Friday, May 12, 2017

The Sham Presidency

Donald Trump is master of perception, altering reality to distract the public from his lack of character.

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Presidencies are often defined by images: FDR delivering his reassuring fireside chats; Harry Truman speaking from the back of his campaign train, whistle stopping in 1948 and giving ‘em hell; JFK and Jackie, elegant in Paris, defying Henry James’ stereotype of Americans as bumpkins; Reagan at the Berlin Wall; and George W. Bush in his flight suit against the banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”
And then there is Donald Trump. To me, the defining image of Trump’s presidency so far may not be his Mussolini-like pose of narrowed eyes, wrinkled brow and jutting jaw that is supposed to strike fear in our hearts, but his brandishing of his executive orders, holding them up like a 3-year-old showing off a finger painting. See what I’ve done! I’m so proud of myself!
This image is defining not because of the nauseating display of ego in a 70-year-old man, though there is that, but because of the emptiness of the gesture. Make no mistake. Some of these executive orders have done real damage, especially those affecting the environment and workers’ rights.
But many of them, according to an Associated Press report, are little more than grandiose press releases, which takes us straight to the empty heart of this administration. Trump could care less about the substance of his executive orders. The pompous flourish with which he promotes them, like nearly everything this president does, is an effort to create the perception of action when the reality is anything but. It is largely for show.
Astute political practitioners — FDR, JFK and Reagan among them — understood that there’s an aesthetics of politics: a way to showcase your policies to maximum effect. But until now, I don’t think any president had ever practiced a politics of aesthetics where the aesthetics don’t serve politics but the politics operate as window-dressing to serve the aesthetics. Now one does. To an inordinate degree, Trump’s is a perceptual presidency — a con, a grift, a sham in which appearances are just about everything, and in which policies themselves are subordinate to the perception of presidential action.
Putting style over substance had been the hallmark of Donald Trump’s pre-political career. He has always been the Great Pretender. He pretended to be a real estate mogul, reshaping the face of New York, when he was basically franchising his name to real builders so they could slap the brand on their buildings. He pretended to be a shrewd businessman when he drove his Atlantic City casinos into bankruptcy.
He pretended to be a multi-multi-billionaire, when reports suggest that his wealth is nowhere near as large as his boasts. He pretended to have one of the highest-rated shows on television, when it was rated in the top 10 only in its inaugural season and then steadily fell. He founded a university that pretended to let people in on his get-rich-quick secrets, but he was putting his name on what turned out to be a fleecing operation.
In short, he was as much a sham businessman as he is a sham president. His gift wasn’t business acumen but image acumen — creating an alternative reality not unlike alternative facts.
One could easily understand the purpose of that in the business world where there seem to be a lot of suckers waiting to be taken. But many of us wondered why he would pursue the presidency, and if he really wanted it just to polish his brand. As his campaign wore on, I thought of him as the Max Bialystock of politics. Bialystock was the swindler of Mel Brooks’ The Producers, who staged the train wreck musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” knowing it would bomb so he could then pocket the investors’ money.
Trump’s campaign was the political equivalent of “Springtime for Hitler” — a total mess — but like Bialystock, he wound up succeeding in spite of himself. He was stuck with the presidency, and we were stuck with him.
However, that might be selling him short. Even though Trump and his family have turned the presidency into their own personal ATM, I have come to reconsider whether Trump’s motives were primarily about the lucre. Rather, I think the lucre was a means to an end: puffing his ego.
The perception of wealth bought him the perception of importance for a man of obvious insecurity. It funded the Trump Show. It made him a star, even though one is hard pressed to say why he is a star. Or put another way, the presidency of the empty gesture was preceded by the empty life. Seen that way, the presidency was just a bigger stage — a bigger game of dress-up. All he had to do was make bold pronouncements and wave those executive orders, and he would be perceived as a big shot, the Leader of the Western World.
