John Feffer

The collapse of empire and the age of billionaires

It was supposed to be the greatest transition of modern times.

Practically overnight, a dirty, inefficient, and unjust system that encompassed 11 time zones was to undergo an extreme makeover. Billions of dollars were available to speed the process. A new crew of transition experts came up with the blueprint and the public was overwhelmingly on board. Best of all, this great leap forward would serve as a model for all countries desperate to exit a failed status quo.

That's not what happened.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Russia emerged from its wreckage as the largest successor state, government officials in the newly elected administration of Boris Yeltsin teamed up with a cadre of foreign experts to chart a path into a post-Soviet system of democracy and free markets. The West offered billions of dollars in loans while the Russians generated more funds through the privatization of state assets. With all those resources, Russia could have become an enormous Sweden of the east.

Instead, much of that wealth disappeared into the pockets of newly minted oligarchs. During the 1990s, Russia suffered an economic catastrophe, with the equivalent of $20 to $25 billion leaving the country every year and the gross domestic product (GDP) falling nearly 40% between 1991 and 1998. The Soviet Union once had the second-largest economy on earth. Today, thanks only to a reliance on Soviet-era fossil-fuel and arms-export industries, Russia hovers just outside the top 10 in total economic output, ranking below Italy and India, but still manages only 78th place — that is, below Romania — in per-capita GDP.

The failures of the Russian transition can be chalked up to the collapse of empire, decades of economic decay, the vengeful triumphalism of the West, the unchecked venality of local opportunists, or all of the above. It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss such a cautionary tale as a mere historic peculiarity.

If we're not careful, the Russian past could well become humanity's future: a transition bungled, a golden opportunity squandered.

After all, the world is now poised to spend trillions of dollars for an even more massive transition, this time from a similarly dirty, inefficient, and unjust economy based on fossil fuels to… what? If the international community somehow learns the lessons of past transitions, someday we will all live in a far more equitable, carbon-neutral world powered by renewable energy.

But don't bet on it. The world is slowly replacing dirty energy with renewables but without addressing any of the industrial-strength problems of the current system. It should remind us of the way the Russians replaced state planning with free markets, only to end up with the shortcomings of capitalism as well as many of the ills of the previous order. And that's not even the worst-case scenario. The transition might not happen at all or the decarbonization process could be so endlessly drawn out over decades as to be wholly ineffectual.

The proponents of Green New Deals promise win-win outcomes: solar panels and wind turbines will produce abundant energy cheaply, the climate crisis will abate, workers will leave dirty jobs for cleaner ones, and the Global North will help the Global South leapfrog into a gloriously Green future. In reality, however, transitions of such a scale and urgency have never been win-win. In the case of Russia's transition from communism, nearly everyone lost out, and the country is still suffering the consequences. Other large-scale transformations of the past — like the agrarian and industrial revolutions — were similarly catastrophic in their own ways.

In the end, perhaps a key part of the problem lies not just in the flawed status quo, but in the mechanism of transition itself.

Pyramids of Sacrifice

Transitions can have harsh, even genocidal consequences. Just ask the Neanderthals.

Oh, sorry, you can't. They were wiped out 40,000 years ago in the great transition to modern homo sapiens. Those early hominids left behind some bones, a few tools, and a small percentage of DNA in the contemporary human genome. Neanderthals might have died out because of inbreeding or due to climate change. More likely, they were killed off by our ancestors over thousands of years of conflict. Poor Neanderthals: they were among the eggs that had to be broken to make the omelet that's us.

The fate of the Neanderthals is extreme, but not unique. Whenever humans take a great leap forward, they tend to do so over an enormous pile of bones.

Take the agrarian revolution, which spelled the end for hunter-gatherers, except for those who survived in isolated areas like the Amazon rainforest. On the plus side, humanity received the gift of civilization in the form of politics, trade, and literacy. On the negative side, as anthropologist Jared Diamond argued in a famous 1999 Discover article, the Neolithic transformation spawned disease, malnutrition, and gross economic inequality. It was, Diamond concluded, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race."

Ten thousand years later, humanity might have committed the worst mistake in the history of the planet. Sure, the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century eventually led to extended lifespans, food enough to feed the world, and TikTok. But the application of modern science and engineering to economic affairs also set in motion a ruinous despoliation of the planet. More ominously, as everyone who has gazed at the "hockey-stick" graph of carbon emissions knows, the industrial revolution marked the first time that humans, perhaps irrevocably, began changing this planet's climate by burning fossil fuels at an ever more staggering rate.

The new religion of economic growth at any cost also exacted a human toll. Children were put to work in the "dark satanic mills" of the early factories; a new proletariat was consigned to lives nasty, brutish, and short; and millions died as colonialism cut a huge swath of destruction through the global south. The oligarchs of the time, enriched by plunder and exploitation, created a Gilded Age of astounding economic inequality that, despite the best efforts of trade unions and social democrats, has made a striking reappearance in our own Age of Billionaires.

Though critical of the cruelties of capitalism, communists turned out to worship the same god of economic growth. Leaders from Vladimir Lenin onward firmly believed that state-led modernization and coercive tactics would enable new communist states to outproduce any capitalist country. Yet, in telescoping decades of industrial modernization into a few short years, their efforts to surpass the West magnified the horrors visited upon local populations. The collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union in the 1930s led to around 10 million deaths, while the similar Great Leap Forward in China that began in 1958 cost the lives of as many as 45 million people. As the bodies piled up, the communist 1% — a new class of Party officials and their cronies — orchestrated their own personal leap forward.

For sociologist Peter Berger, communism and capitalism both adopted a "sacrificial" conception of development in which myths of "progress" and "growth" claimed their share of victims, much as Aztec priests had once used ritual murder to propitiate the gods and save their civilization. In his book Pyramids of Sacrifice, Berger writes that the "elite almost invariably legitimates its privileged position in terms of alleged benefits it is bestowing or getting ready to bestow upon 'the people.'" More often than not, however, these promised benefits accrue to the elite, not the masses.

Which brings us again to the "great transitions" of the 1990s, in which countries that had gone down the road to communism doubled back to take the turn-off for capitalism. The losses for Russia in the 1990s were nothing like the horrors of collectivization. Still, aside from a small number of people who made out like bandits, virtually all other Russians took a step backward as the costs of transition fell disproportionately on pensioners, blue-collar workers, and farmers. As a result, in the early 1990s, one-third of Russians dropped below the poverty line. Due to a combination of alcoholism and unemployment, the life expectancy of Russian men suffered an extraordinary decline from 63 years in 1990 to 58 years in 2000. Disillusionment with liberalization helped to boost popular support for Vladimir Putin, a politician who has skillfully capitalized on those thwarted hopes. His approval ratings still remain relatively high so many years later, even though only 27% of Russians believe that their economic situation today is better than during Soviet times.

The rest of the former Soviet bloc suffered similar, though less severe, dislocations. In Poland, the first country to experiment with the "shock therapy" of an overnight transition to capitalism, the winners came to be known as Poland A, a younger, more well-educated, predominantly urban elite that successfully surfed the waves of change. Poland B — the older, less educated, more rural "losers" of that transition — would eventually exact their revenge at the ballot box by supporting the decidedly anti-liberal Law and Justice Party, which has ruled the country since 2015. Throughout the region, an Eastern Europe B has helped bring similar right-wing populists to power in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, and Slovenia.

Disenchantment with such liberal transitions notwithstanding, those countries benefited from something that wasn't available to Russia: the European Union (EU). A continuous flow of capital, and the provision of technical assistance on governance and the rule of law eventually enabled Eastern European countries to outperform their Russian neighbor. A large gap still separates much of Eastern Europe from the wealthier West, but the average Russian can only dream of the life of a second-class EU citizen.

Both of these experiences of transition offer valuable lessons for what may come next.

The Green New Deal

If you take the statements of the world's governments at face value, almost everyone is now treating climate change very seriously and nations globally are feeling the heat to declare carbon-neutrality by 2050 (or sooner). In August, articles about the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), emphasizing that global warming is "widespread, rapid, and intensifying," were accompanied by terrifying photos of its real-world effects: the wildfires in California and Siberia, the disastrous flooding in Germany and China, the record-setting temperatures in Canada and Sicily, and that's just to start down a list of climate disasters. Your head — or indeed, your entire body — would have had to be in the sand to ignore the emergency sirens going off all around you.

Nonetheless, despite such obvious warning signs of so much worse to come, the world has not, in fact, accelerated its pace of decarbonization. The next major climate-change conference is scheduled for Glasgow at the beginning of November, but the globe's leading economies are all still falling painfully short of the commitments they made in Paris nearly six years ago. More horrifying yet, the IPCC reports that, even if countries were meeting those commitments, they would, by 2030, result in a mere 1% reduction in carbon emissions from 2010 levels. To avoid the worst-case scenarios of an overcooked planet, those emissions would have to be cut by nearly 50% within the next nine years. Only a couple of countries are preparing for such a dramatic transformation.

The time for modest reforms is long past. A radical cut in carbon emissions can't be accomplished simply by banning drinking straws, ramping up production of electric cars, or even planting a billion trees. To meet the climate-change challenge will require a transformation comparable to the agrarian or industrial revolutions. But if those earlier system changes are guideposts, the losers of this next great leap forward will be legion.

Various "just transition" proposals are designed, at least on paper, to avoid such an enormous human toll. For a start, a "fair-share" approach would require the transfer of trillions of dollars to help the Global South keep fossil fuels in the ground while shifting to renewable energy. A similar approach within nations would provide the "losers of transition"– from coal miners to those on fixed incomes — with targeted assistance to "go green."

Alas, such an approach runs counter to current practices. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, for instance, the international community did not implement a "fair share" approach. The wealthiest countries largely cornered the market on vaccines, and poorer countries have had to rely on a trickle of handouts. Moreover, despite the unprecedented opportunity provided by the Covid crisis to begin to act on the next coming disaster, climate change, governments have generally failed to allocate recovery funds to finance any kind of major economic transformation. In the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan of 2021, for example, a mere $50 million went to environmental justice grants, while $8 billion went to airports. Similarly, fully one-tenth of the $1 trillion infrastructure bill now making its way (or not) through Congress is devoted to improvements to roads and bridges, which will only reinforce America's love affair with cars, SUVs, and trucks.

And where is the necessary shift of resources to the Global South to help with its transition? Back in 2009, rich countries had already promised to mobilize $100 billion for such climate financing by 2020. They're still $20 billion short and the assistance has come mostly in the form of loans, not grants, only deepening the dependence and indebtedness of the Global South.

Worse yet, richer countries have been at least modestly reducing their own carbon footprints at the expense of poorer countries by relocating polluting industries to the Global South or substituting carbon-intensive imports for domestic production of the same. Although China continues to boost its share of domestic renewable sources of energy, it's been financing 70% of all coal-fired power plants built globally (though its leader, Xi Jinping, recently pledged to end this practice). The European Union is actually phasing out coal power — which China is emphatically not doing — even as it continues to rely on high-carbon imports from coal-using countries like Russia, Turkey, Morocco, and Egypt.

To combat such a shift of carbon emissions from north to south — and protect its own less carbon-intensive industries — the European Union has proposed a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which penalizes imports of cement, fertilizer, steel, and the like based on the amount of carbon emitted in their production. Hitting Russia the hardest, this tariff would indeed push that country toward a "greener" manufacturing process for its Europe-bound products. However, countries in the Global South that don't have the resources to upgrade their export industries would be left out in the cold.

This lack of resources in the Global South is compounded by debt. The poorest nations are devoting nearly $3 billion a month to servicing their debts, diverting resources that could otherwise go into a transformation of energy and industrial infrastructure. Bridging this divide would require large-scale debt forgiveness; equitable debt-for-climate swaps; or, more ambitiously, an Organization for Emergency Environmental Cooperation that would marshal trillions of dollars in public financing to pay for the entire world to transition to clean energy.

