Let’s kill the aiding-and-abetting meme once and for all!

By Robert Wright, Apr 25 2020

This week I read a piece in the Atlantic that gave me a new mission in life. I now want to stamp out—completely extinguish, with no mercy whatsoever—a rhetorical tactic that has long belonged in the dustbin of history but continues to plague humankind: the aiding-and-abetting meme. That is: depicting people whose views you don’t like as being in league with, or abjectly serving the interests of, adversarial foreign powers. 

The Atlantic piece is by George Packer, and the folks at the Atlantic think so highly of it that it’s in the actual physical magazine. Here’s a passage from it: 

Donald Trump saw the crisis almost entirely in personal and political terms. Fearing for his reelection, he declared the coronavirus pandemic a war, and himself a wartime president. 

OK, so far so good. But then Packer continues:

But the leader he brings to mind is Marshal Philippe Pétain, the French general who, in 1940, signed an armistice with Germany after its rout of French defenses, then formed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime. Like Pétain, Trump collaborated with the invader and abandoned his country to a prolonged disaster. 

I realize that, to many readers, it won’t be obvious why this passage sent me over the edge, catapulting me all the way into Howard Beale territory. So let me try to explain the several things about it that, together, gave it such force.   

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Steve Bannon and the struggle for America’s post-pandemic soul

By Robert Wright, Apr 11 2020

When Steve Bannon got his White House pink slip in 2017, there seemed to be at least two lessons for anyone who aspires to stay in Trump’s inner circle for long. First, avoid being depicted on Time Magazine’s cover as the “great manipulator”—the true power behind Trump’s throne. Second, avoid being quoted in a bestselling book as calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick.” 

But, however grave Bannon’s crimes, to write him off back then—to assume he would never again be a significant force within Trumpism—would have been to underestimate his resourcefulness and determination. A pandemic is a time of opportunity as well as tragedy, and Bannon is seizing the moment. And the way he’s seizing it drives home what a pivotal moment it is—how much will hinge on the way voters and politicians respond to the coronavirus contagion. 

Bannon, like many nationalists, is highly sensitive to threats from abroad, and he was sounding alarms about Covid-19 before most Americans got the picture. In late January his “War Room: Impeachment” podcast morphed into “War Room: Pandemic.” In March it started getting airtime on WABC, New York’s right-wing talk-radio powerhouse, and it’s also featured on various other talk stations across the country. A video version of the show airs nightly on the Newsmax cable TV network.  

Broadcasting from “Fort Defiance” in Washington, Bannon and his crew lay out a vision of how Trump should wage the war against Covid-19 (fiercely), how Trump should talk about the war (clearly and dramatically), and how amenable the post-pandemic landscape can be to the triumph of Trumpism. That triumph, Bannon seems to believe, will be easier if Trump and other prominent Trumpists follow his rhetorical lead. And Bannon’s stream of Trump-friendly guests, from Rudy Giuliani to Nigel Farage, probably increase the chances of that happening. 

Meanwhile, Bannon is getting attention beyond his base. He’s the star of the Errol Morris documentary “American Dharma,” released five months ago, and this month he created a stir on Twitter by getting respectful treatment as a guest on the well-known leftish podcast “Red Scare.”

Did the World Health Organization fail us?

By Robert Wright, Apr 11 2020

This week President Trump expanded his arsenal for dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He went from a blame-China-not-me strategy to a blame-China-and-the-World-Health-Organization-not-me strategy. 

Officials at WHO, Trump said at a press conference, are “very biased toward China”—just look at how, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they “said there’s no big deal, there’s no big problem, there’s nothing.” So Trump will be “looking into” whether to freeze US funding for WHO.

Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida is on board. A week before Trump’s press conference, he called for hearings into WHO’s performance. The World Health Organization, Scott says, “lied to us. It was intentional. People are dying because of it.” So, “as soon as Congress is back in session, there should be a hearing, along with a full investigation, to review whether American taxpayers should continue to spend millions of dollars every year to fund an organization that willfully parroted propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.”

This is a familiar right-wing move: subject international institutions to scrutiny that, if all goes according to plan, can be used to justify cutting their funding. Then, as the script typically unfolds, global governance fans like me spring to the defense of these institutions.

In this case, though, I’m partly in sync with the right-wing move. I don’t agree with Scott that we should do the investigation ASAP (since at the moment both we and the World Health Organization are kind of, um, busy). And I’m not in favor of cutting WHO funding. I’m also not nearly as sure as Scott that WHO is guilty as charged. But the organization could have performed better in the early stages of the contagion, and there’s at least some reason to suspect that people at WHO consequentially misled us.

Before I get into the consequential misleading, let me lay out a larger reason that I think fellow global governance fans should consider getting on the investigate-WHO bandwagon.

