Most of what I think about last night’s results I discussed in a long talk early this morning with Terry Gross, which will be on the Fresh Air this afternoon. The embed for our discussion just went live and you can listen below.
More in this space when I can manage.
An ongoing theme here in recent years has been the contrast between increasingly paralyzed and bitter national-level politics, and a positive-minded and forward-looking sense of practicality at the community level. In that silver-lining spirit, I am happy to report that all of the local initiatives and candidates I mentioned two days ago came to what I consider the right result:
The voters of California rejected Proposition 53, which would have made it much harder for the state to undertake big, long-term investments.
The voters of Stockton approved Measure M, a small sales-tax increased devoted to the city’s libraries and recreation centers. The measure needed a two-thirds majority for approval, and it got nearly 75 percent.
The voters of San Bernardino approved Measure L, which will reform the flawed city charter that in itself is a source of the city’s problems. The measure required only a majority vote, and was getting more than 60 percent.
The voters of San Bernardino, Redlands, and environs comfortably re-elected former Redlands mayor Pete Aguilar to a second term in the U.S. House.
The voters of the District of Columbia comfortably elected Robert White (and David Grosso) to at-large seats on the City Council, and approved the statehood referendum by 86 percent to 14 percent.
We’ll take progress where we can find it.
On the larger prospect, after the jump a thought for the day from W.B. Yeats.
Apropos for today, “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,” by William Butler Yeats, 102 years ago. For the reminder about this poem I thank a Republican friend who took an early and honorable stand against Donald Trump.
Today is finally Election Day, mercifully. Our tireless politics team is live-blogging events throughout the day and into the night. Over the past several weeks, scores and scores of your emails have poured in, covering a wide array of campaign topics, so here’s one final roundup of your smart opinions and analyses as the polls open this morning. (They’re already closed in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, the first vote in the nation, and in that tiny hamlet Clinton beat Trump in a landslide, 4-2—a harbinger, we hope.)
Most recently we had a roundup of reader reaction to the Comey aftermath, and a new reader makes an interesting point here:
FBI agents ran to the nearest reporter to leak about potentially damaging material about Clinton. IRS employees, some of whom certainly had access to and knowledge of Trump’s tax returns, never said a word. Maybe they’re all secret Trump supporters, or maybe IRS employees demonstrated more integrity than our nation’s supposed best and brightest law enforcement agents.
Another reader similarly wonders:
Why is there no MSM coverage of Trump having to face Judge Curiel on November 28 over fraud and racketeering charges for Trump University? [Though it’s important to note they’re civil suits.] If this were about Clinton, it would have been a shark fest descending on her.
“Latino Americans have long had higher-than-average rates of service and sacrifice in the U.S. military. In 2016, they may be defending American freedoms in another way.”
Amen! I hope Nevada early voting is truly a bellwether for a landslide of revulsion toward Trump. Assuming Wednesday brings a reason to celebrate with a burst of adrenaline from a near-death experience, I hope we have the maturity to reflect on the two big questions from this horrible experience:
1. What is wrong with our political system that we nominated two such untrustworthy candidates?
2. How do we protect America from current and future versions of Trumpism?
David Frum’s argument that we can’t afford to tear down the very institutions that protect America from fascism and despotism is worth emphasizing in all the post-election analysis. As Bill Maher rightly pointed out on Friday:
1) Democrats must share the blame for crying wolf by grossly exaggerating their descriptions of Bush, McCain, and Romney, so when a truly horrific candidate emerged, it sounded like typical Democratic bluster, and
2) The Mormons got it right early-on, saw Trump for who he is, and took a stand. They showed courage to speak the truth when GOP politicians showed self-serving cowardice and hypocrisy by putting their self-interest ahead of America’s interest.
Regarding the Mormons’ principled stand, here’s the rest of Bill Maher’s rant against Evangelicals supporting Trump despite his deeply un-Christian character (a topic previously tackled by readers):
For more on Trump’s character, a reader in San Diego writes:
Thank you for fodder for excellent conversations! I have a theory about Donald Trump that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere else, and it’s about the fact that, before the election campaign, he’d only seen the highly scripted and edited versions of himself on TV. Maybe he doesn’t recognize himself because he’d never seen himself portrayed as he really is.
For a big dose of scripted Trump, check out the “best firings” compilation from The Apprentice seen below. (One of Trump’s early quotes is ominously ironic: “The problem is that Bradford made an impulsive decision—a stupid, impulsive decision. Frankly, if you were running a company and made that kind of a decision, you destroy that company, instantaneously.”)
All through his life as a celebrity, Trump’s appearances have been either scripted or edited to show him in the best light—or at least a humorous light. His anger was his tool, but it was always shown as a strength of character, not as a flaw. Then, during the campaign, Trump expected to be shown in the same manner and was dismayed to see his true self. He really doesn’t recognize himself. To him, The Media have edited all of his appearances to make him look bad on purpose. That’s the only reason I can come up with to explain his constant insistence that he didn’t “say/do/act like that.”
Trump’s supporters have fallen for a man who is only as real as a storybook. Reality TV is built upon layers and layers of pretense: scripted storylines, production staff who stir the pot in order to create tension, sequences of events are edited for a better arc, and so on. The viewers know this, but still they are certain that a person’s “true” character is being revealed.
It’s like looking at Photoshopped pictures of fashion models; you know it’s not a true representation of the person, but you still expect the person to look like the picture. Then, when you see him/her at the airport, you’re surprised he’s/she’s not as gorgeous.
Another reader on the era of reality TV:
Decades ago I pursued a journalism degree, at the University of Montana J-school, followed by a master’s in print journalism in Stanford’s communication department. Throughout I was drilled in the catechism of our ancient craft. I learned that the three purposes of journalism are to inform, to persuade and to entertain—in that order. A couple of my most prescient professors issued dire warnings that we must protect our trade against the tendency toward frivolity, or entertainment.
Today, I think we have arrived at a point where, at best, these go in reverse order, or at worst we are almost entirely in the entertainment realm. It began, perhaps, with choosing an actor as our president. It ends up with a reality television star as candidate: a person only capable of entertainment, with a dash of persuasion, but zero information. The disturbing part is how readily the public was brought along. I realize myriad factors are at play, but how sad that we have an election that was “informed” almost completely by entertainment.
Back to the real world of information, here’s a thorough debunking of Trump’s talking points on the stump—“25 outright lies in a single speech”:
One of Trump’s greatest rhetorical strengths is interrupting people with pithy and withering insults. That may have worked against “low-energy Jeb” and “Little Marco” and others in the primaries, but it probably didn’t work in the one-on-one debates of the general election, as reader Todd argues:
I might be too late getting to this, but I think an under-discussed tactic of Clinton’s was that she studiously ignored Trump’s interjections during the debates. My recollection is that in the GOP debates, the other candidates generally allowed Trump to stop their train of thought as they responded to his snipes. Clinton didn’t do this. She just kept pushing on, saying what she wanted to say and ignoring Trump. I feel that this decision was vitally important, keeping her on long-form answers where she has the advantage on Trump and not getting bogged down in trading barbs, which is Trump’s territory.
Over the course of the presidential debates, Trump repeatedly said that he’s “smart” for exploiting tax loopholes and that he’s “entitled [to do so] because of the laws.”
Much has been written about this in a vaguely indignant way that doesn’t really name the core offense, and I think the problem is that we’re all partially persuaded by this idea that it’s smart to behave in a way that makes money. But there really is a moral failure at play in this dynamic. Let’s look at a comparable example: a middle-class family that chooses to eat all of their meals at a local homeless shelter.
There’s no law prohibiting such behavior, and for a family of four this would be a “smart” way to save money. But the overwhelming majority of people would, I think, be horrified by such an idea and far too humiliated and embarrassed to do such a thing. It’s not clear to me, though, that Trump would respond this way. As it stands, he has effectively argued that this middle class family is “entitled” to eat at the homeless shelter because the law doesn’t explicitly prohibit it.
The vast majority of your emails have been critical of Trump rather than Clinton, but here’s a pretty standard critique of Clinton, from a reader in Kansas:
I disagree with Fallows that Hillary Clinton’s “experience” as U.S. senator and secretary of state was meaningful. I tune in to C-Span often. I read the NYT, The New Yorker, NY Review of Books, Slate and Salon; I listen to NPR almost as a religious devotion. All of these outlets (C-Span is neutral of course) have been cheerleading for Clinton for years. But I can’t recall any of them actually enumerating her accomplishments as Senator or SoS, identifying any “value added” attributable to her while she held those positions. What controversial positions did she stake out and take the lead on in the Senate? Was her time in the Senate any more impressive than other Democrats who shared her basic policy views like, say, Al Franken? How, precisely how, did she distinguish herself?
