Last week, in response to a WaPo op-ed titled “We Must Weed Out Ignorant Voters,” I said that I disagreed with that plan — but that failing knowledge of the mechanics of self-government known as “civics” was indeed something to worry about.
An American reader who used to live and work in Australia, and has an Australian spouse and “two little Aussie-Americans” in the household, writes with this point:
I was writing in response to your blog post on May 22 regarding the idea of disenfranchising low information voters.
I see from your recent posts that you have been traveling to Australia frequently [yes, most recently on a program for the Lowy Institution] , so you are probably aware that voting is compulsory Down Under. [Also yes. There’s a minor fine for non-compliance, but most people comply, and seem proud of it.]
Few complain about this law, and I believe that compulsory voting has a tremendous moderating effect on politics there. Until Tony Abbott's PM-ship, social issues were not really mainstream issues there. His quick and harsh demise can be seen as an indication of the danger there of being so polarizing.
Similarly, the issue of guns is much more rational when you expand the vote and don't rely on getting out your base and suppressing the other side's core faithful.
On economic issues, I attribute the continued strong role of unions and collective bargaining [in Australia] to compulsory voting. There is only political disadvantage in seeking to curb economic equality that gives workers a "fair go."
It is such a small change, but I really believe it makes a huge difference in making Australia a more economically fair and politically moderate country than the U.S.
Australia usually appears in the U.S. press in a lifestyle / culture / “Lucky Country” context. Like any nation it has its problems, most obviously now a nasty situation involving quarantine of boat-people refugees. But many aspects of its social contract deserve study and admiration, even if the different history and “path dependencies” of the United States make it difficult to imagine applying them here.
(The most famous of these admirable-but-unmatchable Aussie responses is of course to the “Port Arthur Massacre,” as described here. But beyond that, despite polarizing economic pressures like those affecting every country, Australia has a markedly more egalitarian middle-class sensibility than today’s U.S. does. Tiny but significant illustration: at least for male passengers, you’re expected to ride in the front rather than the back seat of a taxi. It’s more comfortable — and anyway, who do you think you are, riding around in the back like some toff? The high-minimum-wage/no-tipping social bargain also helps.)
Think how different campaigning would be, if you never had to think about “the turnout game” or “revving up the base.” Not to mention “voter suppression.” Ah well.
Over the weekend a Washington Post op-ed titled “We Must Weed Out Ignorant Voters from the Electorate” got a lot of negative attention, including from me. And on reflection I still don’t agree with the surface-level argument of the piece, which is that people who don’t know enough about civics should be denied the vote. There’s too long an American history of struggles over the franchise to welcome an argument couched this way.
But here is the part of the argument that does strike a chord with me. It is the reminder that overconfidence about civics, by everyone, is part of what makes this election cycle an unsettling and potentially dangerous one. Let me explain:
Any exposure to American history offers reminders that public affairs in the country have often been in bad shape. The latest in the very long shelf of Lincoln biographies, A Self-Made Man by Sidney Blumenthal, takes its protagonist only to age 40 but offers a very vivid look at the close-run struggles over economic policy, tariffs and national banks, nation-building and nullification, and of course the extension of slavery in the 1830s and 1840s. The country would have been much worse off if several of those struggles had gone the other way, and of course it nearly came apart during the Civil War. Even beyond that unparalleled emergency, pick your decade and you can pick your crisis in the performance of the American government, the injustices of the American economy, and the cruelties or blind spots of American society. Things have always been dicey.
(Yes, this is the same Sidney Blumenthal you’re thinking of; read this engrossing book before you assume anything about it or him. For the record, he’s a longtime friend of mine.)
But because the United States is now such an old country, considered as a system of government, and because after all the turmoil it has ended up as the strongest and most resilient of nations, it’s very hard not to assume that whatever is today’s crisis will work itself out. Through my conscious lifetime American society has seemed on the verge of blowing up at least half a dozen times. The episodes have passed; the caravan moves on.
With the accumulating evidence of disasters-avoided, it’s also tempting to assume that the recovery process is natural, and organic. And to some extent that’s true: the United States is a shambling entity that can absorb a lot. But I’ve come to think that it’s dangerous to let the mechanics of recovery and self-correction drift out of view. Because the United States has withstood so much, it’s natural to think it will automatically keep doing so, and not to pay attention to the rules, norms, and values that have allowed a loose, diverse, small-l liberal democracy to do as well as it has.
Thus three diverse, dissimilar readings on the mechanics of self-government, in the age of Trump and also the age of Hamilton:
The first is an analysis published eight years ago, Paul Graham’s “How to Disagree.” Graham lays out a seven-level “Disagreement Hierarchy,” from the least- to most-enlightening ways to deal with differences of opinion. (Yes, I’m aware that other versions of this analysis have appeared elsewhere.)
At the top, as the most useful sort of disagreement, is Graham’s Level 6, “Refuting the Central Point.” You take on your opponent’s argument in its strongest and most accurate form, and you explain why it’s wrong. At the bottom, on Level 0, is the most destructive and divisive form of disagreement, simple “Name-calling.” Graham explains thus:
This is the lowest form of disagreement, and probably also the most common. We've all seen comments like this: u r a fag!!!!!!!!!!
But it's important to realize that more articulate name-calling has just as little weight. A comment like The author is a self-important dilettante.
is really nothing more than a pretentious version of "u r a fag."
The civics-related point: think how much of this cycle’s discussion has taken place on Level 0.
The second is something published almost 230 years ago. This is Federalist #10, from the Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, laying out the logic of the new Constitution. #10 is by Madison.
At some point in schooling most people have had some exposure to the Federalist Papers. This one, about the risks of “faction,” deserves notice because of the new oomph it has in campaign year 2016. Specifically, it is important for showing the long-standing concern about the fragility of the system the Federalists were designing, and the need for conscious attention to its underpinnings. Eg:
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.
A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.
So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts….
It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.
Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole.
The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.
And on through a famous analysis “the means of controlling the effects” of faction. Why do I mention this? Because our politics of the moment proceeds as if there is no difference among the different levels of argument, and our governance is proceeding (or, not proceeding) as if the damage of faction can be waved away. A refusal even to consider nominees for the Supreme Court? It’s normalized as part of today’s partisan battle, rather than regarded as a specimen of the problem the Federalists hoped to avoid.
[Update because of a late night brain-freeze typo, I originally wrote that Federalist #10 was by Hamilton. Of course it’s by Madison, and is one of the most famous and carefully studied of his essays.]
Third is an item posted not eight years ago nor 230 but rather this weekend. It’s by Gary Hart — former Senator, former leading presidential candidate, ongoing defense expert and blogger. He writes about what the fraying of civility has meant, in practical terms, to today’s operational politics. A sample:
Civility is the name we give to mutual respect, decency, and honor among men and women. Like civilization itself, civility evolves over time. It is utilitarian in that societies function best when civility is the norm. But its deeper meaning has to do with the nature of humanity. When civility breaks down, societies fall apart. ...
Political civility began to crack two or three decades ago. Coded language was used to give resentment a voice…
The new media, first non-stop partisan cable, then the startling rise of an array of social media, caused traditional media outlets, print and electronic, to abandon professional standards and join the mad hunt for “the story” at the cost of the privacy of public servants and eventually the very caliber of those willing to seek office….
This perfect storm inevitably brought wide-spread resentment, political candidates proudly proclaiming their ignorance, and desperately voracious media outlets together in 2016.
Donald Trump didn’t invent all of this. He was simply clever enough to stand outside, watch the storm gathering, and then give it voice.
To sum it up: the United States has withstood a lot, and will probably withstand what it is going through now. But its resilience is not automatic, and should not be taken for granted. The fundamentals of its civic structure deserve as much attention as the latest campaign-trail insult.
Many more solid emails from readers are coming in over the Notes discussion sparked by Molly this week following her appearance on WBUR’s On Point. Here’s Les Carter:
Excellent notes. The media, party leaders, and the majority (so far) of the electorate have summarily dismissed the Trump candidacy because he is a moron and a buffoon, per Don [the radio caller in Kentucky whom Molly excerpted here] and Nick [the Atlantic reader here, along with anti-Trump reader John]. But John’s condescending dismissive attitude is too generalized and does not address the plight of Trump’s voter base. “Probably a Fox News viewer”? Could well be, but the guy's calling in on On Point! And I agree he really was eloquent. [On Point host Tom Ashbrook and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie], with their own agenda, went straight to Trump’s failings and did not discuss caller Don’s plight except to dismiss it on racial grounds.
Now if you examine the issues in the forefront of the media and of politicians, the plight of these men and women isn’t there. I’m pretty liberal on racial and income equality, and on LGBT issues. But contrast how much attention has been given to North Carolina’s HB2 with the economic downfall of the working class, and then contrast how many are affected.
As in so many presidential elections, I will support the candidate I dislike least: Clinton. But the pundits and political leaders who have continually dismissed the Trump candidacy as nonviable have failed us all.