Here, the experience of Eastern Europe is relevant. The European Union's transfer of resources, training, and technology from west to east helped cushion the transition that so devastated Russia. Although not enough to prevent the rise of Eastern Europe B, the EU's modest generosity at least gestured toward the kind of solidarity economics that the Global North needs to adopt in any future climate negotiations with the Global South. If there is to be belt-tightening to shrink the global carbon footprint, those who can most afford to lose the weight should step forward.

Such schemes address the all-important question of equity. But there's an elephant in the room that's so far gone unmentioned. And that beast is only getting bigger.

A Rising Tide

All the major transformations of the past were predicated on rapid economic growth, whether the increasing food production of the agrarian revolution or the incorporation of the Soviet Union into the industrialized world through its Five-Year Plans. Most versions of the Green New Deal adhere to the same growth paradigm, with electric cars filling the roads and more sustainably produced widgets circulating through the global economy.

Even as richer countries promise to shrink their carbon footprints, however, they still imagine that they can maintain their overall way of life and export that lifestyle to the rest of the world. But this high-energy lifestyle of computers, air conditioners, and electric SUVs depends on the Global South. By one estimate, the Global North enjoys a $2.2 trillion annual benefit in the form of underpriced labor and commodities from there, an extraction that rivals the magnitude of the colonial era. Moreover, the cobalt and lithium necessary for batteries for electric cars, the gallium and tellurium in solar panels, the rare-earth elements needed for wind turbines are predominantly mined in the Global South and their extraction is likely to come at a huge environmental cost.

The high-growth assumptions of the current system reappear under the rubric of "Green growth," promulgated by old-style industrialists in new Green clothing. During the transition from communism in the 1990s, "red capitalists" were well-placed in the old system to profit under the new dispensation. Today, a class of "green capitalists" have similarly emerged to enjoy huge profits from the early days of a putatively post-carbon economy — Elon Musk in the world of electric cars, billionaires like Robin Zeng and Huang Shilin with lithium-ion batteries, and Aloys Wobben when it comes to wind turbines. Huge sums of money are now available for the sketchiest of projects, from "blue hydrogen" to the sea-bed mining of rare-earth minerals.

Big profits minus serious regulatory oversight equals the possibility of big-time malfeasance. Fraud was rampant in European wind farms in the 1990s, while renewable energy companies in the Global North have been implicated in bribery schemes in the Global South. The additional bonanza of Green funds through recovery, infrastructure, or transition programs — like the one-time financial resources made available by Russian privatization — could easily disappear into dubious private ventures, bureaucratic black holes, or the swamplands of corruption.

A rising tide, it was once said, would lift all boats: economic growth would lead to general prosperity. But a "rising tide" now has a different meaning in a climate-changing world. The planet can no longer support that kind of growth, whatever its color.

The next transformation must be different from its precursors when it comes to both economic expansion and social equity. We can't simply grow our way out of this predicament, nor should we sacrifice millions of human beings in the process. Despite the enormous economic and political gaps that separate people around the world, we have to somehow join hands across vast differences to leapfrog over the fossil-fuel economy. United we transform or united we fall.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot. More information about the new IPS project on a Global Just Transition can be found here.

Artificial intelligence is hurtling us toward humanity's inflection point — and we're not ready

My wife and I were recently driving in Virginia, amazed yet again that the GPS technology on our phones could guide us through a thicket of highways, around road accidents, and toward our precise destination. The artificial intelligence (AI) behind the soothing voice telling us where to turn has replaced passenger-seat navigators, maps, even traffic updates on the radio. How on earth did we survive before this technology arrived in our lives? We survived, of course, but were quite literally lost some of the time.

My reverie was interrupted by a toll booth. It was empty, as were all the other booths at this particular toll plaza. Most cars zipped through with E-Z passes, as one automated device seamlessly communicated with another. Unfortunately, our rental car didn't have one.

So I prepared to pay by credit card, but the booth lacked a credit-card reader.

Okay, I thought, as I pulled out my wallet, I'll use cash to cover the $3.25.

As it happened, that booth took only coins and who drives around with 13 quarters in his or her pocket?

I would have liked to ask someone that very question, but I was, of course, surrounded by mute machines. So, I simply drove through the electronic stile, preparing myself for the bill that would arrive in the mail once that plaza's automated system photographed and traced our license plate.

In a thoroughly mundane fashion, I'd just experienced the age-old conflict between the limiting and liberating sides of technology. The arrowhead that can get you food for dinner might ultimately end up lodged in your own skull. The car that transports you to a beachside holiday contributes to the rising tides — by way of carbon emissions and elevated temperatures — that may someday wash away that very coastal gem of a place. The laptop computer that plugs you into the cyberworld also serves as the conduit through which hackers can steal your identity and zero out your bank account.

In the previous century, technology reached a true watershed moment when humans, harnessing the power of the atom, also acquired the capacity to destroy the entire planet. Now, thanks to AI, technology is hurtling us toward a new inflection point.

Science-fiction writers and technologists have long worried about a future in which robots, achieving sentience, take over the planet. The creation of a machine with human-like intelligence that could someday fool us into believing it's one of us has often been described, with no small measure of trepidation, as the "singularity." Respectable scientists like Stephen Hawking have argued that such a singularity will, in fact, mark the "end of the human race."

This will not be some impossibly remote event like the sun blowing up in a supernova several billion years from now. According to one poll, AI researchers reckon that there's at least a 50-50 chance that the singularity will occur by 2050. In other words, if pessimists like Hawking are right, it's odds on that robots will dispatch humanity before the climate crisis does.

Neither the artificial intelligence that powers GPS nor the kind that controlled that frustrating toll plaza has yet attained anything like human-level intelligence — not even close. But in many ways, such dumb robots are already taking over the world. Automation is currently displacing millions of workers, including those former tollbooth operators. "Smart" machines like unmanned aerial vehicles have become an indispensable part of waging war. AI systems are increasingly being deployed to monitor our every move on the Internet, through our phones, and whenever we venture into public space. Algorithms are replacing teaching assistants in the classroom and influencing sentencing in courtrooms. Some of the loneliest among us have already become dependent on robot pets.

As AI capabilities continue to improve, the inescapable political question will become: to what extent can such technologies be curbed and regulated? Yes, the nuclear genie is out of the bottle as are other technologies — biological and chemical — capable of causing mass destruction of a kind previously unimaginable on this planet. With AI, however, that day of singularity is still in the future, even if a rapidly approaching one. It should still be possible, at least theoretically, to control such an outcome before there's nothing to do but play the whack-a-mole game of non-proliferation after the fact.

As long as humans continue to behave badly on a global scale — war, genocide, planet-threatening carbon emissions — it's difficult to imagine that anything we create, however intelligent, will act differently. And yet we continue to dream that some deus in machina, a god in the machine, could appear as if by magic to save us from ourselves.

Taming AI?

In the early 1940s, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov formulated his famed three laws of robotics: that robots were not to harm humans, directly or indirectly; that they must obey our commands (unless doing so violates the first law); and that they must safeguard their own existence (unless self-preservation contravenes the first two laws).

Any number of writers have attempted to update Asimov. The latest is legal scholar Frank Pasquale, who has devised four laws to replace Asimov's three. Since he's a lawyer not a futurist, Pasquale is more concerned with controlling the robots of today than hypothesizing about the machines of tomorrow. He argues that robots and AI should help professionals, not replace them; that they should not counterfeit humans; that they should never become part of any kind of arms race; and that their creators, controllers, and owners should always be transparent.

Pasquale's "laws," however, run counter to the artificial-intelligence trends of our moment. The prevailing AI ethos mirrors what could be considered the prime directive of Silicon Valley: move fast and break things. This philosophy of disruption demands, above all, that technology continuously drive down labor costs and regularly render itself obsolescent.

In the global economy, AI indeed helps certain professionals — like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who just happen to be among the richest people on the planet — but it's also replacing millions of us. In the military sphere, automation is driving boots off the ground and eyes into the sky in a coming robotic world of war. And whether it's Siri, the bots that guide increasingly frustrated callers through automated phone trees, or the AI that checks out Facebook posts, the aim has been to counterfeit human beings — "machines like me," as Ian McEwan called them in his 2019 novel of that title — while concealing the strings that connect the creation to its creator.

Pasquale wants to apply the brakes on a train that has not only left the station but no longer is under the control of the engine driver. It's not difficult to imagine where such a runaway phenomenon could end up and techno-pessimists have taken a perverse delight in describing the resulting cataclysm. In his book Superintelligence, for instance, Nick Bostrom writes about a sandstorm of self-replicating nanorobots that chokes every living thing on the planet — the so-called grey goo problem — and an AI that seizes power by "hijacking political processes."

Since they would be interested only in self-preservation and replication, not protecting humanity or following its orders, such sentient machines would clearly tear up Asimov's rulebook. Futurists have leapt into the breach. For instance, Ray Kurzweil, who predicted in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near that a robot would attain sentience by about 2045, has proposed a "ban on self-replicating physical entities that contain their own codes for self-replication." Elon Musk, another billionaire industrialist who's no enemy of innovation, has called AI humanity's "biggest existential threat" and has come out in favor of a ban on future killer robots.

To prevent the various worst-case scenarios, the European Union has proposed to control AI according to degree of risk. Some products that fall in the EU's "high risk" category would have to get a kind of Good Housekeeping seal of approval (the Conformité Européenne). AI systems "considered a clear threat to the safety, livelihoods, and rights of people," on the other hand, would be subject to an outright ban. Such clear-and-present dangers would include, for instance, biometric identification that captures personal data by such means as facial recognition, as well as versions of China's social credit system where AI helps track individuals and evaluate their overall trustworthiness.

Techno-optimists have predictably lambasted what they consider European overreach. Such controls on AI, they believe, will put a damper on R&D and, if the United States follows suit, allow China to secure an insuperable technological edge in the field. "If the member states of the EU — and their allies across the Atlantic — are serious about competing with China and retaining their power status (as well as the quality of life they provide to their citizens)," writes entrepreneur Sid Mohasseb in Newsweek, "they need to call for a redraft of these regulations, with growth and competition being seen as at least as important as regulation and safety."

Mohasseb's concerns are, however, misleading. The regulators he fears so much are, in fact, now playing a game of catch-up. In the economy and on the battlefield, to take just two spheres of human activity, AI has already become indispensable.

The Automation of Globalization

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of global supply chains. The world economy nearly ground to a halt in 2020 for one major reason: the health of human workers. The spread of infection, the risk of contagion, and the efforts to contain the pandemic all removed workers from the labor force, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Factories shut down, gaps widened in transportation networks, and shops lost business to online sellers.

A desire to cut labor costs, a major contributor to a product's price tag, has driven corporations to look for cheaper workers overseas. For such cost-cutters, eliminating workers altogether is an even more beguiling prospect. Well before the pandemic hit, corporations had begun to turn to automation. By 2030, up to 45 million U.S. workers will be displaced by robots. The World Bank estimates that they will eventually replace an astounding 85% of the jobs in Ethiopia, 77% in China, and 72% in Thailand."

The pandemic not only accelerated this trend, but increased economic inequality as well because, at least for now, robots tend to replace the least skilled workers. In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, 43% of businesses indicated that they would reduce their workforces through the increased use of technology. "Since the pandemic hit," reports NBC News,

"food manufacturers ramped up their automation, allowing facilities to maintain output while social distancing. Factories digitized controls on their machines so they could be remotely operated by workers working from home or another location. New sensors were installed that can flag, or predict, failures, allowing teams of inspectors operating on a schedule to be reduced to an as-needed maintenance crew."

