Signals and Noise in Presidential Politics

Truth is a tough nut, both fruit and seed. Few people want to shuck their own nuts or work hard enough to discover truth. As with nuts, we usually like someone else to do the work, the shelling. Thus truth, for most, is received wisdom. We are inclined to believe what we hear (hat tip to Goebbels) or believe what we hear most. Truth as a rule is what we believe, correct or incorrect. True or false beliefs are equally difficult to undo or overcome. Belief is a virtual hermaphrodite too; it often serves both sides of an argument.

The received wisdom conundrum is aggravated by the signals/noise enigma. Signal truth is often buried under layers of noise: emotions, passions, bias, frequency, and volume. Between received wisdom and ambient noise, facts often fail to be consumed no less germinate. Political truth, especially before an election, is similar to the leaf litter under an oak tree. Almost all acorns are infested by insects, purloined by rodents, or simply rot in the shell. Few nuts ever become trees.

Alas, signals and noise are endemic in all modern societies.  Nevertheless, signals missed still have grave consequences.

Roberta Wohlstetter’s prophetic analysis of the warning failure at Pearl Harbor is an example of how the message, or truth, gets lost in ambient noise.  Ms. Wohlstetter’s excellent volume was confirmed again by General Mike Hayden, the National Security Agency, and the Bush White House on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

The Saudi/Arab surprise attack on America was the worst Intelligence disaster since Pearl Harbor. Adding insult to injury, Saudi elites were spirited out of the US after the attack and NSA director General Mike Hayden, USAF, was promoted.

The 9/11 disaster confirms Hegel’s aphorism too, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”

Political truth is the most elusive. The ambient noise of a political campaign is tsunamic. Modern media might be the biggest noise makers in history, businesses driven by the internet, buzz, trends, likes, polls, profit, controversy, hidden agendas, prurience, voyeurism, partisanship, and often just common venality or banality. “If it bleeds, it leads” is both a literal and figurative truth for American journalists in print, on the net, or on the airways.  Titillation and musterbation are the true north and true south of modern communications arts.

Given a choice between information and entertainment, both media and their marks usually take the low road.

Small wonder then that journalists, politicians, and Muslim clerics are the biggest stakeholders in the global trust default. Among the three, over ninety percent of readers and viewers do not trust journalists. A trust score in the single digits is a little like a charity flush in a public toilet – another noise that changes nothing.

It is no accident that Islamic jihadists take special delight in gory public executions of journalists.

The ambient noise around the two leading candidates in the 2016 US presidential race provides illustrations of how difficult it is to separate signal from noise, separate true belief from spin.

Hillary is less of a cipher because no one expects either of the Clintons to tell the truth; not their party, not the Congress, nor the courts, nor their supporters. Like a Santa Claus wife, Hillary’s mendacity is impervious to judgement, an amnesty probably underwritten by partisanship and consistent Christmas tree politics. Mrs. Clinton, like her husband, is an icon for women, urban cliff dwellers, minorities, a host of dependents, and other special pleaders.

Few care what Hillary believes either. After four decades in the public eye, all truth might be inconvenient, irrelevant, and unnecessary in a Clinton household -- or administration. Hillary’s candidacy says more about contemporary American values than most sensible folks would like to admit.  

Donald Trump on the other hand is a study in contrast. Where Hillary is evasive, Trump’s candor is brutal. Beliefs are often used like a cudgel.  Indeed, Trump is often characterized as loud, insensitive, transitory, boorish, rude, and offensive. These are some of the nicer things said about the Republican frontrunner.

Indeed, with the media, what Trump says is often lost in how or to whom it is said. The conventional wisdom among the political establishment, right and left, is that a chap like Trump is “temperamentally” unsuited for the presidency. He says what he thinks and that will not do in a culture where appearance is lodestar.  

Hillary might be taken at face value, but the Trump signal is buried under noise, all the hysterical histrionics necessary to obscure his message. Two examples from the Trump repertoire tell the story; the George Bush – 9/11 kerfuffle and the immigration imbroglio.  

Truth and the Bush dynasty

As a general proposition, the truth about the Bush dynasty is threefold. George Bush senior made Clinton possible, Junior made Obama possible, and Jeb Bush might make Hillary possible.