To me, she was just biding her time, schmoozingly building her resume for the single goal she has targeted since college: POTUS. I think the same holds for her tenure at SoS. What—specifically what—value did she add to policy-making on such areas as our approach in Libya (no, not Benghazi), Syria, Ukraine, the European refugee tragedy, to name a few? It’s one thing to prefer her clearly over Trump—no contest, really—but to rhapsodize her “experience” as senator and SoS? I just can’t see the empress’s clothes.
For a much longer and thorough series of criticisms of Clinton, and the Clintons more generally, check out the “Lesser Evil” episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, featuring my old Atlantic and Dish colleague, Andrew Sullivan:
A reader, Lee, recommended that episode after seeing this curated list from my boss Matt Thompson. Lee was “hooked from beginning to end”:
The “Lesser Evil” episode is a relentless takedown of both candidates—in the interest of building the case that voting for Hillary is the only viable option. Frankly, I had stopped thinking so critically of Hillary because Trump is so dangerous. While I still can’t agree with the “Hillary is evil” argument, the extended criticism of her in the first half of the episode was both necessary and reasonably thoughtful. (It also has some crossover appeal; I can imagine Limbaugh-inclined relatives listening and reconsidering Trump, or at least their NeverHillary stance.) And then that first half was totally overshadowed by their articulation of the incredible threat Trump and his rhetoric pose to so many aspects of Western democracy, leaving Hillary as the only sane choice.
This next reader is opting out of that choice:
I see nothing positive in either candidate. Trump is unfit by temperament. Clinton is unfit by ideology. It’s like having to choose between a train engineer with no experience and an experienced engineer who will take you to a place you don’t want to go. One might get you in a train wreck; the other surely will take you where you don’t want to go.
I’m not getting on the train. I am not casting a vote for president for the first time in 50 years. Since I’m in California, my non-vote will not matter. But I will be able to look myself in the mirror and say that I followed my conscience.
Third-party voters in the U.S. seem confused about a two-party system. In a two-party system, factions coalesce into two parties before the election. In a parliamentary system, factions coalesce into two parties after the election.
Which system is better? I have no idea. However, voting third party in a two-party system makes no sense except to satisfy the pique of the third-party voter, a kind of narcissism and not at all honorable. The problem for third-party voters is not Clinton or Trump, it is the system itself.
This next reader would agree:
This election isn’t about Clinton, it isn’t about Trump, and it sure isn’t about your New York reader’s feelings, sentiments, ideas, or sense of self. You either get democracy, or you get not democracy.
One of only two people will be president-elect on Wednesday morning: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. There is effectively no other option for voting, no matter who else is running. You can either help Trump win, or you can help Clinton win. You don’t get any other choice.
This morning, I was conceding to the Bernie die-hards (in absentia, since I can’t stand to talk to any of them at this point) who won’t vote for Clinton, that I suspect Sanders would be in a better position against Trump at this point. We certainly wouldn’t have to put up with Comey.
But it simply doesn’t matter, because it’s no longer an option.
This is the problem with pseudo-intellectualism—or bullshit, in simple language. People don’t know when to stop. They always think there’s a but, when there’s only a binary.
I contend that the way forward is to convince Trump to start the “T” Party and take his core followers with him (35% of the GOP), allowing the party to rebrand itself in a more contemporary way that focuses on small government, low taxes, state’s rights, and a strong military. If they leave behind their xenophobic, so-called “values” issues, they could appeal to the 40% of Americans who are registered Independent.
Why would Trump start the 3rd party? Because he won’t want to leave the national stage. The adoration and “many people who say” he is great would persuade him he couldn’t lose. Because he is mad at Republicans who backstabbed him. Because he doesn’t do “math.” Because nothing would appeal to his ego more than having a party that was all about him ... or should I call it a cult?
One other hand, this reader doubts that Trump will be able to mount any political comeback if he loses today:
All he wants to do is to win so much that he will get sick of winning, but you can't do that from the political sidelines, especially after having lost to a woman. When his base finds out that he was lying all along about “the wall,” and that he has no real power now, they are not going to start a revolution on their own without a leader. And they are not going to start a revolution with a leader who himself lost their cause. It is going to end with a whimper and not a bang.
The only permanent threat to democracy will be if the Democrats don’t realize that they got off easy, and if the Republicans don’t think it wasn’t their fault. Unless the Left can figure out how to appeal to the white working class, the whole thing will just happen again next time. The Republicans, embarrassed at being a permanent minority party, will try to whip up their base again, and the Democrats will represent “the system” that the base is angry at.
Our hope with the Time Capsule series was to create a comprehensive collection of Trump’s most egregious acts of unprecedented, norm-shattering behavior for members of the Republican mainstream to reflect upon and avoid in the future. A long-time reader, Jack, appreciates Jim’s efforts:
As a retired USAF veteran of the Korean and Vietnam Wars, I would like to offer my kudos to James Fallows for his admirable contributions. His insight, opinion based on fact, and the manner with which he delivered them is, without a doubt, a credit to your publication.
And another reader, Steven, wants to see Fallows continue the Notes series even if Trump is soundly defeated today:
Thank you to James Fallows for his Notes. His blogging has served as a form of lifeline as I was starting to wonder if I was alone in my thinking. Fortunately, I realize that is not the case. Unfortunately, I also realize that even after the election is over, we have not heard the last of Trump or his followers. More importantly, I fear we have not heard the last from his pretend followers more interested in achieving their life long goal of minority rule, namely the cynical GOP leadership who put power (disguised as party) over country.
The easiest path for them to follow is to continue with their damaging obstructionism now targeted against Clinton. This one issue, combined with continued gerrymandering and voter suppression, is the ONLY thing the disparate factions of the GOP can agree on and is the only glue that seems to hold them together. They appear ready, willing, and able to whip that mule to victory or total defeat.
Please consider continuing your Notes series after the election, as I suspect we will continue to see things we have never seen before as our democratic institutions continue to be attacked. You may also consider rebranding it using a different title. Either way, Fallows’s brave voice of clarity and reason will be needed to serve and defend the Republic.
A for-the-record personal-preference note on election eve.
Yes for Aguilar. If I lived in my original hometown of Redlands, California, tomorrow I would vote to give the city’s former mayor, Pete Aguilar, a second term as Representative from California’s 31st Congressional district. His district includes San Bernardino, site of the horrific massacre nearly a year ago, and he has done a good job both in the immediate aftermath of the killings and in addressing the city’s deeper, longer-term economic challenges. He’s part of the next generation of practical-minded leadership for the state.
Yes on Measure L. If I lived a few miles west of Redlands, across the city line in San Bernardino itself, I would vote in favor of Measure L. This is a long-overdue proposal to revamp the city’s unusual and dysfunctional governing charter, which itself has been an important reason the city has been officially bankrupt for four-plus years. I wrote about the bankruptcy, and the charter’s role in it, last year here and here. Ryan Hagen of the San Bernardino Sun, who has chronicled the city’s recent ups and downs, did an explainer on Measure L and how it would change the charter here. The Sun’s editorial board formally endorsed Measure L last month. Some previous charter-reform efforts failed. A lot depends on the city’s ability to pass this one. Yes on L!
Yes on Measure M. If I happened to be living instead in California’s other best-known recently-bankrupted city, Stockton, I would vote in favor of Measure M. (Stockton formally entered bankruptcy in 2012 and left it last year.) I’ll plan to say more about Stockton tomorrow, but its story has much in common with San Bernardino’s. Each is physically close to a rich and glittery part of California—San Bernardino and its Inland Empire are an hour’s drive away from Los Angeles, Stockton is due east from the tech riches of the Bay Area—but economically and culturally they are far removed. Stockton’s arc in the past century also resembles, on a smaller scale, Detroit’s: industrial and commercial wealth, and the civic benefits that came from it, and then a long decline. The story of its downtown resembles Fresno’s, which we’ve written about here.
Measure M, whose official description you can read here, would approve a very small sales tax, one-quarter of one percent, to develop libraries and recreation facilities for a city that badly lacks them. The measure passed the city council with a 7-0 vote but now requires a two-thirds supermajority approval to go into effect. Here’s more from the Yes on M group, and a wonderful profile from the Stockton Record about one of the people behind it, a local dentist name Mas’ood Cajee. The story about him is titled, “Man passionate about using books to rebuild Stockton.” More to come about the larger lessons from this kind of investment.
No on Prop 53. In my profile of Jerry Brown three years ago, I said that his lifetime’s immersion in California politics had equipped him, in his return stint as governor, to make the big long-term investments that had been so important to the state’s past growth. One of California’s challenges is its arcane “direct democracy” system of initiatives and referendums, which were enacted in a reform spirit more than a century ago but in practice turn out mainly to favor well-financed interests and pressure groups. One well-financed activist, a rich farmer from the Stockton area, has put millions into financing a proposition that would add another layer of gridlock and impediment to big statewide projects. Most newspapers in the state have editorialized harshly against it, e.g. Sac Bee, SF Chronicle, SJ Mercury News, Santa Cruz Sentinel, East Bay Times, and the Monterey Herald. Here is a video from Brown himself. As the governor puts it in that clip, “It may sound OK, but it’s bad for California.” If I lived anyplace in California, I would vote No on 53.
