Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Peaceful Transition of Power

Al Gore, December 13, 2000:
Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you." Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country. Neither he nor I anticipated this long and difficult road. Certainly neither of us wanted it to happen. Yet it came, and now it has ended, resolved, as it must be resolved, through the honored institutions of our democracy.

Over the library of one of our great law schools is inscribed the motto, "Not under man but under God and law." That's the ruling principle of American freedom, the source of our democratic liberties. I've tried to make it my guide throughout this contest, as it has guided America's deliberations of all the complex issues of the past five weeks. 

Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity as a people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession. I also accept my responsibility, which I will discharge unconditionally, to honor the new President-elect and do everything possible to help him bring Americans together in fulfillment of the great vision that our Declaration of Independence defines and that our Constitution affirms and defends.
Donald J. Trump, last night at the third Presidential debate:
 I will look at it at the time. I’m not looking at anything now, I'll look at it at the time. What I've seen, what I’ve seen, is so bad. First of all, the media is so dishonest and so corrupt and the pile on is so amazing. "The New York Times" actually wrote an article about it, but they don't even care. It is so dishonest, and they have poisoned the minds of the voters. But unfortunately for them, I think the voters are seeing through it. I think they’re going to see through it, we’ll find out on November 8th, but I think they’re going to see through it.

If you look at your voter rolls, you will see millions of people that are registered to vote. Millions. This isn't coming from me. This is coming from Pew report and other places. Millions of people that are registered to vote that shouldn't be registered to vote. So let me just give you one other thing. I talk about the corrupt media. I talk about the millions of people. I'll tell you one other thing. She shouldn't be allowed to run. It’s -- She's guilty of a very, very serious crime. She should not be allowed to run, and just in that respect I say it's rigged because she should never have been allowed to run for the presidency based on what she did with e-mails and so many other things.

Wallace (moderator): But, sir, there is a tradition in this country, in fact, one of the prides of this country is the peaceful transition of power and no matter how hard fought a campaign is that at the end of the campaign, that the loser concedes to the winner. Not saying you're necessarily going to be the loser or the winner, but that the loser concedes to the winner and the country comes together in part for the good of the country. Are you saying you're not prepared now to commit to that principle? 

Trump: What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time. I'll keep you in suspense, okay?
One of these figures is a patriot who puts the country first, and one is a dangerous narcissist who would be willing to create a constitutional crisis because of wounded vanity.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Invisible Hand of Normative Culture

Below is an email response to a friend about the role of sexism in this particular campaign, which I expanded to address racism and homophobia as well. In the exchange, my friend wrote: "If I didn't know you better, Jeff, it would be easy to assume that your entire political philosophy revolves around marginalizing white males." Rather than rewrite this as a more general post, I'm leaving it as it is--so please forgive the moments when I allude to that discussion.  I don't think they're too hard to follow.


I have no idea why any individual dislikes Hillary, and there are a nearly infinite number of reasons to dislike her that don't have to do with sexism. This obviously has nothing to do with sexism--people generally hate politicians. But in the aggregate, Hillary is subjected to an absolute shit ton of sexism and misogyny. I'd refer you to that podcast with Rebecca Traister I sent out earlier for an incredibly trenchant discussion of the particulars for the best case I've heard made on the subject.

Speaking more generally, I'd say you're fairly close to the mark when you say "your entire political philosophy revolves around marginalizing white males." The distinction is that it's not actually marginalizing white males, it's trying to create an environment in which the white male perspective is not normative. The distinction is sort of like Truman's quote, "I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell." When the normative white male world is fractured, it feels like marginalization to white males.

Culture is built on normative behavior. It's invisible to those who exist within and are reflected by cultural norms. Little boys who see depictions of men driving trucks, men playing sports, men serving as president are unaware of the cultural bias here. Little girls who want to be president will see it immediately. (Same can be said for members of different races, sexuality, and religions.) Any time a culture changes, it causes enormous pain for those who once saw it as a culture-free, "normal" situation. Some white men will naturally feel attacked when they don't see their world reflected back--when they see depictions of black or female or gay presidents or whatever.

