The Russian Revolution

I just finished China Miéville’s October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. It’s about Russia.

If you don’t know, Miéville is chiefly known as an sf novelist. Here’s my reviews of his Perdido Street Station and Kraken.

I knew very little going in: that there were two revolutions; some guy named Kerensky was in power in between; the Bolsheviks took over in October. (October by the Orthodox calendar then in use in Russia; November to outsiders.) And from Solzhenitsyn I remembered the stew of factions: the Kadets (constitutional democrats), SRs (Socialist Revolutionary Party, divided into Left and Right), Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, anarchists, and more.

It is of course a much wider and weirder story, and Miéville tells it with gusto. It’s tempting to recount the story here, but I’d probably have to read the book again. Still, some points that surprised me:

  • Lenin was not the major player until very late: he spent much of the year in exile, external or internal, and very often was at odds with the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks.
  • Similarly, Stalin barely appears.
  • The Feb-to-Oct period was characterized by Двоевластие “dual power”, meaning that power was shared by the Duma (the Provisional Revolutionary Government) and the Soviet (Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), an amalgation of workers and peasants based in Petrograd, the capital. They both arose during the February Revolution and even used the same building, the Tauride Palace.
  • Kerensky didn’t become prime minister till July. He wasn’t a bourgeois but a socialist, a member of the SRs. He was one of the few people who had a leading role in both the Duma and the Soviet.
  • From Solzhenitsyn I learned about the Bolsheviks’ slow, totalitarian destruction of every other party, ending with a cannibalistic attack on its own. This had barely started in 1917; but what was new to me was that almost everyone (i.e. the other parties) wanted to do away with one or another political party at one time or another.
  • The final crisis was precipitated by an attempted counterrevolutionary coup, led by general Kornilov, who was in negotiations with Kerensky. They wanted what counterrevolutionaries always want: a vindictive military dictatorship. Partly due to a comedy of errors that the book gleefully recounts, Kerensky turned against it at the last minute, but he was hopelessly discredited, and the Soviet increasingly chose to rely only on itself.
  • Everyone was enthusiastically democratic during this year– soldiers wanted to elect officers, workers were electing soviets to run factories, peasants burned the landlords’ mansions and organized rural soviets. It was a strangely bureaucratic revolution, proceeding through endless meetings, special committees, votes, debates, rants published in the innumerable newspapers.
  • By world standards, both revolutions were amazingly bloodless. Large elements of the army had gone over to the Soviets, which for the most part was enough to make the regime defenders (the tsar in February, the PRG in October) surrender. More than once a wavering counterrevolutionary force was overcome by sending people to debate the soldiers. The fabled taking of the PRG’s Winter Palace in October was almost anticlimactic, so much so that the Bolsheviks had to rewrite it for their mythology as a bloody struggle. (The real blood came later on, when the counterrevolutionaries (the Whites) started a civil war.)
  • The tsar was a perfect illustration of Orwell’s analysis of conservatism as deeply imbued with stupidity. Nikolai seemed completely unable to understand anything that was going on, including the danger to his own rule. About his only response to events in Petrograd was to impatiently order the generals to suppress the unrest. The idea of even making conciliatory gestures seemed not even to register in his brain.

It’s pretty clear from the book– though this may not be Miéville’s intention– that the determining factor in 1917 was World War I. Russia was losing, it was tired of the war; the army was plagued by desertions; food was getting scarce in the cities. There was a sort of pre-revolution in 1905, when the Duma was created, but the tsarist system was able to largely ignore reformism until the war. The officers were almost all loyalists, but their military doctrine included harsh treatment of the soldiers: one of the first demands the rebelling soldiers made was for basic courtesy. The officers’ attitude (plus, you know, the threat of useless death) was a big part of why the army sided with the revolutionaries.

The war also put the PRG in a bind. It was effectively impossible to keep the war going. Kerensky convinced himself otherwise, and organized a small offensive that succeeded for only a few days, then failed. The army was barely up for defense, much less offense; nothing was done to address food shortages. Shackling itself to a deeply unpopular cause, the PRG was doomed. The only party that consistently took an anti-war position was the Bolsheviks, which contributed to their rising popularity.

Finally, when Lenin took power, his decision to make peace with the Germans– at the cost of losing the Baltics, Finland, Belarus, and Ukraine (March 1918)– committed Russia to going it alone, and set the stage for nearly a century of polarized world politics. This was not Lenin’s intent– he thought Germany, at least, would turn communist. And it’s hard to imagine what else he could do. The irony remains, though, that he signed a disastrous peace treaty with the power that lost the war just six months later.

What Miéville probably wants the reader to focus on is the possibility of a workers’ revolt, as seen in one place where it really did happen. His sympathies are clearly with the Bolsheviks, though he is quite willing to criticize their frequent missteps and internal contradictions. But the real hero of the book is, fittingly, the mass of soldiers, workers, and peasants who rose up, demanded a voice, defeated the tsarists and counterrevolutionaries, embraced debate and democracy, and did their best to start work on a better state of their world. The politicians on either side of the Dual Power often had to scramble to keep up with the masses.

Miéville describes the odd theoretical predicament the socialists of all stripes found themselves in: Marx had told them that you couldn’t go straight from feudalism to socialism. First the bourgeois had to revolt and take power, and then you could take power from them. This makes some sense of the French and American revolutions, and it was what people were trying and failing to do in 1848; it was a poor match for Russia in 1917, even in its advanced and untypical heart, Petrograd.

The Kadets are usually described as “liberals”, though this is unhelpful if you take either the American or the French meaning. They were actually on the left in the Duma before the war, and were frustrated by the intransigence of the tsarist government. After the February revolution, they were the only major non-socialist party– thus the natural target of everyone else. If you want ruination for a centrist party, give them power during a war or a depression.

In any case, as representatives of the “bourgeois”, the Kadets and Right SRs were expected to take power and fail, and that’s more or less what they did. There were calls from the masses for the Soviet to take power directly, but it refused to do so, partly from this theoretical deference to the bourgeois, partly (possibly more likely) from the realization that actually governing would mean being blamed for the deteriorating condition of the country.

