Noah Millman

My Advice To Hillary: Embrace Your Inner Tammy Wynette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Four Reasons Hillary Clinton Is So Unpopular

Contra Brooks, it’s not complicated at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Can Anti-Discrimination Be More Discriminating?

jeep2499 / Shutterstock
jeep2499 / Shutterstock

Damon Linker would like it to be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mansplaining Politics to Hillary Clinton

Meanwhile, over at The Week, I’ve been offering Hillary Clinton some free campaign advice in a series of columns.

In the first column, which you can read here, I focus on the need for Clinton to redefine herself yet again:

On balance, Clinton has the odds in her favor — but nothing is assured. If there’s one thing the Clinton camp surely learned from watching the GOP primaries, it’s that sitting back and waiting for Trump’s inevitable implosion is a good way to lose to him. But if there’s a second thing they surely learned, it’s that running a campaign focused on pointing out the many ways in which Trump transgresses the acceptable bounds of discourse is… a good way to lose to him. And so far, those are the main tacks that Clinton has taken — which is precisely why some of the more politically astute observers are getting nervous.

Clinton should win. But Clinton could lose. So what does she need to do to turn “should” into “will?” . . .

[I]f Clinton can’t be sure to win by sitting on a lead, or by ruling Trump out of order, then she needs to seize the initiative. That means getting the public to pay attention to her, which requires them to believe they will hear something new. But one of Clinton’s problems is that she’s already well-known, and well-known for repeatedly — and unconvincingly — reinventing herself.

And I conclude that the only way to get the country’s attention is by showing that she’s human – which, in Clinton’s case, means showing that she bleeds like the rest of us.

Clinton’s clenched-teeth determination never to show weakness has left her in a place where the only thing that humanizes her is showing her pain and vulnerability. The side voters need to see is the side that gets hurt. It’s the side that gets disrespected, mocked, and — yes — cheated on. That’s the Clinton who voters just might listen to, because they would know, then, that they are hearing from the real her — and they would know, as well, that it was costing her something to tell them whatever she had to say, so she must really want them to hear it.

And that’s the point of showing vulnerability — not to elicit sympathy or a protective impulse, but to get voters to pay attention to her at all. Right now, the biggest risk for Clinton is that nobody is listening. They’re tuning her out, like a teenager tunes out his mother when she tells him to clean up his pigsty of a room. She needs to get the voters in a frame of mind where they are willing to listen. Then she can deliver a message that might persuade.

I don’t think this is generally true of successful female politicians. Margaret Thatcher did not win by showing her vulnerability. But Hillary Clinton isn’t Margaret Thatcher — and, as noted, she has to stop wishing she were a person other than the one she is. In political terms, she’s Coriolanus. She’s seen as haughty, superior, condescending; of acting like she is owed the presidency, like it’s her turn and we should be thankful to have her. She needs to show her wounds, the wounds she received fighting for us, even when we didn’t appreciate it.

Unfortunately, unlike Coriolanus, Clinton can’t just waltz into the marketplace and say, “I have some wounds upon me, and they smart to hear themselves remember’d.” She’ll have to be subtler than that.

Before getting into how she might subtly do that, I wrote another column, which can be found here, going through some of Clinton’s likely objections to such a strategy.

For example:

[S]houldn’t I focus on defining Donald Trump? He’s the new flavor — and most people don’t realize how terrible he is.

Well, let’s consider how that strategy could backfire if deployed in isolation. Let’s say you run a campaign focused on the bigotry of some of Trump’s core supporters, and on the bigoted things Trump himself has said on many occasions. That might well motivate those voters, but Trump’s response — “Hey, I’m not a racist! I’m friends with Mike Tyson; I hired Lynn Patton! You’re just attacking me because I’m not politically correct!” — might motivate his core demographic equally well, depending on which candidate is viewed as more honest.

Moreover, your attacks actually feed Trump’s counter-attack (“you’re attacking me because I’m politically incorrect!”). So the back and forth could wind up building up his narrative, and his appeal, more than yours. You risk defining yourself as the candidate primarily concerned about proper speech and decorum, while Trump defines himself as someone with no time for such niceties because he’s too busy working to make America great again.

I am not arguing that you shouldn’t attack Trump. But you need to think a step or two down the road. If people don’t trust you, then Trump will be in a good position to deflect the actual substance of your attacks, and make the fact that you’re attacking him the real issue. You need to win your audience’s trust first.

Or, for another example:

Who wants to back someone vulnerable and weakWomen support women who roar!

Oh, yes, definitely. You should keep reminding them that you’re a woman, making history, in the face of unfair attacks from men. You should remind them that you are strongly pro-choice and favor a broad interpretation of Title IX. You should stand with Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham, and you should all sing Helen Reddy together. Right?

Let me make a suggestion. Have Huma put up a picture of Marcia Clark on the inside of the door to your Brooklyn office, to serve as a constant reminder of how to lose a sure thing by misreading your audience. Clark, as you no doubt recall, was the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. She thought she had a slam-dunk case and a jury eager to hear it, having stacked it with women who she figured would sympathize with the victim. She failed to account for the possibility that, as African-American women, they might have split sympathies — and that the more she painted Simpson as a cold-blooded killer, and the more she harped on the innocence of his white ex-wife, the more she was pushing their sympathies in the wrong direction, toward standing up for one of their men against a white woman’s defamation.

The 2016 election could present you with a similar problem — even without the explicit racial polarities. Say you focus your energy on attacking Trump and his supporters for being misogynists. You’ll have plenty of fuel for such an attack — but how will the women whose husbands are interested in Trump react? Are they going to let you get between them and their husbands? Or are they going to rally to their defense, and against this insulting, elitist outsider?

To get inside that defense, you can’t rely on female solidarity, or on women’s issues.

The third column should be coming next week. In the meantime, you can find the first two installments here and here.

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What Would a Viable Third-Party Look Like in 2016?

As I fully expected them to, most of the institutional GOP has fallen into line behind their standard-bearer, whatever their private reservations. A handful of intellectuals – mostly neoconservatives who have long had ties to both parties – have openly defected to Clinton, which makes perfect sense since her foreign policy views are largely congenial to them, and foreign policy is what they care about most of all. But most of those who previously expressed disdain or alarm about Trump are being cajoled or bullied into supporting the nominee.

It is still possible that a down-the-line conservative will decide to mount a well-funded third-party campaign, but there is no chance that such a campaign would win any states, with the possible exception of Utah and Idaho, overwhelmingly Republican and Mormon-dominated states where both Clinton and Trump are deeply unpopular. Such a campaign’s only plausible purpose would be to hand Clinton a victory, and thereby demonstrate to Republicans that they dare not in the future nominate anyone who does not have the blessing of the conservative movement.

Whether the GOP would allow itself to be bullied in this manner may be questioned, though Trump’s own success may give the movement ideologues encouragement. But it’s highly doubtful that Trump’s own supporters will be similarly forgiving. And in the worst case, such a bid would, like Henry Wallace’s 1948 campaign, permanently discredit the splinter faction. Regardless, a civil war thus engaged would be unlikely to end swiftly, or without malice toward those who launched it.

But is there a third-party challenge that could actually be viable?

