Sunday, October 14, 2018

Jeff Hawkins Is Finally Ready to Explain His Brain Research




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Jeff Hawkins of Numenta says scientists must explain human intelligence before they can build artificial intelligence.CreditCreditAnastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — In the global race to build artificial intelligence, it was a missed opportunity.
Jeff Hawkins, a Silicon Valley veteran who spent the last decade exploring the mysteries of the human brain, arranged a meeting with DeepMind, the world’s leading A.I. lab.
Scientists at DeepMind, which is owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, want to build machines that can do anything the brain can do. Mr. Hawkins runs a little company with one goal: figure out how the brain works and then reverse engineer it.
The meeting, set for April at DeepMind’s offices in London, never happened. DeepMind employs hundreds of A.I. researchers along with a team of seasoned neuroscientists. But when Mr. Hawkins chatted with Demis Hassabis, one of the founders of DeepMind, before his visit, they agreed that almost no one at the London lab would understand his work.



Mr. Hawkins says that before the world can build artificial intelligence, it must explain human intelligence so it can create machines that genuinely work like the brain. “You do not have to emulate the entire brain,” he said. “But you do have to understand how the brain works and emulate the important parts.”
At his company, called Numenta, that is what he hopes to do. Mr. Hawkins, 61, began his career as an engineer, created two classic mobile computer companies, Palm and Handspring, and taught himself neuroscience along the way.
Now, after more than a decade of quiet work at Numenta, he thinks he and a handful of researchers working with him are well on their way to cracking the problem.On Monday, at a conference in the Netherlands, he is expected to unveil their latest research, which he says explains the inner workings of cortical columns, a basic building block of brain function.
How a larger community of researchers react to Mr. Hawkins’s work is hard to predict: Will they decide his research is worth exploring? Or will they write him off as too unorthodox in his methods and much too sure of himself?



Mr. Hawkins has been following his own, all-encompassing idea for how the brain works. It is a step beyond the projects of most neuroscientists, like understanding the brain of a fruit fly or exploring the particulars of human sight.



His theory starts with cortical columns. Cortical columns are a crucial part of the neocortex, the part of the brain that handles sight, hearing, language and reason. Neuroscientists don’t agree on how the neocortex works.
Mr. Hawkins says cortical columns handle every task in the same way, a sort of computer algorithm that is repeated over and over again. It is a logical approach to the brain for a man who spent decades building new kinds of computing devices.
All he has to do is figure out the algorithm.
A number of neuroscientists like the idea, and some are pursuing similar ideas. They also praise Mr. Hawkins for his willingness to think so broadly. Being a maverick is not easily done in academia and the world of traditional research. But it’s a little easier when you can fund your own work, as Mr. Hawkins has.
Still, some wonder if his self-funded operation, isolated from the rigors of academic interaction, is a quixotic adventure. They have been researching the brain one little piece at a time for a good reason: Piecing how it all works together is a monumental, hard-to-fathom task.
“It is clear we need a better understanding of intelligence,” said Tomaso Poggio, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who introduced Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Hassabis. “But Jeff is doing this the hard way.”
If Mr. Hawkins’s work should pan out, it could help A.I. researchers leapfrog over what exists today. In recent years, the likes of Google, Apple and Amazon have built cars that drive on their own, gadgets that answer questions from across the room and smartphone apps that instantly translate languages.



They relied on “neural networks,” which are mathematical systems modeled after the web of neurons in the brain — to a point. Scientists cannot recreate the brain because they understand only pieces of how it works. And they certainly can’t duplicate its capabilities.



“The brain is by far the most complex piece of highly excitable matter in the known universe by any measure,” said Christof Koch, the chief scientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. “We don’t even understand the brain of a worm.”
In 1979, with an article in Scientific American, Francis Crick, a Nobel Prize winner for his DNA research, called for an all-encompassing theory of the brain, something that could explain this “profoundly mysterious” organ.
Mr. Hawkins graduated from Cornell in 1979 with a degree in electrical engineering. Over the next several years, he worked at Intel, the computer chip giant, and Grid Systems, an early laptop company. But after reading that magazine article, he decided the brain would be his life’s work.
He proposed a neuroscience lab inside Intel. After the idea was rejected, he enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. His doctoral thesis proposal was rejected, too. He was, suffice to say, an outlier.
In 1992, Mr. Hawkins founded Palm Computing. A decade and a half before the iPhone, he had created a hand-held computer for the masses. When he hired the company’s chief executive, Donna Dubinsky, he warned that whenever possible, he would drop his work with Palm and return to neuroscience. “That was always there, simmering in the background,” Ms. Dubinsky said.