Any student of political power, in fact, would expect the idea of “Dual Power” would soon collapse, though the particular way it collapsed was arbitrary. From this book, it’s hard to see that either the PRG or the Soviet was engaged in what we’d call government at all. There were plenty of demands (for peace, for land reform, for recognition of national minorities), but everybody’s response was just to call for a new conference or congress. If anyone was (e.g.) drafting legislation for the peaceful transfer of land to the peasants, we don’t hear about it here. There’s a sense that the officials on both sides of the Dual Power had much less sway in the rest of the country than they hoped they had.

(One oddity Miéville picks up on: the revolution was also determined by trains: the trains connecting the cities to the front, the sealed train that sped Lenin from Switzerland to Russia; the train the tsar was traveling in the events leading to his abdication; the train lines torn up to prevent Kornilov’s coup. Almost as important was the control of telegraph lines.)

People have debated for a century whether Stalinism was the culmination of communism, or a terrible aberration, and if so whether it’s Stalin’s fault, or Lenin’s, or something else. Miéville is no tankie; he knows that something went terribly wrong, and the last chapter of the book is more or less a rueful admission of this, though he doesn’t go so far as to explain what exactly the error was.

I’m no expert either, but one smoking gun is surely Lenin’s rebuke to the early demands of “all power to the Soviet”. He countered with, in effect, “all power to the Bolsheviks.” He was, as Miéville fully admits, an argumentative and uncompromising person– not infrequently he took positions that shocked and hobbled his own party. (This was in part because for much of the year he wasn’t even on the scene, in contact with colleagues and opponents. He spent a lot of his time alone, writing polemics.)

As I noted, suppressing entire parties wasn’t just a Bolshevik notion: after a failed ultra-left uprising in July, many wanted the Bolsheviks suppressed, and after the Korilov attempted coup, the socialists largely agreed on suppressing the Kadets. And from other revolutions, especially in the wake of decolonization, we know that a nationalist movement easily turns into a one-party state. In times of great agitation, parties get polarized and stop recognizing that their opponents even have a right to exist.

You can make a case that the Bolsheviks could hardly compromise on the war, that the Dual Power was bound to fail and had to end in a takeover by one side or another, and even that by October the Bolsheviks were closest to the spirit of the workers and soldiers. Still, the story told by Solzhenitsyn is sad, even outrageous. Eliminating all your opponents is an admission that you cannot answer them honestly. Once you’ve taken that step, it’s a short further step to decide that fractious debate in the soviets themselves is “counter-revolutionary”, and the promise of actual worker democracy has been sacrificed. And for what? Wasn’t the whole point actual worker control? When you’ve throttled that, all you have left is a new way of oppressing the workers.

And yes, I’m aware of all the tankie justifications– the isolation of the Soviet state, the greater cruelty of the right-wing counter-revolutionaries. The thing is, revolutions are often necessary– but they are not the same as government, and they are not even the same as justice. At their best they open the way to a new and more just system. But the actions and habits of mind that produce a successful revolution are often precisely opposite to those needed to actually create that new system.

If it’s not clear– I liked Miéville’s book a lot, more than his novels in fact. He’s an engaging guide, with a nose for absurdities. He’s pretty far-left himself (he used to belong to a Trotskyite party), but he focuses on the story rather than political theory. I can’t say I’ll remember all the names and events in the story, but that’s hardly his fault: a revolution takes a lot of people. (For what it’s worth, I recognized all the names in the picture above.)

Polarization, 1945

I spent a few hours tonight reading or re-reading George Orwell’s essays, and this one on “nationalism” struck me as relevant today, largely because quite a few pundits seem to believe that political polarization, echo chambers, and outright lies are unprecedented novelties.

(Note, the essay talks about “nationalism” and “nationalists” only for lack of a better term, but he makes it clear that he’s also talking about religious or political zealotry. Today we’d probably say “ideologies” and “ideologues”.)

On echo chambers:

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war.

On lying:

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which, it is felt, ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.

Probably the truth is discoverable, but the facts will be so dishonestly set forth in almost any newspaper that the ordinary reader can be forgiven either for swallowing lies or failing to form an opinion. The general uncertainty as to what is really happening makes it easier to cling to lunatic beliefs. Since nothing is ever quite proved or disproved, the most unmistakable fact can be impudently denied. Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him.

Orwell was writing in May 1945, just after WWII ended in Europe. And he was writing from England, not the US. Nonetheless, the essay is a good reminder that political polarization and siloing are not new, nor creations of the Internet; there was no golden age where political parties frolicked together like Elves and Men and read each other’s media.

Now, for Boomers of my age there was a time when politics seemed calm, bipartisanship was possible, and extremists seemed to be on their way out. We call it “1976.” But this was not some normal and enduring state even of American politics; it was a short interlude after the contentious ’60s and before the plutocratic revolution of the ’80s.

This is admittedly cold comfort, when conservatives seem more insane and dangerous than ever. At the same time, reading Orwell is a reminder that things are always pretty dire, a hope for a less dire world is always possible, and the evil people of the day are also liable to make the stupidest mistakes.

Cultural materialism

I just re-read Marvin Harris’s book of this name– subtitle, The Struggle for a Science of Culture. It’s a review of a dozen or so approaches to anthropology– of course he likes his own the best. It’s from 1980, so it’s undoubtedly outdated as a survey of the major schools.

First, should you read it? Oh no, it’s pretty dry, and intended for his colleagues. If you’ve never read Harris, read Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead. However, a distinction he makes early on is of interest to conworlders and others.

The distinction is between etic and emic levels of culture. Curiously, these terms were abstracted (by Kenneth Pike) from linguistics. Phonetics is the study of the sounds used for language, and phonemics is the study of the sounds as people speaking a particular language perceive them. We hear and produce the raw sounds, but we think we’re pronouncing the phonemes. See your copy of the LCK for more.

