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Fascism is, as much as anything else, about the urge to attack, control or kill something on the outside because something sick on the inside has gone untreated. Tyrants themselves often possess this horrible flaw, or driven by opportunism, they seize on just such a disquiet in a people and exploit it for power and personal gain.

Brexit and, even more so, the political rise of the Lampanelli-Mussolini mashup Donald Trump, are not occurring under exactly the same backdrop that accompanied the rise of fascism in the 1930s, but that doesn’t mean key elements aren’t repeating themselves and won’t provoke a limit on liberties and undue suffering.

As Oxford historian James McDougall writes in a smart ssay at The Conversation, “this is a new fascism, or at least near-fascism,” warning that even if the contemporary brand of nationalism in the West doesn’t bring about World War III, it could very well make life a constant battle.

An excerpt:

Historical circumstances, like individuals, are always unique and unrepeatable. The point of comparison is not to suggest that we are living though the 1930s redux. It is to recognise the very strong family resemblance in ideas shared by the early 20th century far right and its mimics today.

Discussion of fascism suffers from an excess of definition. That often, ironically, allows far-right groups and their apologists to disavow the label because of some tick-box characteristic which they can be said to lack. But just as we can usefully talk about socialism as a recognisable political tradition without assuming that all socialisms since the 1840s have been cut from one mould, so we can speak of a recognisably fascist style of politics in Europe, the US, Russia and elsewhere. It is united by its espousal of a set of core ideas.

The theatrical machismo, the man or woman “of the people” image, and the deliberately provocative, demagogic sloganeering that impatiently sweeps aside rational, evidence-based argument and the rule-bound negotiation of different perspectives – the substance of democracy, in other words – is only the outward form that this style of politics takes.

More important are its characteristic memes. Fascism brings a masculinist, xenophobic nationalism that claims to “put the people first” while turning them against one another. That is complemented by anti-cosmopolitanism and anti-intellectualism. It denounces global capitalism, blaming ordinary people’s woes on an alien “plutocracy” in a language that is both implicitly anti-Semitic and explicitly anti-immigrant, while offering no real alternative economics.•

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Oswald Mosley, the infamous founding leader of the British Union of Fascists during the 1930s, was the inspiration for “Mr. Oswald” in Elvis Costello’s 1977 “Less Than Zero,” maybe the single most scathing and slanderous song ever recorded. An economist-cum-aspiring-autocrat, Mosley was a vicious anti-Semite and xenophobe who managed to incite violence almost anywhere he went. He was in prison and then house arrest during the latter years of WWII, returning to politics in the ’50s and 60’s as a candidate for Parliament on anti-immigration platforms. Mosley never came close to winning office,and died in France in 1980, three years after the Costello excoriation.

A November 8, 1936 Brooklyn Daily Eagle report profiled Mosley at the height of his madness.

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In 1967, David Front interviewed Oswald, who was then in his dotage.

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Wrote several times before the election that a landslide Trump loss at the polls on Election Day would be a death in the gutter for the contemporary GOP, but that America itself would slip from the curb if it somehow chose a bigoted, fascistic clown. Sadly, the latter that occurred.

It’s not that the country hasn’t flirted with such things in the last century. The 1930s were a time when some U.S. titans of industry spoke openly and admiringly of Mussolini, even Hitler, for being autocrats who could reign in their citizens and produce a pliant workforce. Not even World War II completely quelled that madness. In 1946, just a year after the Allies defeated the Axis, thousands of citizens attended a Madison Square Garden rally that urged the revival of Nazism. There have until now always been enough good, informed, sane people to pull us from the precipice.

Not that we were ever saints free of large-scale atrocities or institutional prejudice, but there was a belief among many of us that “a more perfect union” was what we were genuinely moving toward. Even those who didn’t feel we were living in a “post-racial society” after President Obama’s election may be shocked to learn that there was this degree of hatred right below the surface just waiting to be activated. Trump gave it license, speaking and acting disgracefully as he did, awakening a monster. This election may have also been about economics and other matters, but it mostly about an amoral opportunist activating the worst in us. 

That’s not to say the new Administration will convert America into a Putin-level autocracy, but a cadre of mediocre, sociopathic, bigoted wingnuts can lawfully cause no small manner of mayhem. And that’s really the best-case scenario. Many people could end up dying long before they should because of our political descent. Things can get ugly, the gloves coming off. You might still think that good will prevail and our liberties preserved, but does anybody really know that or anything else anymore? No matter how events unfold, we can never rest again believing that the worst can’t be realized. That dream is over.

It can happen here. It did. 

From Matthew Yglesias at Vox:

Many American administrations have featured acts of venal corruption, and Trump’s will likely feature more than most. The larger risk, however, is that Trump’s lack of grounding in ideological principles or party networks will create a systemically corrupt government. Such governments, Wallis writes, “are rent creating, not rent seeking, governments” that operate by “limiting access to markets and resources in order to create rents that bind the interests of the ruling coalition together.”

This is how Vladimir Putin governs Russia, and how the Mubarak/Sisi regime rules Egypt. To be a successful businessman in a systemically corrupt regime and to be a close supporter of the regime are one and the same thing.

Those who support the regime will receive favorable treatment from regulators, and those who oppose it will not. Because businesses do business with each other, the network becomes self-reinforcing. Regime-friendly banks receive a light regulatory touch while their rivals are crushed. In exchange, they offer friendly lending terms to regime-friendly businesses while choking capital to rivals. Such a system, once in place, is extremely difficult to dislodge precisely because, unlike a fascist or communist regime, it is glued together by no ideology beyond basic human greed, insecurity, and love of family.

All is not lost, but the situation is genuinely quite grave. As attention focuses on transition gossip and congressional machinations, it’s important not to let our eyes off the ball. It is entirely possible that eight years from now we’ll be looking at an entrenched kleptocracy preparing to install a chosen successor whose only real mission is to preserve the web of parasitical oligarchy that has replaced the federal government as we know it. One can, of course, always hope that the worst does not come to pass. But hope is not a plan. And while the impulse to “wait and see” what really happens is understandable, the cold, hard reality is that the most crucial decisions will be the early ones.

Trump’s first 100 days could also be the last 100 days in which America’s system of republican government can be saved.

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Amid all the righteous rage over the avalanche of fake-news misinformation spread by Facebook, Twitter and Google in the run-up to Election Day, an idea by Larry Page from a 2013 conversation kept returning to me. It was reported by Nathan Ingraham of Verge:

Specifically, [Page] said that “not all change is good” and said that we need to build “mechanisms to allow experimentation.”

That’s when his response got really interesting. “There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,” Page said. “And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.” He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need “some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.”•

The discrete part of the world the technologist is describing, an area which permits experiments with unpredictable and imprecise effects, already exists, and it’s called Silicon Valley. These ramifications do career around the world, and the consequences can be felt before they’re understood. As Page said, “not all change is good.”