The last two viable third-party challenges came from H. Ross Perot in 1992 and George Wallace in 1968. Perot’s opening came from the sullen aftermath of America’s first “jobless recovery,” that followed the recession caused by America’s first modern financial crisis (the collapse of the Savings and Loan industry), and resulting in a ballooning national debt. His main issue was deficit reduction. Wallace’s opening came from the split in the Democrats created by the Civil Rights Act and the surging national crime wave. His main issues were upholding white supremacy and restoring civil order. Both candidacies drew support from both of the major parties’ natural coalitions, and both facilitated the reshaping of those coalitions after their losses.

If the Republicans had nominated a “normal” candidate, then there would be any number of issues that could provide a platform for such a third-party candidate. The most obvious would be in foreign policy. Hillary Clinton may be the single most hawkish Democrat of major stature out there, and if she were facing off against Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush or Rick Perry, there would be ample room for a candidate opposed to international military adventures to get traction. Free trade and a relatively liberal immigration policy are two other areas where the candidates would be broadly in agreement – and where there would be room for a third-party challenger.

But Trump, of course, has made those very issues his own. It remains a very real question whether he truly cares about these – or any – issues, but the mere fact that he is running on them means that there is little room for a third party to seize their mantle.

So what could a viable third-party challenger run on? Perhaps the way to get at the answer is to ask: who is being excluded by the current set of major-party choices?

The most obvious answer is: younger voters. Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s primary victories were powered by older voters in their respective parties, and both candidates are distinctly unpopular among voters under 30. Younger voters do have distinct views and interests. They tend to be more dovish, less socially-conservative, more supportive of an active government role in the economy and yet less attached to entitlements that primarily benefit the elderly.

Overall, that sounds mostly like the profile of a part of the Democratic coalition – and, indeed, younger cohorts tend to be the least-Republican-leaning of voters. So a third-party candidacy aimed at winning these voters would just be taking a bite out of Clinton’s hide. Notwithstanding the supposed determination of some of Sanders’s voters never to reconcile with Clinton, I think the appetite for a left-liberal third party among any meaningful number of left-leaning voters is distinctly limited, and hence that such a campaign would never get off the ground.

But there are members of the conservative coalition who would also be sidelined by a Trump/Clinton contest. Anyone with a genuine concern for limited government has no choice that remotely represents their viewpoint. Ditto for anyone primary concerned with defending traditional religious beliefs or the autonomy of local institutions. Trump is a nationalist with authoritarian tendencies, while Clinton is a more traditional Democrat, but one with no particular history of empathy for civil-libertarian causes.

The above would suggest that there might be an opening for a libertarian candidate. Some libertarians hope for exactly that – and with Koch money behind him, Gary Johnson is about to test the proposition as well as it could possibly be tested. I’m skeptical mostly because libertarianism is generally marketed as a totalizing ideology that is appealing only to a tiny minority, and is frequently represented by cranks more concerned with promoting their pet conspiracy theories (generally involving some aspect of monetary policy) than with accomplishing anything – or even advancing their own purported ideas. Moreover, their backers are typically interested in tax reduction and regulatory relief more than anything, which are the part of the libertarian agenda that is least-likely to pull voters out of the Republican coalition. Inasmuch as most libertarians see themselves as part of that coalition, there is likely little appetite for a serious libertarian challenge that would throw the election to Clinton. To put it another way: the Rand Paul that some people imagined existed might have been an interesting alternative to the two major party candidates. The Rand Paul who actually exists is backing Trump. But we’ll see soon enough.

Is there a third-party perspective that would appeal to the hodgepodge of weirdos who read TAC? From one perspective, Donald Trump, by his victory, has vindicated many of the causes for which this magazine was founded in opposition to the conservative movement. From another perspective, he represents the final nail in the coffin of anything that can be called conservative. And it’s possible for both perspectives to be true.

For myself, I’ll be rooting for Hillary Clinton in November. I don’t like her, and I strongly disagree with her in the area – foreign policy – where she demonstrates the strongest convictions. But while, contra Robert KaganI don’t think Donald Trump actually represents an incipient fascism, I do think he’d make a disastrous president, and far worse than Hillary Clinton. And while I delighted at his destruction of a Republican leadership that most definitely deserved destroying, I kind of don’t want him to do the same to the United States of America.

But, particularly since Clinton is certain to win New York no matter what, I’ll definitely be looking at the other choices. And I would be happy if there were a viable small-is-beautiful voice – clean, devolutionist, tolerant and pacifistic – to throw my vote away on. Even though, really, I want the president to be someone colder and tougher-minded than, I don’t know, Zephyr Teachout.

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What David Samuels Wants: Better Readers

I have to admit, I found David Samuels’s defense of his now-infamous New York Times Magazine article to be delightfully amusing. From my perspective, the important paragraph of his defense is this one:

But why were any of them [Rhodes and his fellow staffers] talking to me? I soon surmised that Rhodes’s motivation in allowing me to peek behind the curtain came from a disquiet he felt at the possibility, or the likelihood, that the machinery he managed so brilliantly would soon be in the hands of his successors, who might use it to do things that he thought could be quite dangerous — like goading the United States into another pointless, bloody foreign war. Rhodes readily admitted to me that the work he does is a potentially dangerous distortion of democracy, but he also felt that it had become a necessary evil, caused by the fracturing of the 20th-century mass audience and the decline of the American press. He expressed a deep personal hopelessness about the possibility of open, rational public debate in a brutally partisan climate. But didn’t the country deserve better? I kept asking him. Over time, our conversations around this point evolved, without either of us directly mentioning it, into a kind of gentleman’s bet: My article would go as hard as I could at the truth as I saw it, The Times would publish it, and one of us would be proved right while the other would be proved wrong.

So, let’s unpack this rich paragraph, with a view to the context of the defense as a whole. Samuels is writing a profile of Rhodes. Rhodes is suspiciously cooperative. Samuels wonders: what’s his motive for cooperating? What message does he want Samuels to get across? His answer: Rhodes is trying to expose his own successful manipulation of the press in order to prevent his successor from doing the same. Samuels, concurring that Rhodes manipulated the press and that this is a problem, basically gives Rhodes the spin Samuels thinks he wants. This, supposedly, is totally different from what the journalists Samuels criticizes do when they give administration officials the spin they ask for.

Meanwhile, Samuels wraps that critique of the press around a fierce indictment of the Iran deal itself – an indictment Rhodes can reasonably expect because he knows Samuels and where he is coming from. Nowhere in Samuels’s self-defense does he acknowledge that this is what he is doing in the piece – on the contrary, he protests that he wasn’t ever really an opponent of the deal, but appeared on a panel about how to fight the deal because he and the organizer share interests in literature and sports. He says that his critics are engaged in “fever-dream caricature” when they call him a neocon, but neglects to note that the neoconservative press has latched on to Samuels’s piece as proof that they were right in their complaints about the Iran deal all along.

In other words, Samuels wrote a sly, sophisticated skewering of a man he calls “the bravest person I’ve ever met in Washington,” and of his boss’s approach to foreign policy, a piece that requires the delicate peeling of multiple onion skin layers to fully appreciate – and, when attacked from all sides for shoddy journalism, defends it by saying, “I wrote a piece about how the press can no longer engage in open debate, which leaves them open to partisan manipulation – and see? These attacks on me prove it.” I can only conclude that Samuels’s real complaint is that his rivals and opponents just aren’t playing the game at a level that can keep him from getting bored. Though, I really can’t blame him for that – they mostly aren’t playing the game at a level that keeps me from getting bored either.

