Noah Millman

Fetch Happens

For over a year now, Marco Rubio and his substantial cheering section have been trying to ignite Marco-Mentum without notable success. Well, they finally made fetch happen – and just in the nick of time.

In the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, there was clearly something stirring. Trump’s numbers were falling; Rubio’s were rising. Just as in 2012, there was a late-breaking surge for the rising candidate. It’s just that this time, the rising candidate was a media darling rather than a factional protest candidate of the social-conservative right.

The first interesting question is: why? Rubio did not invest in the kind of ground-game infrastructure in Iowa that Cruz did. The things that might be appealing about him – youth, glibness, media support – have been true for some time. Why the late surge?

I’m reluctant to believe that skipping the final GOP debate actually made that much difference – but maybe it was a fatal error? Maybe merely showing the voters a field without Trump made it more plausible to distinguish among those alternatives rather than see them as a non-Trump mass?

Maybe this really was a case of “the party hasn’t decided yet” and it finally made up its mind. Mainstream GOP voters in Iowa simply weren’t being told by their betters who they have to choose (as they were told in 2012), and so they didn’t choose until the last minute. And of the remaining non-Trump, non-Cruz choices, Rubio was actually the most appealing.

Maybe all the Trump hype (which I participated in) actually energized those non-Trump, non-Cruz voters to show up and represent the mainstream of the party. Cruz’s Iowa victory is a victory for organization, a plan well-executed. Both Trump’s disappointing second-place showing and Rubio’s strong third-place showing, by contrast, were the product less of careful planning than of enthusiasm. High turnout was supposed to help Trump. Instead, it helped his opponent.

So what happens now?

Before the late surge for Rubio, I argued that Trump was in the dominant position. He could lose Iowa to Cruz, but in a Trump-Cruz race Trump had the distinct upper hand. And if Trump won Iowa, he would be favored to win New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada, and then practically run the table.

Rubio’s strong third-place showing clearly changes that calculus. Rubio’s mainstream opponents in New Hampshire – Bush, Kasich and Christie – will face a dilemma. If they turn their fire on Rubio, they risk facilitating a modest Cruz surge in New Hampshire, and setting up a Trump-Cruz contest for the South. If they lay off Rubio, then he should be able to capitalize on his Iowa results to finish a strong second in New Hampshire, which would decisively end all of their campaigns. Nonetheless, I would expect all of them to come under heavy party pressure to pursue the latter course, and focus their fire on Cruz. As a consequence, if Rubio doesn’t come in second in New Hampshire, that should count as a disappointment.

But the real state to watch is South Carolina. Rubio picked up the (presumably long-arranged) endorsement of Senator Scott. His numbers were moving modestly upward in South Carolina before Iowa. And both Bush and Carson, who had meaningful support in the last batch of polls, would be expected to decline. If their voters go to Rubio rather than to Cruz (I assume they won’t go to Trump), then he has a real chance to win the state.

Rubio’s situation is comparable, in different ways, to McCain’s in 2008 and Bill Clinton’s in 1992. Like Clinton, he’s the young, up-and-coming candidate who was tagged early on as the likely winner before he’d actually demonstrated the ability to win actual votes. And, like both Clinton and McCain, his main opposition (Tsongas and Brown in Clinton’s case, Romney and Huckabee in McCain’s) are viewed as less-electable and less-acceptable to the party mainstream. Having proved himself a viable alternative, the party may well rally around him, and muscle him to victory.

But Rubio’s opposition is also considerably better-resourced than either Clinton’s or McCain’s was. Cruz has plenty of money and a strong organization. He planned for a long contest from the beginning. Trump has his own fortune (which he hasn’t had to spend yet) and has already demonstrated the ability to energize large numbers of voters.

Moreover, both Cruz and Trump have an argument on their side. Neither is a pure factional candidate, the way Huckabee was, or an incoherent protest, the way Gingrich was. On both foreign and domestic policy, there are real, meaningful differences with Rubio that have been far from irrelevant to their success so far.

If that argument is joined, there’s reason to believe that Rubio will actually have to keep fighting in order to win. We’ll soon see just how much fight he has in him.

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A Revolt Against Decadence—But Whose?

Ross Douthat’s latest column on the eve of the Iowa caucus about the Trump and Sanders “revolts” is onto something important – but I think he takes a right intuition in the wrong direction.

He begins by noting that 2016 is a funny year for a populist revolt, since the state of the union, while not great, is hardly catastrophic. “So what are Trumpistas and Bern-feelers rebelling against” he asks?

