Monday, October 24, 2016

Book note: The Unnatural World

Here's a book that's well-timed, both for the thankfully soon-to-come end of the current political season and, on an incomparably bigger scale, for the new geological era, the Anthropocene, that (some) scientists think is just getting under way as humans emerge as a powerful force on the Earth: The Unnatural World: The Race to Remake Civilization in Earth's Newest Age. It's by David Biello, a friend via my freelancing at Scientific American (he's now a curator at TED).

I have not read all of the book yet, instead skipping around idiosyncratically with particular attention to the last two chapters, which respectively focus on carbon capture and space exploration. On the former, David gives a clear-eyed sense of what a difficult problem it is to put CO2 somewhere other than in the atmosphere, while describing various scientists and ideas that aim at doing just that. On the latter, he rightly rebuffs any notion that we can solve environmental problems by escaping from them into space, while defending the very real value of space science and technology for understanding and potentially addressing problems on Earth.

In the past, I've speculated about how right vs left attitudes on climate disruption might change as the issue becomes less about whether there's a problem and more oriented toward what to do about it. The current political campaign has given little reason to think the subject is going to be treated with the broad-based seriousness it deserves anytime soon, even though what happens after the imminent GOP cataclysm is anyone's guess. However, over time, the kinds of topics discussed in David's book--how do and how should we use our growing ability to change the world--will become increasingly central to our lives and our politics. The Unnatural World offers a fascinating avenue into that future.

Incidentally, another upcoming book looking at such topics is Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet's Future by planetary scientist David Grinspoon. May these two books give some much-needed attention to the large-scale and long-term matters on which our progeny's fate depends.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Why the GOP should break up, post-Nov.

If mad scientists in a lab had tried to design a monster that could destroy the Republican Party, it's hard to see how they could have come up with something better than Donald Trump. Not only did he gain the nomination by appealing to all the worse impulses of a primary electorate addled by talk radio and cable TV; not only did he debase the other candidates who ended up endorsing him, leaving only some dignity for those handful who passive-aggressively declined to make an endorsement; not only did his abominable personality, record and positions set the party up for what will be a defeat of historically disastrous proportions in November; not only did he enable the racism and authoritarianism of the alt-right to become a significant part of Republican ideology and culture; but he also cut off avenues whereby the party could potentially have reformed itself, by convincing a number of moderates and reformicons that underneath the squalor, bluster and stupidity of Trump and Trumpism are some ideas that should be preserved and developed in a future remaking of the party.

Last May, I became an ex-Republican, shedding an identity I'd held since the early 1980s (i.e., my entire adult life), and thus relinquished my onetime hopes of helping in some small way to improve the party; instead I began musing about what a future party I might want to be part of would look like. A Bloomberg poll that just came out reinforces for me that it is realistic and advisable to think of a future in which the GOP is no longer one of two major parties, and perhaps no longer in one piece.

Consider this bit of polling data (click to enlarge):

This is a party divided, to say the least. A majority--barely--thinks the Trump-Pence ticket was a good enough idea that one of the two people on it should be the party's champion going forward. Among those who don't, there's no consensus as to who the leader should be, or by extension what direction the party should go. (From what I can tell, by the way, these names were suggested to the poll respondents, as opposed to being responses to an open-ended question. In a differently structured question, I wouldn't be surprised if Rubio or Sasse or any number of others had made the cut.)

Now, despite what I said earlier about no longer wanting to help the Republican Party, I also do not want the political system to be dominated by one party, and as a centrist independent I am not particularly sympathetic to that party, the Democrats, even though this year I will vote for their candidates against Trump and against my awful congressman, Scott Garrett. So, focusing on what would make for a healthier political scene, I suggest the Republican Party do something that, as it happens, could turn out to be an electoral winner for some, which is: break itself up.

Trying to hold the fractious and angry GOP coalition together has now become an impossible undertaking that involves simultaneous minority outreach and white identity politics; knee-jerk hostility to immigration and trade and a pro- or at least balanced approach to immigration and trade; firmness toward Russia and supplication toward Russia; libertarianism and authoritarianism. Not even a political genius could do it, let alone the people who plausibly will be running the GOP.

On the other hand, the party can't be broken into numerous fragments without being fully destroyed, and so I would suggest just two. Let's call them Federalists and Nationalists. The Federalists could be something like what I sketched out in my new party post months ago. It would be a coalition of conservatives and moderates, essentially unified by a pronounced aversion to the ignorance and irresponsibility of Trumpism. The Nationalists would be for those who think Trumpism was, in some substantial way, a good thing. Alt-right extremists would gravitate to the Nationalist Party, dreaming of their ethnostate, but so would many others who don't espouse racism but do think Trump hit on something valuable in his trade and immigration policies or other aspects; some people considered moderates might be among them.

I am not predicting this will happen, but the coming electoral cataclysm makes it more plausible than prospects for revamping the party system have been in our lifetimes. And as difficult as forming and building these new parties would be, it may well be less so than holding together the Republicans. Speaking for myself, I would be likely to join something like the Federalist Party, if it came into existence; by contrast, with the view from 2016, I see little prospect of ever wanting to rejoin the GOP.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Trump's likely post-November bust [updated]

