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    America: Motherhood, Apple Pie and the Mob

    The United States began as a glint in the eyes of an English mob of oddballs, dissenters and criminals let loose on what they considered virgin territory. Once secure in their new digs, they administered rough justice to the original Americans and any colonist who fell afoul of community rules. Eventually, casting aside their imperial British overlords, the rabble achieved a measure of respectability by creating an independent state.

    Recruiting an Army for a Civil War

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    Even as the United States fashioned an army, a constabulary and an evolving rule of law, the mob continued to define what it meant to be an American. It policed the slave economy. It helped push the borders westward. It formed the shock troops that rolled back Reconstruction. A 20th-century version of this mob rampaged during the long Red Summer of violence that stretched from 1917 to 1923. It mobilized against the civil rights movement. And during the Trump era, it has reared its ugly head in Charlottesville, Portland and, last week, on Capitol Hill. America is motherhood, apple pie … and the mob.

    Un-American

    Last week, many a politician decried the mob violence at the US Capitol as “un-American.” Consider, for instance, the words of Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader: “This is so un-American. I condemn any of this violence. I could not be sadder or more disappointed with the way our country looks right now. People are getting hurt. Anyone involved in this, if you’re hearing me, hear me loud and clear: This is not the American way.”

    McCarthy was not on the same podium with Donald Trump earlier in the day urging on the mob. But he and the president were on the same page between November 3 and January 6. Two days after the election, the California Republican announced that Trump had won. Later, he supported the outlandish Texas lawsuit to overturn the election results, refused to acknowledge Biden’s win well into 2021, and stood up in the House last week even after the mob retreated to challenge the Electoral College results.

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    After January 6, McCarthy has tried to put some distance between himself and the rabble. He has been willing to consider an official censure of the president and has also indicated that he won’t try to enforce party unity against an impeachment vote. No doubt McCarthy has shifted his stance because he feared for his own life when the insurrectionists stormed the barricades and invaded his sanctum. Trump, enjoying the images on TV, refused McCarthy’s plea to issue a statement calling off his attack dogs. It’s enough to make even the most loyal lapdog bark a different tune.

    None of this detracts from the fact that McCarthy, since the election, was the elected representative not of his California district but of the mob. He was their cheerleader, their mouthpiece on the Hill, one of the many suits over the ages who have translated the “will of the people” into official-sounding acts and bills that attempt to preserve the privileges of white people at the expense of everyone else. For that is the beating heart of Trumpism: the Confederate flag, the noose, the closed polling booth, the knee on the neck of non-white America.

    The word “mob” makes it sounds as though the violence was perpetrated by a group of mindless rowdies. But there has always been a method to the madness of this particular crowd. Let’s take a closer look at what the latest incarnation of the American mob wants, how it connects to like-minded groups overseas, and what to expect over the next weeks, months and years.

    Against the Globalists

    At first glance, the people who descended upon Washington to disrupt Congress on January 6 are almost obsessively focused on domestic issues. They’re not so much America First as Trump First. They have turned against anyone in the Republican Party who has abandoned the soon-to-be-ex-president, and that includes the vice president. They are nationalist and parochial. They are also anti-globalist, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t global in their strategizing, their connections and their aspirations.

    One of the core components of the Stop the Steal coalition is QAnon, an amorphous global network that believes that another amorphous global network — of Satanic child molesters — somehow controls the levers of international power. What started out as a conspiracy theory centered on Donald Trump as a St. George figure battling a devilish dragon went global in 2020, attracting adherents in 71 countries by August. One German QAnon group counts 120,000 members in its Telegram account.

    Another key member of the coalition is a bloc of white nationalists and militia members that encompasses accelerationists like the Boogaloo Bois, who want to spur a race war to bring down the liberal status quo, and organizations like the Proud Boys that emphasize male supremacy. These groups have forged global links over the last decade in Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.

    Prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, these chauvinists united around a “great replacement” narrative according to which immigrants and people of color are determined to “replace” white people through migration, higher birthrates or sheer pushiness. When the border closures around the pandemic reduced the salience of the immigration issue, the great replacement became a less useful organizing tool.

    Embed from Getty Images

    It was into this vacuum that QAnon became the conspiracy theory de jour. Meanwhile, the far right shifted its discourse on “globalists” to challenge their approach to COVID-19, their deference to the Chinese and their proposed “reset” of the global economy — anything to deflect attention from the obvious failures of the nationalist populists who headed up the countries with the highest number of infections and deaths: the United States, Brazil, India, Russia and the United Kingdom.

    Although they often disagree about particulars, this array of groups is united by an animus against government. They supported Trump not as the head of government but as someone opposed to government. And they adored him because he didn’t just hate the US government and the elites that staff it, but global governance as well. The “deep state” was always a canard. The far right despised the liberal state, full stop. Trump attracted an even wider following by squaring off against the expert class: the uppity journalists and fact-bound scientists and Hollywood liberals and hand-wringing academics. Burn it all down, Trump’s followers demanded.

    Inside-Outside Game

    Trump in government, however, represented a certain check on the most ambitious impulses of the far right. True, during his reign, extremists have come out into the streets to protest economic shutdowns, masking ordinances and Black Lives Matter mobilizations. Some extremists planned more violent interventions, like kidnapping the governor of Michigan. But with the administration on its side, with the Senate in Republican hands and with Republicans controlling the vast majority of state legislatures, the far right focused its wrath selectively. It played the ultimate inside-outside game.

    After the November election, with Trump on his way out of power, the far right no longer has to place any caveats on its anti-government impulses. First came an attack on Congress, not coincidentally on the very day that the Republicans lost their Senate majority. Next, the far right is planning an armed march on Washington and all 50 state capitols on January 17. To cap it off, a Million Militia March is planned for Inauguration Day.

    What happened on January 6 was, despite some prior planning, a disorganized coup attempt. What comes next may well be more precisely planned, which may result in a focus on the weakest links rather than the most potent symbols, just as the Oregon extremists chose the easily occupied Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016 rather than the heavily guarded state capitol building.

    The storming of the US Capitol, meanwhile, has proven to be a great winnower. The fainthearted, like Kevin McCarthy, have proven to be chaff, as has a number of previously ardent Trump supporters. According to polling conducted after the attack, “a quarter of Trump voters agree that actions should be taken to immediately remove him from office. Further, 41% of Trump voters believe he has ‘betrayed the values and interests of the Republican Party.’” This is an extraordinarily rapid fissure in what had hitherto been an impregnable base of support for Trump.