His answer is “decadence” (a key concept for Douthat these days), which he defines thusly:

Think of it as a useful way of describing a society that’s wealthy, powerful, technologically proficient — and yet seemingly unable to advance in the way that its citizens once took for granted. A society where people have fewer children and hold diminished expectations for the future, where institutions don’t work particularly well but can’t seem to be effectively reformed, where growth is slow and technological progress disappoints. A society that fights to a stalemate in its foreign wars, even as domestic debates repeat themselves without any resolution. A society disillusioned with existing religions and ideologies, but lacking new sources of meaning to take their place.

This is how many Americans, many Westerners, experience their civilization in the early years of the 21st century. And both Trump and Bernie Sanders, in their very different ways, are telling us that we don’t have to settle for it anymore.

There’s something to this as a description of our present doldrums, but I’m not sure “decadence” is the best word for it – or, rather, calling it decadence elides a key distinction between state and society. Americans who are working are working longer hours than ever and have less job security; Americans who are in school are studying for longer hours and being tested more intensively; Americans who serve in our armed forces are doing more, and longer, tours of duty. That doesn’t sound like a decadent society to me.

That elision is, I think, what accounts for Douthat’s very peculiar peroration:

The disappointment and impatience that people feel in a decadent era is legitimate, even admirable. But the envy of more heroic moments, the desire to just do something to prove your society’s vitality — Invade Iraq to remake the Middle East! Open Germany’s borders! Elect Trump or Sanders president! — can be a very dangerous sensibility.

There are pathways up from decadence. But there are more roads leading down.

If I understand him correctly, he’s saying to America’s voters: “beware of your impulse to vote for Trump or Sanders; it is coming from the same place as the impulse to invade Iraq or invite in millions of migrants.” Which is an odd conclusion, because neither the decision to invade Iraq nor the decision to invite in millions of migrants originated in any popular impulse, but were exclusively elite projects. Inasmuch as they served an emotional purpose as opposed to a practical one – and I think it’s safe to say that their purpose was at least partly emotional – it was to demonstrate the greatness (martial and/or moral) of the societies those elites dominate.

They may, in other words, be a reaction to a sense of decadence, of lack of purpose or meaning – of a need to do something to show their vitality. But the “they” in that sentence is not the people, but the elite.

And, most important, Trump and Sanders, in their different ways, are running precisely against that impulse.

Trump, after all, has announced no grand projects to prove American greatness – no new provinces he would conquer, no new planets on which he would plant the American flag. He views with equanimity President Putin’s efforts to demonstrate Russian greatness in a very Mussolini-esque manner precisely because he sees no threat to America from those actions should they succeed, and even more because he expects them to come to naught. It’s the mainstream Republican candidates who are in a collective freakout about America losing the patina of its imperial pretensions. The only monument Trump proposes to his own magnificence is a great big wall – and the only extravagant thing about that promise is his declaration that he’d get the folks on the other side of the wall to pay for it.

And Sanders’s big paleo-liberal dreams – free college! single-payer health care! – are not remotely comparable to the dreams of “national greatness” types. They aren’t even projects of social engineering. They’re just old-fashioned government benefits of the sort that many other industrialized countries have provided for decades. If they are “impossible” dreams, it’s because they are politically impossible (and perhaps for good reason – they may be bad ideas). It’s not because they are physically impossible. They are are far cry from “just do something” – the “something” is a known, established thing.

Both Trump and Sanders, in very different ways, are saying: you know, America’s leadership class has been very busy, but it hasn’t really been taking care of business. And they are telling the people to rebuke their leadership for that by throwing them out. They may be the wrong tribunes of that sentiment – Trump certainly is. But how is that impulse not exactly the right response to elite decadence?

Put bluntly: if the American people are sick of precisely the sorts of “do something” actions that Douthat highlights as signs of decadence, who, in this primary, are they supposed to vote for?

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Talking Trump’s Chances

Noah CNN

This morning, I was on CNN’s “New Day” with Alisyn Camerota talking about Donald Trump’s chances to “run the table.” You can see a slightly truncated clip of the interview here.

Where the clip cuts off, I was saying that in this cycle, it feels like Republican voters seem much more interested in someone who stands against the existing GOP power structure than in ideological litmus tests.

The news since my column at The Week only reinforces my convictions about the shape of the race. The latest poll from CNN out of Iowa has Trump up 11 points over Cruz. The question – as we discussed in the segment – is whether Trump’s supporters show up in large numbers, something we can’t possibly know in advance, as well as whether events between now and February 1st change the shape of the race.

But the shape of Iowa – and New Hampshire – is already very different from past races, and different in a way that is good for Trump.