This, alas, was always hiding in plain sight. Just as Trump wasn’t shy about bragging how he stiffed subcontractors, skipped out on loans and gamed the IRS, he wasn’t shy about bragging how he turned perception into reality. “When I build something for somebody, I always add $50 million or $60 million onto the price,” he once said. “My guys come in, they say it’s going to cost $75 million. I say it’s going to cost $125 million, and I build it for $100 million. Basically, I did a lousy job. But they think I did a great job.”
And since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, John Oliver quoted the audiobook version of Ivanka Trump’s own discourse on the subject: “Perception is more important than reality,” she reads. “If someone perceives something to be true, it is more important than if it is true. This doesn’t mean you should be duplicitous or deceitful, but don’t go out of your way to correct a false assumption if it plays to your advantage.”
In other words, it is perfectly OK to play someone for a fool… or an entire country for a bunch of fools.
But Trump isn’t just a purveyor of perception. He is also its captive because he has no reference beyond it. When he mocked a handicapped reporter, we thought it was yet another manifestation of Trump’s cruelty, which it was, but it may also have been a manifestation of his aesthetics and of a belief in eugenics nurtured by his father. Similarly, when he insulted women and harped on their looks, we thought it was ugly misogyny and sexism, which it was, but it may also have been another demonstration of his obsession with appearances. It may explain as well why he is so disdainful of facts. If you live a life without meaning or substance, appearance is the only thing that matters. Indeed, the only question he ever seems to ask himself is: How does he/she/it look?
In this, unfortunately, Trump may be a man of his times. Even more than his faux populism, his bigotry and his proud political incorrectness, Trump’s obsession with appearances may connect him to a vast swath of America. Ours is a perception-heavy country. So much of our culture and of our lives now are dedicated to the sort of image-making in which Trump always has specialized — from the clothes we wear to the cars we drive to TV shows we watch to the schools to which we send our children.
It is not that Trump is fooling us with this braggadocio and pretense at being a great president — at least not those who are not looking to be fooled. It is that we can appreciate the attempt because so many Americans are making similar attempts, and they know that creating perceptions is so much easier than achieving reality. It is an idea that is reinforced everywhere, even among political pundits who should know better. The press ridiculed Hillary Clinton for being policy-conscious. They preferred Trump’s performance.
The problem is that perception is not reality, no matter what Ivanka Trump thinks. Perception is still the perception of reality. Trump may have snookered the press into believing he was exercising strength by firing missiles at Syria, but nothing there seems to have changed. He may have snookered supporters by making a big show out of building a border wall, but no border wall is in the offing. And he may have snookered his own party by declaring he would repeal Obamacare because of his alleged deal-making capabilities, but Obamacare is still there. Big words. Big displays. And then… nothing, because the words and displays supplant action, and don’t prod it.
This isn’t to say that a sham presidency is a harmless one. Far from it. When you hollow out the presidency, when you create a vacuum to be filled by ego and performance. When the measure of everything is how it looks rather than how it affects people’s lives, you are asking for disaster, and we’ve got one.
A presidency without ballast is like a person without character or conviction. Both are worse than empty; they replace the gravity of reality with the weightlessness of perception. They denude everything of meaning, save the meaning of aesthetics, rob everything of value, save the value of appearance. What Trump has done, then, is to generate a metaphysics of appearance that endangers reality. It is action for action’s sake. If he’s harmful, and he is, it is not because he has any stake in doing harm but because he knows it is likely to get the biggest bang from his supporters and the most noise in the media.
Gertrude Stein may have said it best when she famously quipped, there is no there there. What better description of this perceptual presidency could there be?

