Noah Millman

Election End-Game — And Post-Season Predictions

I watched the final debate, and my impression was that Trump did fairly well when he got to be an angry critic of the bipartisan consensus, and did terribly when he had to advance any kind of proposition of his own. You might think this would mean that he’d do well ranting on his own television network — except that’s a space that is already pretty crowded, and not obviously growing. And I’m specifically not convinced Trump would know how to handle guests. Would congressional hopefuls really sign up to be contestants on Political Apprentice? I somehow doubt it. Anyway, potential investors in Trump TV should be appropriately skeptical.

The biggest headline from the debate, of course, was about Trump’s refusal to say that he’ll accept the results of an election he’s now extremely likely to lose. He’s now doubled down on that comment, to predictable outrage from anybody who still cares about American democracy. But in the end, I’m much less worried than commenters like Damon Linker that Trump will seriously undermine American democracy by refusing to concede. Rather, the bigger risk is that he will continue his destruction of the GOP. Because if Trump refuses to accept the election results, they will be stuck between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, they could try to humor his supporters, holding hearings on voter fraud, promising to impeach Hillary Clinton within 100 days, promising to reject any legislation she proposes, filibustering her choices for the Supreme Court, etc. But this plays into Trump’s hand, keeping him relevant and giving him the power to pronounce that whatever they are doing is ineffective and weak and that if he were in charge Hillary would already be in prison. Moreover, a Trumpified GOP is already hemorrhaging educated white voters. That process will only accelerate if the GOP continues its policy of appeasement, with potentially dire consequences for 2018 and beyond.

On the other hand, if the GOP leadership clearly accepts the results of the election, and offers (however disingenuously) to work with the new President, they will likely face an outraged revolt by multiple parts of their base — not only by core Trump voters, but also those ideological conservatives who object to Trump’s deviations or his character but who want to see the GOP stand on conservative principle. Opportunists like Ted Cruz will greedily seize the megaphone to decry the sellout by the leadership even as they take pains to distinguish themselves from Trump.

Just as in the primaries, the GOP leadership faces a two-front war. They will want to avoid that war, and to reconcile on almost any terms in the interest of battling the “real” enemy. But reconciliation is impossible without the mutual respect that allows for negotiation to form a coalition, something manifestly lacking at present.

The only way out is true institutional and ideological reform, something the GOP leadership has vigorously resisted now for three presidential cycles. Trump has made that process much harder, but he has also made it all the more necessary.

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Every Action Has An Equal Opposite Reaction

Sam Tannenhaus’s review of Mark Lilla’s book, The Shipwrecked Mind, which I hope to get around to reading before too long, ends on the following Godwinian note:

One of the strangest developments in the 2016 election has been the spectacle of West Coast Straussians who champion Trump—and lustily denounce his critics—in various forums, including the Claremont Review of Books, a well-written quarterly edited by Charles Kesler, and on Web sites like the Journal of American Greatness, billed as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism,” since reborn as the Web site American Greatness. Twenty or so Claremonsters are also among the more than a hundred “Scholars and Writers for America” who recently declared Trump “the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.”

Imperfect though Trump may be, the argument goes, he has all the right enemies: Beltway insiders, academics, “social scientists, media pundits, and policy professionals,” as Clarence Thomas’s tutor John Marini wrote. These are Strauss’s relativists and nihilists, who have perpetrated “regime change” at home, destroying the republic, or trying to. Trump’s redemptive greatness begins in his fearless opposition to political correctness, “a serious and totalist politics, aspiring to open the equivalent of a vast reeducation camp for the millions of defective Americans,” Kesler says. It would seem that reactionaries, while they inhabit our world, are not really of it. “They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in hopes of starting over,” Lilla writes. This, too, is a lesson of Weimar. With luck, we won’t have to learn it in real time.

This engendered a (to me) fascinating argument between some of my favorite intellectual sparring partners on Facebook (including TAC’s editor in chief, Daniel McCarthy), about whether there is any plausible connection between Trump and the American reactionary intellectual tradition which preceded him, and which Lilla traces in his book.