Another regular reader and Notes contributor, Mike, also empathizes with Don but defends John against charges of smugness:
I’m generally with your reader response about not consigning the typical Trump voter into being a backwards racist. My own sister (fairly socially liberal) is seriously considering Trump. As she put it, “The choices this year are like picking between being hit in the face with a hammer or a baseball bat.”
My sister isn’t ignorant. She simply doesn’t follow politics religiously, hates the dysfunction of Washington, and isn’t a fan of the drama that inevitably follows the Clintons. Because it’s only May and she doesn’t follow the nomination process like a fiend, most of the controversies swirling around Trump are a sort of white noise to her.
And yet, I feel myself sympathetic to reader John; supporting Trump is stupid. Does it make me “smug” to say that, in relation to political support for a xenophobic, misogynist demagogue? I’d like to think not, since America’s political environment isn’t a vacuum for the left; when half the country considers itself “real America” compared to coastal liberals, you tell me who is the smug one.
Which simply leaves us all talking past each other. But we on the left and center do this at our own risk. We have to understand where Trump’s appeal comes from, and doing so means accepting that it isn’t all coming from KKK members. My guess? It’s coming from voters who don’t dream of riches, but of being part of the traditionally secure middle class, and who are hearing different voices (Bernie Sanders being the other one) promising that it can come back.
It won’t, of course. But the desire for it to be made so is real. And apparently people are willing to overlook a lot of ignorance and bluster for that type of message, because the alternative? Another Clinton. More politics as usual, by virtue of the name.
Joseph is on the same page when it comes to the dynastic, establishment tendencies of U.S. politics:
Your reader, John, says about the working-class Trump supporter in Kentucky, Don: “And he’s hurting. But he is clueless as to why. Now he’s voting for a buffoon, because?”
He’s voting for a buffoon because neither political party has been able to give him a compelling vision for how things are going to get better in that part of the country. Trump’s whole pitch is based on the idea that he cares about people like this guy. Even if the promises Trump makes are ludicrous, there is a neglected constituency that is desperate to be paid attention to at all. If you want to convince people like this guy to not vote for Trump, you can’t accuse them of being racist, etc. You have to give them something they can say “yes” to.
If you think you’ve been failed by both parties, why not go vote for someone to shake up the system?
Don sounded just like my aggrieved parents and sisters, and they are doing just fine. Other than Don being factually incorrect about the source of many of his problems, the thing we need to think about is how we encourage the Dons of the future to prepare themselves for the next jobs. I have worked next to people who bragged about not reading books, or the newspaper past the sports page.
I don’t think Don deserves his fate, but he bears some responsibility for how his life has played out.
Has he done anything on his own to improve his skills? Has he voted for visionary leaders, who might want to raise taxes to build better roads and schools, or who will bring new technologies and industries to his community, or has he voted for tax cuts? He’s stuck doing two jobs, but what is he teaching his kids—to hate Obama because the U.S. doesn’t use as much coal because other power sources are cheaper and cleaner (and does Don want to pay more to heat his house, just to heat it with coal?), or is he teaching his kids that they better learn all they can in school, and keep learning after they graduate?
A reader emails hello@ to defend Don in Whetstone, Kentucky, a Trump voter who called into WBUR’s On Point to defend working-class support of the presumptive Republican nominee during a segment I highlighted in a note yesterday. (Don’s remarks begin at the 16:45 mark in the embed seen above.) Here’s our reader:
I know that people, including me, feel very negatively towards Trump supporters because of the kind of stuff that has happened at his rallies, for which some of them bear responsibility. But I have to say, I thought the way Don from Kentucky was treated was disgraceful, and a perfect example of the worst element in today’s identity politics. [WBUR host Tom Ashbrook and guest Jamelle Bouie of Slate] pivoted immediately from Don’s sincere argument to a response which basically boils down to “let them eat white privilege.”
I can’t honestly blame a black man such as Bouie if he feels antipathy for people from a region who have had great hatred for his people for no reason whatsoever, especially after the guy mentions Pat Buchanan in an admiring light. But not everyone who supports Trump is a racist, and neither is everyone from that region. What is true of people from that region is that they have benefited very little from white privilege, a concept that is based on the historical reality of an exclusive social position which over time is extended to other groups (the Irish, Italians, etc). White trash, as they’re so often called, are some of the poorest people in the country and are relentlessly mocked and dismissed.
I think they’re wrong to support a man as deranged as Donald Trump for the Presidency of the United States, but neither am I willing to consign struggling people to the bin because they’re the wrong identity group. I’d hazard to guess that Tom Ashbrook has benefited far more from white privilege than Don from Kentucky.
Nick from Omaha:
I think Molly’s note should be more aptly named “The Stereotypical Trump Voter.”
I’m a registered Democrat who, in analyzing the Republican field in the fall of 2015, saw Ted Cruz as dangerous and Donald Trump as ridiculous and inexperienced but also as a less dangerous candidate who would likely surround himself with smart people and (critically) listen to them while making (critically) progress-driven deals with Congress that got the legislative wheels turning.
My view has changed. I now see this election as more consequential than most, even while having deep reservations about both Democratic candidates.
But others have not. I have been shocked to learn that some smart, educated, well-compensated, politically-savvy professionals still see Trump as an independent dealmaker and, even if inexperienced, policy-ignorant, and narcissistic, a better alternative than the “untrustworthy” Hillary Clinton. These are my neighbors and family members varying in age from late 20s to late 60s— some of whom I know voted for Barack Obama (at least in 2008). They are steadfastly liberal on social issues, if perhaps somewhat critical of “class warfare” and Obamacare.
I can offer no wisdom as to how this is possible. I can’t make sense of it. It’s my intuition that those in the media can’t either and therefore stick to the stereotypes that do “make sense.”
I’m not suggesting that these Trump supporters exist in large numbers. My intuition is that they don’t. But my intuition also told me that they wouldn’t exist at all and that Trump would never make it this far.
In short, even if it can’t be explained, it’s worth acknowledging that Trump supporters aren’t just from the disaffected working class.
Here’s one more reader, John, who emailed me directly:
Obama didn’t kill coal mining; fracking and economics did. NAFTA likely didn’t kill Don’s father’s job; it was probably automation. Illegal immigration isn’t lowering his wages; again it’s probably automation, lack of education, and the slow death of unions.
I feel for the guy. But he’s so misguided, so … ignorant. He’s probably a Fox News viewer. He’s probably been voting all his life for Republicans, who have systematically been strengthening capital and hurting workers. And he’s hurting. But he is clueless as to why. Now he’s voting for a buffoon, because?
One of the more remarkable features of this election season has been the way Donald Trump’s movement has taken the rest of the country by surprise. When I talk to both Republicans and Democrats about the Trump phenomenon, they ask me over and over, “Who are these people?” His success represents an uprising of a voting segment that was previously politically invisible, perhaps because a lot of educated people in cities and suburbs live in a self-segregated cultural bubble.
I’ve met hundreds of Trump supporters, and they’re too various to generalize about. But in a segment on Republican divisions on WBUR’s On Point yesterday, a man called in who voiced, in particularly pointed and articulate fashion, a lot of the themes I commonly hear from Trump’s base. Don from Whetstone, Kentucky, identified himself as “a hillbilly misogynist racist from down here in Appalachia.” Here’s what he had to say:
Here’s what I’m sayin’. If you vote for Trump, could it not just be that you’re a workin’ dude who got destroyed by NAFTA like my old man? Couldn’t it just be you’re like one of my uncles who can’t dig coal anymore ’cause Obama won’t let him? Can you not just be a family guy who’s got three kids he’s trying to support who knows the TPP is just gonna destroy more jobs? Can he not just be a guy working for a wage that you know is probably $3 less on the hour because there’s illegal labor all over the country?
I mean, where's common sense?
I wonder if Bill Kristol, I wonder how much coal he’s dug in his life, you know what I'm saying? How many 16-hour shifts has he worked in a factory making 11 bucks an hour? I couldn’t care less what these fools have to say.
Look, I’m a working man. I work 13, 14 hours every day. I got two jobs, I got three kids, I got a wife. I’m not a misogynist. I got a mom, I like her. I got sisters, I like them. I got a wife, I really like her. So I like ladies, I like women, I try to take care of them as best I can.
I’ve always voted Republican, and I vote Democrat on the state level because the federal Democrats are out of their minds. But so are Republicans on the federal level now. I don’t care what party you are. Trump’s a blowhard Yankee moron. I get it. But he’s against NAFTA, he’s against the TPP, he doesn’t want to play empire. Pat Buchanan likes him. That’s good enough for me.
Yesterday I quoted a reader about the book The Revolt of the Masses, by Jose Ortega y Gasset, which was published in 1929 but is uncomfortably relevant in the age of climate-change denialism and of Donald Trump.
A reader named Paul, in Texas, objects to the reasoning in a post I cited as a guide to Revolt. This was Ted Gioia’s 2014 essay “The Smartest Book About Our Digital Age Was Published in 1929.” Paul makes a point I should have seen and stressed:
I object somewhat to Gioia's conflation of feedback concerning taste and feedback concerning facts.