And yes, a sitting president, like a ship’s captain, is responsible for what happens on his watch. Bush junior owns 9/11 - and all the pandering precedents set in concrete after the Arab attack. Examine Bush era verbiage and policy that sought to excuse Arabs, Islamism, or Islamo-fascism, now manifest in the Islamic State! There’s not much difference between Bush era Muslim policy and ongoing Brennan/Obama appeasement cant.

In eight years, George Bush failed to get Osama bin Laden and he did not make the world a safer place either – or at least not for very long.

The truth about Intelligence remedies under Bush is worse still. Like his predecessors, he simply threw money at the warning problem and hoped for the best. Spray, pay, and pray is what cynics inside the Beltway call it. 

The truth about NSA, as an example of failure, is that it is, simultaneously, too big to fail and too big to succeed; in short, a mismanagement of talent and national treasure at a time when both are in short supply.

The intelligence problem was never data collection, NSA’s charter, in any case. The problem was, and is, honest analysis, telling politicians the truth, things they don’t want to hear, and truths especially about phenomena like Islamism and jihad.

Indeed, Edward Snowden is walking, talking testimony to NSA’s inability to deal with institutional and external national security threats.  Ironically, the Intelligence business, like public education, is one of those many federal sinecures that reward failure. With federal programs, failure is likely to precipitate promotions and a funding windfall. Reform is usually an orphan.

Trump says you pay to play in politics. Indeed! Once elected, you also get to pay back with other people’s money.

Truth about immigration

Trump is brutally correct about immigration also. Migrants are both criminal and national security problems today. A fourth of the American prison population originates south of the border. And those numbers do not include Mexican born felons still at large midst millions of illegals.

A state without borders or controls is just another place, not a country.

The migrant problem in Europe is illustrative, more cultural than humanitarian crisis. There is little in contemporary European experience with refugees that merits imitation in America. Unfortunately, Europe and America have ceded their sovereignty to NGOs and the United Nations on the migrant issue.

After fifty years of Muslim wars, battlefield commanders are still unable to distinguish friend from foe, “moderate” from terrorist or jihadist. The US State Department, NGOs, and the United Nations have little inclination and virtually no capability to vet large numbers of Muslim migrants.

Racist motives attributed to Trump have no basis in fact. In the interests of sanity, security, civility, and national sovereignty, migrants must get in line, use the front door, or be gone. The alternative is for America to become a multicultural basket case like the European Union.

If the Peace of Westphalia is to be washed away by open borders, that sea change should come from consent not a tidal wave of Muslim migrants.

One final truth

All politicians make promises. Trump wants to “make America great again.” Hyperbole aside, there’s more than a kernel of truth in such sloganeering.

Since the 1960’s, America has undergone a cultural revolution, values like sweat equity, independence, and achievement have been forsaken in favor of excuses, tolerance, and dependency. Indeed, success is demonized. Donald Trump is a living example.

“Children” are now subsidized by government until 30 years of age.

Cultural erosion is not limited to social dependencies or criminal subcultures. Cabinet level satraps, federal department heads, and Pentagon generals all thrive on a performance model where success or victory is rare and failure is an acceptable norm.

Personal and departmental failure has become another beneficiary of intemperate tolerance. Indeed, failure is subsidized in programs like defense, veteran’s affairs, Intelligence, and public education, just to name a few. Incompetence is the only perennial bipartisan issue inside the Beltway.

Most of the rap against Trump is ad hominem at best, political penis envy at its worst. He is successful, rich, much married, and he has the courage to go where few politicians dare venture. With Trump’s critics, the hard nut of truth is indigestible.

If Trump’s message, his signal, is that the Oval Office should stop rewarding personal and institutional failure, he will have disinterred the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.

“You’re fired”, is indeed the appropriate implied signal to send to Washington by any serious reformer or outsider.

Lincoln understood the value and virtue of success. The first Republican president did not tolerate incompetent subordinates who could not deliver success or victory. In his time, Abraham Lincoln was an outsider. He made America great again.

G. Murphy Donovan, erstwhile Intelligence officer, writes about the politics of national security.