The case against such a connection is that nobody from what I guess you’d have to call the “mainstream” reactionary right was calling for somebody like Trump prior to his emergence. Trump’s “movement” arguably has limited ideological content beyond the glorification of Trump himself, and Trump himself is not only a low huckster but someone with neither knowledge of nor respect for America’s constitutional traditions, something you’d think a west coast Straussian would care rather a lot about. Finally, inasmuch as Trump represents the ascendancy of certain political ideas, those ideas are not the ideas of Harry Jaffa but rather those of Sam Francis. So “blaming” Jaffa (much less Strauss) for Trump seem ridiculous — and if some of Jaffa’s heirs are jumping on the Trump train, then they are just wrong.

All of which is both true and fair enough as far as it goes. But there’s still the problem of explaining why there have been any intellectual defenders of Donald Trump who aren’t coming from the world of the “alt-right.” It’s all well and good to say “these people are ignominiously betraying the intellectual tradition they claim to be upholding” — but one still needs to know why.

I think the likely answer should make someone who wants to defend that “mainstream” reactionary tradition just a little bit uncomfortable.

Apocalypticism has consequences. Reactionary thinkers may genuinely believe that the regime that America has been living under since 1965, or 1937, or 1913, or 1868 — or whatever date a particular reactionary prefers — is fundamentally corrupt, and that we need a radical return to first principles to save our civilization. But if you actually believe that, then it follows that when it comes time to choose a champion, it’s rational to pick not the person you agree with most or who has the character of someone you’d want to see in a leader, but the person most likely to destroy a corrupt system that is beyond reform.

You might, at one point, have convinced yourself that Ronald Reagan or New Gingrich or George W. Bush was someone different, someone who really would restore the Old Republic. But when you think about it, wasn’t that perhaps a purer example of self-delusion than supporting a guy like Trump? Because Trump really could destroy the Empire. And your own ideas imply that such destruction is a precondition to a successful re-founding.

To avoid that kind of logic, you have to have a deep resistance to apocalyptic thinking as such. You have to be reluctant to see civilization on the line in each and every election, to doubt whether it’s ever possible to identify in advance a fatal Rubicon which, once crossed, makes catastrophe inevitable. But if Lilla’s psychology is right, a reactionary can’t really do that.

And if, perhaps, you hadn’t already traveled that road prior to Trump’s emergence, then consider how Trump’s success might change your perspective on the matter. I remain convinced that a major part of the reason why Trump was able to achieve the success he has was his willingness to attack his own party and that party’s ideas in the fiercest, most uncompromising terms, ideas that had only grown more rigid as they proved less effective, both politically and in their empirical result. But in a sense, it doesn’t matter whether I’m right about the reason for his success or not — what matters is that the consequence of Trump’s primary victory makes it impossible to hold to a prior idea.

Specifically, movement conservatives can no longer plausibly claim, to themselves or to anyone, that they speak for the “real” American people. Either that people no longer exists, or it never existed.

So an adjustment is required. One possible adjustment would be towards a kind of deep pessimism, a hunkering down until the arrival of another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict. But another possibility is to come to see that what one always thought isn’t quite what one had thought one did. Perhaps you didn’t initially greet Trump as the long-awaited savior (for any of the manifold reasons you might have for rejecting him). But once he triumphed, you might ask yourself whether you missed something — not necessarily about him as a person, but about what this moment in history was offering. If you really believe that a radical refounding is needed, are you going to reject the most dramatic opportunity to achieve such change, even if it doesn’t look like what you thought you were waiting for? And reject it in favor of a perfect avatar of the status quo?

Ideas do have consequences — but consequences also have ideas, which, in turn, have their own consequences. For a “liberal conservative,” Trump’s triumph has merely forced a reevaluation of the two parties — which is why many of these people will be voting for Hillary Clinton on November 8th whatever they think of her personally and however difficult it will be for them to rest comfortably with their new bedfellows. But for the kinds of people Lilla is talking about, Trump represents a more fundamental challenge. For those who decided that the right response is an adjustment of the sort I describe above, what will be true from now on is that they made that adjustment, and decided that Trump was the bandwagon on which to jump.

And we’ll have to wait to see what ideas emerge as a consequence of that decision.