As you note, the digital age seems to have trouble accepting "elite" consensus regarding complex topics such as climate change (and I would add gun control, evolution and tax policy, among many other subjects where the vast majority of scientists, economists, etc., accept certain basic facts that are rejected by large swaths of the public). This is clearly problematic.
Less so, however, are the trends Gioia cites: The reliance on Yelp or Amazon over a professional critic's advice on where to eat or what to buy. These are matters of taste, and in that case, it makes perfect sense for someone to rely on the opinions of those they consider will lead them to an enjoyable experience – which may be the New York Times food critic recommending an excellent place for fine dining, or it may be Yelp reviews leading you to a great greasy dive. If I like trashy horror movies, relying on the LA Times' movie critic is probably not going to help me find my next favorite flick, but perusing the IMDb reviews – or checking my Facebook feed, or asking my brother-in-law – might.
I bring this up because it seems to me Gioia's conflation here is actually part of the broader problem he's lamenting. While on the one hand, many people seem to make the mistake that because their friends and Internet communities can be trusted to give them good advice regarding their shared tastes, those places can be trusted to give them good knowledge regarding facts, Gioia makes the mistake in the opposite direction: Because the populist strains of the Internet so often lead people astray regarding factuality, it cannot be trusted to provide good information regarding personal preferences. In both cases, the problem is a lack of discernment between when my friends or message board buddies can be trusted, and when I need to consult the consensus of experts.
Another note to similar effect:
There is a mismatch in your piece on The Revolt of the Masses that deserves a second look.
You mention climate change and Trump's (and, to be honest, many national Repubicans') difficulty in coping with facts, but the part of Gioia's piece that you quote is all about opinions - restaurant reviews and comments on Amazon.
If I'm looking to understand the context of a chef's innovations and how that fits into historical and current culinary movements, then a restaurant reviewer might be the appropriate source. But I doubt anyone goes to Yelp for that perspective, and I'd much rather get a sampling of opinions of people with unrefined palates like mine as a proxy for how I might like the dinner. It might be interesting to know why the reviewer liked or did not like a particular restaurant, but that might actually have very little value in predicting how _I_ will like the restaurant. Similarly, an Atlantic(!) book review is good for some purposes, but for many purposes Amazon reviews (when taken in aggregate) are perfectly adequate.
Facts in general and facts about climate change in particular aren't like this. If we disagree on whether we liked a restaurant - we will just disagree. We can disagree on whether climate change is happening, but the climate doesn't care about our opinions and will keep on changing regardless.
The questions that your post raised for me are (1) why don't Ortega y Gasset's masses today make a distinction between the relevance of expert opinion to facts versus opinions (versus considered opinions - i.e. opinions where you really have to understand a situation in order for your opinion to be anything more than bloviating) and (2) did they ever or is the real change he was talking about a move from accepting expert pronouncements on 'everything' (fact/opinion/considered opinion) to accepting expert pronouncements on nothing?
To try to explore these questions, I think I'll pick up a copy of the book and see what an expert has to say!
And just before press time a third note has just come in, directly related to the argument of these previous two:
Your post about masses vs. experts brought two contradictory thoughts to mind.
1) One the one hand, if given a choice between Yelp vs. professional restaurant critic, the masses have a good point. When given a choice between "big data" and so-called expert opinion, the data is obviously superior. (This assumes the data is good - there is the problem of fake reviews etc.)
2) One the other hand, when crowd wisdom is NOT based on evidence, but group-think, social norms, traditions, etc., experts who have data, research, and professional consensus behind them are always the winners. Crowds may ignore the experts or the data, for all sorts of reasons, which leads to persistent wide-spread belief in pseudo-science, religion, climate change denial, and so forth.
So the crucial difference is whether opinions are based on evidence or not. Evidence trumps crowds, but other things being equal, multiple opinions are better than one.
Why do we trust our own opinions and our local crowd more than is warranted? I think the answer is that evolution has shaped us for a life lived in small communities where the experience coming from our local environment, cohesion of the tribe, and our standing within that tribe, are paramount for survival. We have not evolved to think globally and strictly scientifically and rationally. The following well-known findings from psychology and cognitive science all reflect different aspects of the "masses vs. experts" phenomenon described in your post:
- Overconfidence effect: we think we're better/smarter/competent than we really are
- Dunning-Kruger effect: the less competent we actually are, the more overconfident we are
- In-group bias: we favor people who are more like ourselves (either physically or socially)
- Attribution bias: we attribute negatives in others to inherent characteristics, but to circumstance when it comes to ourselves or people in our in-group
- Confirmation bias: we tend to not register or discount evidence that contradicts beliefs already held (this is very helpful in disregarding experts making good points that don't agree with our views, or for believing in conspiracy theories)
- Conformity bias: we change our own judgments (even when based directly on perception) to agree with our group (the famous Asch experiment).
How can we overcome these built-in biases? An optimist would say that culture (education, positive change in social norms, etc.) can overcome them. A pessimist would say that it will take a long, long time for evolutionary change to catch up with our changing world and nudge these biases in a different direction.
I made one very bad call about the 2016 election, which I quickly confessed! It was the same bad call most other people made: that Donald Trump’s lack of political experience and knowledge would make him the Herman Cain of this campaign cycle, and he would not get this far in the race. (I’m sticking by my call that he is not going to become president.)
To be fair, I made a very good call two cycles earlier concerning the Trump of that era, Sarah Palin. As soon as her selection was announced as John McCain’s running mate in 2008, I wrote in this space (in the middle of the night, from China) that despite her then-red-hot popularity she would be a huge liability for the ticket. Why? Because running for national office is a lot, lot harder than it looks. And if you come to it with no experience, you are simply guaranteed to make a lot of gaffes.
Let’s go to the charts. Here’s what I wrote when McCain announced her as his choice:
Unless you have seen it first first-hand, as part of the press scrum or as a campaign staffer, it is almost impossible to imagine how grueling the process of running for national office is… The candidates have to answer questions and offer views roughly 18 hours a day, and any misstatement on any topic can get them in trouble. Why do candidates so often stick to a stump speech that they repeat event after event and day after day? Because they've worked out the exact way to put their positions on endless thorny issues -- Iraq, abortion, the Middle East, you name it -- and they know that creative variation mainly opens new complications.
You can see where I am going with this, after Trump’s misadventures of the past week:
The point about every one of those issues is that there is a certain phrase or formulation that might seem perfectly innocent to a normal person but that can cause a big uproar. Without going into the details, there is all the difference in the world between saying "Taiwan and mainland China" versus "Taiwan and China." The first is policy as normal; the second -- from an important US official -- would light up the hotline between DC and Beijing.
So back in 2008 I was arguing that in just two months on the campaign trail, no beginner in national-level campaigning, like Palin, could learn all the lingo on these issues. Thus gaffes were sure to ensue, as they did. (This accurate call is all the more heroic in retrospect, since we’ve now learned that I was practically at death’s door, in China, when I filed that post! Ah the plucky life of the reporter.)
Until this point in Trump’s campaign, he would seem to be the walking refutation of all such established wisdom. Gaffes? Never heard of ‘em! I’ll say whatever comes to mind, and the crowds will cheer for more!
The difference we’ve seen, with Trump’s sequential fumbles on abortion policy, and nuclear policy, and war-and-peace in Europe and Asia, etc is that until the past ten days he’s managed to be “outrageous” mainly on personal-performance matters. He’s been (as often noted) a figure straight from pro wrestling. He is not Rush Limbaugh called from behind the microphone; he’s Howard Stern. You can’t make fun of John McCain for his war record, can you??? Trump could! And did. You can’t mock your opponents to their face — Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted — and be taken seriously, can you??? Trump could! And did. The equally outrageous Howard Stern-style policy claims he made — let’s build a wall! and make Mexico pay for it — somehow didn’t register as “gaffes,” precisely because there is no chance whatsoever he could actually deliver on them. It was all in the fashion of pre-bout preening before a wrestling match: “I’m gonna smash him down so hard he’ll be cryin’ for his Mama, and the only words he’ll remember will be Wee, wee, wee all the way home!”
The setup of the GOP “debates” so far allowed Trump to get away with this, at least with his base. The “point” of each debate was to see who could bully or disconcert whom. And in his omnipresent “interviews,” Trump also got away with shunting any question into a discussion of how strong his polls were, how successful he had been, and how great things would be when he was in charge. Leading to this Onion-esque but apparently serious emission yesterday:
Over the past two weeks, we’ve had the Washington Post editorial board interview, with its revelation of the vacuum that is Trump’s knowledge of policy; and the long NYT interview with Trump’s loose talks about bringing nukes to Korea and Japan; and his fateful interview with Chris Matthews, who to his credit was the first person really to push Trump for an answer on abortion; and the similar gaping-emptiness of Trump’s knowledge revealed in his Washington Post interview today.
What’s different now is Trump is being forced to talk about actual policy choices, like abortion, as opposed to talking about his own machismo, or striking purely symbolic “we’re gonna win again!” poses. And that he’s actually being forced, most impressively by Chris Matthews. You can never count him out, but the damage is beginning to show.
