Noah Millman

What Comes Next?

It would be exceptionally foolish for me, the man who said Donald Trump could very well run the table, to predict the next twist and turn of this campaign with any confidence. It feels like this thing is now Trump’s to lose, since he will run better in South Carolina than Cruz will in Michigan, and the establishment is in deep disarray. It feels like Clinton needs a win to right her campaign, but that one is fairly assured her in South Carolina for demographic reasons. But South Carolina is weeks away, and this campaign has surprised enough observers often enough to make anyone unconfident in their prognostications.

We’ll know where we stand when the first South Carolina polls come out. The state hasn’t been polled since mid-January, before Ted Cruz won Iowa, to say nothing of events since. At that point, Trump was polling in the mid-30s, Cruz in the low-20s, and Rubio and Bush in the low-teens. The best evidence of the state of play pre-New Hampshire is from nearby states: in February polls, Rubio polled tied with Trump for second in Arkansas, tied with Cruz for second in Georgia, and a close third behind Trump and Cruz in North Carolina. In all, Bush was a non-factor – but his campaign has been much more active in South Carolina. Since Trump’s decisive victory in New Hampshire and Rubio’s collapse in New Hampshire, I’d expect the first post-New Hampshire polls to show Trump clearly leading, Cruz a strong second, and Rubio and Bush fighting for third – in other words, that the race will have reverted to just about where it was in January. But we’ll see soon enough.

In any event here are a few other things I’ll be watching for, in roughly the order that I expect them.

Chris Christie endorsement. Chris Christie came in sixth in New Hampshire, has no money and no campaign infrastructure for the rest of the race, has not polled meaningfully in any other early-voting state and the states coming up are distinctly inhospitable to him. I can’t imagine he’ll stay in much longer.

But will he endorse one of his rivals? If so, who – and will it matter?

It might, at the margins. If he endorses, I assume he’ll endorse one of his fellow governors, either Bush or Kasich. Either could use some kind of good news, and use it to further beat up on the suddenly-struggling Rubio campaign. That might make a bit of difference in the battle for third place in South Carolina – and might make a bigger difference down the line if either campaign makes it that far.

Washington’s non-binding caucus. No delegates are being awarded in Washington State on February 20th. And most of the campaigns will be ignoring that contest. I bet the exception will be Ted Cruz – and that’s why I expect him to win. It won’t mean anything, but the Cruz campaign will labor hard to convince people that it does. Unfortunately, it’s the same day as South Carolina, so he won’t be able to spin good news to positive effect there – but if Cruz comes in second in South Carolina but wins Washington, that’ll at least soften the blow.

Nevada’s Democratic caucuses. Nevada’s caucus comes before South Carolina’s primary on the Democratic side. The caucus is hard to poll, and hasn’t been polled much, but the conventional wisdom is that Hillary Clinton has the whip hand in a state with such a large Hispanic population.

I wonder whether the conventional wisdom may be wrong. Nevada is indeed browner than Iowa or New Hampshire. But Nevada is also younger than Iowa or New Hampshire. And a heftier percentage of Nevadans are non-citizens (10% versus 2%-3%), who I would suspect skew browner than the state – and non-citizens can’t caucus. Nevada is also a relatively more-unionized state than the national average, and the largest union (the culinary workers) has remained neutral this year (they endorsed Obama in 2008). Finally, the latest poll we have of Nevada is from mid-December, when Clinton was leading by more than 20 points. But at that point, she was also leading by 15 points in Iowa, and had only recently lost her lead in New Hampshire.

As a caucus, Nevada will reward organization and enthusiasm. Those don’t seem to be Clinton’s strongest points so far. Another loss here – or even another very narrow win – could cause real panic in Brooklyn.

Ben Carson departure. He’s no longer a factor in the primaries – except that he’s still pulling high-single digits in post-Iowa polls of many states, not just southern ones like Georgia, Arkansas and North Carolina but also Michigan. Those are votes that Cruz, Rubio and Trump all covet, and could all make plausible plays for.

Carson could shape the race on Super Tuesday if he drops out after South Carolina and endorses. He could shape the race even more profoundly if he drops out before South Carolina and endorses – though I find that prospect extremely unlikely. If, on the other hand, he waits until after Super Tuesday to drop out, Carson’s main impact on the race will have been to make it easier for Donald Trump to win the nomination by siphoning away values-oriented voters who are repelled the multiply-married trash-talking billionaire, but are looking for someone purer of heart than Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio.

Bill lashes out. There’s this thing the Clintons do, when they are losing – they lash out, in ways that hurt themselves more than anyone. In 2008, after South Carolina, Bill Clinton belittled Obama’s victory by suggesting that African-American voters flocked to him purely out of racial solidarity – which was the right thing to do if he wanted to ensure that Hillary would have no chance with those voters for the rest of the campaign. More recently, the Clinton campaign trotted out Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright to insult young women who are supporting Bernie Sanders, suggesting that they will go to hell if they don’t vote for Hillary and that the only reason they aren’t supporting her is that the cute boys are all campaigning for Bernie. I’m sure that’ll do wonders for her numbers with young voters.

If the national polls tighten, and especially if there are indications Hillary Clinton might lose Nevada, I will be genuinely shocked if Bill Clinton doesn’t say something appalling between now and the South Carolina primary that backfires spectacularly. Most likely it will be some kind of insult or threat aimed at the African-American community, something about what they owe him and his wife or how Sanders is trying to dupe them. It won’t be well-considered, it won’t be planned – and it will cause real damage.

Enough damage to lose South Carolina? I doubt it. Enough damage to make Bill toxic for a crucial stretch of the primaries? More likely. Enough damage to cause problems for Hillary in the general election, if and when she clinches the nomination?