In recent history, Iowa has frequently gone to a factional candidate as a protest against the party candidate. In 2008, McCain and Giuliani ignored Iowa while Romney staked his claim to Iowa as the full-spectrum conservative alternative to McCain. Instead, the caucuses went to Huckabee, a factional candidate of the religious right. In 2012, Romney was the candidate with overwhelming establishment support. He faced a number of implausible insurgents against him, and ultimately lost Iowa to Santorum.

Cruz today, in terms of his positioning in Iowa and commitment to the state, looks something like Romney in 2008: he’s made a huge commitment to the state on the strength of his full-spectrum conservatism. He’s got a much stronger claim to that positioning than Romney did. But Trump is positioned very differently from a typical front-runner, because he is transparently not a creation of the establishment. There’s no reason to vote against Trump as a protest. In fact, a good portion of the support for Trump is driven by protest. So Cruz’s insurgent campaign is more purely factionally-driven. And on top of that, he is positively loathed by actual Republican officials in a way that Huckabee and Santorum never were.

All of that tells me that Trump has a very real shot to win the emotional argument for caucus voters’ hearts, to a considerably greater degree than Romney did in either 2008 or 2012. The main open question is how good he is at turning out his people.

Meanwhile, looking beyond Iowa, the powers-that-be in the Republican party seem to be edging towards Trump . . . as a way of stopping Cruz! There are the comments from Bob Dole, the comments from numerous insiders quoted in this New York Times piece – even perennial Trump-skeptic Nate Silver has noticed. And, of course, there’s was the endorsement by Sarah Palin.

I agree with Silver that the party isn’t deciding for Trump. But the party is deciding what they will do if there’s a Trump-Cruz race after New Hampshire. And on that question, they seem to be preparing to deal with Trump. And that leaves Trump in a much stronger position than Cruz in that eventuality.

Cruz is going to make the argument – he’s already making the argument – that he’s the authentic insurgent because figures like Bob Dole prefer Trump. But Trump is manifestly not a creature of the Republican establishment. What’s happening is simply classic bandwagoning behavior – people adjusting their positioning based on who they think is going to win. And Trump himself is adjusting to these new circumstances.

Trump is an insurgent front-runner with substantial financial resources. That’s a hard combination to beat.

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Could Trump “Run the Table?”

That’s the question I ask in my latest column at The Week. As you might guess, my answer is affirmative.

The usual response to these sorts of claims is that polling this far out doesn’t really mean much. Contests can get especially volatile as we approach an election date, nobody is paying attention yet, and Trump is riding primarily on name-recognition. But the distinctive feature of the 2016 Republican primary polling has not been its volatility but its stability — at least at the top, where Trump sits.

Volatility in recent prior GOP primary contests has been driven by dissatisfaction with the presumptive nominee: McCain in 2008 and Romney in 2012. But there is no establishment candidate or presumptive nominee to be dissatisfied with this time. Instead, there’s a candidate from far outside that establishment, who is running explicitly against that establishment, but not running a particularly ideological campaign — certainly not one that lines up with traditional conservative shibboleths (which is what Cruz is doing). The extraordinary stability of the Trump vote may be a sign not merely of the high name-recognition of the candidate, but the wide and deep appeal of that stance — or of Trump personally.

And if voters in later states aren’t paying attention yet, then what will cause them to pay attention? Primarily, the results of the early contests. Primary contests are partly ways of signaling to the partisan electorate who they are supposed to vote for. So early Trump victories could well signal to the less-engaged portions of that electorate that the party has decided — and decided for Trump. Even though, in the minds of those supposedly in charge of the party, they most certainly haven’t.

Cruz is the only challenger to Trump who has gotten any kind of traction, but his rise has been overwhelmingly on the right, a path that numerous insurgents have taken and failed in. Maybe he’ll succeed this time — but why assume that Trump will be easier to defeat in this manner than candidates who were manifestly more disliked by the rank-and-file GOP electorate? Isn’t it more likely that, if voters in New York or Pennsylvania see their choice as “Trump or Cruz or some loser,” they’ll mostly go for the angry but non-doctrinaire Trump?

The rest of the crowd of candidates needs to take advantage of the nomination’s “blue wall” that supposedly stops conservative candidates from winning. But Trump already has the advantage in scaling that wall. His strongest regions are the Northeast and Midwest. He polls just as well among self-described moderates as among self-described conservatives.

The mainstream candidates can’t get any traction because Trump is ahead of them in their lane, while Cruz is the classic ideological conservative challenger. How does that story — a stronger-than-usual poll-leader blocking the moderate path to the nomination, and a more-divisive-than-usual candidate playing conservative insurgent — not imply that the less-ideological but charismatic poll leader is the favorite to win?

