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The Caligula Presidency: a Weekly Ovi Column - Week 3 The Caligula Presidency: a Weekly Ovi Column - Week 3
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-07-01 10:52:49
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 lino1

Week 3 (25 June-1 July, 2017)
(Columns written on a daily basis from Feb.21 to Feb. 27, 2017)
On: 15) the ultra-right, 16) the Vice President as Pooper Scooper, 17) Russian Ties,
18) The Russia reports and the FBI, 19) Trump’s Deconstructing Cabinet, 20) Sweden as Fake News,
21) Donald Trump’s Personality.

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Column 15 (21 Feb. 2017)

Facts, Truth, Rationality, and the Rise of the Ultra-Right in the West

 lino15_400

After Donald Trump surprised everyone by beating the political odds and won the US presidency, and after Brexit, mainstream parties, media, and pollsters in the EU are struggling to make sense of the sudden rise and support for extreme right parties in just about every member nation of the EU.

To begin to understand the phenomenon we need to keep well in mind that we live in an era characterized as post-truth, or as post-factual; the era of “alternate facts” when 2 + 2 = whatever Big Brother says it is, and if you don’t agree with Big Brother, you are simply not a patriot.

Does that mean that people have suddenly lost the ability to think rationally about politics and political facts, the ability to derive their political views from rational objective considerations? Let’s see.

If we have learned anything from Machiavelli, the father of political science, it is that facts per se rarely play a primary role in politics. You may surmise that they lose out to feelings, to propaganda and outright lies, but that would be off the mark too. What they may lose to is a deep cognitive structure that draws on theories of knowledge and history and by which we interpret facts and attribute meaning to them. Facts by themselves are neutral. It is interpretation that gives them meaning.

There exists a glaring example of how this deep cognitive structures works. People about to undergo surgery are given an option to consent to or refuse the operation. To help them make a decision they are given two identical statistical facts but expressed in a slightly different way. When the patients are informed that they have a 90% survival chance in undergoing the operation, they overwhelmingly opt for the operation. On the other hand if they are informed of a 10% death risk, they overwhelmingly opt for not undergoing the operation.

What has changed? Nothing. The facts remain the same. But the frames are different: one foregrounds life, the other death. What governs the final decision are not the facts but the frames and their interpretations.

So, perhaps elections are won and lost not via purely factual arguments based on empirical scientific facts. They may be won by selling the right frame to the right audience. Trump hired an electoral consulting firm based in Cambridge, England which thought him to sell the right frame, never mind the facts, never mind the truth, to each individual audience. The interpretation changed from region to region. Moreover “alternate facts” were also utilized when found useful. After all, doesn’t the end justify any means, as per Machiavellian political science? Isn’t winning everything?

By setting the right frames against which facts are processed in the mind of voters, elections may be won. What did Hitler’s minister of propaganda Goebbels say? “Tell a lie often enough and people will believe it.” The frequency of the lie is in some way the deep background.
 
What may explain the French and German extreme-right success over mainstream parties is that they are promoting frames that interpret facts in favor of their political tenets and goals.

Let’s examine a concrete political event going on as we speak which may well determine the elections in Germany and France of 2017. What the extreme right has been very successful at, is the framing of war refugees as a huge threat to the EU, by portraying them as a veritable flood. They speak of tidal waves, streams, torrents, tsunami of refugees.

What the metaphor hides is the fact that the refugees are not tidal waves, but real people undergoing pain and suffering, people who, if anything, need compassion and protection. The metaphor transforms them from victims into a threat. If there are innocent victims, those are the individual European countries like Hungary, or France, or Germany. They are the helpless victims of a natural disaster.

The solution to such a natural disaster is not hard to fathom. When a flood threatens you stack up sandbags. Within this frame the reaction to the refugee problem is enforced border control, walls and fences galore, even gunfire as deterrence. They become primary moral imperatives of a protecting government.

The idea of proportionally distributing refugees among the 27 nations of the EU, begins to appear ludicrous. When a flood hits, you simply keep the water out, never mind how much water should go into each room of the house, never mind how did the flood come about. Floods just happen and the duty of survivors is to prevent the danger by all means, never mind human European solidarity. It’s everybody for themselves.

Another linguistic trick is that of branding the refugee problem as a crisis. There is a global shelter crisis, never mind that it is provoked by war and the dislocations it provokes. The refugees, in fact, are the crisis. Many politicians, media, citizens of the EU, knowingly or unknowingly, are caught in extreme ideological frames designed to serve an ultra-nationalistic authoritarian world view, a la Putin or a la Trump.

