Russia! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!!!!!!

Here is the cartoon Matt Bors posted at Daily Kos today, under the heading “Choose Your Own Conspiracy“:

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I don’t believe that it is necessary to accept any of the items on this menu.

Unlike the speaker in the panel on the reader’s upper left, I think we ought to accept the possibility that there is something worth investigating in the Trump/ Russia stuff. Russia, like virtually every other country in the world, wants to have an influence on the US electoral process. While countries like China and Saudi Arabia were able to have massive influence on the 2016 presidential election, by means including but not limited to large cash gifts to the leading candidates, Russia is a poor country that has few friends among the US elite, a country which is stigmatized in US public opinion by the memory of the Cold War, and which is a traditional adversary of several countries which are extremely well-connected in the USA.  Therefore, it is to be expected that Russia’s attempts to advance its interests in the US political arena will tend to appear on a small scale and to proceed through unusual channels, many of them illegal.

Moreover, Don John of Astoria’s 2016 presidential campaign was conducted on the cheap, with a budget less than half that of his leading rival. Among the expenses which he spared were the hiring of experts. This suits his character, as he is a remarkably lazy and incurious man who famously refuses to read the briefing papers prepared for him. Don John was in 2016 a newcomer to the political stage, without the background that had taught other candidates to be wary of the intricate body of laws which delineate acceptable from unacceptable contacts between US officials and representatives of foreign powers. It would therefore be no surprise if his campaign had stumbled into violations of election laws regarding contacts with Russians.

The speakers in the panel on the reader’s lower left do make a good point- where investigative agencies are corrupt, it really is difficult to know anything about any particular crime. That is certainly the case in the current matter, where the Shitlord-in-Chief of Russiagate (“Actually, it’s about ethics in campaign communications”) is Robert Mueller, who was as brazen a liar as any of the high officials who peddled false stories in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Perhaps Mr Mueller has turned over a new leaf, and his recent untestable claims about Russian military intelligence activities deserve more credence than did his sworn testimony to the US Senate. People can change, after all. On the other hand, they can also remain the same, especially when they have paid no penalty of any kind for their prior misconduct. As long as Mr Mueller and men of his ilk are in charge of the investigation, therefore, it behooves us to be deeply skeptical of it.

Deep skepticism, however, need not preclude eventual agreement. Each proposition the investigators put forward will have to be tested severely by independent observers if it is to be regarded as credible. Any propositions that can pass such tests, even though they come from so unreliable a source as Mr Mueller, may ultimately be accepted. After all, in his day Saddam Hussein was no more credible a source than Mr Mueller is now, yet we now know that Saddam was telling the truth when he said in 2002 that he had dismantled his programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and that he had no association with al Qaeda, even as we know that Mr Mueller was deliberately lying when he contradicted those statements at the time. If history could vindicate some of Saddam’s statements, perhaps it will someday vindicate some of Mr Mueller’s.

The “Agent Drumpf” theory advanced by the speaker in the upper right panel is so obviously insane that I cannot believe it is necessary to say anything at all about it. Don John has made occasional public remarks calling for world peace, expressing reluctance to believe unsubstantiated claims from the USA’s clownishly inept spy agencies, and acknowledging the absurdity of responding to events of recent centuries by maintaining an eternal and indissoluble military alliance with Germany against Russia. Even if one were to believe, as it seemed from what I saw on social media yesterday a great many Americans and Britons do believe, that such remarks constitute “treason,” one would still have to face the fact that Don John has made no substantive policy initiatives consonant with the view of world affairs that they reflect.  Indeed, to the extent that he has done anything to change the policies he inherited from his predecessors, he has joined in even more wars, yielded even more power to the spies, and actually expanded the membership of NATO.

The hypothesis dramatized in the lower right panel, that the outcome of the election was a surprise even to Don John himself, also seems unlikely to cover the whole truth. True, Don John spent very little of his own money on the campaign and spared himself most of the pains presidential candidates usually take to ensure that they are prepared to take office. As I noted above, however, he still spares himself those pains even now that he is in office. He is a man whose attention can be aroused only by narcissism and cruelty. The only actions to which he can be stirred are those which bring glory to him or suffering to someone else, and which bring them without delay. So, whether he expected to win or not, it is not likely that Don John would have devoted more of his time and money than he in fact did in 2016 to assembling a shadow government and establishing himself as its leader. Nor is it likely, given his sensitivity to humiliation, that he would actively have preferred defeat. Besides, while Don John may not have maintained a policy shop or paid for much of a ground organization or spent any money running up his popular vote totals in non-competitive states, his campaign did indirectly involve him in one great financial expense. His principal source of income since the 1980s has been licensing the use of his name, and the controversial public profile he had acquired by the end of the campaign reduced the value of that asset to the point where he would likely have found himself in a gravely straitened condition had he lost.

So, what is the point of the Russiagate story, a.k.a. “Russia! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!!!!”?  It does advance many interests. The same people who wanted Mr Mueller to lie to the Senate in 2002 to facilitate the invasion of Iraq today want to ensure the smooth running of the gravy train of military spending that has enriched them for several decades. That the Soviet Union has not existed for more than a quarter of a century and today’s Russia is an impoverished country with no allies, a barely functional military, and an official ideology that cannot be explained to foreigners, let alone exported overseas, is in their eyes no reason why the USA should not spend trillions of dollars and build an ever-more rigid network of alliances to contain the Kremlin’s power. Russiagate gives such people a stick to beat their opponents with, and draws people who in the past might have opposed their agenda into making public statements equating love of country with willingness to swallow whatever tales the CIA, FBI, and other such outfits choose to spin.

It also advances the interests of Don John himself. In among the shrieks of “treason!” that I saw from otherwise reasonable people online yesterday were a few stories about conversations involving people who are not Extremely Online, and who regarded claims that the US president is a traitor as evidence that the person making the claim is having a psychotic break. I saw enough shrieking from enough people to be sure that everyone who is in touch online with more than a handful of supporters of the Democratic Party or of the British Labour Party will also have seen it from people whom they had previously regarded as more or less all right. Unless Mr Mueller comes up with something pretty extraordinary, that impression is going to hamper the opposition to Don John for quite some time to come. When the 2020 presidential campaign begins in earnest next year, Democratic candidates will have a very tricky job simultaneously placating the sizable fraction of their primary electorate who will still be devout Russiagaters and avoiding the sound of General Jack D. Ripper talking about the need to keep the Russkies from corrupting our precious bodily fluids.

The greatest beneficiary of them all is doubtless Vladimir Putin himself. Mr Putin’s public support rests largely on the idea that Russia is surrounded by hostile powers and that he is uniquely suited to leading its opposition to those powers. Every time major media outlets and high public officials in the West spend hour upon hour assuring the public that Mr Putin is a supreme grandmaster of geopolitics who decided the results of a US presidential election and imply that the US is or ought to be at war with Russia, this idea receives overwhelmingly powerful reinforcement. It is difficult to imagine a more generous gift US elites could possibly have given Mr Putin than this story. He can be expected to do everything in his power to keep it alive for as long as possible.

What is the point of having political opinions?