Applied to cultures, the etic level is the physical level: what people do, what constraints they face in resources and ecology, what their technology and social practices are. You could theoretically study all this as a Martian, just observing and measuring. The emic level is what people think. It includes their language, literature, ritual, ideology, their ideas about family and class, what they tell children and each other.

Now, most of the schools Harris discusses differ in how they approach these two levels, and which they consider primary. Oversimplifying broadly, we have

  • Materialists consider that the etic system predominates, and determines the emic level.
  • Idealists put the emic level first, and believe that it determines how cultures work (i.e. the etics).

Now, no one thinks that you can completely ignore either level. You study both, and everyone admits that the levels can influence each other. But your overall orientation influences what questions you ask, what methods you use, and what you consider to be an answer.

To avoid some complications, I’ll use an example from the contemporary US. On the etic level, since the 1960s, the Republican Party has pursued the “Southern Strategy”. Their basic policies are to facilitate the dominance of the rich elite: low taxes, low regulation, a free hand for business, as little redistribution as possible. (Yes, things like tax rates and income levels are etic. They’re objective things, relatively easy to measure; our Martian observer who doesn’t know the language could figure them out.) These things are not very popular, so to win elections the GOP goes for a larger coalition based on region (the South and non-coastal West), race (whites), and religion (mostly Evangelicals). They highlight issues designed to appeal to regional and racial solidarity while hiding their policies (which disadvantage the very populations they are trying to win over). To ensure that the coalition wins, they carefully pass laws to make it harder for the opposition to vote.

The emic level looks very different. Here we look at what the GOP actually says— that febrile stew of resentment of minorities, fear of foreigners, fear of America changing, fear of “socialism”, fear of crime, disgust over homosexuality and abortion, nostalgia for an imagined past, feelings of wounded religious sentiment, and authority worship, with an undercurrent of fantasies of violent suppression of enemies, that we know from figures from McCarthy to Goldwater to Limbaugh to Gingrich to Trump.

If you don’t like that summary, use your own, or a random set of 10-minute segments from Fox News. The point isn’t that the emic level is bad; it’s that it’s different. What you see from the outside is poles apart from what you hear and feel on the inside.

Now, the cultural materialist viewpoint is that the etic facts, most of the time, explain the emic facts. That particular mix of beliefs and preoccupations isn’t random or coincidental; it’s determined by the business elite’s need to win votes for an unpopular set of policies. The easiest way to do so is to hide the actual agenda, and make use of existing resentments.

Another way to see this is to notice how the diversions have changed over time. In the 1950s, the most effective strategy for the GOP was anti-Communism rather than racism. In the 1960s, it was the mainstream’s dismay over hippies, sexual change, and modern art. In the 1980s, the rallying points were Evangelicalism and racism.

The key point is that you’ll understand very little of American politics by looking at what the GOP believes. It may be interesting or frightening, but it’s often quite disposable (note how concern over the deficit completely disappears when the GOP is in power), and it’s a poor guide to what the GOP will do. (Hint: it may or may not pursue culture war issues. It will cut taxes.)

I’m not at all summarizing the book, whose examples mostly relate to non-American cultures. But to use any of those examples I’d have to explain those cultures in fair detail, and that’s not my point here. I should add though that if the analysis sounds rather left-wing to you (all this talk about elites and supremacy)– well, cultural materialism does trend strongly left; it owes a lot in fact to Marx.

What is my point? Well, that the etic/emic distinction, and arguments about which comes first, are useful well beyond anthropology. First, they are relevant to a lot of cultural debates today.

A lot of the anthropological schools Harris discusses prefer the emic level, and some of them feel that this is the only valid level: find out what the natives think, and explicate that with the maximum of empathy and detail. And I think this approach has a strong attraction to anyone interested in other cultures– after all, shouldn’t we study them on their terms rather than ours? Some of the discourse about colonization and privilege falls easily into this point of view, even criticizing “scientific” approaches as objectifying and disrespectful.

Now, if you’re not doing anthropology, your approach should be based on what you’re doing. If you want to be a Buddhist, you of course want to study Buddhism from the inside, and probably shut up the scientific skeptic within you. Reading literature or watching movies or just interacting with people, you can pursue and enjoy the emic level as much as you want. And if you’re not an anthropologist or historian, guesses about the etic level may be quite misguided.

The problems come when you get curious about why things are as they are. You want to know the emic level, it’s very important. But–

  • the emic level is likely to be wrong about why things are as they are.
  • the emic level is likely to be inherently conservative— to put it bluntly, it’s the realm of authoritarian old farts.

The emic level, after all, includes native justifications for slavery, for colonialism and war, for sexism, for foot binding, for the Indian caste system, for Aztec slaughter and cannibalism, for the divine right of kings, for holy wars, for dictatorships and inquisitions and pogroms. If you believe what the culture says and thinks about itself, you’ll accept a lot of immoral trash, almost all of it designed to prop up the local elite.

Not everything in the emic level is tainted, of course. Some of it is purely interesting and enjoyable. Some of it is problematic, but so is almost everything. Some of it you can learn from on its own terms.

I like Harris’s approach, because etic explanations are far more interesting and satisfying. Take sexism, for instance. Emic explanations run toward gender determinism, or else the original-sin-like position that male supremacy is universal yet unmotivated. Gender determinism is itself problematic, and the “universal” position is simply wrong. There are more egalitarian societies, though you may have to go all the way back to hunter-gatherers to find them.

More importantly, there are reasons why all the evils listed above exist, and why some cultures have some evils but not others. Here cultural materialism is critically different from the rather annoying theories that biologists come up with, like evolutionary biology. Cultural materialist explanations may be based on physical constraints, but not on supposed aspects of human nature, because anthropologists know way too much about the diversity of culture. If human nature determined how societies worked, they’d all be the same or virtually so. Instead they’re wildly different in many ways, so these differences have to be examined and explained.

Also, importantly, changing human nature is almost impossible, but changing etic facts is not. So cultural materialism is far more optimistic. If sexism is caused by certain etic constraints, then there’s a hope for eliminating it by changing those constraints. (Indeed, a lot of the progress made in advanced societies is precisely due to changing the etic level.)

