Monday, September 26, 2016

The First Presidential Debate

Before the debate got started, I managed to get up a quick comment on social media. It's followed by my post-debate thoughts.

Pre-Debate Thoughts
This is, in many ways, the most unprecedented debate in American history. For one, it features a woman as one of the major party candidates. In 240 years, the republic has never seen that. (For those who wish it was someone other than the former wife of a president, blame the voters. They had two and a half centuries to nominate a woman who wasn't a former First Lady and they failed.)

But Trump is nearly as unusual. He's never held public office, which is not entirely unprecedented; the 1940 GOP candidate, Wendell Willkie, was also a businessman. But Willkie was a WWI vet, a lawyer, and and was active in party politics. Trump has had no political experience whatsoever, nor legal nor any relevant government- or politics-adjacent experience. 

Their bios go a long way to describing the dynamics of the parties and the country. One is a multicultural party engaged with governance, and one is a a mostly-white party at war with government and multiculturalism. The debate is as stark a contrast in competing visions as we've ever seen.

Post-Debate Thoughts
Hillary didn't do great--it's so hard to stay on message when Trump is taking the conversation down a rabbit hole of random personal aggrandizement and conspiracy theories. Trump regards debates as performative exercises; what you say is basically beside the point. So it's about bullying and posturing and interrupting. I've been in arguments with guys like Trump, and they're basically trying to get your goat, not advance an argument. It's enormously difficult to deal with that. 

All of the talking heads I'm seeing are judging the debate from Trump's performative perspective, and so it looks like a 55-45 prospect (with partisans claiming the win). I'll go on the record as guessing that this will have basically no effect on the race.

If you consider it from the perspective of what Trump actually said, it was a giant catastrophe for Trump (and the nation). He was incoherent, ranting, flamboyantly ignorant, offensive, and beyond everything, narcissistic. He has the mind of a 15-year-old boy, to whom the whole world exists to praise him. No slight can go unanswered, no credit given to anyone else. He's pitched a tent of lies to protect his fragile ego, and he preens inside it. Even when the thing he's taking credit for, like Obama's birth certificate, is petty or offensive, he demands everyone give him credit.

If you listened to what he said or read the transcript, you'd be staggered by his ignorance and incoherence. You'd question his sanity. If you judged that debate, you'd wonder why five Americans would vote for him. They won't consider his words, and so it will end up being a push.

One caveat: that screechy I-HAVE-THE-BEST-TEMPERAMENT moment from Trump could--maybe--harm him. That was the one moment when the performative mask slipped.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Basket of Deplorables

"You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic -- you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people -- now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks -- they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America."
--Hillary Clinton at a public fundraiser on September 9, 2016

It's such a rich, un-Hillarylike phrase, surely to be remembered and repeated among the great election moments ("lipstick," "47%," "you're likable enough," "potatoe").
It is, of course, bad politics. It highlights why Hillary is such a weak candidate. In the hands of a better politician, the criticisms would have been targeted at Trump, not his voters. Anytime a politician goes after voters, she's losing. But a half turn and it's a biting critique. "Donald Trump has made his campaign a safe haven for racism, homophobia, islamophibia. He appeals to people's base instincts, always looking to divide rather than unite." Etc. Elections are long, though, and sometimes politicians say things that are, um, politically incorrect. (Funny how Trump didn't celebrate her for that.)

But I am also drawn to it because "basket of deplorables" is such a musical turn of phrase. She evokes a mental image with basket, then gives it a piquant little twist by nounifying the adjective. Deplorable is mildly comic, and a "deplorable" more so. I image grumbling heads crowded in a basket.

It demonstrates the distance we've come in eight years since Obama's "cling to guns" comment, which was so much softer (and said privately). Hillary made a baldly Trumpian comment--but one phrased a way Trump could never approach. For the Donald, people are "horrible," "losers." His idiom is a 10-year-old's. Hillary used a Trumpian tone, but a far different, and more erudite, kind of attack.

Of course, Hillary is held to a different standard, one that allows people to resort, hanky in hand, to their feinting couches. We've never heard such things! (Except since yesterday and every previous day, and far worse, from Trump.) (Or: from a *lady.*) The blowback will reverberate through the election--and after, if she wins. And she won't even get the props from the left, who would have loved Obama or Bernie to take a roundhouse like this.
Still, it was quite a moment.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Trump Loses His Marbles

There's not a whole lot of analysis a person can add to the week Donald Trump just delivered as the post-convention nominee of a major party except to say that it is almost a dead certainty we'll never see another candidate go this crazy again. By way of comparison, famous gaffes in the past included Gerald Ford's claim that the Soviets did not control Poland, the Dean "scream," Dan Quale correcting a child by spelling potato "potatoe," and Rick Perry forgetting the third federal department he'd eliminate. The bar for gaffes was so high that when Al Gore sighed in a debate against George W., it was considered a massive blunder. Keep these benchmarks in mind as we rewind the tape on what happened in the days following the end of the Democratic National Convention.