Yes for Robert White. If I lived and voted in D.C., which in fact I do, I would (and will) vote for Robert White for an at-large seat on the City Council. As I mentioned back in June, his upset victory in the Democratic primary over incumbent Vincent Orange was a positive step for the city. And while I’m at it, also Yes for Mary Lord for the at-large seat on the D.C. school board. (And, very locally, Yes for Chuck Elkins for the Advisory Neighborhood Commission.)
Yes on D.C. Statehood. The 99%+ of the U.S. population that lives in the 50 states doesn’t care. But it’s just not fair that those who live in D.C. pay the same income taxes as everyone else, but have no representation in Congress, and no state-style sovereignty over local decisions. How would the Utah or New York legislatures like it, if some Congressman from another part of the country got to double-check laws that they passed? We don’t like it either. It’s a symbolic vote, but: C’mon.
Ten days ago I argued that FBI Director James Comey had changed the dynamics of the 2016 election in an irreversible way, with his announcement of a new trove of potentially “relevant” emails on Anthony Weiner’s computers. After Comey’s “oh, never mind” followup yesterday, less than 48 hours before election day, I argued that his series of mis-judgments about the FBI’s proper role in electoral politics, and his apparent lack of control over the agency, meant that someone else should take his place. But it would be better all around, according to me, if Comey resigned sometime soon after the election, instead of forcing either the president who appointed him (Obama) or the next president in line (presumably Clinton) to fire him.
Readers disagree—most of them because they think Comey deserves harsher treatment, but some for the opposite reason. Here we go:
There is a silver lining. A reader in the tech industry says that the whole episode might have one positive result:
It should put to rest the storyline that Clinton obstructed justice by destroying damaging emails. This previously unknown cache of unscreened email yielded no evidence of criminality, thus undermining the argument that Clinton’s emails were sanitized.
‘Egregious error.’ From a lawyer on the East Coast:
I disagree with your conclusion that Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Comey (or demand his resignation, which amounts to the same thing). Yes, to some people, particularly the Trump supporters, this might look like revenge. And certainly, GOP elected officials will take the opportunity to make the same claim. But those people are incorrigible, and trying to appease them or seek their approval is a no-win situation.
The fact is that pretty much everyone, including Republicans, agree that Comey made an egregious error in judgment. Can you think of any other post-Hoover FBI Director who has made such a significant public mistake? But for the twisted political environment we’re in, that alone should be grounds for firing. Assuming that Comey stumbled innocently with his original letter a week and a half ago, he should, within 48 hours, have issued a clarification intended to remove any unintended implications. That he waited in silence until now compounded his error.
In addition, it appears to be that Comey has, as a number of commentators put it, lost control of his agency. Again, this should be grounds for termination, and Clinton should bring in a new director to clean house and impose some real discipline on the agency. That some agents are intervening in the political process by leaking information is inexcusable.
I note that, when first elected, Obama chose not to pursue criminal actions against any members of the Bush Administration, even though there likely were sufficient grounds to do so. The reason was that Obama feared that the partisan reaction to prosecuting would have poisoned the well and eliminated any chance of the GOP working with him on his legislative agenda. Of course, as we now know, the GOP refused to cooperate anyway. (In addition, Obama chose not to seek indictments because he was loathe to create the apparent precedent of prosecuting the prior administration. IN this regard, he showed prudent, long-range thinking.)
Investigations would be good, not bad. Another reader wanting a tougher line:
Respectfully, I think you’re way off base here. First, you summarily conclude that “hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.”
The problem here is that an investigation into whatever happened at the FBI is not simply a matter of punishing the director for his error/malfeasance, but actually investigating a disturbing series of events at the nation’s national largest law enforcement agency. It wasn’t just Comey. Credible reports indicate that (1) Comey acted in part because he knew an anti-Clinton faction at the FBI would leak it first; and (2) that there is a rogue faction at the FBI that was pushing against FBI and DOJ orders to investigate a public candidate for office and to leak damaging information and innuendo at a critical time in the election season. At the very least, the director is unable to control his bureau. What happened absolutely needs to be investigated, and whatever bad actors responsible need to be rooted out. If there is a larger cultural problem at the FBI, that needs to be exposed and fixed.
Otherwise, this will continue. And not just in elections. What if this faction decides to investigate members of the Clinton administration, and leak personal information to the press? How can President Clinton or her AG trust the FBI, if they suspect the FBI will leak critical information? Just because Republicans have abused their investigative powers does not mean there isn’t a real value to them.
Second, you recognize that Comey cannot continue at the FBI, but you argue that neither Clinton nor Obama should fire him, because that would appear too political, and the FBI director’s 10-year term is supposed to insulate the FBI from political pressure.
Well, that ship sailed. Maybe the 10-year term was supposed to insulate Comey from political pressure, but it clearly did not. The president also possesses the authority to fire the director, presumably in situations where politics be damned, the director cannot continue in his job. This is just one situation, as you yourself recognize.
Third, if firing Comey would be too political, how is it any better for Obama to publicly castigate him and pressure him to resign?
Fourth, you’re judging the Democrats by a double standard. Comey can interfere in a general election in violation of both agency policy and arguably a statute (the Hatch Act), but he cannot be punished by the president, even when a statute specifically authorizes the president to fire him? If the president fires him, it is Comey who made the U.S. look like a banana republic, not the president.
‘A kind of coup.’ A reader who identifies himself as a disabled Vietnam veteran sends a copy of his open letter to the president:
In my view, a Special Prosecutor should be created to investigate the FBI.
It would appear that an FBI in-house group of Republican political operatives staged a kind of coup and created a serious political crisis on the eve of the 2016 election. They did it deliberately and with the clear intent of affecting the election. Whether Director Comey knew about it or not is irrelevant (I suspect he did). The constitutional implications of this act are fundamental to the sanctity of our government. Nothing less.
Not since Gore/Bush in 2000 has a presidential election been so blatantly tampered with. It remains to be seen how the election will come out, but there is no doubt that the so-called “FBI letter” put a serious dent in Clinton’s sizable lead. According to Nate Silver (who I consider the most reliable source), her lead dropped from roughly 10 points to roughly 4 points. The actions of the FBI, including Comey, had a clear effect. [JF note: the Silver/538 model, which rated Trump’s chances lower than some other sources during the primaries, has consistently rated them higher than most others during the general election campaign. When the results are all in, the polling experts can figure out which approach worked out best in this extraordinary year.]
This is a gravely serious threat the security of the U. S. government and should be seen as such. We all have been pointed to the Russians, when all along the real tampering has come, once again, from our own Republican Party. Please take swift and strong action to expose this national security threat.
On the other hand. Another reader with a military background says that Comey took a difficult but unavoidable step:
I live in Maryland and am strongly supporting Clinton. However, I have friends and family who are adamant Trump supporters and who, with justification, believe the Clintons are not forthcoming about their dubious behavior, an issue that is hard to refute!
They believe the system is rigged. Had Comey not come out with his announcements prior to the election and had there been evidence of Clinton misconduct, what would have the reaction? Total belief on the part of Trump and his base that the system had been rigged—that the FBI held evidence back that would have elected Trump—confirming exactly what Trump had been saying!
Comey inoculated the country from that disaster! And it would have been a disaster!
Do you disagree that had Comey withheld the fact that he had more emails and it turned out that they contained inappropriate behavior by Secretary Clinton, that would have sparked widespread outrage, and right so! The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters .
Frankly, I do not believe that the Washington media has little, if any, understanding of the Trump supporters! Frankly, I am stunned by them, I disagree strongly with them, but they are not stupid; they are concerned about the country. I had hope that your flight across the country would have provided some insight to the divisions of the country and the unfortunate passion with which those divisions are held.
To address this central part of the final reader’s argument: “The fairness and legitimacy of the election would be challenged by the 48 percent of Americans who were Trump voters.” First, he’s not going to get close to 48 percent of the vote. Even if he did, what I’ve seen convinces me that most or all of his real base would believe there was “an email problem” regardless of anything Director Comey ever said.
The email “scandal” is a very peculiar one. Hillary Clinton made a significant mistake in setting up the system to begin with, and for being so grudging about recognizing that. But as far as I can tell, it’s a mistake whose main victim is herself. I’m not aware of anyone demonstrating or even claiming specific harm to the national interest because of her email practices. Yet people who chant “lock her up” usually start with this on the bill of particulars.
Clinton should “go high” by keeping Comey. Here’s another reader with a somewhat sympathetic view of the FBI director (previous readers along those lines here):
Yes, Comey should resign, but I’m not sure that his resignation should be accepted. His sin—being obsessed with his reputation—is one of which the Founders (George Washington above all), not to mention all modern politicians, have been guilty. And many if not most of them typically go about tending to their reputations in far less salubrious ways than he has.
