Noah Millman

Boris Johnson Would Prefer Not To

So much for the theory that his support for Brexit was a cynical ploy to vault Boris Johnson into the PM’s office:

Addressing reporters in a new conference just moments before the deadline for nominations passed, Mr Johnson said the next Conservative leader would have to unify his party and ensure that Britain stood tall in the world.

“Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” he said.

BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith said it was an “astonishing turn of events”.

Mr Gove – who has pitched himself as a candidate that can offer “unity and change” and deliver the Brexit result- had been expected to back Mr Johnson for the leadership.

But he said he had concluded that “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”.

Justice minister and Leave campaigner Dominic Raab, who switched sides from supporting Mr Johnson to Mr Gove, said the former London mayor’s “cavalier” attitude had scuppered the plan.

Tina Brown’s read of Johnson as a “Gentleman Hack” looks all the better in the light of this latest news. I don’t know whether Johnson’s support in the party simply evaporated when they truly understood his fundamental unseriousness, or whether he simply decided he didn’t want the job if it involved the hard work of either negotiating an exit from the EU or selling British voters on changing their minds and staying in, but it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the dog that caught the car got run over.

I haven’t indulged in facile Trump-Johnson comparisons until now, but I imagine the #NeverTrump-sters will be doing so with relish, as well they should.

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Brexit and the Wailing of the Anglo-American Commentariat

shockfactor.de/Shutterstock
shockfactor.de/Shutterstock

Damon Linker has a corker of a column up today about the hysterical reaction to Britain’s vote to leave the EU:

It’s perfectly reasonable to worry about what will happen after Britain’s historic vote to break up with the European Union. Will Brexit provoke Scotland and Northern Ireland to secede from the United Kingdom, leading to its dissolution? Will it embolden other members of the EU to bolt? And will those secessionist movements empower unsavory characters who end up being seduced by Vladimir Putin and modeling themselves on his form of authoritarian populism? Will the dire short-term economic consequences of Brexit create chaos and recession in the long term, too?

As I said, lots of reasons to worry.

But what we’ve seen from a wide range of writers and analysts in the days since the Brexit vote is not necessarily worry. It is shockFuryDisgustDespair. A faith has been shaken, illusions shattered, pieties punctured. This is what happens when a life-orienting system of belief gets smashed on the rocks of history.

The name of that shattered system of belief? Progressivism.

Why did the Brexit vote deliver such a shock to the progressive belief system?

Whether or not it’s expressed in explicitly theological terms, progressivism holds out a very specific moral vision of the future. It will be a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity. In their place will be the only acceptable form of solidarity: humanitarian universalism.

And this means that the progressive future will even result in the end of politics itself — at least if politics is understood as encompassing more than the jostling of interest groups, bureaucratic administration, and the management of government benefits. Politics in that narrow sense will remain. But politics in Aristotle’s sense — this particular community in thisplace with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life — that existential form of politics will cease to exist in the progressive future.

Politics in this expansive sense will come to an end in the imagined progressive future because there will be nothing left to debate. The big questions of politics will already be answered, the big disputes settled once and for all. Everyone will understand that all particular forms of solidarity are morally indefensible (just various forms of racism) and that all strong political stands against humanitarian universalism in the political realm are politically unacceptable (just various forms of fascism).

It would be one thing if progressives understood their universalistic moral and political convictions to constitute one legitimate partisan position among many. But they don’t understand them in this way. They believe not only that their views deserve to prevail in the fullness of time, but also that they are bound to prevail.

It is this faith in the inevitability of progressive triumph that has led so many commentators to respond so intensely to the rise of Donald Trump. I don’t mean reactions that focus on Trump’s personal, temperamental shortcomings. Those are real and worthy of serious concern. I mean reactions that take the form of moral indignation and outrage — as if the very fact that millions of voters have cast ballots for a candidate who strongly opposes immigration and free trade is some kind of moral and theological betrayal, or an offense against capital-H History itself.

The progressive response to the outcome of the Brexit vote is remarkably similar.

I think that’s all pretty much right. But I notice something. All of those links in the “shock – fury – disgust – despair” paragraph are to Anglo-American writers. What do people on the continent – those whom Britain would leave – think of Britain’s announced intention to depart?