    What remains is a revolutionary core. They won’t muster enough force to make a difference over the next two weeks, not against the 15,000 National Guards likely to be deployed to Washington, DC, for Joe Biden’s inauguration. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, the far right couldn’t handle the avalanche of criticism and could barely muster a couple of dozen extremists for a rally one year later in DC. But it has since altered its messaging and its strategy. Expect even more adaptation over the next months and years.

    What Comes Next

    The idea that the Civil War was a “war of Northern aggression” has survived 150 years of civic, political and media education to the contrary. A large section of white Southerners, and even a few folks outside the region, cling to their “lost cause” much as Serbian nationalists mourn their defeat on the plain of Kosovo in 1389, Hungarians rail against the loss of territory after the Trianon Treaty of 1920, and the Japanese and German far right has bridled at the “outside interference” that robbed their nations of a measure of sovereignty after World War II.

    Prepare for the “stolen election” narrative to serve a similar function for the Forever Trumpers. This narrative of an unfair political system ties together many of the far right’s themes: liberal institutions are fundamentally broken and corrupted, the mainstream media is compliant in tilting the playing field, and the globalists will do anything to regain power from “the people.” Note, too, how these messages can appeal to a left also angry at the status quo, and you can understand why so many people who voted for Bernie Sanders switched to Trump and why the European far right have harvested votes from previous bastions of the communist parties.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Such appeals to fairness — a stolen election is above all unfair — conceal the racist, sexist and otherwise exclusionary content of the far right’s agenda. An explicitly fascist platform has considerably less broad-based appeal than a cry to right a wrong. Over the next four years, the far right will beat this drum of political illegitimacy. It will claim that nothing the Biden administration does will be legal or constitutional because of its original sin of ascension via a stolen election.

    The fallout from January 6 will continue to divide the Republican Party. But the opportunity to brand the Democrats as illegitimate will prove just too addictive to be ignored. Consider the attacks on Obamacare or the successful effort to block Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Even in the face of overwhelming counterevidence, the Republicans hammered on the illegitimacy of the Democratic initiatives. A “stolen election” caucus, composed of the congressional members who survive a corporate and fundraiser boycott, will attempt to pull the Republican Party further to the right, just as the Tea Party did during the Obama era.

    The international ramifications of this strategy are equally worrisome. The far right attacks governments not only because they are liberal in the sense of providing government “handouts,” but because they follow liberal principles of governance — checks and balances, free press, rights to gather and express dissent. Trump’s attacks on January 6 were not just seditious. They were designed to transform his position and that of the GOP into something resembling the United Russia party and Vladimir Putin’s leadership for life. Trump has always wanted to build a Moscow or a Budapest or an Ankara or a Managua on the Potomac: iron-fisted leadership, no serious political opposition, a cowering press, a cult of personality. He thought he saw his opportunity on January 6.

    This is also the ultimate goal of the mob. It doesn’t want anarchy, except as an interim strategy. It wants a strong hand on the tiller, as if Trump were the Great Helmsman guiding the country in a Great Leap Forward (or backward, given that a mob’s sense of direction is never very precise). Trump’s hands, however, are being wrenched from the tiller. Even better, he is being abandoned by leading members of his party, his social media enablers, his financial backers and his corporate sponsors. His ambition having overleapt itself, Trump has stumbled, irrevocably. The mob is taking note, even as it falls back to protect its wounded leader.

    For the next four years, prepare for the mob and its political representatives to rely on street power to identify, campaign for and put into office their next Great White Hope. What’s more quintessentially American than that?

    *[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Who Owns Susan Collins’ Brain?

    As a senator from the state of Maine with a college education (though not Ivy League), Susan Collins must be considered an intelligent woman. She’s also a Republican. When an intelligent and responsible public figure writes an op-ed recounting an important event, we might suppose she would seek to show off her intelligence rather than the opposite. Not Susan Collins, who included this statement in her op-ed for the Bangor Daily News: “My first thought was that the Iranians had followed through on their threat to strike the Capitol.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    First thought:

    Often the most pertinent idea resulting from strong intuition, but sometimes exactly the kind of misguided musing no serious person would ever want to admit having allowed to cross their mind unless their aim was to cast doubt on the idea that they even possess a mind.

    Contextual Note

    Susan Collins may be spending too much time listening to recent speeches by Mike Pompeo or remembering past pronouncements of John Bolton. In her op-ed, she claims that she was “well aware that emotions were running high because of the president’s repeated claims that the election was ‘stolen,’ despite the fact that approximately 90 judges, including the Supreme Court justices, had ruled otherwise.” That would be enough of a clue for most intelligent people when the rumbling of mutiny began to become audible inside the Capitol on January 6.

    Even with that knowledge, the only credible explanation that popped into Collins’s brain was that it was an attack by Iran. Had she been a Democrat, she probably would have assumed that it was Vladimir Putin in person trying to break down the doors, armed, of course with a hammer, and sickle. But Collins is a Republican. Each party sees its own preferred goblins under the stairs.

    Cody Fenwick, writing for Alternet, judges that Collins “underestimated the true threat of Trump’s radicalism and right-wing extremism, and she is likely overestimating the threat posed from countries like Iran.” But it wasn’t about rational risk assessment. Collins’ comment tells us something deeper about how politicians think. First thoughts belong to the same family of mental events as Freudian slips.

    Embed from Getty Images

    They reveal processes that are anchored in a region of impulses and automatic reflexes that sits below the faculty of reasoning and decision-making. Politicians possess a Freudian unconscious meticulously programmed by their party’s ideology and propaganda. It can even prevent them from seeing or seeking to understand what is happening around them.

    Collins knew on that day that thousands of members of her own party were mobilizing to protest Trump’s electoral defeat. Unless she exists in a different universe, she knew something about who they were and how MAGA crowds and the adepts of QAnon typically behave. In her eyes, they were known to be rowdy, but they weren’t evil. As Trump himself had said concerning the events in Charlottesville: “There were good people on both sides.” 

    Despite that knowledge, her programmed logic assumed that an assault on the US government could only be attributable to a force officially classified as “evil.” It’s a time-honored Republican tradition. Reagan programmed the nation to fear the “empire of evil.” George W. Bush called it an “axis of evil.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who now baselessly claims that “al-Qaeda has a new home base in Iran,” has been pushing the idea that Iran is the center of the axis. He added a more sinister commentary: “I would say Iran is indeed the new Afghanistan.” Afghanistan is a code word for “justified war.” 