Another reason people often prefer emic approaches is that etic ones can seem, well, a little Martian. Just as it’s a little disturbing to take an anatomy class and cut up former humans, it’s a little disturbing to see how cultures are made. Reading about a war, for instance, it’s most rousing if it’s a morality tale, especially if the good guys win. Yet almost all wars can be explained at the level of resources, tactics, and logistics.

For conworlding, you can also take an emic or an etic approach. For the former, I’d point to Lord of the Rings. It’s presented as a literal document from its conworld, written by participants. At all points it adopts the worldview of its protagonists– directly, the hobbits; indirectly, the elves. Tolkien has almost zero interest in ecological constraints, economies, or how power operates, beyond the emic categories of “good kings” vs. “corrupt kings”. At no point in the book does he criticize how Gandalf or the elves think or behave. (I’m aware this is not true of the Silmarillion.)

For a fairly pure etic approach, perhaps take Neuromancer. The focus at almost all times is what people are doing, on a low technical level. Almost all the characters are primarily motivated by practical needs… no one needs or consults an ideology. The organization of society by the elite is directly criticized, without much interest in what the elite has to say for itself emically.

If you’ve been following my conworlds, Almea and the Incatena, you can probably see that I’m equally interested in both levels. I try to indicate what causes various social structure to form– e.g. why Eretald is male dominant and the Bé is female dominant, or why there are far more restrictions on Verdurian kings than there were on Caďinorian emperors. But I also provide extensive presentations of people’s ideological systems.

There’s a scene in Against Peace and Freedom where Agent Morgan more or less explains the etic bias of the Incatena, as opposed to the ideological systems of the antagonists. Morgan says to one of them:

Give us a static society and socionomics will tell you how to turn it into a dynamic one– what to teach the kids in school, what comic books to write, what family behaviors have to change, what sectors to encourage. Of course, a static society won’t like those changes.. that’s why it stays static. No problem… back up a level, we can tell you what to do to generate a liking for them.

Socionomics is essentially far-future cultural materialism. Of course we don’t know today how to do these things, though many people think they do. But the Incatena has way more data.

Again, if all this whets your appetite, try Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches. It’s hard to invent premodern cultures without it. (Or read my books— there’s a lot of Harris in the PCK.)

Yes, Trump’s a fascist

The latest annoying thing in the pundit class is think pieces on whether Trump is a fascist. Here’s The New Statesman saying no, not at all. Here’s Vox saying maybe but mostly no.

For readers who’ve been living in a cave: for nearly half a century, the gold standard for presidential corruption was Watergate, for which Nixon was almost impeached (he resigned instead). Now it’s January 6, 2021, when Trump gave a speech urging his supporters to march on Congress, and they did– thousands of them bursting into the capitol and forcing the Senate and House to flee to safety. A handful of people died, including one policeman beaten to death by the mob. At least some of the rioters were attempting serious sedition, bringing weapons and restraints; they aimed to murder Congress members or take them hostage. Some threatened to kill not only Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker, but Mike Pence, Trump’s own VP.

It’s become clear that this was no protest or exuberant mob– it was a deliberate attack, and the ringleaders went right to various Members’ offices. They failed to get their hands on anyone; I’m sure there will be whole books written on why that was. But it was way closer than it should have been.

A question that’s become almost a joke over four years is “What would it take for Republicans to turn against Trump?” Personal corruption and a torrent of lies didn’t do it, nor did abuses of power, attempts to ruin America’s alliances, concentration camps for migrants, cozying up to Putin, unlabeled feds bundling dissenters into vans in the middle of the night, a pandemic on track to kill more Americans than World War II. But what did it for quite a few of them was their own president egging on a mob to kill them. Who knew?

It was an attempt at a violent coup to overthrow democracy. The “fascism” charge should be open-and-shut at this point. So why are the pundits so sure it’s not?

Before we get there, let’s look at one expert that’s willing to call Trump a fascist: Robert Paxton. He wrote, “I have been reluctant to use the F word for Trumpism, but yesterday’s use of violence against democratic institutions crosses the red line.”

This is significant for me, because he wrote the book that I reviewed back in the Bush administration. His definition is worth quoting:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

At the time I concluded that Bush wasn’t a fascist– largely because the use of violence wasn’t there. Trump’s coup attempt crosses that line.

One objection would be the clown-car aspect of Trump and Trump’s supporters. It wasn’t a successful coup attempt. But this misses the point.

  • Trump is the president… the guy with the nuclear football. His incompetence may have saved us for now, but…
  • Half the Republicans in Congress supported his attempts to overturn the election.
  • Trump retains the support of a majority of Republicans (though his approval has declined since the attack).
  • The extremists– the people with the guns and restraints– were emboldened by the attack, and plan to do more.
  • Ever hear of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch? A failed coup attempt has historically led to more attempts.
  • Hitler and Mussolini made far more use of violence. But both were put into power legally, by the conservatives of the day. They were contemptuous of democracy– but used its institutions to get into power, only dismantling them afterward.

Why are the fascism experts besides Paxton reluctant to call Trump a fascist? The objections mostly come down to one of these things:

  • Worries that some “real” fascist will come down the pike, and we won’t know what to call them.
  • Quibbles over the historical details of early-20C fascism.
  • Wise-ass comments that Trumpism has American roots.

The first objection does make a point, just not a very good one. Suppose Trump had succeeded in denying the election results. Would it be comforting, or educational, or pedantically correct, to say that he wasn’t a “fascist”, but an “authoritarian”, or a “right-wing populist”, or a “nationalist”? Jesus, people, we’re talking about an illegal coup ending our 250-year American democracy. You don’t win a prize by denying it the word “fascism”. And you know, people who successfully execute a coup don’t end their criminal careers with that. The violence and vindictiveness would only ramp up.

The various quibbles are interesting to historians. E.g. the New Statesman article explains that Hitler and Mussolini were war-mongers intent on grabbing new territory. Yes, but there are historical reasons for that. Germany and Italy came late to the European imperialism party; one had just lost a World War and the other felt like it had. This was, if you remember, a time when Britain and France still had their colonial empires; the feeling was that that was what great nations do. Plus, they were small nations by US standards– their only way to feel like superpowers was to expand.