Since that's all vague and general, I'll give you an example. Patrick and I just posted a podcast we did with women in the beer industry, and it was fascinating to hear their stories. One example from a female brewer was how she gets shit about the names she gives her beer. Male colleagues warn her that some sound "too girly." This gendered critique is something none of them have ever experienced. To say, "that beer name sounds too manly" seems absurd because we take two things as normative: 1) that a non-girly beer name is "normal," and 2) that masculine names, because they are normative, will not raise any hackles among customers the way "girly" beer names might, and 3) that it is okay to considering men who would be offended by girly names, but never consider women who might be offended by manly (or sexist) names. Those are overt and subtle examples of the way sexism plays out.

To go back to your original "marginalization" comment, the way I'd reframe this discussion is to say that I'd like to see a politics in which the default position of the white man's viewpoint as "normal" was transcended for one in which the views of women, nonwhites, nonstraights, non-Christians, etc had become normative themselves.

This has happened many times in the past. Each wave of new immigrants, from the Irish to Italians to Poles, were all considered "other"--and in many cases, shockingly, not considered "white." Eventually the protestant English culture expanded to include these new groups into what we considered "normal." Recall that it was only 56 years ago that a Catholic candidate had to declare he didn't take marching orders from the Pope to be considered legitimate as a presidential candidate. Now we have no Protestants on the Supreme Court--only Catholic and Jewish justices. This would have been unthinkable fifty years ago, and now it's normative. We've made some wonderful strides on the race and gender fronts, thanks to people like Barack and Hillary who have begun that "normalization" process, but there's obviously miles yet to go.

And it's why when, given the choice of being led by a white, heterosexual man or someone who has any other life experience, I favor the latter. We will not get to this new place if we keep relying on white men to get us there. I know many people see this as an attack on "meritocracy," or the sense that somehow men have to take a back seat. They don't. But they now feel entitled to the front seat, and being told that their status as a male makes them less desirable is an unforgivable slight.

Of course, that's exactly the slight every nonwhite nonmale lives with every day--the presumption of being less desirable. And indeed, people who feel that the meritocracy is threatened by the inclusion of nonwhite nonmales reveal their total commitment to that normative world they don't realize even exists. Because to suggest that someone who is nonwhite or nonmale couldn't possibly warrant inclusion on merit alone is the definition of bigotry. (As if this group really represents our best and brightest.)

There's a ton to be said about power, access, education, and money, and how they affect the stations of nonwhite nonmen but these are fundamentally different and less challenging questions. They let us off the hook. They say there's a reason beyond cultural norms to explain why some people are poorer or have worse jobs or less education. The possibility that it's because the culture keeps them down because they're nonwhite and nonmale is so ugly we don't want to entertain it. But that's the main driver, and has been for centuries, and the way to fix it is to put power in the hands of the very people who can begin to transform society, not leaving it in the hands of the men who once excluded nonwhite nonmen from even participating in the democracy.

So yeah, white men need to sit down and let someone else run the show for awhile. Our voices have been well represented in the halls of power and I see no danger of them falling out of proportion with our actual population any time soon.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Donald Trump Was So Much Worse in the Second Debate Than You Imagined

I was so staggered by what I saw in the second presidential debate that it's taken me nearly 24 hours to process it. Even now, I've probably failed to absorb the true meaning of what transpired. What we saw was a man on the edge of a mental health collapse, someone who could not contain his rage and who babbled incoherently when he wasn't trying to purely menace Hillary Clinton. It was a town hall-style debate, and (bizarre) form has it that the candidates are expected to wander the stage. At one point, Hillary passed close enough to Trump that I though he was going to physically attack her.

But the psychometrics of the debate were actually the secondary concern. Rather, what really stunned were the two most disqualifying statements ever made by a presidential candidate. It's important to separate these various strands out. Trump is creepy, by his own account a sexual predator, and a racist of the first order. But we've had slave-owners as presidents, war criminals, and almost certainly sexual predators. This makes them moral monsters, but it didn't threaten the republic. Trump's most shocking moments last night were not his defense of bragging about sexual assault--it was these three answers, which demonstrate how dangerously incurious and ignorant he is. He probably shouldn't even be allowed to tour the White House, much less reside there.

Let's consider these in ascending order of outrageousness. 

1. Ignorance of basic government functions
 The following exchange, which I'll edit for brevity, went like this:
Trump: Hillary Clinton has friends that want all of these provisions, including, they want the carried interest provision, which is very important to Wall Street people, but they really want the carried interest provision, which I believe Hillary is leaving, and it's very interesting why she is leaving carried interest

Clinton: Well, here we go again. I have been in favor of getting rid of carried interest for years starting when I was a senator from New York. But that's not the point here.
Trump: Why didn't you do it? Why didn’t you do it?