Make America great again, make Russia great again, make the UK great again, let’s go back to the good old days of glorious colonialism. Hurrah for White Supremacy. This is alarming extreme-right stuff and it is all concocted with words and language which frame the ideology. We are bound to hear a lot of those linguistic frames in the weeks preceding the elections in Germany and France. The possibility of a National Front and an Alternative for Germany win is in fact beginning to loom menacingly.

Undoubtedly, the extreme-right parties will attempt to win those elections by strategically promoting their own worldview in the mind of their fellow-citizens. They will of course use democratic means to eventually proceed to subvert democracy. Hitler and Mussolini proceeded similarly. They were both elected by adoring crowds.

We’ll be hearing a plethora of factual arguments, policy details, on both sides of the political spectrum, the people will be fooled once again; they will be distracted by the facts and their misguided interpretations, thus failing to focus on the values that created a progressive, compassionate, EU in the first place; thus will they be robbed of a peaceful future for themselves, their children and grandchildren.

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Column 16 (22 Feb.2017)

Mike Pence as One of Trump’s Main Pooper Scoopers

 lino16

In the few months since Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has been vice-president of the US, he has spent much of his time mopping up his boss's many messes. He is one of the convenient pooper scoopers of the White House.

Analysts who have followed Pence's political career describe the man as affable, a politician that sticks to the message and is a sophisticated spin doctor. Those traits make Pence especially qualified for the job of pooper scooper. The Indianapolis Star chose the phrase "clarifier-in-chief," but Dan Shea, a professor of government at Colby College, put it like this: "He has gone from attack dog to pooper scooper."

Trump is this campaign's attack dog, not Pence, Shea said, putting the governor in a position no vice presidential contender has ever been in. "I don't think I've ever seen this before," Shea said. "A fundamental criteria is that he or she would do no harm, but in this case it's completely flipped. It's how much harm (Pence) can absorb."

It's a job with unknown consequences for Pence's future, especially as Trump's numbers keep on droping and his comments seem to grow more bizarre by the day. But, after all, it was Pence's only option to break onto the national stage. Pence has spent four years as governor of Indiana eyeing the White House.

When his hopes for the presidency fizzled, Pence faced an uphill gubernatorial re-election battle. He was slated to re-face Democrat John Gregg, whom he defeated in 2012 in a race that was closer than expected.

"Losing the governor's path here would have done some substantial damage to his viability" as a potential presidential candidate, said Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. And even if he was re-elected, Downs said, Pence faced the difficult challenge of turning his Midwest state into one worth national attention. Governor of Indiana is not a high profile job.

"Things were looking pretty grim for that hope for the last couple of years, until the Trump nomination," Hershey said. "This was his second chance at the brass ring." The challenge Pence faces now is learning how to balance his many roles as Trump's running mate: the clarifications, the spinning, the enticing of the religious and socially conservative Republican base. He could gain national recognition and the favor of the GOP party leadership, but on the other hand, he could come off looking like Trump's fool. That may be something that will remain with him the rest of his political career. Will it end well for Pence? It remains to be seen but the omens are not good. He has already lawyered up expecting the worst from the current Muller’s investigation. Stay tuned.

*********************************************

Column 17 (23 Feb. 2017)

The Plot of the Russian Ties continues to Thicken:
The “Moscow Project” is Launched outside Congress

 lino17_400

It has become apparent that the Republicans in the House, under White House pressure, are now dragging their feet on the investigation of Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Consequently the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, in an attempt to hold their feet to the fire, has launched an independent “Moscow Project” which will promote and advocate the creation of a truly independent investigation. This is a probe which represents a significant effort outside the House to move forward on the investigation of Trump and Company and their affairs with Russian during the campaign and after the inauguration.

The probe would have bipartisan membership, subpoena power, and a full-time staff. It has the title of “RE: Investigations into Russian interference.” It insists that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuse himself from oversight of prosecutors investigating the president, and suggests that elected officials ought to be willing to walk away from GOP-led committee investigations if they are not transparent. It acknowledges the urgent need for a 9/11 Commision-style investigation.

The project insists that any investigation include “a full list of contacts between the Trump campaign, its staff, and informal advisers with Russian officials, including intelligence officials, and WikiLeaks, access to transcripts and recordings of communications, including those between General Flynn and Russian ambassador Kislyak, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump prior to the inauguration.

The rationale behind this effort is that an independent commission ensures that both parties have full authority to investigate and that the process be non-partisan. Only thus can the Trump team’s involvement be thoroughly explored.

The reaction of the White House has been swift and predictable. There have been tweets from the president berating the FBI for not squashing the allegations of Russian interference and the usual haranguing of the Media with selected media groups excluded from press chats at the White House.