If Trump wins Iowa – as very he well may – that could badly hobble Ted Cruz, his strongest challenger to date. After that, he’d be strongly favored to win New Hampshire (as he is regardless).

That’s far from certain to happen, of course. But if it did happen, it would be unprecedented. No GOP candidate has won both the Iowa caucuses and the  New Hampshire primary since the dawn of the modern primary system. Not Nixon in 1968. Not Reagan in 1980. And not Bush in 2000.

And given that Trump is currently leading in the polls of basically every state after the first two, why wouldn’t the streak continue after a start like that?

You know, did warn us we’d get bored with winning.

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The Decapitation of the GOP

Graphic by Tim Markatos
Graphic by Tim Markatos

The Republican Party today poses a bit of a conundrum.

On the one hand, the party has gone from strength to strength at every level of government. It dominates state legislatures, is over-represented in governorships of states of all regions, types and sizes, has a virtual lock on the House of Representatives and a majority in the Senate. And it has achieved these goal in spite of a multi-year insurgency from the Tea Party right that has plainly cost it some winnable seats.

On the other hand, that same multi-year insurgency has so roiled Republican Presidential politics that this year, a candidate running explicitly on dethroning the party leadership for incompetence and corruption is not only leading in the polls nationally and in virtually every state – but no other competing candidate can get any traction by attracting the support of that party leadership.

The GOP, in other words, faces a very real prospect of decapitation, a takeover of the party by a man who owes virtually nothing to anybody of any consequence in the Republican hierarchy, nor among the world of GOP money-men, nor among the shock-jock army that has been relatively friendly to his candidacy largely because they don’t want to get on the wrong side of their own viewers and listeners.

That is a very strange position for an apparently strong and growing party to be in – which is what the party seems to be if you look at its actual electoral performance over the past several years. It almost makes one wonder how relevant the party has been to its own success.

So my question is: whether Trump wins a general election or loses, what happens to the GOP afterwards? In particular, what happens to down-ballot races, to the entrenched leadership in the various states? Could the GOP, organizationally, survive such a decapitation reasonably well? If it did, what would that reveal about where the power really lies in American politics? And what would change as a result?

David Brooks is not wrong to panic. Not so much because a Trump victory would mean the end of the GOP – but because it very well might not.

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Self Control, Self Knowledge, and Self Mastery

Damon Linker has a piece up at The Week that – uncharacteristically for him – is all about . . . him. And, more specifically, his nine-year exploration of self through psychodynamic psychotherapy:

Most of my experience with therapy has been with psychodynamic psychotherapists who’ve had psychoanalytic training but who tend to sit face-to-face with their patients, talking things through an hour at a time, once or twice a week, for months or years on end. For about six months out of those nine years, I’ve also tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT).

As Oliver Burkeman explains in a wonderful essay for The Guardian, CBT has been on the rise over the past few decades, with analytical approaches to therapy under relentless critical assault. Therapy in the Freudian tradition is supposedly unscientific, interminable, and expensive. Worst of all, there’s no proof that it works. CBT, by contrast, is in most cases quick, easy, and “evidence based.”

Or so we’ve been told for decades. But as Burkeman also notes, this has begun to change. Recent studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of CBT while also raising the possibility that Freud-inspired talk therapy may work much better than once seemed to be the case.

This shift in the consensus jibes quite well with my own experience. Which is to say, CBT isn’t the panacea its boosters like to think it is, and psychodynamic therapy is far more efficacious than its detractors claim. Each has its place. Each is well-suited to certain kinds of people and problems. I’ve had positive experiences with both myself. Yet the psychodynamic model of the mind ultimately comes much closer to making sense of my psychological experience.

As he goes on to explain, CBT isn’t trying to “make sense” of anyone’s psychological experience – it’s trying to give you tools to assert control over that experience, or over the behavior that you habitually turn to in response to that experience:

Say I’m unhappy about something in my life: Whenever something surprising or unexpected happens in my daily routine I grow agitated, anxious, and angry. So I sit down with a CBT therapist and begin to problem-solve. She might explain that these negative emotions arise because I irrationally presume that things will always go badly, maybe even catastrophically, when I’m forced to think on my feet and make a last-minute change of plan. This inference triggers a panic response in my amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional reactions — the one that might lead me to leap out of the way of a truck bearing down on me at high speed when crossing the street.

