Thursday, July 6, 2017

Softening the Ground

This post will probably be long and perhaps only tangentially connected to history, but it's important, I think, to write down some things I've seen going on. I'm not alone in having seen these things, but perhaps can offer a perspective not yet put forward. My topics will be two, one specific and one general. They are, respectively, Stefan Molyneux and authoritarianism.

On Molyneux much has been said. Rather than retread old ground, such as allegations of cultish behaviors, blatant lying, perhaps most notoriously on Joe Rogan's podcast, and rank hypocrisy against his own earnestly stated personal principles, it suffices here to say that, until a couple of years ago, Molyneux was marketing himself as an anarcho-capitalist or hard libertarian: lots of talk about free markets and rising tides lifting all boats. That sort of thing. Then, he took a disturbing turn, even for him.

Molyneux as a public figure has always been conservative and right wing (terms that intersect quite a bit but not entirely). However, the far right turn he's taken over the last few years is more sinister. He's begun broadcasting explicitly racist positions, including a lot of pieces on the race-IQ correlation, with his conclusion (unsurprisingly) being that this correlation is both overwhelmingly genetic and immutable. He's blended in quite a bit attacking Islam generally, a subject with which I perhaps disagree with him less but that nevertheless he paints with an overly broad brush. Therefore, when Trump emerged politically, Molyneux was almost immediately on board, jettisoning in practice certain principles that, at least in theory, he'd long held, such as laissez faire (Trump is a protectionist) and moral absolutism (think about it for a second).

Of course, Trumpists aren't rare and right wingers aren't experiencing a shortage on the Internet, where Molyneux primarily resides. What's disturbing about Molyneux's case is the mainstream attention that he has received. Leaving aside an appearance on his YouTube channel a few years ago by Noam Chomsky, during which Molyneux largely kept his reactionary views to himself, Molyneux's right-wing guests have run the gamut from mainstream conservatives (e.g., Dave Rubin) to fringe mainstream figures (Ann Coulter) to alt-right mainstays (Mike Cernovich). As a result, Molyneux now gets retweeted by the President's sons, and this is where the danger really lies.

Before the general situation I mentioned above, however, a final specific point about Molyneux. His guest today (July 6, 2017) was Axel Kaiser, a Chilean writer and journalist with libertarian leanings who joined Molyneux to discuss "the untold story of Augusto Pinochet." Kaiser presented the standard mainstream right-wing case, i.e., Pinochet was bad but Allende was worse. He argued that Allende intended to institute a Marxist totalitarian dictatorship (false), committed horrendous violence (partially true), etc., but I didn't hear anything particularly surprising in what he said. Molyneux, however, pushed his luck. Isn't it true, he asked, that Allende was arming leftist terrorist groups? They were being armed, Kaiser answered, but probably not by Allende. In fact, he continued, many of the most violent leftist rhetoricians of the Allende period shrank away in cowardice rather than have to fight the junta that Pinochet led. Molyneux responded that he found that most leftists preferred to exert statist violence against the helpless and wilted when having to face a real military.

The obvious counterexample of the Viet Cong aside, one must note what Molyneux is doing here. He is painting the left as an inherently violent body of ideologies. Now place this within a larger context of the last few months or so, during which we have seen an overexaggeration of leftist violence against Trump supporters and either denial or weak excuses for right wing violence, not to mention a complete lack of responsibility to answer for Trump's clear exhortations to violence during the campaign. To be clear, violence is in general not something to be admired, and although the mere fact of punching a Nazi says more about the person that evokes such a response and how historically Nazis have had to be dealt with than it does about the person doing the punching, I accept as well that there is an inherent danger in defining the whole right as Nazis.

So we have the left being painted as violent and unhinged. Just think about the most recent episodes of right-wing outrage at Kathy Griffin's ham-handed kabuki theater of beheading the President or at the staging of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in Central Park in New York with the title character decked out in Trumpian finery, and you'll notice a trend. Now couple this with the ongoing attacks on the media. Last week it was a dust-up between the President and Mika Brzenzinksi. This week, it's outrage that CNN found the creator of a video in which the President, in a clip from his WWE days, wrestles a person to the ground, the person having the CNN logo pasted over his face. "CNN has blackmailed this young man!" we are told by Molyneux and others. It is all part of a delegitimation of the left.

It’s worth noting that the interior logic here is sound, although the premises are heavily flawed. If the media against Trump is leftist, and leftists are violent, then of course the media are potentially violent enemies who would commit blackmail. That the U.S. media is overwhelmingly corporate, rather than liberal, is beside the point. So is the overwhelming lack of violence since the 1970s on the left, a large proportion of which supported a rather centrist candidate for President just a few months ago. The right has been significantly more violent in recent decades: the Order, Oklahoma City, and Eric Rudolph come to mind.

The most important question is where Molyneux et al. are going with this rhetoric. It seems to me that they are softening the ground for an authoritarian seizure of power. I've done my level-headed best to resist this position for the last several months, but it's become increasingly clear that this is what is going on. Trump is elbows deep in scandal, and some of it will inevitably catch up with him. It seems unlikely to me that he will finish his term as President, although how his term will end is anyone's guess. My wife suggests he has set the stage for an excuse of illness allowing him to resign. That's possible, to be sure. Impeachment, the other realistic way that he leaves office other than illness or death (he's 71 and obese), hinges on the majority party in the Congress, which is Republican in both cases. Obviously, there are Republicans who have taken (and a few who have even kept) principled stances against Trump, but they are few, and the majority of the party seems content to have Trump in office to rubber stamp whatever they are able to get passed, which seems to be the standard Reaganesque fare of deregulation, tax cuts, and making Americans poorer, dumber, and sicker.

If Trump were smart, he'd realize that he'd be impeached the minute he completed the Republicans' legislative agenda. But he isn’t smart, as should be abundantly clear by now, and I'm a pessimist with regard to this agenda and how successful it will be. And then, if my predictions are correct, Trump will face impeachment. The question for consideration here is what the alt-right will do when he does. I suggest that they are preparing for a violent confrontation and are hoping that they have sufficiently prepared the armed population among them for when push comes to shove. They will not allow Trump to be removed from power against their will.

Is Trump involved in this? Probably not, although maybe his sons are. Certainly figures like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon are, I'd imagine; neither of them seems terribly enamored of democracy. The most important question, it seems to me, is whether the President would go along with a scenario like this. Maybe the most important question of all is whether they will even wait until impeachment becomes a viable option or will allow some Reichstag Fire/9-11 type event, whether staged or genuine, to be zero hour.

So what can you do? I'd recommend reading Timothy Snyder's excellent book On Tyranny and following the directions in there. Remember that what's happening in this country isn't normal by any stretch of the imagination and that defending democratic institutions and the rule of law is more important now than perhaps at any time in the last 150 years. Finally, whenever one of these people on the right wing wielding this rhetoric -- whether Molyneux or Cernovich or one of their band of merry men -- has a megaphone, be there to remind everyone within earshot what they are doing. They are preparing the stage to subvert democracy in this country. If that happens, then what happens next isn't pretty, if history is any lesson.

Don't let them win.

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