US bombs kill 11 civilians in Syria

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By Bill Van Auken 

US airstrikes on a village north of the Syrian city of Raqqa killed at least 11 civilians, including four children and six women, a UK-based monitoring group reported Wednesday.
The bombing raid, which was launched just before midnight, is part of a protracted air war being waged by the US military that has killed and wounded thousands of civilians in both Syria and neighboring Iraq over the past three years.
In Syria, the airstrikes, ostensibly aimed against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are being carried out without any authorization from either the United Nations or the government in Damascus, making them acts of aggression and war crimes.
The monitoring group Airwars has cited reports of as many as 13,407 civilians killed in both Iraq and Syria in 1,298 separate attacks by US and allied warplanes. The death toll has soared in the past few months as the Pentagon has provided massive air support to Iraqi government forces and militia groups besieging the northern city of Mosul, and carried out a parallel bombing campaign in conjunction with the advance of a force comprised primarily of the Kurdish YPG militia, backed by US special operations troops, against Raqqa in Syria.
The Pentagon has refused to acknowledge all but a handful of these killings—it recently raised its absurdly low estimate to 352—while the US media, which has churned out endless war propaganda over Syrian civilians killed in attacks by government forces and their Russian allies, has virtually ignored the bloodbath inflicted by Washington’s air war.
The latest bombing, which struck the village of al-Salihiya, also severely wounded several civilians, with the death toll likely to rise. It follows by just days an earlier report of US bombs killing 10 civilians as they were driving through the desert southwest of Raqqa.
The stepped-up bombing raids have facilitated the YPG’s overrunning of the town of Tabqa and a nearby strategic dam on the Euphrates River about 30 miles southwest of Raqqa, which ISIS proclaimed its Syrian capital after taking control of it in 2013, driving out or killing its substantial Alawite and Christian minority populations.
The YPG’s conquest of Tabqa came just a day after the Pentagon announced that US President Donald Trump had authorized the direct arming of the Kurdish militia, a move that provoked heated protests from Turkey, Washington’s NATO ally, which views it as a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought the government in Ankara for Kurdish autonomy for over three decades. Late last month, Turkish warplanes attacked YPG positions in Syria, killing at least 20 of the militia’s fighters. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to visit Washington beginning next Monday and has said he will appeal to Trump to reverse his decision.
Trump’s meeting with the Turkish president will follow his White House talks Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to media reports, the substance of Trump’s discussion with Lavrov centered largely on Syria, with the US president demanding that Moscow “rein in” both the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and its closest ally, Iran.
Moscow has attempted to secure US support for an agreement reached earlier this month in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, between Russia, Turkey and Iran on the creation of four separate “de-escalation zones” in Syria, to halt fighting and airstrikes in areas under the control of the so-called “armed opposition,” excluding ISIS and the group formerly known as the Al Nusra Front, Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate.
The Trump administration has remained noncommittal in relation to the zones, while the Pentagon has indicated that it has no intention of changing its air war because of the deal. Washington apparently orchestrated a protest and rejection of the zones by representatives of the so-called “rebels,” the Islamist forces armed and funded by the CIA, centering on Iran’s role in the agreement.
US imperialism is not interested in ending the conflict in Syria, but rather in stoking it in order to secure Washington’s original aim of regime change. The arming of the YPG is part of a steady escalation of the US intervention in Syria, which has seen the number of US troops operating in the country double over the past few months. Moreover, the Trump administration used the pretext of a chemical weapons attack, attributed without any substantive evidence to the Syrian government, to launch an attack that rained 59 cruise missiles on a Syrian government air base last month.
Meanwhile, US troops are participating in massive military exercises in Jordan, close to the Syrian border, prompting growing speculation that a US invasion may be in preparation. Photographs taken by Syrian drones have shown massed armor and large numbers of attack helicopters deployed near the border. Photographs also were posted on a “rebel” website appearing to show US special operations troops training a “moderate rebel” faction known as Mughawir al-Thowra in Syria’s al Tauf region near both the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.
While Washington escalates its intervention in Syria, the bloody US-backed siege of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, continues to grind on into its eighth month, with thousands of civilians killed and hundreds of thousands driven from their homes.
Some 600,000 Iraqis have fled the death and destruction unleashed by the offensive, while as many as 450,000 more remain trapped in the war zone, which is moving with increasing ferocity into Mosul’s crowded Old City.
The International Committee of the Red Cross warned Wednesday that those still inside Mosul were facing “very stark choices.”
“This population is not only exposed to the immediate dangers of the conflict itself and being either targeted or hit as collateral damage, but is also facing the effects of just no longer really having much access to the basic essentials that they need to live,” Peter Hamilton, the ICRC deputy director for the Middle East said Wednesday.
“People don’t have enough to eat, don’t have water,” Hamilton said. “Babies, elderly and so on of course they are very vulnerable and may already be dying.”

Trump’s Expected Pick for Top USDA Scientist Is Not a Scientist

Sam Clovis likely to be named undersecretary of the USDA department that manages research on everything from climate change to nutrition.