If I’m about to hit by a truck, such a panic response is good, and rational, since it might save me from a mortal threat. But why does my brain treat a minor last-minute change in my schedule as the equivalent of a life-threatening injury? There are all kinds of possibilities, many of them rooted in my past. But it doesn’t really matter for CBT. What does matter is that I recognize the response as irrational and seek to short-circuit the invalid inference. I might do this by keeping a diary in which I record every time something unexpected happens in my life, and the outcome. Before long, I’ll notice that most changes of plan don’t lead to catastrophe, and some of them actually make my life more interesting and fun.

And that’s the point: teaching myself to adjust my irrational associations.

Psychodynamic psychotherapy, meanwhile, grasps the other end of the stick:

But . . . [w]hat if I don’t have the foggiest idea of why I’m unhappy?

Unlike CBT, the psychodynamic approach to therapy sees human beings as strangers to themselves — unsure of what they want, self-subversive in their actions, and opaque in their motives. It therefore presumes that the obstacles to achieving rationality and happiness — which involves determining what we truly want and taking reasonable action to get it — are far greater than CBT presumes.

This means that psychodynamic therapy involves not simply listing problems and troubleshooting solutions, but making a concerted effort to achieve self-understanding — a process that takes time and often an enormous amount of work (and courage). Only then can we know what the true problems are and determine what kind of enduring solutions might be possible.

Though few psychodynamic psychotherapists these days accept Freud’s conclusions in all (or even most) of their details, they do affirm his overall model of the mind as containing sedimented layers of thinking, including a subconscious teeming with repressed images, desires, fantasies, hopes, and fears that can affect conscious thinking, acting, and feeling in strange, unpredictable ways. The mind does this by way of pre-rational forms of archaic thinking that take shape in childhood.

. . . [A]rchaic thinking can’t be changed or stopped just by pointing to surface-level behavior and feelings and labeling them “irrational.” The only way to change them is by working through the subconscious associations, emotions, and conflicts over and over again at the conscious level — in conversation with an analyst trained to look for clues of archaic thinking at work below the surface.

Three thoughts about this.

First, I’ve spent a number of years in psychodynamic psychotherapy myself, and I’ve found it enormously rewarding, both in that I feel in the sessions that I’m having an important experience, and that I feel I’ve taken from the sessions important understanding that has shaped and improved my life. I feel guilty, sometimes, about lavishing so much attention on my inner life – embarrassed, sometimes, about paying someone to listen to me. But it doesn’t feel like morbid self-absorption, not usually. It feels – when I do it “right” – directed at genuine understanding.

On the other hand, I notice that I can still be thrown off by the very sorts of mental habits that Linker highlights as the focus of cognitive-behavioral therapy. I’ve often asked my therapist whether it’s the little things – the bad mental habits and the behavior that results – that lead to deeper problems in one’s life, or whether it’s the deeper problems that lead to bad habits. The answer, of course, is, “yes.”

Which means these approaches are not competing, but complementary. You might say that cognitive-behavioral therapy aims at achieving self-control, while psychodynamic psychotherapy aims at achieving self-understanding. But what the ancients aimed for was self-mastery, something that encompassed both concepts and transcended them.

Second, I want to thank Linker for “putting himself in the frame,” something I often encourage opinion writers to do. There’s a tendency, in this business, to strive for a kind of objectivity or an Olympian perspective that is frankly and obviously nonsensical. An essential predicate – I’m absolutely convinced of this – to thinking clearly about any subject is understanding what you are bringing to the table that makes you, specifically, care. Because if you don’t see that, you can’t see around it – nor can you understand how your ideological opponents might be similarly affected by what they bring to the table, and get inside their heads.

As a culture, we’re comfortable doing this by identity category. We’re allowed to say: I feel this way because I’m a woman, or Jewish, or Hispanic, or deaf, or because I was abused as a child – and you don’t understand because you aren’t. The categories can be inherent or experiential, but they are asserted as a way of forcing somebody else to pay attention. Which, often enough, is very much merited. But it’s only a first step, because everybody brings something to the table, not just people who fit into trendy ideological boxes. And, more to the point, getting other people to pay attention is political and instrumental. Getting yourself to pay attention is the way to thinking, and writing, with greater clarity.

So I’m inclined to say that a lot more pundits would benefit from the kind of exploration Linker describes.

Unfortunately, as my final point, I have to point out that this kind of trip is really, really expensive. It is, for that reason, not scalable. It will only ever be available to an elite – and that elite may be shrinking because of Baumol’s cost disease, which makes anything labor-intensive more expensive over time as automation makes capital-intensive activities cheaper. That’s one reason CBT is so popular – it’s also not really scalable, but it’s more scalable by far than the psychodynamic approach. It’s a form of therapy perfectly suited to a society that finds the inner life to be a bit of a nuisance, but demands every-increasing organizational competence of its monads.

