Hidden History: Inside the Bungled Trump Transition

The Fifth Risk

By Michael Lewis

W W Norton (2018)

Book Review

This is a fascinating book about the bungled Trump transition following his 2016 election. As of February 2016, federal law required all remaining primary candidates to set up transition teams – in the off chance they actually won the presidency. Two million people work for the US government, with 70% employed in national security. Of these, 4,000 are political appointees who lose their jobs on the day the new president takes office.

Although the federal government provides office space for transition teams, the candidates have to pay transition staff from their campaign coffers. No one (including Trump himself) believed he would win in November. In fact he was livid on discovering former New Jersey governor Chris Christie was running his transition team from campaign funds.

Lewis’s book is a collection of in-depth interviews with the Obama appointees who spent most of 2016 attempting to orient a handful of Trump appointees to take on the massive work of these three federals departments. Their main fear was that without understanding the essential work undertaken by key agencies, the incoming Trump administration might eliminate or massively downsize vital work. In the end, this is exactly what happened.

Largely because there was no one on the Trump campaign team (other than Chris Christie or Rudolph Giuliani) with prior political experience, Christie was unable to send teams of 30-50 people (as Obama had done) to accept the handovers. So essentially they didn’t happen.

Lewis focuses on three departments, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Commerce. I found his book a real eye opener concerning the actual work they do. For example:

  • The Department of Energy (DOE) has a $30 billion budget, of which half goes to safeguard the US nuclear arsenal. This $15 billion covers programs to detect and prevent espionage and to prevent accidental loss or explosion, as well as the international monitoring of all weapons grade uranium and plutonium stores, the training of all international nuclear inspectors and the clean-up of the extremely hazardous (and leaking) Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State. When Trump took office on Jan 20 2017, the Obama appointee in charge of the nuclear weapons program notified a number of senators that Trump had failed to appoint his successor.*
  • The USDA runs the US Forest Service and its massive firefighting program. This is in addition ensuring the safety (?) of all meat Americans eat (the FDA regulates other foodstuffs). The are also responsible for food stamps, school lunches and programs offering catastrophic crop insurance to farmers and (using Weather Bureau data) advising them on the best dates to plant, fertilize and harvest their crops. Ironically they also run a Rural Development Program** providing grants and loans to the struggling rural communities that turned out for Trump in such large numbers.
  • The Department of Commerce runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Bureau and the Census, as well as a massive data bank created to assist other departments (eg global atomic weapons numbers, violent crime statistics, consumer complaints against banks, cop shootings of civilians). Much of this data has disappeared from government websites since Trump took office.

*These Republican senators forced Trump to temporarily re-appoint him.

**Which Trump cut by roughly 16%. See https://www.dailyyonder.com/trump-budget-cuts-usda-16/2018/02/12/

White Supremacy and the Obama Legacy

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World (2017)

Book Review

This remarkable book is a collection of essays about white privilege, Obama’s inability to live up to his campaign promises, and the role of his presidency in setting the stage for Donald Trump.

Coates’ approach to the topic of white privilege is largely historical. He traces the brutal reversal of Reconstruction reforms and re-institution of de facto slavery with Jim Crow laws; the Great Migration north of 6 million African Americans during the early 20th century; the deliberate exclusion of African Americans from New Deal programs such as Social Security, Aid to Families with Dependent Children and FHA (Federal Housing Administration) mortgage insurance; as well as the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of African Americans.

Coates has the best definition of white supremacy I have seen anywhere. In his words, white privilege is “banditry.”

“To be black in America is to be plundered. To be white is to execute and benefit from it.”

Coates gives numerous examples to justify this view: the exclusion of African Americans from wealth creation programs such as FHA and VA (Veterans Administration) mortgage loans, long time job discrimination and wage suppression, the recurrent decimation of prosperous Black communities via white race riots, predatory owner “contract” financing of home purchases, and predatory targeting of Blacks for subprime mortgagae they can’t repay.