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By Jessica Huseman

The USDA’s research section studies everything from climate change to nutrition. Under the 2008 Farm Bill, its leader is supposed to serve as the agency’s “chief scientist” and be chosen “from among distinguished scientists with specialized or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.”
But Sam Clovis — who, according to sources with knowledge of the appointment and members of the agriculture trade press, is President Trump’s pick to oversee the section — appears to have no such credentials.
Clovis has never taken a graduate course in science and is openly skeptical of climate change. While he has a doctorate in public administration and was a tenured professor of business and public policy at Morningside College for 10 years, he has published almost no academic work.
Clovis is better known for hosting a conservative talk radio show in his native Iowa and, after mounting an unsuccessful run for Senate in 2014, becoming a fiery pro-Trump advocate on television.
Clovis advised Trump on agricultural issues during his presidential campaign and is currently the senior White House advisor within the USDA, a position described by The Washington Post as “Trump’s eyes and ears” at the agency.
Clovis was also responsible for recruiting Carter Page, whose ties to Russia have become the subject of intense speculation and scrutiny, as a Trump foreign policy advisor.
Neither Clovis, nor the USDA, nor the White House responded to questions about Clovis’ nomination to be the USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics.
Catherine Woteki, who served as undersecretary for research, education and economics in the Obama administration, compared the move to appointing someone without a medical background to lead the National Institutes of Health. The USDA post includes overseeing scientific integrity within the agency.
“This position is the chief scientist of the Department of Agriculture. It should be a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there,” she said in an interview.
Woteki holds a Ph.D. in human nutrition and served as the first undersecretary for food safety at the USDA during the Clinton administration. She was then the dean of the school of agriculture at Iowa State University before becoming the global director of scientific affairs for Mars, Inc.
Clovis has a B.S. in political science from the U.S. Air Force Academy, an MBA from Golden State University and a doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama. The University of Alabama canceled the program the year after Clovis graduated, but an old course catalogue provided by the university does not indicate the program required any science courses.
Clovis’ published works do not appear to include any scientific papers. His 2006 dissertation concerned federalism and homeland security preparation, and a search for academic research published by Clovis turned up a handful of journal articles, all related to national security and terrorism.
As undersecretary for research, education and economics, Woteki directed additional resources to helping local farmers and agricultural workers address the impacts of severe drought, flooding and unpredictable weather patterns. She chaired the “Global Research Alliance to Reduce Agricultural Greenhouse Gasses” at the G20, which brought together chief agricultural scientists from across the globe. Under her leadership, the USDA also created “Climate Hubs” across the country to help localized solutions for adapting to climate change.
Clovis has repeatedly expressed skepticism over climate science and has called efforts to address climate change “simply a mechanism for transferring wealth from one group of people to another.” He has indicated the Trump administration will take a starkly different approach at the USDA. Representing the campaign at the Farm Foundation Forum in October, Clovis told E&E News that Trump’s agriculture policy would focus on boosting trade and lessening regulation and not the impact of climate change.
“I think our position is very clearly [that] Mr. Trump is a skeptic on climate change, and we need more science,” he said. “Once we get more science, we are going to make decisions.”
The USDA’s undersecretary for research, education and economics has historically consulted on a wide range of scientific issues. Woteki, for example, said she was asked for input on the Zika and Ebola outbreaks because of the USDA’s relevant research and was frequently called upon to offer guidance on homeland security issues related to food safety.
“Access to safe food and clean air and water is absolutely fundamental to personal security,” she said, adding that a scientific understanding of food safety is critical to success in the job. “Food systems are widely recognized by the national security community as being part of critical infrastructure.”
Clovis’ academic background includes years of study on homeland security, but focused almost exclusively on foreign policy. A biography he provided to the 2016 Fiscal Summit at which he was a speaker indicates he is “a federalism scholar” and “an expert on homeland security issues,” with “regional expertise in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East.” Neither this biography nor any other publicly available biographies list any experience in food safety, agriculture or nutrition.
Clovis first became well-known in Iowa through his radio show, “Impact with Sam Clovis.” He finished a distant second in the 2014 Republican Primary for an Iowa Senate seat ultimately won by Joni Ernst. During the race, his outlandish statements often made headlines. In one instance, he said the only reason President Obama hadn’t yet been impeached was because of his race.
While he initially signed on as former Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s top Iowa advisor, he left in August 2015 to become the Trump campaign’s national co-chair and chief policy advisor. Emails leaked by the Perry campaign to The Des Moines Register show Clovis slamming Trump in the months before, questioning his faith. “His comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal,” Clovis wrote. He also praised Perry for calling Trump a “cancer on conservatism.”
Still, Clovis subsequently became one of Trump’s best-known advocates on cable television, where he relentlessly defended his new boss. On “Morning Joe,”, he said Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had failed to “control the sexual predation that went on in her own home.” On SiriusXM, he said Republicans who were abandoning Trump were “weak-kneed” and “lily-livered.”
Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown” of entry of Muslims into the United States in December 2015 put Clovis’ job as a tenured professor at risk.
“If he played a role in drafting or advising the Trump campaign on this issue, we will be outraged and extremely disappointed in Dr. Clovis,” Morningside College spokesman Rick Wollman told Iowa Starting Line, before pledging to look “more closely” at the issue.
Clovis went on unpaid leave from the college in the summer of 2015 and resigned after Trump’s win in November.