    Since the Cold War, US foreign policy requires the inculcation of a Manichaean mythology that fixes in people’s brains the idea of a metaphysical combat between pure existential good (the US and at least one of its allies, Israel) and pure existential evil. Iran has been at the top of the rankings for the Trump administration, if only because of Obama’s shameful “Iran deal.” Al-Qaeda, of course, has remained the symbol of absolute evil since 9/11. This is true even when the US provides al-Qaeda’s affiliates with weapons in Syria, because Bashar-al-Assad, as the head of state, is even more evil.

    Balance is always important. Giving all the publicity to evil would be wrong. In her breathtaking account of the Senators’ daring escape from imagined Iranians, Collins also finds a way of highlighting the existence of pure existential good. She recounts the charming story of how Senator Todd Young, a Marines veteran, “moved over near Sen. Lisa Murkowski and me. Only later did I learn that he was positioning himself to repel the rioters and defend us.”

    As Joe Biden would say, God bless the troops. America’s military heroes, even after choosing a political career, are always ready to act when an evil enemy is at the door. This may help to explain why an overwhelming majority in Congress voted to override Donald Trump’s veto and approve the $740-billion Defense Authorization Act in December. After all, without that bloated expenditure, it is likely that there would be fewer well-trained warriors in the Senate to protect defenseless damsels in distress.

    In the end, the Iranians hadn’t mounted the nuclear attack all Americans (and Israelis) fear, or even a non-nuclear attack. The MAGA fanatics never managed to reach a single lawmaker. All was well that ended well, or at least not too badly, with only a handful of fatalities of unimportant people. It gave Collins the opportunity to vaunt her own bravery. She and her colleagues courageously stayed on to finish the job and defend the Constitution. As she proudly announces, “There was no way I was going to let these thugs succeed in their attempt to disrupt the constitutional process and undermine our democracy.”

    Historical Note

    Collins never tells us whether the heroic Senator Young also believed it was the Iranians pounding on the doors of the Capitol. Her harrowing tale is nevertheless worth reading. It evokes the atmosphere of the Viking siege of Paris in 885, when the monks at the Abbey of St. Germain des Pres woke up to discover a host of marauding Norsemen. Collins’ account may not be the equal of the lengthy poem by the Benedictine monk, Abbo Cernuus, “Bella Parisiacae Urbis,” but it does give an idea of the frightening unexpectedness of the threat.

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    Senator Young never had to step up to play the role of Count Odo or Bishop Gauzlin, two heroes who had some initial success displaying their prowess to fend off the invaders. The Viking siege lasted for nearly two years before the Holy Roman emperor, Charles le Gros (Charles the Fat), intervened and bought them off with £700 of silver — an astronomical sum at the time — complemented by a land grant at Rouen, on the condition that they leave Paris to the Parisians.

    When the Vikings arrived in Paris with an estimated 12,000 men on 300 ships, they simply requested free passage to sail further up the Seine. The authorities refused, and, for the following two years, mayhem and slaughter became the norm in and around Paris. When the dust finally settled, the Norseman appeared pleased with the gift of what would become the Duchy of Normandy. The Norman nation quickly prospered. Within two generations, all Normans spoke French and, a century later, in 1066, they conquered England, a nation whose people never managed to master French grammar. Nevertheless, centuries later, the British, possibly inspired by William the Conqueror, used their own ships to subject much of the world, including the Indian subcontinent and the east coast of North America, to their rule and their language.

    One protester who penetrated the Senate chambers donned an impressive costume inspired by Viking mythology. He sat down in the vice president’s chair. The latter-day Viking provided the imagery to make the event legitimately hyperreal. Whether last week’s assault turns into the equivalent of the Viking siege of Paris over the next two years remains to be seen. For one thing, we are all wondering what Donald the Fat will do after being released from the White House. Will his Vikings offer us a new episode of hyperreality TV or even a lambent civil war? Will Joe Biden befriend the evil Iranians? The world is waiting for the next episode. 

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Trump’s Impeachment Should Be Just the Beginning

    Let’s start with a little good news. It appears that a new US president will be inaugurated on January 20, and, when the Congress convenes for the first time after that, there will be a thin Democratic majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Given what has transpired in America over the last four years and the desperate and violent acts at the US Capitol on January 6, this transfer of power may be enough to allow celebration for a moment that a majority of those who voted in the recent elections gave the nation a chance at governance.

    A Perspective on America’s Imperfect Democracy

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    However, neither a good government nor actual good governance is even close to being assured. First, there will be those, maybe President Biden himself, who will speak to a moderate response to what we have witnessed over the last days and years, and the terrible toll it has taken on so many people. I hope that voices of immoderation prevail when order is restored, at least until the seeds of public accountability have taken root. The good news will not last beyond the virtual inauguration parade unless the new president has nerves of steel and no, I repeat, no illusions about governing in partnership with Republicans in some faux display of “unity.”

    Immoderate Actions

    Moderated responses to immoderate actions are doomed to fail and serve only to further enable those willing to destroy to achieve their ends. In the instant case, there must be a quick and decisive immoderate response, albeit a non-violent response freed from revenge as its motive. That response must be seen as urgent and restorative. If not, this moment will be lost, and the nation will again descend into governmental dysfunction in the face of the multiple challenges of the pandemic, economic disarray, systemic racism and social injustice.

    Embed from Getty Images

    As we anticipate a new day dawning, one of the vestiges of days past should disappear from our discourse — the notion of alternate reality. Not only is there no such thing, but there cannot be such a thing, unless there are also alternate facts. There is reality and there is fantasy. When willful ingestion of fantasy overwhelms reality to drive political agendas and actions, you get the United States of America. It is simply time for this to end.

    The nation cannot expect to move forward while treading water beneath the surface. We must find a way to rescue those souls drowning in a sea of fantasy largely of their own making. I love the First Amendment, but this crucial foundation of America’s constitutional democracy was adopted in 1791. Other than falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater, there is little public knowledge about the limitations of free speech, including the extent to which provoking insurrection in a crowded city is protected by the First Amendment. Further, it bears noting that neither the internet nor social media was around in 1791, and that the First Amendment is a prohibition only of governmental activity even in its broadest reading.

    Without attempting a First Amendment primer, it is safe to say that a great many people in America’s delusional home of free speech believe that the right to freedom of speech is some kind of absolute. Since it is not an absolute and has next to nothing to do with private action, it should be safe to note that there is a lot of room to debate the extent to which America’s vile social media cesspool can be subject to limitation and control. Whatever else can be said, the First Amendment is not a license to monetize “free” speech, nor is it a shield that amoral peddlers of snake oil can use to avoid responsibility for the damage caused by their wares.