U.S. Robotics acquired Palm in 1996 for $44 million. About two years later, Mr. Hawkins and Ms. Dubinksy left to start Handspring. Palm, which became an independent company again in 2000, acquired Handspring for $192 million in stock in 2003.
Around the time of the second sale, Mr. Hawkins built his own neuroscience lab. But it was short-lived. He could not get a lab full of academics focused on his neocortical theory. So, along with Ms. Dubinsky and an A.I. researcher named Dileep George, he founded Numenta.
The company spent years trying to build and sell software, but eventually, after Mr. George left, it settled into a single project. Funded mostly by Mr. Hawkins — he won’t say how much he has spent on it — the company’s sole purpose has been explaining the neocortex and then reverse engineering it.






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“You do not have to emulate the entire brain,” Mr. Hawkins says. But you have to understand how it works “and emulate the important parts.”CreditAnastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

Inside Numenta, Mr. Hawkins sits in a small office. Five other neuroscientists, mostly self-taught, work in a single room outside his door.
Mr. Hawkins said a moment of clarity came about two and a half years ago, while he was sitting in his office, staring at a coffee cup.
He touched the cup and dragged his finger across the rim. Then he leapt to his feet and ran through the door.



He ran headlong into his wife, who had stopped by for lunch, and stumbled toward his closest collaborator, Subutai Ahmad, the vice president of research. “The cortex knows the location of everything,” Mr. Hawkins said. Mr. Ahmad had no idea what he was talking about.
As Mr. Hawkins looked at that cup, he decided that cortical columns did not just capture sensations. They captured the location of those sensations. They captured the world in three dimensions rather than two. Everything was seen in relation to what was around it.
If cortical columns handle sight and touch in this way, Mr. Hawkins thought, they handle hearing, language and even math in similar ways. He’s been working on proving that ever since.
“When the brain builds a model of the world, everything has a location relative to everything else,” Mr. Hawkins said. “That is how it understands everything.”
The source of tension between Mr. Hawkins and other brain and A.I. researchers is not that they necessarily think he is wrong. It’s that they simply don’t know because what he has been trying to do has been so different. And so wildly ambitious.
For the science to advance, what Mr. Hawkins has been working on can’t stay in a silo. His ideas could benefit from extensive experimentation with other neuroscientists, said Nelson Spruston, a senior director at the Janelia Research Campus, a research lab in Virginia that focuses on neuroscience. “A continuous cycle of testing and revising biologically inspired models of neural computation is the key to developing insightful theories of the brain,” he said.
Translation: Mr. Hawkins will have to open his work to rigorous scrutiny and find a way to interact with researchers who most likely have never looked at the brain the way he does.

NYT

Follow Cade Metz on Twitter: @CadeMetz

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Goodbye, Political Spin, Hello Blatant Lies

Black is white, up is down, and Republicans are defenders of Medicare.

Paul Krugman
Opinion Columnist

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President Trump is leading Republicans in telling flat-out lies about stances on health insurance.CreditCreditT.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Do you remember political spin? Politicians used to deceive voters by describing their policies in misleading ways. For example, the Bush administration was prone to things like claiming that tax breaks for the wealthy were really all about helping seniors — because extremely rich Americans tend to be quite old.
But Republicans no longer bother with deceptive presentations of facts. Instead, they just flat-out lie.
What do they lie about? Lots of things, from crowd sizes to immigrant crime, from steel plants to the Supreme Court. But right now the most intense, coordinated effort at deception involves health care — an issue where Republicans are lying nonstop about both their own position and that of Democrats.
The true Republican position on health care has been clear and consistent for decades: The party hates, just hates, the idea of government action to make essential health care available to all citizens, regardless of income or medical history.

