less qualified for office than Sarah Palin.  I hearken back to when Paul Krugman said that anyone claiming to believe all the Republican doctrine would have to be either completely clueless or completely cynical.  He classified Romney as cynical with Bachman, Perry and Caine as clueless.  He ignored Trump's brief, ill-fated run.  At the time, I said Trump was cynical, but might manage a two-fer by being clueless as well.  Well, now we have our answer.  He is more cynical than Romney and more clueless than Bachman, Perry and Caine combined.  

The only recent candidate I have trouble comparing him unfavorably to is Ross Perot, with his insane, paranoid rantings about Republicans disrupting his daughter's wedding and circulating doctored photos of her.  The whole thing was so out there as to sound like true, clinical insanity.  And I am not yet ready to say that Trump is as clinically paranoid as Perot.  But, at the same time . . . Well, there is his flirtation with the birthers.  And with Alex Jones.  And his utterly bizarre stories about Ted Cruz's father having something to do with Lee Harvey Oswald (the main reason Cruz refused to endorse him).  So he might be giving even Perot a run for his money.

So there is my assessment of Donald Trump.  He combines all the worst features of our recent Presidents and candidates, and even of some harking back.  He is:
  • More egotistical than Johnson
  • More vindictive than Nixon
  • Stupider than Ford (who really wasn't stupid)
  • Less competent than Carter
  • Lazier than Reagan
  • Less honest than Clinton
  • More reality-challenged than G.W. Bush
  • More of an empty suit than Obama
  • More corrupt than Hillary (or Harding, or Grant . . . )
  • Less qualified than Palin
  • More clueless than Bachman, Perry or Caine
  • More cynical than Romney
  • And almost as paranoid, in the true clinical sense, as Ross Perot
And he stands almost a 50/50 chance of being our next President.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Three Biggest Stories From the Republican Convention

OK, I can't take it anymore.  I am giving in and making a new category of "Donald Trump."  So, what can I say about the Republican Convention.  I didn't watch it on TV, but read about it in blogs (anti-Trump).  So, what were the main stories of the convention.  I see three.

The dog that didn't bark.  To me, the biggest story about the convention was what didn't happen. There were no riots, no disturbances, no ugly showdowns between pro- and anti-Trump open carry advocates, no scary black guys, no scary biker dudes, nothing much to report outside the convention hall.  The drama took place within.

Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  Donald Trump's overall speech was an appeal to sheer, raw fear.  In my view, that is very dangerous for several reasons.

For one, fear is the most powerful of emotions because it grows directly out of the self-preservation instinct.  This causes fear to short-circuit reason and be very hard to counteract.

For another, it is my long-standing belief that fear is the greatest danger to democracy -- worse than power lust, although the combination of the followers' fear and the leader's ambition can be truly deadly.  And that looks very much like the Trump phenomenon.

Furthermore, although Trump's appeal to fear is vastly overblown, it has just enough reality to have appeal.  Crime has been falling for a quarter-century, but this last year it appears to have gone up again.  Granted, crime remains much lower that it was, but there is no way of knowing what we are seeing now is a mere uptick, or the beginning of a trend.  Besides, as with the economy, so too with security, it is not just the absolute numbers that matter; the trend line matters as much, sometimes more.  And now the Department of Justice is reporting that inner city gangs are planning to murder police.  If true, that is very scary indeed.  There have also been a disturbing number of terrorist attacks lately.  Certainly, none have been on the scale of 9-11, nor are any large-scale attacks likely, but lone-wolf terrorist are just about impossible to stop, and they are becoming more frequent.  Again, terrorist attacks are a miniscule portion of total crime, but they call it terrorism for a reason -- because of its power to terrify.

Finally, there is the very real chance that fear may drive voters to vote for a strongman (Trump) to keep them safe.  Whatever the real answers to the very real problems and dangers we face, I certainly do not believe that electing a megalomaniac with severe attention deficit disorder, no knowledge of or interest in policy, and minimal competence is going to help any of them.

On the other hand, Trump's message of fear, danger and chaos would have been a lot more potent if there had been actual disorders going on outside the convention hall.  Still, make no mistake, this appeal to fear will move the needle in his favor.  Whether that will be short-term swing or a real turning point I would not venture to guess.

Ted Cruz commits political suicide.  Seriously, what was the guy thinking?  It's not that I blame him for holding a grudge against Trump.  Trump did, after all, insult his wife and imply that is father was somehow involved in the Kennedy assassination (!).  So Cruz might quite understandably be unwilling to support Trump.  But he had two obvious options.  One was simply to stay home, as John Kasich did.  The other would be to make a concession speech sort of speech, saying that he had his differences with Trump in the past and expected to have them in the future, but the people have spoken, and the will of the people must be respected.  But to step out onto the convention floor and refuse to endorse him is a great way for a man hated by the Republican establishment but popular with the rank-and-file to unite both sides against him.