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Atoning For Trump

I had a Yom Kippur-themed column in The Week yesterday:

Richard III is described as the scourge of God, sent to cleanse England of everyone with a speck of civil blood on his or her hands, from the murder of Richard II down through the War of the Roses. He is able to thrive not merely because people are complacent or see a chance for advancement, but because his society had already suffered civil ruptures so deep that most if not all of his crimes had already been normalized before he achieved their apotheosis.

Similarly, the biblical understanding of the relationship between the Israelite monarchs and their people is not merely that it’s a bad idea to allow a bad man to become king. Rather, God allows bad kings precisely to punish the people for their transgressions.

This is not a modern, liberal idea. But it has a proper modern, liberal analogue, and that is to see the ascension of a demagogue like Trump not merely as due to our failure to take him seriously, or to condemn him vigorously enough, but of our failure to be fellow citizens together. It is our failure to see those civic bonds as more important than victory for the side we see as right that has, above all, made Trump’s rise possible.

It flatters us to say to ourselves that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, because it implicitly casts us as the good people, and our opponents as the evil. That is why no amount of moral condemnation will put an end to the Trump scourge. After all, The Deseret News was hardly the first newspaper to condemn Trump. Trump has managed the astonishing feat, after all, of being supported by essentially no national newspapers, most definitely including those that traditionally endorse Republicans. Similarly, he triumphed in the Republican primaries in spite of nearly universal opposition from the party leadership. He is being condemned and denounced daily, by leaders in both parties as well as by nonpartisan leaders. All of that only confirms to those who express their die-hard support that he must be on to something.

It may be more than enough to defeat him at the ballot box — Trump has never mustered sufficient support to win the general election, and he’s not likely to gain that support now. But defeat will do nothing to address the reasons why Trump was able to come so far in the first place.

I should probably have atoned for writing another Trump column.

But seriously: this isn’t going to be over when Trump loses the election. Trump will still be out there, actively promoting the myth that the election was stolen from him by some combination of a deck-stacking media, a back-stabbing party, and a vote-fraud-perpetrating opponent. The temptation will be powerful for Republicans to turn those very charges into the cornerstone of their recovery, and for the Democrats to dismiss the entire Trump phenomenon as evidence of “deplorability,” rather than for either to attempt to repair the civic bonds with the people who were so disgusted that they would cheer on their own destruction so long as the collapsing temple crushed their enemies with them.

And, equally, the temptation of those who lost with Trump — particularly the more sophisticated sort such as frequent this magazine — to despair of ever succeeding in changing the country’s direction, and nurture even more extreme fantasies. But the fact is, victory is impossible, and so is civic divorce. They may not like it, but the burden will be on them as well to imagine their way into actual future, which means imagining their way into civic reengagement with people who they are convinced hold them in contempt, rather than turning that contempt into a badge of perverse honor.

Trump is not a builder; he’s a destroyer. But he is our destroyer. We are all responsible for conjuring him up, and we all have to participate in the exorcism.

UPDATE: A commenter writes:

Trump is one of us. He and Clinton both [are] mirror reflections of our culture. And our humanity.

If we forget the ubiquity of that fact, then we are destined to be self-righteous and feign innocence.

What Trump has said and done we have all at least thought of at one time or another. No one can speak as an outside to the human race.

The Yom Kippur liturgy speaks to that, does it not?

That was pretty much the point of my column.

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A Russian Syllogism

There seems to be an impression out there that if you think Donald Trump would be a disastrous president, then you need to be freaked out about the Russians trying to get him elected. I don’t see why that is the case. Nor do I see why, if you think Hillary Clinton is overhyping the Russian threat, that means you should be sanguine about the fact that Donald Trump eagerly parrots the most simpleminded Russian propaganda.