We’ll see.

 

 

 

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What I’m Hoping For Out Of New Hampshire

Cards on the table: I’m not going to be supporting the Republican nominee in November.

I might not be supporting the Democratic nominee either. I’m not a Hillary hater, but I never liked her husband (and I think he’s going to be a huge problem when and if he gets back into the East Wing). I think she’s a poor political talent and a poor manager. Most important, I think her foreign policy is far too reflexively bellicose. But against most Republican candidates, I’d still be rooting for her to win even if I can’t bring myself to actually vote for her. (Not that it’ll matter whether I do or don’t; if she’s having trouble winning New York, it’s already long over.)

So, assuming I’m rooting for the Democrat, presumably I want the Republicans to be in maximal disarray, and to nominate their weakest general election candidate. Right, Mr. Chait?

Not really. First of all, I think any Republican nominee has close to even odds of winning the general election. Some candidates have stronger prospects than others. I think the strongest general-election candidate for the GOP is probably the personable and non-crazy John Kasich, followed by the slick and well-packaged Marco Rubio, and the weakest is probably the extreme and personally-repellant Ted Cruz followed by the hapless legacy Jeb Bush. But none of them are so weak that they couldn’t win, and none of them are so strong that they are the obvious choice for a party concerned primarily with winning (which may be one reason the party is having so much trouble deciding). And if we go into a recession, even Ted Cruz would have a better-than-even chance.

Beyond that, it’s important for the health of the Republic that we have two (or more) parties that offer plausible choices to the electorate, both worthy of being trusted with governance. I don’t want either party to be in a state of chaos, or to nominate someone who would make a totally unacceptable president.

So, if I want a nominee who’s at least minimally acceptable, and I don’t want chaos, then presumably I’m in the anybody-but-Trump category. Right, Mr. Linker?

Not really. First of all, while I think Trump would be a very bad president, I don’t think he’d be obviously much worse than some of his opponents. Trump’s enthusiasm for torture is horrifying – but it is exceptionally common in the party that nominated Mitt “double Guantanamo” Romney, and the candidate who most directly confronted that corrosive evil has unfortunately dropped out. I would expect a President Trump to run gleefully roughshod over legal and Constitutional niceties – but, we still have the separation of powers, the division of power, and the existence of an opposition party to challenge an exercise of Trump’s worst instincts, and Trump would have less reason than a normal party leader to count on Republican party loyalty should he find himself threatened with impeachment.

But, more to the point, when you set aside the obnoxious bluster, Trump’s actual instincts are considerably less alarming in some areas than some of the other candidates. In particular, he is a rare Republican who seems comfortable with the idea that foreign affairs is not a zero-sum game. He doesn’t say it’s wrong to deal with an evil regime like Iran; he thinks he, as purported super-negotiator, would have gotten a better deal. If Putin wants to prop up the Assad regime, he doesn’t see why we should interfere – if they fail, that hurts Putin, and if they succeed, that hurts ISIS. He is certainly not a realist, and certainly not anti-interventionist – as I’ve said before, he’s a to-hell-with-’em-hawk. But he seems to understand that sometimes the only way to win is not to play.

Which is more than I can say about some of his Republican opponents – most particularly Marco Rubio.

Finally, it’s not obvious to me that if the GOP establishment actually got its act together and picked a winner, and muscled that winner over the finish line, that this would do anything to quell the chaos that Trump has channeled so effectively. After all, part of the reason we are where we are is that the GOP establishment did exactly that in 2012.

So . . . what is it I want?

First, I want the nomination process to continue. I want the Republican electorate to be forced to ask, “what do we want our party to be” and not merely, “who’s more electable” or “who’s the real conservative,” the questions that the establishment and the conservative movement prefer to ask. Trump has, in a more-than-imperfect way, forced that question. I don’t want the question withdrawn prematurely.

Second, I want credible non-Trump candidates both to continue to challenge him frontally where they believe he’s wrong and to copy him in challenging the establishment conservative consensus where they themselves may believe he’s got a point. The party needs to have a real debate about immigration, about foreign policy, and about its core economic policy ideas. That debate should continue all the way to the convention.

Third, I want the ultimate nominee to be someone who I will not be terrified of should he actually win the presidency.

For all of the above reasons, what I want most of all out of New Hampshire is . . . to stop Marco Rubio.

Laying my remaining cards on the table: I genuinely believe Rubio is the most dangerous candidate of the whole bunch, more dangerous than Trump and certainly more dangerous than the declaredly more-extreme Cruz. It’s partly that Rubio’s foreign policy views are exceptionally ideological and divorced from reality, but more that his whole political identity seems to me to have been engineered based on positioning, and positioning within the world of professional ideologists. The candidate he reminds me of most is John Edwards, and I loathed Edwards.

The Robo-Rubio business from the last debate is overblown in any literal sense – any candidate can be thrown in a given moment, and the pressure of live debates is very different from the pressure of the situation room. But I’m extremely glad it happened, because Rubio really is an empty suit – or so it has seemed to me for months. It’s a well-tailored suit for winning a Republican primary, but that’s not good enough, and anyway, I don’t even know if it’ll fit right once he finally grows into it.

I’m not going to predict how New Hampshire is going to vote. But what I hope happens is that Trump wins with roughly 30%, that Kasich’s momentum carries him well above his recent polling to crack 20%, and that either Bush or Cruz comes in third with roughly 15%.

Looking past New Hampshire, keeping the race, and the real debate, going means keeping the race open. That means hoping that Cruz wins South Carolina (since if Trump win’s he’ll be the overwhelmingly strongest candidate going into Super Tuesday, and he’d be favored to win some of the large Northern states that follow, like Michigan, Illinois and New York).