My favorite essay is the one advocating for African American reparations, based on the argument that systematic exploitation of Blacks didn’t end with slavery but continues to the present day. As a precedent Coates cites the $7 billion (in today’s dollars) West Germany paid Israel in 1953 in compensation for Germany’s genocidal treatment of European Jews during World War II.

 

Obama: A Legacy of Ashes

Obama: A Legacy of Ashes

James Corbett (2017)

Film Review

In his excellent documentary about Obama’s presidency, James Corbett highlights important ways in which Obama systematically reduced civil liberties and democratic oversight of government.

  • After promising to end George W Bush’s de facto lawmaking via unconstitutional signing statements, Obama far signing statements than his predecessor.
  • He repeatedly inserted text into bills without informing lawmakers before they voted on them.
  • After promising to end the role of lobbyists in running government, he allowed Citibank to select his cabinet and the insurance lobby to write The Affordable Care Act.
  • While claiming to run the most transparent administration in history, he set a record for denying Freedom of Information Act requests and prosecuting whistleblowers.
  • Despite promising to end illegal wiretapping and spying on activists, he greatly increased routine NSA surveillance of ordinary citizens. He also introduced legislation repealing Posse Comitatus* and authorizing indefinite detention of American citizens without trial. And issued an executive order granting himself the power (which he exercised liberally) to arbitrarily assassinate his enemies, including US citizens.

Obama was also the only president in history who was continuously at war during his entire eight years in office.** All but two (which he inherited from Bush) were illegal and unconstitutional wars he launched without government approval.

I was intrigued to learn the Patriot Act (enacted by the Bush administration after 9-11) was originally written by Obama’s vice president Joe Biden in 1995.


*The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prohibited the US government using federal troops in domestic law enforcement, except in circumstances expressly authorized by the US Constitution.

**In addition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (which candidate Obama promised to end), he launched illegal wars of aggression in Libya, Syria, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.

Al Jazeera Film Challenges Trump’s Election Win

Unfair Game

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

The them of this documentary is that Trump used unfair tactics to win the 2016 electoral college vote, despite losing the popular vote by 3 million.

Most of the the film focuses on the California subsidiary of Cambridge Analytica, which purchased personal data from Facebook, Google, Twitter and other Internet data harvesting firms. It then used sophisticated algorithms to individually target potential Trump supporters in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

According to filmmakers, Cambridge Analytica compiled 4,000 data points regarding the personal lives of 23 million voters. They then used the data to generate paid “dark posts” on Facebook. Dark posts are the weird personal ads and messages that pop up briefly on your Facebook news feed and then disappear.

Although it was intriguing to learn how Cambridge Analytica massaged personal data to identify and influence potential Trump voters, I objected to the way the documentary blames the Trump campaign for introducing microtargeting (potential supporters) to US elections. It was actually the Obama campaign that pioneered microtargeting, which is largely credited for his ability to overcome Republican vote rigging and vote suppression efforts in 2008 and 2012.

When the Obama campaign engaged in microtargeting, they were widely hailed as ingenious public relations innovators. When the Trump campaign does it, he’s branded as a liar and a thief. While I have no love for Donald Trump, the clear bias in this film really irritates me. I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton, who inherited many of Obama’s campaign staffers, also used microtargeting in her campaign.

That being said, I found it significant that Cambridge Analytica was actually an offshoot of the British Strategic Communications Laboratory, which was widely used by NATO, NSA, the State Department and other deep state actors to influence US and global opinion and meddle in foreign elections. I was previously unaware that the California branch of Cambridge Analytica was headed by Trump’s campaign manager Steve Bannon and mainly funded by Trump’s biggest campaign donor, Robert Mercer.

The first 15 minutes of the documentary in which, “mainstream” corporate journalists decry the unregulated dissemination of “fake news” by “ultra right wing” online publications, is frankly embarrassing.It was the collective decision by so-called “mainstream” media to become a propaganda mouthpiece for the CIA, State Department and Pentagon that led Americans to look to the Internet for alternative sources of information.

