Can It Happen There? Part Two.
A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday June 23 2016
In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published his dystopian satire It Can’t Happen Here! The novel imagines a charismatic leader winning the presidency and establishing a Fascist dictatorship in the US. Influential American journalist Josh Marshall wrote of Donald Trump: “His public appearances are like a fugue of impulse and aggression, overlapped with charisma and humour and a searching for the spirit of the crowd, a sometimes frantic, sometimes slow mix of neediness, divination and dominance.”
Trump said President Obama should “resign in disgrace” for failing to call the Orlando massacre “Islamic terrorism”. Obama was circumspect in his statement expressing sympathy and solidarity with “the LGBT community” and with the people of Orlando. The president expressed inclusiveness while the Republican contender sought to make political capital from divisiveness.
The rifle Omar Mateen used was a Sig Sauer MCX, sometimes known to gun fetishists as the “Black Mamba”. Sig Sauer makes most of its 74,000 semi-automatic rifles sold in the US market at its factory in New Hampshire. In February 2016, Trump toured the factory with his two sons and Trump addressed a crowd at the National Shooting Sports Foundation’s annual trade show where his sons posed for photo opps with Sig Sauer representatives.
Trump has said the existing background check system should be improved, not expanded, and that assault-weapons bans do not work.
Trump on LGBT
Following the Orlando massacre, Trump claimed to be a champion and friend of the LGBT community. “Hillary Clinton can never claim to be a friend of the gay community as long as she continues to support immigration policies that bring Islamic extremists to our country who suppress women, gays and anyone else who doesn’t share their views or values.”
In reality, Trump must bow to anti-LGBT forces if he wants to win the presidency and is making pacts with them. On 10 June 2016, Trump addressed a meeting of the Road to Majority Summit. Ben Carson, who compared homosexuality to bestiality and paedophilia, moderated the discussion, which was closed to the media, between Trump and hundreds of anti-LGBT activists,. Trump met major evangelical leaders in New York City on June 21.
American philosopher Richard Rorty predicted back in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”
During a Trump presidency, a number of Supreme Court vacancies will give him the opportunity to shape the judiciary. His Supreme Court appointments will need to please the evangelicals. In May, Trump released a list of 11 potential replacements for Antonin Scalia which were alarming for LGBT people and feminists. One of Trump’s choices is Joan Larsen, who worked for Scalia. She served in the Justice Department office that produced the legal justifications for torture. The nomination of President Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, is being blocked by the Senate, so the next president could have a Supreme Court appointment waiting in January 2017.
Trump makes his lack of fixed policy positions a positive virtue: “A lot of times when I speak, people say that I don’t provide specific policies that some pollster has determined are what people want to hear”
We can confidently predict that a Clinton presidency would not be good for this island nation because we can examine her record as Secretary of State. We have very little to go on with Trump. Mark Danner wrote: “What gives a man who knows little or nothing of foreign policy the unsullied conviction to announce to the world that only he can solve, well, Pakistan? Or terrorism?” One cannot imagine that Trump would help Sri Lanka’s delicate balancing act between India, Pakistan, China and the US or help it deal with the legacy of its defeat of terrorism.
Trump does not make any clear foreign policy statements and what does say often turns out to be a lie. He promised to put together a team of experts to help him with foreign policy but the names he announced puzzled many people. He shared the names with the Washington Post. He said five advisers had signed up to be on his team: Joseph E Schmitz, General Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Walid Phares. The team includes two people who played active roles in Iraq. Trump claims to have been against the invasion (a lie) and has accused GW Bush of lying about WMD.
Schmitz left his job as the Pentagon’s inspector general eleven years ago following allegations that he protected top officials in the GW Bush administration suspected of wrongdoing. Senator Grassley, then-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, accused Schmitz of blocking investigations of Bush administration officials tied to Iraq and Afghanistan war contracts and questioned his ties to lobbyists. On leaving the Pentagon took a job with the Prince Group, the parent company of Blackwater USA, the controversial defense contractor whose operatives killed 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007.