He is a more resourceful performer than Sarah Palin was, and he has changed politics more than she could. But she is actually better informed than he is, and finally that is catching up with him. That’s what we’re seeing now.
As Donald Trump moves closer to the Republican nomination, his public presentation becomes increasingly deranged, as with this notorious item from last night (as discussed by Emma Green here):
Barring the unforeseen, one of the five people now running will become Commander in Chief next year, and most likely one of these two: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. With that in mind, and before I need to go offline for several days on a different project, here is one more installment from readers on the candidates and the choice.
1) Trump at the WaPo. I mentioned yesterday that if the idea of “being qualified” still applied to presidential candidates, the hour Trump spent with the Washington Post’s editorial board would have instantly and conclusively disqualified him. He displayed real understanding of no topics, and gross mis-understanding of many. He shunted all answers back to the two themes he can discuss: how he is a winner relative to losers like low-energy Jeb and Little Marco; and how big his hands are. If you think I’m exaggerating, read it for yourself. Trump used to be amusing, in a pro-wrestling way. Now he is manifestly not-normal, in an ominous way.
Why bring this up? A reader who works in the defense industry emphasizes one particular mismatch of Trump’s views and the realities of foreign policy:
At the Post, Trump said, amongst other things:
“I think John Kerry’s deal with Iran is one of the worst things that I’ve ever seen negotiated of any kind. It’s just a horrible giveaway...Well, I think, number one, we shouldn’t have given the money back. I think, number two, we should have had our prisoners before the negotiations started. We should have doubled up the sanctions.…. And I think it’s going to just lead, actually, to nuclear problems. I also think it’s going to be bad for Israel. It’s a very bad deal for Israel.”
Where to start?
First of all, we didn't "give" any money to Iran. Other countries had been holding Iran's money, at our request, while negotiations were on going.
Secondly, what evidence is there that the other P5+1 members would go along with doubling sanctions? It was hard enough to get China and Russia on board with sanctions to begin with. And what evidence is there that Iran would capitulate in the face of increased sanctions?
The goal of the negotiations was the minimize the threat of a nuclear Iran. Increased sanctions did not reduce that threat without direct negotiations. Iran had 164 centrifuges in 2003. By the time President Obama took office, that number went up to 8,000. Four years later, the number was 22,000. And all of this happened in the face of brutal sanctions. For Trump to blithely say doubling sanctions would secure the release of those hostages flies in the face of fact because sanctions failed to do what they were implemented to do to begin with….
So, yes, positions and reasoning like this, in a sane political climate, would disqualify Trump as a candidate. But we're not in a sane political climate, and I believe something that your friend Mike Lofgren has referred to as "anti-knowledge" has taken root within the GOP. Thus, ignorance of facts is worn as a badge of honor.
God help us if Trump's elected.
2) What about mental health? A reader on the East Coast writes:
Question for the psychotherapists out there: Aren’t there enough statements and actions by Trump that are now part of the public record to enable a professional to render some sort of diagnosis? Does one really have to have the guy on the couch in an office to get a better sense of him?
I believe that most of Trump’s behavior in this campaign is not strategic or a deliberate effort to win the Presidency. His constant attacks on Meghan Kelly, which Fox News as labels a “sick obsession”, his predictable personal attack on anyone who criticizes or disagrees with him (almost all of which are gratuitous and, if anything, hurt his chances), his pattern of constantly referring to his wealth, his success as a business man, his intelligence, his constant lying (which seems to be something of a compulsion), his constant referring to his polling numbers and the size of his audiences (much of which is grossly exaggerated), his refusal to acknowledge, contrary to all evidence and the public record, his numerous business failures—all of this suggest a man not in control of his behavior. It also suggests a man who is almost entirely un-self-aware.
There’s just so much material to work from here. One would think that a competent professional could make a reasonable armchair diagnosis of Trump.
I’ve changed my mind about this. Earlier I posted some messages from readers asking whether Trump had some identifiable personality disorder. Now I think there’s no point in even wondering about arm’s length medical diagnoses: what matters is what he says and does.
If the Trump who is making these boasts and sending out these Tweets were, underneath it all, the mentally healthiest and most balanced person in America, that wouldn’t make any difference. The statements he has placed on the public record are in themselves grounds for concern. No one whose public statements are this thin-skinned, impulsive, defensive, and seemingly uncontrolled has any business being in command of the world’s most powerful military force.
3) “The AIPAC speech represented what I don’t like about Hillary Clinton.” Through the Obama era, AIPAC has essentially become an operating arm of Likud’s interests in Israel and the Republican Party’s in the United States. Peter Beinart makes that case in Haaretz; it was starkly evident during last year’s bitter debate on the Iran-nuclear deal, which AIPAC did its best (and worst) to kill.
The Republican speeches at AIPAC this week were predictably pro-Netanyhau and anti-Obama, Trump’s childishly so. (For which the new president of AIPAC apologized, the day after Trump had appeared and received a standing ovation.) Bernie Sanders composed what I considered an excellent speech for AIPAC about the route to sustainable peace in the Middle East; unfortunately he wasn’t able to deliver it in person. Since (according to Sanders) AIPAC declined to let him speak by video, as some previous Republican candidates have done, he merely issued the written text. Nonetheless the speech deserves notice: It was in the spirit of what Kevin Rudd, then prime minister of Australia, called his “true friend” (zhengyou) address to the Chinese government in 2008, in which he said that genuine, respectful friendship required pointing out uncomfortable areas of disagreement as well as the comforting platitudes.
With the exception of defending the Iran deal, Hillary Clinton pretty much stuck to the comforting themes before AIPAC. That is where a reader in Minnesota picks up, and explains why, as a Democrat, he is having a hard time with her:
I just read your post which began with the Safire quote describing Ms. Clinton as a congenital liar. [This was William Safire of the NYT, using that term for then-First Lady Hillary Clinton twenty years ago.]
I speak to many of my friends, family, and colleagues about today’s political mess, and most have never described Ms. Clinton as a congenital liar. However, most of my circle of acquaintances (including some staunch Clinton supporters) have admitted / concluded that Ms. Clinton will say and do whatever it takes to become President, regardless of the effect on everyday working Americans or her comments’ relationship to any objective truth.
Those who support her while admitting the above claim that she simply deserves the office——but have never been able to provide a cogent argument as to why she, and she alone, deserves to be President. Those who do not support her are quite worried that she will actually expand upon the NeoCon expansionism, warmongering, and international intervention behavior of the Bush Administration. I have come to believe this is correct, and very troubling.
Ms. Clinton’s speech to AIPAC left little doubt that she intends to demonstrate that she is far less cautious and far more interested in expanding our global influence and international interventions than the arguably over-cautious President Obama.
You and I have traveled extensively over the years. I just returned from Indonesia, where the American election is gaining a lot of attention, and not in a very positive way.
As I continue to watch and study the behavior of all the candidates, it seems that Ms. Clinton would become the most internationally aggressive of all (with the possible exception of the certifiably sociopathic Ted Cruz). If the Brussels attacks are significant in any way, it seems that they signal (among many other things) that continued expansion and pro-Israel blind support cannot possibly bring us any closer to peace and security——and are more likely to bring the opposite result.
I fear a Clinton Presidency for these and many other reasons——and I don’t believe I am the only thoughtful person who would have to think long and hard about what I will do if we end up with a Clinton vs. Trump election.
Writing in Bernie Sanders name may be dysfunctional and perhaps even wrong------but I cannot imagine any other choice that would allow my conscience to remain at peace.
I have come to expect that almost every politician tells the occasional (if not the regular) lie——except for your former boss and my favorite President of my lifetime. [JF note: This would be Jimmy Carter.] Lying is not something that I fear nearly as much as the pursuit of international expansionism, warmongering, propping up tyrants, and our ongoing meddling in far too many foreign nations’ internal affairs.
4) “Nothing has given me such hope in years.” Another reader from the Midwest, who I believe also thinks of herself as a Democrat, is similarly dissatisfied but sees reasons for hope in the Trump campaign:
Academics and their groupie pundits have talked about the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle/working classes for years, but politicians have been helpless to do anything except change the subject.
One thing for sure, neither the Republicans nor Democrats are able to reform themselves. Only something like a meteor hitting them from the outside (a/k/a Trump) can start a re-alignment. The Sanders campaign has its own role, playing the dead canary warning Democrats of toxic times ahead.
And they deserve it. Ever since President Reagan broke PATCO as the first, most destructive wave of steel and auto plant closings surged, Republicans have been recklessly caught up in unsolvable wedge issues and Democrats mired in narrow single-issue ‘movement’ politics, each feeding on each other. Meanwhile, the economy lost its productive muscle and began its decades-long tilt (descent) towards finance and oligarchy.
Maybe it takes a demogogue to shake things up. It would be wrong to think all these Trump supporters are racist deadbeats, as too many liberals are quick to judge. One Trump supporter on TV explained, “the Blacks have their programs, the immigrants have theirs, why not some help for us.” Representing laid off 50 year olds now working part-time, underpaid jobs this sentiment looks more like common sense than racism to me.
