Flooding the zone with shit


Possibly more significant than the Brazilian president’s diagnosis of Covid-19 was a guest at an Independence Day lunch in Brasilia three days before.   According to the Guardian (7 July), three days before the diagnosis Bolsonaro had lunch at the home of Todd Chapman, the US ambassador to Brazil.   Also present at that Independence Day celebration were several top cabinet members and the president’s son, Eduardo, a politician who is Steve Bannon’s representative in South America.

Nobody has been more influential than Steve Bannon in fomenting the ideas and policies of the global fascist Alt-Right.  Boris Johnson borrowed ideas and phrases – such as the ‘EU deep state’ – used by Bannon when head of Breitbart News.  The supposed US ‘deep state’ is now the object of a populist US insurgency apparently supported by the president.  Bannon was Trump’s campaign manager for the 2016 election and vice president of Cambridge Analytica, which developed and tested the ‘build the wall’ theme on the US population.   A similar meme in the UK, ‘take back control’, was developed by Dominic Cummings, who spent 90% of Vote Leave’s advertising on the Vancouver-based company AIQ that became the holding company for Cambridge Analytica.  These memes have no purpose beyond building a sense of nationalist exclusivity and nativist aversion to foreigners – and loyalty to the strong man who will keep the foreigners out.

Observers of the current chaos in the US, UK, Brazil and elsewhere often ask why the populist leaders, Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro, behave so ineptly.  Why do so many people follow leaders with no discernible plan or competence?  The reason, as the journalist Jay Rosen has explained, is that the plan is to have no plan.   Rather, the leaders promote massive confusion about who is responsible for Covid-19 and the economic and social situation, fixing blame on ‘leftists’, the press, China, or some other foreign element; imposing tariffs that will disadvantage their own populations; withdrawing from the World Health Organisation … and so on.   The aim, in the words of Steve Bannon, is to ‘flood the zone with shit’, overwhelming the media and the population with disinformation, distraction, and denial.  Out of this chaos will step the saviour strong man, as Trump stepped out of the clouds of tear gas released on his own people to hold up a bible in front of the White House church.  

As Hari Kunzru has written, the deployment of the US military against Americans exercising their First Amendment right to protest would confirm the transition to autocracy.  So far, the US generals have refused Trump’s command to send troops into American cities.  Ironically, the secret agent in the fight against the Alt-Right may turn out to be COVID-19.  Neither Johnson and Bolsonaro, for all their posturing, has escaped infection. The coronavirus has presented a visible natural threat that puts all others into perspective – although a significant proportion of the US population continues to believe that it is a left-wing hoax.  Nonetheless, it appears that Trump’s appeal is diminishing.  Yet, when the intending autocrats leave the stage, the conditions that brought them power will remain.  

Trump Jr.


I am a carpetbagger.

I go where I can close a deal.

A capitalist jihadi,

I travel the world

to deconstruct the American state.

I carry the detonator

of cyberwar and nuclear conflagration.

Traumatic eyes

despair:  the stakes are high,

but the will of my father

foreshadows freedom.

AltRight or wrong,

my time is yet to come.


Trump’s impeachment may hang on a point of grammar

Comey_Screen_Shot_2017_06_08_at_11.05.09_AM.0James Comey speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee on 8 June 2017

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Donald Trump spoke these words to James Comey, former Director of the FBI, at a private meeting in the Oval Office. As Alex Ward of vox.com states, these are the most important words of Comey’s testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.

Comey felt that these were a direction to him by the President of the United States.

Primary school children in England are taught that a command includes a verb in the imperative mood. In everyday social life, however, the context of an utterance helps to determine its meaning. Questioning James Comey on 8 June, Senator James Risch sought to deflect Comey’s view that Trump had given him a direction:

Sen. James Risch

He did not direct you to let it go?

James Comey

Not in his words, no.

Sen. James Risch

He did not order you to let it go?

James Comey

Again, those words are not an order.

Pressed by Risch as to whether, as the former director of the FBI, he knew of any case where a person had been charged with a criminal offence for hoping for an outcome, Comey replied:

This is a president of the United States with me alone saying I hope this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do. I didn’t obey that, but that’s the way I took it.

Comey is drawing attention to the context of Trump’s words, and in particular to the power relationship between himself and his interlocutor. He is implicitly making a grammatical analysis of language as a social semiotic – as deriving much of its meaning from the context of use.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate Intelligence Committee will accept this more adequate socio-linguistic analysis of the President’s words.

A longer version of this post appears on http://research1english.wordpress.com/

Birdie, Trump and Family Guy


One of the videos currently doing the rounds on the internet is a pixellated animation of the Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders apparently flapping his arms like a bird, accompanied by the ‘Bird is the Word’ song from Family Guy.   Bernie’s cavorting is punctuated by captions zooming towards the viewer, like those on an old time film trailer, announcing support statistics (Idaho 78%, Utah 79%, Washington 75%). His #FeelTheBern hashtag has been complemented by #BirdieSanders. This derives, of course, from the now famous moment when a finch flew down during one of Sanders’ recent speeches and perched on the podium for some minutes. The speaker had the nous to welcome the feathered supporter and drew laughter and applause from the crowd in doing so.bird-is-the-word

In Family Guy, Peter’s incessant singing of ‘The Bird is the Word’ keeps his wife Lois awake. Bernie’s nickname and video convey a more light-hearted or positive identification with a bird. Sanders himself reminded his audience of the dove that returned to Noah with an olive branch. Be that as it may, the moniker could never be applied to the Republican nominee Donald Trump. Both Sanders and Trump are in (or approaching) their eighth decade; both derive support from members of working and middle class who cannot identify with current elite politicians. But Sanders’ appeal, unlike Trump’s, derives from policies very different from Trump’s (so far as it is possible to discern Trump’s policies).   He wants affordable college education, health care as a right rather than a privilege, a minimum wage above the poverty line and reform of campaign finance. Trump, as Henry Giroux has argued, draws on deep veins of racism and misogyny that have defaced US culture for decades. Trump Towers may reach toward the sky, but the name associates a lumbering earth-bound destructiveness.

US politics is often criticised as being inordinately focused on personalities rather than policies. In the case of Sanders and Trump, however, the policies have become signified by their supporters’ given names.   Birdie vs Trump – a clear choice for the US. birdie-president