Let’s look at France:

France has shown a divided response to the news that the UK has voted to leave the EU, although a vocal majority (online at least) appear to have been pleased.
A survey of newspaper Le Figaro’s readers found on Friday morning that most respondents in France were satisfied with the result of the vote. . . . 68 percent of the more than 10,000 people surveyed were satisfied with the result, compared to 32 percent who weren’t.
And this majority was the most vocal on Twitter on Friday, as many French vented their anger – as well as predictable digs at “Les Anglais” – over the Brexit vote.
The hashtag #BonDebarras – Good Riddance – spoke for itself, but one user sniped: “Les Anglais are beginning to realise that most Europeans are delighted that they are splitting.”
Other snarky tweets recalled that Britain had always had an arm’s-length relationship with the European Union, having opted out of the euro, the visa-free Schengen zone and the Common Agricultural Policy.
“Have they ever really been part of the EU?” one asked.

 

And Germany?

Merkel said she had “deep regret” over the U.K.’s decision, but the remaining 27 members of the EU should be “willing and able to not draw quick and simple conclusions from the referendum…which would only further divide Europe.”

The chancellor said the countries should “calmly and prudently analyze and evaluate the situation, before making the right decisions together.” . . .

Schäuble and Merkel would apparently like to see a treaty between the EU and the U.K., covering trading rules and other regulations that would “not offer too much leeway to Britain in gaining access to the European Union’s internal market.” Again, the aim here is to avoid creating incentives for other countries to consider following the U.K.’s lead, and leaving the EU.

Handelsblatt also said Merkel and Schäuble want to avoid letting France and Italy use the Brexit pandemonium to push for a greater pooling of liabilities in the Eurozone.

Merkel’s coalition partners, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), said the U.K.’s vote for Brexit should be seen as a signal for the rest of the EU to press its case for greater integration—precisely what the Brexit voters reacted against. The party said committed Europeans had “failed to clearly point out” that the fears motivating the shift—over immigration, employment and refugees—were “unjustified.” . . .

The SPD said the European institutions should now be reformed to patch up the democratic deficit identified by pro-Brexit voters. “We should use the opportunity to overcome the weaknesses that the great European project still has,” it said, while warning of the rise of the far right.

Reading between the lines, the German center-right and the business establishment are distressed because the UK was a reliable voice against greater fiscal integration, and greater fiscal integration would be expensive for Germany. The French, meanwhile, are saying good riddance for precisely the same reasons.

I see a variety of emotions, including anger and spiteful glee and quite a great deal of worry. But I don’t see sackcloth and ashes. Even the German center-left, who have probably the most idealism about “Europe” of any major European political group (and with whose views I have considerable sympathy) see the merit of some of the British criticisms, specifically related to the “democratic deficit.”

In other words: from many quarters within Europe, what I see is a response that is political. Some of that politics is purely self-interested – treating Europe as merely a business deal. Some of it sees something higher at stake – but is concerned to identify what concrete political moves must be made in order to best achieve that higher end.

It’s from the Anglo-American liberal commentariat, primarily, that I see the wailing, the gnashing of teeth, and the rending of garments. These people do seem to have suffered a blow to their faith. But what is the nature of the blow?

Well, the one thing I can definitely say about Britain leaving the EU is that it will take Britain out of the rooms in which the decisions about the structure of the EU are decided. It will make Britain an observer to, and an outside influencer of, rather than a participant in, European politics. The European project may go forward, or may go backward, or may go forward in a wholly new direction. But it will go forward without Britain.

That, it seems to me, is what makes the loss feel so keen.

There is a very good case to be made that the departure of Britain from the EU would help the cause of making the EU into a successful, more functional entity. I make that case in my own column this morning:

[T]he only way Europe can work is by becoming a deeper union. The euro can only function if Europe has a common fiscal policy. Europe can only wield diplomatic clout commensurate with its demographic and economic bulk if it has a common defense policy. And Britain was always going to remain the largest, strongest foot-dragger to further cessions of national sovereignty.

Now, given America’s failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, and the painful experience of the American Civil War, you would think we would appreciate the need for unity, and an effective central government. But in fact, we strongly opposed a British exit precisely because of their foot-dragging.

The United States only ever wanted Britain to remain in the EU because we always favored a broader Europe over a deeper one. We wanted to make sure a country that saw the world in similar terms to the way we saw it remained inside the European tent. And we opposed a more deeply united Europe that might steer its own course apart from America, particularly if it developed a genuinely independent defense capability outside of NATO.

It has never been obvious that this policy has been in America’s best interest rightly understood. If Europe is to be our ally, then we need that ally to be able to pull its weight. A weak, dysfunctional, and dependent Europe serves nobody’s interests, including America’s. Those who really believe in a functional version of a European Union, as opposed to a fantasy version, must believe that Europe can become, over time, something more like a nation. And if that is what Europe is to be, then an ever-broader union is a mistake, inasmuch as it makes deepening the union ever more difficult and expensive. If Europe must deepen, it must first shrink.

