Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, May 10, 2016
They Said It:
Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer.
Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 1971.
AMERICA’S DREAM WORLD, THROUGH THE YEARS.
At the most recent meeting of the brain trust of The Political Forum, the entire staff – that’s the two of us – got to talking about the world as it was when we began collaborating on these weekly commentaries almost exactly twenty years ago and about the truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Over the course of the last two decades, it strikes us that many of the names and the faces in American and global politics have changed, but the issues – and our take on them – have very much stayed the same. Consider the following.
Last Tuesday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination for president. The following day, Ohio Governor John Kasich did the same thing, thereby leaving Donald Trump as the only candidate in the race and thus the presumptive GOP nominee. All of which serves as additional evidence of a truth that we reluctantly discovered a long time ago when the young, largely unknown, notoriously priapic governor of Arkansas upset a sitting president for the highest office in the land; that truth being that the Baby Boom generation didn’t give a damn about policy, character, or ideology. And contra James Carville, it was NOT “the economy, stupid.” The Boomers, quite simply, wanted to be entertained.
By any reasonable measure, Bill Clinton was not qualified to replace George H.W. Bush in office, mild and brief recession notwithstanding. Moreover, by those same measures the Clinton-Gore ticket was not fit to beat the Dole-Kemp ticket four years later. And yet Clinton won both times, largely because, as we reluctantly had to conclude, he was a helluva lot more fun than the old World War II vet with the permanent scowl and the war-injured arm and his running-mate, the tax-policy wonk who was in love with something called “supply-side economics.” Boooorrrring!
Four years later, when the aforementioned Algore was running for the “third Clinton term” against George W. Bush, we were comfortable predicting a Bush victory, long economic expansion notwithstanding. Why? Because Gore was, quite possibly, the dullest man on the face of the earth, while Bush was a bit of a rake. At one point there were rumors that a picture of Bush, drunk and dancing naked on a bar, was about to be leaked. We suggested that if no such pictures existed, then Bush should have some taken and “leaked” IMMEDIATELY! Bush won, of course, if only narrowly, and the rest is history. And part of that that history was his reelection, which he accomplished by beating the second-dullest man on the face of the earth, a man who makes Lurch from The Addams Family seem both handsome and interesting by comparison.
Four years later, when the country was still engaged in two foreign wars and facing an economic catastrophe, the American electorate faced a stark choice. They could vote for the reasonably unexciting guy who had endured five years of physical and emotional torture in a North Vietnamese POW camp and had served more than two decades in Washington; or they could pick a first-term Senator who grew up on the beaches of Hawaii, who had no real experience in national-level politics or in government administration, who bragged about how much pot he had smoked, and who had never had a real job in his life. Naturally, they chose the latter. Why? Because he was more fun, more entertaining, a better and more exciting “celebrity.” And he was still fun and entertaining four after that, despite a terribly unimpressive record and a lackluster economy. And so the American people reelected him, preferring him to a proven, successful, and incredibly “normal” governor and businessman.
We, like many in the business of political prognostication, were somewhat surprised by Obama’s first election, mostly because we failed to see how amazingly interesting a “community organizer” could be. Who knew? If we had paid closer attention to entertainment value, rather than to such arcane qualities as character, experience, and aptitude, we would have understood early on how formidable a campaigner Obama was. And we never would have made the mistake of betting on the more qualified candidate.
You see, in every presidential election for at least a quarter century – and probably a good deal longer – the Baby Boomer-dominated electorate has voted to entertain itself, just as we said it would twenty years ago. And now we have Donald Trump. Moreover, we have Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton, a battle royal, pitting one quixotic, ego-maniacal, celebrity-seeking, womanizing (or womanizing-enabling), tent show huckster against another.
For years now, conservatives and other Republican activists have insisted that what the people really want is a TRUE conservative for whom to vote. Enough with the RiNOs, they shrieked! No more McCains! No more Romneys! Give us true right-wingers! Well, this year they had them – in spades! They had Cruz, Rubio, and Walker. They had Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, even John Kasich, one of the original “revolutionaries” who helped Newt take the House from the Democrats for the first time in nearly half a century. And as it turned out, that’s NOT what they wanted. They wanted was to be entertained. They wanted Trump.