Justin Dillon is right: The original decision and announcement not to prosecute Clinton should have been made by AG Lynch and her lieutenants. That way anyone who believed that a Democratic AG had made a partisan decision to decline to prosecute her party’s nominee could have expressed their displeasure at the ballot box in November. We don’t know whether Comey tried to pass the buck to Lynch (as he should have), but if he did, it seems likely that such an attempt would have been rejected.
Instead, the FBI—and Comey personally, with his reputation for probity—were used as a kind of heat shield, like the protective layer which, with one tragic exception, kept the space shuttle astronauts safe during their re-entry into the atmosphere. Then the late-breaking emergence of the Wiener emails put Comey on an even nastier spot, especially with the “fifth column” of troglodytes in the Bureau that Wayne Barrett has described (thank you very much for that link) itching to inflict far greater damage on his reputation (a cover-up!) by leaking their preferred version of the story.
If Clinton and the country manage to survive Comey’s horribly clumsy attempt to salvage what remained of his reputation, refusing to accept his resignation would give her and her party a very visible opportunity to “go high.” She and they would undoubtedly be accused of rewarding Comey for his last-minute announcement re-exonerating her. However, these are career politicians and partisan operatives, and being criticized unfairly is a baked-in part of the gig that they signed up for.
Fix the (metaphorical) bayonets. From a reader who starts out agreeing with me that no one should fire Comey:
I think I agree with you on this. From a purely cerebral analysis, I’m sure I do. But all this norm smashing—as we’ve all been discussing for months—isn’t going to end just because Trump loses. Indeed, the Republican elected officials are going to be driven by a political constituency driven to madness to act in an increasingly undemocratic fashion during the Clinton II Presidency.
So, as you say, the Democrats have two choices. They can resist the (reasonable) impulse to act in kind, playing the adult in the room while the Republican burn down the house around them. Or they can—at least selectively—fight fire with fire and step outside the previously accepted norms of behavior in order to thwart at least some of the craziest Republican actions.
We already know we’ll be facing problems with appointments (not just judicial, don’t kid yourself), appropriations legislation, and perhaps most ominous of all, a renewed debt ceiling fight led by the most nihilistic politicians in recent memory.
I’m not sure which course I favor. I’d like to at least be proud of our actions, but there’s no doubt that American small-d democracy is in peril, and maybe it’s time to fix bayonets ...
I know from context that he means the last line metaphorically.
With his ill-advised intrusions into this year’s election, FBI Director James Comey has already damaged U.S. interests and the fabric of American democracy more grievously than even Hillary Clinton’s harshest critics could contend that her email-policies have done.
Damaged, how? I made the long-term case a week ago, after Comey’s reckless announcement about the Anthony Weiner emails. The shorter-term case is evident right now: No one can ever know how the 2016 election would have turned out—in ultimate victor, in margin and “mandate,” in the way specific states go, in down-ballot and Congressional effects—had it not been for Comey’s decision to put himself in the middle of charge and counter-charge.
We can’t ever know, because some 40 million people have already voted. We can’t ever know, because his latest last-minute announcement comes too late to be fully digested by the time everyone else votes on election day.
I have no reason to believe that Director Comey was operating out of base motives. He probably thought he was doing the right thing for the right reasons. But he was mistaken, and the results were damaging—to the country, to the political process, to the FBI and the Department of Justice, and to Comey himself.
In the hyper-litigious current political realm, the usual next step would be hearings and investigations—hearings like those on the deaths at Benghazi, investigations like the endless ones on email. American public life at the moment is all too hearings-bound and criminalization-crazy. Hearings or investigations into whatever has happened at the FBI would not be worth it for anyone.
So what, instead?
Hillary Clinton, if she wins, should not fire Director Comey. If she cares about the norms of governing, as she should and presumably does, she would realize that this would inescapably look like revenge and a purge.
For similar reasons, Barack Obama, who appointed Comey to this job in the first place, should not fire him. FBI directors are given 10-year terms precisely to insulate them from politics. Obama should observe the letter of that apolitical norm, even if Comey himself has not.
But as soon as the election is over, Obama should make clear, bully-pulpit style, what Comey has done wrong, and why Comey has tarnished his bureau’s reputation, lost Obama’s trust, and forfeited the public’s deference to his judgment.
And then, sometime soon, Comey should resign. He shouldn’t be fired, but if he cares about his institution and its values, he should recognize that his continued presence is an unavoidable source of continued harm.
Plus, he is sure to get a lucrative follow-on job.
We’ve had enough hearings and investigations. But this was a big and damaging mistake.
No one should fire Director Comey, because a firing would damage governing norms. But in defense of those norms, Director Comey should resign.
Two of my long-time, politically well-experienced friends have been in Nevada recently, doing get-out-the-vote work. Independently, each has just sent me a note saying that their experience and observations match what the Jon “the sage of Nevada” Ralston has been reporting: Namely, a huge surge in early voting among Democrats and especially Latinos in Nevada, which bodes very negatively for Donald Trump’s prospects there and by implication elsewhere.
I haven’t been in Nevada so can’t compare impressions first-hand. But I can say that based on what Deb and I have seen around the country in the past few months—in Central Valley and inland southern California, in western Kansas, in rust-belt Pennsylvania and Michigan, in both Mississippi and Alabama—I’ve been preparing for the least surprising “surprise” of election day. Namely, “surprisingly” high turnout among Latino voters, which will play a “surprisingly” important part in sparing the country and the world a Donald Trump presidency, if in fact we are to be spared.
The surprise factor depends on Latinos across the country being more deeply offended by everything about Trump’s campaign, from “they’re rapists” onward—and being more determined to show up and vote than their past often-low turnout rates might have indicated or (the surprise part) than this year’s polling may fully capture. I’m not a pollster, but all the anecdotal and reportage evidence we’ve come across supports both halves of this equation. People are really (and rightly) offended. And they are really determined to make their views known.
(I’m prepared for a similar “surprise” in the margin from women voters but don’t know of early-voting results that yet give such indications.)
I’ve argued for years, for instance here and here, that the long-term secret of American greatness is its ability to draw on an outsized share of the world’s talent, entrepreneurial creativity, culture, heart, and general human genius through its openness to people of many races and backgrounds. Latino Americans have long had higher-than-average rates of service and sacrifice in the U.S. military. In 2016, they may be defending American freedoms in another way.
A reader in New York writes about the way he is casting his vote. He also asks a question, for which my answer is below.
From the reader:
As a two-time Obama voter and Obama fan, I am not at all enthusiastic about HRC and plan to vote Gary Johnson to register my unease with her. Your views on Trump are well known, but I would like to know: what do you think of HRC, not as an alternative to Trump per se—who’s obviously so much worse—but as an affirmative choice for president?
Put another way, if you set aside the idea of influencing the outcome / blocking Trump and instead focus on voting as an act of affirmation, do you actively support HRC despite her flaws and why? Do you think we should feel good that she will be president? I have seen no evidence of her having “learned” from past ethical missteps or foreign policy misjudgments. My own views are below, and I see three main negatives in HRC.
Her poor judgment and paranoid streak (see: email fiasco) are not just unappealing, but undermine her effectiveness when they blow up in her face. This pattern will continue into her presidency.
The nexus of public service and personal enrichment known as Clinton Inc., regardless of whether it rises to the level of actual corruption. (That they’ve figured out how to land just shy of criminality almost makes the whole thing worse.)
Her foreign policy will be conventionally hawkish, with all the unnecessary / counterproductive use of resources that entails. Her presidency will be paralyzed domestically by unprecedentedly fierce opposition, so foreign policy will be the only arena where she can demonstrate “effectiveness.” This increases the risk of ill-conceived misadventures abroad for the sake of “doing something”—e.g. I expect the U.S. will be dragged into a morass in Syria that Obama has largely resisted. Her clearly telegraphed Syria policy will cost a lot of money; American servicemen will die; and it will worsen terrorist blowback from the Middle East. And this is to say nothing about new crises she’ll be faced with.
These negatives bother me very much—but they’re livable.
The negatives against Trump are overwhelming and intolerable, and stem only partly from his policies (which I do believe will be worse for America). Cracking down on immigration, banning Muslims or “extreme vetting” of foreign visitors, trade protectionism, massive unfunded tax cuts, haircutting the national debt—all of these will be worse for the country IMO….
But I’m even more swayed by Trump’s farcically, outrageously unfit temperament for the presidency. As prolifically chronicled in his Twitter feed, in the context of the U.S. presidency, Trump is a man of unprecedented pettiness, vulgarity, sensitivity to perceived slights, and emotional immaturity.