The US has a very different history and sense of itself. Though the rest of the world thinks it’s imperialist, it’s mostly via soft power; our actual colonial empire was not very important. American nationalists aren’t at root very interested in the world: they are consumed with the threats they see internally.

Finally, some historians are concerned that people over-emphasize 20C Germany and Italy, forgetting the long history of right-wing nationalism and white supremacy at home– everything from the Confederacy to Jim Crow to Joe McCarthy to the Klan. Again, there’s a point to this: there is no need to sync up events today and a hundred years ago, and think that Trumpism is a repeat of Hitler.

But the more general answer is: yes, Trumpism does recall some of the more lawless parts of American history, and that shouldn’t be news to anyone.

It’s worth noting that the real fascists, the people who really like Hitler, are already on board with Trumpism. A bunch of them participated in the attempted coup– proudly wearing their Nazi T-shirts. It’s undoubtedly true that they would turn on Trump on a dime if he isn’t nasty enough for them. But they’ve been made welcome in the GOP, and until that problem is solved, fascism will be a major factor in US politics.

Finally, the Jan 6. attempt– unlike the two months of legal shenanigans– created a real fissure in the Republican Party. For once we don’t have a few pursed lips expressing “concern” over Trump. We don’t know how meaningful that is, yet; we’ll get a much better idea during the impeachment trial.

Trumpism isn’t gone, and the large fraction of the GOP electorate that cheered him on won’t disappear. But things might start to look different in a week, when Trump is out of office and can’t post on Twitter– and a bunch of Senators start to realize that they have the power to keep him from running again.

Ask Zompist: What just happened?

You’re probably very busy right now, but would you mind writing a kind of overview of the current election situation, perhaps for the benefit of foreign observers who don’t know that much about US politics, and other people who might be easily impressed by Republican talking points?

–Raphael

As someone pointed out on Twitter, when we look at this in a few years, it’s going to look very simple: at every point this year Joe Biden looked like he was going to win, against a historically incompetent and unpopular president. And he did. And he won by a decisive margin: currently 74 to 70 million votes, and probably by 306 to 232 electoral votes. And thus did the realm of Sauron fall.

Edit: As of the 25th, the margin is now 80 to 74 million votes.

Of course, the devil is in the details, which is why this year has felt like it’s a decade long.

(This post will be a bit rambling, as I am writing for that hypothetical foreign observer, and guessing at what they might find puzzling.)

First, there’s what the pundits call the fundamentals. If you looked from January 2020, you’d have to say: incumbents usually win (6 won, 3 lost from FDR to Obama), and presidents in good economies usually win. The election was Trump’s to lose.

Then there’s the Trump factor itself. Trump has been remarkably, consistently unpopular: since Jan. 2017, his favorability never rose above 46%. But since 2018, it hasn’t fallen below 40% either. Nate Silver’s site has comparisons to past presidents, where you can see that this sort of consistency is rare. Obama’s line is almost as flat, which suggests that both lines are consequences of our new polarization. People stick with their leader because they are terrified of the opposition.

US political parties used to be coalitions, where Republicans had some liberals and Democrats had some conservatives; that made the parties increasingly resemble each other, and made the most effective strategy a fight for the center. Since the mid-1990s the GOP has instead moved far right, and in response the Democrats have moved left, though not nearly as far. Generalizations base on the mixed-coalition era are thus no longer accurate.

Popularity is not voting: Trump got (at current reporting) 47.7% of the vote. We don’t have exit poll analyses yet, but it’s been clear for a long time that Republican voters, even if they have reservations about Trump, will still vote for him. So his unpopularity was a negative, but GOP loyalty in general was a plus. (In 2016 we could hope that there were a bunch of “Never Trumpers” who wouldn’t vote for him. That didn’t happen, and his standing in the party was obviously better this year.)

If there’s any one factor that doomed him, it was his handling of Covid. I don’t mean that it was bad luck that dragged him down. Disasters don’t make leaders unpopular; usually it’s the reverse. George Bush got a huge boost out of 9-11; several leaders, such as NZ’s Jacinda Ardern and South Korea’s Democratic Party, won landslide elections under Covid, when people could see them handling it well. Even Trump got a boost– until April, when his incompetence began to show. He was handed a golden opportunity, and he fucked it up. Letting a quarter of a million people die, creating an economic crisis, and refusing to agree to (continued) emergency measures is not the way to attract the moderates.

Then there’s Biden himself. The Democrats had two ways they could go:

  • Pick someone inspiring, who’d fire up the base and/or the country.
  • Pick someone who just doesn’t mess up the opportunity.

Replaying the 2016 primary is Democrats’ favorite hobby and vice, so let’s just say that Biden is in category 2. Biden has some real virtues, but not many of these had to be put into play: his best move seemed to be to sit there not being Trump and not messing up, and let Trump dig his own grave. Which he did. When he did get attention, during the convention and the debates, he was competent, and compassionate enough to underline the comparison– without really making a strong personal impact. And that was probably fine, especially compared to Hillary, who was widely disliked.

I don’t know if it really matters, but Trump’s campaign didn’t seem to know what to do with Biden. Or with anything really. Trump didn’t talk much about his record (such as it is), nor make any attempt to woo the center. He leaned hard on repressing protesters, which probably backfired as most people sympathized with protests against police racism. He tried to play up Biden as too doddery, which a) makes no sense since the same could be said for him, and b) was exposed as an obvious lie when Biden talked. Trump was reduced to trying to run against Bernie Sanders instead… again, probably not effective with the moderates.

I should emphasize that Trump’s 2016 campaign, for all its chaos, was managed ten times better. He could play outsider, and rile up his own side when he wanted to; and he took enough moderate positions that people of all persuasions could see what they wanted to in him. If he had stuck with his populism, American politics might have looked far different… but he not only governed as a strict conservative, but as a total asshole. His base loved him in both roles, but he was unable to revive his populist side this year.