Trump, of course, is a reality TV star who brags about his time on Jeffrey Epstein’s pedophile-island, who is married (for the third time) to a former model, and who loves to say outrageous things. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is a tired, grumpy former Secretary of State. But she makes up for it by the fact that she is also under FBI investigation for running an unauthorized and illegal homebrew email server AND for conflict of interest relating to the HUNDREDS of MILLIONS of dollars she and her husband have raised for themselves and their “foundation” over the last decade. Indeed, together, she and her husband make Al Capone look like a dime-store thug. And speaking of her husband, he, of course, is a guy who looks for love among the interns, who brags about his time on Jeffrey Epstein’s pedophile-island, and who still says the most provocative and outrageous things on the campaign trail. Just for good measure, you can add to the mix Hillary’s most trusted adviser, a woman who has been alleged to be connected to various radical Islamist groups, who is herself under investigation for drawing a paycheck from the State Department while “freelancing” for the Clinton Foundation and whose husband is world-famous, mostly for sharing pictures of his…ummm…”Anthony Weiner” with every young woman unfortunate enough to have a Twitter account.
Could it get any more entertaining than this? Could the still-dominant boomers possibly want anything more? We dunno. Maybe the libertarian/former Republican Gary Johnson, who, up until January, ran a marijuana-based business, will do well enough in the polls to get himself into a real three-way race, rtaising the entertainment level a notch or two. In any case, we’ll start popping the popcorn now. Unfortunately, with two great, bone fide celebrities running, our formula is challenged. But our approach hasn’t changed. In November, bet on the candidate who will be most entertaining.
Also about twenty years ago, we started warning investors, who were then enthralled at the idea of the “new” and more capitalistic China, that they should be careful about playing with the Chinese . . . or, more accurately, about the Chinese playing with us, in our sandbox. When we were working for Prudential Securities, a now-defunct big brokerage house, we warned repeatedly that China’s human rights record, its endemic government corruption, and its belief that business and politics should most definitely be mixed were serious warning signs that investors ignored at their own peril.
Then, several years later, in a 2003 piece, we once again warned that the Chinese government was anything but the trusted partner many investors believed it was. Specifically, we wrote:
Yes, the Chinese economy, with its massive work force, low-cost production, and rapid economic growth, would appear to be a solid investment. And yes, the socialism of the ruling regime has been replaced by something vaguely resembling free enterprise. And yes, there is a good chance that there is an opportunity to make money in China.
All of that notwithstanding, it is, we believe, important to keep in mind that the current regime there is . . . made up of a corrupt bunch of murderous thugs who would lie, cheat, steal, and kill if it suited their purposes. (Actually, they do lie, cheat, steal, and kill to suit their purposes.) . . .
Many of the so-called “capitalist” economies of Asia are distortions of real capitalism, since their rampant corruption and “cronyism” render the wonders of the free market ineffectual. Yet, as bad as things are in most of Asia, the circumstances in China are far worse. In addition to your average, run-of-the-mill corruption, the Chinese economy is plagued by official corruption on a massive scale. Everything the Chinese government says, particularly regarding economic health, must be taken with a very large grain of salt.
All too often the corruption of the Chinese regime is hidden from view, dealing with facts and figures that are far too esoteric to be proven definitively false. For example, most observers believe that the Chinese unemployment rate is far higher than official figures, though the repressiveness and secrecy of the regime prevent an accurate count from being done. Likewise, economic growth data are generally presumed to be falsified; almost no one with any sense takes at face value the Chinese claims that their economy continues to grow at 8% annually, year after year. Of course, given the regime, there really is no way to prove that.
All of this notwithstanding, American investors and investment companies continue to pour money into China hand-over-fist, apparently believing that the wholesale corruption of the Chinese regime will never affect their bottom lines. Or to put this another way, despite the fact that a handful of accounting misdeeds and shenanigans by a very few companies in this nation nearly brought the markets crashing down last summer, some investors apparently believe that much grander and more serious corruption on the part of Chinese companies, state-run enterprises, and the regime itself will simply have no large-scale negative consequences . . .
It’s not that we think investment in China is entirely foolhardy. Obviously, there is money to be made there. But we do believe that perhaps American investors tend to glaze over the obvious risks involved in investing in China, namely that the regime is a corrupt bunch of murderous thugs who, as I said earlier, would lie, cheat, steal, and kill if it suited their purposes. The regime in Beijing may no longer be “Communist” in the traditional sense of the word, but it still has a long way to go before it can be a trustworthy partner in global commerce.