This hatred very much includes hatred of Medicare. Way back in 1961, Ronald Reagan warned that enacting Medicare would destroy American freedom. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think that happened. Newt Gingrich shut down the government in an attempt to force Bill Clinton to slash Medicare funding. Paul Ryan proposed ending Medicare as we know it and replacing it with inadequate vouchers to be applied to the purchase of private insurance.
And the hatred obviously extends to the Affordable Care Act. Republicans don’t just hate the subsidies that help people buy insurance; they also hate the regulations that prevent insurers from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions. Indeed, 20 Republican state attorneys general filed a lawsuit trying to eliminate protection for pre-existing conditions, and the Trump administration has declined to oppose the suit, in effect endorsing it.
So if you’re a voter who cares about health care, it shouldn’t be hard to figure out where the parties stand. If you believe that Medicare is a bad thing and the government shouldn’t protect people with pre-existing conditions, vote Republican. If you want to defend Medicare and ensure coverage even for those who have health problems, vote Democrat.
But Republicans have a problem here: The policies they hate, and Democrats love, are extremely popular. Medicare has overwhelming support. So does protection for pre-existing conditions, which is even supported by a large majority of Republicans.
Now, you might imagine that Republicans would respond to the manifest unpopularity of their health care position by, you know, actually changing their position. But that would be hopelessly old-fashioned. As I said, what they’ve chosen to do instead is lie, insisting that black is white and up is down.

Thus Josh Hawley, as Missouri’s attorney general, is part of that lawsuit against Obamacare’s regulation of insurers; but in his campaign for the Senate, he’s posing as a defender of Americans with pre-existing conditions. Dean Heller, running for re-election to the Senate in Nevada, voted for a bill that would have destroyed Obamacare, including all protection for pre-existing conditions; but he’s misrepresenting himself just like Hawley is.
And they aren’t just lying about their own position. They’re also lying about their opponents’. Incredibly, Republicans have spent the years since passage of the A.C.A. accusing Democrats of wanting to destroy Medicare.
All of which brings me to a remarkable op-ed article on health care in USA Today, which was published under Donald Trump’s name this week. (If he actually wrote it, I’ll eat my hairpiece — although, to be fair, it was rambling and incoherent, suggesting he may have played some role in its composition.)
Part of the article claimed that the Trump administration is defending health insurance for Americans with pre-existing conditions, when the reality is that it has tried to destroy that coverage. But mostly it was an attack on proposals for “Medicare for all,” a slogan that refers to a variety of proposals, from universal single-payer to some form of public option.
And what did “Trump” say Democrats would do? Why, that they would “eviscerate” the current Medicare program. Oh, and that they would turn America into Venezuela. Because that’s what has happened to countries that really do have single-payer, like Canada and Denmark.
Why do Republicans think they can get away with such blatant lies? Partly it’s because they expect their Fox-watching followers to believe anything they’re told.
But it’s also because they can still count on enablers in the mainstream news media. After all, why did USA Today approve this piece? Letting Trump express his opinion is one thing; giving him a platform for blatant lies is another. And as fact-checker Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post put it, “Almost every sentence contained a misleading statement or a falsehood.” Even the president of the United States isn’t entitled to his own facts.
So will the G.O.P.’s Big Lie on health care work? We’ll find out in a few weeks.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman

NYT

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Of Trump, Taylor Swift and the Cat

And now, on the lighter side of the news. …
Gail Collins
Opinion Columnist

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Taylor Swift performing at the American Music Awards on Tuesday. President Trump said he liked her 25 percent less after she endorsed a Democrat in the Senate race in Tennessee. CreditCreditFrederick M. Brown/Getty Images

So, it appears the Republican Senate candidate in Ohio flew to a meeting of “faith leaders” in a plane owned by a Cleveland strip club owner.
I am telling you this just to cheer you up. The world of politics has been pretty fraught lately, and today we’re going to try to be cheery, and just talk about good old-fashioned weirdness and stupidity.
Such as Representative Jim Renacci’s decision to travel to campaign events — including a “meet & greet … with local faith leaders” — in a plane owned by the proprietor of the Peek-a-Boo club in Cleveland. The congressman said the owner, who we will call Mr. Peek, is a campaign volunteer. “I’m not going to vet volunteers,” Renacci told an Ohio news site.
Well, we would hope that all our candidates do a little bit of vetting when it comes to air safety. But the best thing about this story is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with Donald Trump. Who recently suggested that when we’re contemplating the coming elections we should “think of it as the same thing as me.”