Biden didn’t do as well as the polls suggested. That’s a big problem for the pollsters, but it also shouldn’t be exaggerated. We don’t know the absolute final results, but they’ll probably make Biden look better than he does right now. It wasn’t the huge blue wave that we would have liked to see. At this point I’d say: take anyone’s explanation of that with a truckload of salt, especially if the pundit opines that Biden would obviously have done better if he had followed the pundit’s favorite policies.

So, the GOP turned to Plan B, which was voter suppression. They knew their policies were unpopular, so the plan was to obstruct the vote as much as possible. This put them in the position of purposely insisting on in-person voting, with its risks of spreading a deadly disease… but they were already in death cult mode; what did they care so long as they won? There were other shenanigans, like removing voting stations in big cities to make it harder to vote.

Next on the agenda was kneecapping the post office, starting in the summer. We don’t know the extent of the damage, except that the mail immediately got slower, and many post offices removed their sorting machines. The big question is perhaps, did they think no one would notice, in an organization that employs half a million people? People did notice, there were Congressional hearings, and the commissioner promised to stop interfering. It’s not clear how much this was a factor… but now that we have the results, it seems clear it just didn’t work. (Though in my household, we made sure to turn in our ballots at the village hall.)

All this was worrisome, but as a coup attempt, a little lame. First problem: elections here are run by the states, not by the President. That meant that blue states couldn’t be corrupted. Second problem: the obvious interference only made Democrats more determined to vote. Turnout is higher than ever this year, and that really paid off in places like Georgia. Third problem: playing tricks is evidently something rank-and-file GOP officials will do; but outright lawbreaking by election officials and judges, not so much. Almost all of them tried to run the election properly.

Foreign readers might wonder, why did it take several days to declare the winner, and why did Pennsylvania flip? Basically: one more bit of Republican games-playing. The state legislature forbid mail-in votes from being counted before the election, as they are in many states. This was obviously done in the hopes that Trump would “obviously win” on Tuesday night, and that counting mail-in votes would somehow look suspicious.

The problem with that “plan”: there was really no point where Trump had “obviously won”. I just scrolled through CNN’s entire election blog, and Biden was ahead in electoral votes at every point, starting from 8:15 p.m. election night. By the next day, he was already a mere 17 votes shy of winning, and he was pretty clearly going to win enough of the outstanding states. So all the Pennsylvania GOP succeeded in doing was in prolonging the process for everyone.

Plan C was to hope for litigation. In particular, the GOP geared up for a repeat of 2000. Trump openly entertained fantasies of the Supreme Court handing him the election, and of course McConnell obliged by fast-tracking Amy Barrett’s nomination. The problem for the GOP is that no Florida 2000 situation recurred. As a reminder, Bush led Gore in the count in that state, by 537 votes, and Florida’s electoral votes alone would decide the election. The Court really only had to freeze the count in place rather than throwing out votes. That’s a pretty narrow scenario, and it didn’t repeat.

Trump is supposedly going to file a bunch of lawsuits. But the ones he already filed went nowhere, and there’s not really a major state that he could likely flip. There are some close states, but recounts and finagling over individual ballots have historically affected a few hundred votes, not the tens of thousands that would be needed to flip (say) Pennsylvania. Trump’s hope that somehow all mail-in ballots could be thrown out is almost certainly going to be laughed out of court even by Republican judges.

The thing is, stealing an election gets harder the longer you wait. The GOP’s best best was to steal it ahead of time by suppressing the vote. That didn’t work. Hoping for Florida 2000 again was not even a plan. Now that there’s an actual vote which Biden solidly won, stealing the election would require throwing out votes already cast, on the scale of tens of thousands of votes. That’s pretty unprecedented in this country. On Dec. 14, the Electoral College meets, and you really can’t reverse the EC vote without getting into hard coup territory– the kind that comes with guns and civil war.

Can Trump do something to somehow steal the election now? Well, you can never count a Sith Lord out entirely. But at this point it seems clear that all he has left is temper tantrums. He was squealing “STOP THE COUNT”… and the count didn’t stop. When even Fox News declares Biden the winner, it’s almost certainly over. We need to pass a few more milestones, of course, but the Trump team’s strategies haven’t worked so far, and if their last trick is “open coup attempt”, the smart money is that it’ll fail.

Trump has refused to concede… but this has no legal meaning. He doesn’t get to decide whether to accept the results, and he’d do well to avoid the indignity of being tossed out by the Secret Service. Again, his intransigence is going to look even more ridiculous after the Electoral College vote. There are already reports that advisors or powerful GOP figures are telling him– as nicely as they can, undoubtedly– to stand down.

Finally, for those foreign observers and not a few domestic ones: the Senate is not yet decided, and that affects whether Biden can pass his legislative agenda. It’s 48-48 right now, but the GOP is ahead in two of the remaining states. Note that a 50-50 Senate would be Democrat-controlled, since the Vice President is the tiebreaker. The last two seats are both in Georgia– and those are both close enough that a runoff election will need to be held in January. So we actually won’t know what happens in the Senate till then.

Virus, depression continue

The GOP continues to lead the country into death and depression.

Over 5 million infected, 160,000 dead. Latest red/blue state numbers:

  • 2.85 million cases in red states. That’s 876,000 more than my last update.
  • 2.06 million in blue states. 348,000 since the last update.

Florida and Texas have managed to surpass New York’s formidable total.  But so has California, which is responsible for almost half of the new blue-state cases.

Worldwide, similar right-wing nutjob Bolsonaro has led Brazil into nearly 3 million cases.

As ever, this was an avoidable catastrophe.  South Korea: still under 15,000 cases. Canada has 119,000 cases, or 1/5 of the case rate we have.

Meanwhile, the economy shrank 9.5% in the 2nd quarter, the worst performance ever, exceeding even drops during the Great Depression. Naturally, the GOP responded by doing nothing, letting the extra unemployment benefits end.  Oh, they did have a plan: they proposed to prevent employers from being sued if their reopening policies made their employees die.