Another quirk that might be unique to this moment is the habit of Trump's tweets, which seem to pick up during his agitated moments. He tends to have on days and off days of tweeting, but in a typical week, he'll average about six or seven tweets a day. From July 7-13, he posted fifty tweets.  In the week starting immediately after the DNC (Friday July 29) and culminating the following Thursday, the period of time encompassing the disastrous week, he posted 105 tweets. What's more, in the midst of his serious derangement, the tweets were coming in the wee hours (beginning at 4:10am on the 1st, 3:24am on the 2nd, and 2:14am on the 3rd), making me wonder how much sleep-deprivation was a factor in his bizarre behavior.

All right, to the tape. These may not be in chronological order, and I'm not indicating the dates or including links because of the sheer volume of gaffes to document.
  •  Khizr Kahn, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004, called Trump out at the DNC. Trump began by attacking Kahn personally:

  • He then suggested that Kahn's wife, Ghazala, was silenced during his speech for unknown anti-muslim reasons. (It turned out she was too distraught to speak.)
  • After receiving a gift of a purple heart, said it was a lot easier to get one that way. This and the Khan stuff enraged many veterans and veteran organizations. 
  • Told George Stephanopoulos that Russia would not invade Ukraine and was startled when George told him they had already annexed Crimea.
  • Also Stephanopoulos that the NFL had sent him a letter complaining about conflicts between presidential debates and games. The NFL had sent no such letter and announced so soon after.
  • Said he'd tell his daughter that if she were sexually harassed at work, she should quit.
  • Accused two different fire marshals of keeping people out of rallies for "political reasons"--even though the campaign had already agreed to caps on attendance.
  • He called Hillary Clinton "the Devil" (my fave).
  • He warned that the election would "be rigged." Later, asked how he knew, said he "could feel it."
  • When a baby started crying at one of his rallies, he began by praising her and children in general. A minute later, he kicked her out.
  • He took a ton of heat from other Republicans for his Khan madness, and he returned the favor by saying he wouldn't endorse Paul Ryan, John McCain, or Kelly Ayotte. (He eventually did endorse them.) This was actually the final straw for GOP chair Reiknce Priebus, who melted down.
  • Told Americans to pull their 401(k)'s out of the stock market.
  • He declared he wouldn't necessarily back NATO partners if they were attacked.
But Al Gore sighed!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Trump and the Decline of White America

So many white people...

I've spent the best part of the past year trying to figure out the Trump phenomenon. How does a man this manifestly incompetent, ignorant, and offensive command so much support in the United States in 2016? There is clearly a racial component, but what Trump speaks for is not 1950s racism. It's race-adjacent, but not strictly racist. The distinction is subtle but important.

Instead, what's happening is the death rattle of normative white culture--that is, the assumption that everything in society will be filtered through the cultural lens of the typical 55-year-old white male. It's not just that he will look out and mainly see white faces, it's that he will have his cultural values and preferences reflected back to him. In this way it's a kind of narcissism. Racism is directed outward--it's an attack on very real people. What Trumpies are experiencing is cultural dissonance, and it's personal and inward-looking. They're nostalgic, they express a longing for a time when they were "free" to think and behave without filter.

This is why Trump and his followers are so fixated on "political correctness." At the gross level, for the first time in American history, it's not mainstream to be racist, homophobic, and misogynist. All of these positions are reflective of a time when white, Christian culture was the national default. A long time ago it became uncool to voice these things publicly, but the were still minority views, marginalized positions. Racist, homophobic whites could still joke about fags and niggers in private and not offend people. In the last decade, these things became the majority view. Most Americans find these terms offensive, and anyone using them risks public scorn.

But it's more subtle than just bigotry. The world is confusing when norms change--when people say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Respect for Latino and black culture, for non-Christians, and for non-straights has become the majority view. Drop an n-bomb now, and you court censure in all but the most insular settings. Trumpies want the freedom to use whatever language is comfortable without being social pariahs. This is one of the lost "freedoms."

Of course, this is not a change politicians can affect. They're bigger social changes. It is employees in department stores that say Happy Holidays, not the guy at the DMV. Whites of a certain generation expect to be paid deference, but the world seems to be spiting them. In the America of 2016, it's fine to be gay or transsexual, Muslims and Jews are accorded respect, women are often the boss, and signs are in English and Spanish.

Trump constantly talks about weakness. "We're so weak, nobody respects us." This is a big theme for Trump. It has seemed an odd critique. Actually, we're stronger now than we have been twenty years--crime is down, unemployment is down, the economy is fine, we all have smart phones, and soon we'll all be watching TV on Oculus Rift. The weakness Trump has identified, though, has to do with this loss status. Who cares if you have an iPhone if everyone's calling you a racist all the time?

