Those ‘White Supremacy’ Narratives About Trump are Deeply Problematic

I told ya’ll I didn’t vote, right? But if I would’ve voted, I would’ve voted [for] Trump. Kanye West

Donald Trump talked about his daughter in sexually explicit terms on a nationally syndicated radio program. In a leaked recording, taken shortly into his third marriage, Trump bragged that he could accost women without consequence as a result of his social status—and in fact, several women came forward over the course of his campaign detailing how he allegedly violated them. If an African American aspired towards the presidency with this kind of sexual baggage, his candidacy would have been dead on arrival.

Similarly, a black candidate whose business dealings were defined by accusations of nepotism, shipping jobs overseas, exploiting undocumented workers, stiffing U.S. contractors and exploiting bankruptcy and tax laws to evade financial and civic obligations would not be viewed as the kind of leader America needs. Indeed, an African American who seemed to lack basic knowledge about the major issues facing the country and possessed no experience in government would not even be on the radar as a serious candidate. He would never win his party’s nomination, let alone the general election.

Ta-Neihsi Coates makes this case in his latest Atlantic cover story, “The First White President,” to demonstrate that race matters a lot more in American politics than most pundits and politicians seem willing to acknowledge.

He goes on to highlight how Americans across the socio-economic spectrum often point to the plight of the “white working class” –a plight that white elites are themselves are often responsible for creating—in justifying policies that disproportionately harm blacks and other minority groups. Meanwhile, social problems like drug addiction, which have long plagued minority communities, only seem to grow worthy of an urgent and compassionate response when “working class” whites become affected.

Ta-Neihsi’s exploration of these topics is powerful, as is his condemnation of the President’s inadequate response to the recent violence in Charlottesville. However, a severe paradox emerges with regards to his central thesis:

Coates complains that it is reductive and misleading to “blame” Clinton’s loss on the “white working class” (as many have done) given that Trump decisively won among all whites–across the income and education spectrum, across gender and geographic lines, etc. True enough. But then Coates puts forward an alternative frame which turns out to be no less problematic than the one he is critiquing:  Trump was elected primarily because of racial resentment, and he maintains his hold on power by playing to Americans’ latent sympathies with white supremacists.

As an African American and a Muslim, like Coates I often find myself disturbed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies. However, as a social researcher I have also been consistently troubled by the near-total lack of engagement among pundits and scholars with the pretty robust data confounding the ‘white supremacy’ theory of Trump’s success. For instance: Continue reading “Those ‘White Supremacy’ Narratives About Trump are Deeply Problematic”

Trump Will Probably Win a Second Term in 2020.

Everyone’s unhappy. Everyone’s ashamed.
We all just got caught looking at somebody else’s page.
Nothing every went quite exactly as we planned:
Our ideas held no water, but we used them like a dam Modest Mouse, 'Missed the Boat' (We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank)

In the lead-up to the 2016 election, Nate Silver offered Trump a 29% chance of taking the White House–and was widely disparaged for being far too generous to Trump!

Obviously, the Donald won. So what should we make of all the professional prognosticators who incessantly and near-unanimously assured us that it was impossible (or perhaps just ‘totally implausible’ if they were feeling charitable) that this outcome could come about?

Perhaps we should cut them some slack? After all, sometimes things happen that are legitimately improbable. Indeed, events such as these are often key drivers of history (which, arguably, makes them all the more important to “get right.” But that’s another matter). There’s a case to be made that Trump’s election was just this sort of phenomenon.

I don’t buy it.

Some Black Swans are events for which there was truly very little warning, or involve forces which are so complex and ill-understood that reliable prediction is impossible. Other Black Swans are merely events that are inconceivable given a certain set of assumptions, references or manners of thought. Trump’s election falls into this latter category.

Most analysts and pundits were absolutely convinced all the way until that last moment that Trump would not be able to win the Republican nomination. After he won the nomination, there was a lot of talk about lessons learned. However, almost immediately after Clinton secured her nomination it was depicted as virtually inevitable that she would win the general election—probably in a landslide (here, here, here for example).

Yet there was ample reason to believe things would go the other way. This is not an incident of hindsight bias: I realized early on that that Trump would likely not only win the Republican nomination, but the presidency as well. I predicted that he would beat Hillary Clinton explicitly, unequivocally and “on the record” for the first time in March 2016, and spent much of the remaining year urging Trump’s opposition to take his candidacy seriously and to better understand and respond to the factors driving his success.  In vain.

