(I was going to continue with my mini-seminar on photo-fakery and a famous scandal, but the sheer volume of irrational news this week obliged me to write this instead.)
Do you know what a “flak-catcher” is? It’s a person, action, object or even image intended to outrage and absorb the attention of social/economic/political enemies – particularly enemies of the emotional, biased sort. It’s intended as a sacrifice, something to let your opponents shoot down and feel righteous about defeating, so that they’ll leave the rest of your people, actions, etc. alone – and, hopefully, reveal something about themselves to the public during the shooting. Other terms for this are “red herring”, “bait”, “goat”, and “target-man” – which I’ve written a song about.
A classic example of an artistic flak-catcher was the tactic used by a Hollywood scriptwriter, who worked for a big studio with a script-editor who was notorious for always meddling with any script that came across his desk. The scriptwriter made a habit of always adding a totally-unnecessary grossly hot sex scene to every script, so that the editor could happily blue-pencil the scene – compared to which the rest of the script looked perfectly tame – feel that he’d done his duty and earned his paycheck, and would leave the rest of the script alone.
A fine example of a political flak-catcher is the team of cabinet members that Trump has proposed to Congress. A large number of them are right-wing fundies, obviously incompetent for their proposed jobs, guaranteed to outrage the Liberal Democrat crowd and middle-of-the-road Republicans – while making Trump look good to the foaming-fundie wing of his supporters. Congress is already busy shooting them down, with much righteous fanfare: Mnuchin, for example, and DeVos, and I’m surprised that Sessions has made it this far. When they’ve been cleared off, Trump can go to his supporters and speechify about having done his best but being blocked by “enemies” (he’ll doubtless choose a fancier label), which his extremist supporters will understand, if not like. Then he’ll choose a second team of actually competent and sensible people whom Congress will have less reason (and passion) to object to. Already the more reasonable of Trump’s picks have been accepted with little fanfare. Note that Ben Carson was deemed acceptable as chief of Housing and Urban Development, although he has no experience with either and has proven woefully ignorant on some subjects (the pyramids were not built to store grain!); probably this is because Carson is demonstrably not a bigot, a stupid man could not have become a successful brain surgeon, and ignorance is easily curable while stupidity is not.
The same holds true for a lot of Trump’s executive orders, but with an added twist. His assorted “gag orders” to various federal departments are practically guaranteed to be shot down on Constitutional grounds, and couldn’t sensibly have been written except to please the Consevative crowd, test the political waters, draw the howling outrage and absorption of the anti-Trump crowd – and incidentally give Trump an excuse to save federal money. Note how many Democrat/Liberal mayors, from Seattle to Baltimore, insisted that their cities would remain “sanctuary” cities and would not obey Trump’s orders to actively hunt for and deport illegal aliens. Because they’re quite literally defying a presidential order, he’s legally justified in not giving them any federal money – for anything. Then he can honestly tell the citizens that he’s already saved them several hundred millions in federal spending – at least until his executive orders are shot down by Congress or the Supreme Court.
His order about immigration is the interesting one, and not just because this was a big part of his campaign. If you read the actual order, you’ll note that it’s very clear and carefully worded; this is surprising coming from Trump, who’s usually a sloppy and thoughtless speaker, much given to exaggeration. Despite the outraged squawks of CAIR and its un-indicted co-conspirators, the order is actually reasonable – as various Reform Muslim groups agree – and legal, under Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. The FBI and DoJ can tell you of at least 5 terrorist attacks done in America in 2016 alone, by “refugees” from those named countries – if the bureaucrats actually take the effort to look them up. Police and citizens all over Europe can tell you of crimes and damage done by “refugees” from all seven of those mentioned countries – and that list was originally drawn up by Obama. As for the three not mentioned, which are the sources of terrorists who have done attacks in America – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia – they can always be added later; remember that this order only bans immigration from those seven for a limited number of months, after which the list can be changed. This order too is intended to provoke reactions: please the Conservatives, outrage the Islamophile Liberals, see who actually considers it thoughtfully, and consider just what their resulting tactics are. This is a testing of the waters for a more comprehensive immigration bill to follow.