It is depressing to think that there are good economic reasons why an affluent society can’t afford to incubate very many mastered selves, but I don’t think the ancients would be surprised at all.


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Winners, Losers and the SOTU

Gage Skidmore / Phil Roeder

I rarely listen to the State of the Union address. I rather incline to Thomas Jefferson’s sentiment that it flatters the institution of the Presidency, and to his decision to deliver his in writing. So, as with most of his previous addresses, I read President Obama’s last oration on the state of our union rather than listening to it in real time.

So I don’t know if it came off this way when he delivered it, but reading it I was struck by an overarching theme, that of winners and losers.

I wonder where that theme might have come from.

The basic structure of the argument of the speech, as I read it, was as follows:

  • Change happens, and is only partly under anyone’s control.
  • When we adapt to change and seize the opportunities it offers, we win.
  • In all sorts of ways, America has been adapting well, and seizing the opportunities of change, and as a consequence America is winning.
  • Not everybody in America is winning, or believes they are winning.
  • Those people – the losers – are the people who oppose me and my agenda.
  • We, the winners, have to help those people more, and those people have to open their hearts and minds to the possibility that the winners, like me, actually know what we’re talking about.

The President wasn’t quite so blunt as that, but nonetheless, I think that’s the gist. And that gist is politically problematic, both because it’s not exactly right about the nature of the President’s opposition and because it’s not really the best way to make the argument regardless of the facts.

Opposition to Obamacare, for example, isn’t coming from people who were falling through the cracks before. It’s coming from people who have seen their cost of insurance go up, or who have had to change doctors, as a consequence of the redistribution scheme that makes it possible to cover the people who were falling through the cracks. These people see themselves as having lost something, and having lost it because the government thought giving a benefit to someone else was important, and that they deserved to pay for that benefit. Similarly, popular opposition to efforts to combat climate change is coming from people who fear they will lose out as a result of those regulatory efforts – for example, people in coal country who see their industry’s very existence threatened by the government’s choices.

It’s all well and good to say: on balance, these choices are good for America. As it happens, I think these choices are good for America, even if they can be further improved upon. But there are losers as well as winners in these choices, and those losers are not losing because of “change” – they are losing because of choices. And I suspect it is grating to hear someone who is clearly winning lecture them about how they are losing because of impersonal forces of history that must be accommodated, and that they shouldn’t take out their frustrations on the wrong target. Even if it’s true, it’s a lousy message for reaching those people.

The President got in some strong points in the next section of the speech, articulating the four challenges America faces – combatting inequality of opportunity, using technology to fight climate change, charting a foreign policy for a world threatened more by disorder than by powerful enemies, and making our political culture more liberal (sorry, “make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst”). In particular, the foreign policy vision he outlined is one I agree with far more than I do with the foreign policy the President has actually carried out.

But the framework, which led straight into the ending peroration, hobbled its effectiveness. His call to liberalism is a call not to give in to “frustration,” not to “scapegoat” not to be “cynical.” He’s asking small business owners to be more generous – to workers looking for a raise, and to ex-cons looking for a first job. He’s asking cops to treat protesters with respect, tradition-minded parents to accept their gay children, and Republicans to give up the advantage their domination in state legislatures gives them in Congressional redistricting. I agree with all of those goals. But if I didn’t – or even if I did agree with some or all of them, but didn’t like Obama or Democrats in general – I wouldn’t want to hear a lecture from the President about how I’m not pulling my weight.

Liberalism, at its heart, is about generosity – spiritual and material. This is not a liberal moment in American politics. Which brings me to the real target of the President’s speech. The speech was barely aimed at rallying Democrats against the Republican opposition. It was aimed, first and foremost, at the campaign that has been overturning American politics for the past year, and that shows no signs of flagging.

The best evidence of this fact? That the official Republican response echoed the President’s themes of inclusion, comity and not giving in to fear far more than it indicted the President’s record or his policy prescriptions. Governor Haley’s official response to the State of the Union on behalf of her party was all-but explicitly structured as a plea to Republicans, and Americans, not to embrace the response to the Obama years that Donald Trump has been making daily for months. I can’t imagine he didn’t notice. I rather suspect he’ll be helped, rather than hurt, by it, if it has any effect at all.

The frustrations many Americans feel are a response to actual facts, not just misperceptions. Much as I might wish they might, those frustrations are unlikely to be quelled by a hectoring liberalism. But they may yet be channeled into left-wing or right-wing currents. That, really, is the state of our union, and that is the choice that both parties face this political season. We’ll see which way they choose.