    Postmortem

    Since much of the fantasy at large in the land, including the fantasies that brought armed thugs to the US Capitol, has been well documented for quite some time, the postmortem review should take a hard look at why it took an armed insurrection to expose a fundamental flaw in the notion that “moderation” can be an effective response to venal delusion when that delusion takes hold in the body politic. And, further, it should consider why it took an armed insurrection to finally raise the stakes on those who generate, spread, consume and defend the fantasies.

    Then there is the tactical disconnect apparent in law enforcement planning and the initial response to what readily should have been seen as a clear and present threat of violence. A mob of white insurrectionists storms the Capitol, with little to no resistance. Meanwhile, pleas for assistance are slow-walked, and the insurrectionists are allowed to calmly walk away from the battered scene of their crime carrying their spoils of war. The inciter-in-chief is absent from the fray, watching it all on television, while his Marie Antoinette seem-a-like is finishing a White House furnishings photo shoot.

    So it goes in benighted America. I can hardly wait for the next Black Lives Matter protest that threatens prompt service at a coffee shop where the police move in to forcefully restore “law and order” at a point of a gun and arrest everyone who is black or cares about pervasive racism. Being a black protester in America just got even more perplexing. Perhaps the key to “peaceful” protest is to wrap yourself and your cause in the American flag or some flag-branded garb that says you and your cause are not a threat to law enforcement or to its cause.

    There finally may be enough palpable outrage among some in the nation’s political class, maybe enough to ensure the security of the presidential inauguration. Meanwhile, the scum is fleeing from Trump’s orbit, leaving in their wake a dysfunctional national government, over 380,000 coronavirus deaths, a vaccination free-for-all and ever-lengthening food lines. I hope that all will be investigated, their professional lives ruined and the guilty eventually charged. That is what accountability looks like to me.

    However, accountability cannot be complete until Donald Trump, his grifter family and his acolytes are driven from our midst, charged with crimes where applicable and shamed into irrelevance. Trump’s second impeachment should be just the beginning. That may seem immoderate, but so be it.

    *[This article was cross-posted on the author’s blog, Hard Left Turn.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Recruiting an Army for a Civil War

    Last week’s storming of the Capitol has already achieved the traumatic status of only a few other events in recent US history: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and 9/11. Its historical consequences will play out for years if not decades.

    Pearl Harbor allowed the United States into what until then had been largely a European conflict. The US subsequently became the dominant force in the Second World War and then the world, after ushering in the nuclear age with a shocking and scientifically sadistic attack on the civilian populations of two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The JFK assassination cleared the path for two other game-changing events: Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam and the flowering of the hippie movement. Combined, these marked an important stage in shattering the trust Americans formerly had in their institutions, a trend that has continued ever since. 

    Flashpoint America: What the Hell Is Happening?

    READ MORE

    The attacks of 9/11 provided the scheming neocons and their pliant president, George W. Bush, with the pretext for spreading endless wars across the Middle East. It was designed as an intended display of virile might but turned into a failed and futile melodrama that, in the eyes of most of humanity, seriously undermined the vaunted moral authority of a nation that for two centuries had claimed to be the “beacon of democracy.”

    An article by Emma Grey Ellis in Wired, “The DC Mobs Could Become a Mythologized Recruitment Tool,” points to one of the possible long-term consequences of last week’s event. Ellis cites Shannon Reid, a researcher of the phenomenon of street gangs and white power at UNC Charlotte: “My fear is that this moment will die down and everyone will think we’re OK. Really this [riot] was a recruitment tool, a part of a mythology that is going to grow.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Recruitment:

    Conversion to an extreme, violent ideology of people who realize — though with limited understanding — that the respectable institutions controlling their lives and to which they are expected to pledge allegiance have no interest in their well-being, and even less in recruiting them for gainful employment.

    Contextual Note

    One commentator cited in the article notes how an event that achieved nothing evokes a positive reaction from the extreme right, suggesting that “The hardened neo-Nazis on Telegram are over the moon that this all happened. They feel like it’s going to radicalize millions of boomer-tier people. They’re kind of scolding the boomers: ‘You tried to work through the system, but now you’re radicalized along with us.’”

    The FBI has now warned that thousands of Trump supporters and election deniers are currently organizing armed protests across the nation, seeking to make a furious show of force before Joe Biden’s inauguration. But they don’t see it as a one-time event. The movement will continue and possibly grow in the coming months. Its participants share a mentality of civil war. After four years of Trumpian fireworks in the media, these rebels — many of them well-trained war veterans inured to righteous violence — simply cannot imagine the nation in the hands of someone other than The Donald, who in their eyes has become the symbol of American assertiveness.

    Embed from Getty Images

    Sociologist Cynthia Miller-Idriss sees this event as confirming “a swing back toward anti-government extremism.” She believes it is “creating odd coalitions.” With his usual reflexive mendacity, when Trump sought to blame antifa for the storming of the Capitol, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy immediately contradicted him. Nevertheless, while it is unlikely that antifa and the MAGA crowd could ever agree on coordinating their studied nihilism, a certain convergence in their mutual capacity for discord seems possible.

    The main victims of the growing disorder will be the vast majority of Americans and, more particularly, the significant swaths of the population who are seriously interested in reforming, if not transforming, a system whose injustices seem patent and the indifference of the moneyed elites only too evident. The entire black and Hispanic communities will be the first to suffer since the most likely immediate response will be to impose heightened surveillance and more aggressive policing in the name of national security, following the precedent of 9/11.

    The hopes that were awakened last year with the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd will be dashed by the combined force of COVID-19, tightened security and official suspicion of anything that isn’t resolutely middle-of-the-road during the Biden presidency.

    Racial injustice and wealth inequality will be put on the back burner. That should surprise no one, but the coronavirus crisis and the George Floyd protests led many to believe that some form of positive change was about to emerge. For once, the government seemed to show awareness of the needs of a population that the pandemic had cast into the gulf of uncertainty created by unbridled free market capitalism. 

    The Biden administration will immediately focus on the evident danger of right-wing radicalism that drew its energy from the personality of Donald Trump but has now achieved a life of its own. But an aggressive attempt to throttle it may aggravate its attraction. Right-wing militias are more the symptom than the problem. The deeper issue lies in the fact that a significant portion of the population places more of its hope in hard drugs, opioids, suicide missions and the rage of the mob than it does in government reforms.

    Historical Note

    Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the 9/11 attacks 60 years later had the effect of immediately designating an enemy Americans felt must be countered with force. The Japanese attack provided the US with a ticket to a world war that had started in Europe. From then on, it concerned the entire Northern Hemisphere. In a similar fashion, 9/11 provided the pretext for an undefined global war on terror that has prolonged its effects in both violent and profoundly insidious ways ever since, sapping the nation’s morale.