It appears that the road toward authoritarianism and eventual fascism has been embarked upon, and that the worst is still to come. Stay tuned and buckle your seat-belts.

*********************************************

Column 18 (24 Feb. 2017)

A Closer Look to the Russia Reports: FBI Blatantly Asked by
White House Chief of Staff Priebus to Dispute them

 lino18_400

Trump has been shadowed by questions about potential ties to Russia since winning the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded that Russia did indeed meddle in the campaign to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.

During the campaign, Trump and other Republicans vigorously criticized a meeting between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton, husband of Trump's general election opponent.

The New York Times has reported that U.S. agencies have intercepted phone calls last year between Russian intelligence officials and members of Trump's 2016 campaign team. White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked a top FBI official to dispute media reports that President Donald Trump's campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election.

Priebus' request allegedly came after the FBI told the White House it believed a New York Times report last week describing those contacts was not accurate. Priebus immediately pounced on that information and demanded a repudiation of the FBI probe which the FBI has refused to do raising the tweeting ire of the President.

Priebus' discussion with FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe has sparked outrage among some Democrats. They claim that he has violated policies intended to limit communications between the law enforcement agency and the White House on pending investigations of the White House.

The White House official would not comment when asked if the administration was concerned about the appropriateness of Priebus' communications with McCabe. The official claimed that he was not authorized to disclose the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity. The FBI, on the other hand, would not say whether it had contacted the White House about the veracity of the Times report. CNN first reported that Priebus had asked the FBI to weigh in on the matter.

Still, Trump and his advisers have denied contacts with Russian officials during the election. Last week, Trump said "nobody that I know of spoke with Russian intelligence agents during the campaign.”

Priebus however has alluded to his contacts with the FBI over the weekend, telling Fox News that "the top levels of the intelligence community" have assured him that the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia were "not only grossly overstated, but also wrong." Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Priebus' comments opened the door for FBI Director James Comey to discuss the bureau's investigation publicly.

The plot thickens. It is getting even more intriguing than that of “The Young Pope,” the popular surreal movie about power and derangement.” Perhaps another satirical surrealistic Fellini-like movie about the Caligula Presidency will be necessary to begin to explain what appears irrational and unexplainable.

*********************************************

Column 19 (25 Feb. 2017)

Trump’s Cabinet Was Chosen not to Govern but to Deconstruct

 lino19_400

Why has Trump chosen so many billionaires for his Cabinet positions? The answer to that question was given a few days ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference by one of his most influential aide, Steve Bannon. He informed us that those appointments were made not for the purpose of governing but for that of “deconstructing” the administrative state. In more prosaic terms, for the purpose of destroying it.

Bannon then gave specific examples: the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Parternship which he described as pivotal for American history. Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, was of course chosen as an asset for the Environmental Protection Agency. That means that the government will ease up on regulations, never mind the protection of the environment. It sounds more like sabotage, and less like protection.

Bannon also denounced the media as “the opposition party” opposed to an economic nationalist agenda as proposed by Donald Trump. This was echoed by Priebus, the chief of staff at the White House who informed the audience that “everything you are reading about the Trump administration has been erroneous.”

I suppose that what you are now reading can also be considered erroneous, or, as the slogan goes “fake news.” Unless you may also wish to consider that putting millionaires in charge of Departments which they have had confrontations in the past, is like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coup.

If it all sounds slightly irrational and deranged, you would not be far off the mark. Welcome to alternative reality.

*********************************************

Column 20 (26 Feb. 2017)

Sweden as Fake News at Fox News

 lino20_400

A few months ago a Fox News program featured a Swedish defense and national security advisor, Nils Buildt, interviewed by Bill O’Reiley who no longer works for Fox News. As it turns out, Builtd is unknown to any military and foreign affairs officials in Sweden. Security experts in Sweden have revealed that he isn’t a familiar figure in their ranks in that country.

What is intriguing in this latest deranged episode is that Buildt seemed to echo some of the previous assertions of the President. They decry what is alleged to be the inability of Sweden to integrate socially the immigrant newcomers.

Important to keep in mind that this has occurred after the amateur-incompetent in chief in the White House mentioned to the public “what’s happening last night in Sweden” which turned out to be another psychotic delusion quite similar to that of the thousands of cheering people in New Jersey as the tween towers in Manhattan came down.

Are we dealing with incompetence, ignorance, or with deception, or perhaps all three? Hard to say, but it remains crucial to keep in mind that we live in the world of “alternate reality.” It must have felt that way in the imperial times of emperor Caligula in the times of the Roman Empire. But the alternate reality show must go on until it implodes on itself.