Samuels’s original piece, which is all about the manipulation of narrative to persuade, invites to be read with the sophistication that Samuels brought to his reading of the White House’s sales job. On the surface, Samuels’s indictment is that the Iran deal was sold deceptively to the public – the secret negotiations that pre-dated the Iranian elections were kept secret, and the deal was linked to the promise of internal reform in Iran that the administration never really believed in. These surface indictments are readily refuted – indeed, they are largely refuted in Samuels’s own article.

The deeper indictment, though, is that the deal represents a larger tilt toward Iran in American foreign policy and/or a strategic withdrawal from our existing commitments in the Middle East, and this secret agenda was never explained in public. Moreover, the important people who were deceived, in this reading, were not members of the American press, but the leaders of countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia – and former members of Obama’s own administration like Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta. The deception involved convincing them that the administration was committed to using force to prevent Iran from going nuclear if that proved necessary, and thereby making it unnecessary for Israel to launch a far-riskier strike of their own, when in fact the administration did not have any such commitment.

This indictment is impossible to prove or disprove because what’s being claimed is that the real motive behind the deal is still being kept secret. But it’s certainly possible for Samuels to prove that key players believe they were deceived, because they told him so:

As secretary of defense, he [Panetta] tells me, one of his most important jobs was keeping Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, from launching a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “They were both interested in the answer to the question, ‘Is the president serious?’ ” Panetta recalls. “And you know my view, talking with the president, was: If brought to the point where we had evidence that they’re developing an atomic weapon, I think the president is serious that he is not going to allow that to happen.”

Panetta stops.

“But would you make that same assessment now?” I ask him.

“Would I make that same assessment now?” he asks. “Probably not.”

Whether Samuels thinks the Obama administration was honest in its intent with the Iran deal is of secondary importance. Whether the press repeated Obama administration spin is of secondary importance. The story is that Hillary Clinton’s people are now saying that they were duped, and they are going on the record about that. Samuels is doing something very similar to what Jeffrey Goldberg does when he recounts conversations with Netanyahu and Obama and so forth. The only difference is that Samuels believes he knows exactly what he is doing, and believes that Goldberg doesn’t, because he believes Goldberg doesn’t understand the way the world really works.

And how does Samuels understand it? Well, to get a handle on that question, it’s worth actually reading that old Slate piece of his predicting (inaccurately) that Israel was going to bomb Iran. Far from being a piece of advocacy, as is being claimed in some quarters, it is a consummate – and consummately cold – piece of analysis. The argument, with substantiating quotes, runs as follows:

1. The Israeli-American relationship is rooted in Israeli power, and the threat that power poses to stability in the region, and hence to American interests.

By shattering the old balance of power in the Middle East with its spectacular military victory in the Six Day War, Israel announced itself to America as the reigning military power in the region and as a profoundly destabilizing influence that needed to be contained.

2. What Israel gets from the alliance – which truly dates from after 1967 – is American protection in the event they are existentially threatened. In exchange, what they have given up is a degree of freedom of action.

Israel traded its freedom to engage in high-risk, high-payoff exploits like the Suez Canal adventure or the Six Day War for the comfort of a military and diplomatic guarantee from the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. As a regional American client, Israel would draw on the military and diplomatic power of its distant patron in exchange for allowing America to use its control over Israel as leverage with neighboring Arab states.

3. What America gets from the alliance is the ability to threaten other regimes with a more unrestrained Israel if they don’t accede to American demands – demands that mostly relate to . . . making peace with Israel.

With each American-brokered peace move—from Camp David to the Madrid Conference to Oslo and Annapolis—the United States has been able to hold up its leverage over Israel as both a carrot and a stick to the Arab world. Do what we want, and we will force the Israelis to behave. The client-patron relationship between the United States and Israel that allows Washington to control the politics of the Middle East is founded on two pillars: America’s ability to deliver concrete accomplishments, like the return of the Sinai to Egypt and the pledge to create a Palestinian state, along with the suggestion that Washington is manfully restraining wilder, more aggressive Israeli ambitions.

The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates. The instability of the U.S.-Israel relationship is therefore inherent in the terms of a patron-client relationship that requires managing a careful balance of Israeli strength and Israeli weakness. An Israel that runs roughshod over its neighbors is a liability to the United States—just as an Israel that lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client.

4. To retain America as a patron, Israel must periodically demonstrate its independent strength and capabilities, because if it ever became a docile vassal America would have no more use for the relationship.

A corollary of this basic point is that the weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel’s value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran.

The untenable nature of this strategic calculus gives a cold-eyed academic analyst all the explanation she needs to explain Israel’s recent wars against Hezbollah and Hamas, its assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers, and its 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor. Israel’s attempts to restore its perceived capacity for game-changing independent military action are directed as much to its American patron as to its neighbors.

5. Therefore, Israel should attack Iran not primarily as a way to permanently end Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but as a way to keep America from taking Israel for granted.

The parallels between Israel’s rise to superpower client status after 1967 and Iran’s recent rise offer another strong reason for Israel to act—and act fast. The current bidding for Iran’s favor is alarming to Israel not only because of the unfriendly proclamations of Iranian leaders but because of what an American rapprochement with Iran signals for the future of Israel’s status as an American client. While America would probably benefit by playing Israel and Iran against each other for a while to extract the maximum benefit from both relationships, it is hard to see how America would manage to please both clients simultaneously and quite easy to imagine a world in which Iran—with its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, its control over Hezbollah and Hamas, and easy access to leading members of al-Qaida—would  be the partner worth pleasing.

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America’s favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won’t work.

This is, as I said, a very cold bit of analysis. I don’t know that Samuels believes only in this – that is to say, he may also believe that America and Israel share important common values, that Israel is a moral cause worth supporting for its own sake, that the alliance benefits America through shared intelligence-gathering, and benefits American defense contractors through the required purchases of American military equipment, and so on. But I find it hard to believe that he wrote the piece entirely as an exercise. It reads as something he actually does believe. In which case, one of the things he believes is that American and Israeli interests diverge profoundly, and that Israel’s grand security strategy is focused on blackmailing their superpower patron.

If you believe that, then surely you believe that it would be irrational for the Obama administration to initiate a war with Iran in order to prevent Iran from going nuclear. On the contrary, the rational course would be to deceive Israel into believing that the administration really would risk doing that if necessary, while, in fact, using a mix of carrots and sticks to get Iran to the table to sign the most restrictive deal that Iran could plausibly agree to (since a nuclear Iran would also be a threat American interests, albeit not nearly as profound a threat to America as it would be to Israel, or the Gulf monarchies), and thereby foreclose the possibility of preemptive military action by either America or Israel. Which is precisely what Samuels believes the administration did.

As I cannot reiterate often enough, what’s interesting to me about the piece is the relationship it reveals between the outgoing Obama administration and a possible Clinton administration waiting in the wings. I’m very skeptical that Rhodes was out to cripple a potential Clinton administration’s propaganda machine, simply because I don’t see how cooperating with Samuels would achieve that objective. (Would Twitter suddenly shut down? Would major newspapers triple their spending on foreign correspondents?) Rather, what seems clearest is that both the President and his former Secretary of State wanted to telegraph to the world their deep mutual distrust when it comes to matters of foreign policy, and they used Samuels’s profile as a convenient vehicle for doing so.

