At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Trump Produces Collective National Trauma

Vladimir Putin (l), president of the Russian Federation, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil's chairman and Secretary of State nominee, will try to stabilize energy markets to aid oil prices.

Vladimir Putin (l), president of the Russian Federation, and Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil’s chairman and Secretary of State nominee, will try to stabilize energy markets to aid oil prices.

SOMERSET, KY — It’s been six weeks since Donald J. Trump’s surprise election. The final national count is in. He lost by almost 2.9 million votes. The electoral college votes this week to formalize his victory.

If this inspires personal vertigo you are not alone. Half the country is ecstatic. The other half has a headache and peptic distress. Ever brazen, and with scant control of his metaphorical filters, Trump bullies forward. One brash decision, purposely designed to gather support or prompt alarm, follows another instance of celebrity groping intended to calm the opposition. It’s like watching a magician perform in a school auditorium. The eyebrow and lip feints are as important as the arm waving.

Al Gore, among the planet’s prominent climate change activists, is invited to Trump’s New York transition office. The meeting comes at the same time as Scott Pruitt, the climate-denying energy-financed attorney general of Oklahoma, is nominated for EPA administrator. Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, is nominated to oversee the Energy Department.

The heads of Google, Amazon, and other tech companies are invited to New York. During the same time Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil chairman and longtime ally of Russian oil magnates and Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin, is nominated for Secretary of State.

The New York Times and the Washington Post said a few times after the election that “chaos” described the Trump transition planning. What a hoot. The president-elect looks like he knows exactly what he is doing.

One huge Trump goal is to rescue the fossil fuel industry from the powerful market, social, and ecological forces arrayed against it. With Perry, Tillerson, and Pruitt in the cabinet and Putin and the Koch brothers as aides-de-camp Trump has assembled a cross-continental development-investment-deregulatory oil sector brotherhood.

Jim Dulzo, my good friend and astute observer of the energy sector, reached this conclusion: “There seems to be something pretty fantastic emerging from the Putin/Trump thang…some incredibly dark cabal that runs along a fossil-fuel/Russian/Koch/climate-denial/Republican/Trump/Putin axis. Recall: Koch family’s historic business connection to USSR, Exxon’s Tillerson’s business with Russia. Trump wants him as secretary of state while ordering all employees who worked on climate science handing in their names to their new boss. This may well be a desperate and perhaps successful international criminal/industrial attempt to stop the move away from fossil fuel before it goes any further. I’m starting to think that this is actually going on.”

As a journalist, I look at global conditions, events that I’ve personally reported on and ask this: Can Trump’s fossil energy development gambit work? Is it possible for the Trump brotherhood to stave off stranding in the ground $trillions in unburnable assets? Based on what I’ve witnessed from around the nation and the world the last eight years, I don’t think so.

Opposing the wealth and influence of the fossil sector is a quartet of more powerful forces: Mother Earth pushing back hard now with storms, floods, droughts, quakes, and fire. Civic rebellions everywhere to stop mega energy projects. Market disruptions that are driving costs up and prices down. Cleaner, lower cost alternatives. Summed up, Trump and his brotherhood are standing against the gale of ecological, market, civic, and technological transition. The president-elect, Putin, and the Trump cabinet are sailing schooner captains desperate to survive in the age of steamships.

Trump and his allies also face another impediment. You remember Watergate? The bungled 1972 theft of documents from the Democratic National Committee to aid Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign. The two seminal questions asked during that presidential scandal: What did Nixon know? When did he know it?

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The Years of Fake and Fraud

The CIA says Russian intelligence and hacking assisted Donald Trump's election victory. The FBI says it ain't so. Another shocking body blow to the American republic from information manipulation.

The CIA says Russian intelligence and hacking assisted Donald Trump’s election victory. The FBI says it ain’t so. Another shocking body blow to the American republic from information manipulation.

SOMERSET, KY — The CIA has clear evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to assist Donald Trump. That’s what the Washington Post reported last week.

Trump fired back. The assertion isn’t true, he said, and added that it comes from the same intelligence agency that got it all wrong about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. Other skeptics of the Russian election interference noted with bottomless gravity that the disclosure was made by the same newspaper that missed so badly in understanding what was happening in the 2016 presidential race — along with the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and so many other prominent American newsrooms.

