“I know you are but what am I?” “I’m rubber, you are glue. Names bounce off me and stick to you!”
When Pee Wee Herman says such things, we recognize at once how puerile they are. When Pee Wee says them, though, they are alloyed with childhood innocence, which gives them a pleasant, if a little edgy, nostalgic glow. They are child-like, not childish.
When the President of the United States plays the Pee Wee gambit, it seems childish and churlish. It insults our intelligence. It is also dangerous.
Remember the debates? Looming over Hillary from behind, playing the cameras like the seasoned TV performer he is, while using his height and sheer bulk to intimidate, like the sexual predator he is?
She said, referring to his relationship with the post-Soviet oligarchy: “You’re a puppet.”
Without elaborating, out of turn, as a practiced casual aside (though he surely knew the camera was on him), he said :
“Puppet? I’m not a puppet. You’re the puppet!”
Clinton was, clearly and unequivocally, accusing him of being an agent of a specific foreign power, Russia. He might have been implying that she was too beholden to unnamed gigantic donors on Wall Street and in Hollywood, but he never actually specified who was pulling the strings. He wanted to establish a sense of equivalency where none actually existed. His target was affective, not cognitive. Specificity does not suit his purpose. He wants you angry, not informed.
Such false equivalency is an important weapon in the Trump arsenal, the heart and soul of the Pee Wee Gambit.
This is nowhere more evident than in the speech he gave outside Trump Tower a few days after a ragtag mob of Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, gun rights advocates and simple thugs had gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia under the rubric ‘alt-right’, ostensibly to protect a statue of a man who led an armed uprising that attacked America in a desparate attempt to preserve black slavery when the tide of history was turning against it. In the melee nineteen protesters were injured and Heather Heyer, a principled young woman who had come to protest the violence and hatred, was murdered when an avowed white supremacist rammed his car onto a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters that was boxed into a narrow, crowded street.
Shortly afterwards Trump read from a teleprompter a lackluster statement that denounced hatred and violence without naming any of the violent haters. Later, though, Trump spoke off-the-cuff to a boisterous gaggle of reporters in front of Trump Tower. He clearly viewed the crowd as hostile to him. He was flanked by members of his cabinet–an Asian woman and two Jews–who visibly squirmed in their discomfort at his remarks. His Chief of Staff stood apart, arms clasped tensely in front of him, glowering down at his own wing-tips. The event sounded more like an argument than a press conference as Trump responded to the questions hurled at him:
QUESTION: Mr. President, are you putting what you’re calling the alt-left and white supremacists on the same moral plane?
TRUMP: I’m not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I’m saying is this. You had a group on one side and you had a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was viscous and it was horrible. And it was a horrible thing to watch. But there is another side. There was a group on this side, you can call them the left. You’ve just called them the left — that came violently attacking the other group. So you can say what you want, but that’s the way it is.
TRUMP: Well, I do think there’s blame — yes, I think there’s blame on both sides. You look at — you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don’t have any doubt about it either.
With the idea (or more accurately, the affective impression) of equivalency thus planted, Mr. Trump uncharacteristically got much more specific:
TRUMP: Excuse me, excuse me. (inaudiblie) themselves (inaudible) and you have some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people in that group — excuse me, excuse me — I saw the same pictures as you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.
QUESTION: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same (inaudible)…
TRUMP: George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down — are we going to
TRUMP: OK. Good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history. You’re changing culture. And you had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists. OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly. Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats. You’ve got — you had a lot of bad — you had a lot of bad people in the other group… take down statues to George Washington?
TRUMP: How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?
QUESTION: … treated unfairly (inaudible) you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? (inaudible) understand what you’re saying.
TRUMP: No, no. There were people in that rally, and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting very quietly the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I’m sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day, it looked like they had some rough, bad people — neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them. But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know — I don’t know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn’t have a permit. So, I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country (sic).
