Tag Archives: elections

Trump and the death of truth

Today US intelligence and law enforcement agencies – the CIA, FBI and NSA – released a report stating in no uncertain terms that Russia conducted a campaign devoted to harming Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump win the presidency. The means of the campaign: hacking into Democratic Party servers, cooperating with Wikileaks to release harmful documents at the right times, and producing propaganda, misinformation and fake news painting Clinton in a bad light.

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Note the short fingers

Up until Election Day, the expected goal of the campaign was to undermine the expected Clinton victory and faith in American democracy. Once Trump starting winning, however, the theme of ‘this is not democracy’ was quickly dropped in favour of praising the President-elect. The final conclusion of the report is that it is highly likely that the Russian government will run similar campaigns, after this one’s brilliant success. Looking at how Russia has already managed to muddy the waters over Ukraine – meanwhile destroying the Donbas region – this is a pretty terrifying prospect.

In just a few days, however, this unbelievable series of events – Russia helping elect ‘their man’ president of the United States – will no longer matter.

Trump has managed to break the news cycle – each outrage is only news until the next outrage, and none of it seems to sink in. This report will be news for a few days, until next Monday. On Monday, six of Trump’s cabinet nominees will have confirmation hearings in the Senate, and Trump will (finally) hold a press conference on his numerous business conflicts of interest. This will all be news for a few days, until Trump does something else awful. The media is being force-fed so much news, so much scandal and lies to dig into that they simply cannot deal with it all. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to watch this happen, and not know what to do about it. What’s the point of all the outrage if no one’s listening?

And that’s the thing the media has to deal with – who is listening? The populist right, the supporters of Trump, Wilders, Le Pen, Farage, and all the rest, have tuned out. They don’t trust the mainstream media to provide them with facts, and instead get their (fake) news from Facebook. How are you supposed to debate with someone who legitimately believes Hillary Clinton is a murderer? More worryingly, the ‘anti-imperialist’ left have a similar issue. Distrust of Western governments has led them to throw the baby out with the bathwater, losing all faith in Western institutions and experts as a whole. The prime example of this is Wikileaks, which has somehow gone from exposing US war crimes in Iraq to helping an authoritarian government pick sides in an election. But it’s also something I’ve noted at my (very progressive) university studies. The critical thought that’s so vital to academia can quickly turn into the belief that nothing is really true.

Where does this leave the discussions and arguments that are vital to liberal democracies? If we’re reduced to debating what is true and what isn’t, how do we get to what should be done and what shouldn’t? Just look at the President-elect’s Twitter – a continuous mix of lies, half-truths and unfounded accusations. How do you respond to that if we can’t even agree on what the truth is? In 15 days the President of the United States will be a man who embodies the death of truth. What will this do to American democracy and by extension European democracy?

These aren’t new observations, but it is something I find incredibly frustrating. As someone working with a student organisation dedicated to debate and diplomacy, who intends to work in think tanks or foreign policy, this is not exactly an encouraging picture. All of us need to think about how we talk with people we disagree with, and how to create real debate on the issues that affect us. But as for how to do so in what seems to be (hopefully temporarily) a post-truth era – I’m not yet sure where to start.

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Trump, Wilders, Le Pen – The new fascists

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US students in the 40s, when this salute was still part of the Pledge of Allegience

There’s an ugly current running through Western politics, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what it is. Just like in Weimar Germany, from France to the US, there are people struggling with an identity crisis, scared of threats from without and within, and worrying they’re being left behind in the modern economy. And for these people, champions are rising. They are strong leaders. They say all the things, the necessary things, no one else dares to say. They will get things moving, protect the ordinary people, restore order, restore greatness, do what needs to be done. They are people like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. They are fascists.

There’s no clear-cut definition of fascism, and there’s no simple equivalent for Hitler or Mussolini today. However, academic Christian Caryl offers some criteria, so let’s see how Trump especially, but also the others, fit:

  • Racial purity: Wilders and Le Pen focus more on religion then race, but all of them share an obsession with an ‘other’ contaminating society and taking it over, be it “Mexican rapists and criminals”, “criminal Moroccan” or simply “Muslims”, and they will stop all immigration to get rid of this other.
  • “The state reigns supreme”: Seeing as none of them are in power, this is hard to judge, but they are certainly all extremely focused on law and order and ‘the nation’.
  • The strongman: All three, especially Trump, play on this idea of needing a strong leader, and it’s something their supporters look for.
  • Focus on the military: This is something Trump has mentioned a lot – and which is slightly less relevant in Europe – the need for a strong military and foreign policy.
  • Hatred of ‘rationalism’ and ‘decadence’: Trump almost glories in being an anti-intellectual, barely bothering to make rational arguments. All of them have attacked the current government and system for weakness, softness and elitism.
  • The Third Way: None of them are left or right, but just like the Nazi party, bring in elements of both – the rightist emphasis on law and order and the nation together with the leftist opposition to globalisation and financial elites (ironically in Trump’s case).

Now you can argue that people like Wilders and Trump are just populists, swaying from issue to issue, and that they’ll never be elected anyway. And that is certainly true, they are extremely populist. But these fascist positions are the ones on which they are running, and the ones that are making them some of the most popular politicians in the country. That can’t be ignored.

These people don’t only pose a direct threat to democracy if they are elected. Their very rhetoric poisons the atmosphere; it tells people that it is alright to voice their darkest fears and their basest hatreds. Their policies are not just free speech in a marketplace of ideas, where the good ones will win out, they are beginning to contaminate the others and sway the centre of debate. What was once extreme, now becomes acceptable.

The media plays a role in this too. Just this morning I heard an interview with Trump on ABC, where the interviewer asked “Do you regret your ban on Muslims entering the country, a policy which many have labelled un-American?” How can you ask such a question with a straight face? It’s like asking Hitler “Do you regret barring the Jews from public life, a policy which many see as anti-Semitic?’ Of course his plan is un-American, of course it’s un-democratic, and of course it’s fascist. Why isn’t that being said?

This may seem overblown, and you can argue that they will never be elected, or that their star will fade away. Fair enough, that’s hopefully and probably true. But the last time large proportions of Europe were swayed by fascism, it led to the worst conflict the world has ever seen, and the worst crime the world has ever seen – the systematic extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and many others. There are some threats that are very unlikely, but the consequences of which are so dire that they have to be faced no matter how remote they may be. Fascist rhetoric is one of those threats.

Last week Hilary Benn, in one of the best speeches I’ve seen in recent times, declared that Islamic State is fascist, and “fascists must be fought”. This is true – but sometimes the fascists are on the inside.

What happens when elections don’t work?

Today the Nigerian electoral commission announced that the presidential election scheduled for next Saturday would be postponed for 6 weeks, due to the Boko Haram security crisis. President Goodluck Jonathan’s PDP party is pleased with the decision, but the opposition APC party is not. They believe the decision was taken to give the PDP more chance to win, and they have a point. The army apparently forced the commission into the decision by informing them that the military would not be able to provide security for the election at all, as they were busy fighting. However, six weeks is not going to solve a long running and hugely difficult conflict. To make matters worse, all signs point to the elections only bringing more violence.

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