Will France and Germany agree on the compromises necessary to make Europe work? It’s not clear – and never has been – but the Brexit forces the question.

That price may not be worth paying, for either country. If it isn’t, Britain’s impending exit gives these two central states to the European project the opportunity to rethink, and renegotiate, the project itself. A less-ambitious, confederal Europe that stuck to being a common market might well endure better than the current arrangement — and might entice Britain back in.

Meanwhile, if Europeans decide to pay the price for true union, and the gamble pays off, then some in Britain may come to regret having missed out on the opportunity to be present at the creation — or, alternatively, to have prevented it. But Britons should abjure regret. This is not the 19th century. Britain cannot decide the fate of the continent. Nor can it be central to its affairs. In the context of a united Europe, Britain can either be an independent nation and bridge between Europe and America or it can be an important but ultimately peripheral province of a united European state.

By leaving, the British make it possible for Europe to choose its own destiny, and for Britain to choose whether and how to join it.

And that, I think, is what is most distressing to those parts of the commentariat that have been most distressed. Their crisis is not that they see history no longer moving smoothly toward the sunny uplands – when has it ever done so? – but that they see history passing them by, leaving them on the sidelines. Even if Europe ultimately succeeds, it will have done so without their being particular central to its success.

That, of course, was always the case – especially for the American commentariat. But the Brexit puts paid, as firmly as possible, to any lingering illusions of potency.

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Could a Brexit Help Fix Europe?

It’s starting to become a pattern with me: whenever I’ve got to give my take on some current event, I start by quoting Shakespeare. This morning, I’ve got a piece up at The New Republic about tomorrow’s Brexit vote. How do I start?

Britain is a world by itself; and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses.

Cymbeline, Act III Scene 1

On Thursday, if British voters decide to exit the European Union, it is likely that sentiments such as the foregoing will have proven decisive. The line comes from one of the Bard’s late romances, and the character who throws it in the teeth of an imperial Roman emissary is the comic villain of the piece: the crass, braggadocious, dim-witted son of the queen. Cloten is just the sort of scoundrel for whom patriotism is purported to be the last refuge.

You might say it’s a part Nigel Farage, the head of the U.K. Independence Party, was born to play. Certainly, in no small measure, the emotional support for the “Remain” vote stems from the conviction that if Farage and his fans are for leaving, surely leaving must be a terrible idea that only a bigot or a fool could support. In this view, cleaving to Europeanism is not merely the only sensible choice, but the only idealistic one as well.

But in Shakespeare’s play, things are not so simple. The comic villain has a vital role to play in bringing the drama to its happy conclusion. And so, too, may Nigel Farage—not only in Great Britain, but in Europe.

The subsequent argument bears considerable resemblance to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s here: that the EU’s democratic deficit is unlikely to be remedied without a real shock to the system, and a Brexit might be just that shock, the main difference between myself and MBD being that I think the European project still has a great deal of merit.

Anyway, you can read the whole thing there.

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My Take on Orlando

You know what sucks about being a blogger? Whenever anything terrible happens, you’re supposed to have an opinion. And if you don’t have a “take” then you wind up writing something like this:

In the wake of tragedy, we look for explanations.

The most comfortable explanations are those that reinforce our preexisting understanding of who is on the side of good and right in our active debates. Inevitably, people on the other side complain about politicization, but at least it’s channeling the feelings of helplessness into what proponents see as constructive activity. The only ones with real cause to complain are not one’s political opponents, but the victims’ families.

Of course, these politicized explanations are not mutually exclusive, and eventually someone like Jeffrey Goldberg comes along and points this out.

Tragedy doesn’t have a single moral. It can be about many things. This is also true — and if it leads to a bit of mutual respect by the competing sides in the war to own the narrative that emerges from a tragedy like the one in Orlando, Florida, then it’s also a good thing. Maybe we’ll get more sensible gun laws and more resources for mental illness and a better system for monitoring jihadi groups.

But would any of those actions, even if worthy, have prevented this particular massacre? An explanation isn’t the same as a diagnosis. And even a diagnosis doesn’t imply a cure.

Read the whole thing at The Week.

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Trump v. Curiel

Pat Buchanan comes to the defense of Trump for impugning Judge Curiel’s impartiality:

He attacked the independence of the judiciary, we are told.

But Presidents Jefferson and Jackson attacked the Supreme Court, and FDR, fed up with New Deal programs being struck down, tried to “pack the court” by raising the number of justices to 15 if necessary.

Abraham Lincoln leveled “that eminent tribunal” in his first inaugural, and once considered arresting Chief Justice Roger Taney.

The conservative movement was propelled by attacks on the Warren Court. In the ’50s and ’60s, “Impeach Earl Warren!” was plastered on billboards and bumper stickers all across God’s country.