O.K., he’s probably right. But that doesn’t mean we don’t deserve a little political diversion.
For instance, you’ve probably heard about Representative Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican, who is a heavy favorite for re-election even though he’s been the subject of an attack ad made by six of his siblings.
“It’s intervention time, and intervention time means … you go to vote Paul out,” says one brother in the ad for Gosar’s opponent, which is titled “A Family Defends Its Honor.” I can’t tell you this has really made a difference; the polls suggest Gosar is still going to win. However, it could be a useful citation during your next family argument. (“Well, at least I never made an attack ad against you!”)
I am sorry to report that Florida Republicans have let us down and nominated a Spanish-language TV star, Maria Elvira Salazar, for Congress in a district where one of the other candidates was a businesswoman whose résumé included having been kidnapped by space aliens.
Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera did actually have a lot of assets, including a career as a local councilwoman and a strong record of helping other women run for office. On the other side you had the fact that she told reporters that when she was 7 she was beamed aboard a spaceship and met visitors from another galaxy, with whom she communicates telepathically. But nobody’s perfect.
And this week we had the Taylor Swift story! Even people who do not know the name of their current member of Congress know that Swift has endorsed former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen for the Senate. After a career in which she’s avoided saying anything much about politics, Swift popped up with the announcement that she’s voting for Bredesen because his Republican opponent, Representative Marsha Blackburn, has a voting record that “appalls and terrifies me.”

Swift had in mind things like opposition to the Violence Against Women Act. But Blackburn lives on in my memory as the House member who once gave a vigorous denunciation of a bill raising energy efficiency standards for ceiling fans. In which speech, she appeared to paraphrase a famous Holocaust poem about fear and apathy. (“First they came for our health care. Then they took away our light bulbs … now they are coming after our ceiling fans.”)
Celebrities endorsing candidates is not normally all that big a deal — Trump himself has a number of entertainers on his bandwagon, from Kanye West to Tila Tequila. It is a venerable tradition that dates back to 1920, when Al Jolson announced his support for Warren Harding.
But Taylor Swift’s announcement was a little more dramatic than the usual singer-supports-candidate Instagram post, since she hasn’t said anything about her political preferences until now. This void apparently allowed white supremacists who saw her as a beautiful Aryan goddess to decide she was one of them.
Also, they thought she let them name her cat. It’s sort of a long story, but the moral is that if you are an extremely popular singer and you buy a pet, try to make sure no alt-right website runs a Name the Cat contest. Otherwise, you could both wind up picking the same name, and next thing you know they’ll be under the impression you’re going to vote for Marsha Blackburn.


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President Trump with Representative Marsha Blackburn at a rally last week.CreditMark Humphrey/Associated Press

When Trump learned about the endorsement he announced he likes Taylor Swift “25 percent less now.” This was the most mystifying presidential remark of the week. Why not 100 percent? When Lisa Murkowski voted against the Kavanaugh nomination, Trump did not say he thought a quarter of her constituents would be really ticked off. No, he decreed that “the people from Alaska will never forgive her for what she did.” I would hate to think the difference is only about Murkowski not being a 28-year-old blond superstar.
Trump is a Marsha Blackburn supporter — in fact, he was just in Tennessee for a rally in which she was actually permitted to come on stage and talk for three minutes. “A vote for Marsha is really a vote for me,” he told the crowd.
See? Bring back the space aliens and the strip club owners.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist, a former member of the editorial board and was the first woman to serve as Times editorial page editor, from 2001 to 2007. @GailCollins Facebook

NYT

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Republicans’ spin on Kavanaugh isn’t working






