Counter-Power?

The presidential inauguration, and the Women’s March on Washington the next day, revealed the extent of the social and political polarization that exists in the United States: glimpses of the right-wing surge around Trump – and of counter-power, stoking a possibility of radical change.

The incoming Republican president’s inner circle of advisors and his cabinet of billionaires and multimillionaires are committed to an authoritarian plutocracy at home, and an abandonment of multilateralism in favor of power politics abroad.[1] Only slightly distanced is a Republican-controlled Congress that is dead-set on cutting already-insufficient wages, benefits, and working conditions, and that is eagerly directing attacks against poor people, women, African Americans, Native Americans, immigrants, and the LGBQT community. Violations of the human rights of the US people are spreading:  Trump’s ban on refugees and immigrants from seven heavily Muslim countries does damage both domestically and internationally – and his support for torture presages more.

The new administration presides over a political party system that is in disarray. Trump’s candidacy came as a deep affront to members of the Republican Party establishment, whom he knocked off one by one.  Beginning his run for the nomination as an outsider, he climaxed it by taking over the Republican Party. The results of the election then blasted the Democrats into near-inconsequentiality. Trump’s presidency therefore did not emerge out of the party structures that shape – and strangle – US political life: He is a loose cannon, and this goes beyond his temperament.

Considerable contingency also suffuses the counter-power.  The overwhelming success of the Women’s March – people in the millions turning out, not only in Washington but also in hundreds of other US cities and around the world – made it the largest day of protest in US history.[2] Included were many who demanded an end to racist violence and gender discrimination, and who insisted that the United States be restructured in radical and inclusive ways. Many other participants wanted chiefly to vent their angst and fury at Trump’s ascendancy:  Socially and politically, it’s a complex formation.  The strategic question is whether it will become a bearer of “resistance,” as Angela Davis hopefully put it, that goes on to contest each violation perpetrated by Trump’s four-year incumbency.

It’s early days, but it’s already clear that the new Administration’s forceful threats to our public information system will figure in deciding this question.

Attention has aptly focused on “Alternative Facts”: the term with which Trump aide Kellyanne Conway attempted to deflect NBC journalist Chuck Todd, when he challenged her on the new Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s bald-faced lie: that the audience for the Trump inauguration was the largest in US presidential history.[3]  More revealing was Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’s intervention. Preibus told Chris Wallace on Fox News “The point is not the crowd size, the point is that the attacks and the attempts to delegitimize this president on day one – and we’re not going to sit around and take it…there’s an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president, and we are not going to sit around and let it happen.  We’re going to fight back tooth and nail every day, and twice on Sunday.”[4]  Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, then declared that the media are the “opposition party”[5]; and, the next day, Trump himself echoed Bannon’s words.[6]

Some may compare these attacks on the press to those of the Nixon Administration. Remember Vice President Spiro Agnew, who cried out that the media were “nattering nabobs of negativism;” recollect Nixon’s Office of Telecommunications Policy, which became his Administration’s top-gun against commercial newscasters as well as PBS officials – for producing news and documentaries that it deemed inimical to the US war on Indochina. Even-keeled analysts, however, also need to recall a more immediate precursor, the Obama Administration, whose anti-press measures were considered the most extreme since Nixon and even garnered a report from the Committee To Protect Journalists.[7] That report quoted New York Times reporter David Sanger that “this is the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”[8]  Obama’s efforts at media control persisted, furthermore, into the final days of his presidency. Before leaving the White House, Obama quietly gave the green light (buried in the provisions of the 2017 Defense Authorization Act) to create a Global Engagement Center (GEC) housed within the State Department. The purpose of the GEC is to “lead the coordination, integration, and synchronization of Government-wide communications activities directed at foreign audiences abroad in order to counter the messaging and diminish the influence of international terrorist organizations.” [9] The little known GEC will become part of a massive and longstanding US global propaganda machine.

Trump’s people are indeed indulging in innuendo and smears, and adopting Nixon’s preferred strategy of direct government intimidation to create a chilling atmosphere.  However, to take full measure of what is occurring requires that we move beyond journalism, to sketch a more far-reaching campaign to uproot and transform our overall system of public information. This many-sided endeavor is also, crucially, anchored both in ideology and political-economy.