The judiciary is independent, but that does not mean that federal judges are exempt from the same robust criticism as presidents or members of Congress.

Obama himself attacked the Citizens United decision in a State of the Union address, with the justices sitting right in front of him.

But Trump’s real hanging offense was that he brought up the judge’s ancestry, as the son of Mexican immigrants, implying that he was something of a judicial version of Univision’s Jorge Ramos.

Apparently, it is now not only politically incorrect, but, in Newt Gingrich’s term, “inexcusable,” to bring up the religious, racial or ethnic background of a judge, or suggest this might influence his actions on the bench.

But these things matter.

Does Newt think that when LBJ appointed Thurgood Marshall, ex-head of the NAACP, to the Supreme Court, he did not think Marshall would bring his unique experience as a black man and civil rights leader to the bench?

Surely, that was among the reasons Marshall was appointed.

There is an obvious difference between saying “your view of the law is shaped by your background” and saying “you cannot be impartial in this case because you are biased against me personally.” The former is a commonplace – and is, indeed, part of the argument for diversity (including ideological diversity) on the highest courts in particular, where part of the job is deciding what the law is, and not merely adjudicating the facts and applying clear precedent.

The latter is a seriously defamatory accusation. And leveling that accusation on no better evidence than a disagreement about politics amounts to the assertion that justice is impossible in a society, like ours, where such disagreements obtain.

I have a hard time believing that Buchanan doesn’t understand the distinction.

Meanwhile, if you want to know my view of why Trump is making such a fuss about Curiel, that’s the topic of my latest column at The Week:

Trump is ranting about Curiel’s bias not because doing so is part of any kind of rational political strategy, but because he is going to lose the case. And if he loses, it must be somebody else’s fault. He’s not just talking about himself instead of something that actually matters to voters. He’s talking to himself, telling himself a story of how big a winner he is, no matter how often he loses. And he’s doing it in front of the entire country.

In a very basic sense, this is the emotional connection that Trump forged from the beginning of his campaign. Trump sees himself as a winner whose occasional setbacks are the result of other people’s unfairness or incompetence. He has connected with a slice of the voting public that sees America’s problems in similar terms: the fault of corrupt, incompetent, and disloyal elites. But successful political leaders — whether they operate within established norms or, like Trump, gleefully flout them — use that emotional connection for something larger. It’s the ground on which they build loyalty to a political program and organization.

Trump isn’t building anything. Indeed, he hasn’t built anything in a good long time; for decades, he’s been a marketer whose only product is his own mystique. And so it is with his political campaign. The purpose of the emotional connection he has forged is entirely personal: to reaffirm his own greatness, his own winningness. “I’ve always won and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is,” he told supporters on the Monday conference call. The conversation keeps coming back to him because that’s where he wants it to go. Because that’s all his campaign has ever been about.

Read the whole thing there.

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Is Demography Electoral Destiny?

Kevin Drum has a rather strange post up about California and Proposition 187. He argues as follows:

Here’s what California has looked like in presidential elections over the past 35 years:

Unless I made a mistake somewhere, Prop 187 had precisely zero effect. As the non-white population of California rose, the Democratic share of the presidential vote rose in almost perfect tandem. After 1994, it continued growing at the same rate as ever.

This is just the presidential vote, and maybe things are different in other contests. But I’d be interested to see someone take a more detailed look at this. The real lesson here seems to be that Donald Trump’s racist blatherings are likely to have no effect at all on the Republican Party. Non-whites don’t like Republicans, and will go on not liking them.

Bottom line: Extra doses of racism probably don’t hurt Republicans. Minority voters already know the score, so they don’t care much. Until the Republican Party actively goes after the racism in its ranks and actively tries to appeal to non-white voters, it doesn’t matter much what else they do.

I say this is a strange post because Drum is a liberal Democrat, and this is more of a Steve Sailer-ish point to make. Indeed, if Drum is correct, then not only was Prop 187 not the cause of Republican decline in California, but serious immigration restriction remains absolutely essential to saving the GOP nationally. Which it may be! But it’s funny to hear Drum implicitly making that case.

But it’s also strange because, atypically for Drum, he doesn’t look at comparative data. So let’s look at some. Here’s Texas:

ChartGo

 

It looks like perhaps there was nothing inevitable about what Drum observes about California politics. The non-white (including Hispanic) share of Texas’s population grew at a somewhat slower rate than did California’s, but not a dramatically slower rate. But the partisan balance has shifted almost not at all since 1980, bouncing between 35% and 45% Democratic, with the remainder going to the Republicans (except in 1992 and 1996 when iconoclastic Texas native Ross Perot nabbed a chunk of the vote as well).