My question for Samuels is: does he think Clinton and her team are sincere? Or are they spinning him – and us? And if they are sincere, is it because they are more soft-headed about the way the world works, as he thinks Jeffrey Goldberg is, or more hard-headed about the responsibilities of power?

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The Colossus and Ben Rhodes

Ben Rhodes (L) Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
Ben Rhodes (L) Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I was fascinated to read the now-infamous New York Times Magazine piece by David Samuels about Ben Rhodes and the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, with special emphasis on the selling of the Iran deal. If you haven’t read it already, you really ought to. It’s as elegantly brutal, nasty and underhanded as you’ve heard – and, precisely for that reason, a superb piece of writing.

Because the Times is getting bludgeoned for not disclosing Samuels’s public opposition to the nuclear deal, nor his longstanding feud with Jeffrey Goldberg, either or both of which might have been relevant to understanding where the piece was coming from, I should begin with a disclosure of my own: David Samuels is a friend, someone I know socially apart from the journalistic world. So I may have brought a somewhat different perspective to the piece than did those who didn’t know Samuels at all, or who knew him solely from his published work.

The first thing that struck me about the piece is that Rhodes and Samuels have an awful lot in common. They are both New Yorkers, both Jewish (half-Jewish in Rhodes’s case), and – crucially – both people who think of themselves as serious writers. Rhodes abandoned plans to become a novelist after 9-11, shifting his focus to international affairs, and gets praised repeatedly by previous bosses for being able to observe and express the narrative of a policy argument; Samuels, meanwhile, is a journalist who is widely praised for his novelistic approach to detail and the acuity and depth of his profiles, and who writes at least as much about cultural phenomena as about international affairs. It is not hard to imagine an alternate universe in which David Samuels got a job working for the CIA after 9-11, or where Ben Rhodes became a notable member of the anti-Iraq-War press (though he’d probably be more like Spencer Ackerman than like Samuels).

Most important, although Samuels plainly wrote the piece in part to eviscerate the narrative of the Iran nuclear deal’s success, Samuels and Rhodes have more compatible worldviews than might first appear. Specifically, they share a contempt for the foreign policy establishment, a group Rhodes refers to as “The Blob.” Samuels opposed the Iraq War in part because he had no faith in the neoconservative plan to remake the Middle East, and in part because he was capable of thinking a couple of moves ahead on the chess board – for example, to wonder what would happen when we removed Iran’s strongest regional competitor. It cannot have failed to make an impression on Samuels that virtually the entire foreign policy establishment was relatively easily swayed to go along with that foolish project. So when he artfully skewers Rhodes with his own words about manipulating the press to push a narrative, it’s Samuels, even more than Rhodes, who shows deep contempt for his journalistic colleagues, and Iraq is in the background of why.

Samuels prizes giving reality a cold, hard look, and then accepting what you see. He prizes that in himself, and in others. This isn’t a partisan thing; he was as scathing about what he saw as Condoleezza Rice’s illusions as he is about what he sees as Obama’s. When Rhodes – or his boss – seem like they are doing serious realpolitik, he has respect for that. When, at the end of the piece, he baits Rhodes about Henry Kissinger, it’s not because he wants Rhodes to recoil from what he is doing, or what he has become. It’s because he wants him to face the responsibilities of power.

That’s what Samuels is not convinced the Obama team were doing when they made a deal with Iran. On the surface, the piece is about how they sold the deal with deceptive happy talk about reform and change in Iran and so forth – a claim that, frankly, isn’t especially damning and whose most damning particulars have been widely debunked. (Fred Kaplan links to many of the best debunking and makes his own contributions to boot.) But underneath the surface, it’s about whether the Obama Administration ever truly reckoned with the potential consequences of an American withdrawal from the Middle East, or whether they allowed themselves to escape that reckoning by saying, in effect, that whatever happens isn’t their fault because the place was irretrievably wrecked by their predecessors.

I want to bracket the question of whether Samuels is right about those consequences, as well as about whether the Obama Administration is really facilitating such a withdrawal (Yemen, anyone?), because that would require a lot more space and would take us off on a considerable tangent. But I think his perspective is something like this. American hegemony, the belief that America is willing to spend considerable blood and treasure to prevent any meaningful changes in the balance of power in the Middle East (and Iran going nuclear would certainly be a meaningful change), is all that has prevented an all-out struggle for supremacy between Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. As soon as that commitment comes into question, all bets are off. Iran might go nuclear – or Saudi Arabia might out of fear of Iran. Turkey might make a bid to replace Saudi Arabia as the dominant Sunni power – or Egypt might. Then there’s the risk of an Islamist takeover of any number of regimes in the region, as an American withdrawal prompts a shift in focus to the near enemy, or a turn toward Islamism by one or more regimes in an effort to forestall that outcome. Syria’s Civil War is the Spanish Civil War of the Middle East, the proxy war between the region’s powers that prefigures a much more devastating conflict to come. And we don’t seem to have any idea what we even want to do about it.

One ready response to make to that picture is: yes, but what can we do about it. That’s pretty much exactly what Ben Rhodes says to him. And Samuels’s main retort to this response is: dude, I don’t work for the National Security Council. You do. Own the job. There’s nobody out there to pass the buck to.

That’s what the piece is about.

One last point. There’s been a lot of chatter about how foolish Ben Rhodes was to walk into Samuels’s trap, and how bad he made his boss look. But his boss is on his way out. The person who has something on the line isn’t Obama – it’s Hillary Clinton. It comes as no surprise that her people – like Leon Panetta – proved more than eager to talk to Samuels, more than eager to backpedal on previous support for Obama’s Iran strategy, and barely willing to defend the President by blaming his aides for keeping information from him. By the same token, it’s not terribly surprising to hear Rhodes classify Hillary Clinton as part of “the Blob” that he blames for the catastrophic state of the Middle East.

But we should be surprised. It’s kind of amazing that the President is prepared to let his own former Secretary of State hang out to dry, letting her take the fall for the Libyan debacle and generally impugning her performance in her most significant previous office. Yes, he’s right in a sense, inasmuch as Clinton was the prime proponent of going to war in Libya, not to mention the fiercest advocate of using force to topple President Assad in Syria. But on a purely political level, Obama is clearly trying to protect his own legacy at the expense of his potential successor. And it’s even more amazing that Clinton is this willing to disparage a sitting President of her own party who is far more popular than she is, and in the service of a foreign policy agenda that is not only deeply unpopular but which has no demonstrated record of success, and is implicated with her own worst failures in office.

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The Pessimist’s Case Against – and For – Donald Trump

Crush Rush / Shutterstock.com

I want to endorse the bulk of this Ross Douthat blog post about how even people who hate the status quo need to recognize how Donald Trump could make things much worse:

I would invite the Trump-curious to think about the two signal crises of the Bush years, 9/11 and the financial crisis, and imagine each one with Donald Trump installed as president of the United States.

In the first instance, you can imagine a better outcome than the one we had: Perhaps Trump’s (alleged) skepticism about the Iraq War and zeal for “winning” would have manifested itself in a more restrained and tightly-focused post-9/11 response, perhaps we would have caught or killed Bin Laden sooner and brought our troops home in a victory parade, perhaps phrases like “Abu Ghraib” and “waterboarding” would have never entered our national lexicon.