Yes, Clinton’s administration will be 50%+ preoccupied with fending off sundry investigations, inquiries, commissions, inquests, and controversies—some her own fault, others concocted by detractors. But President Trump will be 50%+ preoccupied with obsessively reading his own press, answering slights, and settling a continuous flow of spats, feuds, arguments, tizzies, vendettas, quarrels, and brouhahas—whether with b-list celebrities like Rosie O’Donnell and Alicia Machado, members of the press, bureaucrats and elected officials, or foreign leaders.
Why is that significant? Because it’s a near-certainty that he will re-purpose the powers of the presidency in general—most ominously including the U.S. military—as a vehicle for settling disputes, saving face, getting the last word, and asserting dominance. And he’ll be equally pliable by flatterers and favor-curriers, within his administration or without, domestic or foreign—including foreign despots much cleverer, more strategic than he is.
His decisions will be guided by emotion, vanity, and ego first, and a rigorous calculation of the national interest only a distant second. Not because he wants them to be, but becausehe can’t help it. By its very nature, this setup makes it literally impossible to predict what those decisions may be, except that they will bear only an incidental relation to what’s best for the country.
With Clinton, you know what you’re getting: a basically conventional policy offering—left of center domestically, relatively hawkish and interventionist abroad—combined with likely ethical and/or legal lapses; an unhealthy degree of secrecy / paranoia; probably some fresh embarrassments courtesy of Bill’s sex addiction (which I assume is alive and well); and maybe even health problems of some severity.
But the negatives are known and bounded. Either she has a decent, effective, scandal-free presidency; or she engages in various scandals, whether or not she gets away with it. But that’s the range of outcomes. Not all are desirable, but all are survivable. She may well blow up her presidency, sure—but what could she conceivably do that would be catastrophic not just to her legacy, but to the country? HRC’s range of outcomes is between “tolerable” and “pretty shitty,” with a non-zero if remote chance of “good.”
With Trump, we have no idea what we’re getting. The range of outcomes is unbounded and skewed to the negative. He could be great—one of the best. He could be Reagan Redux, as some have hoped. But he could also be catastrophic. Almost nothing is too far-fetched, too fantastical, to put in the realm of possibility. He could be the most negatively consequential president of the post-war era. Why not, given that he gets into 3 a.m. Twitter feuds with 1990s Venezuelan beauty queens while ostensibly running for president?
Forget about his hucksterism, his profound vulgarity and tackiness, his trail of credible sexual assault accusers, his policy ignorance and lack of curiosity… All bad things, but the dispositive issue for me is the signature Trump constellation of vindictiveness, vainglory, impulsiveness, and an ultra-fragile sense of pride. He could offer the best set of policies imaginable, and it wouldn’t matter. Those traits alone still make him a gamble that neither the status quo nor the many flaws of HRC are so bad as to justify.
So, if I’m casting the deciding vote, there is no contest: in this particularly loathsome election, HRC is the only sound choice. Thankfully, I’m not in that position and I do consider a third party vote a perfectly honorable thing to do in this cycle.
Like the reader, I vote in a jurisdiction whose Electoral College result is not in question—for him, New York; for me, D.C. Unlike him, I think it’s important to cast a vote for one of the two candidates with a chance of becoming president, which in my case means voting for Hillary Clinton.
I didn’t write TheAtlantic’s unusual (third time in 159 years) editorial endorsing Clinton, but I agree with its logic. Essentially: Hillary Clinton is a candidate of clear strengths and some very well-known weaknesses. Her foreign policy instincts and record are more hawkish than I would choose, which is the main reason I preferred Barack Obama in the Democratic primary eight years ago. In principle, it would be better if two families, Bush and Clinton, had not supplied four out of five successive presidents, which will be the case if she wins. But also in principle, it is long past time to have a female president, and if it doesn’t happen now it could be quite a while.
Most of all, as the reader points out, her weaknesses are known. Apart from a million such discussions from other people, I wrote about them recently here and here. There’s zero risk they’ll go undetected. There is a non-zero chance she might adjust and learn.
In contrast, her strengths have been taken for granted or under-appreciated. For evidence I’ll rest my case on these past three debates, since I’ve written so much about them. In terms of knowledge, she was never at a loss. In terms of poise and under-stress self-control, she had it while her adversary manifestly did not. (“Such a nasty woman.”) In terms of strategic planning, she had a plan and carried it out, as opposed to Brownian Motion on the other side. And all of this, “backwards and in high heels”-fashion, while dealing with judgments of her as a “shrill” or “harsh” woman that would not have been made of a man.
She was popular with her colleagues of both parties when she was in the Senate. She had a sky-high public popularity rating when she was Secretary of State:
As president she would do some things that I, personally, would be enthusiastic about, and others I would not like. But in all cases, from my perspective, she would be competent, intelligent, and serious about the job.
Since the real-world alternative is a someone who is ignorant, impetuous, and contemptuous of both the rules and traditions on which our democracy is based, with no hesitation I say: vote for her, and work out the problems later on. They’re the kind of problems our political system is supposed to cope with. The alternative is a problem for the system itself (as Conor Friedersdorf has argued here).
And to my taste, the third-party alternative of saying “Oh, there’s something wrong with them both, I’ll vote for this other person” is wrong on the merits (Gary Johnson has his obvious weaknesses) and also in its long-term implications. Hillary Clinton, with her strengths and flaws, is the alternative to Donald Trump six days from now. Voting for her is a recognition of that reality; it adds to her popular vote as well as Electoral College strength, both of which matter for her (sure to be challenged) legitimacy; and it gives the voter better karmic standing to hold her accountable afterwards.
My vote in D.C. doesn’t “matter,” but it matters to me.
Fallows is swamped at the moment, partly to finish a cover story for our upcoming issue, so he passed along a ton of reader email with permission to post. (Thanks to everyone who has written him, as well as the general hello@ account, and we’re trying to post as many of the best emails as we can before Election Day.)
To start us off, a few readers find that the FBI director was put in a very difficult position following his agency’s July announcement that it would not recommend charges to the Justice Department against Clinton for her “extremely careless” use of emails. Comey was then lambasted in public before the House Oversight Committee and increasingly invoked in Trump’s pernicious “rigged” rhetoric on the campaign trail. This Fox News clip is a taste of things as they got started in July:
A reader suggests that Trump won by getting into Comey’s head:
It seems to me that the unfortunate way that Comey handled this situation was definitely a very clear-cut case of “working the refs.” Trump and his campaign have pushed so hard on the idea that everything is rigged—including the FBI—that when these potentially new emails came up, Comey lost his backbone and decided to cover his ass and show The Republicans that he was not rigged. Sort of like a make-up call in a big game.
It is an indictment of our current state of affairs in regards to normalizing Trump that despite the widespread pushback on Trump’s “rigged” talk, it still was not discredited outright enough by EVERYONE. If we had a normal candidate who accepted the system, then Comey would not have been feeling the pressure to prove he was not “rigged,” and he would have followed the 60-day tradition that has been in place for decades even if it meant taking some heat about it down the line.
This next reader has outright sympathy for Comey—pity even, given his apparent weakness in the face of Trumpism:
Fallows makes a number of good points in his thoughtful piece on falling norms. My problem here is that one of the “norms” that has fallen is “equal justice” under the law in this country. The real tragedy here for Comey and the country is the fact that he gave Mrs. Clinton a pass when it is obvious that she violated several laws [or at least federal records rules, which—speaking of the erosion of norms—started to be chipped away by Clinton’s predecessor, Colin Powell]. The idea that she should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear. Opinion writers like Fallows seem to ignore this fact, which is why there is the current situation.
I feel bad for Mr. Comey, but he should have done the right thing in the first place.
Update from a reader who rebuts a sentence above:
“The idea that [Clinton] should not have been prosecuted is not credible and polls of the American people make that clear.” This is, in fact, the problem itself. In a society governed by law, you have to accept the verdict of law. You can criticize it and rail against it, push for legal reforms, but you should not and cannot question its legitimacy itself (one more norm broken).
In this case, if Comey (a Republican) reviewed all evidence and decided that there was not enough to prosecute, our “feelings” and “polls of American people” (unfortunately) don’t matter. A similar parallel is Black Lives Matter, where unless a verdict that is acceptable to the activists is not reached, the jury is racist and the system is corrupt. A more thoughtful viewpoint is that in view of the facts presented, the jury could not / did not reach a “guilty” verdict.
For Comey’s part, according to officials close to him, he felt both a sense of obligation to Congress and “a concern that word of the new email discovery would leak to the media and raise questions of a coverup”—though not as much “raise questions” as throw fuel on the Trump dumpster fire already raging for weeks.
This next reader, a lawyer in L.A., while no apparent fan of Trump, points a finger at the Clintons and their deep establishmentarianism:
As far as Comey, the entire process was politicized, and I suspect a careful review of the government’s prosecution history for these offenses will show that Clinton was the only one who was not prosecuted for her security breach. A FOIA request could show that. One can be a Democrat, and all that, or simply despise Trump for being the unaccomplished heir that he is, but can one really argue that Billary do not enjoy unprecedented treatment from their capture of the Democratic Party, or that the capture did not lead to her nomination and the FBI’s decision not to prosecute?