That doesn’t mean that Proposition 187 made the difference in the trajectories of the two states. I’m inclined to believe that a wide variety of factors are relevant in assessing the different political trajectories of the country’s two most populous states. But all Drum can conclude from his graph of California is that Proposition 187 did nothing to keep California Republican in the face of a monotonically increasing non-white percentage of the population, while something else has worked for the GOP in Texas in the face of a similar demographic tide.

If you look under the hood, what I suspect you’d see is that non-Hispanic white voters in Texas vote overwhelmingly Republican, and that they have trended more Republican over time, while non-Hispanic white voters in California are far more divided between the parties. As a secondary factor, I’d expect you’d see more Hispanic Republicans in Texas than in California. Teasing out cause and effect for both factors is tough, but the “bottom line” is probably just that Texas is a much more conservative state, across the board, than California is. And it was a much more conservative state in 1980 as well. It’s just that the partisan implications of that difference have shifted, such that California, once a Republican state (it voted Republican in every election from 1952 through 1988, except for the 1964 Johnson landslide), has become solidly Democratic at the Federal (and, frankly, state) level, while Texas, once a swing state (it went for the winner in every election from 1948 through 1980 except for the squeaker in 1968) has become solidly Republican (also, at both the state and Federal levels).

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Texas was Trump’s worst large primary state. He got 26.7% of the vote there, versus 45.7% in Marco Rubio’s Florida and 35.6% in John Kasich’s Ohio (not to mention winning pluralities in Michigan, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina, and majorities in New York and Pennsylvania, just to round out the top 10 states by population). Whatever is working for the GOP in demographically-changing Texas seems to be limiting the appeal of Trumpism.

But the story is different in other states undergoing rapid demographic change – particularly Florida, where, as noted, Trump earned 45.7% of the vote in a vigorously contested multi-candidate primary where one of his opponents was a native son. If you want a state to watch for the medium-term impact of Trump’s campaign, this is the one. Florida has been a swing state for the past 40 years, voting for the winner in every election since 1976 except for 1992, and voting by fairly close margins in every election in this century. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white proportion of the population has dropped by about 20 points, from roughly 75% to roughly 55%, since 1980.

Florida right now is about where California was in 1994. If, after this election, Florida trends increasingly Democratic, will that validate the thesis of Proposition 187’s critics? Or will it vindicate the immigration restrictionists? How would one know who is right – at least with regard to the politics?

 

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Trumpism Beyond Trump

Tony Webster/Flickr

I’ve been meditating on Frank Rich’s excellent piece comparing the Trump and Reagan campaigns (with side-forays into the Goldwater campaign) ever since I read it. It’s a must-read for anyone coming at the Trump phenomenon from where I do.

Just to reiterate where that is: I think Trump would make, at best, a terrible President, and could be the kind of President who does serious, lasting damage to our political institutions. I won’t vote for him. I don’t dislike Hillary Clinton nearly as much as Alan Jacobs does, but I’m reluctant to vote for her for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, I’ll be rooting for her to win, and to win by a large margin.

But I think the Trump phenomenon is an important one, and that he is exploiting genuinely important issues. Our trade, immigration and industrial policies should aim to promote the long-term competitiveness of the American workforce – not to maximize the profits generated by American intellectual property or American finance. Our foreign policy should aim at promoting peace between states, cooperating with other powers to address common problems and threats, and husbanding American strength to deter potential rivals from challenging our vital interests – not to maximally extend the scope of American hegemony.

I don’t believe Trump actually cares a tinker’s dam about any of the above, even though they are all issues he has brought to the fore in his campaign. Inasmuch as he cares about anything that he’s running on, it’s the right of Donald Trump to say whatever the heck he wants in whatever way he wants. I vigorously defend that right – and am appalled when his often crass, incoherent, insensitive, even disgusting speech, and those who want to hear it, are met with this kind of violence. And if the Trump campaign forces some kind of reckoning with the illiberalism of his opponents, that would be one real service he’s done the Republic.

But I still want him to go down in flames. What I don’t want is for the real issues he has highlighted to go down with him.

Which is why I’ve been meditating on the Frank Rich column. When Barry Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat in 1964, in the short term it meant a setback for his cause. But even in the medium term, to say nothing of the long term, it meant the opposite. It’s hard to imagine a partisan of Goldwaterism looking back and saying: it would have been better if Goldwater hadn’t been nominated in 1964.