After Trump won the general election, yet again there were avowals of lessons learned. But already narratives are emerging that 2018 and 2020 will be bloodbaths for the president and his party (if he even lasts that long in office). Rather than succumbing to this sort of wishful thinking, I decided to look for strong indicators as to how the race might go.

Polling this early in Trump’s administration seemed unlikely to be predictive—especially as the polls themselves proved somewhat unreliable in the 2016 cycle overall (particularly at the state level). Statistically speaking, it seemed the best way to start was to look at the base-rate for reelection in U.S. presidential races. Continue reading “Trump Will Probably Win a Second Term in 2020.”

An Emerging Democratic Majority? Don’t Count on It.

 
What is at stake in the conflict over representations of the future is nothing other than the attitude of the declining classes to their decline—either demoralization, which leads to a rout….or mobilization, which leads to the collective search for a collective solution to the crisis.
What can make the difference is, fundamentally, the possession of the symbolic instruments enabling the group to take control of the crisis and to organize themselves with a view to a collective response, rather than fleeing from real or feared degradation in a reactionary resentment and the representation of history as a conspiracy. Pierre Bourdieu, The Bachelor's Ball (p. 189)
We’ll let you guys prophesy/ We gon’ see the future first. Frank Ocean, 'Nikes' (Blonde)

In 2008, Democratic Presidential Nominee Barack Obama outperformed his predecessors John Kerry and Al Gore with virtually every single demographic group, handily defeating his Republican rival John McCain. This success spread to down-ballot races as well: Democrats expanded control over the House and the Senate; they controlled most governorships and state legislatures nationwide.

Many progressives came to believe that these results were not a fluke, that Obama’s coalition represented the future: an Emerging Democratic Majority that stood to reshape politics as we know it. The logic was simple: most of those who are young, college-educated, women or minorities lean left. Older white men lean right, but whites were declining as a portion of the electorate due to immigration and interracial unions. Therefore, as the older generation passes away and a younger, more diverse, and more educated cohort steps into the fore, America will become more progressive in an enduring way.

Right now, these predictions are not looking so good. In a virtual inversion of 2008 (only worse), Republicans comfortably control both chambers of Congress. They also dominate state legislatures and governorships nationwide—bodies which arguably matter more to people’s everyday lives than the federal government. Meanwhile, Democrats lost perhaps their best chance in a generation to fundamentally reshape the Supreme Court. And the new Republican Administration seems committed to rolling back many of the signature accomplishments of the most charismatic and successful Democratic President since LBJ.

In the midst of such a bleak reality, it may be tempting to hold onto the faith that the Emerging Demographic Majority thesis remains essentially sound: Trump is an anomaly, certain to self-destruct, ushered into power as a final, desperate act of defiance by a segment of the population that knows its time is up. However, such optimism would be ill-advised–the electoral trend actually seems to be going the opposite direction. Continue reading “An Emerging Democratic Majority? Don’t Count on It.”

Trump’s Victory Should Not Have Been Surprising

As an epistemologist, I generally avoid predictions in favor of trying to determine what is known and how to build upon or utilize knowledge. But when I do feel compelled to go on record with predictions, it is generally with a sense of urgency–to draw public attention to an approaching black swan.

Black swans are phenomena which seem inconceivable relative to prevailing assumptions and beliefs. Black swan events arise when our conception of the world becomes untethered from events “on the ground.”

In this election cycle, the broad consensus was that Trump was an amusing epiphenomenon with little staying power and few prospects. By contrast, since the declaration of her candidacy, there was a pervasive assumption that Hillary Clinton would coast to victory. This cycle seemed to turn conventional wisdom on its head at every turn, but nonetheless, as Americans went to cast their ballots even the most rigorous and gutsy of poll analysts predicted less than a 30% chance for a Clinton loss (and even this was viewed by many as being far too generous to Trump).

To be sure, prediction is a perilous game. But one of the biggest problems in the way we rely on predictions in our public discourse is that pundits are rarely held to account for their reliability. And even in those rare instances where someone actually issues a mea culpa for grievous errors, little seems to be learned in terms of how to approach subsequent developments.

For instance, “no one” saw it as possible that Trump would win the Republican nomination—even down to the final moments. When he did win, there was a lot of handwringing about humility and lessons learned—but then almost immediately the same narrative emerged again: Trump stood no chance at winning the general election. And not just he, the Republican Party was finished, perhaps for generations, as a result of his candidacy. Things look very different today, with the Democrats standing on the brink of irrelevance, while the signature accomplishments of their most charismatic and transformation leader in generations seem set to be erased.