General Joseph “Keith” Kellogg was among the first US personnel sent in to try and govern Iraq after the US removed Saddam Hussein. Kellogg had been employed by US government contractor Oracle Corp. in November 2003 when he went to Baghdad to serve as the Chief Operating Officer of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a position he held for five months. During his time in Iraq, the Iraqi army was disbanded which helped to plunge the country into chaos. He was responsible for poorly managed contracts that led to audits and inspectors general investigations.
Walid Phares is an anti-Muslim Lebanese Christian, who served as a top adviser to a Christian militia blamed for atrocities during the Lebanese Civil War. He was a close adviser to Samir Geagea, a Lebanese warlord whose career developed from leading hit squads to running the Lebanese Forces.
Carter Page was an investment banker with Merrill-Lynch who has close ties with Gazprom and Putin’s Kremlin. Sergey Aleksashenko, a top Merrill executive in Russia at one time and now an outspoken Kremlin critic, described Page as a junior banker with little understanding of Russia. “I could not imagine Carter as an adviser on foreign policy. It’s really surprising.”
George Papadopoulos, a 2009 graduate of DePaul University, is said to direct an international energy center at the London Centre of International Law Practice. He obtained a master’s degree from the University of London in 2010. Almost all his work appears to have revolved around the role of Greece, Cyprus and an Israeli natural gas discovery in the eastern Mediterranean. Several people in energy policy circles in London, Washington and New York said they knew nothing of him. Papadopoulos served as an adviser to Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.
There are those who believe that Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination was initially merely a publicity stunt to boost his business. Now he has got this far, there is a fear that he will use the White House as a business opportunity, and, with his financial interests all over the world, foreign policy would be a prime area. John Wonderlich, of the Sunlight Foundation said that complex diplomacy would be further “complicated and altered by massive personal financial conflicts of interests being present at the same time?”
Donald Trump could be president without selling his businesses. Restrictions that prohibit executive branch officials from earning income from their businesses do not apply to the president or vice president. Trump has not committed himself to selling his businesses, and instead he has said that his children and executives would manage them. Kenneth Gross who provided legal assistance to several presidential candidates, said, “He can’t just get amnesia. He’s stuck with the knowledge of what he owns.”
Trump has filed a mandatory personal financial disclosure statement – 104-pages listing his current holdings and their value. With the power of the presidency, Trump could manipulate policy and enforcement to directly benefit his own financial holdings. Trump does a lot of business with the federal government and holds stock in companies, like Boeing, which receive billions of dollars in government contracts.
The commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service is appointed by the president and serves at the pleasure of the president. In his campaign, Trump has been strongly critical of the IRS and has bragged that he pays “as little in taxes as possible”. A Trump-appointed IRS commissioner could allow him to avoid any scrutiny at all for his tax compliance. Trump has not released his tax returns since 1981.
Trump could also use the power of the presidency to intimidate banks into making riskier investments for his companies. Trump has huge debts to Deutsche Bank, a foreign entity that was recently caught manipulating markets around the world. What are the implications of the chief executive of the US government owing such a foreign entity over $100 million?
Loss Aversion Trumps Risk Aversion
Why do people support Trump? Behavioural economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky pioneered the idea of loss aversion – people feel the pain of losses more than they feel the pleasure of gains. Trump harps on loss. In Trump’s world, things are much worse than they seem: “We’re losing everything.” Trump appeals to a kind of masochism – the median Trump voter is, in reality, better educated and richer than the average American but even people who are not doing as well as they expected feel a sense of loss.
His supporters are willing to take a risk – his unpredictability is a positive. To them he looks like a strong leader – is he a Hitler, Mussolini, Peron, Castro, Franco, Pinochet, Chavez? Is American democracy strong enough to survive four or eight years of a Trump presidency? Adam Gopnik thinks not: “Countries don’t really recover from being taken over by unstable authoritarian nationalists of any political bent, left or right…. The nation may survive, but the wound to hope and order will never fully heal. Ask Argentinians or Chileans or Venezuelans or Russians or Italians—or Germans. The national psyche never gets over learning that its institutions are that fragile and their ability to resist a dictator that weak.”