It is possible to hold all of the following thoughts in one’s head at the same time:

  1. Russia is trying to influence the American election in an underhanded way in order to improve their geopolitical position, much as they are doing elsewhere in Western Europe.
  2. However:
    1. they are not actually very good at it;
    2. this is nothing new; the Russians have played these kinds of games since Czarist times;
    3. this is nothing unique to Russia; other great powers play these games regularly as well, most certainly including us;
    4. to the extent that it works at all, it’s because they are exploiting existing tensions, so focusing on those makes much more sense than focusing on them.
    5. All of which is reason enough not to freak out and overreact (though we certainly have every reason to be angry).
  3. Donald Trump is happy to play the part cast by Vladimir Putin because:
    1. he’s a fool who thinks everything he reads on the internet is true so he’s easy prey for conspiracy-mongers of all sorts; and/or
    2. he’s a nihilist who believes nothing is true so he parrots whatever Russia says that seems useful; and/or
    3. he is flattered by Putin and actually admires him in the manner of much of the alt-right; and/or
    4. he owes money to Russian oligarchs.
    5. All of which are reasons enough not to want Donald Trump to be President (assuming you needed more reasons).
  4. Hillary Clinton is happy to over-hype the Russian threat because:
    1. she’s a hawk who over-hypes threats generally; and/or
    2. she’s an American primacist and therefore ideologically can’t come to an accommodation with any other power about spheres of influence; and/or
    3. she wants to demoralize Republicans who take the more typical GOP line into not voting for Trump; and/or
    4. she is specifically paranoid about anybody spying on her.
    5. All of which are reasons enough to worry about the possibility of conflict with Russia under a Clinton administration, and for both left- and right-wing opponents of an aggressive foreign policy to continue to work to mobilize an anti-war coalition no matter who is president.

That’s the way I see it, anyhow.

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Mike Pence’s Bridge to a Post-Trump GOP

I’m post-surgical, so not really up to a proper post, but did want to point to my latest column at The Week, which is kind of a follow-up or counterpoint to my last post here about the VP debate and just what Mike Pence was up to.

As a highly orthodox and thoroughly boring VP nominee, the sort of person who one can imagine being president but have a hard time picturing getting elected under his own power, his selection bares some resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H. W. Bush in 1980. He represents almost perfectly the party that existed prior to Trump’s triumph. By accepting a spot on the ticket, then, Pence has positioned himself uniquely as someone who could attempt to bridge the gap between the conqueror and the conquered.

Tuesday’s VP debate was our first glimpse at how that gap might be bridged. But to see it clearly, we have to see past the smoke screen that Pence emitted for much of debate.

That smoke screen was a consistent effort to pretend that there was a clear thread of continuity between Trump and prior Republican history. Pence simply refused to acknowledge that Trump represented anything particularly new, except in personality terms. This has been described variously as a gaslighting of the American public, as a form of political performance art, and as possible further evidence of the strength of conservative epistemic closure.

But if you set aside the fact that Pence egregiously misrepresented Trump, and consider merely how he represented him, you can see the outlines of Pence’s bridge between Trumpism and the GOP. Here’s what it looks like.

Go there and read the rest to find out.

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Who Exactly Is Pence Trying To Gaslight?

Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote probably the best take on Mike Pence’s performance last night over at The Week:

Pence seemed to know that it would be a losing strategy to explain or defend the scores of zany, offensive, or discomfiting things Trump has said. So he just pretended to be Lindsey Graham’s veep candidate instead.

Months ago, Trump gave a foreign policy speech in which he praised the values of an “America First” foreign policy. Citing the disasters in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, Trump criticized the Bush Doctrine itself. “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy,” he said.

Mike Pence ignored this. Instead, he went with what had become the normal Republican attack on Democratic foreign policy over the last five decades: that the Democrats are too weak. ISIS and other calamities in the Middle East were caused by a lack of American action, Pence implied. Or by the Democratic president withdrawing troops on the schedule set by a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq.

Pence laughed and shrugged when Kaine pointed out that Trump said NATO is obsolete. Pence then launched into a long discourse about Russian perfidy. He said that the solution to Russian expansionism in its near-abroad was sterner American leadership, and he even started talking about a military buildup. You’d have no clue that a few months ago, Trump had dismissed pessimists about America’s relations with Russia by saying, “Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon… Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.”

It’s normal for members of a political party to project onto their party leader their own beliefs. Millions of Republicans are going to pull the lever for Trump this year because they believe a man who spent years defending even late-term abortions and most gun restrictions will faithfully defend pro-life causes and the Second Amendment. But it is not normal to watch a candidate’s running mate go through this exercise publicly.