The other day, I saw a rather stinging tweet:

To which I responded:

What I was thinking of there were the op-ed pieces I’ve read in major newspapers focused on one or another high official, with speculation as to what options that official was likely to be considering in the face of some event in the news. Those pieces might be interesting if you are that guy, or if you are likely to succeed that guy in his post, or if that guy is likely to seek your advice. If none of those descriptions applies to you, an interest in pieces like that may expose something embarrassing about your fantasy life. Strangely, not only do papers keep publishing those pieces, but lots of people whom I know personally and regard as otherwise intelligent and well-adjusted avidly share them and enjoy talking about them, both on social media and face-to-face. It makes those conversations more bearable to think of them as “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy,” so that’s one reason I’m grateful to B. D. Mathews for posting this.

Another reason I’m grateful for the tweet is that it has prompted me to think of ways of having political opinions that do not reduce to the moral equivalent of such a comment. Today I saw something good in the Weekly Standard, if you can imagine such a thing. Ian Marcus Corbin, in an essay prompted by a recent book on Nietzsche and Heidegger, argues that our social-media-driven age has prompted many of us to obsess over political  opinion-having. He concludes: “Politics may be a necessary evil—but talking incessantly about politics and viewing your countrymen solely through a political lens is an evil that we’re actively choosing, day by day. We should stop.”

The phenomenon Mr Corbin discusses is not morally equivalent to a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy; it is much worse. While the existence of pornography as an industry does represent a threat to human dignity, no one comment on such a site is particularly likely to lead anyone to hurt another person, or to degrade anyone, or to lead anyone to betray a trust.  Obsessive political partisanship routinely does lead people to do all of those things, and it makes it harder to repair the damage that follows doing them.

Nietzsche himself gave a good reason for having political opinions. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that a population which takes liberal institutions for granted will distinguish itself among the peoples of the world in its uncommon stupidity, a stupidity that no amount of schooling will cure. However!

As long as they are still being fought for, these same institutions produce quite different effects; they then in fact promote freedom mightily.  Viewed more closely, it is war which produces these effects, war for liberal institutions which as war permits the illiberal instincts to endure.  And war is a training in freedom.  For what is freedom?  That one has the will to self-responsibility.  That one preserves the distance which divides us.  That one has become more indifferent to hardship, toil, privation, even to life.  That one is ready to sacrifice men to one’s cause, oneself not excepted.  Freedom means that the manly instincts that delight in war and victory have gained mastery over the other instincts- for example, over the instinct for “happiness”… How is freedom measured, in individuals as in nations?  By the resistance which has to be overcome, by the effort it costs to stay aloft. (from section 38, as translated by R. J. Hollingdale in the Penguin Classics version)

As usual, Nietzsche expresses himself in an idiom which some will find ridiculous and others will find terrifying. But his point is not so very different from that which a self-consciously civilized man like James Madison makes in that classic of liberal political theory, the tenth Federalist paper. For Madison, it is the adversarial structure of civic life and the mutual jealousies of competing factions within it that make it possible for a community to thrive:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

No man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity. With equal, nay with greater reason, a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time; yet what are many of the most important acts of legislation, but so many judicial determinations, not indeed concerning the rights of single persons, but concerning the rights of large bodies of citizens? And what are the different classes of legislators but advocates and parties to the causes which they determine? Is a law proposed concerning private debts? It is a question to which the creditors are parties on one side and the debtors on the other. Justice ought to hold the balance between them. Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. Shall domestic manufactures be encouraged, and in what degree, by restrictions on foreign manufactures? are questions which would be differently decided by the landed and the manufacturing classes, and probably by neither with a sole regard to justice and the public good. The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice. Every shilling with which they overburden the inferior number, is a shilling saved to their own pockets.

It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.

In a society where governments are formed and dismissed as a result of popular elections, the clash of interests cannot balance itself sufficiently to regulate the state unless large numbers of people attach themselves passionately to political opinions. These opinions may not rest on any very firm rational basis; think for example of the dispute between advocates of the Gold Standard and advocates of Bimetallism that dominated US politics in the late 19th century, a dispute in which neither side espoused a view that can stand up to one moment’s scrutiny from modern economic analysis, but which did as much to revitalize American civic life as did any of the more intelligible debates of other years. It pulled Americans out of an era of backward-looking regionalism to engage with politics on a frank basis of economic class interest. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see that as a step towards reality.

I read Mr Corbin’s article, then turned immediately to Counterpunch. While the Weekly Standard is the most reliably pro-war rightist of major US publications, Counterpunch has long been the most reliably anti-war leftist of the same group. These publications are opposites of each other in those ways, and fittingly enough Counterpunch today features an article that is the converse of Mr Corbin’s.  Bruce Levine’s “Another Reason Young Americans Don’t Revolt Against Being Screwed” argues, not that too many people are too focused on political expression, but that too many people are effectively prevented from expressing or even forming political opinions.

The article picks up on an earlier piece of Mr Levine’s called “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back.” Fight back, that is, against elites who are cheating them of their future. In today’s piece, Mr Levine argues that the internet has given young Americans several more reasons to disengage from politics. First, young people fear that an online indiscretion will haunt them forever, and so refrain from saying anything controversial in any public forum. Rather than quote Mr Levine’s discussion of this fear, I will insert a recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon making the same point:

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Second, they are debilitated by the low self-esteem which their peers inculcate in them by their own relentless self-advertising:

For other young people, their greatest fear is “FoMo”—the fear of missing out—which is intensified on social media where they are constantly bombarded with images of others doing “cool” stuff. One young woman recently told me, “You don’t know how crazy we are. I saw a party on Instagram that looked really cool, and I had FoMo over it, even though I know the guy who posted it always makes parties look cooler than they really are.”

Many young people tell me that the constant barrage of their peers’ self-promotions on social media makes them feel inferior; and low self-esteem—like fear—debilitates the strength to resist. One young man recently explained to me that millennials are always aware of their “digital selves” which can be measured in metrics such as “likes”; and that comparing themselves to others routinely results in low self-esteem. Of course, some young people do attempt rebellion, but effective rebellion, they tell me, requires completely extricating from social media, which would be an extremely radical action.

Third, online political discussion tends to be dominated by the loudest voices, those of self-righteous extremists on each side. Disengaged from everything but the sound of their own voices, these extremists make the internet a space where there is no exchange of ideas or building of community, “only mutual venom.”

Mr Levine thinks that his generation can help to solve these problems:

The Internet technology need not necessarily be a pacifying force as, for example, the Internet was effectively utilized during the Arab spring to foment rebellion and organize resistance. Similarly, some of the other pacifying forces that I originally detailed need not be pacifying. Teachers could inspire resistance against illegitimate authorities rather than indoctrinate compliance to any and all authorities. And my fellow mental health professionals could embrace liberation psychology rather than pathologize and medicate rebellion.

My experience is that young people, in general, are becoming increasingly pained and weakened by multiple oppressive forces, and older people who give a damn about them can help. The 1% will always attempt to seize powerful technologies and institutions to pacify all of us—especially young people. To manage these technologies and institutions, the 1% needs technocrats, administrators, and guards; thus, what would help is what Howard Zinn called a “revolt of the guards.” However, if technicians, teachers, mental health professionals, and other guards never even admit to ourselves our societal role—as guards who maintain the status quo—then we guards will never consider a revolt. Many older people are guards, and they can choose to revolt and help young people gain the strength necessary to resist injustices.