If there is no warrant to look at the emails, does that not mean that the FBI has not yet been able to articulate, even to the threshold of making a rational connection, that these new emails are connected to an offense? So the FBI is not yet in a position to make an argument to a judge, but the agency’s director is prepared to go straight to the public, 11 days before an election?
I am just a Canadian criminal prosecutor. We Canadians are not always the brightest bulbs, so I’m probably missing something. But I don’t quite understand why people don’t instantly see how outrageous this all is. I fear that you Americans are headed for a very dark place.
Buckle up, buckaroos. Here’s one more reader with some understanding of the difficult position the FBI director found himself in:
I’m far from an insider, but Comey from afar seemed to have a Boy Scout moment. My sense is he’s a complete man of the system, and as Jonathan Haidt showed, being responsible is a core value to conservatives. He felt a load of pressure, self imagined, and probably had a mini moral crisis. He’s probably, if not a hack, a life-long bureaucrat, who serves at others’ disposal and lacks a real sense of judgment or sense of psychology. It’s like the Book of Judges: In modern America, a random Republican in power will elect himself to steal the election—if not the Supreme Court, the head of the FBI.
I feel a sense of jaw-dropping dread, and Trump is going to play up the inevitability as charismatics do, and people are going to forget his idiocy and thuggishness. But logic—like that of Sam Wang at Princeton Election Consortium and the fact that there will be pushback for the monkeys in the middle to consider—leads me to believe that unless something really big comes up, Clinton will squeeze by. The likely worse outcome is that this will spur talk of impeachment and the illegitimacy of a Clinton regime.
This next reader raises an intriguing contrast between Comey and Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the Trump University case:
I find it interesting that Curiel chose to delay the trial until after the election so as not to influence it, and, I’m assuming, for there to be less potential influence on the integrity of the trial itself. I also find it interesting that it is the very same judge who Trump has lambasted in the media and accused of not being able to judge him fairly due to his race [and Curiel’s parents’ Mexican heritage]. Trump said Curiel should recuse himself or be removed from the case. I would have been delighted to see Trump on trial mid-election, but I felt wholeheartedly it was the correct decision, even though it very clearly benefits Trump.
Then, in stark contrast, we have Comey. His decision to release the statement saying there are new emails is bizarre and lacks logic. It seems to me there are two choices he has once he finds out about the emails, but both hinge on knowing what’s in the emails. The newest reports are saying the FBI had these for weeks prior to Comey’s bombshell. I just don’t understand how you don’t look at the emails or seek approval to look at the emails (via warrant) until 11 days before Election Day. His two choices should have been the following:
If he releases the statement, it is because there is new information that may or will result in prosecution. It’s pertinent information for voters to consider, so it should be released no matter the influence on the election, although precedent and policy seem to say this wouldn’t necessarily be enough justification to release the statement. But I at least could see why he felt an overwhelming need to make the statement.
If there’s no new information in the emails, then wait to release the statement until after the election. Wait to notify Congress because there’s no new info in the emails and any disclosure could sway the election unfairly.
Just as a side note, in an election that saw a number of firsts regarding mentions of sexual acts, parts, abuse, etc, this new email situation arose because of Wiener and his penis pictures. God help us.
“Arose,” ugh. Update from a reader, Kevin:
Let me posit two other possibilities behind Comey’s decision. First is that he is a supremely calculating bureaucrat, adept at self-preservation even if administratively incompetent. Given his failure to recommend action against candidate Clinton last July, Comey must know that his position as FBI director would be toast if Donald Trump, who had criticized him so bitterly, were to be elected. So Comey did Trump a solid based on no information. This explanation assumes that Comey is so naive as to believe that Trump holds any value to mutuality in any relationship—a position unsupported by the man’s history.
Comey must also have calculated that if Clinton were elected and fired him, it would certainly be considered grounds for impeachment by the atavistic GOP. Job insurance, Mafia-style.
The other explanation, which I favor most, is that Comey really is an adult Boy Scout and values his own reputation above all. But when does a fetish for reputation become ruinous? When it devolves into egoism and harms the long-term common good. Comey confused a tactical buttressing of his reputation for his position in history, which I cannot believe is going to be favorable.
You might ask your colleague Fallows about a great decision by an American president who sacrificed his reputation for the long-term good. In 1979, Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Volcker as his Federal Reserve Board chair with an explicit mandate to tame inflation by any means necessary. Volcker’s extreme tight-money policies caused a sharp and prolonged recession and high unemployment—but it did bring inflation down (the collapse of OPEC unity did help as well). Carter’s replacement, the perennially overrated and intrinsically dishonest Ronald Reagan, trashed Carter, blaming him for the unemployment (but taking credit of course for the slashing of inflation).
Carter’s reputation—as a president, if not as a human being—has never really recovered. But it is undeniable that he set the course for several decades’ worth of a sustainable economy. Comey’s egoism and short-termism may just have set the course for a constitutional dark age in this country.
Zooming out a bit from the Comey controversy, several more readers offer insight and supplemental reading on the broader themes of American politics that Fallows explored in “James Comey and the Destruction of Norms.” He called this email from a reader “well argued” when he passed it along to me:
The word “norms” is a squishy word; it sounds like an abbreviation of normal, mixed in with resonances of a first name shouted at someone who walks into the bar in Cheers. It lacks any immediate sense of purpose or consequence, almost as if it merely applied to manners or political correctness. It’s one thing for you to say that norms are important to democracy, but just saying that doesn’t communicate an understanding of why or how important they are.
Norms are structural. They create the framework within which we operate. They define up and down, and left and right. They establish what is good behavior and bad behavior. And they are absolutely necessary for democratic institutions to function. They are understood and honored because people recognize the dire consequences of violating them.
Deadlines are governed by the clock—unless someone cynically stops the clock to keep the deadline from passing. The Senate operates on majority rule—unless one party, routinely employing the filibuster, decides that it doesn’t. The Constitution requires advice and consent on appointments—unless one party, in a naked exercise of raw power, decides that it doesn’t. And if one party can make that decision, what’s the point of having a Constitution?
Norms are enforced by the community, not by law. In government they are enforced by the political parties and, ideally, the press. But the Republican party, as you pointed out, has been breaching norms for some time. A party responsible for the functioning of the Constitution has been undermining the very norms it is charged to uphold. And when half of the community fails to enforce norms, then, by definition, the norms are gone—unless the press clearly and loudly points out that the norms are not being enforced. And, except in some small pockets of the press world, that hasn’t happened.
And this is the most significant press failure. By false equivalence, and the moral relativism of “he said and the other guy said,” without reference to the non-normative behavior of one of the parties, the press has allowed norms to be washed away like a sand castle at high tide. Norms are made out of sand—they are illusory—because they’re only effective if the parties share in, and enforce, the illusion. And our institutions, indeed our democracy, cannot function without them.
Republicans have established new norms for a party out of presidential power. If the Democrats take up those norms should they lose the White House, we well never, ever, be able to function. And we will have Trumpism incarnate: He or she who can wield raw power, without consideration of norms, will prevail. And the American people will be the last consideration on the table.
This next reader looks to the intellectual forefather of American conservatism, Edmund Burke, whose lessons seem completely lost on Republicans these days—not to mention completely shredded by Donald Trump. His disdain for political norms and institutions during this election should give contemporary liberals more appreciation for Burke, a philosopher they might have ignored otherwise:
Your discussion of the importance of norms in government reminded me of a comment on the French revolutionaries (so similar in many ways to Donald Trump) by Edmund Burke, on whom I did my M.A. thesis. About their inclination to transgressive behavior, Burke wrote:
Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.
For most of us, most of the time, that “controlling power” involves our internalization of norms that support civil society—exactly the norms whose wholesale violation you have chronicled. What Burke is saying is that when those norms are discarded, society will have to fall back on enforced external controls, turning custom into law and regulation, if it is to survive. By discarding the norms we have voluntarily observed, we will bring ourselves under forceful compulsion. Our passions will have forged our fetters.
Another reader looks to a classic book by a classical liberal:
Over the past week I have been rereading de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In it he emphasizes the importance of custom in regulating a democracy. Trash the norms and you begin the process of destroying our experiment in responsible self-rule. I don’t know if James Comey was acting as a partisan hack, covering his ass, or just being stupid, but he should be made to pay for the damage he has done. This election is simply awful and he has just made it that much more so.