Do you feel, as I do, that we are playable and we are getting played? Do you feel, as I do, that the forces of darkness and power that are playing us with such insolence and skill do so knowing that they will succeed? In electing an odious surprise minority candidate to be president, likely with the help of Russian intelligence capacity, U.S. voters also cemented right wing power in the House, the Senate, and most enduringly, the Supreme Court.

Do you recognize similarities to other body blow shocks to the republic? So much of the turmoil that we’ve endured as Americans this century started with information manipulation.

Information Deviancy
Example 1: In August 2001 President George Bush tossed aside the accurate CIA-prepared national intelligence briefing — “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.” After the memo proved murderously prophetic he relied on the same agency’s woefully wrong assessment of Iraqi WMD to start a war.

Example 2: Wall Street bankers bundled worthless mortgages with arcane names — alternative mortgage instruments, collateralized debt obligations — and sold them to investors who trusted that the Security Exchange Commission was doing its job. Bankers made billions in fees to inflate a housing bubble that burst. Six million people lost their homes. Eight million lost their jobs. One poor schmuck went to jail. All the rest of us paid out the ying-yang to stabilize the finance sector and the global economy so the bankers could make billions again financing bad stuff — like coal mines in the Philippines, oil wells in the Arctic, and pipelines across the Great Plains.

Example 3: In 2013 a young data and computer manager, Edward Snowden, left his National Security Agency posting in Hawaii with a trove of top secret files. The files revealed how the U.S., despite the sworn testimony of NSA chiefs who denied it, had developed the surveillance capacity to intercept, track, analyze, and store data from virtually every online and cell phone communication on Earth. Not only that but one digital communication company – Verizon — was court-ordered to share with the government the files of their customers. The U.S. wants to prosecute Snowden for stealing state secrets, although the government has no reticence about stealing ours. Much of America and the world considers him a hero.

Example 4: Snowden’s heroics have more relevance now. Here’s why. Given such surveillance capacity it’s logical to ask why the Obama government is having so much trouble making the case that Russia intervened to influence the 2016 election. The CIA says it’s true. The FBI says it ain’t so. That’s the very same FBI that produced another off-the-hook communications-related fraud and body blow. It intervened in the final weeks of the campaign to accuse Clinton of hiding more of those not- significant-at-all emails, and then rescinded the accusation. Clinton lost the election because 80,000 voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin may have been sufficiently swayed by the FBI’s recklessness to either vote for Trump or stay home.

Election Makes Strange and Dangerous Sense

Example 5: The 2016 election results make more sense if Russia, WikiLeaks, the Alt-Right, the Trump campaign, or any of the other architects of fakery and fraud know that they can 1) digitally roam the email caches of Hillary Clinton and her colleagues, 2) steadily feed the chum of what they find to the frenzy of sharks in important newsrooms, 3) lie and exaggerate and deflect without consequences, and 4) know it will work.

In the age of fake news, diminished newsroom revenue, and money-generating clicks, a minor fuss (and easy-to-get story) about Clinton’s State Department emails turned into the signature criticism of her candidacy. Mainstream, online, and nonprofit newsroom reporters covering the campaign consumed time and screen space pondering the private correspondence of stolen emails and not nearly enough time discovering the thieves. If Woodward and Bernstein had deployed the same technique in the early 1970s, the Watergate scandal would never have reached the White House.

Fake news sites, meanwhile, used Facebook to churn out all manner of bullshit tales of Clinton misbehavior that Trump himself often cited and his supporters embraced as the truth.

So here we are, contending with yet another disastrous example of information manipulation that puts the republic in danger. The United States is about to swear in a president that one U.S. intelligence agency says was elected with the digital and intelligence assistance of a foreign nation, and another U.S. intelligence agency swears it isn’t so. The fake news sites celebrate the national information vertigo. The mainstream newsrooms challenge each other for the next disclosure, but what they report is neither airtight nor trustworthy. Those same newsrooms sustained systemic institutional collapses in 2016 by focusing on the unimportant and dismissing as immature and reckless the biggest blockbuster disclosure of the campaign, one that Trump himself was desperate for everyone to know: the election really was rigged.