What Mr Levine envisions is at the opposite extreme from “a PornHub comment about what you’d do if you were that guy.”  While the current relationship of young Americans to the internet is all too aptly illustrated with the image of the socially isolated figure whose only offering to the world are the thoughts he has while masturbating, the relationship that Mr Levine imagines they might construct if their elders would stop enforcing that isolation and take the lead in opposing it is one that would bring people together to form new communities.

If political opinion-having in the online era is not a community-building activity of the sort Mr Levine has in mind, what purpose does it serve?  Daniel McCarthy makes a case that the appeal of ideologies in not in the quality of their ideas, but in the starkness of the contrast they make with rival groups.

Much of the political discussion I see on social media reminds me of what one might hear listening in on a therapy session.  For example, this photo was much circulated a couple of days ago:

 

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I saw this posted both by Trump supporters, who exulted that their man was the rock on which the waves of Western decline break, and by Trump opponents, who expressed dismay that the US president was behaving like a petulant child. I put it another way in response to a contrast between this photo and another taken a few seconds before made by a right-wing news outlet:

The photo that is valuable is the one that will enable people on each side to see what they want to see.

This almost literal political Rorschach test is not unique. Here is another such, occasioned by reports that Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was about to be arrested on charges of sexual assault:

The photo of Mr Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow with Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to have been taken in 1999, a year when the phrase “Clinton Derangement Syndrome” was much in the air among Democrats exasperated with the apparent willingness of a certain percentage of the US public to believe absolutely any story, no matter how far-fetched that put the then-president and his family in a negative light. Shortly after Mr Clinton left office, Republicans began shaking their heads about “Bush Derangement Syndrome”; since then we’ve heard about “Obama Derangement Syndrome” and “Trump Derangement Syndrome.” These are real things, and they are complemented by equally delusional behavior from people determined to regard the incumbent US president as somehow good.

That’s where the image of a therapy session comes in. The US presidency is a powerfully evocative symbol. That’s part of the point of it. For example, in 2008 many supporters of Barack Obama hoped that the election of an African-American president would call forth a version of the USA free of the old racial tensions; in 2016, many supporters of Donald Trump hoped, as many of his opponents feared, that his election would call American men to a more assertive masculinity. But as time wears on and those cultural transformations fail to take place, what the symbol actually calls up are the feelings individuals have about male authority figures in their lives. A president of your own party merges with all the images you carry of what might have been or what might yet be in your relationships with powerful men, while a president of the opposing party merges with all the men who’ve let you down. Discussions of presidents therefore rarely maintain any connection to questions of national policy for any length of time.  I suppose those discussions serve a therapeutic purpose for those who engage in them.

 

 

 

Presidential line of succession

Today’s xkcd:

Ties are broken by whoever was closest to the surface of Europa when they were born.

I agree that the 1947 Presidential Succession Act is a disaster waiting to happen, and that at times it has waited rather impatiently.  In the case of the first vacancy to occur in the presidency while the act was in effect, it might very well have triggered a world war.

Before dawn on 23 November 1963, Secret Service Agent Gerald Blaine was assigned to guard President Lyndon Johnson, who had a few hours before been sworn in as successor to the assassinated John F. Kennedy. In his 2010 memoir, Mr Blaine admitted that he came within a fraction of a second of killing President Johnson that night. As a member of President Kennedy’s security detail, Mr Blaine had grown accustomed to that president’s scrupulous habit of notifying his guards every time he was about to go outdoors. When Mr Blaine saw a figure roaming about in the darkness on the grounds of President Johnson’s Washington-area home that night, therefore, he assumed it must be an intruder, and being as he was on highest alert he prepared to shoot the figure on sight. His finger was on the trigger of his submachine gun, about to squeeze, when a beam of light fell across the familiar features of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Had Mr Blaine squeezed that trigger, the presidency would have fallen to the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, John W. McCormack, Democrat of Massachusetts. Here is a photograph from the holdings of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, showing John McCormack in conference with President Kennedy:

mccormack jfk

In November of 1963, John McCormack was a 71 year old man with no national following, who was known on the world stage solely for his family’s longstanding and often bitter feud with the Kennedys. For example, in 1962 John McCormack’s nephew Eddie McCormack had been Edward M. Kennedy’s opponent in the Democratic primary for the US Senate from Massachusetts, a race in which Eddie McCormack had said some rather hard words about the president’s kid brother.  Had a man with that profile succeeded to the presidency as the result of two shootings within hours of each other, the first committed by a person or persons at that point still unknown, the other committed by a member of the late president’s own bodyguard, it would have been natural for the world to assume that the shootings were part of a bloody power struggle in Washington. Some people, particularly the people in charge of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, would have been required to take substantive action based on that assumption. Because the early 1960s were the most perilous phase of the Cold War, it would have been dereliction of duty for the leaders in the Kremlin to have regarded them as anything else.

The USA had gone through many peaceful transfers of power by 1963. Foreign observers, operating under the assumption that a violent coup was in place, would therefore have to make the further assumption that the coup-makers were acting from desperation. If the USA were a country where groups routinely succeeded each other in the seats of power by means of assassination, the motive might have been relatively humdrum. Since the USA was in fact at the opposite pole, where a bloody power struggle was a radical departure from the norm, the motive must itself have been radical.

What could that motive have been? Starting in the early 1950s, a powerful faction within the US military, led by Air Force General Curtis LeMay, had been advocating a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, a preemptive strike known to its advocates as the “Sunday Punch.”  General LeMay’s idea was widely enough known to the Washington press corps that when he emerged as a candidate for vice president a few years later, they were ready with questions about it, questions which he answered in a rather terrifying way. Surely Soviet intelligence must have been aware in 1963 that there was a faction in the Pentagon that had long been making this proposal, and that its leaders included Curtis Lemay, who at that time was the Air Force Chief of Staff. If a group were so hardened to violence as to be ready to launch a nuclear first strike against the USSR, killing hundreds of millions of people, perhaps that same group would reconcile itself to adding two more murders to their scheme. Seeing John McCormack emerging from the bloodstained chaos, the Soviets might well have concluded that he was a stooge of the victorious Lemay faction, and that their only chance of survival lay in hitting the US and its nuclear arsenal with all the forces they could muster.

Now, rerun the scenario without the 1947 act. Before that law was passed, the 1886 Presidential Succession Act had placed the Secretary of State second in line of succession behind the Vice President. Under no circumstances would it have been easy to believe that the shooting deaths of two presidents within 24 hours had resulted from the actions of a lone gunman and a panicked security man, but at least with the advent of President Dean Rusk the prospect of world war would not have been greatly heightened. Though he was not a particular favorite of President Kennedy’s, Secretary of State Rusk was an appointee of his, had represented his administration faithfully, and had been a familiar figure in world capitals since the early months of the Second World War. Though the Kremlin would still have assumed that the deaths of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were part of a violent power struggle, Rusk’s ascension would have been evidence that the faction loyal to President Kennedy had won that struggle and prevented an immediate nuclear attack on the USSR. Certainly it would have been rational for the Soviets to approach a Rusk administration cautiously and to refrain from any irrevocable actions.

In the other situation when the provisions of the 1947 act might have come into effect, the stakes were less desperate, but still considerable.  That was in 1973, when Vice President Spiro Agnew was forced to resign after he was caught taking bribes. In an unrelated scandal coming to light at the same time, the so-called “Watergate” affair, President Richard Nixon was facing the ever-increasing likelihood of removal from office for his own criminal exploits. Congress was reluctant to act against President Nixon for many reasons, not least that removing him while the Vice Presidency was vacant would have meant that after an election in which over 60% of the people had voted for a Republican president, the 1947 act would then have elevated a Democratic Speaker of the House to the presidency. Indeed, the selection of Congressman Gerald R. Ford to replace Agnew paid a sort of homage to the 1947 act, since Ford was the man the Republicans would have installed as Speaker had they held the majority in the House of Representatives.

