Having recently re-watched the once-viral political incident from John Kerry’s University of Florida conference, I heard for the first time what the student (“Andrew Meyer”) had been asking John Kerry before his microphone access was cut, he was arrested and tasered.
Meyer had, according to reports, insisted on having his questions answered as he was next in line but the QA session had closed. He was quite clearly in an aggravated state when he started asking Kerry his set of questions, which ultimately amounted to at least three. The microphone was turned back on for him but after the security detail felt that he was badgering the official they turned off the microphone and arrested him, which aggravated him further. When he resisted arrest and (briefly) physically escaped from custody he was tackled and subsequently tased.
Meyer had been asking Kerry a series of semi-confused, but also legitimate and important questions. The student had been studying mass communications – a field of study that is often recruited into the US government for domestic and global propaganda operations – and its interesting to ponder whether the student perhaps had ever wondered whether he was at one time or another a target of mass communications. To that point, his questions to John Kerry were:
- There appears to be an incredible amount of evidence that Bush was put in office illegally, with voter suppression, and an otherwise manipulated vote. How could you have ceded the race to him, not challenged his electoral victory, and why have you not publicly challenged the basis of his presidency or called for his impeachment?
- There are a number of policies, such as Iran/Iraq, for which you and Bush presumably have strong differences. But from what has manifested so far, you appear to not be challenging the Bush administration’s choices with regard in the region. If it’s going to be a disaster, why support the administration?
- Is it true that you were a member of the same secret society, Skull and Bones, as President Bush – and is this one of the reasons that ultimately you appear to be facilitating rather than challenging the administration?
Essentially the student is confused about what policies Kerry and Bush actually supported versus what their rhetorical stances where, as well as a severe misunderstanding of the incredible institutional momentum that runs national security and power projection and acts as a moderating force on any president who would change US imperial posture – in either a more bellicose or peaceful direction.
Baffled by inconsistencies between political race rhetoric and bipartisan consensus issues, Meyer confronts Kerry in a confused jumble – even an accusation – that the show that went on for the public to get people racing temporarily and angrily to the ballot box did not cohere with Kerry’s own behavior after the election.
Of course, this is true. What Meyer missed is that American politics does not engage voters at the level where substantive policy issues are decided, and the appeals and impressions that politicians give in public have little to no binding implications for the actual policy they will run when in office and when confronted by the power brokers of the country (its business oligarchs and moguls, its military brass and lifetime political bureaucrats, and its international stakeholders).
Security’s reaction to this was to find his wild and confused questioning alarming, to physically mishandle him, and to subject him to a disabling device originally invented for torture.
The public’s reaction was far more interesting. There was no analysis of what Meyer was trying to ask or where he was coming from. “Don’t tase me bro!” became viral while every word he wanted to bring to the public’s attention became buried. Broadly the news stories weren’t about whether Meyer was mistreated, or even if his questions or Kerry’s answers shed light on the shallowness of the American political system.
The notable thing about the resulting public dialogue was that Meyer was not actually alone in his confusion or even a political outsider. In 2007 – the date of the incident – there was still a public discussion about the numbers in the Bush-Kerry election in 2004 and the possibility of there having been electoral fraud. There was similarly public discussion (and confusion) about Bush’s policies in the Middle East and why there seemed to be consensus among Democrats and Republicans alike on warmongering positions. At the time, there was a large amount of public discussion about “Skull and Bones” society.
This may offer us a lens into today’s political ecosystem. We could imagine an excited badgering participant getting tased at a Hillary Clinton event for asking:
- There appears to be credible evidence of a hostile Russian takeover of the entire US executive branch. Why haven’t you said this yourself specifically? Why haven’t you publicly called for Trump’s impeachment? Why haven’t you fought hard to preserve the sanctity of the US government? How could you cede and congratulate him on his electoral victory?
- There are a number of policies, such as those in Syria, where instead of calling him a war criminal for dropping bombs on a foreign country’s government despite there being no legal basis to do so – you’ve supported him! Presumably you have strong differences in policies pertaining to the Middle East. If his foreign policy there is going to be such a disaster, why are you not vocally opposing him?
- Is it true that you came to Trump’s wedding as a guest in honor? That you accepted donations from him and that he contributed to your campaigns and that you both have otherwise historically gotten along famously in the circles of American elite wealth? Is this one of the reasons that ultimately you appear to be facilitating rather than challenging the administration?