Conservative Groups Pushing Trump To Exit Paris Climate Deal Have Taken Millions From Koch Brothers, Exxon

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By Graham Readfearn

The “conservative groups” urging President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement have accepted tens of millions of dollars from groups linked to the billionaire petrochemical brothers Charles and David Koch, ExxonMobil, and the Mercer family.
More than 40 groups have co-signed an open letter urging Trump to keep his campaign promise and “withdraw fully from the Paris Climate Treaty.”
The groups, including the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), The Heartland Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, claim failing to withdraw from the treaty could put Trump’s policy agenda of promoting fossil fuels at risk.
The Wall Street Journal has quoted a White House spokesperson saying the president will not make a decision on the Paris agreement until after meeting G-7 leaders later this month.
Analysis carried out by DeSmog and the Climate Investigations Center (CIC) shows many of the groups signing the letter have taken multi-million dollar donations from groups tied to the Koch brothers, who own Koch Industries. Several of the groups have accepted cash from oil giant ExxonMobil while many also deny the basic science linking fossil fuel burning to dangerous climate change.
In the letter, the groups say Trump should withdraw from the Paris deal and “stop all taxpayer funding of UN global warming programs” — two promises made by Trump during his campaign.

Paris Deal

As part of the Paris deal, agreed to by almost 200 countries as part of the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change, the U.S. pledged in a document known as a Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 26 to 28 percent by 2025, based on their levels in 2005.
Paris then requires a more ambitious NDC every five years in perpetuity,” the groups write.
The letter says environment groups and some attorneys general are using court action to try and protect the Obama era’s Clean Power Plan that sought to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
The U.S. participation in the Paris deal is being cited in these lawsuits, the groups claim.
Failing to withdraw from Paris thus exposes key parts of your deregulatory energy agenda to unnecessary legal risk,” the letter claims.
Right-wing media outlets including Breitbart and The Daily Caller have been reporting the letter from conservative groups without mentioning the known links to the Koch brothers and to their denial of the science of climate change.

Koch Cash

The DeSmog and CIC analysis, using publicly available IRS disclosures, shows the Koch brothers have donated at least $6.9 million to the groups, much of which went to the Heritage Foundation. Exxon donated about $5.9 million to the groups since the late 1990s.
Several of the letter signers had roles in Trump’s various transition teams, including the CEI’s Myron Ebell and Thomas Pyle of the American Energy Alliance.
In 2014, Freedom Partners (FP) — a group once described as the Koch brothers secret bank — gave some $16 million to Americans for Prosperity, another of the letter’s signatories. FP also gave $2.3 miilion to the American Energy Alliance.

Denial Dollars

But as well as accepting millions of dollars from vested interests such as the Kochs and Exxon over the years, another thing the groups have in common is their denial of the clear science linking fossil fuel burning to dangerous climate change — an issue backed by all the major scientific academies around the world.
The analysis shows groups have also accepted about $80 million through two linked funding organisations — Donors Capital Fund and Donors Trust — that academics have confirmed is a key financial source for many U.S. climate science denial groups.
The Koch brothers, through a funding group known as the Knowledge and Progress Fund (KPF), gave more than $7.6 million to the Donors Trust since 2010. The only grants made by the KPF over that period were to Donors Trust.
The Heartland Institute, which has been given more than $5 million in recent years by major Trump financier Robert Mercer, is known for organizing regular conferences where climate science denialists gather. 
In the run-up to one conference in May 2012, Heartland said in a statement: “The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society. This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren't scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”
Another signer to the letter is Professor William Happer, the president of the CO2 Coalition — a group that emerged from the disbanded George C. Marshall Institute.
The CO2 Coalition denies the evidence that humans are causing dangerous climate change and runs with the tag line “CO2 — Essential for Life.”
Happer, thought to be in the running as Trump’s science adviser, has compared what he called the “demonization” of CO2, to the “demonization of poor Jews under Hitler.”

WikiLeaks Offering $100,000 For Donald Trump’s ‘Comey Tapes’

Will it be pay-to-play or the sounds of silence?