It’s as if Pence was the designated survivor of the Republican primary, a man held away from the carnage Trump has inflicted on the Republican Party, its conventions, orthodoxies, and pieties. Party figures like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani embrace Trump as he is. Others, like Paul Ryan, try to demand more, and get nothing in return. Ted Cruz tried to shiv Trump at the convention, then feebly extracted a meaningless promise from him before endorsing him in September. Every strategy of blocking Trump, co-opting Trump, or parlaying with him as failed.

But in this debate, Pence did something that no one has tried before. He simply refused to acknowledge that there was any problem at all. You’ve heard lots of crazy things about Trump. But I’m here to do a job, and frankly, acknowledging the reality of his situation or ours can only get in my way. Pence made it seem as if Trump’s own words, when spoken by Tim Kaine, somehow discredited Tim Kaine. Mike Pence was a walking, talking memory hole.

That’s the best version of the take, but it’s hardly a unique take. Dougherty was joined in his overall assessment by Jamelle Bouie, Matt Yglesias, and Frank Bruni on the left, and by John Podhoretz on the right, among others. The clear consensus among the pundit class is that Mike Pence won the debate by not doing his job of defending the ticket, instead pretending he lived in an alternate reality in which Donald Trump never happened.

But why did he do it?

One possibility is that Pence isn’t thinking about 2016 but about 2020. Forced to choose between opposing his party’s choice and opposing his party’s principles, he’s chosen to pretend that there was no choice to make, so as not to alienate any faction. But if that’s the way he’s thinking, then what does that say about his views of the Republican electorate who chose Trump? After all, Pence is the kind of opponent Trump ate as a between-meal snack back when the primaries were going on. Why would he think the GOP electorate would want somebody like him next time if they wanted Trump this time? And if he thinks in 2020 the GOP will be looking for an anti-Trump, why did he accept the VP slot in the first place?

The best explanation, assuming he’s thinking about 2020, is that he thinks Trump’s loyalists will be thinking only about the appearance of loyalty, while the donor class and the pundit class will care about the substance of his positions. And that’s a rather contemptuous attitude to take towards the electorate, when you think about it.

Which is why I don’t think it’s quite correct.

An alternative possibility is that he is indeed thinking about 2016, and that the performance was aimed at people who are queasy about Trump. From this perspective, Pence isn’t gaslighting anybody — he’s speaking to people who badly want to be gaslit, conservatives who never supported Trump in the primaries and who are distraught by their choice in the general election.

These people want a choice they can believe in, and Pence gave them one — two, actually, depending on just how far down the rabbit hole they are willing to go. They can either believe in his fantasy version of Donald Trump, and choose not to listen to the real thing at all between now and election day, the better to preserve their innocence. Or they can believe that the real Donald Trump exists, but that he isn’t actually interested in being more than an entertaining figurehead, and that Mike Pence will make sure that the actual decisions made reflect orthodox conservative Republican priorities.

The latter in particular is a potent fantasy that more than one Republican leader has fallen prey to over the course of the past year. Maybe it’ll work on those stubborn Republican sheep who still won’t come back into the fold?

Or, maybe that performance wasn’t aimed at anyone. Maybe this is who Mike Pence is.

Pence always struck me as an real exemplar of the kind of faith-based “thinking” according to which what must be true is true. Therefore because the Republican Party stands for certain things then Donald Trump by definition stands for those things, too, and anything that doesn’t fit that picture must just be a misunderstanding.

That’s not an explanation to be casually discarded just because Pence is a guy who’s been around politics a while and has had his share of success in that game. There are plenty of people like that in politics — indeed, there are plenty of people like that in both parties. Donald Trump would never have happened in the first place if the GOP hadn’t gotten so good at that kind of “thinking with the church” that much of the leadership had forgotten how to do anything else.

Regardless of the reason, Pence’s performance doesn’t bode well for the prospects of a post-Trump debate within the GOP.

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Post-Debate Analysis

I was privileged to be interviewed about Monday’s debate by Michael McLaren of Australian radio station 2gb yesterday. If you’re interested in what I had to say, you can listen here:

Perhaps I shouldn’t be, but I am always struck by how observers outside the U.S. have opinions about American politics that are at least as informed as people here. And I am similarly struck by how transnational so many of our ideological trends have come to be. In any event, I was struck by both once again during this interview.