A somewhat different case is Trump’s Supreme Court choice, actually a reasonable man and a very intelligent speaker. If the Senate accepts him, the court will go back to what it was doing during Obama’s reign, with the same political balance and Gorsuch merely taking Scalia’s place. Already, the Democrat bell-wethers are denouncing Gorsuch on CNN, accusing him – with no citations – of being pro-corporations, anti-woman, anti-Gay, anti-environment, Islamophobic, etc., etc., down the standard list of Democrat policy sins. It’s beginning to sound a little repetitive, a little stereotyped, a bit of a bore.
In that sense, Trump’s strategy of tossing out a horde of flak-catchers – enough to provoke the Democrats into repeating the same tactics, the same reactions, even the same phrases – can’t help but pay off. The public has learned to notice boilerplate, and be suspicious of it.
More to the point, the Liberal/Democrats’ reactions to Trump, ever since the election, have been not just repetitive but hysterical – almost exactly mirroring the hysterical tactics the foaming-fundie Right used against Obama for the past eight years: the blizzard of lawsuits and demands for investigations, the barely-half-true-at-best accusations, the demands for legislative roadblocks and logjams, the knee-jerk opposition to anything he proposed, the out-in-the-weeds speculations based on next to nothing. Haven’t we seen this before? “Trump is a Nazi” = “Obama is a Muslim”, “Trump is too friendly to Putin” = “Obama is too friendly to the King of Saudi Arabia”, “Trump will sell us out to the corporations” = “Obama sold us out to the government bureaucrats”, and on and on. The parallels are a little too noticeable, and what was laughable paranoia when the enemy said it doesn’t look that much better when your own officers say it.
The one tactic which is almost exclusively the province of the political left is the public demonstration, usually in the form of a protest march, ending in a rally, with speeches. Its origins lie in medieval Britain, where seriously distressed subjects would march to the capital to appeal to the king for relief. Over the centuries it evolved into something more forceful than an appeal, was often met with armed force, and from there could escalate into anything from a riot to a revolution. In America, where the ultimate executive traditionally changed every four to eight years, it didn’t get beyond the riot stage and rarely even that far.
Nonetheless, demonstrations are to be noticed. The word “demonstration” comes from Latin, and means a “showing” or “pointing out”; if nothing else, a public political demonstration is a showing of your numbers, in that sense a symbolic invasion – just as an election is a symbolic civil war. The problems start when people lose sight of this, and start mistaking the symbol for the reality. Unfortunately, this is where the Left has settled right now: assuming that public displays of numbers and passions have some actual political power in themselves, that enough showings and speeches and loud enough shouts will make the political machinery move the way the protesters want it to.
If anyone remembers the Ferguson, Missouri protests of a year ago, that’s an example of the tactic gone wrong; when various protest marches didn’t bring the desired change immediately, the demonstrations deteriorated into riots – plain threats of Give Us What We Want Or We’ll Trash Your Town. Historically, this has been answered with force and damned little sympathy. This does your cause no good unless you’re trying to play the Victim card, and even then it’s unlikely to work unless you have a really vast and efficient propaganda system. The contemporary left – and the Arab world – does have a vast and efficient propaganda system, but even that has its limits. As Lincoln – another Republican president whose election drove Democrats into frenzies – said, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
This belief in the power of public protest grew out of the work of a forgotten but tremendously effective organization from the ‘60s: the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam, commonly called the Mobe. The Mobe was a collection of old labor organizers and working-class pacifists who pooled their money and experience, and concentrated on just one goal – “stop the war now” – and just one tactic: organizing big marches ending in rallies in Washington DC. Their rules were simple; march, speak, be always non-violent (although you can defend yourself passively, as with Aikido). Their techniques were simple too; in those pre-Internet days they simply wrote to every college and church and known pacifist group in the country, setting a date and promising to arrange transportation if the local group would tell them how many numbers to expect. Then the Mobe would arrange permits, announcements, parking – and later medical clinics, porta-potties, crash space, legal services, food and drink, and training for anyone who wanted to be medics or “Mobe Marshals”: people who knew the route and schedule and service locations, carried bullhorns and identifying helmets, marched on the perimeter of the crowd where they could see the environment clearly, advised the crowd on changes in the area, and – important point – isolated provocateurs. The helmets were necessary, since the cops made a point of targeting Mobe Marshals and even medics, thinking they were march organizers, when in fact their chief purpose was communications.