The general consensus appears to be that Cruz is betting that Trump will be a disaster for the Republicans in the 2016 election, so that Cruz can proclaim his prescience in opposing Trump and pick up the pieces.  It seems most unlikely to happen.  First of all, it is by no means clear that Trump will be an electoral disaster for the Republicans.  (Fear sells.  See above).  But assuming that he is, instead of becoming the party's savior, Cruz is more likely to be the party scapegoat.  Republicans will blame their failure on the party's failure to unite behind its candidate, and Cruz's public rejection of Trump will be the most obvious example of that failure.  Besides, party leaders are eager to dump Cruz, and this looks like their great chance to persuade the rank-and-file to do the same, and perhaps to show the rank-and-file why they hate the man so much.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why the Latest Terrorist Attacks Don't Seem to be Helping Trump

So, in the last few weeks there has been an ISIS-loving Muslim who shot up a gay night club in Orlando Florida, an ISIS-loving Muslim in France who drove his truck into a crowd on Bastille Day, and an ISIS-loving Muslim in Germany who stabbed several passengers on a train.  There has also been the murder of five Dallas police by a radical black sniper, the murder of three Baton Rouge police by a radical black semi-anarchist, and several simple criminal killings of police.  This sort of thing is supposed to rebound to the advantage of the tough-guy candidate.  But none of it seems to be making much difference now.  Why not?

I can only assume, because the way the US media operate these days, in the last few months before an election, the election sucks all the oxygen out of the news cycle, so nothing else gets any sustained attention.  The only exception I remember is 2008, when we suffered the worst financial crisis since 1929 less than two months before the election.  But that was obviously an exceptional case.*

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*In 1956, which was before my time, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, Israel invaded Egypt with British and French backing, and the Secretary of State had emergency surgery for cancer, all in the immediate lead-up to the election.  Needless to day, all of this grabbed headlines.  What I don't know is whether presidential elections were such all-deadening events then as they are now.

Donald Trump's Vice President

And for the latest scoop on Donald Trump.  This article has been quite revealing and attracted a great deal of attention.  Apparently Trump asked John Kasich to be his Vice President, promising to put him in charge of "domestic and foreign policy" while Trump handled "making America great again."

I suppose it should be encouraging that Trump recognizes that he is utterly unqualified to handle "domestic and foreign policy."  Or, more likely, he simply doesn't much care about domestic or foreign policy, but at least recognizes that someone will have to handle them.  Presumably the plan would be for Kasich to actually run things, while Trump served as a figurehead who ran around shooting his mouth off.  Presumably Pence will now hold the same role.

It might seem almost reasonable -- someone competent will actually run things, while Trump's more rabid fans will never notice the difference.  But I can't see it quite working.  A Trump who simply basks in glamour and makes speeches will no doubt promise a lot of things that simply are not doable in the real world.  And, most likely, he will promise any number of mutually exclusive and contradictory things.  And when he fails to deliver, guess who will get the blame.  No wonder Kasich declined the role of administration scapegoat!

And presumably Trump will want to make the big, general decisions, including what to do in a crisis. I suppose there are things that can be done about that.  One would be to let Trump blather incoherently while his Vice President makes the actual decision.  A less subtle version of the same would be to handcuff Trump, stuff something in his mouth and lock him up in the closet until the crisis passes.  Or put him on Air Force One and have it take off somewhere out of radio range.  A more subtle version would be to let Trump spout several mutual exclusive answers and then manipulate him into doing whatever makes actual sense.

Then there is the account by Trump's ghostwriter breaking the shocking news about Trump that everyone who has been paying attention noticed a long time ago.  He has an extremely short attention span.  In fact, it is just about impossible to keep him focused on any topic other than his own self-aggrandizement for more than a few minutes.  “If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time.”  How disastrous this would be, I suppose, would depend on how well his Vice President could distract, manipulate and usurp.  But if Trump ever caught on what was happening -- well, I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of it.

And besides, even if Trump's Vice President could manipulate him out of making any actual policy decisions, presumably he would not be so easily distracted from two goals -- using the power of the Federal Government to punish his domestic critics and to advance his personal business interests. Some poor sucker would have to present legal caveats to him.  Presumably, that poor sucker would be his Vice President.  Once again, I can see why Kasich didn't want the job.  What is harder to understand is why anybody at all would accept it.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

How to Attack Trump's Vice Presidential Choice

So, Hillary Clinton has apparently decided to go with the conventional in attacking Trump's Vice Presidential choice, calling him an ideological extremists yada, yada, yada, that will all go in one ear and out the other.