An open race, in which Cruz and Trump are the leaders but neither looks capable of putting it away, but where the establishment hasn’t coalesced around Rubio, is probably the best-case scenario for a Cruz nomination. It’s also probably the only scenario under which a brokered convention is a real possibility.

And I can live with either prospect.

Ted Cruz is a jerk and an extremist on many things. But at least he seems to care about the Constitution; at least he opposes torture; at least he has some skepticism of over-committing the American military; and at least his extremism is worn relatively honestly. A Cruz-Clinton race would certainly be a choice, not an echo. And Cruz would probably lose, which would hopefully force some kind of reckoning with the wages of extremism.

A brokered convention, meanwhile, would force the GOP to come up with a candidate who actually satisfied the various factions in play at the convention, most definitely including the mob behind Donald Trump. The party would finally get to decide, but they’d have to decide publicly, without the facade of popular endorsement that primary-season bandwagoning produces.

And who knows? Maybe they’d settle on somebody like Kasich who isn’t so terrible? Stranger things have happened.

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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

david_bowie-the_prettiest_star_s_1

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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Besties

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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I’m Sorry I Wasn’t More Wrong

I wanted to follow my colleague Daniel Larison‘s admirable example in pointing out his own failures of punditry, so I just made my way through my last year of blog posts in search of seriously bad calls.

Here’s what I learned:

  • I didn’t write nearly as many posts about film, theater or books as in retrospect I ought to have. When I’m in the groove of writing these things, they go more quickly and I feel I learn more about the works in question by writing about them. So whether my few, dedicated readers actually like reading them, I should write more of them – for my own sake.
  • When I write posts that attempt to reason their way all around a question, they tend to be very long and convoluted. Heck, there’s stuff I wrote this past year that even I had to reread a couple of times to see what I was up to. I could benefit from working harder to make complex arguments more succinct or, if I can’t make them more succinct, to give them a more formal internal structure.
  • I have been paying a really stupid amount of attention to the GOP primaries. I mean, seriously – who really cares? Do I? I thought I was over politics-as-sport. Guess not.
  • I have not been wrong enough.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I have always been right. I’m saying that I haven’t been wrong enough. And, generally, that’s been because I haven’t been willing to prognosticate as a pundit ought.

Oh, I made some predictions that didn’t pan out. I thought, when he entered the race (which was technically still 2014), that Jeb Bush would become the dominant figure in the GOP primary contest. And, when Scott Walker entered the race, I thought he would give Bush the most serious run for his money. Obviously, both predictions were wildly off-base. But I don’t really fault myself for making what I think most people at the time would have considered smart-money bets. Sometimes, the shortest-odds horses lose. Indeed, they lose most of the time – otherwise there wouldn’t be horse races.

And it’s not that I never say what I think about this or that political development. Sometimes I did – I supported the Iran deal, for example – and I may well have been wrong, just not on a time scale that allows for proper scoring yet. But in general I have a habit of trying to understand, and elucidate, all sides of an argument that I flatter myself by thinking is a sign of depth and sophistication, when it may actually be a sign of something far less flattering.

Here is a good example of the kind of post that emerges from that habit. The Saudi war in Yemen is monstrous, and American support for that war is appalling. Back in April, I wrote a post that, in passing, acknowledges that the war is disastrous – not just in humanitarian terms but in strategic terms as well. But I then quickly move on to an explanation of why we are supporting it anyway. By the end of the post, I imagine most readers have sunk into a kind of depressed resignation: this is bad policy, but it’s the kind of policy you’d expect given our prior commitments and our current diplomatic situation, so what are you going to do?

Well, once you’ve sunk into a state of depressed resignation, not much, I imagine. And that’s not a stance that I particularly want to encourage.

I hold pretty firmly these days to the proposition that while pundits have tried to change the world in various ways, the point is to understand it. But there is understanding that leads to clearer thinking, and better decisions, and there is understanding that leads away from decision-making altogether. And I fear I have been promoting too much of the latter kind of understanding.

This is related, I believe, to a reluctance on my part to make the kind of predictions that inevitably lead pundits to find themselves with egg on their faces. The war in Libya went much worse than I thought it would. The war in Yemen has lasted longer and is proving much more catastrophic than I thought it would be. I opposed both wars – but I “understood” why they were happening. I rather suspect that that “understanding” got in the way of my fully appreciating how badly they could go.

So these are my blogging resolutions for the new year:

  • Write more about movies, theater and books.
  • Write shorter bits or, when the bits are long, work harder to structure them formally so that the whole argument is clearer.
  • Write a smaller proportion of posts about the Presidential election.
  • Be wrong more. Or, at least, take the risk of being wrong by taking the time to figure out what I really think, bottom line, about an issue, and then saying it.

We’ll see how well I do.

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I See A Ted Cruz Rising

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It’s Ted Cruz’s turn in the spotlight. Now let’s see how he handles it.

He’s running a smart, data-driven campaign. He’s been working overtime in the early states, plus he’s got a true national operation, plus he’s got (as of the last report) more cash on hand for his campaign proper than any non-self-financed opponent (and he has significant super-PAC support as well). As a strongly anti-abortion evangelical Christian, he’s reaped the most benefit of any campaign from the continuing collapse of the Ben Carson bubble. As a consequence, he’s now leading in three of the last four polls in Iowa and polling second in all of the last four national polls.