Clinton: Because I was a senator with a Republican president.

Trump: You could have done it. If you were an effective senator, you could have done it. But you were not an effective senator.

Clinton: You know, under our constitution, presidents have something called veto power.
The man who would become President hasn't the vaguest idea of how government functions. The exchange above would be barely forgivable if you overheard it over the Thanksgiving turkey, but it's inexcusable in a presidential nominee. Making laws in the US is a bastard because there are dozens of squeeze points from the moment a bill is introduced to committee until it survives a veto from a president. It's far harder in the US than nearly any other modern democracy, and negotiating this minefield means, at the barest minimum, understanding how it functions. This is like hiring an illiterate to be editor of the New Yorker.

2. Jailing your political opponents
The second disqualifying moment, and surely the most shocking moment in politics in my lifetime, was when Trump casually ad-libbed a threat to jail Clinton.
But if I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation. Because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we’re gonna have a special prosecutor. When I speak, I go out and speak, the people of this country are furious. In my opinion, the people that have been long time workers at the FBI are furious. There has never been anything like this where e-mails, and you get a subpoena. You get a subpoena, and after getting the subpoena you delete 33,000 e-mails and then you acid wash them or bleach them, as you would say. Very expensive process. So we’re gonna get a special prosecutor and we’re gonna look into it. Because you know what, people have been -- their lives have been destroyed for doing 1/5 of what you have done. And it’s a disgrace, and honestly, you oughta be ashamed of yourself. 
Following the GOP convention in July, I wrote about the danger of transgressing norms in a democracy, arguing that these norms, far more than written law, are what keep a democracy intact.
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.
 Since that convention, the calls of "lock her up" have become a common feature of Trump rallies, and he has in the past few weeks spoken darkly of how he might contest a loss because of the "rigged" election he anticipated. This is all no doubt a function of his mental health problems; his narcissism is so profound he cannot think in terms beyond his own personal good. Even as he began crashing in the polls following the first debate and provoked dozens of elected Republicans to forsake him after the sexual assault video, he has never considered the Republican Party. Now individual Republicans are stuck with a doomed choice--stick with Trump and lose all independents and swing voters, or abandon him and lose the base. It is now hard to see how the election doesn't turn into a massive electoral debacle for the Party.

We should have no sympathy for them, though, because they courted this obviously deranged, racist incompetent because they mistakenly thought it would be good for their prospects. Trump, flailing last night, was ugly and incoherent as usual, and the reviews this morning are catastrophic. The fear that he might actually win are diminishing very fast. That should not assuage our anxiety about how fragile our democracy is, nor make us feel any more sanguine about the Republicans who nearly elevated him to the presidency (by which I mean nearly every Republican, since only a handful opposed him from the start). Things in the body politic are not healthy, and though we survived this scare, we shouldn't be feeling too relieved yet.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

October Surprise

Next April, David Fahrenthold will win at least one Pulitzer for his work--basically solo--of investigating the train wreck that is the life of Donald Trump. Yesterday afternoon he posted an article containing a three minute video that, 24 hours later, looks like it will bring down what remains of the Trump campaign. In the video, Trump is caught telling Access Hollywood host Billy Bush (first cousin of W., nephew of GW) a bunch of pretty horrible stuff, the worst of which is boasting about sexual assault:
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy; you can do anything.”
Politico's top stories.
We have this perennial specter of the "October surprise," but in my lifetime, only one incident--Iran announcing the release of the American hostages in late 1980--really qualifies. By October, the trajectory of an election is established and very little can happen that will upset the dynamics. The US has the longest elections in the world, and by October of an election year, candidates will have been actively running for 18 months. We know who they are.

In the 24+ hours since the videotape went public, the GOP has basically imploded. At current count, eight pols have reversed their endorsements and twenty more have called for Trump to step aside. Donors and party mandarins are trying to figure out how to dump Trump. Republican women are apoplectic. It's not entirely clear what the next few days hold, but it is at this point impossible to imagine the GOP putting this mess back together. The only question is what the wreckage ultimately turns out to be.

But here's the thing. Let's (cue Little Marco) dispense with the notion that the GOP didn't know what it was doing; it knew exactly what it was doing.