And who knows? Maybe the clash in Chicago [at the cancelled Trump rally] will lead to that long-sought-after-serious ‘talk about race’ that politicians talk about but never describe. You can’t get closer than thousands of white middle/working class Trump supporters standing in line for an arena rally facing a polygot collection of mostly middle/working class minority and immigrant students worried about their own futures. Close body contact of a volatile and dangerous type.
Which way all this will go is unclear. No one's going to beat Trump calling him racist and xenophobic. Only someone equally as bold and icon-shattering as Trump can compete. Few policy wonks qualify.
There’s no turning back now, however, not to the Hillarys and Jebs, the Pelosi’s and McConnels. Nothing in the public sphere has given me such hope for years.
5) “I feel no passion for the Democratic field.” In a less hopeful vein, a Democrat in Texas weighs in:
I volunteered for Obama in 2007-08 and voted for him twice, and think he has been a great success under difficult circumstances. Not perfect, but still very good and even historic in many ways that you’ve written about. I’m in my late 40s and he is without a doubt the only president who has ever aroused strong emotions and with whom I feel a genuine connection.
I feel nothing like that for either of the Dem candidates this time. Many of my friends are passionate Bernie supporters. I just don’t get it and have found myself resisting arguments with my friends. To me, he is Ralph Nader with a ‘D’ next to his name. As one of your other readers stated, I fear he would be a very ineffective president who would damage liberalism for a long time. I question his temperament and particularly his ability to withstand adversity (these are particular areas of strength for Obama). Bernie becomes irate, defensive, even whiny, when subjected to tough questions by reporters, and his incessant complaining about media coverage is just annoying. What will he do as President when the Tea Party Congress craps all over his proposals, or when Putin or Bibi attempts to humiliate him publicly?...
I wish Elizabeth Warren were running because our choices are uninspiring. I have very mixed feelings about Hillary even though I voted for her in the primary. Bottom line for me is that despite her flaws, I think she will be a reasonably effective president. I worry about her coziness with Wall Street and her judgment in moments of crisis, domestic and international.
I did not like her recent hawkish speech to AIPAC and worry that she will squander the good will Obama has managed to build in the Islamic world. She seems to struggling a little to adapt her sometimes dated political rhetoric to the current landscape (example: her unfortunate comments about the Reagans and AIDS, her awkward attempts to address mass incarceration and the Black Lives Matter movement).
I would like to see our home grown Dems here in San Antonio, Julian and Joaquin Castro, move into more prominent roles in the future as I think they have great potential. But I’m not sure a VP slot makes sense this cycle. I can see a lot of older white voters hesitant to vote for ticket that includes a woman and a Latino.
I’m also very curious to see what Obama’s post-presidential career looks like. He’s still pretty young and I can’t imagine him idle for long, nor can I imagine him following Clinton’s path of creating a foundation. I think he has much more to contribute.
6) The nightmare of strong women. A male reader sends this list:
Hillary Clinton is far from the first strong woman in public life to be slandered relentlessly by her political opponents and those offended by feminine leadership. Let us take a brief tour.
Wu Zetian (624 - 705) was the only female emperor of China. Despite being a strong ruler who governed well, her reputation as a scheming, ruthless woman willing to do anything to gain and keep power overwhelmed her accomplishments.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122 - 1204) was Queen of France, then Queen of England, and the mother of three kings of England. She was highly educated, and played an important role in the political and military struggles during the latter part of Henry II’s reign as King of England. In the popular imagination, however, her reputation was formed by fanciful stories of her leading a group of decadent nobles in scandalous sexual practices, and a vicious rumor that she had murdered one of Henry’s mistresses.
Isabeau of Bavaria (1370 - 1435) became Queen of France at the age of fifteen when she married Charles VI. Caught up in vicious power struggles when Charles’s mental illness left him unable to rule, Queen Isabeau was accused of about every crime possible, including adultery and witchcraft. This reputation lasted until 20th-century historians reviewed the evidence and discovered that she was intelligent, well-educated, pious, devoted to her children, and an effective ruler in her husband’s place.
Catherine de Medici (1519 - 1589) was Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and played a leading role in the Byzantine power struggles among the French nobility during the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants. Though clearly no better or worse than the Bourbons and Guises and other rivals for power, Catherine—as not only a woman but a foreigner, being the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici of Florence—got most of the blame for a host of poisonings, assassinations, and political back-stabbings.
Catherine the Great (1729-96) ruled Russia for more than thirty years. Compared with other Russian emperors, she was clearly above average as a reformer and a supporter of Enlightenment ideals. Like her male counterparts, she took lovers, but the stories told about her falsely accused her not just of licentiousness, but of perversion. These slanders culminated in the rumor that she died from a stroke suffered while attempting to have sexual intercourse with a stallion.
Empress Dowager Cixi of China (1835 -1908) was a remarkable woman who began her imperial career as a lowly concubine but ended up as the mother of the heir to the throne and, as Regent, the nominal ruler of China for decades. Surrounded by powerful factions in a dying empire, Cixi successfully navigated among them but was slandered as vicious, sexually perverse, manipulative, extravagant, power-hungry, and so on.
So is Hillary the devious, lying, scheming, ambitious, ruthless harridan that the Republicans say she is? Sure. And do you know the story of the servant girl that Cixi murdered by throwing her down a well?
Thanks for the messages, see you in a few days, and Happy Easter.
The personal-insult war underway last night between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz brings the campaign down to a level hard to imagine even in the days of “Little Marco” and “small hands.” If the concept of being “qualified” for the presidency still had any salience, Trump’s astonishing meeting with the WashingtonPost editorial board this week (transcript here) would have instantly and conclusively removed him from the race. It was not his inability and/or refusal to engage any point of substance that was so remarkable—and so much worse than with, say, Sarah Palin or Rick Perry. Rather it was his seventh-grade-locker-room obsession with “size” issues, as Conor Friedersdorf very convincingly demonstrates.
How did we get here? One of the most useful explanations I’ve seen is from E.J. Dionne in his new book Why the Right Went Wrong. I’d urge you to read it yourself — but if you’d like an overview, here is a discussion I did with him last month, at the Kentucky Author Forum in Louisville. A video version has just gone up on the Kentucky Educational Television site, with a good description of E.J.’s argument by Patrick Reed.
Dionne starts this book by saying, “The history of contemporary American conservatism is a story of disappointment and betrayal,” and he goes on to connect that 50-year pattern (since the Barry Goldwater days) to the fury of today’s GOP. Wave after wave of conservative leaders, Dionne says, have promised their base that they finally can produce sweeping rightwing changes to undo the Democrats’ handiwork. Wave after wave of conservative leaders is unable to do so. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner can’t undo Obamacare; John Roberts turns into Earl Warren (from the right’s point of view); and a one-time Tea Party darling like Marco Rubio sells out on an immigration deal. Everyone’s a RINO! So it’s time to double down. This road leads to Cruz and Trump.
Again, for the full version consult this very illuminating book. Also consider the video below. [CB note: Watch here if the video doesn’t appear.] Thanks to our friends in Kentucky for putting on this forum.
A reader who is a mental-health professional in Australia responds to speculation in some previous posts (notably here) that Donald Trump’s public persona meets many of the criteria of actual mental disorders: (Emphasis added in his note.)
I am responding to the comment made by a clinical psychology doctoral student… I think that your reader made a very compelling case in their first paragraph as to why we can’t “safely say that Donald Trump has a narcissistic personality disorder”; namely that this requires extensive quantitative and qualitative assessment over a period of time with the individual’s personal engagement. Also, it's hard enough for those with NPD to seek help, without thinking they're going to be compared to this whole mess!
However, they missed one incredibly important reason why he probably doesn’t have a personality disorder: Trump’s narcissism is part of the product he’s selling.
Trump is one of the world’s most successful salespeople of a personal brand, a reality TV star and an American politician. Self assured attention seeking is the key to success in all these arenas. Trump’s had a long history of seeing how much people like him when he shows no doubt.
I think people are struggling to determine how much of what Trump does is a performance. But, the difference between performance and self-perception is vital. The lack of empathy is a performance of his non-PC persona. His disinterest in listening to experts is part of his ‘Übermensch of the people’ act. His desire to be seen as exceptional and to be admired by others is ultimately no different from that of any other presidential campaign pitch.
I would argue, however, that Trump’s inner world, how he really perceives himself and relates to others remains very much a mystery. That aspect, the self-perception, is crucial to diagnosing personality disorders. You would know better than I, but I imagine there is much about a politician’s inner world that we don’t see from the public performance.
Trump should not be subjected to armchair diagnoses. Not just because it’s a cheap shot, not just because it’s a profound misunderstanding of clinical psychology and an injustice to those who do suffer from personality disorders, but because the claim that Trump is mentally ill is too easy and too comforting.