His weakest early state – New Hampshire – is also a do-or-die state for multiple opponents with weak national numbers: Christie, Kasich, Fiorina, Paul, and probably even Bush. Which means that there’s a good chance they will divide the non-Trump vote, making it less-likely that any of them will end up either winning New Hampshire or coming in a strong second, and thereby emerging as an establishment-friendly alternative to Trump. In particular, that divided field makes it harder for Rubio to emerge as a dominant figure after New Hampshire. Not that Rubio seems to be doing all that much so far to win a state he likely needs almost as badly as Christie or Kasich.

And after New Hampshire, the calendar is dominated by conservative southern and western states where he feels most at home: South Carolina on Feb 20; Nevada on Feb 23; Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia on March 1; Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana and Nebraska on March 5; Idaho and Mississippi on March 8th. There are some other states in that mix as well – Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, Hawaii and Michigan. But that’s a thin skein of blue in what’s otherwise a field of red. And even then, on March 15th, when we get more moderate states like Florida, Illinois and Ohio, more conservative states like Missouri and North Carolina are also in the mix, with Arizona and Utah following hard upon. It isn’t until April that the blue wall comes into play.

A Ted Cruz path to the nomination depends on basically two things happening. First, Donald Trump has to continue to be the overwhelming leader in the polls in New Hampshire and nationally. Second, Cruz needs to put enough distance between himself and the rest of the non-Trump field in Iowa and South Carolina (preferably winning at least one of those states) to present as the most clearly viable alternative to Trump. And, so far, what he needs to happen has been happening. Which explains why commentators like Matt Yglesias are starting to ask whether it isn’t time for the GOP establishment to make its peace with Ted Cruz (while also musing about Democratic opposition research groups gearing up to go after him).

All of which means the stakes are higher for Cruz than for anybody else on stage tomorrow night, because the potential upside for him is larger than for anybody else. If that’s correct, and if the other campaigns see the world similarly, then tomorrow night should see a can of whoop-ass opened on Senator Cruz from his rivals.

But the risk is that if Cruz handles a wave of attacks effectively, they could help him rather than hurting him, both because whoever draws the most fire will be perceived as strongest and because most of those doing the firing will be perceived as being “establishment-friendly” – which is the kiss of death this season.

This being Ted Cruz we’re talking about, you’d think it wouldn’t be so hard for his rivals to get him to reveal just why nobody in Washington can stand him. Then again, they haven’t been able to dent Trump.

We’ll soon enough whether the spotlight is kind to Cruz, or whether he melts under its glare.

(P.S., speaking of Trump: one thing I imagine GOP bigs are game-theorying out right now is how an independent Trump run plays out with different GOP nominees, assuming they are able to nominate somebody other than Trump. I would imagine that a nominee like Bush would pretty much guarantee an independent Trump run, and that in that context Trump would draw far more votes from the GOP than from Clinton. I suspect, but am less certain, that a Rubio nomination would play out similarly. I think a Christie nomination is still pretty remote as a possibility, but my suspicion is that it would leave less room for an independent Trump run. Cruz, though, is the hardest for me to wrap my head around. There would clearly be room, in a Cruz-Clinton contest, for somebody to run as a centrist independent and get a significant number of votes. But Trump is not well-suited to that role – the real opening would be for a Michael Bloomberg type of candidate. Anyway, something to think about, and I assume people are thinking about it as I type.)

 

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Fascism, Style and Substance

You know, I really do get it.

Fascism is a variety of right-wing populism; so is “Trumpism” to the extent that such a thing exists. Trump appeals to the core demographic that animates fascist movements: the less-educated cohorts of the majority demographic group. And his appeal has a fundamental irrationalism to it. Trump plainly plays on and stokes xenophobia in his followers. He invokes a glorious past, blames our current difficulties on presumptively unpatriotic groups, and promises a return to glory if he’s elected. He encourages a cult of personality, fetishizes action, and displays little regard for democratic and liberal norms. So yeah, I get it.

On the other hand:

It was President Bush who instituted torture as a regular practice by America’s military and intelligence agencies, who routinized indefinite detention without trial, who launched an aggressive war explicitly to reshape another part of the world according to American dictates, and whose deputies argued that through sheer force of will the President could alter reality itself.

Other members of the Republican Party, including major Presidential contenders and candidates, have threatened war with nuclear-armed Russia, have called for the indiscriminate use of force against civilian populations, and have forcefully advocated a return to torture and an expansion of detention without trial.

The point being, the official leadership of the GOP has for some time been exceedingly militaristic and aggressive in its approach to foreign policy, and had little use for democratic or liberal norms when it comes to fighting terrorism. And militarism, reflexive aggression, and a contempt for liberal and democratic norms in the face of emergency are pretty central to the fascist ethos.

Nor is it just the GOP. It was President Obama who argued that the President has the right to order the execution of American citizens on his own recognizances, who routinized the use of deadly force on a global basis against “targets” determined largely on the basis of metadata, and who twice (against Libya and against ISIS) initiated substantial hostilities without even a hint of Congressional authorization.

One can defend all of this, of course. But why are these not more important hallmarks of an incipient American fascism than the fact that Trump regularly sounds like a more obnoxious and egotistical version of Archie Bunker? And why is saying “no Muslims should be allowed onto American soil until we’ve got a process for monitoring them” more outrageous than a threat to “find out if sand can glow in the dark” (Ted Cruz’s threat to nuke ISIS)? Why is threatening mass-murder less horrifying than threatening discrimination in immigration on the basis of religion?

I’m not saying that having a President – or even a major candidate – who spouts xenophobic rants is a good thing. It’s a bad thing. I’m just suggesting that we’ve long since gotten used to things that are much worse, and perhaps we should pay a bit more attention to that fact.