To begin with, an attack is being prepared against the policy of Net Neutrality, via Trump’s appointment of Ajit Pai as the new chair of the Federal Communications Commission.  Pai is a former attorney for Verizon and, as a Republican FCC commissioner, he is already a sworn foe of Net Neutrality – which undercuts the economic strength of his erstwhile employer, along with other carriers, in their negotiations with big content providers like Facebook and Google.[10]  After a long and successful fight by reformers, the Obama FCC resolved in 2015 to treat Internet Service Providers like Comcast and Verizon as common carriers, under Title II of the Communications Act.  This meant that they are legally bound to accord equal service to all providers of web content, whether they are small outfits or gigantic tech companies. If Net Neutrality rules are abrogated, then independent news sites face a likelihood of discriminatory treatment leading to reduced visibility. This fight has been joined by Free Press, Demand Progress, and grassroots activists.[11]

Federal agencies – and it is often forgotten that these are the largest information publishers in the US – are being banned outright from communicating to the public[12] and supporting scientific research,[13] and are being instructed that all communication and information must be screened by political appointees of the administration.[14]  Librarians and activists are rightly worried that government data sets may be scoured and placed out of reach, and that government websites are being scrubbed of materials that do not synch with the incoming administration’s policies. In the face of this disgraceful tactic, we must thank librarians for helping to power an effort to archive – that is, to preserve – government documents and data. Actually, vigilant librarians have been archiving government websites at the end of every presidential administration since 2008, through what is called the End of Term Crawl Project.[15] Each time out, the project encourages the public to nominate Web sites to be preserved.[16] In 2012, 31 volunteers nominated 1476 Web site urls. But for the transition to Trump, those figures have ballooned:  in the ongoing Term Crawl, 347 volunteers nominated 10,849 Web site urls (and counting).[17] 

As the new administration takes control of the fearsome surveillance resources of the US Government, the ubiquitous communication tools provided via the Internet stand to be more systematically compromised. By one recent account, a dramatic increase in domestic surveillance is ramping up.[18]  The reserves of anger by US people about their compromised civil liberties have not yet begun to be fully tapped, and protests against stepped-up domestic surveillance may be expected to increase.  When will the next courageous whistleblower step forward?

Perhaps the most significant daily source of independent journalism in the US today, Democracy Now! is threatened by the prospective defunding of public broadcasting – jeopardizing the program’s distribution to over 1,400 public radio and television stations.[19] It’s clear that the prospective privatization of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is ideological rather than economic in inspiration: PBS’s budget represents 0.01% of the overall 2016 federal budget.[20]  The proposed sun-setting of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities is being undertaken out of the same Heritage Foundation-based “principles.”[21] The constituencies for all of these services are substantial, and they project political clout beyond their numbers.

These same cuts will also affect public libraries which are major recipients of NEH grants – as well as other government granting programs like the Institute of Museum and Library Services and National Historical Publications and Records Commission.[22] Over the years, public libraries have been forced by budget cuts to curtail services and resources. Even after Obama declared in 2010 that the economic crisis was “officially” over, in California, over 50% of state-level public library funding was eliminated in 2011, while Texas agency library program funding got cut 88%.[23] Public libraries thus are being groomed for additional closures and service cutbacks – again stirring opposition.[24]

The incoming secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, is simultaneously set to renew the attack on public schools. DeVos – a former Republican Party Chair in Michigan and sister of Erik Prince, founder of the private military contractor Blackwater – is an architect of an anti-public education program called “school choice” whereby public funding in the form of a voucher would pay for students to switch from public schools to private ones under the guise of “empowering” parents.[25] This is a marriage of convenience, between ideology and economic self-interest.  Devos has been funneling public money to private schools and funding right-wing organizations that advocate for the privatization of the education system. She is now set to turn over public schools to profiteers. This is certain to stir additional popular outrage.

While closing down information outlets that nourish thinking skills and that provide critical independent information sources (even targeting and arresting individual journalists[26]), the Administration is, finally, also assembling its own authoritarian propaganda machine. The Observer, National Inquirer, Breitbart News, and One America News Network constitute a network of supposedly independent media outlets [27] whose very purpose is to generate “alternative facts.” In place of an independent press, we are being told to attend to the president’s tweets – interpretation to be supplied by a band of rightwing ideologues.  The US Government, as already explained, has long targeted propaganda abroad; but, though it’s a principle often observed only in the breach, the Government is not supposed to propagandize the US population.

There is opposition to each and every one of these moves: but they are too often seen in isolation.  They need to be grouped together to be properly evaluated – and resisted. The veteran national security journalist Seymour Hersh told Jeremy Scahill a few days ago that “the attack on the press is straight out of national socialism.  You have to go back to the 1930s.”[28] He may be correct; again, however, we stress that the Trump administration is attempting more than merely to intimidate the press.  It is endeavoring to set in motion a more full-fledged authoritarian capitalism.