Trump's entire message is one of white restoration--there's basically nothing else there. He doesn't have policies per se, just vague promises that things will be great again. (Believe me.) Nonwhite America says, "what do you mean 'again,' white man?" For anyone who wasn't white and probably male, that normative culture was a terrible thing. (It's even possible for whites to see it as a terrible thing even though they benefited.) Good riddance.

A final irony about this election is that even the election itself is a last gasp example of normative whiteness. We have elevated and enlarged Trump's status because we always see things through the lens of whiteness. And he is indeed huge with whites. But he's never passed about 40-42% in the polls (the tightening has to do with Hillary's fall). I suspect most Americans think that he's dominating among poor voters. After all, big part of his message is predicated on jabbing the "elites," and this is how the media dutifully frames it. But of course he's not winning among the poor. He's winning among the poor whites. Overall, Hillary is doing way better among people earning less than $50,000. That white cultural view still has valence--there's still evidence of it all around--but it's receding.

This is why the Trump phenomenon contains a bright light at its core. The very existence of Trump demonstrates is that this view is dying. You only run on the platform of white restoration when something needs restoring. And not only is it not getting restored, it's going away. Trumpism isn't the spark of a new movement, it's the ember of a dying one. Thirty percent of the electorate is nonwhite, and that number grows each year. Nonwhites are being born at a faster rates than whites, and whites are dying at a faster rate than nonwhites. We will be a majority nonwhite country by 2044.

But even that fails to get at the truth of things. Culturally, we quit being a white country a while ago. Donald Trump is not going to change that.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Witnessing The GOP Convention

The Last three days have been some of the most interesting (and scary) I've experienced as a politics-watcher (a period that goes back to 1976, when I was eight). The whole Trump deal, from his actions as a candidate to the events of this week's convention, have been staggering. Unprecedented.

What's been so remarkable to me is not just Trump and his manifest incompetence and ignorance. He is a piece of work, but he is only an extension of the same pathologies we've seen emerge in figures like Sarah Palin--the naked racism, contempt for knowledge and expertise, and that shocking melange of arrogance, incompetence, and ignorance. He's not different from Palin, he's just a more concentrated version of all the same qualities.

No, what's remarkable is that he has shattered the norms that govern politics. Societies function not because of formal laws, but because of unwritten agreements. It's the way civilized people navigate the world. These unwritten agreements undergird government function, and critically. In 2000, Al Gore acceded to the nakedly political (and internally inconsistent) fiat by the Supreme Court that installed Bush as president. In functioning governments, the judiciary's rule is sacrosanct--if it is nothing but a rubber stamp to the party in office, then there's really no law. Once one branch defies another, things fall apart. And there's no law that says they can't defy each other. Had Gore said, "Nah, I don't accept it. Democrats, stand with me as we continue to fight this battle," things could have gone sideways very fast.

The GOP has been nibbling at the edges of this kind of norm-flouting for years. Obama's got the constitutional right to have his Supreme Court nominee considered by the Senate, but they've refused. Earlier, they shut government down as a negotiation ploy for their preferred policies. They impeached Clinton. They questioned Obama's legitimacy and legal right to be president. But in every case, there was an acknowledgement that certain lines of conduct couldn't be reasonably transgressed. There were lines, even if they wanted to push them to the limit.

Not anymore! Trumpism means letting your freak flag fly. Like rebels in a developing country, they call not only for their political opponent's jailing, but sometimes even her death. (An elected official in New Hampshire--and an advisor to the Trump campaign--did that yesterday.) It means constructing grievances over things that are not happening. In Trump-world, everyone is red-faced because Obama has diminished the US's standing in the world (false), because he has illegally used executive decisions to thwart Congress (false, but a necessary rhetorical precursor for a party that means to ignore the rule of law), because the economy is collapsing (false), that jobs are all gone (false), that Hillary Clinton is a criminal and murderer (false, as if it even needs to be said). A speaker at the Republican National Convention did indeed literally call Clinton a murderer.

All this grievance (and it's clearly authentic; these people are melting down in real anger) means the folks at the convention, and in the GOP generally, feel that they can break all norms and cross all lines. The Democrats, by this line of thinking, are the ones who crossed the lines. Any reprisal is justified. The Democrats are the ones who flout the law; they are the ones who have nominated a criminal. We have to stop them for the greater good. The ends justify our means.

Last year I could see how the GOP would elect Trump. He is floridly bad, but he's not entirely different from other Republican politicians.  I couldn't see how he'd open the door to the GOP's darkest fantasies and paranoias and that we'd be witnessing such a shocking inversion of political norms. Social scientists say we all have "thresholds" of appropriate behavior. When riots start, people's thresholds collapse, and they become capable of behavior they would normally never engage in. Trump was the riotmaster. He keeps egging his followers on, lowering their threshold for bizarre behavior.