But remembering the post-9/11 atmosphere (and, indeed, my own psychic state at the time), it also seems very easy to imagine a response that was much, much worse — more reckless, more bloodthirsty, more extra-constitutional, and ultimately more disastrous for our military, the innocent, the world.

Recall, especially, that for all the talk at the time and after about Bush’s fascism, etc., the Bush administration spent a lot of time trying to tamp down backlash at home (mosque visits, yes; internment camps, no) and working within institutional frameworks that imposed some limits on its actions. Both of its wars (unlike our Obama-era adventures) were debated and approved by Congress, a great deal of time was spent trying to work through the United Nations, the invasion of Iraq was a coalition effort even if it was only of the “willing,” High Cheneyism was pressed by one faction of the executive branch but resisted by others, and so on.

None of this prevented the war from being a mistake and then a debacle, and if you’re preparing an indictment of the American governing class the fact that so many centrists and reasonable liberals went along with the Bush administration’s case for war can be invoked in a case for disruption, a case for #TrumpNow. (As can the fact that many #NeverTrump voices on the right seem not to have reckoned fully with what Bushism wrought.)

But it’s also pretty easy, especially given some of the precedents created by President Obama’s foreign forays and drone wars, to imagine how a future American president might respond to a 9/11-style attack by ignoring institutional restraints entirely, and simply lashing out with blood and fire. Especially if that American president had, I dunno, explicitly campaigned on promises to “kill them and take the oil,” to murder terrorist families, to disfavor and discriminate against Muslims as a class during a time of terror, etc. Which is why, in the end, a rigorous case for Trump needs to be very comfortable with that possibility (as some of his supporters are!), comfortable with fire and blood as an alternative to George W. Bush’s far-too-timid crawl to war and overlawyered “enhanced interrogations,” rather than assuming because Bush’s foreign policy went bad a far higher degree of recklessness and folly isn’t possible.

Then regarding the financial crisis — well, there my take is a lot shorter. No doubt the Bush administration (and the Clinton administration before it) made mistakes that made the crisis worse when it came; no doubt the Washington-New York response was imperfect and created all kinds of problems down the road. But to believe that the aftermath of Lehman’s collapse couldn’t have been much bleaker with a more feckless and volatile president at the helm and a more hackish cast around him, that the Bush administration’s response was the worst of all possible options rather than among the least-bad, requires ignoring a lot of very dark economic history that we were lucky not to actually revisit. There is some chance that America and the world would have been better off had Donald Trump been president on 9/11 rather than Bush. But the chances that we would have been better off in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (and into the present) drop very low indeed.

I’ll leave off there, while noting that I’ve made an earlier version of this argument that touches on the immigration issue as well. Again, we’ll have plenty of time to wrestle with these questions over the next six months. But in the pessimist community generally, and the world of dissident, anti-Bush conservatives especially, this strikes me as the core problem that need to be reckoned with by anyone who wants to make a strong case for supporting Donald Trump for the sake of #disrupting our decadent elite. It’s not enough to note that things are bad now, that our bipartisan leaders — and especially the Republican Party’s leaders — have often marched with folly. You need to address head-on the ways in which a President Trump seems like a man whose instincts, inclinations and explicit promises could make that march of folly ever so much swifter, ever so much worse.

I agree with all of this. One of Donald Trump’s earliest and most vocal supporters on the right is Ann Coulter, and we all remember how she responded to the attacks on 9-11. If I were betting how a President Trump would have responded, I would guess something like that – or, alternatively, that he would have responded with that kind of rhetorical bluster while doing nothing productive to respond to the attacks. Similarly, with Trump nattering on about repudiating the national debt when there is no crisis at present, and no plausible crisis in response to which repudiating our debt would bring anything but national catastrophe, I feel highly confident that a President Trump’s response to the financial crisis would either have precipitated a deep and lasting depression, or that at best it would have looked at least as crony-capitalist as the bailouts we got.

But I here’s the thing: I feel fairly confident that much of the current leadership of the GOP would also do worse than Bush on these same tests. Marco Rubio, whom Douthat boosted throughout the primaries, inspires in me absolutely no confidence on either score. Neither does Ted Cruz, Trump’s most successful primary competition. Neither represents as radical a gamble with our nation’s governance as Trump would, but both did represent an increasing radicalism since the Bush years, and in some of the same directions.

Now, I’m not much for Leninist “the worser, the better” type of thinking. I wanted the GOP to have a real debate about its priorities and principles, to move in some degree to repudiate the party’s turn toward radicalism, and to nominate somebody who looked like a plausibly responsible steward of the Republic. But it was clear from very early on that this wasn’t going to happen – that, in fact, the party was determined to have even less of an open debate about the party’s future than they had in 2008 or 2012. Take a look at the depressing evolution of Rand Paul as he prepared to seek the Presidency if you doubt that.

Enter Donald Trump (whom Rand Paul is now supporting, by the way). He’s manifestly unqualified to be President. But precisely because answering the question, “Why Not Trump?” was a painful exercise that exposed the deep flaws and weaknesses of both the establishment and its hard-right institutional opposition, he was uniquely qualified to destroy the GOP in the process of running for President, either by bolting the party in pique to run a third party campaign, or by winning the nomination and leading a decapitated party to a huge, historic defeat.

If you still basically believe in some version of what the GOP has stood for since the mid-1990s, then Donald Trump is an unmitigated disaster. And if you are mostly looking for a responsible hand on the tiller, then Hillary Clinton is clearly your candidate, even if you disagree with her on a host of issues – clearly superior to Trump, but also clearly superior to the most plausible Trump alternatives whom the GOP might have offered up. But if you are “Trump-curious” because you want the GOP to repudiate its post-Reagan identity not in favor of moderation but in favor of a new, more populist/nationalist direction, then you can hope that Donald Trump will be something like Barry Goldwater: the right man to lose with. (Doubly so given the close correspondence between Hillary Clinton and Lyndon Johnson.)

Of course, Barry Goldwater was a mensch. Donald Trump, not so much. Barry Goldwater was a man of ideas. Donald Trump, not so much. Barry Goldwater was the head of an organized and disciplined political faction. Donald Trump, not so much. It’s very plausible that those most interested in the ways that Trump promises to break with the historic GOP will be the most disappointed of all by what he leaves behind, whether he wins or not.

These are all reasons to maintain a healthy critical distance from the Trump phenomenon. But even those who fear that Trump will leave nothing but destruction in his wake, and who hope that the destruction stops with the GOP and does not extend to the country as a whole, may yet have to concede, as they contemplate the wreckage: the judgments of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.

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Can the GOP Civilize Trump the Barbarian?

Conan

My latest column at The Week begins thusly:

With his last two opponents, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, out of the race, Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee for president of the Republican Party. As Kublai Khan conquered the ancient Song Empire of China to become its first barbarian emperor, Trump swooped down and conquered the once-mighty party of Lincoln. Now that party has to figure out how to respond.

For the people who make their living crafting policy papers and political strategy, Trump’s ascendancy presents both an opportunity and a threat. On the one hand, because he comes into the position of nominee with a much thinner infrastructure than is typical, Trump has a huge number of slots to fill — including at the highest level. Plus, Trump has shown a distinct preference, both in his brief political careerin his business career, and even in his personal life, for people with non-traditional qualifications (or few qualifications at all), and a willingness to promote quickly to very senior positions.