The Republican Party has been heading for a crisis of its own making for two decades. The precursors were a toxic stew deliberately chosen for short term gain. They were never sustainable. Let us review:
  • Racism. Since Nixon, the GOP has favored the post-civil rights "Southern strategy" (unspoken racism), which led it to a demographic blind alley. By the mid-1970s, when the Southern strategy was in full-swing, whites were an overwhelming majority of the electorate. But playing to white grievance means alienating nonwhites and works only so long as whites have that overwhelming majority. LBJ famously said the Dems had lost the South for a generation following civil rights, but, in implementing the Southern strategy, the GOP lost nonwhites for a generation, too. And that generation is now a much larger portion of the electorate--and the generation is only beginning.
  • The enemy is government. In his first inaugural in 1981, Reagan created the first tenet of modern conservatism: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." It sent the Republicans on a war with government that undermined the authority of their own leaders. Contempt for competence became a badge of honor. For a long time, Republican leaders used this idea to undermine technocratic Democrats, but they failed to see that it would lead to a moment when their own authority was the target of the contempt they'd nurtured.
  • Contempt for Media and the Alternative Conservative Reality. Beginning with talk radio in the early 90s, Fox News in 1996, and then the internet and social media in the 2000s, Republicans built an information bubble that consisted of only right-wing talking points. Going back to the earlier part of the 20th century, with Father Coughlin and later the John Birch Society, conservatives always courted conspiracy. By arguing that the mainstream press was liberal and in on the conspiracy to suppress real (and to liberals, damaging) news, conservatives were able to build an alternative reality that included everything from Drudge and Fox news to Conservapedia, the right wing answer to Wikipedia. It is impenetrable and self-sustaining.
We could point to several more deliberate strategies the GOP put in place as short-term tactics to advance their elective ambitions, but these three are sufficient to explain the rise of Trump, a nakedly racist, know-nothing businessman who has never held any public office. When you look at the strategic decisions men like Nixon, Gingrich, and Rove made to consolidate Republican power, a Trump-like figure was inevitable. The only thing surprising about this October's revelations are that they didn't come out sooner.

Trump is  toast in 2016, but Trumpism will live on. It has been deliberately bred and nurtured by the Republican Party since the 1960s, and over 50 million people will show up to endorse it when they vote for Trump. Those 50m people are the hardcore base of the Republican Party, and they aren't going to be wooed back to business as usual with the warmed-over run of a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Elites in the GOP always cultivated the racism, ignorance, and conspiracies with a wink, thinking that after each election, they could carry on with the usual program of tax cuts and corporate deregulation. Trump has forced the party into a reckoning they have attempted to delay for years.

The reckoning is here and there's no going back. When we look back on these 24 hours, I suspect we'll see them as the moment the GOP shattered and was forced to become a different party.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Notes on the Veep Debate

Vice Presidential debates don't matter, and even if they did it would be hard to imagine a case in which a particular veep debate had less chance to influence an election. And in the minutes following tonight's big event, the media seems to agree that Mike Pence "won." And if we judge these things by who looked better, perhaps he did. (Tim Kaine was antic and aggressive.)

But everyone is focusing on the wrong question. Who "won" the debate is immaterial. The actual question is which campaign benefits from the debate? Kaine was unlikable and interruptive, but with Pence refusing to defend him, Trump was the biggest loser. When challenged with what Trump has actually said and what his actual platform is, Pence flatly denied these things. I expect much of the next 24 hours to be a discussion of whether Trump said all the things Kaine said he did. That's not a good 24 hours for the Trump campaign.

Update, October 5.
One thing we're seeing this morning are Republicans talking about how well Pence did. Not surprising, I suppose, in a campaign as bleak as this one for the GOP. Many are even arguing how much better they'd be doing if he were at the top of the ticket.

That's madness. Pence is one of the most boring pols in the country; he's fairly incompetent as a governor (currently one of the least-popular), and has the kind of social-conservative politics that would seriously hamstring him in a national election. And yet, because Trump is the actual nominee, he looks like a gorgeous delight by contrast. 

This perfectly describes the trouble the GOP are in as a national party. They have on the one hand mainline candidates whose positions were crafted for battles in 1995 and on the other--where all the excitement from the base is--a white nationalist. It exposes, I think, a Humpty-Dumpty scenario. The GOP will try to go back to business as usual, but it's hard m, post-Trump, to see how they put all the pieces back together again.

(At the Congressional, state, and local level, the GOP remains in great shape, which may actually make the national picture all the more intractable.)

Update #2, Oct 7.

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.