Archive for November, 2017

Autocracies happen gradually. The first indication is that a significant number of citizens are feeling ignored by the current political system, are gradually becoming angry, and will soon be ready to respond to a new and out-of-the box leader.

  1. The first step is that someone outside the political establishment with at least a modicum of performance ability and an abundance of political ambition begins to promise “I know how to make your life better, and only I can make it happen!” This becomes a theme, and is endlessly repeated at every opportunity.
  2. Next, many people in society’s mainstream begin to notice some signs of an emerging autocrat, but chose to think that “it can’t happen here.” (Consider Germany during the 1930’s)
  3. The “only me” message is reinforced by attacks on the free press. This tactic first creates a cloud of uncertainty about finding truth in a cluttered and confusing news environment, but soon morphs into charges that the press generates “fake news” simply to make trouble and advance itself.
  4. Next, the court system is attacked as ineffective and too political. The purpose is to warn the public that some exceptions to normal legal processes might be necessary in order to get essential changes made quickly.
  5. The competence of current agencies and departments long-established to investigate internal and external wrong-doing will also be challenged. This is a move made to eventually gain control of what and who these units will investigate.
  6. Key experts and top positions in other important government departments and institutions will also be eliminated. The justification for this is that the new leader has plans to solve the major domestic and world problems, and so these positions are wasteful and no longer needed. (In the US this has included the state department, homeland security, consumer protection, environmental protection, and more.)
  7. The way has now been cleared to bring people into the government based completely on their personal loyalty and wealth. These oligarchs have no expertise for their assigned positions, but it no longer matters because one person will be making all important decisions.
  8. The new leader’s family will also enter government. They, along with the other oligarchs, will use their new-found celebrity to further enrich themselves. And it won’t seem to matter that their inexperience often leads to inept and often embarrassing behavior.
  9. Eventually every important social institution will be systematically weakened, either through cuts in funding or executive orders. This will include public education, universities, charities, the arts, and much more. A nation is only as strong as its institutions. But an autocracy can only survive if it weakens them.
  10. After a few months, important allies around the world will begin to ignore all the “me first” initiatives and start to make other commitments. New partnerships, trade arrangements,  environmental agreements, and defense treaties will replace old ones… and a whole new generation of world leaders will begin to take center stage.

The big lesson for us is that a nation is only as strong as its most effective and active institutions. To seize control autocrats must weaken them. But as a consequence, they will eventually find themselves isolated… and their countries in deep decline. And, yes, all this is already happening here.

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Lesson 412 Tactics for Blurring Controversial Issues

If you do not want to discuss or deal with a difficult controversial issue, what tactics can you use to blur, confuse or divert the situation?  Recent lessons from the digital and social media revolution would indicate you have at least four options:

  1. Label the entire situation “fake news.” When there is a report President Trump doesn’t like he simply calls it fake news. It’s a tactic that can be effective because people generally feel overwhelmed and confused by the deluge of 24/7 news. Experts are constantly disagreeing and lies are flying about everywhere. So don’t try to explain the issue. Rather just label it fake news. And while doing so is imprecise and generally inaccurate, it often will sound true enough.
  2. Divert attention to another situation. When a headline confronts you with an issue you don’t like, quickly attack something or someone else. Angry tweets are effective. This will direct news media attention to the subject of your tweet and away from your issue. For example, if you are president Trump, you might suddenly divert attention to North Korea by attacking its leader. Or, you might suddenly demand that the justice department investigate the democrats.
  3. Make fun of the person or situation. Your objective here is to control the headlines by making light of the situation or humiliating the person standing in your way. For example, name-calling sometimes works. You might label a political enemy “crooked Hillary.” Or try labeling someone “shorty.” In other words, by humiliating another person, you are able to bring the focus of attention to yourself. This tactic can only work when your objective is to appeal to your base of support… people who will applaud your boldness and overlook your cruelty.
  4. Give a garbled explanation, and sound confident doing it. An example is the Speaker of the House asserting that his tax cut plan is primarily aimed at helping the middle class. With this tactic assertions are made without addressing the many exceptions, or how others will benefit much more. For this tactic to work explanations must be incomplete, and can even be incoherent. People no longer listen to detailed explanations. They most likely will only hear your assertions, and then be persuaded by your enthusiasm.