As for Randall Munroe’s suggestions in the comic above, slots 1-6 look pretty good to me.  I would suggest that the Secretary of the Treasury should be on the list, no lower than right behind the Secretary of State. The Secretary of the Treasury is the only official who is a first-rank player in both domestic policy and foreign policy, and is certainly as familiar to policymakers around the world as is any appointed official other than the Secretary of State.

Number 7, “Five people who do not live in Washington, DC, nominated at the start of the President’s term and confirmed by the Senate” sounds logical, though I’d need some specifics before I endorsed the idea. Would these be people who already hold office under the federal government? If not, how would they be paid, how would they be kept informed of the things a president ought to know, and how would they be kept from involving themselves in matters with which a president ought to have nothing to do?

Number 8, Tom Hanks. Well, I remember Bosom Buddies as fondly as the next person (assuming that the next person didn’t like the show either,) but I don’t think he’s quite the person I’d like to see taking charge in a crisis so extreme that all those senior officials had died or otherwise become unavailable. I used to mistake Tom Hanks for Tim Robbins, and Tim Robbins used to be partnered with Susan Sarandon. So I’d suggest putting Susan Sarandon in that spot.

Number 9, “State governors in descending order of population at the last census,” is no good. One of the problems of the 1947 Act is that many legal experts believe that the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches may well preclude members of Congress, such as the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate, from being listed in the line of succession. No less important to the constitutional order than the separation of powers between the branches of the federal government is the division of powers between the federal government and the states. Including governors would violate this principle as surely as including members of Congress violates the other.  Moreover, sorting them by the population of their states would revive a contention between large states and small ones, a contention which the Constitution did so much to resolve.

Number 10, “Anyone who won an Oscar for playing a governor,” might encourage Hollywood to make prestige movies about state government.  That’s a cause I can get behind, so I’ll endorse that.

Number 11, “Anyone who won a Governor’s Award for playing someone named Oscar,” will only encourage remakes of The Odd Couple, an intolerable prospect.

Number 12, “Kate McKinnon, if available.” I assume that means that Mr Munroe hopes that, in the dark day when the country finds itself going so far down the line of succession, Ms McKinnon would stop trying to be funny. I can think of any number of comedians whose efforts are far more tedious than hers, so I would put them ahead of her.

Number 13, the Billboard Hot 100 artists. Sure, why not? Considering the current president’s show-biz background, it’s probably just a matter of time before that population starts to dominate the presidential sweepstakes on its own.

Number 14, US astronauts, no. I’ve always loved astronauts, but they are strongly biased against sending robot probes into space to do actual science. We don’t need more studies about the damage gravity deprivation does to the human body, but we do need multiple rovers on the Moon and other instruments that can answer serious questions in astronomy and planetary science.

Number 15, Serena Williams, and Number 16, champions of the biggest ticket team sports. That’s a juicy idea…

Number 17, Bill Pullman and his descendants. That would require a legal method for distinguishing between Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton. Since descendants are involved, Bill Paxton’s death does nothing to surmount this impossible challenge.

Number 18, the entire line of succession to the British throne. Judging by the percentage of the US population that swoons when British royals are in the news, this might be a popular idea. And it does make since that there should be a sense of kinship there, since many Americans are proud to trace their lineage back to hardworking families of German immigrants who made good.

Number 19, the current champion of the Nathan’s hot-dog eating contest. This one should rank much higher, behind the Secretary of the Treasury and ahead of the Secretary of Defense.

Number 20, “All other US citizens, chosen by a 29 round single elimination jousting tournament,” would leave the winner free of most of the usual problems of political leadership, since virtually all of the surviving population would be severely incapacitated by its wounds. After issuing urgent appeals to the other countries of the world to send medical assistance, s/he would have plenty of time to work on his or her hot-dog eating skills.

Dumb people on your own side

I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter lately. This tweet does a lot to explain why:

I’ve found a number of people on Twitter with whom I agree on one issue or another. While I don’t intentionally follow any “dumb people,” most people who tweet more than a few times a day will occasionally say dumb things, and virtually all of them sometimes link to deeply ill-considered articles by others. So that site gives me a regular dose of bad versions of things I believe.

Restrictionist/ Relaxationist

In a widely discussed column in Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks said that he’d like to be a moderate on immigration policy, but that he can’t find any good arguments for the restrictionist position. I find myself in something of the opposite position. I’m basically a relaxationist, but the arguments for relaxing immigration policy never stand up very well to any sort of rational scrutiny.

Take the main argument Mr Brooks sets forth in his column, that native born Americans show an increasing disdain for the sorts of activities necessary to keep capitalism growing:

Over all, America is suffering from a loss of dynamism. New business formation is down. Interstate mobility is down. Americans switch jobs less frequently and more Americans go through the day without ever leaving the house.

But these trends are largely within the native population. Immigrants provide the antidote. They start new businesses at twice the rate of nonimmigrants. Roughly 70 percent of immigrants express confidence in the American dream, compared with only 50 percent of the native-born.

Immigrants have much more traditional views on family structure than the native-born and much lower rates of out-of-wedlock births. They commit much less crime than the native-born. Roughly 1.6 percent of immigrant males between 18 and 39 wind up incarcerated compared with 3.3 percent of the native-born.

Rod Dreher amplified this point in a blog post about Mr Brooks’ column. Mr Dreher focuses specifically on anecdotes suggesting that native born American youth show an increasing disdain for physical labor:

Around 2007, I think it was, my late father, who lived in rural Louisiana, had some brush he needed clearing in a field he owned. He usually did this himself — or, when I was a kid, with me — but by then he was long retired, and was physically unable to do it. I was living far away.

When I was a teenager, back in the 1980s, it wasn’t hard to find high school kids to do this kind of work. Our parish was 50 percent black, and 50 percent white. We had almost no Asians or Latinos. White kids, black kids, you could hire kids to do this work. As I said, I did this kind of work for my dad. I hated it. It was hot, and it was demanding. But this is what you did.

Not by 2007. No white teenage boys wanted to do that kind of hard physical labor. My father drove into a black neighborhood and found groups of young men — men in their 20s — sitting around with nothing to do. He offered them several times the minimum wage to come clear brush for him for a day. They all declined. They were all out of work and doing nothing that day, but it wasn’t worth it to them. He was a retiree on a fixed income, and couldn’t pay anything more than that. But when I was a teenager, any number of young men would have jumped at the opportunity. Not anymore. Neither whites nor blacks would do physical labor.

(That’s not strictly true — I know a handful of both white men and black men there today who do exactly this kind of work, but at the time my dad needed it, they either weren’t in business, or were too booked up.)

Anyway, my dad didn’t know what to do. One of his friends said that a few Guatemalans had moved into the parish recently. If I recall correctly, they had come with a large contingent of Central Americans who had moved to New Orleans to work on post-Katrina reconstruction. My dad’s friend put him in touch with one of them. They were eager to work. My dad hired the three Guatemalan men who were in town. They cleared the brush in a day, and did a great job of it.