Nor am I saying that Trump’s most recent outrage – banning Muslims from setting foot on American soil until we “figure out what the heck is going on” – is a sensible proposal. It’s quite literally nonsense – there’s no actual proposal there that could be put into practice. But isn’t it a bit odd to suggest that the worst thing about this proposal is it’s discriminatory? Isn’t the right response that it’s foolishly and ineffectively discriminatory? I mean, the no fly list discriminates between people we think are a threat and people we think are not. Religion and country of origin are part of the profile – they just aren’t the whole deal. We’re a bit more . . . discriminating in our discrimination. (And perhaps, given the Kafkaesque absurdities that the no fly list has led to, we should be even more so.)

And by the way, multiple countries around the world – examples include Israel, China, Greece, RussiaGermany and Ireland – actively discriminate in favor of the nationally-dominant demographic group in immigration. I would argue that a policy of that sort would be inappropriate for America, for a variety of reasons. But fascist? Seriously?

Trump is an irresponsible demagogue who would make an exceptionally terrible President. He says stupid, inflammatory things all the time. But he’s not trying to mobilize society in service of a totalitarian state. He’s not organizing a paramilitary wing of his political party or movement. He isn’t even organizing a political party or movement! If he’s a fascist, then perhaps all those who have been talking about incipient fascism in America for years now had a point after all. (And you know, perhaps they did.)

In any event, it feels to me like, pragmatically, not only will this line of attack backfire, but it is kind of an evasion of the real question, which is why somebody like Trump is appealing to such a significant contingent. The “quarantine” strategy is the one that European parties executed over the course of about 20 years, and it has proved singularly ineffective in addressing either the growth of the far-right or the genuine problems that the far right exploits. So, basically, I think Ross Douthat is right:

[F]reaking out over Trump-the-fascist is a good way for the political class to ignore the legitimate reasons he’s gotten this far — the deep disaffection with the Republican Party’s economic policies among working-class conservatives, the reasonable skepticism about the bipartisan consensus favoring ever more mass low-skilled immigration, the accurate sense that the American elite has misgoverned the country at home and abroad.

If Republicans don’t want Trump the phenomenon to turn into an actual movement, if they don’t want the intimations of fascism in his appeal to cohere into something programmatically dangerous, then tarring his supporters with the brush of Mussolini and Der Führer right now seems like a shortsighted step — a way to repress the problem rather than dealing with it, to dismiss discontents and have them return, stronger and deadlier, further down the road.

Donald Trump is way, way more like Silvio Berlusconi than Benito Mussolini. That’s bad enough. And if it’s worse than that, then I think Trevor Noah has it about right in how it could be worse:

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A Diplomatic President Without a Diplomatic Strategy

The President’s speech about combatting terrorism and defeating ISIS is being judged largely as if it were a piece of performance – on whether the President showed enough emotion, whether he was sufficiently forceful. I prefer to judge it based on its substance. And in that regard, the key weakness in the speech comes in this paragraph:

Fourth, with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process and timeline to pursue cease-fires and a political resolution to the Syrian war. Doing so will allow the Syrian people and every country, including our allies but also countries like Russia, to focus on the common goal of destroying ISIL. A group that threatens us all.

I’ll believe that when I see it. More to the point, I’ll believe that our government’s top priority is to resolve the Syrian civil war, rather than to make sure the right sort of people win the Syrian civil war, when we start acting as if that is our goal.

But, as I argued not long ago, without some kind of regional coordination between mutually-antagonistic powers – Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia chief among them – it’s very hard to see how the Syria civil war comes to a conclusion. And without a resolution of that conflict, even if we defeat ISIS we will at best buy a bit of time until the next head grows on the hydra.

It’s past time to hear some articulation of how to use whatever leverage we have to change the behavior of those regional powers. Muslim communities – most especially in the United States – have produced plenty of leaders who been exemplary in standing up to terrorist ideologues. The behavior of too many allied Muslim states – Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies, Pakistan, Turkey – has been far less upstanding, to say the least. It would be great to hear a strategy for how we’re going to change that – from the current President or from anybody currently running for President.

In its absence, the rest of the President’s strategy amounts to playing defense. And his would-be successors’ alternatives, to the extent they have any, amount to variations on the theme of how to make ourselves feel better while making the problem worse.

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Is Religion Primarily Preaching Or Practice?

Damon Linker’s recent column for The Week hits one of my favorite topics: how do you define religion? He starts off by taking a whack at what sounds like a silly piece in The New York Times:

One of Leo Strauss’ most illuminating essays begins with a provocation: “A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are. It is therefore not scientific.”

Something similar might be said about a religion columnist who finds it impossible to define religion.

I’m referring to The New York Times‘ Mark Oppenheimer, who penned a remarkable “Beliefs” column that ran on Saturday. The subject of the column? Whether CrossFit — a trendy form of demanding physical exercise — might be a form of religion. Oppenheimer’s answer? Sure! Because “it’s surprisingly hard to say what makes a religion.”

Is it really?

The fact that Oppenheimer found a woman who really, really likes CrossFit and thinks about it “as others might speak about a church or synagogue community” doesn’t prove that CrossFit really is her religion — any more than the fact that a couple of student researchers at Harvard Divinity School interviewed this same CrossFit fanatic for a study of “spaces other than churches that function as spiritual communities” demonstrates that a CrossFit gym is actually a place of religious worship.

Unless, of course, we define “religion” to mean “stuff someone really, really likes.”

Which is pretty much how Oppenheimer defines religion.

Already, I feel like saying “yes, but.” Clearly “stuff someone really, really likes” is inadequate as a definition of religion, but is also not really a fair description of this particular fanatic. If I said “CrossFit is her religion” you’d know what I meant – and that I didn’t just mean “she really likes CrossFit.” I’d mean: she goes to CrossFit without fail; her consciousness is perpetually occupied by CrossFit; in her personal Maslow’s hierarchy CrossFit is up at the top with her basic identity not down at the bottom with physiological needs.