In an ideal world, robots and AI would increasingly take on all the dirty, dangerous, and demeaning jobs globally, freeing humans to do more interesting work. In the real world, however, automation is often making jobs dirtier and more dangerous by, for instance, speeding up the work done by the remaining human labor force. Meanwhile, robots are beginning to encroach on what's usually thought of as the more interesting kinds of work done by, for example, architects and product designers.

In some cases, AI has even replaced managers. A contract driver for Amazon, Stephen Normandin, discovered that the AI system that monitored his efficiency as a deliveryman also used an automated email to fire him when it decided he wasn't up to snuff. Jeff Bezos may be stepping down as chief executive of Amazon, but robots are quickly climbing its corporate ladder and could prove at least as ruthless as he's been, if not more so.

Mobilizing against such a robot replacement army could prove particularly difficult as corporate executives aren't the only ones putting out the welcome mat. Since fully automated manufacturing in "dark factories" doesn't require lighting, heating, or a workforce that commutes to the site by car, that kind of production can reduce a country's carbon footprint — a potentially enticing factor for "green growth" advocates and politicians desperate to meet their Paris climate targets.

It's possible that sentient robots won't need to devise ingenious stratagems for taking over the world. Humans may prove all too willing to give semi-intelligent machines the keys to the kingdom.

The New Fog of War

The 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan proved to be unlike any previous military conflict. The two countries had been fighting since the 1980s over a disputed mountain enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenia proved the clear victor in conflict that followed in the early 1990s, occupying not only the disputed territory but parts of Azerbaijan as well.

In September 2020, as tensions mounted between the two countries, Armenia was prepared to defend those occupied territories with a well-equipped army of tanks and artillery. Thanks to its fossil-fuel exports, Azerbaijan, however, had been spending considerably more than Armenia on the most modern version of military preparedness. Still, Armenian leaders often touted their army as the best in the region. Indeed, according to the 2020 Global Militarization Index, that country was second only to Israel in terms of its level of militarization.

Yet Azerbaijan was the decisive winner in the 2020 conflict, retaking possession of Nagorno-Karabkah. The reason: automation.

"Azerbaijan used its drone fleet — purchased from Israel and Turkey — to stalk and destroy Armenia's weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defenses and enabling a swift advance," reported the Washington Post's Robyn Dixon. "Armenia found that air defense systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of them older Soviet systems, were impossible to defend against drone attacks, and losses quickly piled up."

Armenian soldiers, notorious for their fierceness, were spooked by the semi-autonomous weapons regularly above them. "The soldiers on the ground knew they could be hit by a drone circling overhead at any time," noted Mark Sullivan in the business magazine Fast Company. "The drones are so quiet they wouldn't hear the whir of the propellers until it was too late. And even if the Armenians did manage to shoot down one of the drones, what had they really accomplished? They'd merely destroyed a piece of machinery that would be replaced."

The United States pioneered the use of drones against various non-state adversaries in its war on terror in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. But in its 2020 campaign, Azerbaijan was using the technology to defeat a modern army. Now, every military will feel compelled not only to integrate increasingly more powerful AI into its offensive capabilities, but also to defend against the new technology.

To stay ahead of the field, the United States is predictably pouring money into the latest technologies. The new Pentagon budget includes the "largest ever" request for R&D, including a down payment of nearly a billion dollars for AI. As TomDispatch regular Michael Klare has written, the Pentagon has even taken a cue from the business world by beginning to replace its war managers — generals — with a huge, interlinked network of automated systems known as the Joint All-Domain Command-and-Control (JADC2).

The result of any such handover of greater responsibility to machines will be the creation of what mathematician Cathy O'Neill calls "weapons of math destruction." In the global economy, AI is already replacing humans up and down the chain of production. In the world of war, AI could in the end annihilate people altogether, whether thanks to human design or computer error.

After all, during the Cold War, only last-minute interventions by individuals on both sides ensured that nuclear "missile attacks" detected by Soviet and American computers — which turned out to be birds, unusual weather, or computer glitches — didn't precipitate an all-out nuclear war. Take the human being out of the chain of command and machines could carry out such a genocide all by themselves.

And the fault, dear reader, would lie not in our robots but in ourselves.

Robots of Last Resort

In my new novel Songlands, humanity faces a terrible set of choices in 2052. Having failed to control carbon emissions for several decades, the world is at the point of no return, too late for conventional policy fixes. The only thing left is a scientific Hail Mary pass, an experiment in geoengineering that could fail or, worse, have terrible unintended consequences. The AI responsible for ensuring the success of the experiment may or may not be trustworthy. My dystopia, like so many others, is really about a narrowing of options and a whittling away of hope, which is our current trajectory.

And yet, we still have choices. We could radically shift toward clean energy and marshal resources for the whole world, not just its wealthier portions, to make the leap together. We could impose sensible regulations on artificial intelligence. We could debate the details of such programs in democratic societies and in participatory multilateral venues.

Or, throwing up our hands because of our unbridgeable political differences, we could wait for a post-Trumpian savior to bail us out. Techno-optimists hold out hope that automation will set us free and save the planet. Laissez-faire enthusiasts continue to believe that the invisible hand of the market will mysteriously direct capital toward planet-saving innovations instead of SUVs and plastic trinkets.

These are illusions. As I write in Songlands, we have always hoped for someone or something to save us: "God, a dictator, technology. For better or worse, the only answer to our cries for help is an echo."

In the end, robots won't save us. That's one piece of work that can't be outsourced or automated. It's a job that only we ourselves can do.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

Mordern dystopias: Still hanging on the edge in the pandemic twilight

I went to a birthday party recently.

The celebrants greeted each other with hugs on the patio. After an outdoor barbeque dinner, we stood shoulder to shoulder around the island in the kitchen, eating cake from small paper plates. We sang "Happy Birthday."

Ordinarily, an event like that wouldn't be worth noting, but these aren't exactly ordinary times. In this twilight world of ours, half-in and half-out of a pandemic, hanging around without masks and within spitting distance of vaccinated friends should be considered just this side of miraculous — a combination of luck, privilege, and a stunning series of events on a national scale that would strain credibility in a work of fiction.

To get to that birthday party required, first of all, surviving the pandemic, which has so far killed somewhere between 600,000 and 900,000 Americans, while infecting as much as one-third of the population (including, months earlier, a couple of the guests at that very birthday party). No foreign enemy has ever inflicted such casualties on America, and never in our lifetimes have American civilians faced such a catastrophic breakdown in homeland security.

Nor has the international scientific community ever responded with such dispatch and efficacy to a global crisis. Less than a year from the date of the initial outbreak, not one but several Covid-19 vaccines had been developed, tested, and approved. Then came the anxious wait for eligibility and the constant refreshing of vaccination websites to try to schedule an appointment. Only when enough people like me had gone through the extended regimen of inoculation and after the infection rate had begun to fall rapidly did officials in my home state of Maryland begin to lift quarantine restrictions.

Even though everyone at that birthday party was fully vaccinated, I still felt uncomfortably vulnerable without my mask. I hesitated before hugging people. My hands itched for a squirt of sanitizer. It was, in other words, a celebration tempered by uncertainty. We were navigating new rules of social discourse: Handshake? Bear hug? Peck on the cheek? And no one dared jinx the celebration by saying, as we normally would have, "Next year, same time, same place."

By temperament, I'm an optimist. By profession, however, I'm a pessimist. In my day job as a foreign-policy analyst and in the speculative realm as the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy of novels, I'm constantly considering worst-case scenarios.

So, yes, I'm well aware that Covid-19 infection rates have dropped to levels not seen in a year and that the United States may indeed be on track to reach a 70% vaccination rate among adults by July 4th, which could, as the president has promised, offer us a new version of "Independence Day." But this country is still experiencing the same number of infections (tens of thousands) and deaths (hundreds) as it did during the lull following the first outbreak last year. More infectious variants of the disease continue to emerge globally, most recently in India, where the numbers have been horrific, as well as in Vietnam. The current vaccines reportedly stave off such variants, but what about the next ones?

My professional dystopianism extends to the political sphere. I'm grateful on a daily basis that Donald Trump is no longer in the Oval Office or blathering on Twitter. I now take for granted a Democratic Congress (however marginally controlled), which seemed like a longshot last Election Day.

But let's face it, politically, things could go south fast. Even though the Democrats are working overtime to inoculate this country's economy with one stimulus shot after another, the Republicans could retake the Senate and even the House in 2022, and, three years from now, Donald Trump could still prove to be a viable presidential candidate.

By then, for all we know, an even more infectious strain of Trumpism — call it T.2 — might have emerged in the form of far-right challengers like Republican Senators Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley, or even (god save us all) Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Their followers who lurched from Reopen rallies to Stop the Steal protests were struck dumb by the failure of their Duce to cling to power in January 2021. In the months since Joe Biden's inauguration, with a majority of Republicans still proclaiming his election stolen, they've again become restive.

Keep in mind as well that dystopia remains unevenly distributed around the globe. Trump is gone (for now), but other putatively democratic authoritarians remain in power. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is still effectively leader for life in Russia, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro cling to their offices, and and rebel-turned-tyrant Daniel Ortega just arrested the woman challenging him this year for the Nicaraguan presidency.

Meanwhile, not only has India been overwhelmed by Covid-19, but the numbers in Brazil remain terrifying and Taiwan has recently been hit with a first wave of infections — and that's just to begin down a grim list. Even the Seychelles Islands off the coast of Africa, despite a world-leading vaccination rate of more than 60%, has recently experienced an unexpected uptick in cases.

In other words, as I left that party, it just didn't feel like the right moment to exhale.

Human beings are adaptable creatures. We have an unfortunate ability to normalize worst-case scenarios. Rising temperatures? Guess it's time to sell the beach house and move inland. Raging pandemic? A good opportunity to chill for a few months with Netflix and UberEats.

But dystopias are not just about objectively terrible things. Dystopia is about losing control over your life. It's about a faceless bureaucracy trying to evict you from your home. It's about a virus evading all your carefully constructed defenses. It's about right-wing crazies subverting democracy even as they claim to revere it.

So, tell me the truth: in June 2021, do you really feel back in control yet?

The Insurrection Next Time

The last scene of a horror film often elicits a gasp. The eyelid of the supposedly dead serial killer snaps open. A mad scientist, reportedly cured, is released from the asylum clutching a briefcase full of plans for his next planet-destroying invention. A puppy scampers into the kitchen with the telltale orange rash of a disease that was allegedly extinguished.

Such scenes are obviously setups for sequels, but they're also reminders that horrors seldom simply disappear. Instead, they mutate, hibernate, and burrow into our everyday world.

With that in mind, let's revisit the final scene of this year's most talked-about horror story, the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

Inflamed by the president's lies and conspiracy theories, thousands of people overwhelmed the Capitol police, broke into what should have been one of the most protected buildings in the country, and launched a search-and-destroy mission against various politicians located inside. The noose set up on the West Front of the Capitol was an unambiguous indication of the insurrectionists' intentions. Some of them had even brought bear spray, and they were indeed out for bear.

The story of the insurrection ended with order restored, legislators returning to their chambers to confirm the 2020 election results, and a modicum of bipartisan horror at what had just happened. But the very last scene elicited a gasp from the audience watching at home. Even as they condemned the violence that had just taken place in their midst, a handful of Republican legislators continued to claim election fraud. Early on the morning of January 7th, seven Republican senators and 122 members of the House refused to certify the election results in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Those votes were the sick puppy with the orange rash, the sign that the infectious horror of Trumpism had not been stamped out. At best, this country would experience a respite of unknown length before another surge captured the headlines. After all, Trump and his followers have been in the process of fundraising, assembling a cast and crew, enlisting thousands of extras, and beginning to film their sequel, while promising even bigger thrills and chills to come.