China’s Persecuted Minority: How Did 22 Uighurs End Up in Gitmo?

The Guantanamo 22

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

The Guantanamo 22 is about 22 Uighur refugees who spent seven years at Gitmo after they were sold to US forces for $5,000 each by the Pakistan military and Afghan warlords.

The Uighurs are an oppressed Turkic ethnic minority who have been persecuted by the Chinese ever since China invaded their country (Gulja) in 1949. In 2000-2001, a number sought asylum in Afghanistan after being arrested, beaten and tortured for their participating in Islamic advocacy protests.

As one of the only countries with no extradition treaty with China, prior to 9-11 Afghanistan had an established Uighur community.

After US bombing began in late 2001, the Uighur village where they lived was destroyed, and 18 survivors sought refuge in Pakistan. The villagers who took them in tricked them and handed them over to the Pakistan army. Four others were kidnapped by warlords in Afghanistan.

Once they arrived in Guantanamo, the US military allowed Chinese authorities to interrogate and torture torture them for four days – in exchange for a promise China would support the US invasion of Iraq at the UN Security Council.*

By October 2002, after 10 months at Guantanamo, all 22 had been through the Status Review Board (ie a military tribunal in which detainees are denied access to a lawyer and the right to present evidence or challenge the US military’s evidence) and found innocent of all terrorism charges. Yet it still took another seven years for most of them to be released.

In late 2002, they were finally allowed to see a lawyer working with the Center for Constitutional Rights. The first three were transferred to Albania (which still regards them as terrorists), to spare the US government the embarrassment of defending an appeal against their unlawful detention.

In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that all Guantanamo detainees had the right to appeal their detention in US federal court. A short time later, a federal judge ordered the release of the other 19 Uighurs. Shortly after his inauguration, Obama attempted to transfer two of them to Virginia, but this was blocked by Congress.

In June 2009, the US reached agreement with Bermuda to take four Uighurs. In October 2009, Pelau agreed to take six, in return for a steep increase in US aid. Switzerland, El Salvador agreed to take the rest, though many remain stateless persons in their host countries and not allowed passports.


*China ultimately reneged on this commitment

The film can’t be embedded but can be viewed for free at The Guantanamo 22

The Trump Movement: How it All Began

Trumpland: Kill All the Normies

Fusion (2018)

Film Review

This documentary, featuring Kill All the Normies* author Angela Nagle, examines the origin of the political movement that elected an openly racist, misogynist and xenophobe to the US presidency. Nagle believes that Trump initially gathered most of his support from the “dark” sections of the Internet, namely 4Chan and a variety of its spinoff sites. 4Chan is a roughly 20-year-old site where anonymous geeks – mainly teenagers – try to outdo each other with the most repulsive and/or obscene posts they can think of.

According to Nagle, 4Chan and similar sites made an ideal platform for insecure white males to anonymously scapegoat specific social groups (women, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims) that they blame for their unhappiness. These sites came to be collectively known as the “manosphere community,” a multitude of social media sites hosted by PUA (pickup artists) and other members of the InCel (Involuntarily Celibate) known for their open hatred and degradation of women. The primary themes promoted by these sites are that women aren’t to be trusted, that they must be tricked into having sex by dwelling on their insecurities and that they should only deserve enough education to have children.

Eventually this “manosphere” would “weaponize” Twitter, by using it for toxic harassment of feminists and other publicly prominent women, with insults and threats to kill and/or rape them.

Trumps’ closest political advisor Steve Bannon, who tracked all these right wing sites, assisted Trump in mainstreaming the discontent he found there. Trump’s willingness to publicly give voice to these views provided him with an immediate fan base. Trump is the ultimate troll, drawing attention to himself by insulting people and generating outrage – a trait supporters fed up with “political correctness” particularly adore about him.