That’s the modern GOP.  Why choose between plague and economic catastrophe when you can have both?

Red states pull ahead

Today the red states (the states Trump won in 2016) pulled ahead.

Coronavirus cases in red states: 1.625 million
Coronavirus cases in blue states: 1.590 million

Since my last update, June 26: 188,000 new cases in blue states, 533,000 in red states. 

And that’s despite the hefty lead built up by New York (426,000 cases), and California’s valiant effort to stay in the running.  But the death cult is winning.

Cases per million people is a good stat to look at between nations. The US has 9900; the UK 4200; South Korea 261. Of course whenever South Korea is brought up, people immediately think of reasons we couldn’t possibly learn from them, so let’s look at Canada: 2800.

Here;’s a comparison of daily US vs. EU cases. It’s as of July 1; I couldn’t find a later chart. Today’s new case count is way off this chart at 64,000.  Europe beat the curve; we didn’t bother. Donald Trump’s ego was way more important.

coronavirus-EU-US-july-1-640x452

And the right-wing lie machine is still telling its viewers that there’s no problem.  Could they at least put a health warning on the screen?  “Warning: listening to Fox News can kill you and your family.”

Red state fever

I’m not going to do a full roundup, but I thought it was time to update the counts for red and blue states, as of June 27.

Blue states: 1.4 million cases, 84,700 deaths
Red states: 1.1 million cases, 41,500 deaths

At my last report, May 13, the death counts were 58,600 vs. 22,600. So the increase since then is blue 144%, red 184%.

The death cult is seeing results.

We’ve got competition now, though. Brazil has 1.3 million cases, 56,100 deaths. Somehow, pandemic + right wing idiot in charge = tens of thousands of dead people.

And just to rub it in, our 127,000 deaths were completely unnecessary. South Korea has had 282.  2% as much.  The GOP has managed to kill more people in 2020 than all American deaths in World War I and the Vietnam War. Combined.

Doom and gloom

The Covid-19 case count in the US has reached 1.4 million. Hey, remember those long-ago days when it was under 1000?

Some fun facts about death tolls, for some very queasy values of “fun”:

  • Covid-19 deaths in the US as of today: 83,700
  • US deaths in Vietnam War: 58,220
  • All US gun deaths in 2018, including suicides: 39,221
  • Automobile deaths last year: 38,800
  • Flu deaths 2018-19 season: 34,200
  • US deaths due to terrorism since 1995: 3,658

The coronavirus toll is likely significantly higher than the above figures. E.g. a recent survey of New York City alone found 24,200 excess deaths (those above the normal amount, 7900, from previous years). 5300 of those were not officially linked to Covid-19. There’s no other particular reason for that many deaths, so they are probably untested cases, or emergencies that turned into deaths due to hospitals being overstressed by the virus.

I took worldometer’s by-state figures and found the number of deaths in states won by Trump and by Clinton in 2016:

  • Blue states: 58,600
  • Red states: 22,600

Now, 62% of the blue state total is New York + New Jersey. Still, these figures alone are obviously part, though just part, of why the GOP doesn’t take the virus seriously.

22,600 deaths is still a lot. If the red states were a separate country, they’d still be #6 in the world for total deaths, just behind France. But only three red states (MI LA PA) have more than 2000 deaths.

The GOP logic is “The parachute has slowed our fall so far, so that proves we don’t need it.” So it’s pressing to “re-open the economy”. It’s not hard to predict what’s going to happen: a disaster.  Maybe if it hits some red states hard, it’ll finally knock some sense into them.

Once again, it’s a false choice, indefinite lockdown vs. killing millions.  Other countries are actually mastering the virus. Perennial comparison: in all of April, the US had 62,000 Covid-19 deaths. South Korea had 85.

Grimly amusing: Trump has everyone near him tested constantly. But he doesn’t see the need for testing the rest of the country, because he doesn’t fucking care.

The sad thing is that it’s hard to see things improving before the end of the year.  That could be a lot of deaths, and a Depression’s worth of financial destruction. All because Donald J. Trump doesn’t have a fuck of a clue, and the GOP is terrified of standing up to him.

 

From pro-life to Viva la muerte

So, good news and bad news about the pandemic.  The good news is that the number of new cases may have peaked in the US. The bad news is that the GOP has become a full-on death cult.

We’re at 740,000 cases and 39,000 deaths.  Hey, that’s more than the flu deaths in the 2018-19 season, maybe Republicans could take it seriously now?

No, the new Republican obsession is “re-opening the economy.” Trump first wanted this to happen by Easter, but was somehow dissuaded. Some governors want to try, and GOP pundits are test-driving ideas like “the cure is worse than the disease” and “closing businesses is tyranny” and “God will keep us safe” and “why keep old people around anyway.”

To be clear, here’s what happens when you stop social distancing early.

St._Louis_social_distancing

That’s the excess death rate in St. Louis in 1918-19, during the flu pandemic.  Note the timeline of the social distancing measures.  The city seemed to be doing better, deaths were down, and the city responded by ending restrictions.  Deaths shot up to twice the previous peak.  Oops.  Social distancing had to be resumed. The same thing happened in every city that tried “reopening” and in none of the ones that didn’t.

(What’s the “excess death rate”? Deaths above the normal level in a particular place and time. That’s the best way to measure the real effect of a pandemic, since But deaths are recorded far more accurately than causes of death. The numbers we have now, scary as they are, are probably way under the real values, because we’re still not testing enough.)

So, to be clear, what the Republicans are demanding is that people die in large numbers.  And suffer in even greater numbers.  Recall that up to 20% of all cases are severe, requiring hospitalization.  Under GOP plans, that means up to 20% of the population, or 65 million people.  Most but not all of them will be older people, meaning their own voters.