Their fans can't wait.

While most Americans go about their calmer post-Trumpian lives under the Biden administration, a significant number of their fellow citizens live in a different reality entirely. For them, a world of dystopian intensity has just begun. After all, those Trumpsters are now experiencing their worst-case scenario — a Biden victory in a "stolen" election and Congress in Democratic hands. They have no desire to normalize what they consider a socialist regime in Washington. Astonishingly, one-quarter of Republicans belong to the church of QAnon with its imaginary global syndicate of Satan-worshipping child traffickers.

Although it was the Trump administration that helped spur the creation of the Covid-19 vaccines, 41% of Republicans still say they won't get inoculated (compared to 4% of Democrats). Against all evidence, they believe the vaccines to be unsafe, ineffective, or even downright undemocratic in the way they subject their "victims" to nonstop surveillance through a supposedly injected microchip. Fixated on such imaginary threats, the anti-vaxxers are dismissive of a pandemic that is still a clear and present danger.

In the good old days, people with such a tenuous connection to reality would retreat to their armchairs to listen to Rush Limbaugh. They'd live in their own private dystopias — stocking their bomb shelters, polishing their guns, muttering to themselves — with lots of fire and fury but little real-world impact.

Thanks to Trump, the Proud Boys, and QAnon, however, the dystopians of today have turned their delusions into a political project even to the point of taking over the Republican Party. Mo Brooks, the Alabama Republican who still believes that the 2020 election featured the "worst voter fraud and election theft in history," repeatedly incited his followers to post-election violence. Gun nut Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican, called Joe Biden a "tyrant" for his tepid gun-control proposals after a spate of mass killings this spring. Led by Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson, the party is now rewriting the events of January 6th to blame the violence on supposed left-wing agitators.

Equally troubling, true believers of this sort are still attempting to overturn the results of the election, beginning with the vote "recount" in Maricopa County, Arizona. The outfit in charge of that recount, Cyber Ninjas, has been set loose in a basketball arena in Phoenix like the Keystone Kops on a mad caper. In the process, they're violating all the rules of a proper audit, from tolerating a huge error rate in tally sheets to flagging ballots as "suspicious" for things like folds, Cheeto stains, and suspected bamboo fibers (the result, supposedly, of having been sent from somewhere in Asia). According to Jack Sellers, the Republican chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, the Maricopa recount is "a grift disguised as an audit."

It's not the 2020 election that hangs in the balance, of course, since no amount of imaginary bamboo fibers — in Arizona or any of the other states the Trumpsters are targeting — can overturn what Congress has already confirmed. What can potentially be overturned, however, is American democracy itself. After all, it's now clear that the Trumpsters will treat every future election that doesn't produce the results they desire as a globalist plot no different from a new vaccine or a new pronouncement by infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci. Each contested election has the possibility of generating another potential insurrection, with the rioters perhaps chanting, "Remember January 6th!"

The nonsense now being spouted by the loony right would be grist for satire if we hadn't seen all this before. Karl Marx once proposed (and Groucho Marx proved) that "history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce." Trump has turned this dictum on its head, since many of the laughable things he said on his road to the presidency — his paeans to his future "big, fat, beautiful Wall," his white nationalism, his love of Vladimir Putin — were indeed turned into tragic policy by his minions.

We laughed when Barack Obama roasted Trump at the Gridiron dinner in 2011, but those jokes likely kindled Trump's ambition to become president. We would be wise not to laugh at the antics of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has spouted QAnonsense and compared mask mandates to the Nazi treatment of Jews, or else she could ride similar waves of derision to even greater political heights.

The Power of the Marginalized

I have a great deal of empathy for many people in the Trump camp. I've never liked Washington, D.C., and its obsession with insider politics. I share the distaste that much of Trump country feels for the arrogance of the power elite and its incessant jockeying for influence.

After all, it wasn't Trump who created our current mess. Sure, he turned up the heat under the pot and gave its contents a vigorous stir, but he didn't assemble the ingredients or design the recipe. The climate crisis, the travesty of global military spending, the inequities of the global economy: these were created by the "adults in the room" backed by the mainstream political parties, Washington's "Blob," and an ever-ascendant military-industrial-congressional complex.

The MAGA crowd was right to reject this version of the status quo. With his economic populism, Trump gave voice to those who felt shafted by Wall Street, transnational corporations, and globalization in general. The wages of blue-collar workers, adjusted for inflation, had at best stagnated since the 1970s (while the incomes of America's billionaires have done anything but). Because the mainstream parties abandoned these voters, economically speaking, many of them naturally basked in the attention Trump showered on them. They felt that their dystopia of economic marginalization might finally be on the verge of lifting.

In challenging one pillar of the status quo, however, Trump consciously reinforced two others, the power of the wealthy elite and of white privilege. In the process, legitimate economic grievances became entangled with anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and blatant racist rhetoric. Trump's electoral defeat has by no means silenced this white nationalism.

Fortunately, other voices have come to the fore as well, as millions of Americans rejected the status quo in more productive ways. One year ago, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin reignited the Black Lives Matter movement, triggering the largest protests in American history (as well as demonstrations in more than 60 other countries). In exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly, those protestors were also very deliberately trying to regain control of their lives by rolling back a dystopia of police terror that has disproportionately harmed Blacks.

Similarly, the #MeToo movement has been a reassertion of control by women over their own bodies and lives. Thanks to such efforts, the dystopia of rape culture and patriarchal authority has begun to recede, though not everywhere or quickly enough.

Environmentalists are likewise standing up to the fossil-fuel companies, while economic justice advocates continue to challenge multinational corporations. Peace activists are protesting wars and military spending, while human rights demonstrators are rallying against authoritarian leaders. These efforts all contribute, little by little, to the possibility that we can regain control over our own lives. They are part of a long-term process whereby the powerless become subjects in their own stories rather than the objects of someone else's tales. Such challenges to the status quo would become more powerful still if joined by some of the economically marginalized previously drawn to Trump (as long as they check their white privilege at the door).

I've tried to describe such historic efforts in essays and in fiction. In my Splinterlands series of novels, I've done my best to peer into our future and consider the worst-case scenarios of climate change, unrestrained corporate power, and nationalism run amok. However, in the standalone finale, Songlands, I let a little sunlight break through the dystopian storm clouds to tell the story of an international community of activists coming together in the face of a planetary crisis. (George Orwell, meet Greta Thunberg.)

As I said, by temperament I'm an optimist. Sometimes, that optimism even leaks into my professional life.

Sure, I continue to worry about what the next wave of Covid-19 might look like. I fear both the continued lunacy of the Republican Party and the pallid incrementalism of the Democrats. But I'm heartened by the energy of people all over the world determined to beat back dystopia, take control of their lives, and transform the optimists' credo of "hope and change" into something a great deal more significant than a campaign slogan.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel in the trilogy, Songlands, has just been published. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

The coming cyber-apocalypse: A cold war has already turned hot

America has a serious infrastructure problem.

Maybe when I say that what comes to mind are all the potholes on your street. Or the dismal state of public transportation in your city. Or crumbling bridges all over the country. But that's so twentieth century of you.

America's most urgent infrastructure vulnerability is largely invisible and unlikely to be fixed by the Biden administration's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.

I'm thinking about vulnerabilities that lurk in your garage (your car), your house (your computer), and even your pocket (your phone). Like those devices of yours, all connected to the Internet and so hackable, American businesses, hospitals, and public utilities can also be hijacked from a distance thanks to the software that helps run their systems. And don't think that the U.S. military and even cybersecurity agencies and firms aren't seriously at risk, too.

Such vulnerabilities stem from bugs in the programs — and sometimes even the hardware — that run our increasingly wired society. Beware "zero-day" exploits — so named because you have zero days to fix them once they're discovered — that can attract top-dollar investments from corporations, governments, and even black-market operators. Zero days allow backdoor access to iPhones, personal email programs, corporate personnel files, even the computers that run dams, voting systems, and nuclear power plants.

It's as if all of America were now protected by nothing but a few old padlocks, the keys to which have been made available to anyone with enough money to buy them (or enough ingenuity to make a set for themselves). And as if that weren't bad enough, it was America that inadvertently made these keys available to allies, adversaries, and potential blackmailers alike.

The recent SolarWinds hack of federal agencies, as well as companies like Microsoft, for which the Biden administration recently sanctioned Russia and expelled several of its embassy staff, is only the latest example of how other countries have been able to hack basic U.S. infrastructure. Such intrusions, which actually date back to the early 2000s, are often still little more than tests, ways of getting a sense of how easy it might be to break into that infrastructure in more serious ways later. Occasionally, however, the intruders do damage by vacuuming up data or wiping out systems, especially if the targets fail to pay cyber-ransoms. More insidiously, hackers can also plant "timebombs" capable of going off at some future moment.

Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all hacked into this country's infrastructure to steal corporate secrets, pilfer personal information, embarrass federal agencies, make money, or influence elections. For its part, the American government is anything but an innocent victim of such acts. In fact, it was an early pioneer in the field and continues to lead the way in cyberoperations overseas.

This country has a long history of making weapons that have later been used against it. When allies suddenly turn into adversaries like the Iranian government after the Shah was ousted in the 1979 revolution or the mujahideen in Afghanistan after their war against the Red Army ended in 1989, the weapons switch sides, too. In other cases, like the atomic bomb or unmanned aerial vehicles, the know-how behind the latest technological advances inevitably leaks out, triggering an arms race.

In all these years, however, none of those weapons has been used with such devastating effect against the U.S. homeland as the technology of cyberwarfare.

The Worm That Turned

In 2009, the centrifuges capable of refining Iranian uranium to weapons-grade level began to malfunction. At first, the engineers there didn't pay much attention to the problem. Notoriously finicky, such high-speed centrifuges were subject to frequent breakdowns. The Iranians regularly had to replace as many as one of every 10 of them. This time, however, the number of malfunctions began to multiply and then multiply again, while the computers that controlled the centrifuges started to behave strangely, too.

It was deep into 2010, however, before computer security specialists from Belarus examined the Iranian computers and discovered the explanation for all the malfunctioning. The culprit responsible was a virus, a worm that had managed to burrow deep into the innards of those computers through an astonishing series of zero-day exploits.

That worm, nicknamed Stuxnet, was the first of its kind. Admittedly, computer viruses had been creating havoc almost since the dawn of the information age, but this was something different. Stuxnet could damage not only computers but the machines that they controlled, in this case destroying about 1,000 centrifuges. Developed by U.S. intelligence agencies in cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, Stuxnet would prove to be but the first salvo in a cyberwar that continues to this day.

It didn't take long before other countries developed their own versions of Stuxnet to exploit the same kind of zero-day vulnerabilities. In her book This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth describes in horrifying detail how the new cyber arms race has escalated. It took Iran only three years to retaliate for Stuxnet by introducing malware into Aramco, the Saudi oil company, destroying 30,000 of its computers. In 2014, North Korea executed a similar attack against Sony Pictures in response to a film that imagined the assassination of that country's leader, Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, Pelroth reports, Chinese hackers have targeted U.S. firms to harvest intellectual property, ranging from laser technology and high-efficiency gas turbines to the plans for "the next F-35 fighter" and "the formulas for Coca-Cola and Benjamin Moore paint."

Over the years, Russia has become especially adept at the new technology. Kremlin-directed hackers interfered in Ukraine's presidential election in 2014 in an effort to advance a far-right fringe candidate. The next year, they shut down Ukraine's power grid for six hours. In the freezing cold of December 2016, they turned off the heat and power in Kyiv, that country's capital. And it wasn't just Ukraine either. Russian hackers paralyzed Estonia, interfered in England's Brexit referendum, and nearly shut down the safety controls of a Saudi oil company.

Then Russia started to apply everything it learned from these efforts to the task of penetrating U.S. networks. In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, Russian hackers weaponized information stolen from Democratic Party operative John Podesta and wormed their way into state-level electoral systems. Later, they launched ransomware attacks against U.S. towns and cities, hacked into American hospitals, and even got inside the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant in Kansas. "The Russians," Pelroth writes, "were mapping out the plant's networks for a future attack."

The United States did not sit idly by watching such incursions. The National Security Agency (NSA) broke into Chinese companies like Huawei, as well as their customers in countries like Cuba and Syria. With a plan nicknamed Nitro Zeus, the U.S. was prepared to take down key elements of Iran's infrastructure if the negotiations around a nuclear deal failed. In response to the Sony hack, Washington orchestrated a 10-hour Internet outage in North Korea.

As the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013, the NSA had set up full-spectrum surveillance through various communications networks, even hacking into the private phones of leaders around the world like Germany's Angela Merkel. By 2019, having boosted its annual budget to nearly $10 billion and created 133 Cyber Mission teams with a staff of 6,000, the Pentagon's Cyber Command was planting malware in Russia's energy grid and plotting other mischief.

Unbeknownst to Snowden or anyone else at the time, the NSA was also stockpiling a treasure trove of zero-day exploits for potential use against a range of targets. At first glance, this might seem like the cyber-equivalent of setting up a network of silos filled with ICBMs to maintain a rough system of deterrence. The best defense, according to the hawk's catechism, is always an arsenal of offensive weapons.

But then the NSA got hacked.

In 2017, an outfit called the Shadow Brokers leaked 20 of the agency's most powerful zero-day exploits. That May, WannaCry ransomware attacks suddenly began to strike targets as varied as British hospitals, Indian airlines, Chinese gas stations, and electrical utilities around the United States. The perpetrators were likely North Korean, but the code, as it happened, originated with the NSA, and the bill for the damages came to $4 billion.

Not to be outdone, Russian hackers turned two of the NSA zero-day exploits into a virus called NotPetya, which caused even more damage. Initially intended to devastate Ukraine, that malware spread quickly around the world, causing at least $10 billion in damages by briefly shutting down companies like Merck, Maersk, FedEx, and in an example of second-order blowback, the Russian oil giant Rosneft as well.

Sadly enough, in 2021, as Kim Zetter has written in Countdown to Zero Day, "[C]yberweapons can be easily obtained on underground markets or, depending on the complexity of the system being targeted, custom-built from scratch by a skilled teenage coder." Such weapons then ricochet around the world before, more often than not, they return to sender.

Sooner or later, cyber-chickens always come home to roost.

Trump Makes Things Worse

Donald Trump notoriously dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 elections. His aides didn't even bother bringing up additional examples of Russian cyber-meddling because the president just wasn't interested. In 2018, he even eliminated the position of national cybersecurity coordinator, which helped National Security Advisor John Bolton consolidate his own power within the administration. Later, Trump would fire Christopher Krebs, who was in charge of protecting elections from cyberattacks, for validating the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections.

The SolarWinds attack at the end of last year highlighted the continued weakness of this country's cybersecurity policy and Trump's own denialism. Confronted with evidence from his intelligence agencies of Russian involvement, the president continued to insist that the perpetrators were Chinese.

The far right, for partisan reasons, abetted his denialism. Strangely enough, commentators on the left similarly attempted to debunk the idea that Russians were involved in the Podesta hack, 2016 election interference, and other intrusions, despite overwhelming evidence presented in the Mueller report, the Senate Intelligence Committee findings, and even from Russian sources.

But this denialism of the right and the left obscures a more important Trump administration failure. It made no attempt to work with Russia and China to orchestrate a truce in escalating global cyber-tensions.

Chastened by the original Stuxnet attack on Iran, the Putin government had actually proposed on several occasions that the international community should draw up a treaty to ban computer warfare and that Moscow and Washington should also sort out something similar bilaterally. The Obama administration ignored such overtures, not wanting to constrain the national security state's ability to launch offensive cyber-operations, which the Pentagon euphemistically likes to label a "defend forward" strategy.

In the Trump years, even as he was pulling the U.S. out of one arms control deal after another with the Russians, The Donald was emphasizing his superb rapport with Putin. Instead of repeatedly covering for the Russian president — whatever his mix of personal, financial, and political reasons for doing so — Trump could have deployed his over-hyped art-of-the-deal skills to revive Putin's own proposals for a cyber-truce.

With China, the Trump administration committed a more serious error.

Stung by a series of Chinese cyber-thefts, not just of intellectual property but of millions of the security-clearance files of federal employees, the Obama administration reached an agreement with Beijing in 2015 to stop mutual espionage in cyberspace. "We have agreed that neither the U.S. [n]or the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage," Obama said then. "We'll work together and with other nations to promote other rules of the road."

In the wake of that agreement, Chinese intrusions in U.S. infrastructure dropped by an astonishing 90%. Then Trump took office and began to impose tariffs on Chinese goods. That trade war with Beijing would devastate American farmers and manufacturers, while padding the bills of American consumers, even as the president made it ever more difficult for Chinese firms to buy American products and technology. Not surprisingly, China once again turned to its hackers to acquire the know-how it could no longer get legitimately. In 2017, those hackers also siphoned off the personal information of nearly half of all Americans through a breach in the Equifax credit reporting agency.

As part of his determination to destroy everything that Obama achieved, of course, Trump completely ignored that administration's 2015 agreement with Beijing.

Head for the Bunkers?

Larry Hall once worked for the Defense Department. Now, he's selling luxury apartments in a former nuclear missile silo in the middle of Kansas. It burrows 15 stories into the ground and he calls it Survival Condo. The smallest units go for $1.5 million and the complex features a gym, swimming pool, and shooting range in its deep underground communal space.

When asked why he'd built Survival Condo, Hall replied, "You don't want to know."

Perhaps he was worried about a future nuclear exchange, another even more devastating pandemic, or the steady ratcheting up of the climate crisis. Those, however, are well-known doomsday scenarios and he was evidently alluding to a threat to which most Americans remain oblivious. What the Survival Condo website emphasizes is living through five years "completely off-grid," suggesting a fear that the whole U.S. infrastructure could be taken down via a massive hack.

And it's true that modern life as most of us know it has become increasingly tied up with the so-called Internet of Things, or IoT. By 2023, it's estimated that every person on Earth will have, on average, 3.6 networked devices. Short of moving to a big hole in the ground in Kansas and living completely off the grid, it will be difficult indeed to extricate yourself from the consequences of a truly coordinated attack on such an IoT.

A mixture of short-sighted government action — as well as inaction — and a laissez-faire approach to markets have led to the present impasse. The U.S. government has refused to put anything but the most minimal controls on the development of spyware, has done little to engage the rest of the world in regulating hostile activities in cyberspace, and continues to believe that its "defend forward" strategy will be capable of protecting U.S. assets. (Dream on, national security state!)

Plugging the holes in the IoT dike is guaranteed to be an inadequate solution. Building a better dike might be a marginally better approach, but a truly more sensible option would be to address the underlying problem of the surging threat. Like the current efforts to control the spread of nuclear material, a non-proliferation approach to cyberweapons requires international cooperation across ideological lines.

It's not too late. But to prevent a rush to the bunkers will take a concerted effort by the major players — the United States, Russia, and China — to recognize that cyberwar would, at best, produce the most pyrrhic of victories. If they don't work together to protect the cyber-commons, the digital highway will, at the very least, continue to be plagued by potholes, broken guardrails, and improvised explosive devices whose detonations threaten to disrupt all our lives.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel, Songlands, will be published in June. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

The great shrinking of America on an imperiled planet

The nightmare is over. The vanquished beast has crawled back to Mar-a-Lago to lick his wounds. The heroes are hard at work repairing the damage. As America returns to the international stage, the world heaves a collective sigh of relief.

That, at least, is the story the incoming Biden administration is telling. "America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back," as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the administration's nominee for U.N. ambassador, put it shortly after the election. According to this narrative of redemption, the globe's Atlas shrugged off its burden during the four years of Donald Trump's tenure but is now ready to reassume its global leadership responsibilities.

Don't believe it, though. Much of the rest of the world seems visibly queasy at the prospect of sitting on America's shoulders, since who's to say that Atlas won't shrug again?

And perhaps Atlas wasn't such a responsible fellow in the first place.

Over the last several decades, the United States has displayed all the hallmarks of a country suffering from a serious personality disorder characterized by mood swings of gargantuan proportions. From the compromised multilateralism of the Bill Clinton years, the United States pivoted to the aggressive armed unilateralism of George W. Bush. Then, after boomeranging back to the centrist (if still over-armed) internationalism of Barack Obama, it took the wildest of detours into MAGA-land with Donald Trump. In the latest case of foreign-policy whiplash, Joe Biden is now preparing to return the country to a "new and improved" version of Obama's global liberalism (with a dash of anti-Chinese fervor thrown in).

Americans are by now remarkably familiar with such side effects of twenty-first-century democracy. We've skimmed the fine print on the label more than once and become reasonably inured to the adverse consequences of our civic religion.

Much of the world, however, is not accustomed to such volatility. The Kim family has ruled North Korea from day one, while Paul Biya has run Cameroon since 1982. Over the last 30 years, China has settled into its predictable version of market Leninism. Putatively democratic countries like Russia and Turkey have had the same leadership for two decades, while a genuinely democratic country like Germany has had the same chancellor for 15 years. The rest of Western Europe has seen numerous changes in those who hold the reins of power, but oscillations in governance have generally stayed within a relatively narrow political spectrum. European Union policies have similarly remained on a remarkably even keel, despite disruptions like Brexit.

These days, however, democrats and dictators alike are unsure, from one day to the next, whether the United States will be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

On the surface, the international community has generally provided a warm welcome to the incoming administration, if only out of profound relief at seeing the backside of Donald Trump. True, it took Vladimir Putin a while to get around to acknowledging Joe Biden's victory, while Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil grumbled about the departure of his American BFF, as did Hungary's Viktor Orbán and a number of other right-wing populists.

But Biden was a clear international favorite in the recent presidential election. According to an Ipsos poll of people in 24 countries, Biden had an edge of 48% to 17% over Trump, with only the Russians as outliers. And postelection, the favorability of the United States has only risen (except perhaps in Russia and China).

Beneath the surface, however, the world is hesitant, like an oft-jilted lover. Country after country has been burned too many times to throw itself back into such a relationship without reservations, if not a full-blown prenuptial agreement. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it with characteristic understatement, "There is a need to rebuild trust between Europe and the United States." Indeed, just about every member of the U.N. General Assembly would undoubtedly have agreed.

Such an erosion of trust defines what it means to be an unreliable superpower. Even as the Biden administration works to "build back better," allies and adversaries alike are busy hedging their bets, concerned that the United States is simply too unpredictable a place to park political capital. And where it remains all-too-predictable — as in its preposterous levels of military spending or its obdurate sense of exceptionalism — Washington no longer looks to many like a reliable global actor from the perspective of peace or prosperity.

The Biden administration seems remarkably tone-deaf when it comes to the hesitancy of the international community to repeat past mistakes. "We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world," Biden insisted in his Inaugural Address. "We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example."

With its talk of regaining global leadership, the Biden administration seems as committed to the notion that the United States is still "the indispensable power" as it was when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright uttered that phrase in 1998. "If we have to use force, it is because we are America," Albright told Matt Lauer back then on The Today Show. "We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us."

Particularly in the wake of the travesties of the Trump era, the global stature of this indispensable land has shrunk immeasurably. In their responses to crises like Covid-19 and a warming planet, other countries now stand taller and see further into the future. More ominously, the danger they do see increasingly has the stars and stripes plastered all over it.

Reversing the Reverses

Donald Trump didn't even have to wait for a new administration to reverse his policies. He was perfectly capable of reversing them himself — multiple times.

No wonder NATO head Stoltenberg has been preoccupied with the issue of trust. As a candidate, Trump swore NATO was "obsolete," only to change his mind within months of taking office. Yet, a year later, he was talking about pulling the United States out of the alliance completely. By 2020, on the other hand, he was suggesting incorporating Middle Eastern countries into it.

And Trump wasn't just fickle when it came to NATO. In 2017, he threatened North Korea with the "fire and fury" of nuclear destruction only to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un two years later. He went back and forth about Chinese leader Xi Jinping, too, claiming in 2018 that "Xi and I will always be friends," only to call him an "enemy" a year later. He then reversed himself with his early 2020 avowal that "we love each other," before turning hostile yet again in the COVID-19 era. What Trump diehards argued was crafty bargaining looked a whole lot more like beginner's incoherence.

Joe Biden has already taken a more consistent approach to reversing Trump's policies than The Donald did to his own policies. In his first executive orders, the new president brought the United States back into the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accords. He reversed Trump's policies on immigration, cancelled the Muslim travel ban, and ended funding for the largely unbuilt wall on the border with Mexico. He quickly hit rewind on those environmental deregulations of the Trump administration and the previous president's approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In addition, once the sugar rush of Biden's executive orders fades, an immediate threat lurks: Congress. The Democratic Party controls both houses — but just barely. The lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is likely to be a significant obstacle to any lasting transformation of key aspects of foreign policy in a more peaceful and cooperative direction, even if the Biden administration were committed to such a goal.

In addition, the Biden team soon hopes to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, revive arms control negotiations with Russia, and at least mitigate the impact of the trade sanctions against China.

That's all to the good. But who's to say that the next occupant of the Oval Office won't reverse Biden's reversal of Trump's reversal of Obama's initiatives?

Republicans are already hoping to delay the U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal, complicate Washington's involvement in global efforts to address the climate crisis, and keep the pressure on both China and Russia. Trying to ratify a treaty to ban all nuclear tests or make the United States a member of the International Criminal Court, which would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, will prove even longer shots.

What Americans interpret as an insider game of partisanship, the rest of the world sees as a hamstrung country incapable of acting decisively on international problems. And such a deadlock might turn into something even worse. Trump's MAGA crew are, after all, alive and well in Congress and throughout the red states. Should things go badly economically or pandemically for the Biden White House, they could regain control of one or both chambers in the midterm elections of 2022.

Even more troubling is the extremist wildcard. The events of January 6th shocked the world into realizing that America's lunatic fringe is no longer content just to lurk on the margins of politics as Internet trolls and barstool conspiracy theorists. It's one thing to take into account the logjams produced by Republican Party obstructionism. It's quite another to worry that the United States will tip into a second civil war.

Smart money avoids such risks.

How the United States is Reliably Unreliable

Even when this country is predictable, it's still an unreliable global partner.

Take the issue of Covid-19. The Biden administration has made a splash by instantly rejoining the WHO and resuming its financial obligations to it. In the last stimulus package, Congress anticipated this trend by including $4 billion in funding for GAVI, a global vaccine alliance, with Democrats acknowledging that "we are not truly safe until the whole world is safe from the coronavirus."

But when the rubber hits the road — and the needles hit the arms — the United States has promptly fallen back on its usual exceptionalism. In the chaos of the immediate post-Trumpian moment, the Biden administration has been pushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible without significant regard for anyone else. Along with other rich countries, Washington has exercised purchase options that could more or less corner the market on vaccines, securing enough doses, in the end, to inoculate Americans nearly five times over.

The global effort to vaccinate lower-income countries, also known by the acronym COVAX, is several billion dollars short of what it needs even to begin seriously implementing its plan. And keep in mind that the plan itself is woefully insufficient, since it aims to vaccinate only 20% of the inhabitants of participating nations by the end of 2021.

Not every country is practicing vaccine nationalism though. Even as it rushes to inoculate its 1.3 billion citizens, India is helping out its neighbors, providing two million doses free of charge to Bangladesh, aiding Nepal and Myanmar, and even sending its vaccines to Brazil and Morocco. Both China and Russia are also engaging in vaccine diplomacy, reaching out to the Global South with their lower-cost versions of Covid-19 drugs.

Putting America first extends to other aspects of geopolitics as well. The United States can, for instance, be counted upon to remain the world's top arms exporter in the Biden years. In 2020, it signed agreements for more than $175 billion in sales of military hardware to other countries, far above what runner-up Russia manages to push out. Of course, such exports, in turn, fuel armed conflicts overseas, while inflating military budgets all over the world.

America is also number one when it comes to overseas military bases, with hundreds of facilities around the world, which militarize communities and serve as launching pads for U.S. operations. In comparison, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom together maintain a total of 30 such bases. And add in one more thing: aside from Australia, a few island nations, and tiny Gulf states, the United States has the highest per-capita carbon footprint on the planet. In its rush to use the planet's resources, our country is making it more likely that the planet will soon be uninhabitable for much of humanity.

With a reliably unreliable friend like that, who needs enemies?

The World Hedges Its Bets

Russia was one of the few places on Earth, from its government to its citizenry, that showed little excitement for recent political developments in Washington.

"From Russia's perspective, the political situation in the United States has not fundamentally changed as a result of the election," said Dmitry Suslov of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The intense political polarization that we have witnessed over the past four years is not going away anywhere, so obviously Biden will not have a broad mandate to govern." Because of this political deadlock, Suslov added, Russia would avoid any direct conflict with the United States and instead improve relations with China and other powers like India.

Russia is a little late to the game. China was hedging its bets long before the November election. Its trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure development in Eurasia (and northeastern Africa), launched in 2013 to refocus key global financial and economic relations on Beijing, was also meant to be an enormous insurance policy against any downturn in economic relations with the United States. Beijing's creation of separate global financial institutions — like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank established in 2015 — and trade pacts like the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of 15 Asia-Pacific nations (but not the United States) were also efforts meant to shield China from American missteps and inaction that could drag down the global economy.

U.S. allies, too, have been taking precautions. Europe has been slowly building up an independent military capacity just in case Washington does eventually decide that NATO is obsolete. What the Europeans have come to call "strategic autonomy" represents not just a next step for European integration but protection against the increasing unreliability of Washington. The European Defense Fund, set up in 2017, received a healthy chunk of capital in its latest budget — about eight billion Euro — and that's just a down payment on what France would like to see and Germany is grudgingly coming around to envisioning: the folding up of the U.S. security umbrella.

South Korea, one of this country's most trusted security partners, has been working on developing its own strategic autonomy for some time. Despite the budgetary pressures of a Covid-19-related economic downturn, strenuous efforts to improve ties with North Korea, and a generally friendlier relationship with China, the South Korean government pushed through a 5.4% increase in military spending for 2021. Seoul is similarly concerned about the possibility that Washington will, sooner or later, reduce its Pacific presence.

The United States continues to maintain by far the most powerful and heavily funded military on the planet. Its economy is either the world's largest or just behind China's, depending on what yardstick you care to use. Like former basketball star Michael Jordan contemplating one last NBA championship, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is reluctant to give up on the adrenaline rush of being top dog on Planet Earth. But a pattern of erratic behavior can gradually undermine the trust necessary to maintain the extensive military alliances and trade relationships that sustain superpower status. The United States might just be too tired, too divided, or too crazy to stay number one much longer.

A History of Volatility

When Joe Biden says that this country "will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example," it's not entirely clear what example he means.

Does he mean American economic innovation — iPhones and electric cars — or the astonishing economic inequality of a country with the most billionaires on Earth in which one in eight citizens go hungry? Does he mean the country that puts itself forward as a seasoned mediator of conflicts or the one that spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined? Does he mean the land with a Statue of Liberty that welcomes the "homeless" and the "tempest-tost," or the one that has routinely divided families through mass deportations?

The shift in tone from the Trump administration to the new Biden era is certainly extreme, leading many allies to hope that the November election provided the necessary dose of electroshock therapy to restore the United States to sanity. Plenty of Americans — and overseas friends of America — would like to believe that the Trump years were a bizarre deviation from the norm. But there's also a sneaking suspicion that extremism is becoming the new normal here and that events like the January 6th insurrection will only further fry what remains of the country's synapses.

That insurrection may have destroyed Donald Trump's chances of reelection in 2024, while possibly undermining the ambitions of his diehard champions in Congress like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz as well. It might even drive a fatal wedge through the Republican Party, whether or not Trump actually creates a third party as he's threatened to do.

But volatility has long been a fixture of American politics, from fist fights on the floor of Congress in the nineteenth century to the Barry Goldwaters and Newt Gingriches of the twentieth century. In our time, the resistance of the Tea Party, white nationalist militias, and QAnon to the United States becoming a truly multicultural country has kept American extremism alive. This paranoid style may have reached only an intermediate peak with the presidency of Donald Trump.

If such forces once again gain power or even mobilize enough strength to derail the modest ambitions of the Biden administration, the U.S. "example" will be one the world will want to avoid at any cost. Political instability will be the next compelling reason, after the Covid-19 pandemic fades, to quarantine this country. As for America's unreliability as a global partner, it could prove to be an early sign of inevitable superpower decline into dissension, decay, and madness.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel, Songlands, will be published in June. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

Sliding toward apocalypse: There's no returning to normal after Trump

Imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election in 2016.

Imagine, in other words, that the "blue wall" of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had held firm four years ago. Claiming election fraud, Donald Trump would have insisted on a recount and Election Day would then, too, have stretched into election week and election month. Eventually, Trump would have given up, though not without insisting that the "deep state" had stolen his victory.

Once in office, Clinton would have set to work building on the Obama legacy. The United States would have remained in the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement would still be in force, and perhaps a more robust health-care plan might even be in place. Competent civil servants would have taken charge of federal agencies, a tax cut for the wealthy wouldn't have gone into effect, and the Democrats would have been well positioned in 2020 to reelect the first woman president and build a stronger congressional majority.

America wouldn't have gone down the rabbit hole of Trumpism. Civic discourse wouldn't have been coarsened. The country wouldn't now be in such complete and utter...

Hey, wake up!

If Hillary had somehow managed to eke out a victory in 2016, she would soon enough have faced a Republican Party as hostile to compromise as the one that hamstrung Barack Obama. Opposition from Congress and Republican-controlled states, combined with her own centrist instincts, would have kept the country mired in a failing status quo: an increasingly unequal economy, crumbling infrastructure, a growing carbon footprint, a morbidly obese Pentagon, and other signs of a declining superpower that we've come to know so well.

Now, imagine what would have happened when the pandemic struck in 2020. Clinton would have responded more competently than The Donald because virtually anyone over the age of 12 would have been better suited to handle the emergency than he was. Indeed, if the United States had managed Covid-19 with anything faintly approaching the competency of, say, Germany under Angela Merkel, the country would have had, by my calculations, 2.6 million infections and about 45,000 deaths on the eve of the 2020 elections.

That obviously would be better than the 10 million infections and more than 245,000 deaths the United States is currently experiencing.

Keep in mind, however, that Americans wouldn't have known just how bad the situation could have been. Quite the opposite: having set up a bully pulpit in an alt-right Fox News-style media conglomerate after his loss in 2016, Donald Trump would have led the charge on Clinton's "mismanagement" of the pandemic and her direct responsibility for all those deaths. He would have assured us that the resulting economic downturn, with striking numbers of Americans left unemployed, could have been avoided, and that he as president would have prevented both those deaths and business cutbacks by immediately closing all borders and deporting any suspicious foreigners. He would have labeled the president "Killer Clinton" and, given the misogyny of significant parts of the American electorate, the name would have stuck.

In 2020, Donald Trump would have run on a platform of making America great again and won in a landslide.

Don't, however, think of this as just some passing exercise in alternative history. Substitute "Joe Biden" for "Hillary Clinton" in the passages you've just read and you'll have a grim but plausible prediction of what could happen over the next four years.

On the Road to 2024

Hillary Clinton would have faced challenges of every sort if she'd won the presidency in 2016. They nonetheless pale in comparison to what now awaits Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

The Republicans are already gunning for the new president. They're blocking the transition process to handicap the incoming administration. President Trump has forbidden federal agencies from even cooperating with the Biden-Harris team. The 2020 presidential election forms part of the Republican Party's denialism trifecta: the pandemic, climate change, and now Biden's victory are all simply liberal "myths."

The Republican Party will either control the Senate -- pending the outcome of two run-off races in Georgia -- or, at least, be able to disrupt any major pieces of legislation. The Biden administration will be hard-pressed to roll back the tax cuts the Republicans handed out to the wealthy in 2017, pass a major green infrastructure bill, or expand affordable health care.

When Biden tries to implement a nationally cohesive program to combat Covid-19 through more testing, tracing, and investment in medical equipment, he's guaranteed to face resistance from a number of Republican governors who have refused even to mandate the wearing of masks. And then there are all those Republican-appointed judges just itching to rule on any legal challenges to Biden's executive orders, not to speak of a Supreme Court now located in the bleachers beyond right field that will serve as an even greater constraint on an activist agenda.

And those are just the political obstacles. The pandemic is clearly spiraling out of control. The economy has yet to crawl out of its hole. And Donald Trump has a couple of more months to scorch the earth before his army of incompetents are driven out of Washington, D.C.

Then there are the 71 million Americans who just voted for him despite his criminal conduct, gross mismanagement, and near-psychotic view of the world. Short of a nationwide deprogramming campaign, the adherents of the Trump cult will continue to cling to their religion (and their guns). In the Biden years, they're sure to form an industrial-strength Tea Party opposed to any move the federal government makes. And let's be clear: their resistance will not be exactly Gandhian in nature.

At the same time, it's essential to separate their illegitimate complaints laced with racism and misogyny from their all-too-legitimate grievances concerning the American economy. Much of Trump's base sees that economy, quite correctly, as unfair and the elite as not sharing the wealth. Unless the Democrats succeed in proving themselves to be the party of the 99% and successfully show how the Republicans are the 1% club -- by, for instance, publicizing the true impact of Trump's tax cuts for the rich -- the Biden administration will fall victim to charges of elitism, which is a political death sentence these days.

Everything that Hillary Clinton faced during her hypothetical first term in office will apply to Joe Biden in his very real first term. Trump will never give up on the fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He'll continue to rally his followers through social media as well as Breitbart and the One America News Network. Even if he doesn't have the fire in his 78-year-old belly to run in 2024, other true believers will eagerly pick up his torch, whether from his own family or a pool of loyalists that includes Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

No matter how well President Biden does in dealing with Covid-19 and how quickly a vaccine comes on line, he'll be saddled with the responsibility for everyone who dies in the pandemic from January 20th on. Ditto with future economic problems, no matter that they were quite literally dropped in his lap as he entered the Oval Office. All the faults that Trump's followers refused to see in their own candidate will suddenly be magnified in their vision of Biden.

Trump, in their eyes, was a man who could do no wrong. Biden will be the man who can do no right. A significant percentage of those 71 million Americans will want to make sure that Biden, too, is a one-term president.

Unfortunately, several international examples can serve as models.

The Liberal Interregnum

Beware the right-wing revolutionary movement thwarted.

Donald Trump promised to turn the world upside down: to throw out the Washington elite, radically shrink government, close off borders, bolster white privilege, and restore American unilateralism. As a platform, it wasn't much more than the photo negative of Barack Obama's agenda, but it was a clarion call to shake things up that thrilled his followers.

Thanks to a mixture of bureaucratic inertia, liberal resistance, and his own managerial ineptitude, Trump failed to carry out his revolution -- and now the elite has struck back. The newspapers are full of columnists, Democrats and former Republicans alike, delirious with anti-Trump triumphalism: "Loser!," "You're Fired!," "Our Long National Nightmare Is Over." The Dow Jones is celebrating and Hollywood has popped the bubbly, while the foreign-policy mandarins are looking forward to the return of predictability and their version of stability. Even the Pentagon, particularly after the shocking post-election dismissal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, will be relieved to see the end of the Disrupter-in-Chief.

But the celebrations may prove premature. Just consider recent examples of right-wing populist revolutions elsewhere that were stopped in their tracks by elections.

The Trumpian Viktor Orban was the prime minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002. His time in office was marked by corruption scandals, tax cuts, and efforts to concentrate power in the hands of the executive. In the 2002 elections, a coalition of the Socialist and Liberal parties ousted him and, governing for eight years, seemed to have put Orban's brand of authoritarian politics in an early grave.

In the 2010 elections, however, he returned from the political dead and has since transformed his country from a bastion of liberalism into an autocratic, intolerant, uber-Christian friend of Vladimir Putin. In the process, the Socialists became synonymous with a corrupt, economically unjust status quo and the Liberals simply disappeared as a party.

Nor is the Hungarian experience unique. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party has moved the country's politics steadily rightward since achieving a parliamentary majority in 2015. But it, too, had an earlier experience (from 2005 to 2007) as part of a governing coalition. In between, the more liberal Civic Platform Party took charge, but did little to improve the livelihoods of the bulk of working Poles, ultimately driving ever more voters into the arms of the right-wing Law and Justice Party. In its second crack at power, those right-wing nationalists did indeed push through a number of economic reforms that began to redistribute wealth in a way that fulfilled their populist promise.

In Japan, right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a brief opportunity to govern in 2006-2007, only to return in 2012 after a failed effort by the opposition Democratic Party to reform Japanese politics. As the country's longest-serving prime minister -- Abe stepped down for health reasons in August -- he succeeded in making Japan "great" again as an inward-looking, jingoistic power.

Right-wing nationalists certainly learned something about wielding power from their first experiences of leadership, while their liberal successors, by failing to offer fully transformational politics, prepared the ground for the return of the right. After a period of tumultuous rule, most people don't want to jump from a bucking bronco onto another wild horse. So the prospect of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris appointing a competent cabinet and returning to the status quo ante by, among other things, rejoining the World Health Organization, signing onto the Paris climate accords, and welcoming back the Dreamers seems reassuring to many Americans. It won't, however, be faintly enough to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.

Apocalypse Later?

In "The View from 2016," an essay I wrote for TomDispatch in 2007, I predicted that Barack Obama would win the 2008 election and serve two terms, but also that his administration would make only half-hearted gestures at reform -- abiding by the Kyoto protocol on climate change, but not committing to deeper cuts in carbon emissions; canceling a few weapons systems, but not transforming the military-industrial complex; tweaking the global war on terror, but not ending it; and so on.

Apocalypse, I concluded,

comes in many different forms. There are the dramatic effects of sword and fire and famine. And then there's the apocalypse of muddling through. That's what happens when you just carry on with the same old, same old and before you know it, poof, end of the world. It's an apocalypse that's neither too cold nor too hot, neither too hard nor too soft. It's the apocalypse of the middle, the Goldilocks apocalypse.

In 2016, a hungry bear named Donald Trump emerged from the woods and took out Goldilocks. (Don't say I didn't warn you.)

After four years of bracing for a more conventional apocalypse precipitated perhaps by Trump's itchy nuclear trigger finger, we're back in Goldilocks territory. More than half the country craves a return to normalcy by dumping Donald Trump and then defeating Covid-19. Under the circumstances, it's easy enough to forget that the pre-Trump normal wasn't actually very good. The world was already in the midst of a climate crisis. The global economy was providing anything but a fair shake to everyone and so generating a politics of resentment that propelled Trump and his cohort to power. Countries continued to spend almost $2 trillion a year collectively on war and preparations for it, leaving societies ill-equipped to handle an onrushing pandemic's war on the health of humanity.

Joe Biden should learn this key takeaway from the Obama years: muddling through not only speeds us toward a Goldilocks apocalypse but makes it so much more likely that another bear will come out of the woods to "reclaim" its house.

Let's face it: Biden and Harris are card-carrying members of an elite that's enamored of the Goldilocks middle ground. The only way they could pivot from that position would be by implementing a full-blown green economic renewal that benefitted America's blue-collar workers while satisfying environmentalists as well. The blue bloods of the Republican Party will inevitably call such a jobs approach "socialism." The next administration has to push forward nevertheless, appealing over the heads of the Republican leadership to a base that desperately wants prosperity for all.

Remember: other bears are lurking out there and they seem to have acquired a certain taste for cautious politicians. Sure, a few disgruntled ursine types will go into hibernation after the 2020 election. But when the hoopla dies down, others will venture out, angry, resentful, and looking for their next big meal.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and volume two of his Splinterlands series. He is the author of the just-published book The Pandemic Pivot (Seven Stories Press).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Snce World War II.

Copyright 2020 John Feffer

Trump and the threat of an unrestrained mob

The white mobs didn't care whom they killed as long as the victims were Black. They murdered people in public with guns and rocks. They set fire to houses and slaughtered families trying to escape the flames. In East St. Louis in July 1917, white vigilantes lynched Blacks with impunity.

It was the prelude to what civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson would ultimately call Red Summer. The "red" referred to the blood that ran in the streets. The "summer" actually referred to the months from April to October 1919, when violence against African Americans peaked in this country.

In reality, though, that Red Summer stretched across six long years, beginning in East St. Louis in 1917 and ending with the destruction of the predominantly African-American town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. During that time, white mobs killed thousands of Blacks in 26 cities, including Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In 1921, in a slaughter that has been well documented, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed the country's wealthiest African American community ("Black Wall Street," as it was then known), burning down more than 1,000 houses as well as churches, schools, and even a hospital.

During this period of violence, the mobs sometimes cooperated with the authorities. Just as often, however, they ignored the police, even breaking through jail walls with sledgehammers to gain access to Black detainees whom they executed in unspeakable ways. In Tulsa, for example, that campaign of murder and mayhem began only after the local sheriff refused to hand over a Black teenager accused of sexual assault.

Although white America repressed the memories of Red Summer for many decades, that shameful chapter of our history has gained renewed scrutiny in this era of Black Lives Matter. The Tulsa massacre, for instance, features prominently in the recent Watchmen series on HBO and several documentaries are in the works for its centennial anniversary in 2021. Other recent documentaries have chronicled killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War I in Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

But memories of that Red Summer are resurfacing for another, more ominous reason.

White mobs have once again moved out of the shadows and into the limelight during this Trump moment. Militia movements and right-wing extremists are starting to turn out in force to intimidate racial justice and anti-Trump demonstrators. Predominantly white and often explicitly racist, these groups now regularly use social media to threaten their adversaries. This election season, they're gearing up to defend their president with an astonishing degree of support from Republican Party regulars.

According to a January 2020 survey by political scientist Larry Bartels, most Republicans believe "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it." More than 40% agree that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands." In a recent essay on his survey's findings, Bartels concludes that ethnic antagonism "has a substantial negative effect on Republicans' commitment to democracy."

As the 2020 election nears, that party is also desperately trying to flip the script by using fear of "their mobs" and "Antifa terrorists" to drive its base to the polls. "We have a Marxist mob perpetrate historic levels of violence & disorder in major American cities," tweeted Florida Senator Marco Rubio in response to the Democratic National Convention in August. Not to be outdone, the president promptly said: "I'm the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos."