The ‘disordered’ Trump character is the twisted reflection the ‘hopelessly aloof’ Obama caricature that some hold in their head. We struggle to empathise with those who seem to be pitching their message to someone else. It’s part of the same inability to even attempt to understand the other that drives political animosity in your country and mine (look up Clive Palmer if you want the low-rent Australia version of Trump). Writing people off as mentally ill absolves us from needing to engage with a point of view that needs to be engaged with, regardless of how toxic it is.
Trump is Trump. You can’t diagnose him; the disease is in the political system. In the partisan politics of the current era there’s never been a happier warrior, because he’s completely at home there.
Good luck with that one.
And who is this Clive Palmer, referred to above? He’s the person you see pictured below, with a follow-up explanation from the Australian reader about why the comparison with Trump is illuminating.
From the Australian mental-health practitioner:
The more I see of what's happening in America right now, the more convinced I am that we really dodged a bullet over here with Australia's very own Trump, Clive Frederick Palmer.
Up to a point, the stories seem remarkably similar. Take one eccentric/absurd business man (greatest hits: announcing that he was building his own replica of the Titanic, getting his football team kicked out of the country's premier league for bad business practices, opening a dinosaur park where the dinosaur burnt down) with delusions of grandeur.
Add in a bid for leadership of the country, funded by his personal wealth, with a populist campaign that promises the moon. Stir through a climate of animosity towards 'politics as usual' that's tainted both major parties Finish up with a scattershot of policies drawn from the left and right side of politics, with no unifying philosophy beyond "things will be better!" and "let's make more money!".
What saved us is the parliamentary system. Palmer had been chased out of party politics years ago, and there is no way in our political system that anyone can ride a populist wave all the way to the top because the party hacks can trip you up a hundred times along the way. Palmer had to start his own party and scurry to find legitimate candidates for both houses of parliament in time for the election….
Minor parties here need to build themselves over successive elections by demonstrating that they're actually legitimate about their values and about being a serious part of the political system. How's the Palmer United Party doing in it's first term? Well two of the three Senators have left the party citing cronyism and abuse. Palmer was taken to court by Chinese investors for misusing their funds. His old nickel refinery has gone into voluntary administration and sacked its workforce, after having donated heavily to his campaign. His bizarre behavior in office and the ever-present whiff of corruption have pretty much ended any hope of re-election. And the Titanic II still hasn't been built.
The American system has a lot of advantages, but I'm not sure how well it holds up to snake-oil salesmen at times like this.
To round out today’s internationally themed dispatches, a reader in Canada says that the Trump era has already arrived there:
We in Toronto have already elected Donald Trump, in the person of Rob Ford, a populist, wealthy son of a demanding father who made a political point of not owing anyone anything.
If our experience offers any guide, the election of Donald Trump would lead to disaster for the United States, and a worse disaster for Donald Trump. By the end of his first term, even his worst enemies would pity him. The United States might well simply lose four years, in the sense that Rob Ford's term as mayor stopped some important initiatives cold and brought no new ones to the table.
Of course, losing direction in a city government, even an alpha world city, has many fewer potential consequences than dysfunctional or even malignant government in the planet's leading economic and military power. Unlike Donald Trump. Rob Ford had and has expertise in responsive government; he got elected partly on his well earned reputation as the quickest councillor to return phone calls. Unfortunately, even a major city mayor cannot handle the whole business of a city by returning phone calls, and most analysis I have seen suggests that Rob Ford quickly found himself well out of his depth as mayor. The mismatch between Donald Trump and the skill set required of an American president appears much greater.
Again with minimal set-up, let’s go straight to reader views on why so many people can sound so angry about Hillary Clinton. In the previous installment, we heard from readers who said that the anti-HRC reaction boiled down mainly to sexism. Today, assenting and dissenting views.
Let’s remember the history. A reader scolds me for amnesia:
HRC as "congenital liar" is actually a quote from William Saffire. Surely you knew that: [From January 1996]
“Americans of all political persuasions are coming to the sad realization that our First Lady -- a woman of undoubted talents who was a role model for many in her generation -- is a congenital liar.”
Ah, yes, it comes back to me now. On the other hand, to chafe the reader, I also remember that the influential-at-the-time Republican columnist for the NYT was actually William Safire.
She’s too much of a moderate. From a female reader on the West Coast:
I have been supporting Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but only in part because I share his Social Democratic policy proposals. Just as important to me are what I see as some ways in which Secretary Clinton in the past has acted or voted that are evidence of the weaknesses that political moderates can get lost in.
The two prime examples for me are her talk about “super predators" in supporting the changes that led to mass incarceration, and her vote for the Iraq war. In both cases I think she did these partly as a way of influencing Reagan Democrats to come back to the Democratic Party fold. The “super predator” meme is a concession to implicit bias and the vote for the Iraq war to me represented giving in to the fear of being labeled soft on defense.
I am not opposed at all to speaking to the concerns of those Democrats who voted for Reagan; I knew some of them in my days as a machinist.
What bothers me is conceding to wrong ideas or people’s misunderstandings. Those folks were my friends, and where I thought it necessary I engaged them by disputing the inaccurate negative stereotypes such as super predator or welfare queen. She needs to have the courage to openly address these beliefs even as she does so in a way that does not dismiss people. I think she is capable of walking this line, but it requires being self-aware enough to realize not only that she made a mistake, but all the reasons why they were problematic.… The bully pulpit is a place form which such implicit biases can be changed, but it requires conscious intent. That is one thing I want to see her exhibit in this campaign; that she gets why especially mouthing the “super predator” myth was so destructive.
I am not opposed to political moderation, but like all political leanings it has its benefits and its dangers. To the extent that she acts reflexively to court votes in a way that reinforces implicit bias or makes policy choices to prove she is tough, I think she needs push-back. I will support her if she is the Democratic Party nominee, but I will also continue to speak out if I think she is catering to wrong ideas or bad policy.
It’s not just the conservatives:
Another male Dem piling on with another theory/observation regarding Hillary hatred and Trumpism….
Just wanted to let you know (if others haven’t yet) that the Hillary hate is not limited to angry white male “conservatives”, at least not in my Facebook feed. As a lifelong, opinionated lefty Democrat, my Facebook feed is full of similarly inclined friends, most of whom passionately support Bernie Sanders.
Unfortunately your typical angry, misogynist, middle-aged uncle has nothing on many of my Facebook friends when it comes to passing around (mostly) baseless lies and character assassination aimed at Hillary Clinton. Email server and Benghazi memes, mostly culled from right-wing sources are passed around with wild abandon. Breathless Clinton conspiracy theories-- again sourced from the right-- are posted up and shared without a moment taken to ask where they are coming from.
The “Hillary super-delegates are going to steal the election from Bernie” meme is a case in point…. The persistence of the rumor among my Bernie supporter friends against all evidence (for example a quick look at how HRC superdelegates responded to Obama taking the lead back in 2008) would be familiar to anyone on the receiving end of angry Uncle Bob’s Benghazi emails.
In my admittedly anecdotal Facebook experience the Hillary hate coming from progressives isn’t limited to "Bernie Bros”. Some of the worst I’ve seen comes from my female friends, women of all ages (with impeccable feminist credentials I might add). I have two female friends who actually insist they can’t vote for Clinton because her “voice is annoying and she shouts”.
My point is that thirty years of right wing Hillary hate, aided by the Fox News echo chamber and abetted by a “mainstream” media that prefers to discuss the political effectiveness of the attacks rather than the veracity of the claims has been deeply internalized by the left, to the point that even a significant number of feminists can’t vote for a women who “shouts”. Game, set, and match to the consistency and persistence of Republican message discipline.
Of course not all of my circle has bought into Republican nihilism, but that many of my “progressive” friends cite anti-Clinton right wing memes to justify sitting out the election, even at the risk of a Trump presidency or a Supreme Court packed with Ted Cruz appointees is galling. It’s as if the 2000 election, along with the resulting wars of choice and disastrous Supreme Court picks are forgotten. They would prefer “blowing up the system” by electing Donald Trump, the better to rebuild from the ashes rather than see another Clinton president. In that they seem to share more with angry Uncle Bob than anyone should care to admit.
Let’s not forget morality. Finally for the day, and returning us to Trump:
One unobserved point about Trump is how far systematic morality has been taken out of the public sphere, and it seems to me out of private calculations as well.
Trump himself exhibits the moral sense of a three year old, minus any apparent empathy for any other human being. Traditional GOP cant has relied on a Trad Vals script which, for all its hypocrisy on the one hand and its truncated Christianity on the other (one of Kasich's problems is that, as a conservative Anglican, he acknowledges a responsibility to the poor), it at least implies the relevance of moral argument. The Dem/liberal side is explicitly grounded in moral imperative.
So here comes Trump, and both his behavior now and his history shows that he suffers under no moral compass whatsoever. "Good" means getting what he wants, and "bad" means anything that gets in the way, and I don't think he lies so much as he simply pays no attention to the truth at all, the poster turkey for "Looking Out for #1" (it's telling that he and Ringer were both in commercial real estate).