My father was grateful, and he ended up hiring them on more occasions when he needed that kind of work done. My dad was an old white Southern man, and though we never talked about immigration, I imagine he held the usual prejudices about outsiders from Latin America. But I know for a fact he was impressed by those Guatemalan men, and came away with a very positive impression of them. As I’ve mentioned here on other posts, my dad grew up poor, and had a very, very strong work ethic. He judged men based on their willingness to work. As far as he was concerned, those Guatemalan men proved to him their worth that day.

Here’s the thing. In that time, and in that place, there was physical labor to be done. My father, who was very conservative, tried to hire native-born Americans, both black and white, to do the work. He struck out. Over the past 40 years, the cultural attitude towards hard physical labor has changed, for both blacks and whites in our parish. The only men he could find who were willing to do the work were Latino immigrants. Ours is a relatively poor part of America, so the wages he offered them for a day’s labor were standard.

Now, you could say that the immigrants were undercutting the locals by being willing to work for less. You might be right about that. But in my recollection, the locally born young men, white or black, would not even name a price. They simply didn’t want to do the work, even though they had no work otherwise. My pensioner father, being a rural man of the Depression generation, read that as moral decline.

I offered this comment in response to Mr Dreher’s post:

If native-born youth are coming to regard physical labor with disdain, delegating physical labor to a foreign-born underclass will surely do nothing but accelerate that process.

Which, the more I think about it, seems to be entirely sufficient to explode Mr Brooks’ case. If the native born population were going to compete directly with new arrivals, then the new arrivals might remake them in their image. We could then decide that we prefer that image to what native have been showing us, and consider that a point in favor of a relaxationist policy. But everything Mr Brooks and Mr Dreher have said indicates that this will not happen, that the natives will respond to immigrant industriousness by priding themselves ever more intensely on sloth.  Friends of mine who have spent time in the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf have told me that a dynamic like this can produce a singularly unattractive sort of young man. So Mr Brooks’ column and Mr Dreher’s post, while they may not make a case for any particular form of restrictionism, certainly do make it more difficult for those of us who would like to make a case for a relaxationist position.

I should mention that Mr Brooks’ case has been systematically dismantled by the hated Steve Sailer. Say what you will about Mr Sailer, there isn’t much he hasn’t heard when it comes to immigration, and he is very well-prepared to defend his position.

Going to press before Mr Brooks’ column appeared were a piece by Damon Linker complaining that the American center-left is having some kind of collective nervous breakdown over immigration at precisely the moment when the public most needs them to think about the issue calmly.

Also appearing before Mr Brooks’ column was a piece by Ishmael Reed, “Using Immigrants to Shame American Blacks.” Mr Reed comments on the high rate of educational attainment among Nigerian and other African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the USA. This comes with a downside for African Americans, not only because whites use the success that some immigrants from those countries enjoy in the USA to justify their denial that African Americans face unfair burdens, but also because many people from those countries are themselves prejudiced against African Americans. Mr Reed writes that “for some Black Americans, immigration means the arrival of more racists to add to the ones already here.”

A point Mr Reed does not make is that Nigeria, Haiti, and other countries he mentions as sources for highly educated, highly capable immigrants to the USA are themselves in need of the services of such people, and the brain drain to the already-developed world is one of the major obstacles to starting the process of rapid economic development.

For this reason, it is an act of war for a rich country to maintain an open border with a poor one, and such economic warfare can be justified only in extraordinary circumstances. For example, when Daesh was in control of much of Syria many people in the West proposed lifting all restrictions on immigration from Syria to Europe and North America. If Daesh were going to win its war and become the permanent regime in that country, such a policy might have been justified. It would have stripped Syria of its educated professional class and of its most industrious entrepreneurs, thereby reducing the country to extreme poverty and limiting the ability of that extremist sect to pose a long-term threat to the peace of the world. As long as there was a chance that Daesh would be defeated, as it now seems to have been, such a policy would have been unconscionable. Since neither Nigeria, nor Haiti, nor indeed any country anywhere in the world is in the position that Syria would have occupied under the firmly established control of Daesh, it would be equally unconscionable for the USA to adopt a policy of open borders towards any of them.

Anyway, that isn’t something Mr Reed talks about.  However, the fact that so many on the center-left are so utterly oblivious to the impact on sending countries of the brain drain that high levels of immigration of highly-skilled workers implies can be explained only if Mr Reed is right and the boosters of ultra-relaxationism have derived their ideas from racism.

Who can punish a country? Who would try?

Relations among countries are different from relations among individuals in several ways. A country is a great deal more complex, more dynamic, more resilient, and less predictable than any individual. That has implications for those who see foreign policy as an appropriate venue for moralistic cruelty.  Methods that might reliably break the will of an individual and reduce that individual to an object lesson to deter others from following their example might not be at all predictable in their effect when applied in the international sphere.

This may seem obvious, but has apparently escaped the notice of the political leaders of the continent of Europe. Two recent pieces, from Matthew Lynn in The Spectator and from Clive Crook on Bloomberg, make this point quite effectively.

Mr Lynn argues that, as time goes by without any progress towards a deal between Britain and the remainder of the European Union to reduce the economic costs of Britain’s exit from the Union, an ever-increasing number of economic actors assume that there will be no such deal and prepare for the worst-case. If in 2019 that worst-case comes to pass, virtually all of the costs will have been baked into the markets. While the costs will be considerable and may trigger a steep recession, most of them will be one-time costs. Therefore, that steep recession may well be followed by a steep recovery.

It is a near-certainty that at least some of the remaining members of the EU will be in recession while Britain is undergoing its post-Brexit recovery. If there is a strong anti-EU movement in any such country, Britain will indeed be a potent example to encourage that movement. That encouragement will be potent even if Britain’s post-Brexit recovery peters out before returning the country to its pre-Brexit levels of prosperity. The more flagrantly unco-operative the rest of the EU has been with Britain during this period, the deadlier any sign of life in the British economy after 2019 will be to advocates of ever-closer Union.

Mr Crook, an opponent of Leave in last year’s referendum, says that the very difficulty of the exit process is causing him to rethink his position. Mr Crook writes:

The difficulty of disentangling EU law from U.K. law, and putting the U.K.’s international commitments back on a sovereign-country basis, is becoming all too clear. The threat of enormous disruption is real. Yet the scale and complexity of this task also show how deeply and broadly the EU has penetrated British governance. Few would argue that Europe’s system of democratic accountability has developed to a commensurate degree. So the harder it is to exit, the more glaring the union’s “democratic deficit” seems.

For many British commentators, in fact, the coming disruption means this was never a matter of weighing long-term pros and cons of EU membership: There was no real choice, in their view, except to remain. But that draws attention to another problem. The irrevocability of EU membership was not previously advertised. Until recently, Article 50 in the European treaties was supposed to affirm that participation in the project was voluntary, contingent and subject to popular consent. Now it’s portrayed by Remainers as a kind of suicide clause.

Remember that the European Union is a work in progress. “Ever closer union” remains a guiding principle, and, with the creation of the euro, deeper integration has become a practical necessity as well. It’s happening — haltingly, messily, and leading in the end who knows where. But if quitting the EU now is hard, how much harder will it be in ten years, or 20? And by then, what kind of union will the EU be?

Thus, on the one hand, the costs of Brexit in 2019 will be high; on the other, it might be now or never.