Nonetheless, Linker is right that if I said “CrossFit is her religion” I wouldn’t have meant it literally, but as an analogy. I would have meant that she’s treating CrossFit as if it were a religion. So what is this thing “religion” that I’d be analogizing her behavior to?

Here’s Linker’s stab at a more serious definition:

Religion is any set of norms, practices, and beliefs that establishes a comprehensive way of life that is held out as the right or best way of life for those who adhere to it.

Many of these comprehensive ways of life posit the existence of one or more deities, but not all of them do — just as others teach that a life awaits us after death, while still others make no such claims. What matters is the comprehensiveness, not the content, of the way of life.

It is above all this comprehensiveness that precludes CrossFit from qualifying as a religion, even for those who take the fitness routine very seriously, because it is still just a form of physical exercise and not a sweeping statement of how a human being should live and understand his or her place in the universe. It makes no broader claims about the meaning or purpose of life, death, morality, love, and the origins, foundations, and ends of existence. The same holds for football, Star Trek, and dieting fads. Which is why those activities aren’t religions but Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Jainism, and Sikhism very clearly are.

Again, I want to say “yes, but” even though I think Linker’s definition has something going for it – in particular, the idea of “comprehensiveness” seems crucial to what makes a religion, and what keeps CrossFit out of the realm of reasonable candidates for the title. Still, I would phrase things a bit differently. I would say that religion is a comprehensive set of normative practices that reflect or imply a set of beliefs about the nature of life and the right way to live it. Those beliefs may or may not be conscious, and may or may not be articulated and taught, in the way that the practices are.

Why do I want to make that amendment? Because I am fundamentally suspicious of definitions of religion that take Christianity as normative, and I think there’s a pronounced tendency to do precisely that. Religion is far older than Christianity; Christianity is far from typical of human religious practice and experience in many ways; and even Christianity is often misdescribed by privileging theology and dogma over the experience of adherents.

The word “religion” itself comes from a pre-Christian Roman word, and there is ancient dispute about what its origins are, whether it comes from a root meaning “to read over” (which would imply a connection to the ritual reading or reciting of texts, something still central to the practice of a vast array of religions) or from a root meaning “to bind back” (which would imply a connection to lifestyle prohibitions and restrictions that accompany a great many religions as well). It is the latter sense that predominated as the word entered English in the middle ages, where it originally referred to membership in a monastic order – the “religious” were contrasted not with the irreligious or atheistic but with the laity, those who did not live under a rule. Regardless, it’s clear that etymologically “religion” seems to have more to do with what one does than with what one believes, more to do with practice than with preaching.

Moreover, it’s a peculiarly Christian (or, more broadly, Abrahamic) conceit to center religion on revelation, when it is manifest that religion predates the age of the great revelatory religions. The ancient world clearly understood the category of religion, but their religions emerged organically from the mists of pre-history. And it would probably be wrong to say that they encompassed a set of beliefs about the right or best way to live life. Rather, they were the most comprehensive expression of what living life is, and of how we – Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, etc. – live it. That’s certainly how Herodotus would have understood it. Confucius, too, I suspect.

Some of the world’s existing religions became more systematized under pressure of contact with new religions that organized themselves more around a set of formal beliefs and authoritative teachings or revelations from a founder. Hinduism evolved this way after successive contact with Buddhism from within, Islam and Christianity from without. But that shouldn’t lead us to say that, before the advent of such religions, whatever humanity was up to wasn’t “really” or “fully” religious. Rather, it should make us question whether the features that distinguish religion for us – such as a founding revelation – aren’t really much less central to what makes something a religion qua religion than we think.

Linker goes on to contrast religion with philosophy, arguing that they both aim to be comprehensive but that they have different notions of truth. Philosophy, as Linker describes it, involves a quest for truth, whereas in religion truth is received (whether from revelation or tradition). I’m not convinced that the idea of talking about anything as a “rival” to religion is a particularly useful way of thinking. And I’m not sure that every philosophical system is quite as Socratic as Linker’s definition would imply.

So, for example: in the Western tradition, what are Stoicism or Epicureanism? They are philosophical systems that comprehensively address the right or best way of life, and I would question whether they are anchored in a relentless pursuit of the nature of truth. It seems to me these philosophies – unlike the endless Socratic quest – express answers more than they pursue questions. But they are philosophies, aren’t they? They aren’t religions, are they?

Or what about Pythagoreanism? The Pythagoreans plainly had views about religion – they had distinctive practices and ceremonies and so forth. But are they a distinctive religion? Or are the a particular philosophical approach to life that encompasses religion as it was understood within the Greek world? Kind of the way, say, Taoism is a philosophical approach to life that encompasses religion as it is understood within the Chinese world? But in that case, what’s left of the idea of philosophy as a rival to religion?

It seems to me that while Linker wants to make truth claims central to religion, and therefore to contrast religion with philosophy with regard to how they evaluate such claims, what’s really distinctive about religion is the centrality of the sacred as a category. It’s a category that is strikingly missing from Damon’s definition of religion – perhaps because it is not really accessible to philosophy.

So perhaps I would say that Linker’s definition of religion is one that suits the needs of philosophers who might understand themselves to be partisans of a rival approach to life.

That doesn’t mean it’s the best definition for understanding religion.