Will the counter-power acquiesce?  The new Administration is being actively opposed, on each front – from its immediate efforts to re-open the Dakota pipeline project, to its plan to curtail Americans’ access to health care, to its attack on immigrant rights.  Each of these may be counted a true political emergency.  This said, nothing is more urgent than to resist the new President’s efforts to diminish and degrade our informational condition. Our public information system supports the critical documentation and analysis that are needed to push back effectively against every other incursion.  Its defense against subjugation now must be a top priority.

 

 

[1] Nick Tabor and James D. Walsh, “The Billionaires (and Mega-Millionaires) Trump Wants in His Cabinet,” New York Magazine, January 23, 2017; Michael T. Klare, “The World As Seen by Donald Trump,” Le Monde diplomatique,  January 2017.

[2] Jason Easley, “Women’s March Is The Biggest Protest in US History as an Estimated 2.9 Million March,” Politics USA, January 21, 2017.

[3] Chuck Todd to Kellyanne Conway: “Alternative Facts Are Not Facts.”

[4]Priebus: We Will Not Let Media ‘Delegitimize this President,” Fox News, January 22, 2017.

[5] CNN Wire, “Trump’s Chief Strategist: Media are ‘opposition party’ and should ‘keep its mouth shut,’” Q13 Fox,  January 26, 2017.

[6] CNN Wire, “President Trump Echoes Bannon: Media is ‘Opposition Party,”  January 27, 2017.

[7] Sara Rafsky, “The Obama Administration and the Press,” CJP Committee to Protect Journalists, October 10, 2013.

[8] Glenn Greenwald, “Committee to Protect Journalists Issues Scathing Report on Obama Administeration,” Guardian, October 10, 2013.

[9] Global Engagement Center.

[10] Todd Shields, “Trump Taps Net-Neutrality Foe Ajit Pai to Lead FCC, Source Says,” Bloomberg, January 20, 2017.

[11] Mark Stanley, “Internet freedom: A populism for free expression,” Demand Progress, January 25, 2017; KPCC, “What the new FCC Chief Ajit Pai means for the future of internet, net neutrality and Netflix.”

[12] Sunlight Foundation.

[13] James Jacobs, “Troubling freeze on science by Trump administration,” Free Government Information, January 24, 2017.

[14] Jamiles Lartey, “Trump bans agencies from ‘providing updates on social media or to reporters,’Guardian, January 25, 2017.

[15] http://digital2.library.unt.edu/nomination/eth2016/about/

[16] James Jacobs, “2016 End of Term (EOT) crawl and how you can help,” Free Government Information, December 9, 2016.

[17] http://digital2.library.unt.edu/nomination/eth2016/about/

[18] Jeremy Scahill, “Seymour Hersh Blasts Media for Uncritically Promoting Russian Hacking Story,” The Intercept, January 25, 2017.

[19]  Alexander Bolton, “Trump team prepares dramatic cuts,” The Hill, January 19, 2017; Mathew Ingram, “Trump’s team said to be planning to privatize public broadcasting,” Fortune, January 19, 2017; Tim Karr, “Don’t Let Trump Kill Public Media,” Free Press, January 20, 2017.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Philip Kennicott, “A Trump Attack on the Arts Would Be More Than Just Symbolic,” Washington Post, January 19, 2017.

[22] John Maher, “Reported Trump Spending Cuts Would Kill NEH, NEA,” Publishers Weekly, January 19, 2017; Grace Donnelly, “What Trump’s Proposed Spending Cuts Could Mean for the Arts Economy,” Fortune, January 19, 2017

[23] American Library Association,  “Libraries persevere through cumulative, ongoing funding cuts.

[24] Every Library

[25] Joanne Barkan, “Milton Friedman, Betsy DeVos, and the Privatization of Public Education,” Dissent Magazine, January 17, 2017.

[26] Cory Doctorow, “Trump’s first 4 days: a ban on disclosing scientific facts and felony charges for journalists,” Boing Boing, January 25, 2017.

[27] Bobby Lewis, “The media outlets poised to become Trump’s Personal Propaganda Machine,” Media Matters, January 2, 2017; Amanda Marcotte, “Fake news for the Great Leader: Donald Trump’s readymade White House propaganda machine,” January 7, 2017, Salon.com.

[28] Jeremy Scahill, “Seymour Hersh Blasts Media for Uncritically Promoting Russian Hacking Story,” The Intercept, January 25, 2017.

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