Trump’s win-win scenario

Further to John Cassidy’s musings about what Trump is up to, this NYT OpEd by Neal Gabler is interesting:

People run for the presidency for all sorts of reasons. But Donald J. Trump may be the first to run because he sees a presidential campaign as the best way to attract attention to himself. There seems to be no other driving passion in him, certainly not the passion to govern.

He isn’t an ideologue like Ted Cruz, an opportunist like Marco Rubio, a movement builder like Bernie Sanders, a political legatee like Jeb Bush or a policy wonk like Hillary Clinton. For all of them — for any serious candidate — attention is a byproduct of a campaign, not its engine. For Mr. Trump, attention is the whole shebang.

That may be the lesson of his campaign “shake up” earlier this week. The shift is from politics to grabbing attention, and, quite possibly, from winning the election to winning the defeat, which is how he has spent practically his entire career…

Fascinating. Might mean that those of us who are watching the campaign as though it’s about ‘politics’ might be being naive!

If you think the US Presidential election is over, think again

If, like me, you consult Nate Silver’s prediction page (which is updated every two hours) then you may have relaxed a bit. I’ve just looked at it and it’s currently showing a 78.4% to 21.6% margin for Clinton in its ‘polls+forecast’ estimate, and a 89.5% to 10.5% margin if the election were held today. So the prospects for a Trump win look dim.

But something happened yesterday that might change things. Trump appointed a guy called Steve Bannon, the brains behind Breibart News, as his new campaign chief. The mainstream media are largely unimpressed by this move – just another right-wing nutter hooking up with Trump. (Roger Ailes, ex Fox News, is also aboard, apparently.)

I’m not so sanguine. Bannon may be very right-wing, but he’s not a nutter. See this long 2015 Bloomberg profile for a good impression of how he operates. Most importantly, he probably knows more about the strange finances of the Clinton Foundation than any man living. My hunch is that Hillary is in for a rougher ride than most people expected. Stay tuned.

LATER Interesting New Yorker piece by John Cassidy touting a conspiracy theory that I hadn’t heard before. The gist of it is that Trump knows that he’s bound to lose, and that that’s of little concern to him, because what he’s after is the creation of a new media empire focussed on the segment of the population that he’s identified as being under-served by mainstream media — even Fox News.

Here’s the relevant extract:

The appointment of Bannon isn’t merely another affront to establishment Republicans, such as Paul Ryan, whom Breitbart News has lately been targeting. It is an acknowledgment by Trump that he no longer has any interest in modifying his strategy to appeal to college-educated voters in places like the suburbs of Philadelphia and Milwaukee, where he is running miles behind where Mitt Romney was in 2012. Instead, he has decided to retreat to his base, which is a surefire recipe for political failure. But not necessarily business failure.

Back in June, Vanity Fair’s Sarah Ellison reported that Trump was “considering creating his own media business, built on the audience that has supported him thus far in his bid to become the next president of the United States.” A person briefed on Trump’s thinking told Ellison that it went like this: “Win or lose, we are onto something here. We’ve triggered a base of the population that hasn’t had a voice in a long time.” One of Ellison’s sources also reported that Trump resents the fact that he has helped raise the ratings of certain news organizations, such as CNN, without getting a cut of the additional revenues. Trump has “gotten the bug,” the source said, “so now he wants to figure out if he can monetize it.”

Bannon, a former investment banker who took over Breitbart News in 2012, after the sudden death of its eponymous founder, also has large ambitions, and they involve taking on the mighty Fox News…

Interesting, eh?

Foreign interference in voting systems is a national security issue

Good WashPo OpEd piece by Bruce Schneier on the implications of (i) Russian hacking of the DNC computer systems and (ii) the revelations about the insecurity if US voting machines:

Over the years, more and more states have moved to electronic voting machines and have flirted with Internet voting. These systems are insecure and vulnerable to attack.

But while computer security experts like me have sounded the alarm for many years, states have largely ignored the threat, and the machine manufacturers have thrown up enough obfuscating babble that election officials are largely mollified.

We no longer have time for that. We must ignore the machine manufacturers’ spurious claims of security, create tiger teams to test the machines’ and systems’ resistance to attack, drastically increase their cyber-defenses and take them offline if we can’t guarantee their security online.

Longer term, we need to return to election systems that are secure from manipulation. This means voting machines with voter-verified paper audit trails, and no Internet voting. I know it’s slower and less convenient to stick to the old-fashioned way, but the security risks are simply too great.

The mystery of Peter Thiel and Donald Trump

Larry Lessig was as puzzled as I was by Peter Thiel’s endorsement of Donald Trump. But Larry points out something interesting about Thiel’s speech to the GOP Convention:

What’s striking about this speech — except for its references to Trump — is how obviously true it is. Something has gone wrong in America. Growth is not spread broadly. Technical innovation is not spread broadly. We were a nation that tackled real and important problems. We have become a nation where — at least among politicians — too much time is spent arguing over the petty. “Who cares?” about which bathroom someone uses — which coming from a gay libertarian must mean, “it’s not of your business.” The wars of the last generation were stupid. We need to focus on building a “bright future” that all of America can share in.

