Wednesday, February 6, 2019

State of Emergency

After decades of working as a professional musician I had to grudgingly admit that all the popular mythology about lip-syncing automatons was nonsense, and that the vast majority of actual pop stars are exceptional performers. After decades of observing political campaigns, I had a similar realization about most prominent politicians. They're not stupid, regardless of whether they think it's most expeditious to appear that way for one reason or another – which they often do.

To be a good politician you have to be a good actor, and if you act well enough, many people think you're being authentic. I'm often surprised at how few politicians do act well, despite how useful it would be if they could stop appearing so obviously slimy and untrustworthy. They usually feel it's important to emphasize their patriotic credentials – so if they've ever had anything to do with the military they'll tend to play that up. They need to appear to be normal people, so if they speak a second language other than Spanish they'll keep that under wraps, and they'll strictly avoid using words with more than three syllables in public.

A good politician needs to be skilled at thinking strategically while pretending to be doing something else, like responding to an imminent crisis (whether it was a manufactured one or not). A good politician is always the underdog, always defending, always righteous. They always have to keep their followers believing that they have an agenda for making everything better which, if they're just allowed to implement it, will deliver paradise on Earth. And anyone who is opposed to their plans is opposed to them because they are against the country, against the people, for the special interests – they are the enemies within. Or they're the more standard variety of external enemies -- the sort that aren't just generally bad, but who specifically mean us ill – but against whom we can defend ourselves if we have the right leadership.

Whether people recognize strategic thinking in political leaders or dismiss politicians as idiots incapable of such high levels of cognitive functioning, good strategists rarely broadcast their actual intentions.

In the US we have a particular problem with being able to comprehend a situation if understanding it might best involve drawing on the experience of people in another country. For example, because the cost of housing is skyrocketing in the two states in the US where rent control is not banned statewide, you'll hear people regularly say “rent control doesn't work.” The fact that it works just fine in many other countries where it is much stricter than it's ever been here just doesn't even register as a relevant point.

So it is when many people are trying to understand the events taking place today in the realm of national politics – in Washington, DC, at the border with Mexico, and elsewhere. “Unprecedented” is a frequently-used word to describe these days in the US. But there are a lot of other examples of the main elements of the current playbook being used at other times in various other banana republics and aspiring fascist states.

Traditionally, after you paint yourself as the savior, hold big rallies all over the country, and establish a narrative in the press that there is a crisis that needs powerful leadership to solve, you then establish a narrative that the current political gridlock prevents a democratic solution and necessitates the declaration of a state of emergency. Once declaring emergency rule, the next step is using your new emergency powers to either figuratively or literally eliminate the competition and further concentrate the power of the executive.

This process after the beginning of emergency rule involves the establishment of police forces, intelligence agencies and paramilitary organizations that are especially dedicated to the agenda of the new leader, and the dissolution or evisceration of organizations, agencies, etc., that try to create obstacles or assert their own power or importance.

Depending on how this process goes and which dictatorship playbook we're following, there are different possible routes. The one that seems most likely to me is the one where once power is sufficiently concentrated in the executive and internal enemies have been neutralized – once the wall has been built, both literally and strategically – then it's time to deal with those many external enemies, all in the name of fairness, justice, and righting past and ongoing wrongs done to our people.

At every step in this process, there will be those saying the administration is just shooting from the hip, bumbling its way through, always reacting. Thus discounted, we blind ourselves to the media-savvy, strategic brilliance that is actually on display, and we render ourselves unable to see it for what it is.

Meanwhile, those in a position to fight Trump in his own arena and win the hearts and minds of the US citizenry are impossibly hampered by the chains of “Blue Wave” Super PACs and rendered into nothing more than stand-ins for the banks and defense contractors, talking uselessly about change they long ago lost any capacity to deliver -- because they sold it to the highest bidder, and all they have left to offer are more band-aids to cover our society's gaping wounds, accompanied by matching outfits and enthusiastic chants of “USA, USA, USA.”

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