 

 

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Trump, Cruz and the “To Hell With ‘Em” Hawks

There’s been some buzz the last couple of days about Ted Cruz’s attacks on Marco Rubio on foreign policy (including by our own Daniel Larison). And, I think not-unrelatedly, it’s been widely noted that Donald Trump is the candidate most-trusted to handle terrorism, and the candidate who has most obviously benefitted from the reaction to the attacks in Paris and elsewhere. Given the details that have already come out regarding the senseless massacre perpetrated in California, and Trump’s recent declaration that the way to defeat ISIS is to kill their families, I would expect the observed political trend only to continue.

But what is that trend?

It’s not toward neoconservative-style hawkishness. That dispensation is being carried forward in an extreme form by Marco Rubio, a man generally described as having foreign policy expertise, but who is more accurately described as having a foreign policy ideology. Rubio is a kind of crusader for global Americanism, a believer that our foreign policy should consist of championing the right (as we see it) and opposing anyone who doesn’t line up behind us, and always doubling down on our commitments. The true insanity of this ideology in practice is manifest in his recent piece on how to defeat ISIS, which calls for first defeating ISIS’s strongest opponents, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, so that the deck can be cleared for America to battle ISIS without accidentally siding with anyone who hasn’t already won an American commitment to their defense.

I don’t get the sense that this particular approach to foreign policy is winning any significant number of adherents. And anyway, Hillary Clinton offers a less-extreme, more seasoned and more rational version of the same ideology, something I suspect the sorts of people most likely to be inclined to reward Rubio for his foreign policy are at least dimly aware of. Rather, I suspect Rubio’s main gains are coming from more centrist, establishment-minded Republicans starting to coalesce around the only establishment-acceptable figure getting any traction – and I suspect most of these are not really motivated by his specific foreign policy views, or are even aware of just how extreme his views on that subject are.

The rising dispensation, though, isn’t un-hawkish. It isn’t realist, it isn’t restrained, and it certainly isn’t dovish. But it is different from Rubio’s full-spectrum interventionism. What is it?

I think the right label, for both Cruz and Trump, is “To Hell With Them Hawk,” a coinage invented by John Derbyshire back in 2006. That’s a bit cumbersome as labels go, but we need one, and I think this one will do, because it expresses the degree to which the defining aspect of the rising hawkish dispensation is not really caring what happens as a result of American actions, provided those actions are plainly aimed at killing our opponents.

Trump wins applause for saying we should cheer Russia on for attacking ISIS rather than getting in their way or trying to take over. But he also wins applause for saying we should seize ISIS’s oil and kill their families. There are common threads between the more restrained and the extremely aggressive stances: in both cases, we’re talking about somebody attacking ISIS, and in neither case is there any real concern for a strategic endgame.

Cruz puts a bit more of a realist veneer on his views, but they aren’t so different. He is skeptical of democracy-promotion and nation-building. He thinks we should have left Qaddafi alone and continued to back Mubarak. But he also favors a very hard line on Iran, as well as a hard line on China and Russia. He’s skeptical of some interventions, but he’s also manifestly uninterested in diplomatic solutions to problems.

Rubio is interested in demonstrating that America can lead. The rising dispensation on the right is interesting in demonstrating that American can win – and that it doesn’t really care who else has to lose in the process.

 

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Ponnuru’s Commitments

Ramesh Ponnuru has compiled a list of eight commitments he thinks any GOP candidate should make to earn the support of “conservatives.” It’s a revealing list.

First of all, nearly half of the items – 3 of the 8 listed – relate to abortion. He wants a commitment to end Federal funding of organizations (like Planned Parenthood) that perform abortions, to let states cut off Medicaid funds to such organizations as well, and to end funding of research that depends on human embryos.

Then, yet another 3 items – more than half of the remaining list – relate to “culture war” matters. Candidates should, in his view, pledge to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which protects individuals from federal action being taken against them because of actions taken on the belief that marriage is lawfully only the union of a man and a woman. And they should pledge to withdraw guidance related to school discipline intended to reduce disparate impact on black and Hispanic students, and to withdraw guidance to universities on matters related to sexual harassment and sexual misconduct.

In other words, a full three-fourths of the items on conservative litmus test, as Ponnuru sees it, relate to culture war questions. (The other two items relate to immigration and to the question under what circumstances regulatory agencies can be sued.)

I’m not interested in debating the merits of the individual proposals on Ponnuru’s list. I just want to note how tiny and narrow they appear to me even in the context of the typical trivialities of a Presidential campaign. That fact is especially striking when you consider that Ponnuru breezily asserts at the top of his article that of course all conservatives agree on low taxes and a strong defense – as if there were no more that need be said about economics or foreign policy. It’s also striking how defensive the list reads, with many of the items related to reversing Obama-era policies that social conservatives fear threaten their ability to operate on an equal basis in American life.

You never know what will prove to be a symbolic rallying cry with resonance, so for all I know Ponnuru has identified items that really will resonate with large numbers of people. But I would have thought that that question would be one that the candidates’ campaigns were particularly interested in, rather than something that would come from a movement seeking to extract commitments from said candidates.

I’m in no sense a movement conservative, and I’m way to Ponnuru’s left, so maybe I’m a bad reader. But it sure doesn’t read like much of an agenda to me.

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Infinite Space, Bounded in a Nutshell

Jacob Tremblay in "Room"
Jacob Tremblay in "Room"

When I was younger, I experienced a pair of recurring dreams. I began having the dreams when I was around seven years old, and continued to have them, on and off, for years after.

In the first of these, I was lying in bed in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister (she was in her bed in the dream), and someone on the other side of the bedroom door was nailing the door shut – more precisely, nailing boards across the door to prevent it being opened. I knew this was happening – I could hear it – and I knew that my mother was on the other side, also aware that I was being nailed in. The dream recurred for years, but stopped recurring when I was still a child.