The centerpiece of the Democrats’ (over)confidence was their supposed “electoral firewall”—a safeguard they were so sure of that they scarcely even bothered to reach out to these constituents who were supposed to serve as their last line of defense against Trump (ensuring that even in the unlikely event that they lost the popular vote, they would win the Electoral College). How’d that turn out? Clinton is shaping up to lose the Electoral College by a larger margin than those who were defeated in 1996, 2000 or 2004.

How could this happen?” was the refrain on November 9th. Here’s how: Continue reading “Trump’s Victory Should Not Have Been Surprising”

Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump is going to be the next president of the United States, and he will have the Democratic National Committee to thank for it. Much has been made of the “math” of the Democratic nomination, and how it favors Hillary Clinton—in large part due to her huge lead in unpledged “superdelegates” (whose decision will determine the election, given that neither candidate is likely to reach the requisite number of delegates to win outright). But for a moment, let’s set aside the math of the Democratic primary, and look at the big picture: What matters for the general election is who can win swing states and ensure high voter turnout and enthusiasm in solidly blue states. In this regard, Bernie Sanders is clearly the more electable candidate.

Swing States, Blue States

The 10 closest races in 2012 were in Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and North Carolina. Six of these have voted so far in primary contests. Of these, Sanders decisively won 3 (New Hampshire, Colorado, Minnesota), and they virtually tied in 2 others (Sanders narrowly losing Nevada and Iowa). So in terms of swing states, the edge appears to be with Sanders.

As for solidly-blue states, only a handful have voted so far, but the outcome is clear: Bernie Sanders decisively won Vermont and Maine, pulled a huge upset in Michigan, and virtually tied Hillary Clinton in Massachusetts. Clinton has not decisively won even one single solidly-blue state. Instead, virtually all of her pledged delegate lead comes from handily winning in solidly red states which she (or any Democrat) would be highly-unlikely to win in a general election.

Nonetheless, the constant presentation of these numbers (superdelegate votes almost always included in media analyses of the race) reinforces the notion that Clinton is the more electable candidate, and pushes many into her camp as the best choice against the Republicans; this further expands her lead and reifies the perceived electability disparity, ad nauseam. Hence the narrative that Bernie Sanders is the ideological candidate who inspires, and Hillary the pragmatist who can win. In reality, Bernie is both. However, barring a major grassroots revolt, Hillary Clinton will seize the nomination. And she will lose to Donald Trump.

Continue reading “Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton”

On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations

Due to the intentionally vague language of the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have been empowered to interpret their counter-terrorism mandate broadly, to include targets from the Taliban, ISIS, Boko Haram and other derivatives and affiliates of al-Qaeda—anywhere around the world and indefinitely.

A key component of these efforts has been the U.S. drone program, intended to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States.

However, through open-source data mining, analysts have long known that those killed in the strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants—with “militant” (or “Enemy Killed in Action” [EKIA]) denoting virtually any fighting-aged male struck down in a campaign. In fact, most of the time the U.S. was not even sure who they were killing, what (if any) group the “militants” belonged to, what (if any) crime they committed which warranted execution or what (if any) threat they posed to the U.S., its personnel or its regional interests.

A cache of military documents leaked to The Intercept confirms this picture by means of the Pentagon’s own statistics and internal reports. However, perhaps the most significant and least explored aspect of the leak is how the documents confirm that the program is not only fundamentally ill-suited to achieve its raison d’etre, it is actually counterproductive in many respects.

 

Continue reading “On the Limitations of Air-Power for Counter-Insurgency/ Counter-Terror Operations”

America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East

According to a New America Foundation report, right-wing extremists have killed nearly twice as many Americans through domestic terrorism as Islamic jihadists have since 9/11.  However, this same database shows that jihadists constitute a much higher percentage of those indicted on terror charges or killed when confronted by authorities: despite causing only 35 percent of the total terrorism casualties, they make up 60 percent of the total indictments. The reason for the discrepancy is that far-right extremists tend not to be monitored or investigated as heavily.

Shortly after President Obama’s election– particularly following a groundbreaking 2009 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report on the threat of right-wing extremism–Republican lawmakers, along with conservative media and lobbying groups, argued that the White House was politicizing the term “extremism” in order to deploy law-enforcement against otherwise lawful dissidents (such as those affiliated with the Tea Party).

In order to help diffuse this narrative, national security agencies were heavily restricted as to how they can monitor and prosecute right-wing groups. The DHS was stripped down to the point where they have, literally, one single analyst to monitor all non-Muslim domestic terror activity–and the organization no longer collects statistics on right-wing extremists at all.