It was at these big marches in Washington that I learned that the difference between a “mob” and an army is communications. A crowd is not stupid; it is primarily blind and deaf. People who are not on the perimeter of the crowd can’t see or hear much beyond their neighbors and don’t know what’s happening out there. The people on the perimeter – like the Mobe Marshals – must be the eyes and ears for the crowd; they have to respond to changes by translating the information into one- or two-word chants, and shout that information into the crowd, who then pass it on. When this is done well, you can see, as well as hear, the “information wave” passing through the crowd. I saw this done with messages of: “Cops! Cops! Cops!” (along with a gesture pointing in the direction of the attack) or “Keep close! Keep close!” when the police tried to spread us out, or “Sit down! Sit down!” when they tried to drive us off our route. As for slogan-chants (“Stop the war now!”) sections of the crowd would generate those for themselves; the Mobe Marshals never had to do it. The famous marches in Washington were effective because they could show numbers in the hundreds of thousands, all well organized and nonviolent and on point. The Mobe was able to pull this off because those old union organizers had the sense to keep it simple: stick fiercely to their one task and their one goal.
In time other groups with different complaints – civil rights, women’s lib, ecology, counter-culture, etc. – joined the big marches, and thereby gained reliable communications with each other, but the reliable unifying goal was simple and universal: Stop The War Now. That’s why various little would-be Caesars – Bill Ayers comes to mind – were never able, despite their best efforts, to take over the movement and run it to their own agenda. That’s why, when the war finally ended and the marches stopped, the whole Countercultural movement fragmented and scattered – but the fragments always retained some contact, and were able to coalesce quickly when the next war started.
Some of those fragments – Bill Ayers comes to mind -- went off and joined the Democrat party, became the Obama backers, and decided to revive the old tactics when Trump was elected. But there were significant differences this time around.
For one thing, the Internet today makes it quick and easy to check and verify anybody’s story – and associations, and past history – if you want to; this means that emotional speeches with lots of logical fallacies can’t spread their effect as far as they used to. For another, the Internet also makes it quick and easy to organize protest demonstrations – and everybody knows it; this makes people a little more cynical about the political motivations of supposedly-spontaneous protests. Third, the Internet (again!) has revealed the political backers behind the current wave of protests, and their connections to certain big-money manipulators – Ayers and Soros both come to mind. Fourth, although the first wave of protests were hastily labeled Feminist, it was obvious that their real point was We Don’t Like Trump – and you can’t build a real grassroots political mass movement around a goal as narrow as that. The march organizers themselves admitted that “we’ve got to maintain momentum” and “build a sustainable movement”, because they knew that just dislike of a politician, or even party, won’t long excite a politically experienced and cynical populace. Even at the height of the anti-war movement, when half the country devotedly hated Lyndon Baines Johnson, they didn’t hate the rest of the Democrat party. Soros’ money, Ayers’ ambitions, and Democrat hysteria simply aren’t enough to create a real political mass-movement – especially when the speeches begin to sound not just hysterical but repetitive. No, this is not your daddy’s protest movement, and people can see the difference.
What I see happening here is a wide and artful game of Red Herring. The Bourgeois-Liberal crowd are wearing out their hysteria on flak-catcher after flak-catcher, thereby whittling away the sacrificial goats of the Fundie-Conservative crowd, and eventually coming around to accept the more reasonable of the Republican contenders and policies until Trump winds up with a team that’s competent to run the country if he does nothing else whatever but make speeches and cut ribbons. Trump winds up the winner, despite all the flak the Left can throw. I’ve seen bosses who ran their (successful) businesses like that!
Now given the bumbling and sloppy speech and manners of Trump, and a good number of his team and supporters, the question is whether he’s really doing this deliberately or just blundering his way from lucky break to lucky break. All I can say is that the proof is in the outcome, and that Trump is really not a stupid man.