Obviously, we have not been the only people in the business to warn that the Chinese government was a questionable business partner. In his daily update last Thursday, our old friend Ed Yardeni wrote the following:
In general, I’m not a big fan of emerging economies, particularly China . . .
I’ve written often about the credit excesses that have fueled excess capacity in China, which has to be the world’s biggest bubble ever. I was early in detecting the country’s capital outflows problem. I would like the Chinese authorities to know that no one else at Yardeni Research has contributed to my critical analyses of the country. But I will continue to write the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, though it is becoming increasingly dangerous to do so, especially for economists in China . . .
I have instructed my colleagues that in the event of my disappearance, they should carry on without me and write only upbeat stories about China.
Of course, Yardeni Research, like The Political Forum, is what’s known as an “independent research provider,” which reminds us of a significant reason for the gap between our earlier articles about China and the more recent ones.
We wrote a great deal about China back in the 1990s while working for Prudential Securities, a now-bankrupt firm. A few months before we were fired, we published two widely read articles about the moral implications of Goldman Sachs’s IPO for PetroChina. Naturally, we sided with numerous conservative groups that were concerned about American security and a few liberal groups that opposed the slavery PetroChina’s “investments” enabled. The conservatives, of course, were concerned about China’s friendly relations with America’s enemies. The liberals felt that raising billions of dollars to conduct oil operations in Sudan, which was actively engaged in both slavery and genocide, was not in the best interests of the United States. Needless to say, we learned too late that Goldman, in addition to being the lead banker for PetroChina, was also the lead banker for Prudential Insurance, the parent company of Prudential Securities, and was about to handle Prudential’s first public offering. (Who knew?)
Shortly after our defenestration from Prudential, we landed softly at another large Wall Street firm, where we were encouraged, on more than one occasion, to “tone down” our rhetoric, particularly regarding China. It’s not that they didn’t care about China or about the possible implications of China’s manifold problems. It’s just that they had business to do there and couldn’t have important people upset with them. Slavery, genocide, and America’s security interests were fine subjects for conversation, perhaps, but not necessarily for publication. Needless to say, we didn’t last long at said firm and resumed covering China in 2002 when The Political Forum was in its infancy.
Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, last week the Chinese government finally got around to confirming for the entire investment community what we knew to be true all those many years ago. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week (prompting Yardeni’s comments above):
Chinese authorities are training their sights on a new set of targets: economists, analysts and business reporters with gloomy views on the country’s economy. Securities regulators, media censors and other government officials have issued verbal warnings to commentators whose public remarks on the economy are out of step with the government’s upbeat statements, according to government officials and commentators with knowledge of the matter.
The stepped-up censorship, many inside and outside the ruling Communist Party say, represents an effort by China’s leadership to quell growing concerns about the country’s economic prospects as it experiences a prolonged slowdown in growth. As more citizens try to take money out of the country, officials say, regulators and censors are trying to foster an environment of what party officials have dubbed “zhengnengliang,” or “positive energy.”
So . . . China’s economy is in a bit of – how shall we put it? – a slump. And the government responds first by trying to hide the slump, second by trying to manage the slump through administrative policy, and third, by threatening to go all Tiananmen Square on anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. Obviously, you can’t see us right now, but if you could, we promise you, we’re wearing our “shocked” faces. The only thing the Journal missed is that, sure as God made little green apples,” some folks who have a big stake in China are helping the Chinese in this pursuit. Déjà vu all over again.
Finally, in closing, we wanted to mention a third issue that we began covering fairly regularly twenty years ago, namely the moral and philosophical differences that distinguish the Right from the Left in the United States in particular. As with all of the issues mentioned today, our “clash of moral codes” theme took shape during the Clinton presidency, in response to Bill and Hillary’s corruption and louche behavior.
Bill, you see, couldn’t seem to keep from “causing pain” in their marriage, as he put it in his infamous “60 Minutes” interview that salvaged his candidacy in 1992. Bill cheated. Hillary covered it up. They both lied about it. And they both did all they could do destroy the objects of Bill’s affection. And all of this was in addition to their other lies, their shady business dealings, their shifty fundraising, and a host of other rank violations of the public trust. They expected the people of the country – and their fellow liberals especially – to look past all of this.