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The Prettiest Star


It seems off, somehow, that David Bowie should die at all, rather than be taken back up to his home planet on a beam of light and music.

I was introduced to Bowie my freshman year of college, which is on the late side; I had no particular taste of my own and needed a roommate who actually had some to make the introduction. And I was hooked immediately, dove head-first into the deep end of that pool and didn’t come up for air until graduation.

For the friend who made that initial introduction, Bowie was part of a triumvirate of cool, along with Prince and Lou Reed. Not a bad group to choose for the purpose, but their approaches to that ineffable quality of attractive distance were radically different from one another. For Reed, I think, it worked the way most of us imagine cool to work – he had it because we didn’t, because he claimed it and we couldn’t. He declared his distance, and the declaration was decisive. After all, both his look and his music were stripped down to essentials that you’d think anyone could master, and even his lyricism largely eschewed the crazy flights of fancy of his former bandmate, John Cale. And yet we weren’t as cool as he was. Prince, meanwhile, was an obviously extraordinary talent, whose persona read more as expressed than created, who wore his heart on his ruffled sleeve. He was unique because he was himself, as we are ourselves, and he couldn’t help but tell us who he is, no matter where that leads.

Bowie, though, while he told us, over and over, that he was different, that he wasn’t from here, said so not as a way of keeping us at a distance, but just as a way of letting us know that the distance was there. He’d like to come and meet us, even though he knows that, as with Zeno’s Achilles, an actual conjunction is impossible. Which is very sad. And I don’t think of cool as often being sad. Self-pitying, yes. But not sad, exactly. And yet the coolest cat of the them all was also the saddest.

And that, I guess, is the ground on which we still meet, even after establishing roots – family, community, career – when I feel that distance and need to sing across it.

A few nights ago, I saw Lazarus, the new David Bowie musical at New York Theater Workshop that loosely jumps off from Bowie’s 1976 cult science fiction film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth.” It wasn’t a great night of theater, partly because there wasn’t enough of a proper story, partly because too much of the staging felt static – it might have worked better as an extended music video. But partly because even as talented a performer as Michael C. Hall is going to be left floating between worlds if he tries to do a Bowie impersonation, and the script didn’t give him enough on which to build a non-Bowie persona that could inhabit the world, and the songs, that he was given.

But we abide in hope.

One day though it might as well be someday
You and I will rise up all the way
All because of what you are

Sayonara, to the prettiest star.

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“Carol” Is Beautiful, But a Bit of a Drag

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol" - photo: The Weinstein Co.
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in "Carol" - photo: The Weinstein Co.

The new film, “Carol,” from director Todd Haynes, is beautifully acted, beautifully costumed and designed, and beautifully shot. Fans of “Mad Men” should definitely go see it – it’s got the same languid pacing and the same meticulous attention to the details of mid-century style and manners. But there’s something that bothered me at the heart of the film, and I’m wondering whether anybody else felt the same way.

“Carol” tells the story of a love affair between two women in the early 1950s: a younger, mousy woman, Therese (Rooney Mara), who aspires to be a photographer, and an older, glamorous woman, the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is a suburban matron. Both women are already entangled with men – Therese is dating a fellow who badly wants to be her fiancé, while Carol is married (albeit in the process of divorcing), and has a young daughter. They spot each other across the crowded floor of the department store where Therese works, and there is an instant mutual fascination. Carol engages in some high-Hollywood flirting, and then leaves her gloves behind, presumably strategically. Therese contacts her to return them – and we’re off to the races.

Well, actually, there’s a bit of a dance before things get racy, as Carol, despite her obvious attraction for Therese and her transparent efforts to reel her in, is a bit hesitant at crossing the line that would constitute an outright pass at the younger woman. But they can’t stay away from each other. And when her soon-to-be-ex-husband, the on-the-nose-named Harge (Kyle Chandler), discovers her new infatuation, he flies into a rage and uses Carol’s behavior to wrest custody of their daughter from her. This is when Carol throws caution to the wind, and invites Therese on a cross-country road trip to forget her troubles, which Therese accepts over the furious protests of her uncomprehending beau.

Notwithstanding the amount of time that passes before the two women express their mutual passion physically, though, this is a story of love at first sight. Their mutual attraction is not based on mutual knowledge; it’s there the instant they meet. Nor is it particularly fed by anything they share after that moment. It’s striking, actually, how little they speak to one another, how little they reveal; even so famous a believer in chance and chemistry as Sky Masterson, when he actually figures out which doll is for him, does quite a bit of singing.