    The JFK assassination is the outlier in that series of traumatic events. What happened in Dallas in November 1963 was engineered to appear as a purely domestic murder mystery. By focusing on a single designated killer, it succeeded in masking its true historical significance. Nevertheless, the Kennedy assassination produced a powerful effect on the international as well as the domestic front. It cleared the path for the Vietnam War. The combined force of the assassination and the war stimulated the creation of a counterculture that turned many of the reigning values in US society on their head.

    As the year 2021 begins, marked by nervous anticipation of Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House, the consequences and eventual lessons of last week’s insurrection will begin to emerge. At the time of this writing, the FBI is anticipating violence in all 50 states. Where that will lead, nobody knows. At the same time, the stability of both political parties appears to be seriously compromised. It will take months and perhaps years to assess the consequences of what may become known as Trump’s last stand.

    Commentators, even those favorable to the Republicans, admit that this is the one event history is likely to associate with Donald Trump’s presidency. Others fear that the events of January 6 were simply the initial skirmish of a struggle that will play out with growing anarchy over the months and even years to come, in what may be a muted civil war.

    Some specific issues related to the riot will undoubtedly be addressed. Action will be taken to strengthen the protocols for the protection of public sites. The behavior and training of law enforcement and security personnel will be reviewed once again. But any of the specific issues will pale in significance to the growing awareness of the studied indifference to the concerns of the people on the part of those who make the laws, to say nothing of their corrupt complicity with the moneyed interests that have the means to influence, if not dictate, the laws. Given their level of education, the team Joe Biden has recruited should have the intellectual capacity to grasp these issues. Will it be able to summon the resolve to deal with them?

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Flashpoint America: What the Hell Is Happening?

    What the hell is happening in the US? Let’s rattle off some of the obvious: political intractability, sectarian entrenchment, tribal mentality, partisan violence, radicalization, conspiracy theories, reality deficits and even an attempted coup d’état. As strategic intelligence and foreign policy professionals, most of us have spent our careers assessing conditions abroad. What we commonly look to identify are the political, security and economic environment that allows us to measure the relative stability of a specific country or region.

    From there, we develop baselines that hypothetically stress these conditions, indicating the potential for instability. When these conditions exist in prolonged disparity, indicators and warnings start to present themselves. Sometimes, they are glaring and obvious; other times, they are subtle and nuanced. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the indicators and warnings have been flashing red for some time in the United States.

    A Perspective on America’s Imperfect Democracy

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    This is not to say that domestic intelligence and policy professionals spread across federal and local law enforcement were completely oblivious to them but rather that self-assessment is the hardest form of assessment. Americans typically lack the ability to reflect inward and analyze their own biases, prejudices and subjectivity against the prevailing political, security and economic conditions, especially at home. The January 6 attack on the US Capitol proved this.

    Knowing this — even when we won’t admit it — what are we looking for as we assess this new political and security reality? Nothing has changed the underlying conditions between the storming of US Congress and today, and with a third of Trump voters claiming sympathy with the attempted coup, we’re in for a rough road ahead. Assessing this situation as strategic intelligence and foreign policy professionals, however, gives us some insight to help structure our thinking for what might come next.

    Political Intractability

    Countries manifesting instability have moved past the point of political entrenchment into the realm of political intractability. The former is used by politicians seeking to legislate by obstruction, while the latter is driven by underlying grievances that have become too extreme to resolve. With millions of Trump loyalists and Republican lawmakers still beholden to a president who refuses to concede his defeat in a fair election, there are not many opportunities to seek effective political resolution — especially when one side refuses to accept the legitimacy of the incoming administration.

    Democrats, on the other hand, are completely resolute in their plans to impeach Trump and remove him from office with little more than a week to go before his term officially ends. Neither party is willing to back down, and there is no mechanism at any level seeking meaningful de-escalation. This means tensions will remain elevated, grievances solidified and positions hardened, giving leaders on both sides an inordinate amount of power to antagonize around their own political goals and objectives. As we saw last week, the destructive power of this can be harnessed and directed with relative ease. 

    Law Enforcement Failures

    One of the measurements we always gauge stability against is the competency of the security forces, including law enforcement and the military. There were so many law-enforcement and intelligence failures last week, that it is almost impossible to pick a starting point. In fact, one could make the argument that the failures were so extreme as to suggest complicity, which might prove true in time.

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    As we now know, intelligence was discarded and ignored. In just one example, an FBI field office in Virginia issued an internal memo on January 5, warning that radicalized extremists were headed to the capital to commit “war.” As The Washington Post reported, “Yet even with that information in hand, the report’s unidentified author expressed concern that the FBI might be encroaching on free speech rights.” The shocking implicit bias inherent in the author’s assessment points to the absolute failure in accurately identifying contemporary threats of this nature.

    In addition, there are now currently two Capitol Police officers suspended and 10 more under investigation. We have all seen the videos of cops taking selfies with the rioters, opening gates and providing assistance in the halls of Congress. This failure is not just tactical. It would be naive to believe that the same politics that powered the events of January 6 are not working their way through law enforcement agencies across the country — more so since Trump has unreservedly backed the police during the Black Lives Matter protests this summer. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that cops from Virginia, Washington and Pennsylvania are currently under investigation for being part of the Capitol Hill insurrection.

    Reality Deficits

    Communications and the media, especially when it comes to social networking platforms, are the forward edge of all modern conflict dynamics and play a key role in the stability of a nation in crisis, either reassuring anxious citizens or agitating the same population into action. We are now locked into an endless cycle of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda, pushed by media channels and social networks that are fueling vast conspiracy theories such as QAnon. These so-called filter bubbles have become so extreme that they have distorted reality, compelled radicalization and created an echo-chamber lifestyle for those who feel politically disposed of.

    Politicians openly supporting QAnon have been voted into office. One such politician has even been accused of tweeting the exact location of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the storming of Congress. Unfortunately, as we learned during the propaganda war with the Islamic State, the advantage is always with the home team. While shutting down social media channels is a temporary solution, it does not address the root causes of radicalization and only increases the sense of grievance, forcing these networks into new digital spaces that are harder to monitor. Indeed, since last Wednesday, extremists have already moved to encrypted messaging apps like Telegram to plan new actions ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration next week.

    White Supremacy

    Assessing ideologies unique to specific countries and regions is an important tool in measuring stability. Here in the US, there is no more malignant and pervasive ideology than white supremacy. There is a reason why newly elected Republican Representative Mary Miller, one day before the coup, felt comfortable giving a speech on the steps of Congress positively referencing Adolf Hitler.