There was absolutely no discussion of the threat posed by these ideologues in the recent White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. In fact, law enforcement and national security agencies are generally hesitant to even refer to acts committed by right-wing ideologues as terrorism. Joseph Andrew Stack’s 2010 suicide bombing of Austin’s Echelon Complex is a paradigmatic example:

His own manifesto clearly defines the U.S. Federal Government as motivating his attack—particularly grievances with the Internal Revenue Service (whose offices he struck). The document goes on to detail his intention to create a mass-casualty event as a catalyst for political change—more-or-less verbatim reflecting the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s own definition for terrorism. And yet, the FBI declared that the event was not being investigated as such—and there was no broader plan underway to help prevent subsequent attacks down the line.

Given this non-response from national security agencies, two weeks later the IRS began investigating Tea Party-affiliated groups itself. When this became public, it was immediately held up as further evidence of the Obama Administration using law enforcement to target political opponents. As a result of the political fallout from the scandal, rather than investigating right-wing terrorism, the FBI has instead opened a criminal probe against the IRS!

 

Continue reading “America’s Biggest Terror Threat is from the Far-Right, Not the Middle East”

What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)

Police brutality has been an integral part of the black experience since the birth of the modern law enforcement. Until recently, however, it was difficult to establish how stark or pervasive the problem was; this opacity plagues many aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system. In part, the data has been hard to come by due to the decentralized nature of policing in America: while the FBI attempts to collate national statistics on the use of force, they rely exclusively on voluntary reporting from America’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies–the overwhelming majority of which (more than 95%) do not participate fully or at all.

However, the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore have trained the social consciousness on police use of force. And as a result of open-source data mining and some outstanding investigative journalism, a clearer picture of the problem is finally beginning to emerge…and it isn’t pretty.

By the numbers

An in-depth report from the Washington Post identified nearly twice as many fatalities from police than FBI estimates–and this investigation only considered shootings. Over this same period dozens have been killed by Tasers, in chokeholds, by vehicles, or otherwise while in police custody. For information on these, The Guardian has a more comprehensive and interactive database, updated in real-time.

Some troubling patterns elucidated by these studies include:

  • On average, three people have been killed by police every single day in 2015—this equates to 1 out of every 15 homicides in the country (by all means).
  • Gunfire is the cause of 87% of police killings, and 82% of non-accidental line-of-duty police deaths (vs. 73% of all national homicides).
  • As of the time of writing, 419 Americans have been shot to death this year by police. These amount to nearly 1 out of every 12 gun deaths in the country overall. Over this same period, 14 police officers were casualties of hostile fire: for every cop killed by guns, the police shot nearly 30 civilians to death.
  • Adjusting for census data, blacks are killed at more than 3 times the rate of whites or other racial groups: while whites are nearly 64% of the total population, they only constitute about 51% of the total gunfire casualties (49% of overall police killings). By contrast, blacks amount to roughly 12% of the total population in America, but total 26% of police gunfire casualties (28% of overall police killings).
  • Nearly 1/10 of police shootings (and more than 1/5 of all police killings) are against people who are unarmed. For whites, the ratio is 1/16 shooting deaths (1/6 total casualties). For blacks, the unarmed ratio is more than 1/6 for shooting deaths, and roughly 1 out of every 3 total casualties. That is, police are twice as likely to kill an unarmed black suspect as an unarmed white one. But even among those suspects who were armed, dozens were killed while running away.
  • Nearly a quarter of those shot to death were known to be mentally ill or disabled.

 

Continue reading “What we now know about police brutality (and how to end it)”

Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL

The horrific rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has captured the world’s attention. Many Western commentators have insisted that ISIL’s crimes are unique, no longer practiced anywhere else in the civilized world. Worse still, they argue that the group’s barbaric practices are intrinsically Islamic, a product of the aggressive and archaic worldview which dominates the Muslim world.

The ignorance of these commentators is stunning. In fact, there are organizations whose depravity, scale, and threat to the United States far surpass that of ISIL. But these groups do not engender the kind of collective indignation and hysteria that ISIL provokes, begging the question: Are Americans truly concerned ISIL’s specific atrocities or the threat they supposedly pose? Or are they particularly disturbed because it is Muslims who are carrying out these actions, or posing this threat?