On the surface, people should see right through these tactics. But with today’s endless glut of information, many will not. If truth is to be found, the responsibility has shifted to media consumers. People must learn to balance their input, understand the realities of the digital age, and carefully analyze everything they hear. And this will require a major emphasis on Civics and Media Literacy education in all of our schools and community groups.

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Lesson 411 “Walking Back” Angry Rhetoric

Experience teaches that once someone speaks in anger, and then repeats it many times, it is all but impossible to “walk it back,” or soften it enough to make a difference. With that in mind, it has really been interesting to watch and listen to Mr. Trump on his recent trip to Asia.

Many foreign affairs analysts were hoping that our president would “walk back” much of the mean-spirited ranting he had been aiming at China. During the campaign he attacked its monetary policies and trade practices many times over. On this trip, however, he tried to walk back all that he could by congratulating China on successfully taking advantage of its trade advantages… but then he blamed past US administrations for creating the problem.

Before arriving in South Korea he tweeted that North Korea’s leader was short and fat. But later he walked this back and softened his past name-calling by suggesting that there might be the slight possibility of a negotiation. Of course, he added a few softened threats at the end.

The real question is this: Can a simple walk back provide the needed space for reaching an interim ceremony-only agreement, or at least a quick hand shake? Experience suggests that this kind of ceremonial agreement might be possible, but it will be very temporary. Later when professional diplomats gather to work, all bets will be off. Longer term communication possibilities will have already been defined by past rhetoric and behaviors.

Make no mistake, longstanding values, repeated statements of beliefs, and widely observed behaviors clearly demonstrate how much a person can be trusted. And it’s trusting that leaders will do what they say and make good on their promises that increases numbers of followers.

So did walking back any of his words change how the world will view Mr Trump? Experience suggests that it’s not likely. Mr. Trump must have concluded this because he headed off to the Philippines to meet with an autocrat while most Asian nations stayed behind to work out a new multilateral trade agreement, with China being the likely winner.

Speaking of autocrats, in a brief encounter Mr Putin apparently said flatly that Russia had nothing to do with hacking or influencing the US presidential campaign. And, of course, Mr. Trump quickly announced that he believed him.

It is not surprising that in the months ahead our president will be dealing with many different autocrats. And he has been consistent in his admiration for their control and style. So did his walking back rhetoric lay any foundation for making America great again? Or even more to the point: Did he make you proud by advancing your “idea of America”?



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Lesson 410 Presidents Authorizing Military Strikes?

Last week the senate committee on foreign relations met with both the secretaries of defense and state. I watched what seemed like endless give and take as these two powerful men sat next to each other answering probing questions.

The purpose of the meeting was to hear the administration’s perspective on authorizations for the use of military force. However, it seemed to me that the senators were really looking for ways to recapture their constitutionally defined “checks and balances” role.

Each secretary carefully made the case that in today’s rapidly changing world the president simply must have the power to strike quickly, especially when an adversary is seriously threatening us. The senators’ concern, however, was that this authority has amounted to giving presidents the power to engage in small adversary-related battles and air strikes at any time most anywhere in the world. And this is happening right now in Africa.

In today’s social media, 24/7 news, and Internet connected environment it seems reasonable to conclude that sorting out the details related to writing a military strike authorization policy might be next to impossible. But as various verbal challenges went back and forth across the room, it soon seemed apparent to me that the real agenda here was unspoken, and would remain so: Can this particular president be trusted to address these increasing threats carefully and intelligently?

Sitting next to each other these secretaries were explaining what to many would seem obvious: Modern presidents will likely face these split-second life and death decisions more than once. But right there in front of everyone was a secretary of state who reportedly had recently labeled his boss a moron, and was now trying to describe why such a president should have the power to authorize military strikes… even nuclear ones. Was this more reality TV, or what?

For people to feel confidence in high stakes leaders there must be a level of trust that can only be earned over time by demonstrating a strong moral character, solid and relevant experience, obvious high intelligence, and a record of good judgement. This is just common sense… and an often demonstrated communication 101 principle.

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