Institutions of international governance, like institutions of national governance, are prone to a particular form of corruption: they’re inclined to serve powerful interests at the expense of their mission.

The China Derangement Syndrome

By Robert Wright, Mar 22 2020

Did you know that “America is under attack—not just by an invisible virus, but by the Chinese”? Did you know that, even amid this attack, “Joe Biden defends China and parrots Communist party propaganda”? If not, maybe you should get on the mailing list for news updates from the Trump-Pence campaign. 

Team Trump has shifted into full-on blame-China-first mode. In a span of two weeks, we’ve gone from Trump using the term “coronavirus” to Mike Pompeo test-marketing the term “Wuhan virus” to Trump abandoning all pretenses of subtlety and going with “Chinese virus.” 

There’s no denying that China deserves lots of blame. Its failure to adequately regulate Wuhan’s “wet markets”—where wild animals are sold for consumption—seems to be what inflicted this epic problem on the world.

Then again, in 2008 America’s failure to adequately regulate its financial markets inflicted an epic problem on the world. That’s life amid globalization: screwups in one nation can rapidly infect other nations. Sometimes you’re the screwer, and sometimes you’re the screwee.

To put this in more formal language: in a globalized world, nations are locked into a non-zero-sum relationship; there can be lose-lose outcomes or win-win outcomes, depending on how they play their games. This pandemic has been lose-lose, but in the fight against it there will be win-win moments—not just in the sense that victories over the virus in any nation make other nations safer, but in the sense that successful tactics and treatments discovered by one nation will spread to other nations. For better and for worse, we’re all in this together. 

One of the main things this newsletter is about (hence the name!) is how the world’s various non-zero-sum games can be played more wisely. Sometimes that mission means championing the kind of global governance that facilitates cooperation among nations. So, for example, I’d be against cutting US funding to the World Health Organization. And I’d certainly be against trotting out the idea of a 50 percent cut in that funding at exactly the time that a pandemic is enveloping the world—which, remarkably, the Trump administration actually did

But cheering for good global governance isn’t enough. If you’re serious about fostering it, you have to foster a political climate conducive to it, which means fighting the xenophobia and crude nationalism that so often poison that climate. 

You may think my next sentence is going to be: “And that means fighting Trump and Trumpism.” Wrong!

Why neoliberals should love Bernie

By Robert Wright, Mar 07 2020

Three months ago, on the website Counterpunch, Richard Ward wrote that Bernie Sanders is “the one possible challenger to the neoliberal order.” That status, he went on to assert, accounted for the timing of the Senate impeachment trial; it was the neoliberal order’s way of keeping Sanders off the campaign trail. I can only imagine what Ward thought this week after the Democratic establishment swung into action to convert Joe Biden’s victory in South Carolina into victory on Super Tuesday.   

If Biden’s resurrection was indeed in some sense the work of the “neoliberal order,” the effort may have been misguided. However qualified Sanders is to overthrow that order, he’s also qualified—maybe uniquely qualified—to save the things about it that many neoliberals profess to cherish, things that may otherwise suffer a grim fate.

To see what I mean, you have to first appreciate an odd thing about the word “neoliberal.” Unlike most ideological labels, it is claimed by virtually no one. It’s used mainly as a pejorative, typically to mean something like “a free market fundamentalist who happily does the bidding of corporate overlords, helping them run roughshod over the world’s working people.” And that’s not the kind of phrase you put in your LinkedIn profile.   

But even if no one wears the neoliberal label proudly, and even if the term is now thrown around so loosely as to make it unclear who really merits the label, it’s possible to apply it with some precision. If you follow the term “neoliberal” back to the 1990s, you’ll find it referring to a distinct set of policies—policies collectively called “the Washington consensus”—and an underlying philosophy. Adherents of that philosophy are still around, and many of them—neoliberals in a precise and not-necessarily-pejorative sense—are now being called neoliberals in the vaguer, pejorative sense.

These are the people I’m calling neoliberals, and here is the point I want to make about them: If their detractors are right—if they are mere tools of rapacious capitalism, cloaking their true motives in liberal cliches—then they should definitely oppose Sanders. But if their goals are the more high-minded ones that they profess, Sanders may be their man and Joe Biden may not.

Tom Cotton, soldier in Bill Kristol’s proxy war against evil

By Robert Wright, Jan 18 2020

Among the things I dislike about each fresh burst of American warmaking is seeing its cheerleaders bask in the spotlight. Consider Senator Tom Cotton, who has been unsettlingly visible since the assassination of Iranian General Qassim Suleimani. 

Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, is a protégé of famous neoconservative Bill Kristol, who played a big role in getting the US to invade Iraq and has since championed various other forms of American belligerence, many of them aimed at Iran. Cotton got elected to the Senate with the help of a million dollars from Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, subsequently hired Kristol’s son Joseph as his legislative director, and has in various other ways settled into a cozy symbiosis with Kristol’s network. The Washington Free Beacon—whose founding editor is Matthew Continetti, Kristol’s son-in-law—highlights Cotton’s exploits so regularly that any given page of its Tom Cotton archives (say, this year’s July-September page) will feature an array of headlines that speak to the vast range of the senator’s expertise. (August 26: “Cotton: Greenland Purchase Would Secure ‘Vital Strategic Interests’.”)    

You may, like me, find Cotton hard to take, but there’s virtue in persevering and paying attention to his recent doings. They nicely illustrate some key components of America’s war-starting and war-sustaining machinery—the powerfully primitive worldview that drives it, the dubious logic employed to justify it, and the sleazy tactics that are sometimes used to silence its critics. 

Exhibits A and B, from the past 10 days: (1) A New York Times op-ed Cotton wrote, defending the killing of Suleimani; (2) a letter that he and two other senators sent to Trump’s attorney general, requesting an investigation into a group that criticized the killing of Suleimani.

1. Cotton’s New York Times op-ed. This piece is notable for, among other things, employing a rhetorical device that has impeded human understanding since the dawn of civilization. You might call it the “falsely implied comparison.”  

In the course of casting various Democrats’ reactions to the assassination in a negative light, Cotton wrote in the Times that “Senator Bernie Sanders likened America’s killing of a terrorist on the battlefield to Vladimir Putin’s assassination of Russian political dissidents.” 

Suleimani’s assassination and the muddled moralism behind it

By Robert Wright, Jan 04 2020

Here’s this week’s news quiz:

Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian military leader who was assassinated by the US,
(a) has blood on his hands.
(b) doesn’t have blood on his hands.

If you chose “b” you really should spend more time online. Just look at these Google search numbers: 


Or, instead of going online, you could watch cable news. Anderson Cooper’s Thursday night show on CNN featured, if I recall correctly, at least three references to the blood on Suleimani’s hands, including two references to the specifically American blood on his hands. 

What’s interesting is how often these references are followed by a “but”—how often people who note the blood on Suleimani’s hands go on to raise doubts about the wisdom of assassinating him. Condemning Suleimani seems to be a ritual that commentators and politicians must perform before condemning, or even questioning, the killing of Suleimani. 

Donald Trump, Space Commander

Dec 07 2019

You’ve probably heard the big news from this week’s NATO summit. As reported on the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post, several European leaders were captured on video talking about President Trump, over beverages and hors d’oeuvres, in a less-than-reverential way—and Trump, needless to say, got in a huff about it. 

What you probably haven’t heard—because it was reported almost nowhere—is this news from the summit: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced, "We have declared space as the fifth operational domain for NATO, alongside land, air, sea, and cyber."

There may be a hidden link between these two developments. One reason leaders of NATO countries dis Trump behind his back is that he spends so much time dissing NATO. And according to some observers, one reason NATO decided to expand its mission into outer space is to get Trump to cut down on the dissing. 

After all, Trump this year, amid great fanfare, created the US Space Command—which, Congress willing, will soon beget the US Space Force, a military branch equal in status to the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. So what better way for NATO to get some Trump love then to say that it, too, thinks the final frontier could use more policing?

The week in Trump-related lawlessness

Nov 23 2019

This week Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said something no US secretary of state has ever said before: that Israel’s West Bank settlements are not a violation of international law. He said this in spite of the fact that (a) a plain reading of the Fourth Geneva Convention—which Israel signed, and which prohibits the transfer of civilians to territories acquired by force—indicates otherwise; and (b) the UN Security Council, the ultimate arbiter of such matters, has repeatedly said otherwise.

Slowing globalization down

By Robert Wright, Nov 12 2019

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 16 of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright (2000).


 TIP #2 ON SAVING THE WORLD


The early-twentieth-century sociologist William Ogburn attributed many of the world’s problems to “cultural lag.” Cultural lag happens when material culture (technology, basically) changes so fast that nonmaterial culture (including governance and social norms) has trouble catching up. In short, the disruptive part of culture gets out ahead of what Ogburn called the “adaptive” part of culture. Ogburn’s general prescription was to speed up the latter—“make the cultural adjustments as quickly as possible.” But there is another option: slow down the former—cut the rate at which material technology is transforming the world; make the inevitable unfold at a more sedate pace.

Of course, it isn’t that easy. Globalization doesn’t come with a velocity-control knob. And the old-fashioned approach to slowing the spread of material technology—raising tariffs—has a history of inviting retaliation and thus yielding full-blown trade wars (the kind that usher in depressions). But there is a safer approach to slowing globalization down just a tad—a supranational approach.