The opportunity is there, in other words, for bold and aggressive staffers to leapfrog over more typical choices for a host of quite senior positions. Notwithstanding the risk that, if Trump loses badly, eagerness to have welcomed our new insect overlords proves a permanent career liability, we’re probably about to see a version of “Political Apprentice” play out on a massive scale.

For the conservative movement, meanwhile, Trump poses a bleak choice. They can attempt to negotiate from a position of weakness — demanding a vice president who they consider politically reliable, for example — and risk finding themselves humiliated as Trump ignores them and does whatever he wants. They can protest by mounting a third party challenge, give Clinton an electoral landslide, and render themselves permanently radioactive in the eyes of both Trump’s own loyalists and the bulk of the party political leadership. Or they can focus their attention elsewhere — on Congress, for example — and live with the dread that, if Trump wins without any help from them, they will have neutered themselves permanently in the eyes of the party as a whole.

We’re already seeing some version of each of these responses, what with Paul Ryan demanding that Trump convert to Reaganism before receiving the Imperial purple and Trump haughtily waving Ted Cruz’s severed head in his face, while in the background Rick Perry and a variety of other former Trump opponents scramble to offer their support.

The thing about barbarian conquerors, though, is that they need the help of the conquered to run their empires. And this gives the conquered people power – the power to keep things the way they are.

[T]he GOP can still try to convince itself — with some evidence — that Trump will prove exceedingly malleable policy-wise. After all, he doesn’t think about policy much, and surely believes that his voters aren’t primarily motivated by issues but by his own personal awesomeness. And on many issues Trump is far less-heterodox than his rhetoric suggests. Consider Trump’s tax plan, or his health care plan. Trump’s efforts look like more amateurish and exaggerated versions of precisely the sorts of “plans” that GOP candidates have been proposing for the past several cycles. They involve enormous tax cuts for the top income brackets and corporations, and ripping up ObamaCare to replace it with nothing.

Trump has been emphatic enough about physically building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that it would be difficult for him not to break ground somewhere, but apart from that particular promise it isn’t hard to see how he could be induced to jettison most of his heterodoxy during the transition, if not during the campaign. And to the extent that he doesn’t, well, most policy is made by staffers anyway. Staffers who are going to mostly be the sorts of people who are in Reince Priebus’s contacts rather than in Trump’s.

Once he was emperor, Kublai Khan famously decreed the building of a stately pleasure dome at Xanadu — just the sort of thing one can imagine Donald Trump doing. But to govern China, he relied on Han Chinese advisors, and ran his empire according to traditional Chinese models. Trump the barbarian may wind up being “civilized” by his conquest in much the same manner.

I suspect Sheldon Adelson sees things pretty much this way.

It would be sadly ironic if a President Trump wound up coarsening American public life, trashing the Constitution, and inflaming intercommunal tensions, all for the sake of pretty much the same basket of failed policies that the GOP have enacted whenever they get into power. But it’s not at all a farfetched outcome. Remember: Barack Obama won the nomination and the presidency largely on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq War and other “dumb wars.” And then in office he gave us the Libyan adventure.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

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The Upcoming Battle For Upscale Whites

General Election

How did I not know about this before now?

How the Swing-O-Matic works: We started with the results of the 2012 election and the support for each party’s candidate by the five demographic groups. We then adjusted the size of those groups based on four years of population change. When you adjust the vote and turnout above, our model recalculates the results for each state — as well as the Electoral College outcome and the national popular vote — taking into account how much of the state’s electorate the group accounts for.

The toggles control assumptions about voting behavior for five different demographic groups: College-educated White, Non-college-educated White, Black, Hispanic/Latino and Asian-American/Other. You control two factors for each group: turnout and partisan breakdown. Set your assumptions for each group, and voila: a prediction for the 2016 Presidential election.

For my chart above, I made the following assumptions about how voting behavior will change:

  • College-educated white voters shift significantly towards the Democrats, going from 56% Republican-leaning in 2012 to 55% Democratic-leaning in 2016. But turnout in this group also drops significantly, from 77% to 70%. Basically, I’m assuming upscale Republican moderates will partly swing toward Clinton while upscale conservative Republicans will to some degree stay home.
  • Non-college educated white voters shift the other way, going from 62% Republican-leaning to 70% Republican-leaning. And their turnout also goes up, from 57% to 65%. This is the Trump bump, bringing out infrequent voters from this demographic segment, and also swaying more regular voters further in a Republican direction.
  • Black voters shift very slightly towards Clinton (their Democratic percentage really can’t go much higher), from 93% to 95%. But their turnout drops from 66% to 60%. This reflects the fact the toxicity of Trump’s campaign on the one hand, but the fading of the Obama effect (particularly among younger voters) on the other hand.
  • Hispanic/Latino voters shift toward the Democrats, going from 71% to 75%, and see a bump in turnout as well, from 48% to 55%. And Asian-American and Other voters do the same, going from 67% Democratic-leaning to 75%, and from 49% turnout to 55%. This reflects a strongly negative reaction to Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

The result is a clear victory for Clinton in both the popular vote and the electoral college.

The magnitudes are obviously made up, but I do suspect I’ve got the direction right in terms of turnout and partisan tilt. Trump will bring out more downscale white voters. The question is how many. Some GOP-leaning upscale whites will either vote Clinton or stay home in disgust at the choice presented. The question is how many. Black turnout will probably go down without Obama on the ballot. The question is how much. Hispanic and Asian-American turnout will probably go up because of Trump’s anti-immigrant posturing. The question is how much.

Assuming I’m right about all of that, I decided to make a map of a popular-vote tie (Trump wins with 273 electoral votes) with the following premises:

  • Non-college-educated whites shift toward Trump as in the previous scenario: 70% for the GOP (versus 62% in 2012) and 65% turnout (versus 57% in 2012).
  • Black voter turnout drops to 60% as in the previous scenario (from 66% in 2012).
  • Hispanic/Latino and Asian-American turnout rises by 2%, and shifts 3% towards the Republicans.
  • Turnout for college-educated whites drops to 70% (from 77% in 2012), but only shifts 2% towards the Democrats, ending at 53% Republican.

Here’s the map:

General Election2

In this scenario, Florida, Wisconsin and New Hampshire are all on a knife-edge, with Iowa and Ohio not far behind.

Obviously, these are oversimplified models – but they aren’t meaningless. My primary take-home is this:

If Donald Trump can make significant gains among working-class whites, that ground will be hard for Democrats to recover merely by winning more black, Hispanic and Asian-American votes (though they will absolutely seek to expand in those demographics as well). So the Democratic strategy will perforce be focused on a combination of winning over more upscale whites and limiting Trump’s appeal to downscale whites.

The challenge will be doing both of those things at once.

The good news for Team Clinton is: they start out far enough ahead that they don’t have to do that good a job of either in order to win.

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Now, Who Could It Be? Could It Be … Satan?

carvey.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

John Boehner probably isn’t the first person to compare Ted Cruz to the Prince of Darkness, but I’m more inclined to agree with the Satanic Temple that the hoof doesn’t quite fit. I’m more inclined to go with this comparison.