For example, even as U.S. media establishments and policymakers radically inflate the threat posed by ISIL to the Middle East and United States, most Americans appear to be unaware of the institutional magnitude of Mexican drug cartels, let alone the scale of their atrocities or the threat they pose to the U.S.:

Continue reading “Mexico’s Cartels Are More Depraved, Dangerous than ISIL”

A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program

“Before we can talk about what is ‘effective’ we have to talk about what the goal is of using military force at all. Is it to make Americans safer? Is it to keep Afghanis, Pakistanis or Yemenis safe? What’s the goal?  The question of being ‘effective’ – if you’re asking do drones work to kill people? Absolutely. Does that help anyone? That is a different question; we need to start with that.”
Phyllis Bennis, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies

 

“I’m really good at killing people.”
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Barack Hussein Obama, reflecting upon the U.S. drone program

 

Among critics of U.S. foreign policy, there is a particular fascination with Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. While primarily used in Pakistan and Yemen, the United States has also deployed armed drones in the theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia—using them for surveillance  across much of the world, including within its own borders; America has been relying upon  unmanned systems since the Vietnam War, although their use and capabilities have increased exponentially under the Obama Administration.

Due to the secrecy of the programs, there has been little reliable data on the UAV campaigns until recently; this has not prevented many from airing bold and largely unsubstantiated claims regarding the program and its effectiveness. However, to their credit, largely as a result of these activists’ persistence some reliable data is beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, most criticism of the UAV campaigns remains ill-conceived and misplaced:

Continue reading “A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program”

Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria

Jadaliyya “featured” my “Syria Contextualized: The Numbers Game” in their 4/4/2013 Syria Media Roundup. In a transparent attempt to “poison the well” against my findings (and in contrast with the neutral-to-positive tone with which literally all of the other articles were described), my paper was summarized as follows:

“Musa al-Gharbi argues that we do not have a clear picture of facts on the ground, claims that might have been pertinent one year ago but that seem problematic today.”

Ignoring the fact that the article in question was drafted in January 2013 and explicitly makes use of contemporary data, such as the UN casualty report which came out a few months ago (i.e. far less than “one year ago”)—is it the case that the article’s claims are no longer pertinent? If so, it would presumably be because either:

  1. We now have a clear picture of the facts on the ground
  2. The dynamics of the conflict have radically shifted on one or more of my major points, or
  3. The “facts on the ground” are no longer terribly important.

The first option seems ridiculous. The article demonstrated fairly robustly how statistics are being misused and misunderstood in discussing the Syrian conflict—there has been no improvement in the public discourse in the interim. It remains difficult to get reliable information, and virtually all data related to the conflict is rather-immediately politicized. Accordingly, the same myths which were highlighted in the paper are still being perpetuated—they are no more true today than they were when the paper was published.

A charitable interpretation of their evaluation may appeal to the third option: perhaps given the way the conflict has escalated, the “facts on the ground” are no longer so important. As the situation spins out of control, there may be a worry that such analyses seem to trivialize the conflict—or turn into an abstract discussion a situation which is life-or-death for so many within and around Syria. While sensitive to this concern, the takeaway from the article should be that this is a situation which calls for much more attention,  much more care, much more engagement. The purpose of the article was to prompt the public to look more deeply and listen more closely when faced with rhetoric related to the conflict—and to pressure policymakers to do the same.

It may be asserted that the conflict has reached a point where these sorts of discussions are moot: the international community cannot wait around for perfect data to act. Such an argument seems perplexing: it is precisely the gravity of the situation and its likely repercussions which demands more care. While we must always make decisions under uncertainty, there is no excuse to ignore information that we actually already have. Although there are reasons to be skeptical of some of the proposed “facts” (such as the casualty statistics), our analysis largely took for granted that the popular data were correct; our aspiration was to examine more closely what that data tells us—that is, to challenge the ways the intelligence has been interpreted and manipulated. And what the data suggests is that the policies of the United States and its allies vis a vis Syria have been wrong-headed; indeed, as it has been in Syria, so it has been throughout the Arab Spring. I will now briefly explain the (continued) significance of my findings:

Continue reading “Why the Numbers (Still) Matter in Syria”

Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Originally published in Middle East Policy, Vol. XX, No. 1 (Spring 2013)

Print version available here.

 

The popular discourse on the Syrian conflict has largely taken for granted that Bashar al-Asad and his regime are unpopular in Syria, the revolution is widely supported domestically, the rebels are “winning” the war, and the fall of the regime is inevitable and imminent. To justify their interpretation of the conflict, opposition activists, Western policy makers and media outlets make frequent reference to a number of “facts,” often statistical in nature. However, should we contextualize this data more rigorously, it becomes apparent that a radically different dynamic may be at work “on the ground” in Syria. This becomes important, as a more nuanced understanding of what is happening will have implications for what strategy the United States should pursue.

 

Continue reading “Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers”