The Chaos Agent

Nineteen years is a long time. But people don’t forget. Or maybe they do. “Remember the Alamo!” Why? And there was that “day that will live in infamy” – Pearl Harbor – the dastardly Japanese attack – our Pacific fleet gone and 2,043 of our best and bravest dead – but the Japanese are our allies now. Half of the nation now drives their nearly perfect cars, and sushi is a given in every American city and suburb. That dastardly Japanese attack was long ago. We let it go.

But nineteen years ago isn’t that long ago. It was time to look back again, and remember how, for a moment, that changed things. And it changed things again. The Washington Post covers America momentarily reverting to unity:

The divisive and combustible presidential campaign took a brief pause on Friday as President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden dropped their political antagonism to focus on the somber anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In place of a fearful pandemic, an economic disruption and an epic political clash centering on both crises, the day became one of wreaths laid, prayers offered and families consoled. In an exchange rarely seen in today’s political environment, Biden and Vice President Pence swapped pleasantries at a ceremony near the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood in New York, greeting one another by briefly bumping elbows.

And everyone said the right thing:

“We were united by our conviction that America was the world’s most exceptional country, blessed with the most incredible heroes, and that this was a land worth defending with our very last breath,” Trump said in Shanksville, Pa., during a ceremony at the site where United Airlines Flight 93 crashed that day after passengers and crew rebelled against hijackers aiming the craft toward Washington.

At the same site a few hours later, Biden echoed Trump’s remarks.

“My mom used to say, ‘Joey, bravery resides in every heart and someday it will be summoned. The question is, will you respond?'” said Biden, who flew to Pennsylvania after the ceremony in New York. “People responded. It is absolutely incredible. This is a country that never, never, never, never, never gives up – ever!”

Cool, but that couldn’t last. President Trump couldn’t resist. He is the biggest hero now:

In Shanksville, he delivered a solemn tribute under cloudy skies, speaking directly to families who lost loved ones in the attacks.

“Today every heartbeat in America is wedded to yours,” Trump said. “The heroes of Flight 93 are an everlasting reminder that no matter the danger, no matter the threat, no matter the odds, America will always rise up, stand tall and fight back.”

Trump said the al-Qaeda attacks were orchestrated and executed by “radical Islamic terrorists,” and he recounted conquests during his administration in the war against Islamic terrorists, including the January killing of Qasem Soleimani and the 2019 death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Neither man was responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks, however, and Trump made no mention of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attacks who was captured and killed in 2011 during a raid overseen by former president Barack Obama.

But no one had the heart to call him out on his wannabe nonsense. It wasn’t the day for that. But no one was surprised either:

About 12 hours earlier, during a rally in Michigan, Trump had alleged that Biden would open the country to terrorists, invite members of the loosely organized far-left group Antifa to live in suburban neighborhoods, and that “no city, town or suburb will be safe.”

Biden, in an interview that aired Thursday on CNN, had said he was in better physical shape than Trump, questioned the president’s intelligence and said, “Unrelated to my running, he should not be the commander in chief of the United States military.”

But let that pass:

On Friday, Biden’s campaign pulled all of its advertising as a sign of respect for those lost – and the former vice president started the day by remarking that he would avoid any political debate…

Biden also stopped by a fire station in Shanksville, delivering a cake that Jill Biden had baked and six packs of Bud Light and Iron City Beer that he had vowed to deliver on a previous visit.

“I keep my promises!” Biden said.

And, of course, someone else never does. Biden is a bit more subtle than Trump, and then there was the second string:

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Sen. Kamala D. Harris spent the morning in Fairfax, Va., where she thanked a small group of first responders.

Harris told the few dozen service members and an accumulation of onlookers from nearby buildings that she was at the gym, working out early on a California morning when she saw planes hit the World Trade Center 19 years ago.

“Everyone stopped, got off their equipment and we all just watched in utter disbelief,” Harris said. “Strangers were hugging each other. People who had never spoken to each other before were holding each other.”

She misses that:

Harris said that Americans’ first instinct was “to hug and hold each other – perfect strangers – understanding at our core, without reflection, without thinking about it, that we’re all in this together.”

“What our attackers failed to understand was that the darkness they hope would envelope us on 9/11 instead summoned our most radiant and defined human instincts – the instinct to care for one another, to transcend our divisions and see ourselves as fellow citizens,” Harris said. “The instinct to unite.”

Yeah, yeah:

By late afternoon, Trump’s instinct was, once again, to divide. He was back on Twitter, criticizing congressional Democrats and claiming they wanted money to help Democratic states.

“Pelosi and Schumer want Trillions of Dollars of BAILOUT money for Blue States that are doing badly, both economically and in terms of high crime, as a condition to making a deal on stimulus – But the USA is coming back strong!” he tweeted.

And just like that it was all over. Things got back to normal. America has no instinct to unite:

Officials dealing with catastrophic fires on the West Coast have had to counter social media rumors that the blazes were set by antifascist activists, publicly pleading that people verify information before sharing it.

Despite their efforts, misinformation about the origin of the fires – which have killed at least 15 people and consumed millions of acres – continues to spread on Facebook and Twitter.

Several law enforcement agencies in Oregon said they had been flooded with inquiries about rumors that activists were responsible. On Thursday, several journalists reporting on fires near the city of Molalla, Ore., said they had been confronted by a group of armed people who were worried about unverified reports of arsonists in the area.

And yes, it was all nonsense:

The rumors appear to have started on Wednesday night, after the Portland Police Bureau warned people on Twitter about the risk of fire during demonstrations. But there is no evidence that activists have deliberately set fires.

“We’re not seeing any indications of a mass politically influenced arson campaign,” said Joy Krawczyk, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Forestry.

Three law enforcement agencies in Oregon did announce on Thursday that the Almeda Fire, which incinerated neighborhoods and is linked to two deaths, may have been deliberately set. No suspects were publicly identified, but the Ashland police chief told The Oregonian that no information pointed toward the loose collective of antifascist activists known as Antifa.

That doesn’t matter in a divided America:

The rumors about activist arsonists began to circulate on Wednesday evening after the Portland police tweet about fire risks.

“Since fire danger is very high right now due to high winds and the current dry climate, fire will spread quickly and could affect many lives,” the police tweeted. “We ask you to demonstrate peacefully and without the use of fire.”

Right-wing groups, politicians and social media personalities saw the tweet as evidence that Antifa, which has been a regular presence in Portland, must be responsible for the fires up and down the West Coast.

And then there was no stopping this:

In Medford, which was threatened by the Almeda Fire, the Police Department reported that it had heard rumors that officers had arrested either leftist Antifa or right-wing Proud Boys activists on suspicion of arson. The department posted on Facebook that neither story was true, nor was a fake graphic associated with the rumors, nor were reports of “gatherings of Antifa.”

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said on Thursday that 911 dispatchers were being overrun with requests for information about an untrue rumor that antifa members had been arrested in connection with fires. The office said the rumors were making a difficult situation even harder. “Do your part, STOP. SPREADING. RUMORS!” the office said in a Facebook post.

It was too late for that. Jack Healy and Mike Baker report from Molalla:

Ralph Mitchell’s neighbors were fleeing. Ash rained from the sky. And outside Mr. Mitchell’s natural-medicine business, a police cruiser announced on loudspeaker: “This has been declared a life-threatening fire emergency. You need to evacuate the city.”

Mr. Mitchell was having none of it. He was staying.

“There are already reports that Antifa’s in town, going down the streets looting,” he said, echoing widely discredited rumors on Twitter and Facebook that left-wing activists had been systematically setting blazes. “I’m getting texts.”

And he trusts texts:

As a Level 3 evacuation on Thursday urged people to “leave now,” an eerie stillness fell over Molalla, an old timber town of 9,000 an hour south of Portland, and the holdout residents girded themselves for two threats. One was the very real 125,000-acre Riverside Fire burning just east of town. The other was the imagined invasion of left-wing mobs and arsonists that multiple law-enforcement agencies have sought to refute.

Residents who remained hosed down their roofs and soaked their lawns. They organized go-bags of baby supplies and clothes, just in case. They scouted for unfamiliar cars on the roads.

“I’m protecting my city,” Troy McNeeley said as he stood in front of the 900-square-foot home he shares with his son, his son’s partner and several cats. “If I see people doing crap, I’m going to hurt them.”

In his 2016 rallies, Trump did urge his fans to “beat the crap” out of any protesters making trouble and he promised to play the legal fees for anyone charged with anything who did that for him and for America. This was more of the same, with a rural twist:

As conversations churned away online, neighbors called and stopped by each other’s houses and businesses to trade new, unfounded reports: People setting fire to hay bales. A shootout that erupted after a landowner caught someone throwing a Molotov cocktail. (The Clackamas County Sheriff told The Associated Press there was no such report.)

And that’s where things got interesting:

Some of the misinformation that seeped like smoke across Molalla appears to have begun when two independent videographers, Gabriel Trumbly and his partner, Jennifer Paulsen, arrived outside town at about 9 p.m. on Wednesday to capture images of the immense wildfires.

They put on press vests and gas masks that they have used while shooting video of recent protests in Portland and then walked along the rural road near where Ms. Paulsen had grown up. Mr. Trumbly said one resident was out spraying down property with water and another offered them something to drink.

They got some footage and photos of the flames before deciding to turn back, concerned about the size of the fire and the possibility that power lines could fall in the winds.

But as they returned into cellphone range, Ms. Paulsen went on to Facebook and Twitter looking for fire updates and came across a social media post that was clearly about them, describing their gas masks and vests and suggesting they had gone up the road to start a fire. The person reported trying to follow their Volkswagen sedan.

One person replied: “Are you kidding me? Shoot ’em!”

No one did. Trumbly and Paulsen talked their way out of that, but it was a close call. This is Trump’s world now:

Patrick McDermott, 36, hitched up a trailer carrying his four-wheelers as his fiancée packed bags of clothing for their family and draped a surgical mask across their 17-month-old daughter’s face. Mr. McDermott was unnerved by what he called a “generational” outbreak of fires that have swallowed entire towns in Washington and Oregon.

But he said he and his fiancée had been watching reports of hooligans in black masks and hoodies pop up on local Facebook groups, and he worried that he was putting his home at risk if he left. He would go, he said, only when the town caught fire.

“You see what they’re doing downtown,” he said, referring to Portland. “It’s going to be a free-for-all. If I’m here and my buddies are here, that’s going to get stopped. This is what we’ve worked for our whole life. We’re not going to let anyone take it.”

Who wants it? No one was coming for anything. There was no one. There never was anyone, so don’t panic. The fire is coming. That’s it. That’s all. Panic about that.

But this is the age of panic, the proper panic. Donald Trump can explain proper panic, and Philip Rucker can explain Trump:

A visibly agitated and angry President Trump on Thursday defended his decision to intentionally mislead the public about the lethality of the novel coronavirus by saying he had an obligation as the nation’s leader to prevent panic.

Staring down reporters at a White House news conference in the wake of revelations from Bob Woodward’s new book, “Rage,” Trump cast his deception as a virtue – a president instilling calm to protect the people.

“I don’t want to jump up and down and start screaming ‘Death! Death!’ That’s not what it’s all about. We have to lead a country,” Trump said. He added, “There has to be a calmness.”

Ah, but there is the proper panic:

Trump evidently did not feel the same presidential obligation to imbue serenity a few hours earlier, however, when he sounded the alarm on Twitter about a number of other topics.

“If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters,'” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.

In another morning tweet, he wrote, “Sending out 80 MILLION BALLOTS to people who aren’t even asking for a Ballot is unfair and a total fraud in the making. Look at what’s going on right now!”

Rucker notes that there was nothing new here:

Trump famously launched his presidential campaign in 2015 with dark warnings that immigrants from Mexico were “rapists” and “bringing drugs” and “bringing crime.”

As president, he has warned darkly – and with considerable hyperbole – of dangers he sees everywhere. At first, it was citizens of majority-Muslim countries bringing terror to the shores of the United States. Then it was MS-13 gang members overtaking tranquil communities. Then it was “caravans” of “illegal aliens” traveling through Central America toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Then it was “un-American” Democrats trying to steal everyone’s guns, obliterate the economy and destroy the country by instituting socialism.

So now it’s just more of the same:

This summer, as polls have shown Trump trailing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, the president has warned of a “RIGGED 2020 ELECTION … IT WILL BE THE SCANDAL OF OUR TIMES!” as he put it in an all-caps tweet on June 22.

And he has sounded urgent calls for “LAW AND ORDER,” as he has tweeted time and again.

He also has warned that the “radical left” seeks to endanger families and wipe out livelihoods in suburbs everywhere, as he claimed in his address last month when he formally accepted the Republican presidential nomination.

“No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump declared.

This was not a 9/11 message of national unity:

Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University and author of a forthcoming book, “Strongmen,” described Trump as “a chaos agent” and said his strategy of using fear to encourage dependence on him as a leader fits a global pattern.

“All leaders of authoritarian tendencies use methods of psychological warfare on their people by creating environments full of uncertainty,” Ben-Ghiat said. “You never know what to expect from the leader, you never know when he’ll be angry or whom he’ll victimize. They use bureaucratic chaos and create uncertainty to keep people divided, too frightened from mobilizing.”

Perhaps so, but not everyone will be frightened from mobilizing. Everyone can see where this is heading. Ron Brownstein remembers December 2000:

During the long legal battle in Florida that ultimately determined the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, specifically discouraged Jesse Jackson, the veteran civil-rights leader, from organizing public protests to demand a full counting of the disputed ballots.

Gore wanted to fight solely in the courts, though that meant ceding the streets to Republicans, who held raucous rallies accusing Democrats of trying to steal the election from the GOP nominee, George W. Bush, including one showdown in the Miami-Dade elections-board offices that became immortalized as the “Brooks Brothers riot.”

But there will be no more of that:

No one can say what exactly will happen if Donald Trump contests an apparent loss on November 3 by insisting that the results are riddled with fraud. But one prediction is safe: Democrats won’t cede the streets to the GOP again in the weeks after the election.

A wide array of progressive groups is already coordinating efforts to ensure substantial public protest after the election to defend the vote counting. Their assumption is that Trump will try to intimidate state officials tabulating mail-in ballots by mobilizing the same sort of armed supporters who poured into Midwestern capitals to protest the coronavirus lockdowns in the spring and confronted Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer.

Trump will have his citizen-thugs ready to bust some heads again, but this time they will be completely outnumbered:

The intent on the left, if it comes to that, is to meet Trump’s demonstrators with overwhelming numbers; the goal is to establish a presence more reminiscent of the street uprisings in Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the more recent prodemocracy protests in Ukraine and Hong Kong, than of anything in modern American experience.

“If it appears that Trump is blatantly stealing the election from a majority of the Americans that voted in a different direction, I do think that people will rise up in ways that we’ve never seen before,” says Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, one of the groups participating in the progressive coalition, called Protect the Results.

Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, another group participating in postelection planning, told me that he can “guarantee” that “we will not have asymmetric warfare this time around. We won’t have litigation on the left and thuggery and election disruption on the right.” If Trump tries to stop the counting of mail-in ballots after Election Day, or otherwise tries to short-circuit the results, Green predicts, the scale of protests would be that of “the Black Lives Matter protests on steroids, as people come into the streets to defend their democracy and to defend the counting of votes.”

This will be a kind of civil war:

If the November 3 voting produces anything less than a blowout lead for either side – and perhaps even if it produces a blowout lead for Joe Biden – the post-election period is likely to test how far both GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republican voters will go in tolerating efforts from Trump to subvert the rules of small-d democracy.

On that front, a new study from the Vanderbilt University political scientist Larry M. Bartels offers important – and ominous – findings. Bartels found that antidemocratic and authoritarian ideas have secured a substantial foothold within the GOP’s electoral coalition. In a national survey he conducted in January, just over half of Republican voters (including both self-identified Republicans and independents who lean toward the party) strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” Just under half agreed that “strong leaders sometimes have to bend the rules in order to get things done.” About two in five agreed that “a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands.”

Who are these people? Bartels explains:

The key predictor of which Republicans were most receptive to ditching democratic rules wasn’t age or education or any other demographic factor. Instead, hostility toward the nation’s growing racial and ethnic diversity – the central chord of Trump’s messaging – was the single best predictor of a willingness to abandon democratic precepts. Close behind was hostility toward cultural change, such as greater acceptance of gay rights.

The minority heavily-armed unambiguously-straight quite-white evangelical America will take the country back from the majority mongrels and perverts, at least in their telling, and in Trump’s telling. And he has a plan:

President Donald Trump threatened Thursday to “put down very quickly” riots on election night should aggrieved Democrats take to the streets in the wake of his potential victory.

The remarks from the president came in an interview with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro set to air Saturday, in which he was asked how he would respond to incidents of rioting should he be declared the winner on Nov. 3.

“We’ll put them down very quickly if they do that. We have the right to do that. We have the power to do that, if we want,” Trump said.

That was his 9/11 message. Nineteen years ago isn’t that long ago, but now it is. America finally moved on, and seems to have ended.

Go ahead. Elect a chaos agent. That seemed like a good idea to many Americans four years ago. They hadn’t thought that through, not that it matters now. This can’t be fixed. Chaos is like that.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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