But notwithstanding the comparisons Rich makes between Trump, Goldwater and Reagan in terms of how they defeated the GOP establishments of their respective eras – and notwithstanding the ways in which they could be compared as people (Goldwater certainly said a few outrageous, even scary things in his day, and Reagan was rightly accused of being willfully ignorant of policy detail, not to mention presiding over a host of scandals some of which did real damage to our political institutions) – nonetheless, there are two key differences between Trump on the one hand and both Reagan and Goldwater on the other, that make me wonder whether a defeat for Trump could have a Goldwaterish silver lining.

First, both Reagan and Goldwater were widely reputed to be personally decent people, and both were respected for their fidelity to their beliefs even by those who vigorously opposed those beliefs. Their convictions did not, in either case, prohibit compromise, and both evolved over time in ways that the most rabid ideologues often refuse to acknowledge. But they were nonetheless rightly perceived as conviction candidates. Nobody can say that with a straight face about Donald Trump.

Second, and relatedly, both Reagan and Goldwater were the leaders of organized political factions seeking to dominate their political party. Howsoever they may have challenged the preexisting political hierarchy, they were engaged in normal politics. This, again, is not true of Donald Trump, who is a pure cult-of-personality candidate who has built nothing and will build nothing. (Which is a major reason why I expect him, if elected, to jettison every heterodoxy that actually costs anything in favor of the worst version of crony-capitalist Republicanism.)

For both reasons, I really do wonder whether, in the aftermath of a massive loss, there will be any way for what was worth assimilating from the Trump phenomenon to survive.

Or, perhaps a better question is: how could someone who really did care about one or another of Trump’s “issues” ensure that his defeat doesn’t lead to their utter repudiation, but instead to something more productive?

That’s the question I’m chewing on as I root for Hillary Clinton – who bears more than a little resemblance to Lyndon Johnson in both her temperament and her ambition (and, for that matter, her foreign policy) – to crush Donald Trump.

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My Advice To Hillary: Embrace Your Inner Tammy Wynette

Jim Newell has noticed that the Clinton campaign has a problem all-too familiar to me, and to many writers: they can’t decide what story they are trying to tell. More to the point, they can’t figure out how to characterize their antagonist because they haven’t successfully characterized their protagonist:

The Washington Post on Wednesday came out with the big reveal about the Clinton campaign’s plan. If you haven’t already placed your bets, do so now before reading any further.

Clinton’s aides say they have settled on the big story they want to tell about Trump: He is a business fraud who has cheated working people for his own gain, and his ideas, temperament and moves to marginalize people by race, gender and creed make him simply unacceptable as commander in chief.

So they have whittled down the bountiful list of master narratives to … everything. Clinton people! When they say you have to fit your story into a single sentence, that doesn’t mean it can be a run-on sentence with clauses and nested lists and dormer windows and a carport and all.

It could be that the Clintonistas’ inability to settle on an overarching story about Trump is a reflection of their inability to settle on an overarching story about themselves.

As the Post’s Greg Sargent asks, what is Hillary Clinton’s affirmative master narrative for Hillary Clinton? There are a lot of substories floating around that haven’t congealed into an uber-story: a fighter, an advocate for women and children, a sturdy hand, an experienced leader. What does this add up to? It will be plenty easier for Clinton and Co. to settle on what they want Trump to be once they’ve figured out what they themselves are.

Fortunately, as always I know the answer. They just aren’t going to like it:

So who is she? What is the “best version” of Hillary Clinton, in terms of being able to connect to the public emotionally, establishing a strong and effective contrast with Donald Trump, and also being authentic to who she really is?

I find it useful in doing this kind of exercise to try to distill the answer down to the simplest terms possible. A single sentence — or even better, a single descriptive word.

For my money, Hillary Clinton’s single word is: LOYAL.

Now, I can already hear folks on the left laughing. “Loyal” is your word for the authentic Hillary Clinton? The woman who betrayed her mentor, Marian Wright Edelman? Hey, who do you think she’s loyal to — Goldman Sachs?

But last I checked, welfare reform was signed not by her, but by her husband. Last I checked, Glass-Steagall was repealed not by her but by her husband.

Who do I think she’s loyal to? I think she’s loyal to him.

And that’s the rock on which I propose that she rebuild her emotional connection with married women.

This is from the last of three columns of advice I’ve written to the Clinton campaign, all published at The Week. The first is here, the second is here, and the final one is here.

With free advice, you pretty much get what you pay for. But if anyone in Brooklyn HQ is reluctant to take mine for that reason, I can suggest a very simple solution.

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Four Reasons Hillary Clinton Is So Unpopular

Contra Brooks, it’s not complicated at all.

1. She still has strong and passionate primary opposition. Her general election opponent no longer does. Her net favorability rating among Democrats dropped from 61% in January to 36% in April, and no doubt has fallen further since then. Just eyeballing, this looks like the primary explanation of her dramatic drop in approval in recent months.