Another reader looks to literature:
Whatever HRC has done, she’s still more trustworthy, intelligent, and competent than Trump, but for the past 20 or so years of teaching The Great Gatsby, I keep seeing the Clintons in Nick Carraway’s summation, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy, they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And another introduces a new book:
I’m sure you are getting enough junk traffic on stuff like this. So, a link:
Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg’s latest book Toward Democracy lays out a distinctive vision of democracy—one that stresses not institutions or practices, but what he calls “an ethical ideal.” The essence of democracy isn’t one man, one vote. It isn’t majority rule. And it isn’t the principle of political representation. Rather, it lies in the combination of individual autonomy and an “ethic of reciprocity.” In other words, a willingness to think in other people’s shoes and act accordingly, a political version of the golden rule. If such ideals seem practically utopian in today’s climate, for Kloppenberg that is an indication of just how badly democracy has lost its way.
Another reader teaches us a new word:
An alternative explanation of the Trump campaign has kept urging itself forward to me. It requires a little background for some.
Ethnomethodology is a part of sociology that purports to be theory-free, or at least theory-neutral, concerned with identifying rules within a social group rather than figuring out what model the group fits. One of the research methods for ethnomethodologists is a breaching study, in which the researchers identify important norms in a group by participating in the group and systematically violating various observed norms. The responses of the group members to the breaches reveal the importance of the norms.
Is it possible that the entire Republican presidential campaign has been an ethnomethodology research project? How else do we explain the unprecedented series of breached norms (as you have noted in your Time Capsules)?
This reader digs up another time capsule of sorts:
In a letter to Joshua Speed dated August 24, 1855, Abraham Lincoln famously wrote:
I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation we began by declaring that “all men are created equal”. We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.
As president he would display charity in many ways, and sometimes give expression to it in religious themes. He would show magnanimity to rivals and critics, mercy to the accused, patience with insolent generals, eloquent sympathy to the bereaved, generosity to associates and subordinates, nonvindictiveness to enemies. He would explicitly disavow planting thorns, malicious dealing, holding grudges.
Two human beings more different than Lincoln and Trump can scarcely be imagined. Our current “progress in degeneracy” is indeed pretty rapid.
Lastly, a reader in Vermont tries to end on an optimistic note:
Thank you to Fallows for his reports from across the country showing how people are making things work. The professional dog-biter circus that goes for national politics needs to be documented, but it gets to be a bit much after a while. Whether or not it is true, at this point it is not that hard to believe that a major force in this campaign is that Trump was honey-trapped by the Russians. As it is, both Trump and the Russians would enjoy fouling the bed of American politics. They are both intent on profiting from a bitter, divided America.
Yesterday I mentioned a social-media analysis showing that 35 percent of active Trump supporters on Twitter (versus less than one-tenth of one percent of Clinton supporters) followed prominent “white nationalist” Twitter feeds, like @DrDavidDuke.
Now readers respond. First, what I’ll simply call a dissent, from a reader in South Carolina:
Your article on White Nationalists is disgusting and irresponsible and does not even rise to the level of journalism.
I am a Trump supporter and surprisingly NOT a Russian bot, a white nationalist, or an anti-Semite. I vote for Trump not because I think he’s a great politician, but because I cannot allow Hillary Clinton destroy America with her failed and deadly policies.
I vote for Trump to keep Hillary out. Plus, it is obvious to me and many others that Trump cares deeply about America as a country—Hillary cannot say the same.
Quit reducing patriotic Americans who cannot abide the thought of Hillary Clinton in the White House to ridiculous stereotypes. We are people who love America and do not wish to see it destroyed by her harmful policies. Disgraceful piece of work. I will no longer be reading the hate-mongering that goes on at The Atlantic.
Noted. After the jump, a different sort of response from a successful advanced-tech entrepreneur in the industrial Midwest who sent in the photo at the top of this item.
That something like “white supremacy” as conscious action would still exist is incredibly sad ...
But sometimes when I hear of “white nationalist” groups or other peculiar views of human diversity, I think about how strange it would be to have “brunette supremacists” or “green-eyed supremacists” or something equally ridiculous. How about “freckled nationalist”? I feel particularly aggrieved by people born in July, so perhaps an “October supremacist” group would be an appropriate response.
This time when I read your latest post I couldn’t help thinking of a white deer I saw recently near a place in Wisconsin where we have a small log cabin in the woods. I felt really lucky to see her since I had heard of many sightings this summer nearby.
When I saw her, she froze in position as if I wouldn’t notice—like any other (color) deer would. The part I marvel at is that she seems entirely unaware she is white and easily visible!
If only we could all be that way.
What I do love about this photo, as the reader suggests, is the obvious-once-you-point-it out unselfconsciousness of the white deer, who imagines that she is as camouflaged as the practically invisible one in the rear. This has larger implications about self-perception and real-vs-imagined differences, which I will leave to each reader to fill in.
Offered for the record as samples of opinion in this varied land, nine days before the election.
Vehement Trump supporters abound on Twitter. That much is obvious to anyone who has used the service. Who exactly they are, and how broad a swath of society they represent, has been harder to pin down.
Are they largely Russian bots, as some reports have suggested? Are the angriest ones really just a handful of activists, racists, and anti-Semites, who through nonstop posting in multiple accounts exaggerate their true numbers? (Though even a very few would be enough.) Are they in any kind of coordinated activity, or mainly working as loners?
A social-media analytics firm called Demographics Pro has released an analysis of 10,000 Trump supporters who are active on Twitter, and 10,000 Hillary Clinton supporters. It then matched those accounts with a list of 10 active, major white-nationalist Twitter accounts. (The company describes the way in which it chose and classified such sites here.)
What were the results? They’re shown on the chart above. Of the 10,000 Clinton followers, a total of 16 followed one or more of the major white-nationalist accounts, the likes of @DrDavidDuke and so on. Of the 10,000 Trump supporters, a total of 3,549—well over one-third—followed the white nationalists.
Following an account doesn’t necessarily make you an adherent. I follow @DrDavidDuke myself, along with several others on the list. But the disproportion here, while it doesn’t answer all questions about Trump Twitter world, suggests something about its nature.
A similar Demographics Pro analysis, of the overlap between conspiracy-theory sites and Trump supporters, is here.
In my my article on this year’s presidential debates, I pointed out that these high-drama election-year rituals seem important to mere citizens and journalists. But political scientists have long claimed there’s no proof that they’ve actually changed presidential election results.
Maybe they’ll say something different when this year’s results are in. At face value, it certainly appears that the first Clinton-Trump debate—a month ago today—marked a clear shift in Hillary Clinton’s favor and against Donald Trump.
Below is a screenshot of the timeline for the “polls-plus” prediction of the election’s outcome, from FiveThirtyEight. I’ve added the big black arrow to mark the first debate. The thinner vertical lines to the right are the other two debates, each one of which went badly for Trump and, from this chart, seemed to reinforce Clinton’s lead.
For one more way to look at this question, which is less immediately obvious in graphic terms but cumulatively more convincing, please check out this recent tweet-storm by the U. Michigan economist Justin Wolfers.
He tested the debates-matter hypothesis in an ingenious way, by tracking the movement of financial and futures markets while the first debate was actually underway. As the debate wore on, Wolfers found, a wide variety of markets quickly adjusted to the levels they would have if Hillary Clinton became president. For instance, during the debate the Mexican peso rose sharply in value, based on the declining likelihood that U.S.-Mexico trade would be disrupted by a Wall or other limits under a President Trump.
The point of the study, again, was that the back-and-forth of the debate, in itself, convinced people placing financial bets that Donald Trump was not going to become president. They adjusted their financial bets accordingly.
Prediction markets are obviously fallible; in the most famous recent case, they missed the Brexit vote. And financial markets as a whole tend to overreact to short-term news. But together with the longer-term polling trends, Wolfers’s study may reinforce the hypothesis I mentioned a week ago: that this time, the debates really have mattered.
Yesterday, in installment #148 of the time capsules, I contrasted circa-2008 videos of a (comparatively) thoughtful-sounding Donald Trump with the splenetic buffoon we see today, and asked, What happened?
Readers offer three hypotheses.
1) You’re fooling yourself. There’s no change. From a reader in California:
I differ with your take on Trump’s comments about the movie. (Caveat: I have a serious problem watching film at all.) I’m not interested in cinematography, never mind Trump’s views of same. However, your statement, “For any rich person to say these things about the movie would be something,” is simply mistaken. Trump isn’t saying anything about “the movie.” He’s riffing on his own self-absorbed impressions of wealth, women, and personal relationships. He makes one bland remark about the camera’s emphasis on the extent of the table ...
In sum, “this other Trump” is not by a stretch another Trump. He’s the same Trump, but at the time one who wasn’t running for POTUS.
FWIW, what struck me about Trump’s “Rosebud” comments was not his assessment of Citizen Kane as a film itself but rather his allusions to the distancing effects of wealth. Through the past year, we’ve heard him say “I’m really rich!” (or used to, back in the “self-funding” days). We still hear him say “I’m so smart” and “I have the greatest temperament.” It’s a different tone in these clips.