The current stalemate, in addition, has arisen partly by EU design — which undercuts Remainers in another way. Europe’s chief negotiator has a mandate to achieve “sufficient progress” on the exit payment, the status of EU citizens in the U.K., and the Northern Irish border before moving to discuss the future relationship. This makes a deal much harder to strike. Complex talks succeed through bargains made in parallel across the full range of issues in contention — not in rigid sequence, with the hardest questions up front.

Presumably this staging was deliberate: It’s taken for granted that the EU wants to punish the U.K. for deciding to quit, partly to teach other restless members to behave, and partly because Britain just has it coming. I see the reason in such thinking — but it doesn’t advance the EU’s larger purpose of a closer union based on popular consent. You can strengthen obedience by making examples and threatening reprisals, but you don’t build loyalty that way, and loyalty is what the EU most sorely lacks.

In closing, Mr Crook asks if the rest of the EU truly thinks that it would be better off with a “beaten and resentful enemy” than with a “prosperous friend, trading partner, and military ally just off its coast.”

Considering the EU’s behavior in, to take only two examples, Italy in November 2011 and in Greece in the summer of 2015, I’d say it is rather clear that the EU is led by people for whom popular legitimacy is not a first-order practical concern. So a country in which the majority of the general public sees itself as a “beaten and resentful enemy” of the EU might not be a problem for the people who set EU policy, so long as that majority is incapable of translating its resentment into action that might impose costs on the interests the EU serves.

A conversation with John Zmirak

Today on Twitter, I had a little chat with John Zmirak. Dr Zmirak is a Roman Catholic layman who holds strong opinions about more or less everything. I’m always curious how people justify their opinions. In Dr Zmirak’s case, I’m curious by what exactly he has in mind when he appeals to the tradition of the church. In our conversation, I inadvertently put him on the spot so that he wound up presenting himself in a less flattering light than he deserves, but I still think I might want to look the conversation up again. So  here is a link to it.

 

 

Lawrence Dennis and James Burnham

lawrence_dennis_number_one

“America’s Number One intellectual fascist”

Every time I read something about George Orwell, such as this post by Nick Slater that went up the other day, I think of Orwell’s fascination with James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941.)  Orwell was harshly critical of Burnham’s overall position, though he did pick up Burnham’s prediction that the Second World War would end with the division of the earth into three totalitarian superstates as the background of 1984.

What I find intriguing about that prediction, as indeed about the major points on which Orwell focuses his critique, is that all had appeared in print before Burnham published his book. In fact, they had all appeared in the works of one author, Lawrence Dennis. As I described the situation in a comment on a post at The American Conservative three years ago:

Burnham always reminds me of one of his contemporaries, a writer whom he never, to my knowledge, mentioned. That writer is Lawrence Dennis. In The Dynamics of War and Revolution, published in 1940, Dennis predicted the division of the world into precisely the same three spheres of influence that Burnham would predict the following year in The Managerial Revolution.

In his 1932 book Is Capitalism Doomed? and in 1936’s The Coming American Fascism, Dennis developed in depth an economic argument which led him to the conclusion that the future belonged to states in which the great enterprises were nominally owned by private interests and were in some ways subject to fluctuations of markets, but were in the most important things coordinated and subsidized by the state. Again, this idea anticipates the economic views of The Managerial Revolution.For what it’s worth, in the 1960s Lawrence Dennis looked back on his arguments of thirty years before in a book called Operational Thinking for Survival, in which he concluded that he’d been right about pretty much everything.

Burnham’s theory of myth is also anticipated in Dennis’ books from 1932, 1936, and 1940, and was something Dennis enlarged on in his later years. Particularly in The Coming American Fascism, Dennis argues that when the social system he is predicting comes to the USA, it will be impossible for most people to realize that anything has changed, because the outward forms and ritual language of the old order will remain the same. There’s an eerie bit concerning this in The Dynamics of War and Revolution. Dennis predicts that, while the state continues to maintain a body of Constitutional law protesting its reverence for the concept of free speech, it will also prosecute dissidents. I call this eerie, because Dennis predicts that he himself will be among the first dissidents prosecuted. And indeed, in 1944-1945, he, along with George Sylvester Viereck and a bunch of pro-Nazi crackpots, was indeed brought to trial in a federal court on charges of sedition.

That prosecution collapsed, but Dennis remained far outside the realm of the respectable, his writings known to very few. So if it were to, shall we say, slip the mind of a writer to fully acknowledge his indebtedness to Dennis’ work, neither that writer’s editor nor the book’s reviewers would be at all likely to notice the omission.

Burnham’s debt to Dennis was not entirely unobserved at the time. Joseph Hansen, a leading Trotskyist writer and onetime bodyguard to Trotsky, reviewed Burnham’s first two books in the October 1943 issue of The Fourth International writing as follows:

Huse of the University of North Carolina, analyzing Burnham’s latest book in The Southern Economic Journal, July 1943, writes the following as his final paragraph:

“One reproach that might be made against Mr. Burnham is his omission of Lawrence Dennis, a Machiavellian if there ever was one, to whose Dynamics of War and Revolution Mr. Burnham himself seems peculiarly indebted.”

A Deadly Parallel

Who is Lawrence Dennis? – a newcomer to politics might ask. Dennis is an avowed fascist, who advocates fascism for America and who is widely considered as the leading theoretician of self-acknowledged fascism in the United States.

The charge of Mr. Huse is, therefore, a very serious one. Is Huse perhaps committing a Machiavellian slander? Perhaps we can clear up Burnham’s “neutrality” if we go to the trouble of comparing his views with those of Dennis.

Dennis has written three books, Is Capitalism DoomedThe Coming American Fascism, and The Dynamics of War and Revolution. All of them appeared before Burnham’s writings. All of them were written from the viewpoint of a man anxious to set up a fascist dictatorship in the United States.

In his first book (1932) Dennis reached the conclusion that capitalism is doomed. He maintained, however, like Burnham that he was not seeking to make “converts to a new economic faith or plan.” Dennis was interested only in measures to make the “old age” of capitalism “long and pleasant.” His “only dogma” like Burnham’s “is that people must think realistically … about the problems of the world depression.”

In his second book (1936) Dennis gave up hope of measures to preserve democratic capitalism and predicted the inevitable triumph of either communism or fascism, of which he chose the latter. Burnham during this same period chose communism only later to reject it.

On Marxism, Dennis declares:

“I am inclined to find in his (Marx’s) explanation of the existing system and its inevitable course to collapse many flaws in logic and science. (Isn’t this Burnham’s position? – J.H.) I find the idea of a classless, governmentless society of workers enjoying social order and material abundance fantastic and unattainable. (Burnham reached this view later than fascist Dennis – J.H.) It appears unattainable for the reason that social order requires government and administration by a ruling class or power-exercising class which must always be an aristocracy of management, however selected, operating through some set of mechanism of social control, economic as well as political.” (The Coming American Fascism, by Lawrence Dennis, p.7)

Some years after Dennis’s succinct conclusion, Burnham wrote a whole book to explain this same point of fascist theory.

“Incidentally, it is to be remarked and even stressed that Communist Russia, no less than the fascist countries, the billion-dollar capitalist corporation, or the efficient army in the field, meets with extreme thoroughness and rigor these universal imperatives of social order and administrative efficiency.” (Idem, p.7)

These “universal imperatives” have a familiar ring, especially in connection with the question of the class character of the Soviet Union.