People have erected this idol of Hillary Clinton as this liar, which I think partly stems from sheer slander, partly from her not all that appealing manner, but in large part because she's the only one other than Trump who has enough of a history of actually trying to run anything to allow people to pick over her mistakes. I'd rather not have her for her policies, but the hatred of her from the right is more visceral than grounded, out of proportion to her failings.
But this seems to not matter at all about Trump. And I strongly suspect, from the sorts of things I'm reading from or hearing about his supporters, that they to some great degree share his amorality. That's not to say that they lack any moral sense, but that it is no larger than they are, which is to say, they do not seem to be capable of being swayed by any sort of moral argument, accepting no moral authority outside themselves.
This is a huge problem in many ways, but in politics it makes it impossible to work to any greater good, and it makes it plausible to vote for a man who cannot run his own businesses, never mind our government. The consequences of such a vote simply do not matter, and the fact that he lies as he breathes does not matter.
I am on the road without time to do any set-up (or, sigh, to finish several pending posts on aspects of modern America that are more encouraging than the presidential race). So, unadorned, further reader thoughts on the rise of Trump and “she’s just as bad!” bitterness against Hillary Clinton:
The culmination of a long pattern. A reader in the northeast argues that in this as in many other matters, the GOP’s tone in 2016 is the logical result of trends underway for many decades:
A number of readers have already commented on the “Hillary hatred” phenomenon, but I think a few further points can be added on this topic:
First, it is not only the Trump supporters who invoke a caricature of Hillary as a “congenital liar” and/or “tool of Wall Street.” This is very widespread among Republicans generally. It is perhaps most commonly used, as seen with the “vote for Bozo” reader, to justify continuing to vote Republican virtually regardless of the candidate.
Second, the “congenital liar” label has been applied to Hillary for years. Trump’s emergence as the GOP frontrunner now puts Republicans like “vote for Bozo” in an especially awkward position. The rationale that they can’t vote for Hillary because of her dishonesty is blown to pieces by Trump’s epic dishonesty. To quote Republican columnist David Brooks, Trump is “perhaps the most dishonest person to run for high office in our lifetimes. All politicians stretch the truth, but Trump has a steady obliviousness to accuracy.” If you can’t vote for Hillary because of her dishonesty, then you can’t possibly vote for Trump.
Third, Hillary Clinton is hardly the only Democrat to whom this line of thinking is applied by Republicans. Indeed, virtually every nationally successful or effective figure in the DP in the past 25 years has been described by the GOP and GOP-friendly media as having character flaws that fundamentally disqualify them from holding office.
Obama was harshly attacked in this way starting in 2008, once it became apparent that he could win the election, and this has steadily escalated to the point where the GOP establishment now paints him as an essentially illegitimate president—refusing to consider his nominees or take up his budget proposal. Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Kerry, and Tom Daschle have all faced smears and concerted vilification. Liberals often seem surprised by this.
How can anyone describe Obama, a moderate, center-left Democrat, in such extreme terms? This misses the point that these leaders are vilified and dismissed as illegitimate precisely because they are moderate. Portraying them as extreme won’t stick, and thus a different strategy is needed to raise their negatives.
This is Newt Gingrich’s gift to America. If Sanders is the Democratic candidate (which looks unlikely at this point), my prediction is that he will be spared the character/ personal barrage directed at Hillary and others. It won’t be needed, because he can be effectively attacked as a Socialist.
It’s even simpler than that. From another reader on the East Coast:
This experience has always stuck with me, though it may be colored/distorted by the tricks of memory.
The Albany, NY, press corps annually conducts a Legislative Correspondents Association show in which the press corps pillories the governor and legislatures. It’s like the White House Correspondents dinner in ways good (these clever people can be really funny, and it was a target rich environment) and bad (you can count the ways).
In either 1992 or 1993 (it was after Hillary Clinton’s “Stand By Your Man” 1992 comments on 60 Minutes), [a female] Associated Press reporter came out as Hillary Clinton. She wore a black leather bomber jacket (playing off some sort of stereotype) to perform a parody version of “Stand By Your Man.”
I don’t remember the lyrics, but I do remember the audience reaction when it was apparent that it was “Hillary” up there. It was very frightening:
The audience was largely male (lobbyists and the legislators they bought the expensive “charity” tickets for) and the reaction reminded me of being in a fraternity house when a porn movie started (sorry to say that I have experienced that kind of thing in the late ‘70s). The best way I can describe it was that there was a palpable “whoosh” of mysogyny. Hooting and catcalls, all directed at “Hillary.”
Hillary had obviously been on the scene a little while, but she was hardly well known. I remembered wondering what she could have done to earn this visceral, aggressive contempt. It continues now, and I’m not sure there is anything complicated about it.
What do some white men fear more than a black president? From another reader, who like the previous two is male:
When I was growing up in Eastern North Carolina there was always a certain level of Clinton hatred among whites. But definitely Hillary got more of it than Bill. All Jesse Helms had to do was mention the name “Hillary” to get white North Carolinians riled up at “uppity feminist elitist” liberalism.
Something that was very clarifying to me was when a female friend posed this question: Do male politicians who have shifted positions get the same level of hatred for it as Hillary? The answer is obviously no. Another clarifying thing was when I examined how Hillary’s favorable ratings fell as soon as she started running for President. Look at polls and it’s incredible to note her approval as Secretary of State and how that dropped, not from Benghazi, but as soon as she started running for President.
If we ignore the role that sexism plays in Hillary hatred then we are ignoring the truth that’s in front of our nose. Note that I’m not saying that it’s sexist to criticize Hillary. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t be held accountable for her record. But we males especially need to take an honest look at how our fear of a female President shapes our reactions to Hillary. If you’re a white male, do you react as strongly against Clinton’s positions when they are held by a male politician? Biden has a similar centrist track record. Would he attract the same level of disdain for it as Hillary if he were running for President?
There are countless policy areas with which to disagree with Hillary Clinton. But it’s no accident that email servers and Benghazi seem to provoke more anger than Iraq and the Patriot Act. White males have always feared a black president. We fear a female one even more.
She doesn’t check the “good woman” boxes. From another male reader who grew up in the South:
I grew up in Arkansas during Bill Clinton’s political career there. Much of the Hillary hatred I hear from conservatives today is no different from what I heard then, when she came in for particularly spiteful criticism above and beyond her husband.
Boiled down, she’s a woman who checks none of their “Good Woman” boxes. There are many, many things that have been layered on top of that over the decades of her public career, but that one still lies at the base and is the main source of the particularly vitriolic hatred, I think. Absent that, they would just hate her the same way they hate Harry Reid or Jimmy Carter.
I'll add that, like your defense contractor engineer, I have a hard time seeing myself voting in this year’s election. My own objection to Hillary comes from my civil liberties and open government views. Her notion of her privacy while holding public office could hardly be more at odds with what I consider the duties of any public official. (President Obama was a massive disappointment on this score, as well.) Her foreign policy views are also much too conservative for me.
My voting forecast wouldn’t change if Bernie Sanders happened to win the nomination, by the way. Not for any specific policy position or another, but because I simply think he'd be a terribly ineffective president who'd damage the liberal brand for a generation.
If I lived in a swing state, I’d probably hold my nose and go to the polls for either of them. But my state is going GOP by a wide, wide margin.
What about Benghazi? Huh???? To balance things out, and as a sample of the anti-HRC mail that comes in, I offer this, from a reader who (unlike the previous three) doesn’t use his real name.
I was at a loss as to your article entitled "Why so much Hillary Hate?" did not address: 1. Her speaking fees from Wall Street banks resulting in a conflict of interest; 2. Her use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State, for which there is a active FBI investigation concerning violations of national secrecy laws; 3. The appearance of the conflicts of interest between her actions as Secretary of State and donations made to the Clinton Foundation by UBS, Dow Chemical and the Russian Uranium deal.
When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he replied "Because that’s where the money is". When Hillary Clinton was asked why she paid $675,000 for three speeches to Goldman Sachs, her response was "Because that is what they offered". To me it sounds like she was channeling Willie Sutton, a kindred spirit.
In the United States, this pandemic could be almost over by now. The reasons it’s still going are pretty clear.
In the United States, this pandemic could’ve been over by now, and certainly would’ve been by Labor Day. If the pace of vaccination through the summer had been anything like the pace in April and May, the country would be nearing herd immunity. With most adults immunized, new and more infectious coronavirus variants would have nowhere to spread. Life could return nearly to normal.
Experts list many reasons for the vaccine slump, but one big reason stands out: vaccine resistance among conservative, evangelical, and rural Americans. Pro-Trump America has decided that vaccine refusal is a statement of identity and a test of loyalty.
In April, people in counties that Joe Biden won in 2020 were two points more likely to be fully vaccinated than people in counties that Donald Trump won: 22.8 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties; 20.6 percent were fully vaccinated in Trump counties. By early July, the vaccination gap had widened to almost 12 points: 46.7 percent were fully vaccinated in Biden counties, 35 percent in Trump counties. When pollsters ask about vaccine intentions, they record a 30-point gap: 88 percent of Democrats, but only 54 percent of Republicans, want to be vaccinated as soon as possible. All told, Trump support predicts a state’s vaccine refusal better than average income or education level.