A brilliant analysis of the “wait, what?” vertigo of this Baba Booey of a campaign season can be found inShirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten,” an MTV News article by Brian Phillips, an erstwhile scribe at the late, lamented Grantland. “There has always been a heavy dose of unreality mixed into American reality,” the writer acknowledges, though the alt-right’s grim fairy tales being taken seriously and going viral is a new abnormal. Great communicators can no longer compete with those gifted at jamming the system. The opening:

Is anyone surprised that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t feel responsible? One of the luxuries of power in Silicon Valley is the luxury to deny that your power exists. It wasn’t you, it was the algorithm. Facebook may have swallowed traditional media (on purpose), massively destabilized journalism (by accident), and facilitated the spread of misinformation on a colossal scale in the run-up to an election that was won by Donald Trump (ha! whoops). But that wasn’t Facebook’s fault! It was the user base, or else it was the platform, or else it was the nature of sharing in our increasingly connected world. It was whatever impersonal phrase will absolve Zuckerberg’s bland, drowsy appetite from blame for unsettling the things it consumes. In this way, the god-emperors of our smartphones form an instructive contrast with our president-elect: They are anti-charismatic. Unlike Trump, the agents of disruption would rather not be seen as disruptors. In the sharing economy, nothing gets distributed like guilt.

The argument that Facebook has no editorial responsibility for the content it shows its users is fatuous, because it rests on a definition of “editorial” that confuses an intention with a behavior. Editing isn’t a motive. It is something you do, not something you mean. If I publish a list of five articles, the order in which I arrange them is an editorial choice, whether I think of it that way or not. Facebook’s algorithm, which promotes some links over others and controls which links appear to which users, likewise reflects a series of editorial choices, and it is itself a bad choice, because it turns over the architecture of American information to a system that is infinitely scammable. I have my own issues with the New York Times, but when your all-powerful social network accidentally replaces newspapers with a cartel of Macedonian teens generating fake pro-Trump stories for money, then friend, you have made a mistake. It is time to consider pivoting toward a new vertical in the contrition space.•

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For all its ethical quandaries, the race to biotechnological supremacy is one America can ill-afford to lose to China, especially as CRISPR and other tools that emerge will likely make possible incredible medical cures and and agricultural and environmental advances. It’s a new kind of Space Race, though one contested in inner space rather than outer space. 

Good thing the U.S. will have a steady stream of brilliant scientists and researchers immigrating here because will need all the help we can get. Oh wait, I forgot, the old lady sent the email and the unqualified orange supremacist got elected, so now we’re fucked. 

Well, Russia led early in the race to the moon, so it doesn’t mean we’re doomed because China has gotten the jump on us, but, wow, smart immigrants.

From David Cyranoski in Nature:

A Chinese group has become the first to inject a person with cells that contain genes edited using the revolutionary CRISPR–Cas9 technique.

On 28 October, a team led by oncologist Lu You at Sichuan University in Chengdu delivered the modified cells into a patient with aggressive lung cancer as part of a clinical trial at the West China Hospital, also in Chengdu.

Earlier clinical trials using cells edited with a different technique have excited clinicians. The introduction of CRISPR, which is simpler and more efficient than other techniques, will probably accelerate the race to get gene-edited cells into the clinic across the world, says Carl June, who specializes in immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and led one of the earlier studies.

“I think this is going to trigger ‘Sputnik 2.0’, a biomedical duel on progress between China and the United States, which is important since competition usually improves the end product,” he says.•

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The only thing worse than having a white supremacist who’s Chief Strategist is having one who’s President-Elect. It’s no mistake Donald Trump hooked up with Steve Bannon because they’re both bigots, cowards and damaged man-children, the exact type of personalities that can do the most damage when foolishly given authority. There are still some smart people who don’t seem to get they’re kindred spirits, but it’s true. The damage Trump’s cabal of kleptocrats, conspiracists, racists, misogynists and warmongers will be able to now carry out is heartbreaking.

Let’s hope our beautiful country, long a bastion of relative sanity in discombobulated world, doesn’t wind up in the same condition as Biosphere 2, the environmental experiment in self-contained ecology in 1990s Arizona that became a ruins covered in crazy ants. I mention this because Bannon was hired first to make the besieged biodome great again, eventually serving as CEO. His results were not pretty. It was supposed to be a new kind of paradise but ended up a hell on Earth, with Bannon even finding time to be accused of sexually harassing women involved in the enterprise.

Two excerpts follow.


From a 1996 New York Times article by William J. Broad about Columbia University taking over Biosphere 2 for a spell, at a time when it lay dormant, a domicile only to exotic ants:

The exotic species of ant known as Paratrechina longicornus, or the crazy ant, named for its speedy and erratic behavior when excited, somehow managed to kill off all the other ants over the years, as well as the crickets and grasshoppers.

Swarms of them crawled over everything in sight: thick foliage, damp pathways littered with dead leaves and even a bearded ecologist in the humid rain forest of Biosphere 2, an eight-story, glass-and-steel world in the wilds of the Sonora Desert that cost $200 million to build.

“These little guys pretty much run the food web,” Dr. Tony Burgess, the ecologist, said as he tapped a dark frond, sending dozens of the ants into a frenzy. ”Until we understand the ecology, we’re reluctant to eliminate them.”

Columbia University, an icon of the Ivy League, is struggling to turn a utopian failure into a scientific triumph.

The university took over management of Biosphere 2 in January and is starting to reveal just how badly things went awry when four men, four women and 4,000 species of plants and animals were sealed inside this giant terrarium for a two-year experiment that ended in 1993.

The would-be Eden became a nightmare, its atmosphere gone sour, its sea acidic, its crops failing, and many of its species dying off. Among the survivors are crazy ants, millions of them.•


Samantha Cole of Vice “Motherboard” explains how things went crazy years before the crazy ants:

Scientists broke into the dome to sound the alarm about Bannon’s involvement

This one’s a huge “OH SHIT” for scientists: Tampering with an in-progress experiment and contaminating the entire dome.

In late 1993, Space Biosphere Ventures refused to accept Bannon’s proposal to remove top Biosphere 2 management. Bannon quit over this, but returned as CEO the following year when Bass gave in to his requests.

Two of the original eight researchers staged a mutiny from outside when they heard Bannon was back. “They opened doors and broke glass seals, letting outside air into the dome,” the Chicago Tribune reported in 1994. “In no way was it sabotage,” said Abigail Alling, one of the researchers. “It was my responsibility.”

He was accused of harassing employees

After this takeover, project director Augustine accused Bass of having used his agents to dissociate her from the Biosphere project in breach of an earlier agreement, Buzzfeed reported again in August. In a counter-suit, Space Biosphere Ventures accused her of self-dealing and funneling $800,000 of project money.