A lot of interesting political stuff to read today, especially focused on prediction. First, there's this dark vision from Damon Linker: "After Trump loses: An ominous American future imagined." Excerpt:
President Clinton made clear that she intends to lift the nationwide curfew and withdraw the National Guard as soon as possible. But there is no evidence that the unrest is receding. Trump TV now mixes attacks on the rioters and defenses of the cops with equally venomous denunciations of "lawless Hillary." Donald Trump, Jr. speaks openly of running for president as the champion of "the people" against the "tyrants and thugs" who are ruining America. Though he also warns in ominous tones that the president will do anything and everything in her power to stop him — including calling off the election altogether. Which only stirs up the militias, which only prolongs the period of martial law.
Well, maybe. But there are some reasons to think the political and media influence of a post-defeat Trump is going to be rather limited. One is that right-wing media is already a pretty densely packed -- and just plain dense -- place, in which Trump TV or such would have a significant product differentiation problem. That point is made by this Brian Beutler piece in The New Republic: "Donald Trump’s Media Conglomerate Already Exists." Excerpt:
If and when Hillary Clinton becomes president, the right-wing media, which has brooked some dissent from a handful of anti-Trump conservatives, will reunite in opposition to Clinton’s agenda, her nominees, and perhaps even the idea that she should be impeached.
When she inevitably logs victories against Republicans in Congress—by reshaping the Supreme Court, for instance, or avoiding impeachment—it will be treated as capitulation by the conservative media, which will promote savior figures who, like Trump, promise to succeed where the Republican establishment failed. Those figures will become the Republican Party’s de facto future leaders—including, perhaps, its next presidential nominee—unless current ones figure out a way to break the cycle that spat out Trump for good. But between Drudge and Limbaugh and Breitbart and Fox News and their useful feeders like Gateway Pundit, they have their work cut out for them. The elbow room that existed for Trump within the party does not exist in its crowded market of media organs.
Next consider this piece, also at TNR, by Jeet Heer, who sketches out bleak prospects for Trump in various areas of life, post-election: "Citizen Pain." Excerpt:
In sum, post-election Trump is likely to become poorer and more socially isolated. Like Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008, he might keep wading into current politics on social media, as a way to keep his name alive. But Palin’s star quickly faded after her ticket lost the election and, months later, she resigned from the governorship of Alaska. Guest appearances on Fox News, and a single season of the TLC reality show Sarah Palin’s Alaska, weren’t enough to keep her in the mainstream limelight. Similarly, Trump without a political movement will be a toothless loudmouth. The media will stop paying attention to him, and it will drive Trump to despair.
And finally there's this in Newsweek by Kurt Eichenwald: "A People's History of Donald Trump's Business Busts and Countless Victims." This piece makes no effort at prediction, but rather just traces Trump's history of failed ventures and abandoned partners. Extrapolate that forward and one can imagine a Trump political and media movement ending up on the garbage heap with Bonwit Teller's sculpture panels, noted in a telling anecdote from the very beginning of Trump's high-profile career. Excerpt:
The exterior they were destroying was an architectural masterpiece—bronze, platinum, hammered aluminum, glazed ceramic and tinted glass that shimmered like jewelry. Many New Yorkers had hoped the grandest portion would survive; curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art had asked the developer to carefully remove the two bas-relief sculpture panels so they could be restored and put on public display. But that afternoon, the laborers, acting on orders from the developer, smashed the 50-year-old art deco panels into a rubble of stone, pebble and dirt.
The desecration horrified Manhattan’s art community, but the developer, a brash 34-year-old named Donald Trump, dismissed the criticism—pretending to be his own spokesman, “John Barron,” as he talked to reporters by phone. Saving the panels would have cost him $32,000 each, he said, and delayed work for a few days on his $100 million project, Trump Tower. Besides, he declared, he knew more than the curators—the panels had no artistic merit and little financial value.
I was worried Trump had a real shot at the nomination and even the presidency back in August 2015. Could be wrong but I'm less worried about his post-November capacity to further debase the political system. As for the Republican Party, he's done immense, even crippling, damage to that already, a legacy that won't fade away anytime soon.

UPDATE 7:11 PM: The alt-right, or at least Richard Spencer, is projecting an air of confidence in its own future (supposedly regardless of Trump's prospects). There may be some whistling in the dark there, though, in that the movement is intertwined with a candidate who's going to be a worldwide laughing stock. More on that some other time. Meanwhile, see this piece by Sarah Posner at Rolling Stone; and for background on the alt-right, see my posts here, here and here.

UPDATE 10/20: This article "Trump TV is definitely coming: Be afraid! But what the hell will it look like?" plays up the likelihood of Trump TV, only to conclude by saying it will be Web-based, which in my opinion underscores the idea that it will amount to little, especially given the older demographic of Trump's current audience.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Trump withdrawal draft

Here, for free, I offer Donald Trump a speech for withdrawing from the presidential race. Note: this is a work of fiction, and moreover, it does not represent my own views, but rather is the sort of thing Trump could say if he wants to get out in some face- and brand-saving way:

My fellow Americans,

I entered this race to make America great. And make no mistake, this campaign has been a tremendous step in rebuilding American greatness. We have brought people into the political process who were sitting it out before. We've gotten attention for issues and problems, such as immigration security, that the elite establishment truly did not want to be addressed. We've shown that business as usual won't fly anymore and that the people are fed up with living in a country that's a laughing stock.

The media often tried to make all this about me, but it was never about me--it was about the United States of America. And that's why I'm going to put America first with the decision I'm announcing today. I am withdrawing from the race, because a fair competition is no longer possible. Unethical media are working with our political opponents to make this election about ill-considered things I said long ago and other distractions that have no relevance. I am not going to let that happen.

As a candidate, I've already made one presidential-level decision, which was the selection of my running mate. I stand by that decision and now support Mike Pence as the Republican nominee. I will return to being a private citizen and building a fantastic business, and will weigh in on politics when I see things that need to be said so together we--all of us--can fix real problems in America. Now, join me in supporting my choice as next president of the United States, Mike Pence.

Thank you very much, and let's make America great again.

UPDATE 10/9, 3:30PM: Of course, it was a fanciful idea, requiring Trump to have some semblance of honor. Or as David Frum puts it:

UPDATE 10/15: A few days ago I signed Scholars and Writers Against Trump.