I carried on for more than a year of the coronavirus pandemic, but I didn’t see the next plague coming.
After the end of the world, there will be birdsong. I used to imagine this when everything was going awry. I would lie in bed in my college dorm room and listen to the lone mockingbird who sang all night outside my window in the spring months. I was worried about something or other; he was getting on with things. It’s what birds do. They have a knack for it. In the Book of Genesis, after the devastation of the Earth by God’s cataclysmic flood, Noah releases from his ark a dove; he knows that the trial has ended when the bird does not return, having alighted somewhere out in the damp and dreary world, the first land-dwelling creature to begin the work of carrying on.
What else is there to do? When COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, late in the winter of 2020, I told myself as much. In plagues, as in life, there is a morally arbitrary hierarchy of luck, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that my family and I were among the lucky ones. I was in my late 20s, hale and hearty, my husband the same plus a couple of years. Our children were young—our baby was, in fact, under a year old, something I eventually mentioned in a meekly anxious aside to a doctor I was interviewing for a story on the emerging pandemic. He acknowledged certain risks in the way that doctors do, and then said: “Don’t worry. Kids are kicking ass with this thing.” I was both comforted and chastened; this wasn’t mine to panic about. The best I could do for those in peril was to carry on.
In 1955, just past daybreak, a Chevrolet truck pulled up to an unmarked building. A 14-year-old child was in the back.
This article was published online on July 22, 2021.
The dentist was a few minutes late, so I waited by the barn, listening to a northern mockingbird in the cypress trees. His tires kicked up dust when he turned off Drew Ruleville Road and headed across the bayou toward his house. He got out of his truck still wearing his scrubs and, with a smile, extended his hand: “Jeff Andrews.”
The gravel crunched under his feet as he walked to the barn, which is long and narrow with sliding doors in the middle. Its walls are made of cypress boards, weathered gray, and it overlooks a swimming pool behind a white columned house. Jeff Andrews rolled up the garage door he’d installed.
Our eyes adjusted to the darkness of the barn where Emmett Till was tortured by a group of grown men. Christmas decorations leaned against one wall. Within reach sat a lawn mower and a Johnson 9.9-horsepower outboard motor. Dirt covered the spot where Till was beaten, and where investigators believe he was killed. Andrews thinks he was strung from the ceiling, to make the beating easier. The truth is, nobody knows exactly what happened in the barn, and any evidence is long gone. Andrews pointed to the central rafter.
Roadrunner, a new documentary about the chef and television star, tries to uncover who he really was, but neglects vital parts of his story.
Regardless of whether you loved Anthony Bourdain—and the striking thing is that so many people who had even a spotty acquaintance with him or his work felt like they did—the end of Roadrunner is devastating to watch. Morgan Neville’s new documentary about the chef and TV star runs through two decades of Bourdain’s life onscreen before concluding with present-day scenes of his friends still struggling to parse his death by suicide in 2018, at the age of 61. “I don’t think he was cruel, and there’s such a cruelty to that [act],” the musician Alison Mosshart says. “What the hell is everyone supposed to do?” The artist David Choe weeps on camera, and then spray-paints over a mural of Bourdain, as if to challenge the hagiographic portraits of the Parts Unknown host that proliferated after his death. “Going out in a blaze of glory was so fucking lame,” he says.
The once-dynamic state is closing the door on economic opportunity.
Behold California, colossus of the West Coast: the most populous American state; the world’s fifth-largest economy; and arguably the most culturally influential, exporting Google searches and Instagram feeds and iPhones and Teslas and Netflix Originals and kimchi quesadillas. This place inspires awe. If I close my eyes I can see silhouettes of Joshua trees against a desert sunrise; seals playing in La Jolla’s craggy coves of sun-spangled, emerald seawater; fog rolling over the rugged Sonoma County coast at sunset into primeval groves of redwoods that John Steinbeck called “ambassadors from another time.”
This landscape is bejeweled with engineering feats: the California Aqueduct; the Golden Gate Bridge; and the ribbon of Pacific Coast Highway that stretches south of Monterey, clings to the cliffs of Big Sur, and descends the kelp-strewn Central Coast, where William Hearst built his Xanadu on a hillside where his zebras still graze. No dreamscape better inspires dreamers. Millions still immigrate to my beloved home to improve both their prospects and ours.
A newish wave of sophisticated, adult board games have made exploitation part of their game mechanics. A reckoning is coming.
The board game “Puerto Rico” begins after everyone around the table receives a mat printed with the verdant interior of the game’s namesake island. Players are cast as European tycoons who have trekked across the Atlantic at the height of the Age of Exploration. “In 1493 Christopher Columbus discovered the easternmost island of the Great Antilles,” read the back of the game box that once sat on my living-room shelf. “About 50 years later, Puerto Rico began to really blossom.” To win, one must “achieve the greatest prosperity and highest respect.”
In practice, that means the mechanics of “Puerto Rico” are centered around cultivation, exploitation, and plunder. Each turn, a player takes a role—the “settler,” the “builder,” the “trader,” the “craftsman,” the “captain,” and so on—and tries to slowly transform their tropical enclave into a tidy, 16th-century imperial settlement. Perhaps they uproot the wilds and replace them with tobacco pastures or corn acreage, or maybe they outfit the rocky reefs with fishing wharfs and harbors, in order to ship those goods back across the ocean. All of this is possible only with the help of a resource that the game calls “colonists,” —represented by small, brown discs in the game’s first edition, which was published by Rio Grande Games and is available in major retailers—who arrive by ship and are sent by players to work on their plantations.
American culture still treats disinterest in sex as something that needs to be fixed. What if any amount of desire—including none—was okay?
For more than half a century, the modern industry of sex therapists, educators, and experts has been eager to tell us whether we’re having enough sex, or the right kind of sex. But this industry is, like any other, shaped by the broader culture—it took for granted that the goal was to “get everybody to the point where they have a type of desire and quality of desire that fits within the cultural norms and values,” the sex therapist and researcher Michael Berry says. Decades ago that meant: straight, monogamous, within marriage, private, nothing too kinky.
As American culture has become more expansive in its understanding of sexuality, so has sex therapy. But this kind of sex positivity often doesn’t leave room for those who don’t want sex at all. The prevailing idea remains that, as Berry puts it, “if people are coming to see a sex therapist, the intent would be to get them to have sex.”
Courses to train young people to be ethical consumers of porn have a hugely complex task ahead of them.
Earlier this year, Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School bid farewell to Justine Ang Fonte, its then-director of health and wellness, who had guided the academy’s sex education for years. Their parting was the conclusion of a minor media scandal with all the makings of a major one: Fonte, who also gives presentations at other institutions, had become the subject of controversy after offering a frank porn-literacy course to high schoolers at Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School in May, resulting in a scandalized write-up in the New York Post. A handful of Columbia Prep parents were, it seemed, appalled by the allegedly explicit presentation Fonte had given their children.
Fonte was taken aback. In her nine years of teaching porn-literacy courses, she had always felt that her work was well received. Exposure to porn is an almost-guaranteed fact of adolescent life thanks to the rise of smart devices and the ubiquity of the internet—and yet, Fonte told me, some parents “may not be ready for the actual truth as to their role in addressing it, and the reality of what their child is actually seeing.”
Does getting right with contemporary concepts of anti-racism mean reviving one of the state’s most shameful traditions?
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité!” is the cry that once stirred a nation to action, but out here in the crumbling state of California, we’re at a lower ebb. A hobbled people rally to a revolutionary whimper: “Put your pencils down.”
In May, the University of California announced an immediate end to the use of standardized testing in admissions and scholarship decisions at the nine schools in its system that accept undergraduates. It is a move so widely hailed by the administrators and faculty that you know someone’s getting hustled, and in this case the marks are the state’s low-income Black and Latino students––the very ones whom the new policy is supposed to help. The university has long claimed that it is “shaped and bounded by the central pervasive mission of discovering and advancing knowledge.” What’s one more lie?
Why did so many Americans receive strange packages they didn’t think they’d ordered?
Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, sat atop his stallion Smokey and faced the camera. It was Saturday, August 1, 2020. Miller had a message to share.
“Good morning, patriots,” Miller began, raising the coiled lasso in his right hand by way of greeting. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting tired of all these surprises coming out of China. First it was the Chinese virus, then we had the murder hornets, then we had to close the embassy in Houston because of espionage … Now we’ve got all these mystery seeds coming in in the mail.”
It was the seeds that Miller wanted to speak about. By then, news of the seeds had been circulating for several days. Packets were turning up at homes across the United States; residents of every state would eventually report receiving them. Their address labels and Customs declarations indicated that they had been sent from China. The contents were usually described as an item of jewelry—something like “rose stud earrings”—but inside would be a small packet of unidentified seeds. There was no evident reason why particular people were receiving particular seeds, or why people were receiving seeds at all.