    Everything that cascades from white supremacy, including white grievance, remains the single largest threat the US currently faces. In a report from October, the Department of Homeland Security said that white supremacists “remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” In November, the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report identifying that 41 of 61 terrorist plots and attacks recorded in the first eight months of this year were perpetrated by white supremacists. All of this indicates that right-wing extremists continue to have the motivation to plan and execute acts of violence.

    Since President Donald Trump is heavily invested in the politics of white supremacy and, given the intersection it shares with conspiracy theories over his election loss, there is nothing to suggest that this kind of extremist violence will abate any time soon. Furthermore, law enforcement does not have a particularly strong track record in disrupting threats that originate with white supremacist groups, even going back to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. This is in stark contrast to the nearly 1,000 recorded incidents of police violence against the Black Lives Matter protesters just last summer, indicating a heavy bias in assessing threats from groups such as these.

    Economic Hardship

    Embed from Getty Images

    Economic anxiety is a potent motivator in driving instability, if not its single most important indicator. It is important to remember that the events on Capitol Hill took place against the backdrop of the pandemic, economic hardship and a government paralyzed by intractability. Almost 22 million Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19, and the Pew Research Center found at the end of September that half of those people still remain unemployed.

    While the coronavirus remains politically neutral, the economic messaging between the two sides has been deeply partisan and tribal, casting both as victims of the other. Nothing raises the stakes for instability like people believing their lost livelihood is the fault of another group. Combine this with the government’s horrifying mismanagement of the pandemic, a nonsensical economic assistance package and ongoing conspiracies surrounding the virus, and you have all of the ingredients for continued tensions and hostility among different factions of the political spectrum.

    There are traditions and customs that have proven effective against future instability. These include the military acknowledging the rightful transition of power, the courts upholding the rule of law and election officials not succumbing to executive pressure to alter election results. But these safeguards are only as good as the people behind them, and without any national platform to de-escalate and with tensions at this level, the potential for overreach and miscalculation is unavoidable. Should there be another spectacular event like the coup attempt of January 6, then groups on both sides will retreat deeper into fringe positions where their only recourse will be more violence as a means of perceived self-protection.

    Each of these indicators and their subsequent warnings alone would be enough to raise the worry levels of a strategic intelligence or foreign policy professional assessing a volatile situation abroad. Unfortunately for us, this time, the turbulence is not in some faraway place, but at home.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Brexit Trade Deal Brings Temporary, If Not Lasting, Relief

    “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning.” So said Ursula van der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, announcing the completion of Brexit negotiations on Christmas Eve, quoting from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” the final quartet of his last great poem. Van der Leyen’s words perfectly capture the defining trait of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA): It is a platform for further ambition in cross-border partnership between the UK and EU rather than a ceiling on current ambitions.

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    Relief was the predominant emotion amongst the business community on both sides of the Channel before the New Year. Now that the dust has settled and attention has turned to the detail of the deal reached, there should be no illusions that the TCA ends EU-UK negotiations. We set out below what, in high-level terms, the TCA means for EU-UK trade in goods and services, and where there are gaps to fill and questions to still be answered over the coming months and years.

    What Does the TCA Mean for Trade in Goods?

    Firstly, the good news. Under the TCA, there are no tariffs or quotas on cross-border trade in qualifying goods between the United Kingdom and the European Union. In this regard, the TCA goes further than any EU trade agreement negotiated with a third country. This is a hugely positive outcome for businesses with UK and EU supply chains, particularly in sectors such as the automotive and agri-food industries, where tariffs imposed on so-called World Trade Organization terms under a no-deal Brexit would have been high.  

    However, it is crucial for those involved in cross-border trade to appreciate that only goods that are of EU or UK origin benefit from zero tariffs and zero quotas under the TCA. Rules of origin are a key component of every trade agreement and determine the “economic nationality” of products. Under the TCA, a product will attract a tariff if a certain percentage (beyond a “tolerance level”) of its pre-finished value or components are not of either UK or EU origin. The tolerance levels vary from product to product and require careful analysis. Therefore, businesses will need to understand the originating status of all the goods they trade between the UK and the EU to ensure they benefit from the zero tariffs and quotas under the agreement. Businesses will also need to ensure that their supply chains understand the new self-certification procedures to prove the origin of goods.

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    Beyond the qualified good news on tariffs and quotas, the deal is less helpful in that full regulatory approvals are required for goods being imported into the EU from the UK and vice versa. While in certain important sectors (automotive, chemicals and pharmaceuticals) the UK and the EU agreed on specific rules to reduce technical barriers to trade, the UK government did not achieve its longstanding negotiating objective of securing broad mutual recognition on product standards.

    Therefore, from January 1, 2021, all products exported from the EU to the UK will have to comply with the UK’s technical regulations and will be subject to any applicable regulatory compliance checks and controls. Similarly, all products imported from the UK to the EU will need to comply with EU technical regulations and will be subject to all applicable regulatory compliance obligations, checks and controls.

    There will also be specific changes to food and plant safety standards under the TCA. UK agri-food exporters will have to meet all EU sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) import requirements with immediate effect. In this sector, UK exports will be subject to official controls carried out by member state authorities at border control posts. Similarly, EU agri-food exporters will have to meet all UK SPS import requirements, following certain phase-in periods the UK government has provided.

    Far from being a “bonfire of red tape” promised by certain advocates of Brexit before the 2016 referendum, the TCA introduces a “bonanza of new red tape” for businesses who wish to sell their products in both UK and EU markets. On January 8, UK Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, acknowledged that there would be “significant additional disruption” at UK borders over the coming weeks as a result of customs changes and regulatory checks.

    What Does the TCA Mean for Trade in Services?

    As has been widely noted by commentators, the deal on services is far thinner than on goods. More than 40% of the UK’s exports to the EU are services, and the sector accounts for around 80% of the UK’s economic activity. As an inevitable consequence of leaving the EU single market, UK service suppliers will lose their automatic right to offer services across the union. UK business will have to comply with a patchwork of complex host-country rules which vary from country to country and may need to establish themselves in the EU to continue operating. Many have already done so.

    The level of market access will also depend on the way the service is supplied. There are four “modes” for this. Services can be supplied on a cross-border basis from the home country of the supplier, for example over the internet; to the consumer in the country of the supplier, such as a tourist traveling abroad and purchasing services; via a locally-established enterprise owned by the foreign service supplier; or through the temporary presence in the territory of another country by a service supplier who is a natural person.

    All of this means that UK-established businesses will need to look at domestic regulations on service access in each EU member state in which they seek to operate, and vice versa for EU-established businesses seeking market access in the UK.