But that’s not really what bugs me about their romance. What bugs me is . . . I can’t figure out who Therese has fallen in love with.

Mara gives a fully integrated, deeply felt and wholly persuasive performance as Therese, a woman raised to please who hasn’t figured out what pleases her, and who doesn’t quite know what to do with the feeling of being so powerfully drawn to Carol. But Blanchett’s performance is highly mannered, almost draggy in the degree to which, when she is with Mara, she is performing the role of glamorous femme fatale.

I am quite certain this is a deliberate choice, whether Blanchett’s or Haynes’s, both because I have seen Blanchett do so much varied work on both screen and stage that I know what kind of range she’s capable of, and also because, when she is away from Mara, her performance becomes much less mannered, much more direct and genuine. When she’s fighting with her husband, or chatting with her old friend and former lover Abby (Sarah Paulson), or going things over with her lawyer, she seems like a person. When she’s with Mara, though, she puts on this femme fatale act.

Which – again – is totally fine. People do that to attract people they are attracted to. They perform; they create a persona. It’s not even necessarily conscious. There’s something interesting to be explored about the way in which Carol finds herself boldly seducing Therese, and then pulling back from what her actions mean, and then moving forward again. That’s what attraction is like.

But is that enough to carry the story?

“Carol,” based on a somewhat autobiographical Patricia Highsmith novel, ends happily – atypically, to say the least, for a 1950s story of same-sex romance. After abruptly dropping Therese so as to fight for custody of her daughter, Carol realizes that she can’t live this way (and that the custody battle will itself do irreparable harm to her and Harge’s child), and so she gives Harge the custody he wants and asks only for regular visitation, and for him to let her go, and be herself. And then she reaches out to Therese  who, after briefly contemplating life without Carol, accepts her offer of a life together.

My wife was nonplussed by the ending, because she compared Carol’s situation to that of Diane Keaton’s character in “The Good Mother.” If she could ditch Liam Neeson so as to protect her relationship with her daughter, then couldn’t Carol ditch Therese? But that’s precisely what Carol tries to do, and only later does she realize that it won’t work – both because her husband won’t be mollified that way and because there’s a difference between turning away from someone you love and turning away from yourself, from who you are. She’ll be no good to her daughter if she does that, she says – and I believe her.

But I still don’t know how to read that purportedly happy ending, because I don’t think Therese knows who Carol is. She’s fallen in love with an image – of glamour, of sophistication, of wealth. But she doesn’t really know her – and, frankly, she’s just starting to know herself, and become herself, in the months after Carol drops her. And then, at the first opportunity, she goes back to her. Is this really where she should be?

Of course, we don’t know how long the arrangement lasts. It could be a beautiful love affair that lasts a year. Carol could find Therese a comfort; Therese could learn a great deal from Carol. And then they could move on, perhaps remaining friends. But that’s hardly what we want to imagine happens after the credits run. We want to imagine something far more enduring has been forged. And, I’m sorry, but that’s not what I saw happening, and so when the credits rolled my first thought was, “is that all there is?”

It’s a feeling which, to my mind, hangs over too much of the film, and unfortunately makes it, well – a bit of a drag.

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I suppose I should do one of these, since I failed to participate in our book symposium.

FILM: There are a bunch of 2015 films that I still haven’t seen, some of which I suspect I will really like. But of the ones I have seen (and recusing myself from the two films I had a part in producing), I’d single out “Room,” (hey, I actually wrote about that one) “Felix & Meira,” “Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “White God” as having made particularly strong impressions. Of pre-2015 films that I saw for the first time in 2015 (and ignoring 2014 films that I saw in January, because that’d just be silly to talk about them), I’d single out “Talk to Her,” “Hunger,” “The Reader,” “The Man Who Fell To Earth” and “Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon” as particular highlights.

THEATER: Well, I saw Hamilton at the Public, and again on Broadway. That show’s kind of in its own category. Other highlights in New York: Fun Home, which I had seen in 2013 at the Public and saw again on BroadwayHedwig and the Angry Inch with John Cameron Mitchell, which I was taken to by a friend who is a fanatical fan; The Iceman Cometh, which I had seen in Chicago and saw again at BAM; SkylightSpring AwakeningA View From the Bridge; and, perhaps surprisingly, Songbird, a country musical adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. And – although I should recuse myself as a member of the company’s board, I won’t – Red Bull Theater’s production of Tis Pity She’s a Whore. At Stratford, the highlight for me was a production of Shakespeare’s Pericles done as a Dickensian fable, which was sheer magic.

Next year I’ll try to be more consistent about writing up things I liked.

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