For me the most interesting segment criticizes Obama for setting the stage for the Trump movement by abandoning marginalized white workers, focusing instead on identity politics (mainly gay and gender rights) to maintain his liberal credentials.

One commentator blames backlash against against the “gender fluidity” movement, an extreme manifestation of identity politics (mainly concerned with gay and transgender rights) for the rise of the Trump phenomenon. This movement also weaponizes social media to attack views they deem to be “politically incorrect.”


*A “Normie” is Alt-Right speak for “mainstream.”

The Ugly History of the White Rights Movement

The People Against America

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review

This documentary traces the rise of the “white rights” movement that elected Donald Trump. This movement, of mainly white blue collar males, promotes the distorted image of white people as a disenfranchised minority. According to the filmmakers, it has its roots in Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign. By heavily emphasizing “states rights,” Goldwater successfully exploited the anxieties of Southerners over forced integration by the federal government. It would be the first time Southern states had voted Republican since the Civil War.

Nixon’s Southern Strategy

In 1968, the Nixon campaign built on Goldwater’s success by implementing a formal “southern strategy.” By reaching out to the “silent majority,” and emphasizing law and order in the face of race riots and anti-war protests, his campaign sought to win the votes of northern blue collar voters. In subsequent elections, Democratic Party strategists would seek to win back blue collar voters by recruiting two conservative governors to run for president (Carter and Clinton).

As the Watergate scandal undermined all Americans’ confidence in government, corporate oligarchs would build on growing anti-government sentiment by massively funding right wing think tanks, lobbying and conservative talk radio. This, in turn would lay the groundwork for Reagan’s 1980 massive deregulation and tax and public service cuts.

Corporate Giveaways By Clinton and Obama

When Clinton was elected in 1992, he quickly surpassed Reagan’s record of corporate giveaways, with his total deregulation of Wall Street, his Three Strikes and Omnibus Crime Bill (leading to mass incarceration of minorities) and his creation of the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These free trade treaties resulted in the wholesale export of rust belt industries to Mexico and China, effectively ending any incentive for working class males to vote Democratic.

Obama, elected on the back of the 2008 financial collapse, would prove even more pro-corporate than Clinton or Bush. Instead of prosecuting the banks who caused the 2008 economic crash, he granted them massive bailouts, while ignoring the plight of millions of homeowners who lost their homes when these banks foreclosed on them. He also significantly increasing mass surveillance and aggressively prosecuting whistleblowers. He also effectively repealed posse comitatus* and habeus corpus.**

The Rise of Occupy and the Tea Party

Obama’s pro-corporate policies led to the rise of both left wing (Occupy Wall Street) and right wing (Tea Party) popular movements. The latter received major corporate backing (largely from the Koch brothers), enabling Tea Party Republicans to shift the blame for the loss of good paying industrial jobs from Wall Street to minorities, immigrants and women.

Is the US Moving to the Right?

For me, the highlight of the documentary is  commentary by former Black Panther Party president Elaine Brown, the only activist featured. Brown, who is highly critical of the left’s failure to acknowledge the problems of poor white people, is the only commentator to dispute that the US is “moving to the right.” She points out that prior Republican campaigns used coded language (such as “state rights,” “law and order”) to target racist fears of blue collar whites. Trump, in contrast, openly caters to these sentiments. Brown reports that some blacks welcome the end of political hypocrisy and greater openness about the pervasiveness of white racism.

She believes this new openness offers a good opportunity to build a genuine multiracial working class movement. She gives the example of successful collaboration in Chicago between black activists and the Young Patriots (a white separatist group) against corrupt landlords.


*The Posse Comitatus Act, enacted in 1878, prohibited the use of federal troops to enforce domestic policies within the US.

**The right of Habeus Corpus, guaranteed under Article I of the Constitution and the Fifth Amendment of the Bill of Rights, prevents government from illegal detaining US citizens without charging them.