    A Basis for Ongoing Negotiations

    The TCA does not mark the end of EU-UK negotiations, and in some areas these discussions start immediately. For example, the agreement has provided an end to so-called passporting of financial services under which banks, insurers and other financial service firms authorized in the UK had automatic right to access EU markets and vice versa.

    The EU and the UK have committed to agree on a memorandum of understanding that will establish a framework of regulatory cooperation in financial services by March this year. With an end to passporting, it is likely that there will be more friction in cross-border financial services, but the extent of that friction depends on the outcome of future negotiations between EU and UK governments and regulators.

    To take another example of importance to the UK economy, the TCA does not provide for the automatic mutual recognition of professional qualifications. As of January 1, UK nationals, irrespective of where they acquired their qualifications, and EU citizens with qualifications acquired in the UK, will need to have their qualifications recognized in the relevant EU member state on the basis of that state’s domestic rules. However, the TCA leaves the door open for the EU and the UK to agree on additional arrangements in the future for the mutual recognition of qualifications, something that professional bodies will be pushing for immediately.

    Whilst there has been understandable relief from politicians, businesses and populations on both sides of the Channel suffering from Brexit fatigue that a deal — any deal — has been reached, the sheer extent to which the TCA envisages ongoing negotiations between the UK and the EU on issues both large and small over the months and years ahead has not been widely appreciated.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    Who Is Nancy Pelosi Enabling?

    Along with Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was one of the politicians most directly concerned by last week’s assault on Congress. Her own office was ravaged. The marauders sought her whereabouts as she was being evacuated. Assessing the damage in the aftermath of the mayhem, Pelosi could begin to comprehend the truly evil intent of the insurrectionists. On Sunday, she described the invasion of the Capitol as the work of “a well-planned, organized group with leadership and guidance and direction. And the direction was to go get people.”

    We now know that she was a prime target alongside Pence, whom the crowd was seeking to lynch. In other words, it wasn’t a protest or an occupation, but a potentially murderous assault on lawmakers.

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    Most analysts focused on the rioters themselves and the link with President Donald Trump, who commanded the crowd to gather at the Capitol and prepare for a fight. Pelosi peered further into the evil plot, demonstrating an investigative acuity worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Not only did she connect the threads dangling for the past four years inside the brains of prominent Democrats — a list that includes Adam Schiff, Chuck Schumer and herself — her far-sighted global perspicacity bore its most compelling fruit when she identified the Moriarty of the tale, the hidden ringleader no one in Washington or the media dared mention, but only she could suspect: Vladimir Putin.

    On her congressional website, Pelosi laid out in detail her impeccable logic: “And the message that it sent to the world, a complete tool of Putin, this President is. Putin’s goal was to diminish the role of — the view of democracy in the world. That’s what he has been about. And, again, his enabler has been Donald Trump for a long time.”

    Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

    Enabler:

    A useful idiot who only exists to do the bidding of the true puppet master responsible (in a paranoid person’s imagination) for everything considered wrong with the world.

    Contextual Note

    On her website, Pelosi added a few more details to cement her claim: “That’s why I said in that photo when I’m leaving his meeting, ‘With you, Mr. President, all roads lead to Putin.’ Putin wants to undermine democracy.  That’s what he’s about domestically and internationally. And the President gave him the biggest of all of his many gifts to Putin, the biggest gift, yesterday.”

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    If politics, especially in Washington, has become incorrigibly hyperreal, there are times when, thanks to voices like Pelosi’s, it also becomes surreal. Many members of last week’s mob were agitated by their quasi-religious belief in the conspiratorial ravings of QAnon. All were motivated by the belief that President Trump had charged them with a mission to restore order (by creating disorder). Inside the building were people like Pelosi, Schiff and Schumer, who have long been entertaining their own conspiracy theory. Four years on, that repeated mantra known as Russiagate has come to resemble a mental disorder.

    As a significant segment of the American population was intent on demonstrating not just “who we are” (Joe Biden’s expressed concern) but “how we think” (irrationally) and “how we behave” (rowdily), Pelosi was turning the investigation of a crime into a casus belli, a call for war with Russia. This suggests that the soon-to-be-enthroned Biden administration, well stocked with militaristic hawks, may be tempted to be the tail that wags the dog, promoting a costly and risky new Cold War leveled not against Trump’s declared enemies, Iran and Venezuela, but against the nation whose economy and system of oligarchy was put in place and managed by American advisers, consultants and spies.

    Donald Trump’s seditious criminal actions last week should not be understated. Though Republicans deny the gravity of Trump’s role, AP correctly describes it in these terms: “The mob got explicit marching orders from Trump and still more encouragement from the president’s men.” The article quotes Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s exhortation, “Let’s have trial by combat.” It mentions the active role former Trump associate Roger Stone and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn played in instructing the crowds to fight “a battle between good and evil.”

    Pelosi’s fantasy that Donald Trump’s motives boiled down to fulfilling Putin’s designs clearly belongs to the realm of conspiracy theories. That Russian or Chinese leaders might have a feeling of schadenfreude as they watched the events unfold would surprise no one. But hinting at a causal connection is not just irresponsible but a symptom of psychosis. Does the 25th Amendment apply to the speaker of the House? If American voters are condemned to selecting which of the two parties’ conspiracy theories they prefer as the basis of the policy they will be governed by, it is fair to say that the decline of US democracy is nearly complete.

    Historical Note

    The richly diplomaed Democrats at the highest level of national politics know for a fact that Russia is no longer the communist Soviet Union. But they also appear to believe that the Americans who vote for them haven’t yet caught up with the news. The occasional Freudian slip made even by people in the intelligence community reveals that Americans are still prone to categorizing Russia as the ideological enemy of the US. The reflexes spread through the media for half a century during the Cold War still exist. Politicians who see the advantage of appealing to those reflexes will not hesitate to do so.

    Every administration since the end of World War II has required the existence of a stable enemy that the media could highlight and instill in people’s minds as the principal threat to the integrity of US democracy, if only to justify the increasingly bloated military budget. This has never been more true than over the past two decades, in which the amount spent by the Pentagon has in reality — when something called “adjustments” are taken into account — consistently exceeded by as much as a multiple of three the allocated budget.

    This week, in an interview with Lee Camp, the economist Mark Skidmore explained how the audit he conducted with Laurence Kotlikoff revealed that over a 15-year period, the Defense Department had effectively spent $21 trillion that appeared in its accounts in the category of adjustments.

     Kotlikoff admitted that the team of auditors was “left with having to decide whether or not we ‘trust’ that government authorities are sharing accurate information.” He added that “Greater transparency is needed to re-establish public trust. Instead, we are blocked from accessing any further information.” 

