Archives for December 2019
Carter Page & False Motivations
Carter Page recently made headlines when it was determined that while the FBI investigation into his involvement with Russia was warranted, the FBI’s application to the FISA court was severely flawed. The Republicans are trying to blame this on the Democrats and are suddenly very concerned about the FISA court and civil liberties. However, this does not seem to be the Democrats doing; rather it is a long-term problem with the FISA court that civil liberties advocates have been warning America about since its inception. Before the Carter Page episode, the Republicans actively defended FISA and it was the ACLU that was concerned about this court, bringing an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2012.
To infer that the Republicans are wrong now because they previously defended FISA and law enforcement against liberal critics would be to fall into an ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. In one version of this fallacy, it is concluded that what a person claims now is false because they previously claimed the opposite. While both claims (the current and the past) cannot be true at the same time, this does not show which one is false (and both might be false).
I hold that the Republicans and the ACLU are both right—there are problems with FISA. The Republicans and long-time liberal critics of the FBI and police are also right—there are problems with the FBI. As such, my issue with the Republicans is not that they are in error—I agree that the case of Carter Page was handled badly. My issue with the Republicans is that they are professing false motivations.
False motivation is a rhetorical tactic in which a person professes a laudable and credible motive for taking an action or holding a belief when this is not their real motive. This tactic is used to cast the person in a good light and to persuade others to accept their claim or actions. The idea is that if they convince others they are acting from a laudable and credible motive, then they will also persuade them they are doing right for the right reasons. The problem is, of course, that the professed motive is not the real motive. As such, they do not deserve any praise for acting from a laudable or credible motive and any persuasive power derived from claiming such a motive is thus earned by deceit.
It is important to note that a person’s motives do not affect the truth of a claim or the rightness of their action (or the morality of its consequences). For example, sugar companies have a strong profit motive to lie about negative effects of sugar, but this motive does not prove that their claims about sugar are not true. As another example, a person might give money to a charity to improve their reputation for an upcoming political campaign; but this does not make the act of giving the money or its consequences bad.
The Republicans are obviously not going to say that they are only concerned because they want to protect Trump and score political points by going after FISA and the FBI. While the Republicans profess that their concern with FISA and the FBI arise from concerns about constitutional rights and justice, the facts of the matter say otherwise.
As noted above, Republicans have consistently defended FISA and law enforcement against liberal critics and the ACLU. See, for example, the conservative view of Black Lives Matter. The Republican view suddenly changed when they learned what happened to Carter Page and realized they had been handed a chance to score political points. All the previous problems with FISA and law enforcement largely did not concern the Republicans—presumably because these problems involved people they did not like, mostly minorities. If the Republicans were motivated by a general concern about constitutional rights and justice, then they would have been on board with the ACLU lawsuit—the ACLU is consistently motivated by these concerns. Instead, the Republicans only discovered a concern for FISA and law enforcement when Carter Page (and others in the Trump orbit) have become the subject of investigations.
I want to stress again, that the Republicans are right that Carter Page was wronged and that FISA and law enforcement need to be reformed. Their motivations are irrelevant to the truth of their claims. However, their motivations are relevant to assessing their ethics and in assessing their rhetorical strategy. If they, like the ACLU, were champions of constitutional rights, then they would be worthy of praise. But they are clearly operating from different motives and only deserve whatever faint praise one earns by finally doing some small right from selfish motives.
It could be argued that Carter Page was the come to Jesus moment for the Republicans; that they had been staunchly defending FISA and law enforcement against liberal critics and the cruel oppression of a rich, white man finally made the scales fall from their eyes. They should, of course, be given a fair evaluation here. If this is the case, then one would expect them to play out the tale of Saul becoming Paul: they should change their ways and broadly defend constitutional rights and engage in constructive, but stern, criticism of abuses by law enforcement. If this happens, then I will admit that their professed motives are their real motives. If their concern begins and ends with rich, white guys (associated with Trump) then their true motives will be evident.
It could also be claimed that the Republicans are rationalizing. Rationalizing does have some similarity to the false motive strategy, but there is an important difference. When someone uses the false motive tactic, they are aware of their real motive and a lying when they profess a laudable or credible motive in its place. When someone rationalizes, they also present a laudable or credible motive in place of their real motive, but they are not only trying to deceive others—they are also striving to deceive themselves. If they succeed, it could be claimed that they are no longer lying—they are saying what they believe to be true. As such, rationalization might be seen as morally superior to the use of false motive; or perhaps it is worse, since it involves lying to one more person (themselves).
Since we can only discern motives from words and deeds, it can be hard to sort out when someone is engaged in a false motive tactic, rationalizing or telling the truth. However, we can try to sort things out. As noted above, if the Republicans profess, they are motivated by a concern for constitutional rights and justice, then this can be tested by observing how they act in other cases. If they are not consistent, then it is worth considering that they are engaged in using the false motivation method. It is also worth noting that people often fail to act consistently on their principles—so one can be sincere but flawed. If they seem to be struggling to convince themselves as well, then rationalization could be a possibility.