Here’s what a severe case is like: you have trouble breathing, so they stick you on a ventilator to force air into your lungs. You may get pneumonia or, worse, acute respiratory distress syndrome, which makes oxygenation extremely difficult. You get fluid instead of air in your lungs: you’re essentially drowning in those fluids. You may try to pull out the ventilator tube because you feel like you’re choking, so they’ll restrain you.  (That’s if you have a ventilator at all, since Trump is playing games with the states and hijacking shipments of supplies.) Through all of this, for the month you’re in intensive care, you can’t see family and barely see care workers; if you die you won’t be able to say goodbye. Oh, and while all this is going on, good luck if instead you have a garden variety heart attack or other emergency condition: the ICU is full.

That’s what the “protestors” are asking for: for tens of millions of people to suffer like that, with many of them dying. They’re clamoring to get the illness themselves, infect their workers and church members and families and the general public. Because… jesus christ who knows why, to own the libs.

Back in the Spanish civil war, supporters of Franco had slogans like ¡Viva la muerte! ¡Muera la inteligencia! — “Long live death! Death to intelligence!” That was their response to anything or anyone they didn’t like.

How did the GOP get to this point? Didn’t they call themselves “pro-life” once?

There is probably a lot to learn from the history of European fascism… but it’s really a logical development of home-grown, all-American trends.  American conservatism is the result of two basic facts:

  • Rich people are terrified of high taxes.
  • Rich people are a tiny minority of voters.

See my liberalism page for what they’re afraid of– especially the chart of tax rates. For half a century, from Roosevelt on, marginal taxes on the richest were twice what they are today. For the rich, the one and only purpose of the Republican Party is to keep tax rates down.

The rich generally get what they want, but it’s a lot trickier when they have to deal with a democracy. They need votes; therefore they need allies. But very few potential allies really care about other people’s taxes.  The best the rich can do is to co-opt movements that are popular enough to win elections.

During the liberal period (Roosevelt to Carter), they didn’t find the winning formula. In the 1980s they did: a potent mixture of religious reactionaries, bigots, and libertarians. Each of these had a grudge against liberalism, and that provided enough zealotry to win elections. Mostly their grudges were too unpopular to become law, but by God they got taxes as low they could and kept the 90% from sharing in increased productivity.

(Old history: The bigots used to be in the Democratic Party. They were by no means liberal, but they liked redistribution, so long as it didn’t go to colored people. But they switched sides, in a long process that finished with Reagan.)

So, the Nixonian model was that GOP politicians would make use of this potent but unstable coalition, and keep it from doing too much damage. Then came the ’90s, for which the formula is: talk radio + losing the Presidency = GOP loses its mind. Talk radio meant that power moved from elected officials who retained some interest in real governing, to unelected entertainers whose only interest was in riling things up. And the defeat of Bush I meant that moderate Republicans were seen as failures. Clinton had already raised taxes, so the rich were OK with a program of anything goes to oppose the Democrats.

It still took 25 years to get to ¡Viva la muerte!  But the groundwork was laid, by going through ¡Muera la inteligencia!

It’s been remarked that we have two elites in this country: one financial, one cultural/educational. The money is of course far more powerful. But rich people lack charisma; frankly, they’re often stupid and venal. They would love to have the soft power of universities, newspapers, and Hollywood, but they can’t buy them, mostly.  (They own a lot of them, of course, but it turns out that when you let the rich guy dictate the content, its popularity plummets. So they have to let the creative people actually produce it.)

But the cultural elite insists on a more or less liberal message, and the scientific world is even worse, pointing out little problems like the threat to Earth’s ecosphere caused by industry. What’s the solution here?  Why,  ¡Muera la inteligencia!  Attack science and attack government when they’re inconvenient for the rich; and if that the base embraces every other anti-science fad it can, well, remember Goal #1.  (Did you forget? It’s “low taxes.”)

The nice thing about climate change– for the GOP– is that it’ll bite people in the ass only in decades to come, after the chief perps are dead. The problem with a pandemic is that it makes expert advice, good health care, and government help a necessity right now.

But they can’t turn off the propaganda machine.

  • One, that might mean people would vote for the other party, and taxes would go up.
  • Two… well, the rich no longer have control of the off button.
  • And three, too many people are inside the con. Without a steady diet of fear, lies, and outrage, how could the talk radio people keep their public? How could the new generation of GOP politicians stay in power? How could the late-capitalist hucksters keep profiting by making crappy Internet products or bankrupting old businesses or inflating drug prices? How could the sellers of guns and Bitcoin and dubious alternative investments or medicines stay in business?

Which isn’t to say that they have a plan for success. What would they even do if the liberals all disappeared and they had to run the country without an enemy to hate?  Turn on each other in about five minutes, of course.

The thing is, when you actually despise expertise and competence of all kinds, and as a topping on the cake elect a narcissistic thug, and you win, you do not get the long centuries of conservative dominion of, say, the Spanish Empire, or even Franco’s decades. Fascism crashed and burned. The Confederacy crashed and burned. George W. Bush, whose control was so total that conservatives were writing self-congratulatory tomes on how conservatism was going to be in power forever, crashed and burned. (Scant consolation, I know. These people all caused a hell of a lot of damage going down.)

OK, a few people have read this far and are jabbing their hands up, eager to ask, “Yes, but when can we reopen the economy?”

And you know, the infuriating thing about this whole mess is that there is another path. The alternatives are not “stay on lockdown forever” vs. “accept tens of millions of dead Americans.” Option three is to handle the damn virus as well as South Korea has.

Vox has a good article on this.  In short: test, test, test. We’re testing maybe 160,000 people per day, and that number isn’t even growing. We need at least four times that level– and maybe 40 times that level. We can’t reopen businesses while not knowing who has the virus.  And once we know, we have to trace contacts zealously.  (Recall: Covid-19 spreads extremely easily at a point when the carrier has no symptoms. One person can literally infect a thousand.)

I wish I could say the GOP will come round to this. But they made the choice long ago to politicize everything, which means saving lives is now evil Democratic tyranny. 

Do you think a few of them wonder how they got to this point?  Did anyone look at, say, the landslide election won a few days ago by South Korea’s Democratic Party, and wonder if maybe just once, they should do the right thing and maybe even get rewarded for it? But that’s crimethink; they just watch Fox News long enough to make the feeling pass.