I would have preferred a more trollish approach.  Hillary should have congratulated Trump on an excellent choice, said that Pence's many years of service in government, both in the House and as Governor of Indiana, show that he is well-qualified for the job, and noted with approval that Pence didn't let ideological dogma stand in the way of giving poor people access to health care when he approved the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, taking care to use the word "Obamacare."

Anyone who hates Trump is not going to change their minds just because of his Vice Presidential pick.  But people who like his outsider status, he purity of any government service, will be distrustful upon being reminded that he has chosen a political insider as his running mate.  And as for choosing a candidate who has collaborated in the hated Obamacare -- well, that should be enough to put him on the defensive for a while and force him to do a good deal of explaining.  And in the world of politics, once you are on the defensive and explaining, you have lost the discussion.

Just What We Need! [Sarcasm]

Great!  Just what we need!  As if it wasn't enough to have white, right-wing paramilitaries and open carry advocates, now we have black, left-wing paramilitaries and open carry advocates.  It appears that the New Black Panther Party will be showing up openly armed at Trump protests.  This after black open carry advocates showed up at the Dallas Black Lives Matter rally and added to the confusion as a sniper fired on the crowd and the police (understandably) got confused and assumed the armed men present were in league with the sniper.  (And, it should be added, these good guys with guns were completely useless against the bad guy with the gun).

I suppose at least this will be a good test of my earlier question: Is the Second Amendment content neutral?  Do people who believe that the Second Amendment authorizes all law-abiding citizens to for private paramilitaries for the possible violent overthrow of government extend this right to everyone, regardless of religion or ideology, so long as they promise not to start shooting until their apocalypse-of-choice actually comes about?  It is true that a few Oath Keepers offered assistance to Black Lives Matter, but BLM turned them down, so the question remained moot.  With the New Black Panther Party, it is fast becoming relevant.

A quick glance at the right-wing press for their reactions showed them to be mostly neutral; they generally stuck to reporting the item without comment.  One did complain:
The news media has wall-to-wall coverage when conservatives carry firearms at protests, yet there has been no media coverage of this armed anti-Trump protest even with the Chicago riot Friday night over Trump and the arrest of a leftist agitator who stormed the stage during Trump’s Dayton rally.
So, mostly complaints about being unfairly singled out, but no opinions expressed on whether open carry by Trump protesters is appropriate.  Well, I trust they will grant the ideological consistency of the New York Times, which has condemned such displays.

I suppose general gun advocates have two possible responses here.  One is to say that when protesters and counter-protesters show up, the more heavily armed they are the better because it assures no violence because of the danger of retaliation.  To this I can only answer that anyone saying such a thing is living in a fantasy world.  Showing up armed at demonstrations is a form of escalation.  For both sides to show up armed is further escalation positively asking for trouble.  So radical an anti-government commentator as Justin Raimondo explained:
The whole point of even attending such a gathering, or, indeed, any sort of rational discussion about anything, is that we leave our guns—embodying the possibility of coercion—outside the door. We forsake force, and rely solely on our persuasive powers to get our point across.*
Two sides gearing up for possible armed showdown makes an actual showdown more likely, not less.

The other is to say that the New Black Panther Party are obvious bad guys (witness the Dallas shooting), and thus the very sort of people good guys have to arm themselves against.  Now while I fully agree that the New Black Panthers are bad guys, it also remains true that Micah Johnson (the Dallas shooter) was not a member of any of their organizations, just as Timothy McVeigh, though he regularly swam in the same ideological waters as the militia movement, did not belong to any of their organizations either.  I still regard both groups as bad guys for promoting paranoia and militarism, but YMMV, I guess.  But is it too much to hope that the New Black Panthers might bring at least an acknowledgement in some circles that the mere act of openly carrying guns and forming a private paramilitary does not automatically qualify you as a good guy?

I was fascinated by David Frum's column saying that the whole idea of  a law-abiding private paramilitary originated in the 1960's with the Black Panthers.  The Black Panthers scared the hell out of white people, led to tougher gun control laws, and eventually degenerated into criminality and were forcibly suppressed, but their ideas of the law-abiding paramilitary formed to resist state tyranny migrated over onto the right and gave rise to the anti-government militia movement.  Thus far, the paramilitary movement has been a white, rural, right-wing phenomenon, made up of general allies, though with the potential for hostile factions never far below the surface.  Well now, it appears, we have come full circle and black, urban, left-wing paramilitaries, calling themselves Black Panthers, no less, are with us again.

God help us all!

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*Admittedly, it is less clear whether he still believes that.