The equivalency is reinforced in affect even as the facts are obscured in a blizzard of inaccuracy and irrelevance. The obscurity is amplified by POTUS’ peculiar patterns of speech; his meaning is clouded more by his fractured syntax than the depth of his thought, closer to E.E. Cummings than T.S. Eliot. Though he went to an Ivy League school, he does not seem to have learned the value of a complete sentence. He does use simple ones, though, in his familiar, snarky asides: You know what mean. You get it. Am I right? You’re the puppet! (See Spot run?)
Washington and Jefferson vs Robert E. Lee? These men were of different eras. The former were slaveholders in the eighteenth century, true enough, but beside the point. Both were even then growing leery of the morality behind an institution on which their economy still depended, and neither led an armed rebellion against the Union they created. Lee resorted to a treasonous war in an attempt to extend the chattel servitude of blacks into the last half of a nineteenth century, fifty years after Washington and Jefferson thought they were witnessing the twilight of slavery in America. The founding fathers’ ownership of slaves was not the equivalent of Lee’s, nor is it relevant to what happened at Charlottesville.
The self proclaimed alt-right had a permit to assemble, while the counter-protestors did not? Even if this were true, the permits only applied to designated parts of Robert E Lee/Emancipation Park, and not to Market Street, where the melee with Antifa took place, or to Fourth Street, where Heather Heyer was mowed down by an angry white supremacist. No one had a permit to battle in the streets with helmets, shields and clubs. No one had a license to kill.
Violence occurred streets throughout the city, involving small bands of armed, angry people holding diverse political views. While the marching, and later the street fighting, was going on, the status of permits was not relevant, not even very interesting. No one gets the moral high ground because of the status permits.
Trump pivots from the issue of ‘moral equivalence’, and makes the point that many people “on both sides” came with the aim of peacefully protesting the removal of Lee’s statue. This is true as far as it goes, but it obscures the fact that the rally, called “Unite the Right”, was meant to cement various organizations on the far right—The KKK, the Aryan Nations, the NRA, and the Westboro Baptist Church, for example—into a coherent political movement. They marched through the streets at night, some girded for war and many carrying tiki torches, chanting things like “The Jews will not replace us!”
On the left there was no such uniting principle. There was a grass-roots yearning to not let hate speech go unopposed, but was there premeditated violence among among participants with progressive political views? Yes, there was, as evidenced by those who brought shields and clubs, but their stated motive was to resist the spread Neo-Facismism and white supremacy. Is hating Nazis equivalent to hating blacks? Is resisting hate mongering the equivalent of the hate mongering itself?
Having inured us to false equivalencies and the Pee Wee Gambit, Trump is now free to take it where he will. This week he has soared to new heights with the assertion that not only are the allegations of his campaign’s collusion with the Russians to fix the 2016 elections a nefarious false narrative, invented by the Democrats to excuse their ‘historic’ drubbing at the polls. Instead, says POTUS, the Democrats themselves are guilty of collusion, but have escaped investigative scrutiny for their heinous crimes because of their controlling interest in the permanent, unelected shadow government that has dogged Trump since he first descended the golden elevator to announce the start of his campaign to Make America Great Again.
The facts of this uranium deal are much more complex. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the deal:
(Warning–Rough seas ahead: Like much in politics it can be a difficult slog to understand who the players were, and how the game unfolded.)
On July 5, 2005, Southern Cross Resources Inc. and Aflease Gold and Uranium Resources Ltd announced that they would be merging under the name SXR Uranium One Inc.
In 2007 Uranium One acquired a controlling interest in UrAsia Energy, a Canadian firm with headquarters in Vancouver, from Frank Giustra. UrAsia Energy has interests in rich uranium operations in Kazakhstan. UrAsia Energy’s acquisition of its Kazakhstan uranium interests from Kazatomprom followed a trip to Almaty in 2005 by Giustra and former U.S. President Bill Clinton where they met with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the leader of Kazakhstan. Substantial contributions to the Clinton Foundation by Giustra followed, with Clinton, Giustra, and Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim in 2007 establishing the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative to combat poverty in the developing world. In addition to his initial contribution of $100 million Giustra pledged to contribute half of his future earnings from mining to the initiative.