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Speaking the People’s Language

This may shock my readers, but I have managed not to watch any of the debates yet in this political cycle. I don’t generally find them particularly edifying, and this cycle I knew that would be especially true.

I’ll be watching tonight, because I was invited to an event with post-show commentary including TAC‘s Scott McConnell. But I’m still not expected to learn anything important, or to enjoy the spectacle, because debates aren’t aimed at me, anymore than political ads or direct mail or any other campaign technique. I’m a high-information voter — and, rarer still, a relatively unmoored voter, ideologically-speaking, who is also relatively high-information. Literally nobody is trying to reach me. There aren’t enough of me to matter, and we take way too much time and energy to woo.

I say I’m relatively unmoored, but I’m not confused about what I’m hoping for in this election. I am firmly convinced that Trump would be an epically disastrous President, whereas Clinton will be somewhere between pretty bad and pretty good depending on circumstances. I want to see him lose — and lose badly. So I’ll be watching the debate in somewhat the same spirit as Clinton’s supporters, rooting for her to “win.”

But only somewhat. Some of her supporters seem to be hoping that she’ll unveil a new personality; others that she’ll “destroy” Donald Trump; others that she’ll find some new way of selling the basket of traditional Democratic remedies as a good fit for this election cycle’s problems. None of these things are going to happen. Clinton did need to re-introduce herself to the American people — indeed, I suggested how she might best do that — but that opportunity was largely missed, and in any event a new personality is not something that either candidate can actually deploy; they can only be the best version of themselves. Leading with the standard basket of Democratic Party goodies, meanwhile, is basically a gamble that a majority wants to stay the course we’ve been on, only with a less-popular and less-trusted captain helming the ship. I don’t think anyone in the Clinton camp feels entirely comfortable putting all their chips on that square.

As for “destroying” Trump: the problem Clinton has here is not merely that it’s easier said than done, but that the way her campaign has been trying to do this is by deeming Trump “unacceptable” — racist, sexist, xenophobic, bad for children and other living things. In other words: they are trying to convince people that they don’t really have a choice in this election. They have to vote for Clinton. But people really don’t like to be told that they don’t have a choice. Indeed, if they don’t really have a choice, why hold an election at all?

Which is, dismayingly, what a lot of alarmed observers are starting to wonder. Whether they blame the media or the GOP or the electorate itself, a rising chorus of commentators seems to be asking: if our electoral process produces a President Trump, isn’t that prima facie evidence that the process is broken in a fundamental way, and that democracy has gone too far?

Of course, there are alternatives to democracy. You can vest power in an economic oligarchy, or in a credentialed clerisy, or in a vanguard party bureaucracy. You can make the military guardians of the constitution — there are all kinds of options. But they all amount to rule by force or threat of force. Only democracy gives a clear mechanism for demonstrating to the people that the government they have is one they chose, and thereby move the threat of force a little further away from likelihood. That’s not worth giving up on petulantly or cavalierly.

To achieve that goal, any party in a democracy needs to be able to speak to the people as the people, and in a language the people understands. Not the language the party wants to use, or the language they are most comfortable with: the language the people understands.

That’s really the test for Hillary Clinton tonight. If she can’t do that, it doesn’t really matter why or whose fault it is. In a debate, the judge is always right — and the judge is the American electorate.

Trump won the Republican primaries fundamentally because the GOP leadership lost the ability to speak to its own voters. If he wins the general election, it’ll be because the Democratic party has similarly lost the ability to speak to the country as a whole. That is not the most important skill a party — or a President — needs in order to govern well. But it is the most important skill a party — and a President — needs in order to govern legitimately.

I really, really hope Hillary Clinton demonstrates that skill tonight.

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IP and Cultural Appropriation

My take on the Lionel Shriver flap is up at The Week:

A writer’s festival censored a writer last week for telling other writers that they should feel free to write whatever they want. It sounds like something from a right-wing fantasy site, but it actually happened.

In her speech to the Brisbane Writers’ Festival, Lionel Shriver took a strong stance against those who would censure, much less censor, writers and other creative people for the crime of “cultural appropriation.” In response, one writer of Egyptian and Sudanese descent stood up and left the room, the festival organized a conference to disavow her remarks, and an audience member reportedly shouted, “How dare you come to my country and offend our minorities?”