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By Mary Papenfuss

WikiLeaks is offering $100,000 for the alleged “Comey tapes” — the recordings that Donald Trump has hinted he might have of his January dinner with now-fired FBI Director James Comey.
If any such tapes exist, the problem is that, because of suspected collusion between WikiLeaks and the Kremlin, the tapes may never be heard — at least not on this side of the Atlantic.
WikiLeaks made its offer on its Twitter site Friday after Trump warned in a tweet that Comey had “better hope” that the president didn’t have tapes of their dinner meeting.
Critics saw the taunt as a threat to Comey to keep his mouth shut about what was discussed. The president has said Comey told him at the dinner that he was not under investigation as part of the FBI probe into possible links between the Kremlin and Trump campaign associates. But Comey’s colleagues told The New York Times instead that Trump pressed Comey at the dinner for a “loyalty” pledge to the president and that Comey refused.
Besides offering a hefty reward, the WikiLeaks tweet also encourages supporters to up the ante by making contributions via bitcoin to a posted address.
Several Twitter replies dismissed the existence of such recordings, characterizing them as empty threats by a president worried about what Comey himself might have to say about the meeting. But Trump has had a long history of secretly recording meetings in his business, associates told The Washington Post. And on Friday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer refused to deny that Trump may have recorded his conversation with Comey.
WikiLeaks was a major player during the presidential campaign, releasing emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton aides, as well as Clinton’s Wall Street speech transcripts, but it was resoundingly silent about the Republican Party or Trump. The U.S. intelligence community determined that the WikiLeaks emails were provided by Russian hackers working for the Kremlin and that the emails were intended to help Trump win the election.


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hen Donald Trump travels to Saudi Arabia later this month, the first country he will visit as President, the attention will be on geopolitics and the complicated friendship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. But the trip also highlights, just off center stage, an unremarked upon similarity between the current Saudi government and the American White House: in both places, unelected men in their thirties have swiftly amassed power.

In Saudi Arabia, the thirty-one-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy Crown Prince and son of King Salman, is now in charge of the oil industry, the economy, defense policy, a war in Yemen, and various domestic initiatives. In the United States, the national responsibilities of Jared Kushner, the President’s thirty-six-year-old son-in-law, include, according to the Times, “Middle East peace, the opioid epidemic, relations with China and Mexico, and reorganizing the federal government from top to bottom.” Kushner is technically the President’s senior adviser, but you might also call him America’s crown prince.

The most striking similarity between the rise of Kushner and that of Prince bin Salman is that, in both countries, the official narrative is that the young men are bringing modern and advanced ideas into stodgy government terrain. The older rulers—a seventy-year-old President and an eighty-one-year-old King—seem to be making the case that the princes have earned their broad portfolios by being in touch with the latest in finance and technology.

This may be sincere. It may also be a ploy to mask that the young men gained their status through the oldest of means: family ties and court intrigues. Neither distinguished himself in a tech career before taking on his current duties. Kushner helped run his family’s real-estate business; bin Salman did a tour in Saudi government posts before going to work at his father’s foundation. But the narrative of technological savvy resonates—and seems almost natural—because it connects with the predominant view of success and power in our era. Had the princes lived in the age of Napoleon or Alexander, they would be lauded for their military élan. But they live in the age of boy geniuses—of Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Elon Musk. And so the crown princes are presented as tech disruptors.

As consumers, we not only use the boy geniuses’ products and services, we celebrate their ethos: the young have the best ideas, inefficiency is the enemy, disruption is the goal, change is good; faster is always better, the physical will bend before the digital, and resisters just don’t get it. We also celebrate the boy geniuses as people. (You can probably name the C.E.O. of Uber but likely not the leaders of Walmart, Chevron, or Coke.) So it’s not surprising that the boy geniuses would be proposed as peers and role models for Prince bin Salman and Kushner. As Politico reported, “Kushner’s boosters see him as ‘a visionary’ who is bringing to government a disruptive Silicon Valley mindset that helped him succeed in the technology and real estate industries, as well as on Trump’s unconventional presidential campaign.” Kushner’s efforts center on the still-evolving role of the Office of American Innovation. According to the Washington Post, the office has “a particular focus on technology and data” and will function as a “SWAT team of strategic consultants … staffed by former business executives.” It has already sought the advice of Bill Gates, Musk, and other tech leaders. Kushner will presumably continue to consult with and apply lessons from his brother, a venture capitalist in tech. The goal of the Office of American Innovation could have come from any Silicon Valley disruptor: “To bring a creative and strategic approach to many critical issues and intractable problems,” as Kushner put it in a White House press release.