    Embed from Getty Images

    Given this betrayal of trust, should anyone be surprised that large segments of the US population refuse to believe the statistics presented to them by the government and the media? The rioters on Capitol Hill knew nothing about the scandal of the Pentagon’s true budget. They believed, thanks to Trump’s lies, that the election had been rigged. But their action reflects a more general breakdown in the trust Americans now have in their institutions.

    If the real budget of the Pentagon is closer to $2 trillion than to the $740 billion voted on at the end of December, it would be true to say that Congress and the House majority leader, Nancy Pelosi, have been playing the role of “enabler” of a monumental fraud that has consequences far beyond the dickering of the two parties over fictional budgets. The true accounting gives us an idea of the real cost of a military presence across the entire globe. The Pentagon’s figures dwarf the amounts allocated to social needs. It isn’t only about dollars, but about trust. The US now has no choice but to see enemies everywhere, which means paranoia has become the norm.

    As the Trump White House gives way to the Biden regime and new questions of how many trillions of dollars will be required for a new stimulus, the population will be expecting a new transparency based on something that reflects tangible reality rather than fictional plots. Every new administration promises to rebuild public trust. Trump said he would clear the swamp but simply made the air around it poisonous. Building trust is easier to accomplish when leaders agree to rid themselves of their dependence on paranoid delusions.

    *[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More

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    In China’s Net City, Opportunity Comes at Uncertain Costs

    The one thing the city of Shenzhen — whose nearly 13 million people comprise the industrial engine of China’s Guangdong province — seems unwilling to reimagine is its name. The name Shenzhen, which loosely translates to “irrigation ditch” or “drainage dump,” is the only piece of the city’s incredible story that remains stuck in the past.

    Beginning in 2020, Shenzhen, in partnership with Chinese tech behemoth Tencent and NBBJ Architects, embarked on the design of a coastal, sustainable, state-of-the-art neighborhood called Net City to serve as the exclamation point capping Shenzhen’s status as China’s Silicon Valley. And yet, upon its completion in 2027, Net City, like Shenzhen itself, will represent far more than just another technology company’s tricked-out corporate campus. In fact, Net City might just set the global standard for urban development in the 21st century. That is if it can navigate the perilous waters that have sunk so many similarly intentioned projects in the past.

    Policies, Principles, People

    Green, tech-infused infrastructure is no longer groundbreaking in and of itself, but neither is the desire of major global firms to directly fund urban investment as a business strategy. Examples of this often quixotic foray range from Google’s disappointing but understandable discontinuation of investments in a Toronto smart city project to Fordlandia, Ford Motor Company’s failed Amazonian utopia chronicled brilliantly in Greg Grandin’s 2009 award-winning book. For both the Googles of today and those of generations past, it appears that products remain significantly easier to manufacture than physical places.

    Any local economic development professional, or for that matter anyone who has tried to renovate a kitchen, will tell you that construction projects, no matter their scale, are marked by an eternal struggle between the perfect and the possible. What, then, can set Tencent’s Net City apart from these previous failures? To borrow the time-honored language of geopolitical analysis, the potential answers come in three “buckets”: policies, principles and people.

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    On the policy front, the analysis must begin with the fact that there exists no better example of the opening of markets, however gradually and cautiously, as an accelerant for innovation, growth and prosperity than Shenzhen. It is stunning how much economic dynamism has been unleashed in this former fishing village over the past few decades, and the same innovation-spurring economic policy framework that enabled the city’s rise will similarly nurture the growth and ongoing vitality of the Net City project as it matures.

    That said, Shenzhen is not the only part of China that has grown. And, in immediate relevance to Net City, it would not be the only place where China has invested untold billions only to end up with what are commonly referred to now as ghost cities. A Net City skeptic might point to both the ambiguous nature of the true costs of this ambitious urban development and those still unoccupied, debt-funded townscapes littering China’s interior still awaiting their first residents as the fodder for their wariness.

    Product and Place

    Skeptics are also right to cite the lingering uncertainty of COVID-19 and fissures with nearby Hong Kong as risks to the sizable foreign direct investment Shenzhen has enjoyed throughout its rise. While the Chinese government and Tencent have every incentive to ensure the successful development of Net City, even these giants are not immune to the conditions of the world economy and thus should double down on the (relatively) open policy frameworks and diversified, reliable financing strategies that have thus far enabled Shenzhen’s rise.

    Next, as it relates to the principles upon which Net City has unapologetically been founded, its focused, intentional blending of work and leisure with the natural world place sustainability at its core in a manner and at a scale no previous corporate community can claim. Limitations on cars in favor of pedestrian-friendly walkable spaces coupled with reliance on renewable energy sources will provide a rising China with beautiful, tangible evidence that it, too, is taking steps to combat climate change and to shape the next century of life on this planet in ways the rest of the world might cheer.

    These commitments to sustainability, while encouraging, cannot only be for show. Net City provides China with an opportunity to demonstrate not only its desire to lead the world as a center of innovation, but as an upholder of the shared values and responsibilities that come with the terra firma for any global power.

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    Lastly, as it relates to the people who will someday call this new neighborhood home, it is possible that no single neighborhood in the world has ever rooted itself so enthusiastically in the philosophy of user-centered design as Net City. The blurring of lines between work and play to come upon its completion will pale in comparison to the implications of Net City’s more meta-level, but no less intentional, blurring of product and place. But just as fatefully as the designers of Fordlandia discovered that places are not products, so too must Net City’s master planners remember that people are not products either.

    Net City’s development has begun at a moment when the familiar dueling concepts of work and life have also merged into one amorphous, quarantine soup of time and space. While billions around the world cannot wait to return to certain elements of pre-COVID work-life balance, a more realistic forecaster will admit that work and life have become intertwined in ways that have transformed experiences on both fronts and will not soon be undone.

    This march may appear inevitable, but it remains an open question how much further people will willingly participate in the elimination of boundaries between home and work, of private and public spaces and of restrictions instead of rights. Whether discussing a new piece of technology or a new smart city, the tired bargain between new features and old freedoms is a false one. Smart cities need not — and should not — dangle the possibility of positive environmental outcomes behind the acceptance of stricter, tech-fueled surveillance states.

    The ongoing development of this initiative will fascinate global analysts for the majority of the next decade that stands to reveal the level of commitment its designers have to the lofty promises they have made at its outset. But beneath all that potential and possibility Net City might also reveal the answer to a deeper question: Is the internet a place we want to live?

    *[Fair Observer is a media partner of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.]

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More