— Keith Schneider

A Storied Battle Over North Dakota Oil Pipeline

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Protestors in Houston call for arrest of Energy Transfer Partners chief executive.

Heavy snow and winter cold settled this month on thousands of Native Americans and their supporters encamped on Standing Rock Sioux tribal lands south of Bismarck, North Dakota. Nearby, the Missouri River slipped past. The river’s clean waters serve as the wellspring in what has steadily become one of the storied confrontations over energy development, justice, finance, and human rights in the American West.

Viewed in one dimension, the standoff over construction of a 1,172-mile, $US 3.8 billion oil pipeline pits thousands of First Nation protestors massed on the prairie to safeguard their sole source of drinking water from the fossil fuel industry and its allies in government and finance. But so many other dimensions of history, law, human rights, justice, finance, and climate change motivate the campaign to halt the Dakota Access pipeline. What has emerged on the wintry plains of North Dakota is a distinctive, if not unique event in the history of American environmentalism, and a seminal struggle over civil rights.

Risky proposals for big dams and mines, and actual environmental disasters like oil spills and chemical plant explosions have long stirred public protests. Such campaigns form the lifeblood of environmental advocacy.

Rarely, though, has such a big and expensive American industrial project, in the midst of construction, encountered opposition significant enough to threaten its opening. Perhaps the only comparable campaigns, according to environmental historians, are the direct actions to protect the endangered spotted owl that halted timber cutting in California and Oregon in the late 1980s and early 1990s. If the Sioux succeed in halting the Dakota Access pipeline, it would be seen by First Nation leaders as comparable to the legal battle that re-established Native American fishing rights in the Northwest in 1979.

“The fight in North Dakota has attracted a lot of national and international attention,” said Sarah Krakoff, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a noted authority on tribal treaties and law. “But you have to remember tribes have been on that land a long time. Tribes are amazingly resilient.”

The campaign to halt the pipeline gained even greater gravity after the election of Donald Trump, who owns shares in Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline’s developer. Trump vowed during the campaign to void U.S. commitments made in Paris last year to curb climate-changing carbon emissions, and to tear down regulatory barriers that he viewed as impeding development of coal, oil, and natural gas.

Campaign With Momentous Implications
In sum, what started last August with a call to action to join the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to prevent a mega fossil energy project from threatening a primary source of fresh water has grown into a public interest campaign with powerful implications for energy development, the environment, and the rule of law. Next week 2,000 veterans are scheduled to arrive in North Dakota to establish what they call a “human shield” to protect the thousands of “water protectors” that have already joined the campaign.

“It’s so obviously driven by civil rights issues on top of environmental concerns,” said Bill Kovarik, a professor of journalism and an environmental historian at Radford University in Virginia. “That’s a dimension that’s been hidden for so long.”

Two 21st century tactical innovations are empowering the protest and putting government authorities and Energy Transfer Partners on the defensive. The first is social media, especially Twitter and streaming video, that provide immediacy to the hour-by-hour shifts in strategy on both sides, and drawn thousands of tribal members and supporters to frontline demonstrations that have gotten ugly. Read More

Encountering the DTs

Donald Trump and President Obama at te White House days after the election.

Donald Trump and President Obama at the White House days after the election.

NEW YORK – Happy Thanksgiving from a city aswarm with misgivings about Donald Trump. I’m spending time here trying to help people decipher the details. I find it fascinating almost beyond measure — the careful work of a drama queen trying to calm the turbulent waters of the left and keep faith with his supporters on the right.

Follow the steps Trump’s taken. They largely rely on appointing Steve Bannon as a White House advisor. That’s the “optics” signal to the “basket of deplorables” that played such an outsized role in getting him elected. Bannon’s appointment was early and visible. It also provided psychic cover for the backpedaling on campaign promises that followed — open minded view on climate change, no waterboarding, a leaky fence instead of a wall, pre-existing conditions in health insurance, no “lock her up” investigation on Hillary, friendlier relations with the NYT. Look at the appointments, especially Nikki Haley, Republican governor of South Carolina who was a vocal critic and who also removed the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds following the murder of nine African Americans in a Charleston AME church.

Trump stirred the worst of America’s cultural instincts to get himself elected. Now he has set in place another plan — to meet with detractors — think Mitt Romney as candidate for Secretary of State — and convince them to come aboard. It defies what we learned during the campaign about Trump’s immature determination to bury his critics. This is the friendlier, more sensible president-elect that appeared this week. Are we convinced? Are you? Or is this more of Trump’s mercurial nature, his passion to deceive?

Like all of my family and friends I live in two worlds that converge in a thickening fog of anxiety. Donald Trump’s election has darkened our lives. He’s thrown a new and dangerous veil of cultural animosity over progressive America. He may have brought to an end half a century of progress in delivering equity and justice to women, minoroities, immigrants, and gay men and women.

People are nervous. They are agitated. They look for ways to grip certainty where there is none.

As a journalist I’m prepared to gather the facts and draw them together to form a credible narrative. It’s early in the era of the DTs. During the campaign we saw a calculating man determined to do what was necessary to win regardless of how many lies, and how much derision, anger, and hate he sowed. As a study in targeted marketing, celebrity, and made-for-reality tv showmanship Trump’s performance was frightfully effective.

In the early days of the transition we see a another version of Trumpian calculation – conciliatory, friendly, extending warm hugs and handshakes to detractors.

In every phase Trump writes new rules of engagement. His capacity to control the agenda is uncanny. He never gives up the whole story. It unfolds in daily drama. The audience is transfixed by what the next day’s events will bring. Never have I been witness to a single individual’s capacity to command a nation’s attention for as long as Trump has. The great newsrooms of our day — the Times, the Post, the New Yorker, the Atlantic — tell us of the chaos, the clamor, the unpredictability of Trump’s transition.

From what I glean from the details, shorn of Times and Post reportorial proclivities, is that Trump and his aides have clear command of the narrative and the characters. At this early stage, though, where the story is taking us is not at all plain. Trump is breaking every convention and writing new rules of the game.

— Keith Schneider

In the U.S., An “Episode” Set to End, Another Ready to Start

A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.

A dispiriting campaign is nearly over. A discouraging sojourn is about to begin whomever is elected.

SOMERSET, KY. — A story of leadership and poise emerged on Wednesday night after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. It is a lesson with lasting value to our national life.

The Cleveland Indians scored three runs in the bottom of the 8th inning to tie the game. Momentum had veered to the home team. To a man, the Cubs were rattled. Some said they were finding it hard to breathe.

At the end of the ninth inning, with the score tied 6-6 in a knuckle-reddening thriller, groundskeepers unrolled a big white tarp to prevent the infield from becoming inundated by an approaching storm. Cubs believe the rain and the short game delay were a divine intervention.

While waiting for play to resume, Jason Heyward, the Cubs’ right fielder, felt the sharp blades of fate and tension swiping at his team’s confidence. He guided his teammates into a tiny weight room off the main clubhouse to say something simple and powerful enough to settle them. Heyward spoke from his heart.

“Where’s that fire we’ve had all year?” he said. “Fight for your brothers!”

“I just wanted them to remember how good they were, how good we are,” Heyward told reporters. “Know how proud of them I was and that I loved them. That I mean it from the bottom of my heart. I don’t need to take any credit for anything. I just love them so much that, win or lose, I would hate to see them not be themselves.”

Jason Heyward

Jason Heyward

Oh that someone would emerge to deliver a Jason Heyward-like message of calm and assurance to this rattled nation. Five days before a destabilizing national election full of hate and lies and aberrant behavior, the United States could use a big group hug, and a trusted voice of reason. Half the country, it appears, wants to blow up the existing order. The other half fears they could. The race has reached a state of intransigence, a brawl over opposing values and principles every bit as pitched as that 6-6 ninth inning score.

Unlike a national championship baseball game, where both sides commend each other and accept the outcome, this national election displays no element of sportsmanship. Whatever happens on November 8, the election results are almost certain to widen the divisions and stoke the flames of disrespect, indecency, and incivility. Read More