But Shriver’s major point in the speech really was inarguable. The primary task of the fiction writer is to think herself into other people’s heads — indeed, that’s the major reason to read fiction, to experience the inside of someone else’s head, which is why novel-reading boosts empathy. If writers are forbidden to do that for fear of treading on the hoofs of sacred cows, then both they and their readership will be deprived of precisely the capacity for empathy across difference that, one would think, the advocates of diversity would favor.

One of the major criticisms against Shriver is that when white authors write from the perspective of minorities, they take away opportunities from minorities who should be telling their own stories. But the only solution to the problems of inadequate representation is more representation, and there is zero chance of getting that by muzzling the voices that are being heard. If there’s a special place in hell for writers who silence other writers — and I believe there is — then the festival and at least one of its attendees have earned a toasty spot there.

Nonetheless, I have a question for Ms. Shriver. I agree heartily that the whole point of writing fiction is trying on new hats, new masks.

But what if the mask you want to wear is… Batman’s?

“Appropriation,” according to my handy on-line dictionary, means “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.” And Ms. Shriver does an excellent job of pointing out the absurdity of this requirement when it comes to culture:

However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter 12, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

But Batman does have an owner. If you want to wear his mask, you had better have permission from Warner Bros. . . .

[I]t doesn’t matter whether Batman’s owners are lenient or strict at enforcing their rights; the point is that they have the absolute right to do so, according to our conception of intellectual property. Moreover, they have the right to lobby to have that legal monopoly repeatedly extended, in flagrant contravention of the purpose of copyright laws, and to have enforcement of those rights deepened and extended internationally.

That’s obviously in the interests of the largest producers of cultural “content” and their shareholders. But it’s not at all obvious that it’s good for the rank and file of writers, artists, musicians, or any of the other participants in culture — especially because it massively increases the returns to scale in cultural production, driving more and more capital to the same narrow set of cultural “products,” giving them a greater and greater share of our collective minds. And, not incidentally, taking over the space in which more marginal or traditional cultures might thrive.

Read the whole thing there — and comment on it here.

 Tagged , , , , , . 9 comments on Douthat’s Democratic Disaster Scenario

Following up on yesterday’s post about the state of the Presidential race, David Wasserman has run the numbers on how Trump could lose the popular vote while winning the electoral college — the very scenario that Ross Douthat fretted about:

Using a prototype of a demographic election calculator that FiveThirtyEight will be unveiling in the next few weeks, I decided to simulate a few election scenarios. Starting with 2012 results as a baseline and adjusting for demographic changes over the past four years, I tested what the map would look like if African-American turnout dipped, GOP support among college-educated whites and Latinos slightly declined, and noncollege whites rallied to Trump in large numbers.

More specifically, here are the conditions I used to set up a fairly plausible scenario that would scare the heck out of Democrats:

  1. Latino turnout rises from 48 percent in 2012 to 54 percent, and their support for Democrats increases from 71 percent to 74 percent.
  2. Asian/other turnout rises from 49 percent in 2012 to 54 percent, and their support for Democrats increases from 69 percent to 74 percent.
  3. African-Americans continue to give Democrats 93 percent of the vote, but their turnout falls from 66 percent to 60 percent.
  4. Among college-educated whites, turnout remains steady at 78 percent and Republicans’ share falls from 56 percent to 47 percent.
  5. Among whites without a college degree, turnout surges from 55 percent to 66 percent and Republicans’ share rises from 62 percent to 67 percent.

The result? Clinton would carry the popular vote by 1.5 percentage points. However, Trump would win the Electoral College with 280 votes by holding all 24 Romney states and flipping Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District from blue to red. And the real disparity between the electoral and popular votes could be larger, because this model doesn’t even factor in Trump’s Mormon problem.

I did a similar analysis using’s old demographic calculator back in May, and got somewhat different results, so I’m really curious to see how the new model differs. I doubt that it accounts for the likelihood that, for example, Clinton would get a bigger boost among college-educated whites in Pennsylvania than she does in Texas, which could make the difference in a state that could well decide the election. But it’s a worrying scenario regardless.

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