My view is, of course, that the Republicans generally do not care about the broader issues raised by the Carter Page case in terms of constitutional rights and problems with law enforcement. Their real motive, which can be assessed by their actions, seems to be to score political points and protect Trump. If they did, in fact, come to Jesus, then I will happily accept that they have had a Grinch like experience and their hearts have grown. In fact, I promise to write essays praising them should they engage in broad reforms of the courts and law enforcement that go beyond merely protecting Page, Trump and other rich white guys.
While the term “fascism” has been around quite some time, it has enjoyed a resurgence proportional to the attention given to the alt right. Since the term has a strong negative connotation it is used across the American political spectrum in attempts to cast opponents in a negative light. Both Bush and Obama were called fascists. Trump’s detractors and supporters now regularly use the term on each other. But what is fascism?
One obvious philosophical problem, as noted by John Locke, is that “people can apply sounds to what ideas he thinks fit, and change them as they please.” The problem is that this can lead to unintentional confusion and intentional misuses. Locke’s solution was practical: when making inquiries “we must determine what we mean and thus determine when it is and is not the same.” Honest people have excellent reason to agree on the meanings of terms (or at least lay out the boundaries of the discussion), deceivers have excellent reasons to shift meanings as they wish. As such, those interested in an honest consideration of fascism can disagree but will at least endeavor to be consistent and clear in their usage of the term. I can also use a stop sign analogy. While the American stop sign is a red octagon with “stop” in white letters, this could be changed to a purple square with the symbol of a hand in the center. Or an orange circle. Or almost anything. But we did to agree on what the sign will be in order to afford traffic accidents. The same holds for defining terms.
One obvious place to seek the meaning of “fascism” is to look at what paradigm fascists and fascist thinkers assert it to be. As such, Benito Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile provide a good starting point. I am obviously open to good faith disagreement.
One aspect of classic fascism is the rejection of peace. As the classic fascist sees it, perpetual peace is impossible. If it were possible, it would be undesirable. War is seen as good because it energizes the population and provides the opportunity for nobility and heroism.
While some claim that fascism is a leftist ideology and link it to socialism, there are two problems with this view. One is that fascism is a political rather than economic system. For example, while the Nazi state provided German companies with slave labor, these corporations remained owned by individuals like Porsche rather than the state. And state ownership of the means of production is the hallmark of socialism. The second is that the fascist ideology directly opposes the basic tenets of socialism, especially the Marxist variants. In the case of Marxism, fascism explicitly rejects economic determinism. In the case of socialism in general, fascism rejects the notion of class conflict. The focus of the fascist is on race rather than class.
Fascism also opposes liberal democracy on two primary grounds. Since fascism regards the state as supreme, the notion of majority rule by voting is anathema to their ideology. Instead they embrace authoritarianism. Fascism also associates the concept of equality with democracy and rejects equality on two grounds. First, fascism sees inequality as immutable. Second, the fascist sees inequality as good, thus rejecting the idea of progress.
One plausible reason someone can honestly confuse socialism and fascism is that the fascist state is regarded as absolute and everything else exists to serve the state. Under classic socialism, the state owns the means of production. But these are not the same. A fascist state, such as Nazi Germany, can have a capitalist economy that exists to serve the state and this allows for individuals to own companies such as Porsche and profit handsomely under fascism.
A socialist economy could exist in a very free direct democracy in which the state exists to benefit the individual. One could, of course, have a fascist state that also owns all the means of production, but fascism is not socialism.
The fascists also have a negative view of liberty—the state is to decide what freedoms people have, depriving them of what the rulers regard as useless and possibly harmful liberties. Fascists also reify the state, regarding it as having “a will and a personality.” From a rational standpoint, this is nonsense—while Hobbes liked to cast the state as a leviathan composed of the people, the state is just a collection of people with various social constructs forming the costume of the state. To use an analogy, the state is but a giant pantomime horse or an elaborate dragon dance.
The fascist view of the state also puts them at odds with the Marxist—under Marxist theory, the state will no longer exist under communism because it will no longer be needed. As such there can be no communist state in the strict sense, though this term is obviously used to describe countries that profess some form of Marxism that never gets around to getting rid of the state that is run by the ruling class.
Fascism also embraces the idea of empire and imperialism and use this to justify discipline, duty and sacrifice—as well as “the necessarily severe measures that must be taken against those who would oppose” the state. So, these are the basics of fascism, as per Mussolini and Gentile.
As with any complicated and controversial concept, there are many other views of fascism. Some are compatible with the account given above. There are also some fascists that attempt to recast fascism to, ironically, attack those who oppose fascism.
While I do not claim that this account is the definitive account, it does provide some basic and key qualities of fascism and deviations from them should be justified.
Tax Cuts Check In
When the Trump administration cut taxes I made the prediction that these cuts would no do what he claimed they would. Since then, I have followed up on the cuts to see what effect they are having.
This is, of course, a basic method in critical thinking: make predictions and then observe the results before asserting that the claims are or are not correct. Naturally one must take into account factors that can also influence the results. For example, the tax cuts might be doing good, yet be offset by some other factors so they appear to not be effective. Claims of offsetting factors must be backed up with evidence of their own, otherwise an ad hoc perpetual defense of anything would be possible. So what have the results been?