Dennis, too, believes society is like a cabbage – only he uses the old-fashioned term “social factors” instead of the modern Machiavellian “forces.”

And here is our old friend human nature in his birthday clothes: According to Dennis, “Human nature has not changed materially under liberal capitalism. The masses have not the intelligence or the humanity, nor the winners the magnanimity, which liberal assumptions have postulated.” (Idem, p.100.) Where did Burnham go to school?

Fascist Dennis entitles one of his chapters, The Inevitability of the Leadership of the Elite. Here are some sample excerpts from this chapter: “Fascism says that the elite, or a small minority, call its members by any term you will, always rule under any system.” Seven years later, Burnham was to write this down as the claim of “Machiavellianism.”

The ground Dennis selects for his view is brutally frank – more frank than Burnham’s ground:

“The central point is that it is useful to think of government and management as being the function of a minority, and that it is not useful to any good social purpose to proceed on the theory that the people or the majority rule.” (Idem, pp.234-5.)

This view is “useful” of course for the establishment of fascism which Dennis advocates. Unlike Burnham, Dennis has a clear goal. For the means to this goal, it is clear he has made a close study of what was efficacious in Italy and Germany.

Dennis even presents Burnham’s arguments – in advance of the clever Burnham – as to why there will aways be a ruling class. First argument: “Civilizations come and go, but the elite go on forever” because of the “limitations and inequalities inherent in human personalities.” (Idem, p.236) Second argument: “The sheer mechanics of administration and management of large numbers of people and the complex instruments of modern civilization” require a ruling class. But in place of “Machiavellianism,” Dennis uses these arguments to advocate fascism.

If the reviewers of Burnham’s book would like a better insight into some of Burnham’s contentions about the Machiavellians as defenders of freedom let them check fascist Dennis. “The elite do rule” but this does not mean that the “elite are subject to no control by the people.” The majority may be organized by an “out-elite” and “replace one set of the elite in power by another.”

“The problem of order and welfare, in the light of the … inevitability of the leadership of the elite or a minority, appears to be largely one of getting the right elite or minority in power…” (Idem, pp. 242-3)

Almost word for word this appears seven years later in Burnham’s book. We don’t believe Burnham consciously plagiarized from Dennis although at times the similarity is so striking as to require an effort of will to keep from becoming a convert to Burnham’s theory about the depravity of human nature.

Dennis continues: “It is one of the merits of fascism, and a part of its appeal, that its leaders do not dissimulate their rule or try to place responsibility for their rule on a phantom of definition and assumption – such as, the majority or the proletariat.” Burnham claims this to be the distinctive merit of “Machiavellianism.”

Dennis ends his book on the problem of the fascist party, its organization and its method of action. He believes the time not yet ripe (1936) and calls only for “preparatory thinking and discussion.”

It is only in this final chapter that we find the main difference between Dennis and Burnham. All other differences are at bottom differences of terminology.

Fascist Forecasts

In 1940, Lawrence Dennis published his third book. All his volumes thus precede Burnham’s and if credit is to be given for development of theory it is customary in the world of science to recognize the first in time. Let us see, therefore, what is rightfully Burnham’s and what Dennis’s – all the while keeping an eye out for any fascist or Machiavellian trickery.

Dennis starts out on a pessimistic note:

“This book is addressed not to the masses but to the elite or to the ruling groups, actual and potential … it will never be read by the masses … it is too rational to appeal to the masses.”

We rub our eyes and proceed.

Now we are in for a shock. Dennis, like Burnham, predicts a new system to replace capitalism. “I am prepared to record definitely and stand on the prediction that capitalism is doomed and socialism will triumph.” But what does Mr. Dennis mean by “socialism”?

“The terms communism (referring to the revolution in Russia), Fascism (referring to the revolution in Italy), Nazism (referring to the revolution in Germany) and the New Deal (referring to the revolution in America) now appear clearly to be each just a local ism. Looking at the entire world situation, one may now say that there is just one revolution and just one significant ism: socialism.”

Dennis’s “socialism” turns out to be identical with Burnham’s “managerial society.” Did Burnham expound this very same thesis with greater brilliance when he called it the “managerial revolution”?

Dennis even has in a nutshell Burnham’s description of the differences in the course followed by the “managerial revolution”:

“Fascism and Nazism, differ from communism mainly in the manner of coming into operation. A vital element of the Fascist and Nazi way of coming to power was the taking of the big business men and middle classes into the socialist camp without resistance and, even with enthusiasm …”

Dennis speaking in the light of the German and Italian experiences explains a lot of things.

“The main purpose of a realistic approach to current problems must be to prepare the minds of the elite minority capable of leadership when the time comes for such leadership. The time is not yet ripe …”

Thank God for that favor. But “The real leaders of the new American revolution will at some stage of the collapse have to sell themselves to a considerable number of people.”

What Next?

Dennis even anticipated books of Burnham’s type. “As the world swaps revolutions and imperialisms” Americans will “take new bearings.” He recommends that they reject Karl Marx and turn to Machiavelli. Again,

“The present ins in the democracies are neither organized nor class conscious. The changed mechanics, after we go to war, will at once work for a clarification of thinking about power by the outs or marginal ins among the elite.”

Burnham began by rejecting the materialist dialectics. In the end he rejected Marxism completely and took a number of the more nervous rabbits along with him in his flight, penning them up in the Workers Party. But Burnham was in such a hurry to get some place that this Workers Party became irksome baggage. He discarded it the way a soldier of fortune discards a trophy of war when it stands in the way of richer loot. He has written feverishly – in his spare time producing two books within two years, one of them creating quite a ripple among the “elite” of the petty bourgeoisie. The theories developed in these two books, while not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis, at least provide a remarkable demonstration of how great minds run in similar channels.

Hansen’s assertion that Burnham’s works were “not plagiarized, we trust, from the works of the fascist Lawrence Dennis” might be sarcastic. Others have suspected that Burnham plagiarized Dennis’ works wholesale. See page 191, note 8, of Political Reason in the Age of Ideology: Essays in Honor of Raymond Aron edited by Bryan-Paul Frost and Daniel J. Mahoney (Transaction Press, 2007.) where it is stated that not only Burnham, but also E. H. Carr used Dennis’ work without attribution.

It is something of a misfortune that one of the most trenchant statements about the relationship between Burnham’s work and Dennis’ was written  by a figure even more thoroughly stigmatized than Dennis himself. The late Keith Stimely was a far-Right figure, for a time a neo-Nazi, who by the time of his death had become a Satanist. Evidently his goal in life was to shock as many people as possible. At any rate, his essay “Lawrence Dennis and a ‘Frontier Thesis’ for American Capitalism” is quite well-done. The version of it linked here includes a note by the late Sam Francis citing his own argument that Burnham arrived at his conclusions independently of Dennis.

If it was worth George Orwell’s time, and for that matter Joseph Hansen’s, to argue against Burnham’s presentation of Dennis’ ideas, surely it would be worth someone’s time to engage with Dennis’ own works. I would say that Dennis was in many ways a stronger thinker than Burnham. For example, while Burnham did predict that the Axis would be victorious in the Second World War, Dennis argued that fascism would come to the USA as the price of America’s victory in that war. Dennis predicted that this postwar fascism would be called by some name other than “fascism,” and indeed that its exponents would claim to be the archenemies of fascism, but that it would embody the substance of Mussolini’s system. Writing in the 1960s, Dennis saw no reason to renounce this prediction.