Prince bin Salman’s goal is even larger: the transformation of a government, economy, and society. He’s also using the language and symbols of the boy geniuses. Last year, for instance, he and Zuckerberg were photographed togetherat Facebook’s headquarters, color-coördinated, both wearing designer jeans (although the deputy Crown Prince wore a white button-down shirt and a gray jacket, not the Full Zuck gray T-shirt). The centerpiece of Prince bin Salman’s plan is the complicated, multi-faceted Vision 2030, a plan developed in conjunction with consultants at McKinsey. The heart of this vision for a better Saudi Arabia is not, alas, democracy; it’s an I.P.O. The engine of Vision 2030 is to use the proceeds of the I.P.O. of Saudi Aramco, the state oil company, to feed the largest state investment fund in the world. That fund will finance investments “in large international companies and emerging technologies from around the world” and non-oil industries in Saudi Arabia, which will (according to the plan) reduce Saudi oil dependency and ignite changes in the country.

The narrative of bin Salman as a benevolent disruptor has been undercut now and then by his behavior. Last year, he bought a half-billion-dollar yacht on a whim, while cutting benefits and salaries to Saudi state employees and reducing energy subsidies for the country’s citizens. Kushner, too, appears to spend a fair amount of time skiing rather than solving today’s most intractable problems. And both men often seem enamored by the alchemical ability of capital to render their fortunes more glamorous in the eyes of the global élite. Even before his father-in-law became President, Kushner was in the process of mutating some of his own family’s wealth—built on vast holdings of apartment buildings in New Jersey—into the New York Observer and the most expensive office building ever bought in Manhattan. (A decade later, the deal is in trouble, presenting a tempting opportunity for those seeking to curry favor with Kushner and, through him, Trump.) Prince bin Salman, too, sometimes appears like a grandson embarrassed by the source of his grandfather’s fortune, trying to convert it into something that plays better in London and New York. Under his reign, the first high-profile investment of Saudi’s Public Investment Fund was a $3.5-billion stake in Uber, an investment that seems unlikely to change Saudi society.

Nonetheless, the men also seem sincere in their desires to use innovation to achieve good ends. And we should probably root for their success. If a more efficient government better serves American citizens, Kushner’s success would be good for everyone. Innovation has already brought us wealth and improvements in everyday life. (President Obama, too, spoke warmly of Silicon Valley innovation.) And Saudi Arabia—with a rising youth population and sectarian tensions, a suppressed civil society, and a ruling family whose oil wealth is being challenged by U.S. shale production and non-fossil-fuel consumption—seems precariously unstable, in a region that exports instability. Vision 2030’s goal to broaden Saudi economic competitiveness in many sectors—retail, renewables, defense, finance, tourism, health care, education—would be good for the country.

Nonetheless, the boy geniuses of tech provide an imperfect model in the public sphere. They rush forward, damn the consequences. As President Obama pointed out just last year, “government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view.” And even in Saudi Arabia, where the monarchy doesn’t incorporate disparate points of view (to say the least), the idea that one can transform a society dependent on oil by making it instead dependent on an investment fund seems to overestimate the magic of modern finance—and, incidentally, the ease of generating returns as an investor.

Should Kushner travel with his-father-in-law to Saudi Arabia (he is, after all, in charge of peace in the Middle East) he will almost certainly meet again with bin Salman, whether it’s alone, in a large group, or just the four of them—princes, President, and King. One can imagine the princes discussing the similarities of their programs and values, and maybe the boy geniuses they both know. It is harder to imagine a discussion of a particular risk facing them: whether either of them will be around to implement his program. The irony of the power that Prince bin Salman and Jared Kushner hold is its impermanence. Kushner’s reach extends no farther than Trump’s, and Trump’s support is rooted in a white working-class nostalgia for manufacturing and nineteen-fifties America. Prince bin Salman faces three threats: his ailing father’s mortality, family members with claims to his portfolio, and challenges to the entire ruling family’s power. The Saudi monarchy derives its wealth from Silicon Valley’s least favorite source of fuel and its social control from a conservative interpretation of Islam.

Both crown princes stake their political legitimacy on being innovators and disruptors. But the foundation of their power seems more like what—and whom–our contemporary world is disrupting. It’s a good thing that the princes think of themselves as tech guys: they’re going to have to act fast.