That doesn’t mean she’ll necessary recover smartly as soon as the primary is over. It depends on how quickly she can unite her party. If she can do so expeditiously, her approval rating will recover with similar speed – not to wonderful numbers, but at least to middling numbers.

2. She no longer benefits from contrasts with someone disfavored. When she was Secretary of State, she was popular in part because approving of her was one way people who disagreed with this or that about Obama’s policy or tactics could express buyer’s remorse. Maybe Clinton would have gotten a better health care plan through more efficiently; maybe Clinton would have been tougher on Putin; whatever. So she got the approval of those who approved of Obama, plus the approval of some of those who were disappointed in him.

Similarly, when she was First Lady, she was popular in part because approving of her was one way people could express their personal distaste for President Clinton’s behavior without joining the Clinton haters. So she got the approval of those who were loyal to her husband, plus the approval of some of those who were appalled by him but approved of his policies or performance, plus some of those who who had never much liked Bill but thought the Republicans were out to lunch.

Now, because she has for so long been the inevitable nominee, she is the point of comparison, with everyone else being defined as “not Hillary” in this way or that. And, since none of the “everyone else” actually has much of a record that matters, all of these comparisons drag her down, albeit differently with different people.

Again, that may change once we get into the swing of a general election – but it may not. If the election becomes a referendum on Hillary Clinton rather than a choice between alternatives, she’s got a problem.

3. Her husband is not dead, but very much alive, and running what looks like a family scam operation. There are plenty of examples of female politicians inheriting their husband’s or father’s place as party or faction standard-bearer, and even rising to the top of the political heap by doing so. But they usually do so after the man in question is deceased. Hillary Clinton has to define herself as both her husband’s heir and her own person, and she has to do this while Bill is still running around doing whatever he does.

And a bunch of what he does involves his presidential charity. The Clinton Foundation looks to just about everyone like a racket, because it is one, at least in part. It has a thoroughly amorphous mission statement. It doesn’t make grants, instead keeping its money in-house and running its own programs, which for many years were not well-audited. It employs the Clinton family and its cronies. It “convenes global leaders to devise and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.” That sounds an awful lot like this kind of mockable nonsense.

And, of course, it pulls donations from wealthy connected individuals, organizations and governments around the world, becoming a walking conflict-of-interest for anyone actually involved in policymaking. As such, it’s a perfect synecdoche for the liberal ruling class’s mode of ruling, the way it gets rich and pats itself on the back for saving the world by doing so, and yet never clearly saves anything.

That, of course, isn’t the whole story about the Clinton Foundation – the organization does run a variety of actual programs – but it’s a big part of the story, and it’s the part that is a PR disaster for Clinton. And it’s a relatively new disaster for her, because only recently has she been both part of the foundation and a candidate for President.

I have no idea how she can fix either part of this – she can’t make her husband go away, and she can’t let herself get into his shadow, and she can’t shake the very negative taint of the family business. And the most amazing thing – to my mind – is that neither of them really seems to see that this is a problem.

4. Nobody likes anybody. Seriously – who is a widely-beloved political figure these days? The last time anybody in national life had that kind of broad popular appeal was the first Obama inaugural, and that honeymoon lasted about five minutes. Trump, like Clinton, is widely-despised – but so is Ted Cruz, and it’s not like there was any love for Jeb Bush. Mitt Romney was only grudgingly accepted by his party, and never managed to connect with the electorate as a whole, despite being an obviously decent and public-minded person. Meanwhile, relative to Congress, Hillary Clinton is downright popular. We may just have to recalibrate to a scale where the baseline level of hatred towards political figures is high relative to historic norms.

The other stuff – personality stuff, bad relationship with the press, lousy speaking style, sexist double-standards – probably all matters, but it doesn’t explain the depths to which she’s fallen.

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Can Anti-Discrimination Be More Discriminating?

jeep2499 / Shutterstock
jeep2499 / Shutterstock

Damon Linker would like it to be.

For far too many contemporary liberals . . . informal, grassroots pressure from civil society never seems to be good enough. Too lazy and impatient to do the hard work of formulating arguments and trying to persuade, and too addicted to sanctimonious displays of moral righteousness, these liberals now prefer to use the ever-expanding edifice of anti-discrimination law to impose edicts from the top down.

Such liberals get to enjoy the satisfaction of reenacting the civil rights movement every few years, holding up victims of ever-new forms of discrimination as heroes of a great moral saga and demonizing those on the other side as bigots. Once the courts accept the narrative, the logic of anti-discrimination locks in, new rights become codified, and the former victims of injustice get to enjoy total victory while decades or centuries of communally based norms, practices, and beliefs get pulverized.