The other dream was both similar and thematically opposite, but it requires a bit of background to explain. So, in actual reality, when I was about six years old I and my three-year-old sister went exploring down a small hill behind our apartment building. A short distance down, we came to a path that went through a wooded area. We walked along the path for a bit, until we encountered a barking dog. The dog scared my sister, who began to cry, and I threw a stick in the dog’s direction, trying to distract it. That didn’t work, so we turned around and walked back along the path – but we couldn’t find our apartment building. We walked back and forth along the path, failing to find our way home, getting more and more anxious, until finally, in desperation, I led us off the path and straight up the hill. At the top of which we found our building, and my father, waiting on a park bench. I had forgotten that we had walked down the little hill to get to the path in the first place.

So: the dream. In the dream, I would wake up – and I would still be down on that path in the woods. I was still with my sister, still lost – but if I was sixteen when I had the dream, then I was also sixteen in the dream; time had passed just as it had in reality. And, in the dream, I would realize that it was my waking life – school, home, the works – that had been  a dream, while in reality for however many years had passed since that adventure when I was six, my sister and I had lived as feral children in the lonely dog-ridden woods. I had this second dream for far longer than the dream of being nailed in, recurring well into my teenage years and possibly into my twenties – I don’t recall precisely when it stopped. And it was so vivid that frequently I would wake from it to a deep disorientation about which was reality and which the dream.

All of which is preface to saying: the new movie, “Room,” knocked the frigging stuffing out of me.

“Room” – directed by Lenny Abrahamson (whose previous film, “Frank,” I also really liked; I’m clearly a fan) and based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, (who also wrote the script) – tells the story of the survival, escape and post-escape adjustment to mundane reality of a pair of captives. “Ma” (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son, “Jack,” (an astonishing Jacob Tremblay) live in a 100-square foot garden shed they both call Room. This is their entire world – and the only world Jack has known. You see, Ma was kidnapped by a stranger (Sean Bridgers) seven years ago, and has been held captive by him in this room ever since. He keeps her alive, bringing her food and providing heat and electricity and other necessities, so that he can continue to rape her on a regular basis. Jack, her son by her rapist and captor, was born in Room. He has never been outside.

For the first half of the film, our world is Jack’s world, and while we are aware of the horror that his mother experiences, the camera doesn’t make much more sense of it than Jack does. As well, by the time we meet this little family, the horror of their situation has settled into routine. Jack’s childhood, though strange, is also strangely idyllic, because he has the rapt attention of his mother. She feeds him and exercises him, reads to him and teaches him to read; she makes snakes out of egg shells to be his companions; and she hides him in the bureau when her captor pays his nighttime calls. Her entire existence is oriented around protecting and nurturing him. He is her only joy, her only care, her only interest in the universe.

Or so Jack thinks. Not long after his fifth birthday, his mother tells him the truth. (And we begin to see, really for the first time, what it has cost Ma to be what she has been for Jack for the past five years.) He learns that his mother has a history; that there is an outside world; and that he has a crucial role to play in the escape that will take them out of Room, and into that world outside. In a sequence that is simultaneously harrowing and exhilarating, Jack – who, remember, is only five years old and not only has never been outside but does not really have a concept of “outside” – carries out his mother’s plan for their escape.

And that’s when the trouble starts. Ma is reunited with her own mother (Joan Allen), father (William H. Macy) and new stepfather (Tom McCamus) – her parents’ marriage did not survive the trauma of their daughter’s kidnapping. But, bereft of the purpose provided by her terrible predicament, she comes face to face with how much she suffered, and lost, and begins to break down, falling into a suicidal depression. Jack has to reckon not only with a confusing and unfamiliar world, the need to read new people and situations, experience vantages and enter spaces whose contours he knows not at all, but with the loss of his anchor of stability, his mother.

The escape forms a structural hinge in the middle of the film, similar to the hinge in the middle of “Captain Phillips” that I described in my review of that film, in that there are effectively two films here. But in this case, the second film is not a reversal of the first (the pursuer now pursued, the aggressor now the apparent victim), but rather a commentary on the first. The first movie is primarily about Jack’s experience of life in Room, though through him we can experience something of what his mother is going through. The second movie is still secondarily about the mother’s experience, which we still get primarily through Jack’s understanding of it – but it’s primarily about Jack’s adjustment as he begins to make sense of the idea of Room as just one place among a world of places, a world in which he is quite suddenly not the center. It’s a testament to Jack’s emotional resourcefulness, and to the calm strength of his grandmother and her husband, that he is able to make the adjustment as well as he does, and say goodbye to Room.

That goodbye is a perfect capsule of the movie, and hence a perfect (perhaps too perfect) ending. Jack asks to be allowed to visit Room one last time, and so they are escorted by the police back to the scene of the crime. The shed, which once encompassed an entire world, now appears almost unfathomably shrunken, to us as well as to Jack. Jack says goodbye, and Ma echoes him. In her voice, it’s a plea – that she, and Jack, will actually be able to say goodbye to this horrible place. But in Jack’s voice, it’s the same goodbye any child gives to his or her first home, to a beloved transitional object, or to the first dear friend or relative who dies.

“Room” doesn’t lean too hard on the obvious exile-from-Eden trope, which is why that trope works so powerfully. What Jack is going through – expulsion from an exclusive zone of maternal concern into a world of complexity and independence – is what every child goes through eventually, though not usually in such a sudden and violent way.

Or maybe that expulsion is getting more violent as it is more delayed. Perhaps there’s something especially resonant about this story in our age of helicopter parenting, when too many kids are so thoroughly supervised that “outside” is unfathomable, and when too many mothers feel trapped by a crushing obligation that is also their entire purpose for being.

In any event, it would make an excellent double feature with “The Babadook.”

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