Opinion writer
Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh delivered a defensive speech at the White House on Monday night. He said he had no “bitterness” — although he was plainly bitter if not enraged when he accused the Clintonian left of orchestrating a plot to smear him. He argues that he was not appointed “to serve one party or one interest” — although he vowed at his hearing that “what goes around comes around.” He insisted he would give every litigant a fair shake and listen to cases with an open mind, but who among Senate Democrats or progressive activists believes this?
Once more, he did not apologize or retract his partisan words and nonjudicial demeanor. The speech came across — like his Fox News appearance and Wall Street Journal op-ed — as a sell job necessitated, repeatedly raising his record of hiring female clerks, by the historically low approval for his nomination. He claimed he would be a voice for unity and stability on the Supreme Court. We will see how often he is the deciding vote in 5-4 decisions.
Even worse, President Trump chose to make it a wholly partisan affair. “I want to apologize to Brett and the entire Kavanaugh family for the pain and suffering you have been forced to endure,” Trump said. “You, sir, under historic scrutiny, were proven innocent.” He was proven nothing of the sort. In any event, appearing along a president bashing one political party seemed to undercut whatever Kavanaugh hoped to accomplish.
The uphill climb to earn the trust of the American people and to prevent the Supreme Court from being tainted by his arrival was evident in the results of a CNN poll released Monday. “Overall, 51% in the poll oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, up from 39% who opposed it in early September, after his initial confirmation hearing but before accusations of sexual misconduct emerged,” CNN reported. “Support for Kavanaugh’s confirmation has merely inched up, by contrast, from 38% backing him in early September to 41% now.” He has not worn well. (“The public’s take on Kavanaugh is much more negative than it was in early August, not long after President Donald Trump nominated him to fill the seat being vacated by Anthony Kennedy. Back then, 33% viewed him positively and 29% had a negative take. Now, nearly half have a negative view (47%) while 35% have a positive take.”)
Despite his argument that he is not a surrogate for any one party or interest, he starts his tenure as the most divisive justice in living memory:
Positive views of Kavanaugh among Republicans have grown at the same time, increasing 18 points from 62% in August to 80% now. Among women, 53% now have a negative view, up from 33% in August. Men split evenly, 41% positive to 41% negative, but that’s still an increase in negative impressions compared with a 40% positive to 25% negative divide in August. Shifts in impressions of Kavanaugh are coming most sharply at the extremes. The share who have a “very positive” view of Kavanaugh climbed from 17% to 24%, and “very negative” from 15% to 33%.
Contrary to GOP claims that Kavanaugh is a winning issue for the party, a majority (52 to 38 percent) of Americans believed his accusers and think he lied under oath about his alcohol use (50 to 37 percent). Moreover, “Half say Kavanaugh’s personal conduct has disqualified him to serve on the court, and 53% say his professional qualifications do not outweigh any questions about his personal conduct. A larger majority, 56%, think Kavanaugh would be influenced by his personal political beliefs when considering cases before the Supreme Court.” A small plurality (48 to 45 percent) don’t think he has the temperament to serve. Neither side looked good to voters. (“55% disapprove of the GOP in the Senate, 56% of the Democrats in the Senate.”)
The sight of Kavanaugh on the court may prove to be an ongoing source of anger and mistrust for a good deal of the country. And it is not just Kavanaugh. “All told, 56% of Americans, including 64% of women, say it’s a major problem that two of the nine sitting Supreme Court justices faced charges of sexual harassment or assault during their confirmation hearings, another 16% call that a minor problem and 23% not a problem. About half overall, 51%, see it as a problem because they believe the allegations against Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas are true, 16% say it’s a problem because they think those allegations are false and 6% aren’t sure.”
There is a price to be paid for Republicans and for Kavanaugh in using political muscle to put someone so deeply distrusted on the court. Republicans have, as we have suspected, further alienated if not infuriated women; their 5-4 court that they have striven mightily to produce now carries the stench of Republican power politics and misogyny. Unless Kavanaugh is going to turn around and betray all those White House staffers and GOP senators he profusely thanked, his future rulings on everything from abortion to partisan gerrymandering to the president’s own liability are very likely to further increase mistrust and highlight the Supreme Court’s politicization. He might consider recusing himself from some cases — that at least may assuage Americans that he is not there to block and tackle for the president.

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Bernie Sanders plans nine-day blitz for Democratic candidates on midterm ballot



Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks during an August campaign stop for Florida’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Andrew Gillum, in Tampa. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to launch a nine-day blitz on the campaign trail next week for Democrats on the ballot in November, including stops in several states that would be crucial to a 2020 bid for the party’s presidential nomination.
An itinerary shared by a Sanders aide includes several stops in Iowa, where Sanders finished a close second to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic caucuses, as well as South Carolina and Nevada, two other states that appear early in the nominating calendar.
Sanders, who is actively weighing a 2020 presidential bid, will also make appearances in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado and California.
Since falling short in 2016, Sanders has traveled extensively around the country but mostly to promote issues he is championing. His upcoming tour, starting on Oct. 19, will be his most aggressive effort to support Democratic candidates on the ballot in November.
Sanders is on the ballot himself this year, trying to win a third term as a senator from Vermont. His 2016 presidential campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, is among those who have publicly urged him to run again for president in 2020.
This month’s campaign swing will include appearances on behalf of candidates for the House and Senate, as well as governor in some states.
Iowans won’t see most of the best-known presidential candidates in person until after the midterms. But some Democratic candidates have already made stops, including Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), who spoke Saturday at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Fall Gala.
David Weigel contributed to this report.