All of this has culminated in a convention in which a former candidate for president (Chris Christie) put Hillary Clinton on a show trial, and which the constant call-and-response refrain is "lock her up." In politics, once you delegitimize  your political adversaries, you'd dropped the threshold--measured by adherence to unwritten rules of conduct--and justified any action you take. This is how third world countries lurch from coup to coup and devolve into constant wave of civil war. We're obviously not immediately devolving into civil war, but we're also not standing on the same firm ground we enjoyed in 2000. (Indeed, imagine an election that close happening this year; would you rely on the GOP to stand down in identical circumstances? Of course they wouldn't.)

That I did not foresee.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Trump Bungles Veep Anouncement

This is beautiful. Today the Indianapolis Star reported that Governor Mike Pence will be Trump's vice presidential pick. They know this because he;s dropped his gubernatorial reelection bid. But this revelation came today, 24 hours before Trump planned on announcing his choice. Of course, that means the Trump campaign had to deny these reports. [The linked article has now been updated.]

If Pence is indeed the pick, this was a disaster of PR. Announcing your veep is the one thing a campaign can do as predictable theater to help put messaging on their own terms. You own a news cycle or two, and you can rely on generally positive reporting. Unless you bungle it and word goes out a day earlier--in which case you lose control of the timing and the messaging.

Trump is mercurial and impulsive, so even if he had settled on Pence, he may change his mind in order to recapture the element of surprise. (And that would be amazing, too--switching your choice just to win a news cycle.) And in that case Pence would be out of politics, another casualty of someone who went into business with Trump.

The whole thing is a train wreck. This is the genius leader who's going to oversee the federal government and a $4 trillion budget. A very, very smart man, we're told by the man. Right. What a maroon.

Update: "Donald Trump has called Indiana Gov. Mike Pence and offered him the vice presidential slot on his ticket, CNN has learned. Pence has accepted. Trump said Thursday evening he's postponing the official announcement, previously set for Friday morning. 'In light of the horrible attack in Nice, France, I have postponed tomorrow's news conference concerning my vice presidential announcement,' he tweeted."

This is not the work of a strategic mastermind.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Trump and the Brexit

When the vote for the UK's referendum on exiting the EU--the Brexit--was finally called, it was around 8:30 pm on a Thursday, West Coast time. That gave the media just long enough to think about the implications to have solidified one common point by the morning: the Brexit and the Donald Trump phenomenon in the US seemed highly analogous in some relevant (but never defined) way. It didn't help that Trump was in Scotland, busily making that same connection himself.

But what are the connections? The Trump vote is anchored by a visible cohort of working-class whites who are principally driven by racial animus. Upon their complaints are draped (by themselves and, compliantly, the media) the more decorous claims of economic hardship, but this is an evident dodge. Hillary far outperforms Trump among those earning less than $50,000 (53% - 36%). She outperforms him in nearly every region of the country: North East (+22%), Midwest (+11%), and West (+12%). She trails only in the South (-12%), where those white voters have a certain distinctive cultural and historical context. In that that specific historical and cultural context--slavery, civil war, Jim Crow, and the post-civil-rights era GOP realignment--we see the grievances of a large chunk of the Trump bloc. 

How to connect that to an apple grower in Herefordshire? It is part of the American experience to see the grievances of American whites through the lens of race--so much so that we can't see that the immigrant that angers the Herefordshire orchardist is a white guy from Poland. Poles are the stand-in in the British narrative for the invading "other."  It's so hard for Americans not to see this in racial terms, because for Americans everything is racial, but this is where the phenomena of Trump and the Brexit most obviously diverge. 

The British don't share the history of the Alabaman. As recently as a century ago, they controlled the most powerful empire since the Romans. They ruled it from off the shore of Europe, a separation that figures hugely in their self-conception. Those on the other side of the English Channel were the others, the ones who came from time to time in boats (and later, planes) as would-be conquerors. Their otherness, of course, was not predicated on race, but nationality, place, culture, religion (sometimes), and blood. 

Old rural English people scared of immigrants voted to leave the EU and old rural American people scared of immigrants vote for Trump. They're the same. They're not. Nor are the immigrants. The flavors of xenophobia are varied, and never interchangeable. 

The fixation on connecting Trump and the Brexit would be harmless enough if it were constrained to election predictions. But if Trump does win in November and we have delved no deeper into the causes of that victory than to say they were the same as those who voted to leave the EU, we will have failed to understand the actual forces at work. The UK and US have very different pasts, different histories, different wounds, and different cultures. We are motivated not by amorphous, global grievances, but the very specific ones that create the world we see around us.