Meanwhile, do you realize who, by calling Cruz the rebel angel, Boehner is implicitly comparing himself – and the other targets of Cruz’s rebellion – to?

Milton’s Lucifer is indeed a rather miserable son of a bitch. Much of what makes him so compelling a figure is how effectively he converts his own misery — his terrible fall from grace and his painful knowledge that for God this act of banishment was almost an afterthought — into purpose, and power.

And that sounds a lot like Cruz. For essentially his entire life, he’s been actively disliked by most people, and yet he has turned virtually every setback into a launching pad for further advancement. Consider the way he has conducted himself as a senator, eagerly tearing down both his party and the Senate itself for the sake of private ambitions that seemed comically implausible. There’s clearly something of Lucifer’s spirit to that. And the spectacle of Cruz choosing his running mate immediately after it became apparent that he had almost no chance of becoming the nominee recalled Lucifer’s petulant declaration that he would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven (even though reigning in hell is as worthless a title as being Ted Cruz’s vice presidential pick).

The target of Cruz’s rebellion, though, simply doesn’t measure up to the majesty or consequence of Lucifer’s. John Boehner isn’t God. Neither is Mitch McConnell, nor Reince Priebus, nor Paul Ryan, nor the so-easily-overthrown Jeb Bush, nor any other luminary of the GOP. The comedy of Cruz’s rebellion is all too human.

On the other hand, if we want to find the personification of arrogant assertion without any restraint in this contest, we surely need look no further than presumptive nominee Donald Trump. Perhaps the root of the dread that sincerely Christian commentators like the New York Times’s Ross Douthat have about a likely Trump nomination is that Trump entirely lacks even the modicum of humility that graces even the most ambitious and vainglorious of American politicians. And what should give us pause is that it appears that what those Americans who admire Trump admire most about him is precisely that lack.

All of which is by way of saying: I’ve got a piece in Foreign Policy asking which candidate most deserves the title of Satanic Majesty, with references to Milton and the Bible.

Just doing my part simultaneously to raise and lower the tone of this campaign.

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How Conservatives Can Defeat Donald Trump

Andrew Sullivan is back, with a long piece in New York Magazine about how Donald Trump’s campaign is evidence of the decadence of our democracy and a harbinger of its possible end. I’m glad to see he’s his usual level-headed, temperate self. He concludes as follows:

[T]hose Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that. Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands. That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class—and Democrats must listen.

More to the point, those Republicans desperately trying to use the long-standing rules of their own nominating process to thwart this monster deserve our passionate support, not our disdain. This is not the moment to remind them that they partly brought this on themselves. This is a moment to offer solidarity, especially as the odds are increasingly stacked against them. Ted Cruz and John Kasich face their decisive battle in Indiana on May 3. But they need to fight on, with any tactic at hand, all the way to the bitter end. The Republican delegates who are trying to protect their party from the whims of an outsider demagogue are, at this moment, doing what they ought to be doing to prevent civil and racial unrest, an international conflict, and a constitutional crisis. These GOP elites have every right to deploy whatever rules or procedural roadblocks they can muster, and they should refuse to be intimidated.

And if they fail in Indiana or Cleveland, as they likely will, they need, quite simply, to disown their party’s candidate. They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out. They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

Regardless of whether Sullivan is right about the threat Trump poses to democracy (and I think he does pose a real risk, though as I’ve said before I think he’s more Berlusconi than Mussolini), this is not well thought out, because it doesn’t consider how the voters are likely to react to attempts to frustrate their exercise of the franchise. The evidence by this point should be overwhelming that the use of procedural tricks is backfiring, and strengthening Trump. Ted Cruz manages to snag all the delegates out of Colorado without an election, and Trump runs in New York and Pennsylvania on a platform of “the system is rigged against me” – and wins overwhelming landslide victories. Cruz and John Kasich form an anti-Trump pact and Trump’s numbers go up; it turns out Kasich voters actually liked their candidate as opposed to merely being “anti-Trump” voters – and that a clear majority of voters strongly disapprove of the pact. What makes Sullivan think that further shenanigans won’t strengthen Trump further?

I’ll make a prediction right here. If Trump is denied the nomination in 2016 because of procedural tricks – the latest trial balloon is denying delegates’ credentials – he’ll be elected President in 2020, either as a Republican or under the banner of a new party that replaces the Republicans. It’ll be 1828 all over again.

So how can Trump be stopped?

Well, it’s possible he can be stopped passively. Republicans could campaign in a lackluster fashion and let demographics do the work for Hillary Clinton. Then come back after Trump’s landslide loss and pick up the pieces. That is almost certainly what the institutional Republican Party is planning: to lose by not trying very hard.

There are just a few wee problems with this plan. First, if the Republican campaign is lackluster generally, then officeholders up and down the ballot will see their jobs at risk. That means that their interests will not be aligned with the interests of the leaders of the national party – and I’d guess they’ll follow their own interests when they see the conflict. Second, if the GOP campaigns in a lackluster fashion, that’ll give Clinton a freer hand, which, in turn will be obvious to GOP voters, who may get angry. And when they get angry, they may vote for Trump. And finally, isn’t this exactly how they planned to defeat Trump in the primary? How’d that work out for them?

If Sullivan is right, and Trump is an “extinction level event” for our republic, then sterner measures are called for. But if procedural tricks will backfire, what else can be done?

Fortunately, democracy itself provides two perfectly respectable and effective ways to defeat Donald Trump. But they both involve destroying the Republican Party.

The first option is for a rump conservative faction to bolt the party and run independently. They can make a very straightforward argument that Trump is in no sense a conservative: not only does he violate movement conservative shibboleths all over the place, but he has patently zero respect for the Constitution. He’ll be no better than Clinton on some issues, and worse on others, and besides he’s a personal disgrace. So vote your conscience, and vote for – I dunno, Cruz/Fiorina.

This would unquestionably elect Hillary Clinton as the next President. But the argument to conservatives would be that this is far less-bad than electing Trump. And they’d tell a happy story about how, in 2020, they could take back the party, run a real conservative, and win. Instead of dreading 1828, they’d be looking forward to 1920.

Unfortunately, that story will be a lie. Instead, after such a defection we’d see outright civil war, as both Trump die-hards and establishment Republicans see conservatives as having crossed an unforgivable rubicon. Letting them back in would be admitting that movement conservatives have an outright veto over every major party decision. Not to mention that Trump’s partisans would have been given a clear mandate to play exactly the same game in 2020, threatening to bolt if their guy doesn’t get the nod again, and a fair shot at a re-match. Instead of ceding one election to recover and return stronger, Republicans might permanently tear their party in two, and give the Democrats control of the Presidency for a generation.

The second option would be for notable Republicans to flat out support Hillary Clinton. Either leave the Republican Party or form “Republicans for Hillary” and stuff it with an ideological cross-section of party members. The group couldn’t just say “we can’t stand Trump” though – as the primaries should have amply demonstrated, you can’t beat something with nothing. It would have to say, “Hillary Clinton won’t be so bad.” Get a bunch of manufacturers to say that she understands the economy, and while they’d rather see a real Republican in charge, they prefer Clinton to Trump. Get a bunch of retired military brass to say that Clinton has a clear understanding of American interests and capabilities and a good relationship with the services, and that she’d make a perfectly acceptable Commander in Chief under whom they’d be proud to serve. Whereas Trump . . . Make the case that, while Clinton isn’t ideal, she’d certainly be an adequate President – hardly disastrous. She’d muddle through, and the country would muddle through, and that’s good enough.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that it trashes the entirety of GOP messaging. The conventions of American partisanship in this day and age require outright apocalypticism about the opposing party. The Democrats can’t just be wrongheaded about this or that – they have to be outright aiming to destroy the United States of America. “Republicans for Hillary” would have to abandon a generation worth of demonization in an heartbeat.