2) It’s a change, but on purpose. From another reader:
What happened? This has been my theory from day one: Trump the movie critic, the wheeler-dealer, as well as the X-rated media guru, is the genuine article, while Trump the religious, pro-life, GOP conservative, redneck, Tea Partier ... is fake.
An act. A stunt. A last gasp for something big before its too late ... that somehow won a primary ... then two ... then the nomination.
Nobody was more shocked than he was.
He is a lifelong New Yorker, city slicker, playboy, Democrat ... now playing a character from rural Mississippi(?) ... or West Virginia. Other days he’s Archie Bunker, in a one-man play, on stage. The crowd loves him!
He’s done enough of these stump speeches that he can probably do them in his sleep. But the pro-gun (bwaahaha!) Trump is kinda like me singing in the shower: not my real voice, out of tune, probably haven’t really studied the lyrics.
More proof for my theory: Go back and look at the stuff that leaked out after his meeting with the New York Times editorial board. He basically said, “Can you guys believe this? I’ve got them eating out of my hands!” (And “Oh, and about those illegal immigrants, meh. Whatever. We’ll figure something out later.”)
3) It’s a change, and not on purpose. An assessment that is downbeat in a different way:
The answer, I suspect, to your question in #148 is ... age.
I’ve become increasingly suspicious of opinion that doesn’t take this into account. We would all like lives lived to four score and ten without any diminishment, and that happens regularly now, but those who remain acute and fully engaged for six score or more are rare no matter how much we would all like to join the club.
The increasingly demented things that Trump says are, er, well, demented and do not come from the hormone-ridden enthusiasms of an uncontrolled 30 year old; they come from a 70 year old. He remembers what the 30 year old was like, believes he is the same incarnate, and wants to make his mark on history as the end approaches. It is clear he now has no control of his expression on a stage where his (putative) wealth and its implied authority and a very long time before the public eye can have disastrous consequences.
Take your pick; elements of truth in all of these, I think. Also, on the “Rosebud” question in the conventional sense, of what makes Trump the way he is, please check out this fascinating NYT piece by Michael Barbaro on Trump’s longstanding and powerful dread of public humiliation or loss of status. (And ironically enough, the result of this campaign ... )
Twelve days and some hours to go. Tax returns still not released. Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus still on board, saying Make This Man POTUS!
What the Amazon founder and CEO wants for his empire and himself, and what that means for the rest of us.
Where in the pantheon of American commercial titans does Jeffrey Bezos belong? Andrew Carnegie’s hearths forged the steel that became the skeleton of the railroad and the city. John D. Rockefeller refined 90 percent of American oil, which supplied the pre-electric nation with light. Bill Gates created a program that was considered a prerequisite for turning on a computer.
At 55, Bezos has never dominated a major market as thoroughly as any of these forebears, and while he is presently the richest man on the planet, he has less wealth than Gates did at his zenith. Yet Rockefeller largely contented himself with oil wells, pump stations, and railcars; Gates’s fortune depended on an operating system. The scope of the empire the founder and CEO of Amazon has built is wider. Indeed, it is without precedent in the long history of American capitalism.
As WeWork crashes and Uber bleeds cash, the consumer-tech gold rush may be coming to an end.
Several weeks ago, I met up with a friend in New York who suggested we grab a bite at a Scottish bar in the West Village. He had booked the table through something called Seated, a restaurant app that pays users who make reservations on the platform. We ordered two cocktails each, along with some food. And in exchange for the hard labor of drinking whiskey, the app awarded us $30 in credits redeemable at a variety of retailers.
I am never offended by freebies. But this arrangement seemed almost obscenely generous. To throw cash at people every time they walk into a restaurant does not sound like a business. It sounds like a plot to lose money as fast as possible—or to provide New Yorkers, who are constantly dining out, with a kind of minimum basic income.
As the impeachment inquiry intensifies, some associates of the president predict that his already erratic behavior is going to get worse.
The country is entering a new and precarious phase, in which the central question about President Donald Trump is not whether he is coming unstrung, but rather just how unstrung he is going to get.
The boiling mind of Trump has spawned a cottage industry for cognitive experts who have questioned whether he is, well, all there. But as the impeachment inquiry barrels ahead on Capitol Hill, several associates of the president, including former White House aides, worry that his behavior is likely to get worse. Angered by the proceedings, unencumbered by aides willing to question his judgment, and more and more isolated in the West Wing, Trump is apt to lash out more at enemies imagined and real, these people told me. Conduct that has long been unsettling figures to deteriorate as Trump comes under mounting stress. What unfolded Wednesday inside the West Wing’s walls might be only a foretaste of what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi described that day, after a meeting with Trump, as a presidential “meltdown.”
Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society.
Just under a century ago, the Soviet Union embarked on one of the strangest attempts to reshape the common calendar that has ever been undertaken. As Joseph Stalin raced to turn an agricultural backwater into an industrialized nation, his government downsized the week from seven to five days. Saturday and Sunday were abolished.
In place of the weekend, a new system of respite was introduced in 1929. The government divided workers into five groups, and assigned each to a different day off. On any given day, four-fifths of the proletariat would show up to their factories and work while the other fifth rested. Each laborer received a colored slip of paper—yellow, orange, red, purple, or green—that signified his or her group. The staggered schedule was known as nepreryvka, or the “continuous workweek,” since production never stopped.
Donald Trump’s narcissism makes it impossible for him to carry out the duties of the presidency in the way the Constitution requires.
On a third-down play last season, the Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith stood in shotgun formation, five yards behind the line of scrimmage. As he called his signals, a Houston Texans cornerback, Kareem Jackson, suddenly sprinted forward from a position four yards behind the defensive line.
The literary critic thought the culture that sustained him was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice.
For more than three decades Harold Bloom, Cassandra-like, warned America that the literary culture that sustained him and other lovers of the word was in the process of being sacrificed on the altar of social justice. “We are,” he said, “destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences.” We eviscerate literary works to uncover the presence of exclusionary and discriminatory impulses and gestures; we feast on their contributions to social justice or their failures to contribute to social justice, and then discard the carcass. There is nothing more to be done with them, and surely no reason to reread them.
Rereading for Bloom, who died last weekend, was the hallmark of the aesthetic experience. Something that has, in Bloom’s words, aesthetic dignity is not disposable. It is not instrumental in relation to some other value. It is its own value, and it is not, Bloom wrote, “for hire.” Aesthetic dignity is not to be subordinated to some cause, however noble. It does not offer itself up for “rapid ingestion.” It does not exist to give the reader pleasure. Instead it gives the “high unpleasure or more difficult pleasure that a lesser text”—one in the service of an ideology—“will not provide.”
White House and Justice Department attorneys work for the government and the public—but are acting in Trump’s personal interest instead.
Legal ethicists no doubt cringed earlier this year when Attorney General William Barr preempted Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report by announcing that “no collusion” had occurred between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. That was not what Mueller had actually said. Instead, the special counsel emphasized that “collusion” is not a legal concept and therefore made no finding on that point. As the top prosecutor in the nation, Barr had an ethical obligation to describe the law and the facts accurately to the American people.
But Barr’s misrepresentation was only the first of several legal abominations from federal-government attorneys—whose duty is to the American public and the agencies that act on the public’s behalf—behaving instead like Trump’s personal lawyers. This is no small ethical lapse.
America has a great deal at stake in the negotiations, but has gone entirely AWOL.
Gordon Sondland is a busy man. He recently testified to Congress about his role in President Donald Trump’s attempt to extort campaign dirt from the government of Ukraine. That testimony follows from Sondland’s previous deft maneuvering to insert himself as Trump’s point man on Ukraine. All of these many plots and schemes appear to have left Sondland with little time to do his actual job: representing the United States as ambassador to the European Union, of which Ukraine is not a member.
This is the week, and now the weekend, when the Brexit negotiations have reached their decisive moment: the U.K.’s last clear chance to reach a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. It’s a big moment for the U.K. You’d never know it, but it’s also a big moment for the United States.
The Iranian approach to proxy warfare offers a surprising lesson.
In July 2006 in south Beirut, Qassem Soleimani was facing death. In a rare interview published earlier this month, the shadowy commander of Iran’s Qods Force, the elite paramilitary arm of the Iranian regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, revealed for the first time that he was in Lebanon during the 33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah to direct Iran’s support to its decades-long Shia proxy-turned-ally in Lebanon. Soleimani recounted a harrowing (aren’t they all) escape from swarming Israeli drones, targeting him and Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. As the Israeli campaign intensified, Soleimani shuttled between Lebanon and Iran to relay battlefield updates to Tehran and rally support to the group. Asked if anyone in Tehran questioned Iran’s commitment to Hezbollah at the risk of a direct war with Israel, particularly if the commander of the vaunted Qods Force was killed, Soleimani said “No one hesitated,” starting with the supreme leader.