Of course, this country has no such Marxist mobs. The only real groups of vigilantes with a demonstrated history of violence and the guns to back up their threats congregate on the far right. The white supremacist Atomwaffen Division, for instance, has been linked to at least five killings since 2017. In late May and early June, members of the far-right Boogaloo Bois conducted two ambushes of police officers and security personnel, killing two of them and injuring three more. Over the summer, as far-right organizations spread the meme "All Lives Splatter" around the internet, dozens of right-wingers drove vehicles of every sort into crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters.

The prospect of far-right vigilantes or "militias" heading into the streets to contest the results of the November election has even mainstream institutions worried. "Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90% between January 1 and May 8, 2020," reports the centrist think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe -- however incorrectly -- that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives."

As the violence of Red Summer demonstrated, such acts were once a mainstay of American life. Indeed, the not-so-hidden history of this country has featured periodic explosions of mob violence. Racial justice activists rightly call for the radical reform of police departments. As November approaches, however, uniformed representatives of the state are hardly the only perpetrators of racist violence. Beware the white mobs, militias, and posses that are desperate to establish their own brand of justice.

Mob History

When Donald Trump paints a picture of lawlessness sweeping through the United States, he's effectively accusing the institutions of government of not doing their jobs. In a September 2nd memo, the Trump administration laid out its charges:

"For the past few months, several State and local governments have contributed to the violence and destruction in their jurisdictions by failing to enforce the law, disempowering and significantly defunding their police departments, and refusing to accept offers of Federal law enforcement assistance."

As president, Donald Trump has refused to take responsibility for anything, not the more than 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, not the pandemic-induced economic collapse, and certainly not the racial injustices that prompted this summer's wave of protests. Simultaneously above the law and outside it, the president consistently portrays himself as a populist leader who must battle the elite and its "deep state." With conspiracy-tinged tirades about Democrat-run cities failing to enforce the law, he has already symbolically put himself at the head of a mob -- for this is just how such groups justified their extra-legal actions throughout our history.

The right-wing racists who currently bear arms in defense of the president are part of a long tradition of Americans resorting to vigilantism when they believe the law is not protecting their interests. Whether it was the displacement and massacre of Native Americans, the horrors that slaveowners inflicted on African Americans, the wave of lynching that followed Reconstruction, the bloodletting of Red Summer around World War I, the murders conducted by the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist organizations, or even everyday resistance to federal policies like school desegregation, gangs of Americans have repeatedly taken the law into their own hands on behalf of white supremacy.

To be sure, mobs are hardly responsible for all the racist ills of this country. America has always been a place of institutional racism and violence. Slavery, after all, was legal until 1865. The U.S. government and its military did the bulk of the dispossessing of Native Americans. Police departments cooperated early on with the Ku Klux Klan and today's police officers continue to kill a disproportionate number of African Americans. Mobs have eagerly cooperated with state institutions on the basis of shared racism. But they have also stood at the ready to enforce the dictates of white supremacy even when the police and other guardians of order treat everyone equally before the law.

The mob has occupied an unusually prominent place in our history because Americans have cultivated a unique hostility toward the state and its institutions that goes back to the early years of the Republic. As historian Michael Pfeifer notes in his groundbreaking book, The Roots of Rough Justice, the violent libertarianism associated with the American Revolution and the subsequent lack of a strong, centralized state gave rise to mob violence that gathered force before the Civil War. He writes,

"Antebellum advocates of vigilantism in the Midwest, South, and West drew on Anglo-American and American revolutionary traditions of community violence that suggested that citizens might reclaim the functions of government when legal institutions could not provide sufficient protections to persons or their property."

Those mobs didn't necessarily think of themselves as anti-democratic. Rather, they imagined that they were improving on democracy. As Pfeifer points out, many of the vigilante outfits that targeted minorities practiced democratic procedures of a sort. Some adopted bylaws and even elected their own leaders. They held mock trials and votes on what punishments to mete out: hanging or burning alive.

Such mobs functioned both as a parallel military and, to a certain extent, a parallel state.

The two, in fact, went hand in hand. German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, but that was the German tradition. In the United States, particularly during its first 150 years, the state only aspired to possess such a monopoly.

Instead, a rough form of frontier justice often prevailed. Before and just after the American Revolution, even whites were its targets, but increasingly its victims were people of color. Slave owners, slave patrols, and ad hoc mobs dispensed justice throughout antebellum America and the tradition of "Judge Lynch" continued long after the abolition of slavery. The pushing of the frontier westward involved not only the Army's killing of Native Americans but extrajudicial violence by bands of settlers. Historian Benjamin Madley estimates that the Native population in California declined by more than 80% between 1846 and 1873, with as many as 16,000 killings in 370-plus massacres. This "winning" of the West also involved the widespread lynching of Latinos.

The "Right" to Bear Arms

Mobs were able to dispense frontier justice not only thanks to a strong libertarian tradition and a weak state, but also because of the widespread availability of guns. Coming out of the Civil War, this country developed a distinct gun culture sustained by a surge in firearm production. Gun prices fell and so guns fell into the hands of more and more citizens.

Mobs used firearms in the infamous Draft Riot in New York in 1863, which ended up targeting the city's Black community, and in New Orleans in 1866 when enraged whites attacked a meeting of Republicans determined to extend civil rights protections to African Americans. In their drive westward, settlers favored Winchester rifles with magazines that could fire 15 rounds, giving them a staggering advantage over the people they were displacing. Early gun control laws seldom prevented whites from acquiring firearms because they were mainly designed to keep guns out of the hands of Blacks and other racial minorities.

Even today, widespread gun ownership distinguishes the United States from every other country. Approximately 40% of American households own one or more firearms, a figure that has remained remarkably consistent for the last 50 years. If you look at guns per capita, the United States ranks number one in the world at 120 firearms per 100 civilians. The next country on the list, war-torn Yemen, comes in a distant second with 52 per hundred. With more guns than people within its borders, it's no wonder that the federal government has often struggled to maintain its monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.

Gun enthusiasts have erroneously enlisted the Constitution to justify this extreme democracy of firepower. To guard against tyrannical federal behavior, the Second Amendment of the Constitution preserved the right of state militias to bear arms. However, organizations like the National Rifle Association have campaigned for years to reinterpret that amendment as giving any individual the right to bear arms.

That has, in turn, provided ammunition for both the "castle doctrine" (the right to use armed force to defend one's own home) and "stand your ground" laws (the right to use force in "self-defense"). Armed extremist groups now imagine themselves as nothing less than the Second Amendment's "well-regulated Militia" with a constitutionally given "right" to own weapons and defend themselves against the federal government (or anyone else they disapprove of).

Improbably enough, for the last four years, the head of the federal government has become one of their chief supporters.

Donald Trump: Leader of the Pack

Long before becoming president, Donald Trump was already acting as if he were the head of a lynch mob. In 1989, he published full-page ads in the New York Times and three other local papers calling for New York City to reinstate the death penalty in response to a brutal gang rape in Central Park. He swore that the city was then "ruled by the law of the streets" and that "muggers and murderers... should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes."

It was language distinctly reminiscent of white mobs bitter about the failure of local law enforcement to execute Blacks accused of crimes. Like many of their predecessors, the accused Black and Latino teenagers were, in the end, found to be quite innocent of the crime. After a long legal struggle, the Central Park Five (as they came to be known) were released from prison. Trump has never apologized for his campaign to kill innocent people.

When he ran for president, he quickly moved beyond mere "law and order" rhetoric. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump deliberately cultivated a following among armed extremists. At a rally in North Carolina, for instance, he warned of what might happen to the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton were to win.

"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks," he lamented. Then he added in his typically confused and elliptical manner of speaking: "Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don't know." He was, in other words, suggesting that followers with guns could do something about Clinton's choices by shooting her or her judicial picks.

Throughout that campaign season, he regularly retweeted white supremacist claims and memes. At the time, it was estimated that more than 60% of the accounts he was retweeting had links to white supremacists. At his rallies, he encouraged his supporters to get "rough" with protesters.

As president, he's continued to side with the mob. He infamously refused to denounce neo-Nazis gathering in Charlottesville in August 2017, applauded the armed demonstrators who demanded the reopening of the economy in the pandemic spring of 2020, and defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse after he killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

Trump has stood up for the Confederate flag, Confederate statues, and keeping the names of Confederate generals on U.S. military bases. In a recent speech denouncing school curricula that teach about slavery and other unsavory aspects of our history, he pledged to erect a statue of a slaveowner in a project he's been promoting -- building a National Garden of American Heroes park. The current administration has cultivated direct links to white nationalists through disgraced figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, as well as current advisers like Stephen Miller.

In his reelection bid, Trump pointedly held his first pandemic rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he excoriated Democrats who "want to take away your guns through the repeal of your Second Amendment" and "left-wing radicals [who] burn down buildings, loot businesses, destroy private property, injure hundreds of dedicated police officers." In a literal whitewashing of history, he made no mention of the White mobs that had looted businesses and destroyed property in that very city in 1921.

Trump's exhortations to his followers over the heads of state and local officials appeal to the mob belief that citizens must reclaim the functions of government, if necessary through force. Right-wing militias explicitly embrace that history. The "Three Percenters," a militia movement that emerged in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, purports to protect Americans from tyrannical government. Their name derives from the inaccurate belief that only 3% of Americans took up arms to fight the British empire in the eighteenth century.

Of course, three percent of Americans are not now members of such militias and White nationalist movements, but their numbers are on the rise. White nationalist groups increased from 100 in 2017 to 155 in 2019. The several hundred militia groups now in existence probably have a total of 15,000 to 20,000 members, including an increasing number of veterans with combat experience. Far from a homogeneous force, some are focused on patrolling the southern border and targeting the undocumented. Others are obsessed with resisting the federal government, even in a few cases opposing Trump's various power grabs.

West Virginia University professor John Temple argues, in fact, that not all right-wing militias hold extremist views. "I have listened to many hours of 'patriot' conversations that didn't sound all that different from what you would hear during a typical evening on Fox News," he writes. "Many seemed to have joined the cause for social reasons, or because they liked guns, or because they wanted to be part of something they saw as historic and grandiose -- not because their views were far more radical than those of typical right-leaning Americans."

This is not exactly reassuring, since the politics of right-leaning, Fox News-watching Americans have grown more extreme. With nearly half of the Republicans surveyed by Larry Bartels prepared to take the law into their own hands, Trump has nearly succeeded in transforming his party into a mob of vigilantes.

Don't be fooled into thinking that the president is a law-and-order candidate. He flourishes in chaos and routinely flouts the law. By siding with right-wing militias and their ilk, he daily undermines the state's monopoly on legitimate violence.

The debate over defunding the police must be seen in this context. In a country awash in guns and grassroots racism, with a major party flirting with mob violence, getting rid of police departments would be akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire of uncontained extremism. Sure, local law enforcement needs major reforms, massive civic oversight, and right-sized budgets. Police departments must be purged of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The Pentagon has to stop supplying the cops with military-grade weaponry.

But remember: the police can be reformed. What was once an all-white force now better reflects America's diversity. The mob, by definition, is not subject to reforms or any oversight whatsoever.

This is no time to permit the return of frontier justice administered by white mobs and a lawless president, especially with a critical election looming. Mob violence has often accompanied elections in the past, with rival factions fighting over the results, as in the street battles of 1874 in New Orleans between Republican integrationists and racist Democrats. Like nineteenth-century Louisiana, the struggle this November is not just about Democrats versus Republicans. It's about the rule of law versus racist vigilantism.

White supremacy is not going to give up its hold on power without a fight. If you thought you'd seen real American carnage in Trump's four years in office, prepare yourself for the chaotic aftermath of the November election. The mob is itching to take the law into its own hands one more time on behalf of its very own mobster-in-chief.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 John Feffer

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