Wise men learn from history. The answers to our hypothetical Clinton heckler’s questions are the same as Meyer’s ten years ago.
Once in office, the Trump administration has been boxed in by establishment political forces as is the design of our system. Today’s foreign stakeholders, career professionals, and American oligarchs pull at the strings of power and negotiate with a North American government outcomes, priorities, and choices.
The Trump administration’s choices are from the same menus, options, and constraints presented to the Obama administration. The administration’s actual leeway to make different choices has been highly constrained by virtue of the narrow range of institutionally acceptable procedures.
For instance, in areas where Trump and Obama’s political administrations have held opposite rhetorical points on immigration, there is far more consistency in policy than there is any difference; public relations sales tactics account for the largest area of real dissimilarity.
There does not seem yet to be penetration in the American psyche that the Obama administration mass deported illegal immigrants and separated their families to the tune of two million, more than any other president in history. The immigrant community began calling President Obama the “deporter-in-chief.” The Trump administration’s has stated their intention to deport around the same number–with a communications strategy that it is legal to do so (it happens to be). Yet, the Trump administration has been met with an incredible backlash on the Obama policy that never could have existed under the Obama Era propaganda that had made it appear that there really wasn’t any deportation going on at all.
Likewise, there is no mass understanding that illegal immigrants in the United States are widely abused, given no worker protections, and are worked in unsanitary and unsafe conditions that would be considered illegal in any other situation. There is no mass understanding that the huge margins that American businesses make from exploiting illegal immigrants exactly because they have no legal protection is critical to the American economy. Comprising around 2% of the population, America’s illegal immigrants contribute over 6% of GDP, more than three times the productivity of the typical American worker. Of course, in states where illegal immigrants are closer to 6-7% of the population (California, Texas), their contribution to state income is closer to 20%. It’s not a wonder that California and Texas politicians support business exploitation of unprotected labor.
There is no push to cracking down hard on exploitative labor practices, since this would cripple the US economy. Instead, there’s a subtle tug between whether immigrants can stay and be abused or whether they need to be deported. With the public unaware that DoD and DHS has any say in the matter, it’s been deemed a critical risk to the United States that destabilization from political collapse in Columbia, Honduras and Mexico could spread to the United States and that since the Obama administration, national security strategy has facilitated a bipartisan compromise: the United States must be protected from both the instability that comes with mass migration and also protected against the economic damage wrought by the loss of cheap labor. The difference between administrations has been, thus far, primarily talking points, and the Trump administration has gotten flack for effectively being too honest about bipartisan priorities.
There are other good examples of consistent policy including those of Syria, North Korea, Russia, China, and Iran. Now, I’m not arguing that they are identical or that outcomes will be the same (quite the opposite). What I am arguing is that the Trump administration isn’t getting different advice, pressure or options in Syria and he isn’t able to choose extremely different outcomes. The differences come down to priorities and resources. The Trump administration is explicitly prioritizing counterterrorism. The Obama administration specifically prioritized keeping the US from a mass mobilized troop deployment. These priorities will definitely lead to different outcomes: but the Trump administration does not have a different set of operating constraints, objectives, or allies.
A friend quietly didn’t answer me the other day when I forcefully asserted that the Clinton Campaign had hardline support for hydrolic fractured hydrocarbons. I felt it was important to temper anger at the Trump administration for their support of non-green energy with the business end of the American political stick: hydraulically-fractured gas is going to make the influential political actors in the United States rich and powerful; running against these interests is not feasible in our political system.
The same is true of Clinton and the Affordable Care Act. Careful scrutiny of her position indicates that she promised to keep certain parts of the legislation alive but otherwise intended to drastically alter the basis of the legislation. Whether to call for “repeal and replace” or whether to herald the clauses on pre-existing conditions became a centerpiece of the political debates. But whether the Affordable Care Act was in deep trouble from a financial and management perspective: both Clinton and Trump clearly agree.
After watching the videos of Meyer I couldn’t help but wonder ten years later if he’d come to understand why real answers to his questions were dangerous; or what he thought about the race between Clinton and Trump.
If you’re out there, Meyer, we want to have you guest write on blog–or come join us for a podcast.