We didn’t, although we were careful not become moral scolds. Instead, we repeatedly noted that that our concern was not with the Clintons personally, but with the realization that they were symptoms of a problem, not the problem itself. They were, in essence, the embodiment of a “postmodern” conception of morality, one which posited that right and wrong, true and false, good and evil were mere constructs of language, designed to be manipulated to gain and use power.
Bill, for his part, declared that “character” was defined not by a person’s behavior and adherence to archaic moral principles, but by “who one fights for” and the causes one espouses. He was a moral man, he declared, simply because he defined himself as one.
Over the years, we have had cause to discuss this clash of moral codes and this reliance on post-modern validation countless times. In a 2008 interview, Barack Obama updated Bill Clinton’s description of morality, telling an interviewer that the definition of “sin” is “being out of alignment with my values.” In a 2012 piece titled “The Postmodern Left and Interpreting ‘Cool,’” we laid out the principles of postmodernism, such as they are, and explained why they mattered so much to the contemporary Left, the Obama administration in particular. We put it this way:
It is widely acknowledged that the contemporary Left is “postmodern” in its epistemology; that is, in its understanding of the nature of knowledge, and therefore of truth. Put simply, “postmodernism” is an anti-Enlightenment philosophical tradition. It explicitly rejects the foundations of the Enlightenment, and of modernism itself, which is to say that it rejects reason as the source of knowledge and rejects the individual as the repository of this knowledge.
As such, postmodernism rejects objective reality, preferring to define reality as nothing more than the amalgamation of language and power. It also broadly espouses a view of the individual as a derivative of the collective, the “group,” and of the collective’s social and linguistic attributes. Stephen Hicks put it this way in his classic Explaining Postmodernism:
Metaphysically, postmodernism is antirealist, holding that it is impossible to speak meaningfully about an independently existing reality. Postmodernism substitutes instead a social-linguistic, constructionist account of reality. Epistemologically, having rejected the notion of an independently existing reality, postmodernism denies that reason or any other method is a means of acquiring objective knowledge of that reality. Having substituted social-linguistic constructs for that reality, postmodernism emphasizes the subjectivity, conventionality, and incommensurability of those constructions.
Hicks notes that what this means in practice is that the postmodern Left views reality as a construct of language and views language “primarily as a weapon” in the accumulation of power. Which is to say that language and its deconstruction are the keys to understanding the postmodern Left’s political strategies and machinations.
Truth is whatever we say it is, in other words. And the manipulation of language is the means by which truth is molded into “alignment with my values.”
Now, we have also spent a great deal of time over the years discussing a parallel theme, which we have employed over the decades to describe how the postmodern Left has employed its linguistic and moral manipulation. Indeed, we mentioned this theme just a couple of weeks ago in a piece titled “Bernie Sanders, Egoist,” noting that in the post-Enlightenment moral vacuum, the contemporary Left has ordained itself not just the righteous interpreter of reality, but also the rightful interpreter, which is to say the only interpreter who understands the “secret” path to earthly paradise.
Eric Voegelin, of course, referred to this belief as modern “Gnosticism,” which is defined as the faith in human progress toward perfectibility and the belief in the possession of the secret knowledge necessary to achieve it. Voegelin noted that Gnostic societies and Gnostic leaders would be forever pursuing their idyllic world – their “immanentization of the Christian eschaton” – through means that appear “insane” to those outside of the Gnostic mindset. Specifically, he wrote:
Gnostic societies and their leaders will recognize dangers to their existence when they develop, but such dangers will not be met by appropriate actions in the world of reality. They will rather be met by magic operations in the dream world, such as disapproval, moral condemnation, declarations of intention, resolutions, appeals to the opinion of mankind, branding of enemies as aggressors, outlawing of war, propaganda for world peace and world government, etc.
All of which brings us to the biggest story in Washington these past few days. As you may have heard, last week, the New York Times magazine published an article based on an interview with Barack Obama’s foreign policy guru, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. We’re not sure exactly why Rhodes gave the interview or what he intended to accomplish. But whatever his motivation, he has done the entire nation, if not the entire world, a great service.
Ben Rhodes, you may note, is a hack. He’s a failed novelist, a man we have mentioned in these pages before specifically because of his lack of qualifications to do the job he’s been hired to do. He has exceptionally little foreign policy experience. He has a master’s degree in creative writing. And he is, nevertheless, exceptionally certain that he is the smartest person in the room, no matter the room or its occupants. The key bits from the New York Times piece included the following:
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies . . .
Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal is likely to be a model for how future administrations explain foreign policy to Congress and the public. The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false. Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency. “It’s the center of the arc,” Rhodes explained to me two days after the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was implemented. He then checked off the ways in which the administration’s foreign-policy aims and priorities converged on Iran. “We don’t have to kind of be in cycles of conflict if we can find other ways to resolve these issues,” he said. “We can do things that challenge the conventional thinking that, you know, ‘AIPAC doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the Israeli government doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the gulf countries don’t like it.’ It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation. So all these threads that the president’s been spinning — and I mean that not in the press sense — for almost a decade, they kind of all converged around Iran.”
In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the “story” of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime “hard-liners” in an election and then began to pursue a policy of “openness,” which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015: “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not.” While the president’s statement was technically accurate — there had in fact been two years of formal negotiations leading up to the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. — it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration.
In brief, then, Obama and Rhodes believed that they knew better than anyone else how to achieve world peace, or “nonproliferation,” if you prefer. They had to challenge “conventional thinking,” because, well, they think the conventional thinkers are dumb, which Rhodes makes abundantly clear. They – and they alone – know the way to achieve the goal. Moreover, in pursuit of that goal, they fashioned their own reality. They sold the “story” one way, knowing full well that it was, by conventional measures, untrue. Note the language that author David Samuels uses to describe the effort by Rhodes and Obama. They are not, exactly, lying. They are, rather, “shaping” a story. They are using language to manipulate the situation, to create the timeline necessary to implement their plan.
Or, to put it another way, the Obama deal with Iran represents the intersection between postmodern denial of objective reality and operations in the Gnostic “dream world.” If you’ve ever wondered how or why our occasional philosophical meanderings matter, here’s your answer. The nuclear arms agreement with Iran, likely the most significant foreign policy development of the last decade, is the product of the two streams of Leftist thought we have bored you to tears with for the last two decades. This stuff matters, and Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s foreign policy guru just explained to the world why.
The good news is that thanks to Ben Rhodes, the entire world is aware of the American Left’s “interpretation” of reality and its willingness to use that interpretation to get what it wants. No reasonable person can deny what the Obama folks did here or why they did so.
The bad news is that, aside from a few of us, no one really cares. This has been a big story in Washington for the last few days and may continue to be for the near future. But it won’t change anything. It won’t change the way any of the true believers think about Obama or Rhodes or their “unorthodox” foreign policy. In the long run, the whole thing will be forgotten and the only people who will remember it happened, much less care that it did, will be handful of cranks – like us.
The worse news is that in spite all of this, there will be repercussions; serious, deadly, perhaps world-altering repercussions. The paragraph from Eric Voegelin that we quoted above ends with the following admonition: “Gnostic politics is self-defeating in the sense that measures which are intended to establish peace increase the disturbances that will lead to war.” Already, we have seen that the Iranians have no intention whatsoever of abiding by the agreement they signed with Obama. They continue to work on their nuclear arms program. They continue to develop and test ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. And they continue to plan for the ultimate struggle between Islam and its enemies. Just yesterday, in fact, Iranian Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi announced that the regime had successfully tested a ballistic missile with the ability to reach Israel – and beyond. Meanwhile Barack Obama and his foreign policy guru continue to see the American media and the foreign policy “establishment” as their real enemy.
This will not end well.
But then, that’s theme of the day, isn’t it? None of this will end well. The American people will be entertained, but, as a result, they will end up with a president whose chief ability is to entertain. The Chinese government will get what it wants, if not today, then over time. And no one, anywhere will ever be able to decipher, much less broadcast, the true state of the Chinese economy, despite the fact that it is now the largest in the world and thus a significant global risk. The American government, for its part, will continue to operate in a dream world, where it engages in “types of action which in the real world would be considered as morally insane, because of the real effects which they have, [but which] will be considered moral in the dream world, because they intended an entirely different effect.”
In all of these cases, when the inevitable consequences manifest themselves, the powers that be in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the mainstream media press rooms will be surprised. They’ll profess shock at the developments and insist that no one could possibly have seen this coming. That’s not true, of course. Anyone could have seen these things coming. They just refused to look.