In June 2009, the Russian uranium mining company ARMZ Uranium Holding Co. (ARMZ), a part of Rosatom, acquired 16.6% of shares in Uranium One in exchange for a 50% interest in the Karatau uranium mining project, a joint venture with Kazatomprom. In June 2010, Uranium One acquired 50% and 49% respective interests in southern Kazakhstan-based Akbastau and Zarechnoye uranium mines from ARMZ. In exchange, ARMZ increased its stake in Uranium One to 51%. The acquisition resulted in a 60% annual production increase at Uranium One, from approximately 10 million to 16 million lb. The deal was subject to anti-trust and other conditions and was not finalized until the companies received Kazakh regulatory approvals, approval under Canadian investment law, clearance by the US Committee on Foreign Investments, and approvals from both the Toronto and Johannesburg stock exchanges. The deal was finalized by the end of 2010. Uranium One paid its minority shareholders a significant dividend of 1.06 US Dollars per share at the end of 2010.
ARMZ took complete control of Uranium One in January 2013 in a transaction which was reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. In December 2013 an internal reorganization of Rosatom extinguished the interest of ARMZ making Uranium One a direct subsidiary of Rosatom.
(Congratulations! You have made it through the perilous shoals of links and footnotes. Do you have a firm grasp now on how this relates to the Steele Dossier–almost as complex an issue in its own right– and the purloined Hillary/DNC emails? Trump insists they are are the same issue, smoking-gun proof of a conspiracy against him.)
Was Guistra’s contribution to the Clinton Foundation the payback for Hillary’s cooperation in a deal that enriched the Canadian by allowing him to sell his interest in American uranium to the Russians? That is the snake oil that Trump is trying to sell.
Look through the complexity, though, and that notion does not hold up. The ‘American’ uranium interests were Guistra’s holding in UrAsia, whose ores came mainly from not the within the US, but the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan. The deal was not done in back rooms, but had to be signed off by financial regulators in Kazakhstan, South Africa, Canada, and the US. Hillary’s involvement came via her role of Secretary of State, at a time when there was a functioning State Department with professionals to oversee the diplomatic, political, and financial aspect of the deal, and a functioning ethics infrastructure to monitor its honesty.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Both events happened, but were not cause and effect. The implication that the uranium deal was at Hillary’s sole discretion is patently false.
Hillary’s influence was hardly the deciding factor. As Secretary of State her input on the deal was as a member of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which also includes the Secretaries of Treasury, Defense, Labor, Commerce, and Homeland Security, the Attorney General, the US Trade Representative, The Director of the Office of Science and Technology, the National Security Advisor, and the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. CIFIUS’ primary concern is that technology or funds from American enterprise do not violate sanctions or fall into enemy hands. It reviewed the UrAsia deal, and found no fault. President Obama, who had the final say, signed off on the deal. The idea that Hillary personally overstepped her authority to sell American uranium stocks to Russia for her private gain is easy to comprehend, but simply not true.
Nor is the false equivalency of this evidence of collusion with Russia with Trump’s own possible relationship with Putin valid.
If the accusations against Clinton were true, they would have resulted in a multi-billion dollar initiative to eradicate poverty on the developing world. It the accusations against Trump are true, they have resulted in a subversion of American democracy that may have put him in a position to plunder the country’s economy, and put his twitchy finger on the nuclear button. Moral equivalence? You be the judge.
“Never seen such Republican ANGER & UNITY as I have concerning the lack of investigation on Clinton made Fake Dossier (now $12,000,000?), the Uranium to Russia deal, the 33,000 plus deleted Emails, the Comey fix and so much more,“ Trump said in a pair of tweets on Sunday.
It would be sad, too, if it weren’t so terrifying.