House of Smoke Signals

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Since day one, President Donald Trump has managed to turn attention on himself entirely. The day after the inauguration, Washington, D.C. flooded with people of all colors and ages. The gathering was, like Obama’s two inaugurations, three times larger than the 45th president’s inauguration. I spent the day walking and biking around the streets for six hours. It was a fantastic event — a people’s event, as the prevalent populist jargon of the moment likes to call any political gathering. The march on Washington was massive. And even after hours of walking through the crowd while trying to find the head and the tail of the march, I only encountered a flood — rivers of people endlessly pouring out of the subways and Union Station, heading down to the streets that host the seats of political power. Nobody complained because of the train delays in that mass of well-intentioned but very determined folks. Some of them even showed their naked bodies at a safe distance from the man who professed a penchant for grabbing women’s crotches. I hardly remember this kind of event in my life. People were marching — or rather walking — and overtaking the city with no apparent goal but showing themselves as they were: citizens who were offended by their president. There was no leader of the march, no violence. There weren’t even many police on the streets. And of those who were, some were wearing pink pussy hats, too. It was incredibly satisfying, and I came home late and exhausted only to realize that it did not happen. Or rather, it might as well not have. The massive event on the streets of Washington, D.C. that by itself deserved some reflection was quickly moved to the back pages of the media, making space for the performance of a single man.

On the first day of his rule, President Trump drove over to Langley, the headquarters of the CIA, in a long motorcade. The visit came after he compared intel agencies to Nazis and called them incapable of doing their job. Predictably, there was a media event at the end of the visit, which Trump also used to talk about the press incorrectly reporting the number of the people who attended the inauguration the day before. The count of the audience and the related discussion in the media went on for two days with the help of an incredibly aggressive performance by the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer.

As I see it now, it was all orchestrated to the extent that even Steven Bannon’s offensive words a few days later make you think that there’s an incredibly capable PR war machine in the White House. A ministry of propaganda is akin to the Ministry of Truth from Orwell’s 1984. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Mr. Bannon told New York Times. “I want you to quote this. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”

So what is the overconfident Bannon trying to tell us? I did say several times that we should look at what government does and not what it says. But unfortunately, the structure of cable networks is built so that they must try to broadcast breaking news several times a day, and Trump, Bannon and the rest of their crew know that. They have no problem saying any lie to feed the networks — post-truth, alternative facts, they called it.

So on the surface of the reports, we got a lot about President Trump, with his “obedient” advisers making a circle around him. Trump, occasionally acting like a real father, shows off — signing executive orders that are meant to change the world and bestow Trump as the one and only true leader. A hard-working president who, with the touch of a magic stick, changes everything for the better. In many ways, he makes me think of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The list of executive orders that President Trump has signed so far is long, and they are coming with such speed that nobody has time enough to fact-check them or open a debate on what consequences each one might have — or if they can be implemented at all.

When you add the president’s tweets — which outnumber White House communications so far — the range of the media smoke screen gets even larger.

As the East Asia Forum reports, even China is worried about the president’s tweets. They were the first to hope that Trump would stop tweeting once he was in the White House. No such luck. The twitter bombs continue, and the latest victim of the killing tweets is Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto who learned from Trump’s tweet that he should not come to visit if Mexico does not intend to pay for the wall. In answer to his American counterpart, Peña Nieto tweeted back and “officially” canceled his visit to Washington. We have no idea whether this sequence of events has been documented in the White House records. Or has the National Archives already opened a section for imperial tweets?

It occurs to me that this is perhaps part of why China keeps up a social media firewall — as long as China continues to have a collective government, they will never be able to adapt to governing with tweets. Or rather, they do not want to be fired by a presidential tweet. Five thousand years of history canceled by a tweet? The man is insane, Beijing must think.

So far, Trump’s biggest official propaganda campaigns were the debates about the number of the people at the inauguration, the imaginary number of illegal immigrants voting in the presidential election, and the wall with Mexico. All three campaigns are a smoke screen launched by the government. They are irrelevant, null — but they are noisy. The media makes them loud. So Bannon is right. The media should not report on those. Instead, there are more important things happening — and so far, very few news organization are disclosing them. One of the few is NPR, which just came out with two great reports involving silent White House operations. One is the continued dismantling of very sensitive — if not vital — state apparatuses, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whose jobs and budget will be cut radically, and the State Department, where many expert diplomats have been told to leave. NPR quoted Richard Boucher — until recently a long-time career diplomat:

Nobody’s quite sure where the policy’s going to go. Nobody’s quite sure if the president and the new secretary know how to use the diplomatic apparatus that they’ve inherited.”

And Boucher, who’s now with Brown University, says there’s a lot of concern that the National Security Council at the White House is being staffed mostly by military and intelligence officials, not diplomats. He jokes that he should be the last one to complain about that, having been spokesman for Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired general.

“The military uses terms – probably the ones that appeal to the president. You know, we’re going to dominate the situation. We’re going to conquer this problem. We’re going to eradicate the bad things. And diplomats don’t do that. Diplomats have to sort of deal with the messiness of the world and manage it.

So it looks like long, discreet diplomatic negotiations and so-called diplomatic channels will be replaced not just by tweets, but by short military orders, too?

NPR also dug out a report on the activation of safe zones that are supposed to stop the influx of refugees from Syria. It’s a very complex and costly operation, but as it looks now, it could create the conditions for cooperation between Russia and America in the region.

It is not worth spending more time guessing at the nature of President Trump’s character. His apparent narcissism and continued erratic, hyperactive behavior is in plain view for everyone to see, and could be a symptom of many things. This notwithstanding, there is no doubt that what Trump is doing is coherent and almost scientific. Whether it’s the right thing to do or is good for the world is another issue, which the Atlantic seems to ignore while attempting to comprehend the storm that America has found itself in — and that the rest of the world will soon be steeped in, as well. But it is fundamental that this craze ends as soon as possible, and that the world discusses what is happening without waiting for more of the same — and before millions more fall victim to something much more serious than the present hysteria.

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