She claimed this was an effort to slander her out of the position, and accused Bannon, Bass and another banker of a long list of harassment in her complaint: “Both Bowen and Bannon were insulting to the plaintiff and other females employees of Biosphere 2, and in their presence, and against their will, made lewd remarks, told offensive off-color stories, made disparaging remarks about females, made sexually suggestive remarks, discussed females they had known in a lewd and derogatory fashion and in general acted with total indifference to the feelings of the plaintiff and other female employees of Biosphere 2.” She also claimed that Bannon once made comments about her being “a woman in a man’s job.”•

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From the August 22, 1935 Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

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I worked for a Bill Gross company years ago, though I never had any contact with him. In the mode of the disappointed father, Gross revealed in his latest investment letter outrage over America’s ridiculous choice of Donald Trump for President, not so much because Bull Connor as a condo salesman is a hideous person, but because of the damage he’ll do to the very working-class folks who elected him. Gross is right, of course, and it’s commendable that such a rich person is so concerned about wealth inequality, though maybe he shouldn’t complain too loudly since he’s one of those geniuses who knew better but didn’t vote for either of the two major-party candidates in what was clearly a stop-the-maniac-election. 

From the Financial Times:

Donald’s Trump’s arrival in the White House will hit the low-earning and jobless Americans who voted the Republican into office, Janus Capital’s Bill Gross has said, revealing that he did not vote for either Republican or Democratic nominee in the US presidential election.

In his latest investment outlook, Mr Gross poured cold water on the notion that Mr Trump’s economic policies would revive growth and jobs for the poorest Americans, arguing his pledges to cut taxes and increase defence spending were an extension of “Wall Street versus Main Street” economic policies.

“I write in amazed, almost amused bewilderment at what American voters have done to themselves” said Mr Gross.

“[Trump’s] policies of greater defense and infrastructure spending combined with lower corporate taxes to invigorate the private sector continue to favor capital versus labor, markets versus wages, and is a continuation of the status quo”, he added.•

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For many of us the idea of a tyrant in the White House is unthinkable, but for some that’s all they can think about. These aren’t genuinely struggling folks in the Rust Belt whose dreams have been foreclosed on by the death rattle of the Industrial Age and made a terrible decision that will only deepen their wounds, but a large number of citizens with fairly secure lifestyles who want to unleash their fury on a world not entirely their own anymore.

I was in a coffee shop in New Jersey yesterday (not in a downtrodden area) and listened to a casually dressed man in his sixties have a loud phone conversation about the incoming Trump Administration. He laughed gleefully as he talked about how the new President would crush the protesters, jail journalists and chase Mexicans and Muslims from the nation at gunpoint. There were sexist obscenities hurled at Hillary and Chelsea Clinton and also Katy Perry, who supported the Democratic nominee. He didn’t seem to be a computer-friendly Facebook user but a likely Limbaugh listener who wanted to Make America White Again. You could say this was an isolated incident, but I had conversations with hundreds of Trump supporters over the last year from the Tri-State area and Florida, people with decent jobs or good pensions, who expressed the same. They wanted to roll back the advances of women and people of color and “stand up for white people,” hoping to somehow silence or imprison a reality that now seems foreign to them. That doesn’t take a village but an autocrat.

In “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” an excellent New York Review of Books essay by Masha Gessen, the writer addresses the spooky parallels between Russia and this new U.S., as we begin what looks to be a Trump-Putin bromance. An excerpt:

I have lived in autocracies most of my life, and have spent much of my career writing about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. I have learned a few rules for surviving in an autocracy and salvaging your sanity and self-respect. It might be worth considering them now:

Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: “The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly” rather than those protesters’ “liver should have been spread all over the pavement.” Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one. For all the admiration Trump has expressed for Putin, the two men are very different; if anything, there is even more reason to listen to everything Trump has said. He has no political establishment into which to fold himself following the campaign, and therefore no reason to shed his campaign rhetoric. On the contrary: it is now the establishment that is rushing to accommodate him—from the president, who met with him at the White House on Thursday, to the leaders of the Republican Party, who are discarding their long-held scruples to embrace his radical positions.

He has received the support he needed to win, and the adulation he craves, precisely because of his outrageous threats. Trump rally crowds have chanted “Lock her up!” They, and he, meant every word. If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.

To begin jailing his political opponents, or just one opponent, Trump will begin by trying to capture of the judicial system. Observers and even activists functioning in the normal-election mode are fixated on the Supreme Court as the site of the highest-risk impending Trump appointment. There is little doubt that Trump will appoint someone who will cause the Court to veer to the right; there is also the risk that it might be someone who will wreak havoc with the very culture of the high court. And since Trump plans to use the judicial system to carry out his political vendettas, his pick for attorney general will be no less important. Imagine former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani or New Jersey Governor Chris Christie going after Hillary Clinton on orders from President Trump; quite aside from their approach to issues such as the Geneva Conventions, the use of police powers, criminal justice reforms, and other urgent concerns.•

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If Hillary Clinton had won a small amount of votes in a few key states, everything would be different, at least outwardly.

The country certainly would have been a million times better off in her hands than in the clutches of an ego-drunk buffoon and his cadre of anti-Semites, sexists and xenophobes. But the distance between a superpower and an also-ran can be razor-thin, and the final tally showed that a frightened populace reached inside for their better angels and came up empty-handed, installing one of the worst among us in the Oval Office. If Clinton had been victorious, she would have been a capable steward who would have offered protections for workers’ rights, but it’s not easy to see what she would have done about manufacturing jobs that aren’t returning even as the factories are re-shored. Machines can handle most of that work now, and not everyone will be able to transition into being a driverless-car engineer. There are no simple answers.

George Packer of the New Yorker has done some great reporting in the pages of that magazine and in The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America on the seismic changes U.S. citizens have experienced (and endured) during this millennium, as the Industrial Age ran out of steam. Two Packer pieces follow about the vanishing of our critical institutions, the second one from his entry in this week’s “Sixteen Writers” feature in the New Yorker.


From 2014:

I began to wonder what a company worker looked like. I found it hard to come up with an image. Amazon’s workforce is made up mainly of computer engineers and warehouse workers, but when you think of Amazon you don’t picture either one (and there aren’t many photographs to help your imagination). What you see, instead, is a Web site with a button that says “add to cart” and a cardboard box with a smile printed on the side. Between clicking “buy” and answering the door when U.P.S. arrives lies a mystery—a chain of events that only comes to mind if you make a conscious effort. The work is done by people you don’t see and don’t have to think about, which is partly what makes Amazon’s unmatched efficiency seem nearly miraculous.

The invisibility of work and workers in the digital age is as consequential as the rise of the assembly line and, later, the service economy. Whether as victim, demon, or hero, the industrial worker of the past century filled the public imagination in books, movies, news stories, and even popular songs, putting a grimy human face on capitalism while dramatizing the social changes and conflicts it brought. The guy stocking shelves and the girl scanning purchases at Target never occupied much of a place in the public mind, and certainly never a romantic one (no one composed a “Ballad of the Floor Associate”), but at least you had to look at them whenever you ventured out to stimulate the economy. They reminded you that low-priced Chinese-made goods were a mixed blessing—that many of the jobs being created in post-industrial America were crappy ones.

With work increasingly invisible, it’s much harder to grasp the human effects, the social contours, of the Internet economy.•


From this week:

All the pieces are in place for the abuse of power, and it could happen quickly. There will be precious few checks on President Trump. His party, unlike Nixon’s, will control the legislative as well as the executive branch, along with two-thirds of governorships and statehouses. Trump’s advisers, such as Newt Gingrich, are already vowing to go after the federal employees’ union, and breaking it would give the President sweeping power to bend the bureaucracy to his will and whim. The Supreme Court will soon have a conservative majority. Although some federal courts will block flagrant violations of constitutional rights, Congress could try to impeach the most independent-minded judges, and Trump could replace them with loyalists.

But, beyond these partisan advantages, something deeper is working in Trump’s favor, something that he shrewdly read and exploited during the campaign. The democratic institutions that held Nixon to account have lost their strength since the nineteen-seventies—eroded from within by poor leaders and loss of nerve, undermined from without by popular distrust. Bipartisan congressional action on behalf of the public good sounds as quaint as antenna TV. The press is reviled, financially desperate, and undergoing a crisis of faith about the very efficacy of gathering facts. And public opinion? Strictly speaking, it no longer exists. “All right we are two nations,” John Dos Passos wrote, in his “U.S.A.” trilogy.

Among the institutions in decline are the political parties. This, too, was both intuited and accelerated by Trump. In succession, he crushed two party establishments and ended two dynasties. The Democratic Party claims half the country, but it’s hollowed out at the core. Hillary Clinton became the sixth Democratic Presidential candidate in the past seven elections to win the popular vote; yet during Barack Obama’s Presidency the Party lost both houses of Congress, fourteen governorships, and thirty state legislatures, comprising more than nine hundred seats. The Party’s leaders are all past the official retirement age, other than Obama, who has governed as the charismatic and enlightened head of an atrophying body. Did Democrats even notice?•

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In the hours after Donald Trump’s heartbreaking victory, many liberal talking heads and talk-show hosts urged all Americans to “work with” a President-Elect who degraded Muslims, Mexicans, African-Americans, women, disabled people, POWs and threatened mass deportation and the building of a wall. That advice was stupid. 

They somehow thought he was only bullshitting long enough to get into the White House and then would moderate, but as 2016 wore on, you had to be a fool to think so. Now that the Breitbart anti-Semite and white supremacist Steve Bannon has been named Chief Strategist, let’s hope there’ll be an abrupt end to all this ridiculous conciliatory nonsense from liberals who seem to not get that this isn’t business as usual. Opposition is the only option if you believe in America as a beacon of the world and one that ensures justice for all.

Trump actually is going to break some of his promises, the ones regarding ending crony capitalism. Every venal right-winger is going to have his or her (but mostly his) hand in the till. You can’t “drain the swamp” when you’re campaign has been aided and abetted by all manner of sea monsters.

But he is going to keep most of his other promises: altering tax codes to benefit the already wealthy, harassing and hampering women and immigrants and all shades of non-white people and besieging basic freedoms of speech, assembly and the press. U.S. citizens have been bamboozled before, but this may be the big con to beat all. Nothing in my lifetime has brought us closer to large-scale failure.

Paul Sullivan’s New York Times article examines the new Administration’s aim to enrich those who least need it and further exacerbate wealth inequality, writing that “Mr. Trump’s estate tax plan seems tailored for someone like himself.” Anyone impressed by the President-Elect’s vow to not accept a salary should think about that. The opening:

If Donald J. Trump follows through on his campaign promises, a host of taxes that affect only the very richest Americans may be eliminated, along with almost all tax incentives to be philanthropic. As a result, wealthy families may find it much easier to amass dynastic levels of wealth.

At the top of the list is the estate tax. Currently, the rules are straightforward: A married couple is exempt for the first $10.9 million in their estate, and they pay a 40 percent tax on the amount above that.

Mr. Trump’s campaign proposal seems straightforward: Repeal the estate tax — the death tax, in his words. …

The Trump plan, as some attorneys and accountants have read it, would allow the wealthiest heirs to never pay capital gains taxes if they did not sell what they inherited. This would be difficult for those with a modest inheritance because they generally sell and spend what they get. But it might not be for people with a large inheritance, like Mr. Trump’s children, who would receive a portfolio of income-producing real estate and golf courses, which they could borrow against and never sell.•

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Shaping a turd into a circle and poking a hole in the center does not make a donut. Some who otherwise abhor Donald Trump are still enamored with his pledge to rebuild infrastructure, a very necessary priority, but they’re neglecting to notice the details of his plan reveal a cruller made of crap.

President Obama noted recently in a Carnegie Mellon address that the government is here to do the hard, unglamorous, unprofitable work that private enterprise wants no part of, “dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.” The Trump plan, however, will neglect the tough jobs that could pay off long-term dividends (e.g., repairing highways, modernizing schools, etc.), instead being a windfall for a few without a return for the many.

From Lawrence Summers at the Financial Times:

I have long been a strong advocate of debt-financed public investment in the context of low interest rates and a decaying US infrastructure, so I was glad to see Mr Trump emphasise it. Unfortunately, the plan presented by his advisers, Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross, suggests an approach based on tax credits for equity investment and total private sector participation that will not cover the most important projects, not reach many of the most important investors, and involve substantial mis-targeting of public resources.

Many of the highest return infrastructure investments — such as improving roads, repairing 60,000 structurally deficient bridges, upgrading schools or modernising the air traffic control system — do not generate a commercial return and so are excluded from his plan. Nor can the non-taxable pension funds, endowments and sovereign wealth funds that are the most promising sources of capital for infrastructure take advantage of the program.

I am optimistic regarding the efficacy of fiscal expansion. But any responsible economist has to recognise that, past a point, it can lead to some combination of excessive foreign borrowing, inflation and even financial crisis. As Dornbusch showed, in emerging markets this can happen quite quickly. In the US the process would take longer.

Even without taking account of the likely costs of the infrastructure plan (which the Trump team badly underestimates) or the proposed defence build-up, the Trump tax reform proposals are too expensive. Many, like the proposed abolition of the estate tax, will only benefit the high-saving wealthy.•

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It almost never ends well for a demagogue, nor for the demagogue’s people. Fascists are merely vulgar clowns until they’re in a position to do grave damage. Then the gloves come off.

Was reading a passage from a 1925 article that ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle which begins this way: “Benito Mussolini is a fascinating personality.” The writer wonders why Il Duce’s insane utterings demand rapt attention when others making similar statements would be jeered from the stage. That thought, of course, brings to mind the horrible reality of an Oval Office stuffed with Donald Trump, a deeply wounded man who worked the American living room like Torquemada as a Reality TV host.

Such a sick, authoritarian mind even scribbling in the margins of the Constitution could wreak havoc. The scariest part of the report below is that it argued the Italian dictator was already in steep decline, but just think how much suffering he caused before ultimately meeting the business end of a meat hook.

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Make no mistake about it: America has elected Marine Le Pen, Joseph McCarthy and Bull Connor as President. It’s actually happened.

The wall may or may not be built, but the authoritarian crackdown promised in the election was no idle threat. Trump’s cabinet, as his campaign was, will be littered with what’s worst about America, with Newt Gingrich already dreaming of getting the band back together at HUAC. Some who should have known better were asleep, claiming that a singularly sociopathic bully in the Oval Office would be pinioned by law, somehow not realizing how much evil this aspiring war criminal could accomplish between the lines.

One such person was James Baker. While it’s no surprise Donald Rumsfeld spouted his tortured word salad in favor of Trump, the former Bush 41 Secretary of State should have been alarmed by what he was hearing. He was not. 

In a Financial Times profile written by Lionel Barber in June, Baker didn’t take the opportunity to chide Trump for his racism, xenophobia, Mussolini-ish machinations, mockery of the disabled and military veterans, megalomania and spoiled-brat behavior, focusing instead on questions of power and policy. Such pragmatism may not be surprising for a lifelong political operator, but it’s still disappointing. An excerpt:

As a Bush loyalist, Baker is too discreet to talk about the abject failure of Jeb Bush’s campaign. Insiders say he was disappointed that the former Florida governor spent so much time talking about the past and the Bush dynasty rather than his own plans for the future. Trump’s “low energy” jibe struck a chord with voters, like his invective about immigration and blue-collar workers losing out in the age of globalisation. “That’s the thing about Trump. As much as we might disagree with his position, the voters don’t.” he says. “The question is whether a ‘faceless’ establishment decides where our party goes or do the voters.” …

The number one foreign policy challenge for the US is China, he says.

“We have to be smart enough to manage the differences,” he says.

And how might a President Trump manage those differences, I ask. Baker offers general advice only.

“Isolationism and protectionism won’t work. Don’t talk no trade deals; make a better deal. Don’t talk about making Japan and South Korea nuclear powers. Don’t talk about negotiating down the American debt.”

I try one last shot. Are America and its institutions strong enough to survive any shock, even one as seismic as Donald Trump in the White House?

“Yes,” declares Baker, emphatically.

“I won’t get my panties in a wedge because of what I am hearing from the political candidates. What they say in the campaign and what they do once they are in the White House are not the same thing.”•

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The election was all about the economic downfall of Caucasian males, or maybe it wasn’t. Analysts disagree.

Some (like me) view it as an ugly expression of identity politics by white Americans who fear a more diverse future that has all but arrived, and that includes Trump voters in big cities as well as small hamlets, the ones who are dismayed that the nation has become too “politically correct,” which is essentially a complaint that they can’t use slurs anymore without consequence. Others see the stomach-turning election results as an expression of frustration by forgotten voters who wanted to rage against the machine, though it’s difficult to accept that anyone believes Trump will “drain the swamp” when he’s flanked by Gingrich and Giuliani, two creatures from the black lagoon who’ve been feasting on a corrupt system the majority of their adult lives.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between, though the dormant racial and xenophobic hatred awakened by Trump, which has expressed itself repeatedly in words and deeds, was always there and it can’t be explained away by economic fears. It’s heartbreaking that so many of us pulled the lever for a candidate who ran a shameful, fascistic campaign of bigotry, full of anti-Muslim rhetoric, misogynistic insults and anti-Semitic memes.

An amoral enabler like Peter Thiel supported and emboldened such a disgraceful figure–and one who’s wholly unprepared for the job–because of his fealty to his idiotic theories, and anyone who labels him a “winner” of the election defines that word differently than I do. As part of the new administration’s transition team, he has a lot of work to do, but so did Hitler’s secretary. That many consider him a serious intellectual because of his billions and contrarian “ideas” is appalling.

The clearest view in the wake of the election is that we’re still exceptionally divided, with Hillary Clinton set to win the popular vote by probably more than two million while losing the election overall. Outside of racial lines, the fissure is probably strongest in geography, with those on the coasts now being referred to as “elites” who don’t listen to what Sarah Palin used to call the “real America.”

When Charles Murray and Thiel rail against so-called liberal elites, I have to laugh. Having grown up in a very blue-collar background, it’s hard to accept those who’ve spent their whole lives in the halls of power posturing as if they’re horse whisperers to the poor. They’re not; they’re opportunists in love with ideology far more than people. 

The idea that tone-deaf people in NYC, SF, DC and LA selfishly make decisions that effect the lives of those in the middle of the country is maddening, because those same folks choose congresspeople, senators and Presidents without calling the coasts first, and no one expects them to. Those decisions impact citizens living in major metropolises in a real way and not always for the better. We’re all living in bubbles now, and that may cause problems, but that’s on all of us, not just some.

Culturally and economically, however, it does appear urban and rural Americans have different needs, a situation growing more extreme. Two excerpts follow.


From “The Election Highlighted a Growing Rural-Urban Split,” by Emily Badger, Quoctrung Bui and Adam Pearce of the New York Times:

The widening political divergence between cities and small-town America also reflects a growing alienation between the two groups, and a sense — perhaps accurate — that their fates are not connected.

The University of Wisconsin political scientist Katherine J. Cramer, the author of The Politics of Resentment, described what this looked like during years of field research in Wisconsin in an insightful interview with Jeff Guo at The Washington Post. The people she met across a state that Mrs. Clinton ultimately lost felt deeply disrespected (and suspicious of a white-collar academic from uber-blue Madison). “They would say, ‘The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us,’ ” Ms. Cramer said. “ ‘They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.’ ”

Cities, for their part, are easily branded with some dissonance as embodying either professional elites or poor people who don’t deserve benefits (thus both Madison and Milwaukee, two very different places, come in for equal resentment within Wisconsin). Many of the young Democratic voters who live in blue cities like these, as Alec MacGillis has noted, have gravitated away from redder parts of the country from which they felt alienated. “There’s just nothing to do in Ohio,” lamented one voter who grew up there but now lives in Los Angeles. “The jobs are limited, but it’s not just the jobs and the industries that are in Ohio, it’s the mind-set that I didn’t gravitate to.”

As the relationship between density and partisanship has grown stronger over the last half-century, the structure of the economy has also changed in ways that reinforce the divide.•


From Patrick Thornton’s Roll Call essay “I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America“:

To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.

We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.

We must start asking all Americans to be their better selves. We must all understand that America is a melting pot and that none of us has a more authentic American experience.

If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by refusing to rent apartments to black people. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called Mexicans rapists, drug dealers and criminals. If we pin this election on coastal elites, we are excusing white working-class and rural Americans for voting for a man who called for a complete ban on Muslim immigration.•

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Familiarity breeds contempt, as the Internet Age has taught us. 

That medium has shrunk the world in ways Marshall McLuhan couldn’t fully imagine when he was panicking about television ushering in the Global Village, which now seems positively halcyon by comparison. In this decentralized age, we all got drunk and hooked up, but not everyone is sure they want to move in together.

Luckily for the skittish, the new tools contain no center but instead multitudes, with ways to personalize and edit feeds to eliminate friction, so it’s possible for me to sing the song of myself, to disappear into an echo chamber. There’s no need to even think about it: It’s all automated.

A perplexingly large segment of us want to force the physical world to follow suit, to build an actual wall that buffers and protects life a firewall. It seems impossible, but some are willing to die trying.

From Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent Primer Stories essay “The New Nationalism“: 

The television era was about globalism, international cooperation, and the open society. TV let people see for the first time what was happening in other places, often live, as it happened. We watched the Olympics, together, by satellite. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Even 9-11 was a simultaneously experienced, global event.

Television connected us all and broke down national boundaries. Whether it was the British Beatles playing on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York or the California beach bodies of Baywatch broadcast in Pakistan, television images penetrated national divisions.

I interviewed Nelson Mandela in 1994, and he told me that MTV and CNN had more to do with ending the divisions of apartheid than any other force.

But today’s digital media environment is different. At the height of his media era, a telegenic Ronald Reagan could broadcast a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and demand that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” Today’s ultimate digi-genic candidate Donald Trump demands that we build a wall to protect us from Mexicans. This is because the primary bias of the digital media environment is for distinction. Analog media such as radio and television were continuous, like the sound on a vinyl record. Digital media, by contrast, are made up of many discrete samples. Likewise, digital networks break up our messages into tiny packets, and reassemble them on the other end. Computer programs all boil down to a series of 1’s and 0’s, on or off.•

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If you’re wealthy and amoral like, say, Peter Thiel, then you should be fine during a Trump Administration. But if you’re a working-class person who’s benefited from President Obama’s executive orders on Labor, oh well. It’s funny we experienced a backlash against “elites” (if that’s what it was) the year after U.S. middle-income earners had the biggest spike in household income in 50 years. That’s because 2016 was about Identity Politics, not economics, but as Karl Rove used to say, elections have consequences. The ones who went for it are the same ones who fell for the “Family Values” crap that neither Newt Gingrich nor Rove cared about. They just wanted power to further loot a corrupt system. That’s about to happen again, and a painful number of Americans are going to feel like Trump University graduates.

From Laura Clawson at Daily Kos:

With Donald Trump having vowed to, on his very first day in office, repeal every executive order President Obama has signed, let’s take a look at some of what that means. Obviously, Obama’s immigration actions are on the chopping block. But Obama has also made a number of moves to make workers’ lives better, which we can also wave good-bye to. 

The orders apply to workers at companies with federal contracts—if a company wants federal money, it might have to live up to a slightly higher standard than otherwise. Obama signed a $10.10 minimum wage for federal contract workers. And an order against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And an expansion of equal pay protections. And paid sick leave. And a ban on labor law violators getting federal contracts—because, come on, if a company actually breaks the law, it really shouldn’t get federal money. These actions affect—or affected, or would have affected—hundreds of thousands of workers.•

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Pretty much said most of what I wanted to say about the election on Sunday, when I feared it had become a toss-up. I felt that way since the FBI’s shenanigans, though in retrospect the race was always probably much closer than it seemed. That’s likely not due to pollster incompetence but because many didn’t want to admit they were voting for Trump’s “Make America White Again” campaign.

This election was clearly not one about economics or small government, not with Trump’s budget-busting proposals. He wasn’t elected because of policy or even because most of his supporters truly believe he’ll build a wall. They just wanted to stamp their feet and blame others for awhile. It’s not that the factories are disappearing, but that America as the property of white males is.

That acting-out will cost dearly, in fact it will hurt many of the Trump voters worst of all. As with the insincere sellers of “Family Values” of the ’80s, ’90s and aughts played the masses in order to gain power, Trump used anxieties about a non-white world to achieve the same. The only difference is the Gingriches and Roves desired power for political reasons while Trump wanted it because of his deep psychological neediness. But the awful cast who surround him–Giuliani, Thiel, Bannon, etc.–definitely aim to use the authority to shape the country for decades. It will be a shape that fits the new populace poorly.

You can take some solace from Hillary likely winning the popular vote–at least a slim majority of us aren’t in support a deeply racist, sexist, xenophobic clown, a mix of Lampanelli and Mussolini–but it’s just a sliver of peace. For all the pundits now rushing to make lists of “Winners” and “Losers” and treat the country like’s it’s merely a game, a horse race, go fuck yourselves. The loser is America and everything it supposedly stands for.

David Remnick spoke to the horrible results immediately, beautifully and passionately. I’d much rather be focusing on his recent Leonard Cohen profile–one of my favorite writers writing about one of my favorite writers–but today’s not that day. In one section, the New Yorker EIC addresses something I’ve discussed in the days leading to the election, that our new technological tools have not made us better as was promised. He asserts that “on Facebook, articles in the traditional, fact-based press look the same as articles from the conspiratorial alt-right media. Spokesmen for the unspeakable now have access to huge audiences.” So true. An excerpt:

In the coming days, commentators will attempt to normalize this event. They will try to soothe their readers and viewers with thoughts about the “innate wisdom” and “essential decency” of the American people. They will downplay the virulence of the nationalism displayed, the cruel decision to elevate a man who rides in a gold-plated airliner but who has staked his claim with the populist rhetoric of blood and soil. George Orwell, the most fearless of commentators, was right to point out that public opinion is no more innately wise than humans are innately kind. People can behave foolishly, recklessly, self-destructively in the aggregate just as they can individually. Sometimes all they require is a leader of cunning, a demagogue who reads the waves of resentment and rides them to a popular victory. “The point is that the relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion,” Orwell wrote in his essay “Freedom of the Park.” “The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.”

Trump ran his campaign sensing the feeling of dispossession and anxiety among millions of voters—white voters, in the main. And many of those voters—not all, but many—followed Trump because they saw that this slick performer, once a relative cipher when it came to politics, a marginal self-promoting buffoon in the jokescape of eighties and nineties New York, was more than willing to assume their resentments, their fury, their sense of a new world that conspired against their interests. That he was a billionaire of low repute did not dissuade them any more than pro-Brexit voters in Britain were dissuaded by the cynicism of Boris Johnson and so many others. The Democratic electorate might have taken comfort in the fact that the nation had recovered substantially, if unevenly, from the Great Recession in many ways—unemployment is down to 4.9 per cent—but it led them, it led us, to grossly underestimate reality. The Democratic electorate also believed that, with the election of an African-American President and the rise of marriage equality and other such markers, the culture wars were coming to a close. Trump began his campaign declaring Mexican immigrants to be “rapists”; he closed it with an anti-Semitic ad evoking “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”; his own behavior made a mockery of the dignity of women and women’s bodies. And, when criticized for any of it, he batted it all away as “political correctness.” Surely such a cruel and retrograde figure could succeed among some voters, but how could he win? Surely, Breitbart News, a site of vile conspiracies, could not become for millions a source of news and mainstream opinion. And yet Trump, who may have set out on his campaign merely as a branding exercise, sooner or later recognized that he could embody and manipulate these dark forces. The fact that “traditional” Republicans, from George H. W. Bush to Mitt Romney, announced their distaste for Trump only seemed to deepen his emotional support.•

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Transhumanist Presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan wants to do things with public lands and prisoners’ brains that I staunchly disagree with, but I ‘ve followed his colorful campaign of outré ideas with great interest. Perhaps I’d have a different feeling in the pit of my stomach if he were a serious contender, but his platform is interesting at a safe distance. At any rate, he’s the only candidate desiring elective surgery to amputate his limbs and replace them with robotic ones. Flat-tax proposals pale by comparison.

In an excellent New Yorker piece, Andrew Marantz profiles a candidate that I (and, probably, you) did not vote for today, revealing details about Istvan’s failed audition to be Gary Johnson’s running mate and his future political plans. The opening:

After watching the least popular Presidential candidates in modern history fight for the country’s highest office, one can’t help wondering whether the problem isn’t the political system but the species itself. Can’t we think bigger? Zoltan Istvan was in town recently, campaigning as the Presidential nominee of the Transhumanist Party. He was on track to appear on the ballot in zero states. “Politicians keep having the same old arguments about tax policy and Social Security,” he said. “Transhumanists want to talk about how science can help us radically transform the human experience, how we can cure death and disease and upload our consciousness into the cloud, things like that.” He was on a street corner in SoHo. It was raining, but he had decided to forgo an umbrella; the spokes can put an eye out, and bionic-eye implants won’t be perfected for at least five years.

He ducked into the Housing Works Bookstore Café, on Crosby Street, and ordered a coffee. Istvan is blond, Ken-doll handsome, and barrel-chested, and the paper cup looked tiny in his hand. “With some of the new robotic-arm prototypes, you get all kinds of cool functionality,” he said. “I could be warming up this cup right now, just with my fingers. Or you could add weapons, flashlights—like a Swiss Army knife. I can’t wait to cut off my arm and get a prosthetic. My wife said she’d only be O.K. with it if it looks and feels like a human arm, which is understandable, I guess.” His wife, Lisa, is an ob-gyn. When they met, on Match.com, Istvan was an entrepreneur with a small real-estate fortune, living in Marin County. After they married, he began driving across the country in a bus shaped like a coffin, protesting death, while Lisa mostly stayed in California with their two daughters. Her attitude toward transhumanism seems to be one of forbearance at best.

Istvan dragged a chair toward a wall of science-fiction novels. “I wrote a sci-fi book once,” he said. It was an Ayn Rand-esque manifesto called The Transhumanist Wager. He added, “I don’t talk about it much these days, because there’s so much authoritarianism in it.”

A man with a wild beard and half a dozen shopping bags got up, and Istvan moved to claim his table. “You a public speaker or something?” the man asked.

“Yeah, sort of,” Istvan said. “I’m running for President.”

“Cool,” the man said. “I’m a filmmaker.”•

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Perhaps what’s most stunning about Peter Thiel’s lack of self-awareness is that he’s yet to surmise that he’s an “elite living in a coastal bubble,” a charge he levels at those perturbed by his support for Donald Trump, the Worst American™. An immigrant from a country with a horrible, Holocaust-fueled past who’s able to look around the authoritarian, racist threats of an evidently unstable person clearly doesn’t see the burning forest for the trees, but this billionaire ideologue truly believes he understands the hearts and souls of Main Street. Well, he may understand the absolute worst of that block, but that’s more an accident of similarly damaged psyches.

There’s a thought by those who know him in Silicon Valley and can’t fathom his support for a hatemonger that Thiel possesses some hidden master plan that would explain his exhortation of a bigoted monster. I would guess this is a huge rationalization by a group of people unable to accept that one of their own is an unrepentant prick. Even if their theory is true, only the most hubristic troll can be so lost in his ludicrous theories that he can sit in his well-appointed living room and dream about tearing down America and rebuilding it in his own vision. The technologists who continue to stand by Thiel have a blind spot for him as capacious as the one he has for Trump.

What is Thiel’s grand design for recreating America? I don’t give a fuck, but Nick Bilton has a smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece that tries to discern just that and reveals much about the investor’s psychology in the process. An excerpt:

The predominant theory in Silicon Valley about Thiel’s Trumpism—or at least the version you hear uttered the most in public—suggests it’s largely a personality tick. Thiel is “a contrarian,” as Jeff Bezos noted at last month’s Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit. Others have said that he just wants the attention. “What Peter has done, is not comprehensible to me,” Michael Lazerow, an investor, said to me. “I’ve yet to be able to figure out what Peter is supporting. It’s very clear about what he’s ignoring.” Lazerow went on to say that Trump’s policies are as erratic as his temperament, but his hatred is not. Thiel appears to be supporting the latter. And then there’s the theory of ego.

Thiel evidently approves of the attention he’s getting. (In the Times story, after all, he appeared quite aware of the “intensity” of the criticism he had provoked.) But there’s also another thesis floating around the Valley. “My belief is that Peter does not personally believe in Trump, but that he wants to create what I call the ‘burn it down party’,” investor Jason Calacanis told me. “Peter would like to see Trump win because it is the quickest way to break the two-party system and create Peter’s vision for America, which he is slowly unpacking.”

That theory, no matter how dystopian, may have some credence. Thiel, wittingly or not, has been articulating a very particular vision of late. During a speech at the National Press Club, Thiel hit on some familiar territory. He noted that the tech industry is deeply out of touch with the impact that their financially successful products have on the rest of the country. (This is one area where I actually agree with Thiel: in the Valley, a majority of pointless app founders are often too able to convince themselves that they have somehow “made the world a better place.”) In general, as Adam Davidson recently explained in The New Yorker, Thiel articulated a vision of national despair and ruin centered around inequality, student debt, and the trade deficit. “The protagonists in his national drama are Trump voters,” Davidson writes. “The villains are élites in their coastal bubbles of Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., who do not intend to tolerate the views of half this country.”

When Thiel is intellectually convinced of something—an idea, an injustice, a preference—he often seems unbothered by many of the smaller details or sensitivities or possible ramifications.•

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The amazing, Zeitgeist-capturing photograph above, taken by Brett Gundlock of Bloomberg, shows drivers in Mexico City gridlock being peppered with advertisements floated by Uber drones. While you might think it dangerous that even slow-moving vehicles are besieged by hovering appeals sent from the heavens or thereabouts, Travis Kalanick, the leading ridesharer’s CEO, wants to remove that worry, eliminating the burden of drivers so they can instead plug their ears and eyes into other machines. Why stop and smell the roses when you can count the drones?

Autonomous vehicles are likely upon us, whether that means they arrive at high speed or merge more gradually with the Digital Age. While making the roads and highways safer was the early selling point for these cars, their establishment will have a profound effect on surveillance, employment, urban design, ethics, capitalism and even human nature itself. Of course, there will be unintended consequences we can’t yet even appreciate.

It’s also worthwhile to mention that the intervening period between fully human driving and fully automated control will not be without incidence, in much the way that horse-drawn carts and internal combustion engines made for uneasy partners on the road during that earlier transition. One thing I’m sure of is driverless cars will not create a “utopian society,” a promise often assigned to new technological tools at their outset before we remember that the function they provide was never the main problem with us to start with.

In a New York Review of Books piece on Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman’s Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road AheadSue Halpern looks at the industry’s dream scenario of fleets of autonomous taxis and the significant roadblocks to its realization. Even if the challenges are met, cheaper rides might not reduce wealth inequality but exacerbate the problem.

An excerpt:

The major car makers, rushing to make alliances with tech companies, understand their days of dominance are numbered. “We are rapidly becoming both an auto company and a mobility company,” Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor Company, told an audience in Kansas City in February. He knows that if the fleet model prevails, Ford and other car manufacturers will be selling many fewer cars. More crucially, the winners in this new system will be the ones with the best software, and the best software will come from the most robust data, and the companies with the most robust data are the tech companies that have been hoovering it up for years: Google most of all.

“The mobility revolution is going to affect all of us personally and many of us professionally,” Ford said that day in Kansas City. He might have been thinking about car salespeople, whose jobs are likely to become obsolete, but before that it will be the taxi drivers and truckers who will be displaced by vehicles that drive themselves. Historically these have been the jobs that have provided incomes to recently arrived immigrants and to people without college degrees. Without them yet another trajectory into the middle class will be eliminated.

What of Uber drivers themselves? These are the poster people for the gig-economy, “entrepreneurs”—which is to say freelancers—who use their own cars to ferry people around. “Obviously the self-driving car thing is freaking people out a little bit,” an Uber driver in Pittsburgh named Ryan told a website called TechRepublic. And, he went on, he learned about Uber’s plans from the media, not from the company. “If it’s a negative thing, they let you find out for yourself.” As media critic Douglas Rushkoff has written, “Uber’s drivers are the R&D for Uber’s driverless future. They are spending their labor and capital investments (cars) on their own future unemployment.”

All economies have winners and losers. It does not take a sophisticated algorithm to figure out that the winners in the decades ahead are going to be those who own the robots, for they will have vanquished labor with their capital. In the case of autonomous vehicles, a few companies are now poised to control a necessary public good, the transportation of people to and from work, school, shopping, recreation, and other vital activities. This salient fact is often lost in the almost unanimously positive reception of the coming “mobility revolution,” as Bill Ford calls it.

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In most of the world, radical politics is a result of bad times. In America, that’s not so.

In 2000, when we had an abundance of peace and prosperity, the country decided to change course, electing George W. Bush, an affable man clearly overmatched by the job. He was surrounded by hacks and butchers who gave us a needless war in Iraq which destabilized the region, as well as waterboarding, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and the Patriot Act.

No lessons were learned. After a surprisingly quick recovery from a calamitous economic collapse in 2008, America is on the rise again, though that’s not often mentioned. Not only have jobs been added at a steady pace, but household income for the middle-class and impoverished rose in 2015 at a rate that hasn’t been seen in five decades. Nearly 92% of citizens have health insurance today. We’ve taken a global leadership position in the fight against climate change, and with the proper investment and immigration policies, we stand to be one of the big winners in alternative energies, space exploration, medical science and AI. All of this has transpired while civil rights among minority groups has rushed forward without violent conflict.

Donald Trump, it has been said, is a backlash against not only these gains by minorities but also the collapse of the Industrial Age, but the numbers don’t support that latter contention. His supporters aren’t mostly those squeezed from factories–many are doing quite well–but those who wish to return to a time of superior standing by white males. The GOP nominee has no talent for governance and would be a disastrous leader for the nation. He’s guilty of almost every evil he’s accused others of because, as often is the case, the last one who should talk is the one who talks. Trump’s a singularly sociopathic bully who’s been buoyed by the ugliest identity politics imaginable, not economic concerns.

There are other reasons for this brutal campaign season. Our new tools haven’t fostered a better society, as was promised, but instead destabilized what we had, which was pretty great. These technologies allowed us to disappear into echo chambers and confirm our worst impulses. The blurring of news and entertainment has also laid us low, and that extends far beyond alt-right websites and Sean Hannity. CNN, Jeff Zucker’s clown car of infotainment, enabled Trump’s awful ascent, using it as cheap content during those vital early months. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times also initially treated Trump as a laugh riot, portraying him as a slightly irreverent uncle rather than someone who’d belittled Mexicans as rapists and African-Americans as inherently lazy. 

It wasn’t just media people who helped Trump, because it takes a village to undermine an essentially stable democracy. Political and business figures from James Baker to Peter Thiel to Rudy Giuliani have tried their damnedest to slide the nuclear codes and Constitution into the pocket of this miserable, moronic Morton Downey Jr. character. His rise is their fall. This doesn’t even get into Russian hacking, Wikileaks and the eleventh-hour shenanigans of the FBI, stories which will unfold for years.

But mostly you have to put the political surge of the hideous hotelier on the people. Regardless of how the election swings on Tuesday, who would have guessed there were so many among us who wanted to make the nation white again, just waiting for a monster, a Berlusconi who dreams of being a Mussolini, to activate them? America is a great idea, but it’s no better than its citizens at any given moment, and the Constitution can be torn into pieces even by a despot with particularly short fingers.

In his last act before Election Day, Trump released a final missive from the troubled, paranoid mind of Steve Bannon, a TV ad that seems, unsurprisingly, bigoted. From Ed Pilkington in the Guardian:

The Democratic senator for Minnesota, Al Franken, has accused Donald Trump of launching an antisemitic TV advertisement along the lines of the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Franken, who is Jewish, said he immediately was struck by what he called “a German shepherd whistle, a dog whistle” in a new two-minute advert from the Trump campaign, launched as the countdown to Tuesday’s election intensifies.

The film features lurid shots of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve interspersed with images of three prominent Jewish people: Janet Yellen, who chairs the Fed, the progressive financier George Soros and the Goldman Sachs chief executive, Lloyd Blankfein.

“The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election,” Trump is heard saying in the advert. “For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, Franken told host Jake Tapper the advert was acting as a “dog whistle to a certain group in the United States”. He called the political commercial “an appeal to some of the worse elements in our society in the closing argument” of the election.•

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