While the tax cut was claimed to benefit everyone, 60% of the benefits went to the top 20%. Trump has promised tax cuts for the middle class, but this seems to be eternally a promise made today for a tax cut tomorrow.
The tax cuts did not pay for themselves; corporate tax revenue dropped 31% in the first year of the cuts and general tax revenues have declined.
When a Democrat is President, Republicans rage against the deficit and use it to justify cuts in social spending. Under Trump, the federal deficit was $984 billion this year–unusually high. The tax cuts have a clear and obvious causal link to the deficit since less revenue (plus more spending) will create more debt.
There has been economic growth under Trump, but at 2.9% it is the same as it was under Obama in 2015. Projected growth for 2020 is 2%. As such, the tax cuts did not seem to help. To be fair, Trump’s trade wars are having a negative impact on growth so it is worth considering that growth could be worse without the cuts–but this should not simply be assumed.
On the positive side, the stock market is doing well–which is great for those whose wealth is composed mostly of investment. Unemployment is also extremely low. It is not clear how much impact the tax cuts had on this; to simply infer they caused these results would be to fall into the post hoc fallacy.
These results are utterly unsurprising. Tax cuts never pay for themselves and have consistently resulted in high deficits (especially when paired with increased spending). The possible boost to the stock market and reduced unemployment are certainly important points to consider–but the link must be tested rather than assumed.
In most ways assessing tax cuts does not matter; both parties have long-held talking points on tax cuts that drive the presence or lack of cuts. In general, the Republicans are wrong about more things but this hardly seems to matter to their policy making.
Oath & Impeachment
Now that the House has done its part, the articles of impeachment will be sent to the senate for the trial. Fortunately for Trump, two powerful Republican senators have made it clear that the matter is already settled.
Lindsay Graham has said that he will do all he can to kill the impeachment, saying that “I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.” Mitch McConnell has gone even further, asserting that “Everything I do during this, I’m coordinating with White House counsel. There will be no difference between the president’s position and our position as to how to handle this to the extent that we can.” Other Republicans, such as Ted Cruz, have made their view of the matter clear, but have generally not gone as far as Graham or McConnell.
One problem with these statements is that they seem to pre-violate the oath that the Republican senators are constitutionally required to take during the trial. The specific wording for the trial of Trump will be: “I solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald J. Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.’’
Graham and McConnell have already committed to their verdict and McConnell has committed himself to, in effect, becoming part of Trump’s defense team. While the impeachment trial is not a criminal trial, this is analogous to having a juror announce that they are coordinating with the criminal defendant’s legal team and that they already intend to vote not guilty.
It can, of course, be pointed out that this is not a criminal trial and is not governed by the same rules. It is, defenders of McConnell might point out, a political event in the form of a trial and thus subject to the basic rule of pragmatic party politics: do whatever it takes for your party to win.
One obvious problem with this interpretation is the oath noted above—the senators swear to God that they “will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.” That is, they are swearing to set aside party loyalty and follow the Constitution and laws. This would seem to obligate them, at the very least, to not become part of Trump’s defense team and to wait for the trial to render an absolute verdict. Unfortunately, this oath seems to have no teeth—there are no consequences for breaking it (at least in this life, depending on how God looks at oath breakers) other than whatever political ramifications that might arise.
McConnell and Graham could, of course, have publicly said they will be conducting a fair and impartial trial and then re-assure Trump in secret. But this was not an option. While Trump is quick to hurl loyalists under the bus, he demands absolute public loyalty and punishes those who refuse to offer it. As such, McConnell and Graham are being clever political players—they want to keep Trump’s base behind them and the way to do that is to stay in Trump’s good graces by defending him and praising him. Graham has learned to play this role very well and one wonders what his friend John McCain would think of this. Or the Graham that loathed Trump.
As for why the Republicans should take the oath seriously, the Constitution obligates them to do so. It is also the morally right thing to do, even if they believe Trump is innocent. After all, an impartial trial should get to the truth of the matter. There are also pragmatic reasons to hold an impartial trial: if the call was perfect and Trump did nothing wrong, then an impartial trial would embarrass the Democrats and damage them politically. The most plausible reason to not have an impartial trial and not call new witnesses is to minimize the damage to a guilty Trump.
At this point, someone might say “what about the Democrats? Haven’t some of them said that Trump is guilty? Are they not also pre-violating their oath?” While the “what about” does not get the Republicans off the hook, it does raise a reasonable point: the Democrats in the senate must also take the oath and they should take it seriously. This means being willing to decide that Trump is not guilty if the evidence warrants doing so. As such, the Democrats must be willing to, well, do what they want to do: have a real trial with key witnesses (who refused to testify before the House) being called.
While it is in poor form for Democrats and Republicans to announce their decision before the trial, they can comment on the House proceedings and express a view on what that evidence shows at this point. However, this does not free them from taking the oath seriously.
I would take the same position if a Democrat was being impeached and Democrats rushed to pre-violate the oath; so be sure to save a copy of this essay in case that happens.