What’s puzzling about this speech is how this brilliant innovator could predicate these words of a Donald Trump presidency. Maybe the excuse is that they were written before the true insanity of that man became unavoidably obvious. Who knows.

Yep. Who knows?

Sic transit gloria mundi?


We go to Provence every Summer. We used to fly and rent cars, but a few years ago decided that it would be more fun to take our own car and drive down slowly, taking our time, keeping off autoroutes, staying in small hotels and generally decompressing, until by the time we get to Arles, it feels as though we’ve never been away. France is a staggeringly beautiful country and driving south through its heart is like watching an absorbing road movie, as the landscape, topography, architecture and climate changes.

This year, driving north on our way home, we started out one morning from our hotel in the countryside near Lyon and drove for five hours to northern Burgundy without leaving roads that had been built by the Romans nearly two millennia ago. You can’t travel in France — especially in Provence, but also elsewhere — without being struck by the evidence of the astonishing reach and achievements of the Roman empire. The road network is the example that strikes me — more than the viaducts, coliseums, arenas, theatres and temples that impress others (for example, the incomparable Ina Caro). For not only is the modern French road system often built on the roads the Romans built, but we still make roads everywhere using the same basic formulae that they laid down.

But then comes the question that has preoccupied historians from Edward Gibbon to Mary Beard: how could an empire that accomplished all this fall apart? For fall apart it did. From which thought it was just a short step to brooding on the current state of the American republic and its associated empire. It’s impossible to watch what has been happening over there, not just in the current election campaign but in the last decade or two as the country’s politics became steadily more dysfunctional, and not ask if the country might be entering a period of chronic decline.

After all, its infrastructure is decaying — to the point where some people think that that fact explains Amazon’s long-term drone-delivery strategy: the company wants to take to the skies rather than relying on a decrepit road system. And although the US remains a superpower in military terms, the RAND Corporation recently released a study arguing that “improving Chinese military capabilities challenge the assumption that the United States would emerge an early and decisive victor in a war with China. The report noted that the advanced strike capabilities of each side, combined with the shrinking of the military gap between them, could make such a war intense, highly destructive, and yet protracted.”

Now I know too that this decline-of-the-American-empire idea is a recurring journalistic trope. (Gore Vidal was always going on about it.) It’s impossible to know if the country is indeed on the skids, and there are lots of reasons (including the power of its transnational corporations and the resulting ‘soft power’ that flows from them, its mastery of electronic surveillance and of new military technologies and the global system of alliances that its post-war diplomacy created) for thinking that its time hasn’t come. But as the election campaign grinds on there’s that nagging thought about how great institutions rot from within. After all, it was dysfunctional politics that ultimately did for the Romans. In the space of a hundred years Rome was transformed from a Republic with democratic institutions into an empire under the control of one man, Augustus.

Trump and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin

Yesterday, at a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, Trump said:

“Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

This is nudge, nudge, wink, wink assassination talk.

Tom Friedman spotted it immediately, and remembered the historical parallel:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is how Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin got assassinated.

His right-wing opponents just kept delegitimizing him as a “traitor” and “a Nazi” for wanting to make peace with the Palestinians and give back part of the Land of Israel. Of course, all is fair in politics, right? And they had God on their side, right? They weren’t actually telling anyone to assassinate Rabin. That would be horrible.

But there are always people down the line who don’t hear the caveats. They just hear the big message: The man is illegitimate, the man is a threat to the nation, the man is the equivalent of a Nazi war criminal. Well, you know what we do with people like that, don’t you? We kill them.

And that’s what the Jewish extremist Yigal Amir did to Rabin. Why not? He thought he had permission from a whole segment of Israel’s political class.

In September, I wrote a column warning that Donald Trump’s language toward immigrants could end up inciting just this kind of violence. I never in my wildest dreams, though, thought he’d actually — in his usual coy, twisted way — suggest that Hillary Clinton was so intent on taking away the Second Amendment right to bear arms that maybe Second Amendment enthusiasts could do something to stop her. Exactly what? Oh, Trump left that hanging.

The continuing relevance of Marx

The historian Mark Mazower, in his FT review of Gareth Stedman Jones’s new book on Karl Marx, asks:

“The question this book raises is what [Marx’s] value is for us today. The answer is not hard to find: Marx remains an outstanding model of how to stand outside capitalism and subject it to critique on the basis of something larger — the ability of an economic system to serve human needs. Communism may have failed. But it can scarcely be said that contemporary capitalism — with its intensifying tendency to inequality, its propensity to crisis, its hollowing-out of political institutions and its casualisation of the labour force — has succeeded. So long as we persist in our tendency to have off the study of economics from politics, philosophy and journalism, Marx will remain the outstanding example of how to overcome the fragmentation of modern social thought and think about the world as a whole for the sake of its betterment. “

FT 6/7 August 2016