All for the sake of bending the arc of history a few more millimeters toward justice.

This is apropos of the Obama Administration’s decree that schools must allow transgender children to use the bathroom assigned to the gender with which they identify or face a loss of funds and possible legal action. Linker identifies multiple reasons why this action may have been unnecessary: the number of people affected is tiny; the country has far more pressing issues on which to spend political capital; the risk of a backlash against overweening federal authority is real; and there has been little organized opposition to such change where it has taken place voluntarily, and where there has been (as in North Carolina), there has been a robust response from the business community and other segments of society that would likely result in a practical victory without the need for a federal diktat. He concludes, therefore, that the administration made a mistake in taking on the issue as it did.

But I’m puzzled as to how, within the framework of anti-discrimination law, such a political mistake, if it is one, could be avoided? The fact that a small number of people are affected by the issue is irrelevant to the law. Ditto the risk of political backlash. Ditto whether other issues are more important. If this is a legal question, then the only pertinent one is what the law requires, not whether unaffected people think it’s worth spending time on.

Of course, I’m being overly schematic. The government always has a variety of ways of avoiding tackling an issue if it chooses – and so do the courts. The administration could certainly have passed this particular buck around in circles for months without saying anything. But at some point they would have to speak – and answer a question that had been asked. Nothing they could say would magically unask it.

So, however long they hypothetically might have waited to come to a conclusion, to avoid the conclusion the administration did come to, you’d have to accept one or more of the following three propositions:

Either you have to argue that transgender people don’t deserve protection against discrimination because they aren’t a category of people deserving of protection – presumably on the grounds that you can’t “be” transgender, but are only suffering from a delusion. This is, obviously, not a neutral position – it’s an active rejection of the most fundamental claims that transgender people are making about themselves. Which doesn’t mean it’s wrong! Those fundamental claims are very novel, and it would be the height of folly to call them settled and indisputable just because some people feel very strongly about them. But those people are the transgender people themselves, so their claims cannot be casually dismissed either, as many of those alarmed by their novelty seem disappointingly inclined to do.

Or you have to argue that there is a good policy justification for discrimination that has nothing to do with invidious intent. For example, you could argue that biological girls in a locker room might be traumatized by the presence of children who identify as girls but have male anatomy changing with them, and that the protection of their well-being overrides the need to accommodate trans girls in the same locker room. This is an entirely reasonable stance to take – by which I mean it is an appeal to reason, and can be argued against in reasonable terms. But it is also not a neutral position, inasmuch as it affirmatively concludes that discrimination against transgender people (in these narrow circumstances), is rational. If you wonder how such a conclusion would be perceived, at the time or in the light of history, take a look at how “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” played out. Pitched as a compromise and a half-step forward, it was universally understood at the time as a profound setback for gay servicemen and women, and its practical effects fully bear out that negative understanding. Coming to this conclusion, in other words, wouldn’t merely be declining to bend the arc of history a few millimeters toward justice – it would be bending it the other way for a bit.

Or you have to argue that the force of anti-discrimination law in principle can only be brought to bear when the harm exceeds some threshold, and not merely when you can prove that there is discrimination that is invidious. This is also an entirely reasonable stance to take. But to be a neutral position, this higher burden cannot be confined to novel claimants like transgender people. It necessarily implies that racial, religious and other distinct groups would have to clear the same higher hurdle to receive redress for discrimination against them.

Linker says he sees no problem with letting transgender kids use the bathroom they want, so he’s not advocating the first or second position. I doubt he’s spent a lot of time thinking about transgender issues – but neither have I, and so what? Frankly, I doubt that most people on either side of the debate have spent more than a few minutes thinking about these issues. And that’s fine – people should be allowed to think about, and not think about, whatever they want. If a problem presents itself to them directly, then they have to think about it, and we get to find out whether they think about it sensitively or not.

“And what if a given community doesn’t think about it sensitively?” is the question that exercises Linker. He thinks the answer – at least in this case – should be: well, them’s the breaks. Or, rather, that’s the price of subsidiarity, of moral and practical maturity and independence. From the outside, you can complain, and protest, and try to persuade people to change their mind. But if you are a self-governing community, you have the right to get it wrong. And, presumably, you have the right to keep getting it wrong even after time passes and the world changes, if that’s your cussedly stubborn preference.

That’s a habit of mind that went out not in 2016 but in 1964 – for extremely good reasons at the time. If liberals like Linker think those reasons aren’t so good anymore – and there’s certainly a case to be made that they aren’t – then they should argue the case. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

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