 

Yesterday’s gone

Last night, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel denounced Donald Trump, whom I call Don John of Astoria, for his failure to distance himself from pro-Nazi groups which were at the center of Saturday’s violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

One particular section of Mr Kimmel’s statement struck me as typical of a particular kind of less-than-ideal response to the consistently horrid and ever-more surreal events that have characterized Trumptime. As reported on Slate:

But you’ve been trying to ignore it, because you don’t want to admit to these smug, annoying liberals that they were right. That’s the last thing you want to do. But the truth is, deep down inside, you know you made a mistake. You know you picked the wrong guy. And it isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. So you can do one of two things. You can dig in like Chris Christie at a Hometown Buffet, or you can treat the situation like you’d put Star Wars wallpaper up in the kitchen. “All right, I got caught up, I was excited, I made a mistake. And now it needs to go.”  Well, now he does need to go. So it’s time for you, especially you who voted for him, to tell him to go.

Now it may well be the case that most of the people who voted for Don John in 2016 believe that he was a bad choice and that he is a bad president now. Indeed, the majority of his voters may, deep down inside, have disapproved of him even before they cast their ballots. The one segment of the electorate with which he did best in November of 2016 was voters who thought that neither he nor Hillary Clinton was fit to be president.

That behavior is sufficient to show that believing that Don John is a bad president is a very different matter from believing that it was a mistake to vote for him in 2016, as opposed to voting for one of the other candidates who were on the ballot in that year. Third-party supporters like me may want to put our fists through our straw hats when we think of lesser-evil voting, but that is the norm in US general elections, and most voters seem to think that they are wise to engage in it.

Framing the question as “Who was the better candidate in 2016?” also impedes any attempt to focus on Don John’s particular shortcomings, however egregious those shortcomings may be. So, if we say that when a white supremacist rally dissolves in violence and homicide, a US president’s first public statement about it ought to include an unequivocal condemnation of white supremacist activism, we are likely to meet with widespread agreement across the political spectrum. If we say that Don John’s failure to respond to Charlottesville in that way is a sign that he is a worse president than Hillary Clinton would have been, we invite Trump supporters (even a Trump supporter so ambivalent as to refer to an adversary as a “Trump-like blowhard self-promoter using a current event to promote her for-profit business“) to argue that making appropriate statements in the immediate aftermath of atrocious public events is a political skill which Ms Clinton conspicuously lacks.  Sticking to the question, “Is Don John an acceptable president?,” discussion of the weaknesses of Ms Clinton or any other political figure who is not currently serving as US president can be dismissed as irrelevant.

To make the same general point in a less-inflammatory historical context, by August of 1974 President Richard Nixon had lost the support of so many Republican voters that Congress could no longer avoid impeaching him and removing him from office. If the Constitution had worked out as it was intended when it was first written, the vice president would have been the person who came second in the 1972 general election. Mr Nixon’s removal, under those circumstances, would have put Senator George McGovern in his place. In that case, the question before the people would indeed have been whether they were right to vote for Mr Nixon in 1972, or whether they ought to have voted for Mr McGovern in that year. Presented with that choice, I suspect that very few Republicans would have decided that Mr Nixon’s misdeeds warranted his removal from office.

I would emphasize that point with reference to the remark below:

If that primary season were a rerun of the primary season Republicans actually faced in 2016, with Mr Trump facing Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, etc, then of course he would still win, probably by a much wider margin. Had the Republican primaries of 1972 been replayed in the summer of 1974, I suspect that Richard Nixon would still have beaten John Ashbrook and Pete McCloskey. Mr McCloskey’s denunciation of US bombing in Vietnam as morally unacceptable made him impossible for most Republicans to support in that year, while the entire premise of Mr Ashbrook’s campaign was that the president ought to be renominated, but only after the right wing of the party had had its say. So long as those were his only opponents, it was only notionally possible for President Nixon to lose the primary contest.

Of course, those two backbench Congressmen would not have been the only challengers to the president had the Republicans actually staged a primary contest in 1974. Ronald Reagan, Nelson Rockefeller, and several other candidates would likely have stepped forward. And the fact that the original scheme of presidential succession had been replaced, first by the formation of national parties that chose separate candidates for president and vice president, then by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that formalized this process, and finally by the Twenty-Fifth Amendment that allowed Congress and the President to appoint a replacement when Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned his office amid corruption charges in 1973, meant that the choice in 1974 was not between Richard Nixon or George McGovern, nor between Richard Nixon and some other candidate in a Republican primary, but between Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Likewise, the choice now is not between Don John of Astoria or Hillary Clinton, nor between Don John and the Republican primary field of 2016. If the question is about impeachment, the choice is between him and Vice President Michael Pence. If the question is about something short of that, the question is about the balance of power between the president and the Congress. There’s a reason why the powers of the Congress are described in Article One of the Constitution, and the amendments making up the Bill of Rights tell us that “Congress” shall not do particular things- the Congress is supposed to be, and for most of the nineteenth century clearly was, the dominant partner in the federal triad. Even now, old Washington hands are fond of the adage “The president proposes, the Congress disposes.” The Congress does in fact have the power to rein a bad president in. Wishes that last year’s election, or some other event of the past, had turned out differently do not have much power at all.

The debate about “the Google Memo”

The Google Memo and the responses to it I’ve seen, from Left and Right, all seem to tacitly acknowledge the same four points:

  1. There are a lot of macho jerks in tech.
  2. Women, in general, would rather not be surrounded by macho jerks.
  3. Macho jerks, in general, like to pose as the enforcers of the prevailing orthodoxy, regardless of the content of that orthodoxy.
  4. Therefore, the fact that the prevailing orthodoxy within Google is nominally feminist does not in fact reduce the amount of Asshole that the women working there have to put up with.

The controversy all takes the form of commentary on these four points. The author of the memo argues that point #1 is a result of biological necessity. Whole regions of the Internet exist only to dwell on apparent exceptions to point #2, and some of the author’s defenders show the influence of this. In response to point #3, libertarians and other pro-capitalist types defend enforcement of orthodoxy by saying that a business isn’t a debating society, and an employee who takes it upon himself to publish a piece arguing that his company’s shares are overvalued can only expect to be fired. And as to point #4, there is controversy about whether a different kind of feminism or a different way of inculcating it would address the problem.

Something else that’s struck me about the whole affair is that it’s a failure of the center-right media. For years, rightists of all stripes have regarded Google as an adversary. Surely some right-wing publication could have sent a reporter to look into Google’s corporate ethos, and have found James Damore.  Mr (or is it Dr?) Damore could then have unburdened himself to that reporter without fear of being fired.

There are those who suspect that Mr Damore’s memo was an attempt to provoke precisely the reaction he has in fact received, complete with his public firing by Google’s CEO, so that he can make a new career as a right-wing political spokesman.  That seems unlikely to me; the longer he spent at Google, the more opportunities Mr Damore would likely have had to launch new ventures of whatever kind he might like, including right-wing political projects. After all, Steve Bannon didn’t attain his current position by getting himself fired after his first year at Goldman Sachs. And Year One of the Trump Era would hardly seem like a propitious moment to begin a career as a right-wing pundit. But who knows, maybe Mr Damore wasn’t working out at Google and saw a fiery exit at this time as his best option.