*********************************************

Column 21 (27 Feb. 2017)

The Personality of Donald Trump: Explaining the Unexplainable?

 

lino21_400

 

Lately there have appeared in the media a plethora of columns and cartoons attempting a daunting task: to explain rationally what is almost by definition unexplainable: i.e., the irrational psychotic behavior of someone who lives in an alternate reality punctuated by inveterate lying.

He is by now rated as one of the greatest menaces to world stability. There is an air of apprehension and fear hanging over the world since his election.

The very title of these weekly which is meant to be satirical, is a hint that rationality and reasoned discourse have been tried and abandoned in desperation. The only option left, at least in the world of literature or journalism, is satire which is the kind of pungent critique that attempts to portray the hopelessness of a particularly critical situation, to restore a semblance of rationality to it, to defend reason in the observer when it can no longer be defended in the observed.

One of the best such satirical column I have come across lately, is a column by renowned journalist and scholar Thomas Friedman of The New York Times which appeared in the same newspaper on February 25 with the revealing title “Meet the 5 Trump administrations.” I heartily recommend it. It is both amusing and enlightening. Let me briefly summarize it  here and then offer a few comments of my own.

Friedman claims that there are five different Trump Administrations which appear before our eyes at different times. They are the following: 1) Trump Entertainment, 2) Trump Cleanup, 3) Trump Crazy, 4) Trump GOP, and 5) the Essential Trump.

He then explains that Trump entertainment shows up daily in the form of an alternative fact, a tweet, a pugnacious conference against the media or a pep rally. He says that this is becoming addictive since it is hard to avert one’s gaze from a flying elephant who will say anything about anything.

Trump Cleanup, something I have reflected upon myself in this weekly column. It consists of adults, whom I call “pooper scoopers,” who follow in the wake of Trump entertainment to clarify what the President might have said. Friedman offers various example of this second Trump accompanied by his pooper scooping sycophants who inhabit the White House. 

Then there is Trump Crazy thus portrayed by Friedman: “The undisputed boss of Trump Crazy is chief strategist Steve Bannon, who rushed the president’s initial mess of an executive order on immigration. Bannon is dedicated to shrinking the global clout of China, the European Union, and Iran, and to making America a country less open to immigration and trade, a country that is whiter and more nationalistic, and a country that is as free of Muslim influence and immigrants as possible. He surely encouraged Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community and the media as a way to undermine all independent sources of truth, so that Trump can inject his own bizarre reality.”

The fourth description, Trump GOP, is also worth quoting verbatim:Trump GOP is led by Reince Priebus and represents the old Republican agenda. It knows that Trump is an invasive species who took over the GOP garden, and Trump GOP is just trying to get the best out of him while curbing his worst ideas.”

The fifth description, the Essential Trump, is thus described: “…a man who values loyalty above all else and who thinks his followers are so stupidly loyal that they wouldn’t convict him for a murder they saw him commit; a man who thinks only he can get the little people more jobs by single-handedly putting the arm on big companies; and a man who has shown no interest in earning the trust of Americans who did not vote for him. He appointed no Democrats to his Cabinet and, as his Florida rally underscored, he is only interested in being president of the Trump fan club.”

Friedman concludes the analysis by mentioning, among other things, that “When I add up all these Trumps I do not get a good team feeling; I get the feeling of a pickup basketball team. It doesn’t start with a shared vision of what world we’re living in and what are the biggest forces shaping this world. It starts with the conclusions on which Trump bases his facts.”

What conclusions can we draw from the above considerations? Well, journalists, philosophers and geo-political analysts are not psychiatrist and cannot analyze pathologies, even less prescribe cures, but they can help us recover a modicum of rationality when we find ourselves in a crisis situation wherein reason and order seems lost and irretrievable. This is especially true in a democracy where the people are usually responsible for the election of a deranged mind to a position of great power.

That may explain why I keep referring back to the era of emperor Caligula in Roman times. Closer at home, we have Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. Now we have Trump and Putin who seem to admire each other and have formed a mutual admiration club where they praise each other genius and brilliant mind, which Putin prefers to call “a shining object.”

And then of course, as nemesis of sorts, we have Jefferson, who told us at the outset of the Republic that “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom,” not to speak of Lincoln who reminded us that “one can fool all the people some of the times, and some of the people all of the times, but one cannot fool all the people all the times.”

Of course Donald Trump, does not know that yet. He resides in Plato’s cave of ignorance. He will eventually learn it, the easy, or the hard way. Time is running out.

********************************************

End of Week 3

********************************************

The "CALIGULA PRESIDENCY" Columns

Week 1 -Week 2 - Week 3

*************************************************************************

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