The Paranoid Style in G.O.P. Politics

Republicans are an authoritarian regime in waiting
Paul Krugman
Opinion Columnist
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CreditCreditDamon Winter/The New York Times
Many people are worried, rightly, about what the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh means for America in the long term. He’s a naked partisan who clearly lied under oath about many aspects of his personal history; that’s as important as, and related to, the question of what he did to Christine Blasey Ford, a question that remains unresolved because the supposed investigation was such a transparent sham. Putting such a man on the Supreme Court has, at a stroke, destroyed the court’s moral authority for the foreseeable future.
But such long-term worries should be a secondary concern right now. The more immediate threat comes from what we saw on the Republican side during and after the hearing: not just contempt for the truth, but also a rush to demonize any and all criticism. In particular, the readiness with which senior Republicans embraced crazy conspiracy theories about the opposition to Kavanaugh is a deeply scary warning about what might happen to America, not in the long run, but just a few weeks from now.
About that conspiracy theorizing: It began in the first moments of Kavanaugh’s testimony, when he attributed his problems to “a calculated and orchestrated political hit” motivated by people seeking “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.” This was a completely false, hysterical accusation, and making it should in itself have disqualified Kavanaugh for the court.
But Donald Trump quickly made it much worse, attributing protests against Kavanaugh to George Soros and declaring, falsely (and with no evidence), that the protesters were being paid.
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And here’s the thing: Major figures in the G.O.P. quickly backed Trump up. Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate committee that heard Blasey and Kavanaugh, insisted that the protesters were indeed employed by Soros. Senator John Cornyn declared, “We will not be bullied by the screams of paid protesters.” No, the protesters aren’t being paid to protest, let alone by George Soros. But to be a good Republican, you now have to pretend they are.
What’s going on here? At one level, this isn’t new. Conspiracy theorizing has been a part of American politics from the beginning. Richard Hofstadter published his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” back in 1964 and cited examples running back to the 18th century. Segregationists fighting civil rights routinely blamed “outside agitators” — especially northern Jews — for African-American protests.
But the significance of conspiracy theorizing depends on who does it.
When people on the political fringe blame shadowy forces — often, as it happens, sinister Jewish financiers — for their frustrations, you can write it off as delusional. When people who hold most of the levers of power do the same thing, their fantasizing isn’t a delusion, it’s a tool: a way to delegitimize opposition, to create excuses not just for disregarding but for punishing anyone who dares to criticize their actions.
That’s why conspiracy theories have been central to the ideology of so many authoritarian regimes, from Mussolini’s Italy to Erdogan’s Turkey. It’s why the governments of Hungary and Poland, former democracies that have become de facto one-party states, love to accuse outsiders in general and Soros in particular of stirring up opposition to their rule. Because, of course, there can’t be legitimate complaints about their actions and policies.
And now senior figures in the Republican Party, which controls all three branches of the federal government — if you had any questions about whether the Supreme Court was a partisan institution, they should be gone now — are sounding just like the white nationalists in Hungary and Poland. What does this mean?
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The answer, I submit, is that the G.O.P. is an authoritarian regime in waiting.
Trump himself clearly has the same instincts as the foreign dictators he so openly admires. He demands that public officials be loyal to him personally, not to the American people. He threatens political opponents with retribution — two years after the last election, he’s still leading chants of “Lock her up.” He attacks the news media as enemies of the people.
Add in the investigations closing in on Trump’s many scandals, from tax cheating to self-dealing in office to possible collusion with Russia, all of which give him every incentive to shut down freedom of the press and independence of law enforcement. Does anyone doubt that Trump would like to go full authoritarian, given the chance?
And who’s going to stop him? The senators parroting conspiracy theories about Soros-paid protesters? The newly rigged Supreme Court? What we’ve learned in the past few weeks is that there is no gap between Trump and his party, nobody who will say stop in the name of American values.
But as I said, the G.O.P. is an authoritarian regime in waiting, not yet one in practice. What’s it waiting for?
Well, think of what Trump and his party might do if they retain both houses of Congress in the coming election. If you aren’t terrified of where we might be in the very near future, you aren’t paying attention.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.
Paul Krugman has been an Opinion columnist since 2000 and is also a Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. He won the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography. @PaulKrugman

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