Would many Republicans follow them? It’d be a test, in a way of just how Orwellian the party has become – how many would reliably declare that we have always been at war with Eurasia once their leaders told them it was so? Based on Trump’s performance in the primary so far, I’d say “not many.” But it wouldn’t have to be that many. There’s a big part of the country that is plainly really angry and ready to elect somebody manifestly unsuited to the office in order to express that anger. But it’s not a majority. In a baseline 50-50 nation, even the #NeverTrump contingent could swing an election.

The trouble comes later, when they try to go home again. Because in abandoning the party, they will have ceded it outright to Donald Trump. And they’ll have no obvious mechanism for winning it back, particularly not after a betrayal of that magnitude.

Which is why the leadership of the GOP is reconciling itself to Trump. They know that his victory means either vassalage or exile, and that’s not a very palatable choice. So they are either convincing themselves that he is not an “extinction-level event” or that, notwithstanding the impending end of the world, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

And right there in a nutshell is the problem with elites that Trump has been riding to victory.

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Trump’s Foreign Policy Contradictions Should Sound Familiar

Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The last word that Donald Trump would use to describe himself is “humble.” But if you look past that word, there’s a lot of continuity between the foreign policy that Trump outlined in his speech at the Center for the National Interest, and the foreign policy that George W. Bush claimed to advocate when he was running for President.

In that campaign, Bush called for a reduction in “over deployment” of American troops overseas, specifically criticizing mission-creep in Somalia, the extended involvement of American troops in the Balkans, the intervention in Haiti, and “nation-building” in general. But he also called for strong American leadership and robust support for our allies. He claimed that America should only use force as a last resort, but that when we use it we should make sure we use it overwhelmingly and achieve a decisive victory. He said we shouldn’t be the world’s policeman, and shouldn’t presume to tell other countries how to run their affairs, as though our way were the only way to do things, but that nonetheless we should always infuse our foreign policy with our values. Bush even called for a more constructive relationship with Russia while also calling for stepped-up investment in missile defense for Europe.

The language was different in certain crucial ways – Bush never said we should “put America first” for example – but many of the same contradictions that bedevil Trump’s outline of how our foreign policy should change were already in place, because they are deeply rooted in contradictory desires on the part of the electorate, and even more so in policymaking circles.

Of course, there are some substantive differences, particularly in the way Trump talks about trade and its relationship to foreign policy generally. Getting a better financial deal for America is clearly a Trump priority, both in the terms of trade agreements and the terms of our alliances. What this would actually mean in practice under a hypothetical Trump administration is very unclear. Would Trump actually kick Germany out of NATO if it didn’t spend at least 2% of its budget on defense? Would he actually impose 45% tariffs on Chinese goods if his trade demands weren’t met? (Is either something the President can even do unilaterally?) What does “walking away from the table” mean, exactly, in the context of an attempt to renegotiate our commitments overseas?

But at a minimum, it will surely mean that Trump would prioritize the terms of trade in certain ways over other priorities in international relations – for example, getting China to pressure North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. If he doesn’t mean that, then he doesn’t mean anything at all. Which is, admittedly, possible.

Apart from that, though, what I heard from Trump’s speech is mostly the usual hodgepodge of wishful thinking that we get from most candidates – we’ll get more of what we want and it will cost us less – but with much less rhetorical emphasis on American leadership and much more rhetorical emphasis on American strength. I expect we’ll see more of this as the Trump campaign continues. The rhetorical tropes will be different than we’re used to, sometimes in striking ways. The actual substance will be – for the most part – depressingly familiar.

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Baseless Speculation of the Day: a Cruz-Fiorina Third Party Bid

I have no reason to believe this is true, but I wrote it anyway. Because it was fun.

[N]ominally, you’re projecting that only you [Ted Cruz] can save the party from a terrible mistake, because Trump is unelectable. But you know that if the convention were willing to overlook the clear plurality winner, and electability were the primary criterion for their choice, there’s no way the delegates would turn to you. So you’re also making the argument that Trump is not a “real conservative” — as, indeed, he isn’t by the standards that prevail among those who cherish the definitions of such contested terms. But if I recall correctly, in your view much of the party’s leadership fails that test as well. So why would you be laboring to throw open the election to the delegates, a cross-section of the people who form the sinews of the GOP, to decide of their own free will who the nominee should be?

You’re not Bernie Sanders, soldiering on without hope of victory with the aim of influencing the party platform and forcing the nominee to take your demands into consideration. If that were your object, you wouldn’t be playing these silly games, making pacts and announcing running mates. You’d just be trying to win as many delegates as you can on a principled basis — and you’d be angling for a VP slot yourself, not naming one of your own.

Moreover, if you were still trying to woo enough delegates to win outright, why would you announce your VP choice now? At the convention, that very choice could be the prize that nets you precious delegates from the Marco Rubio or Kasich corner, as well as their admirers among the uncommitted.

So what are you up to?

Well, if Trump is really unacceptable to true conservatives, then presumably true conservatives shouldn’t vote for him, even at the risk of electing Hillary Clinton. And if Trump is really an unprecedentedly dangerous person to elect president — because of his temperament, his blithe ignorance, or his manifest insincerity — then nobody should vote for him, regardless of their ideology.

And if either or both of those things are true, then neither should you. Or your supporters.

The Cruz campaign set out to redeem the Republican Party from its pusillanimous  pessimists and appeasers, the very people who are now prepared to pussyfoot with Trump in the hopes of achieving some semblance of party unity. But what if they can’t achieve unity that way at all — because if they try, you’ll free Cruz-Fiorina 2016 from the party?

Of course, such an independent campaign would be extremely unlikely to achieve victory. It wouldn’t even be on the ballot in most states — and if it got any meaningful number of votes, they’d come almost entirely out of Trump’s hide. Hillary Clinton would win in a crushing landslide, sweeping not only the blue and purple states but potentially taking states like Texas and Georgia, where there are enough Democrats to win a three-way race, or even Utah, where Trump is deeply unpopular.

But instead of staying home and sulking, all your voters (and the handful of #NeverTrump voters) would at least turn out to vote — and they’d presumably vote for the GOP candidates for the House and Senate. Republican representatives and senators would feel freer than they otherwise might to proclaim their independence from Trump if he proved toxic in their district, and independents otherwise inclined to punish the GOP would see Clinton’s inevitability as a reason to keep her in check by voting for the GOP for Congress.

You could almost call bolting the party a loyal thing to do, under the circumstances.

Or, if you prefer to see it as a threat, well, there’s one way the delegates at the convention could prevent it from coming to pass.

Enjoy.

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How Over Is The GOP Primary Race?

Stephen Coburn/Shutterstock

This over: Trump could lose 8 of the next 10 contests, winning only New Jersey and West Virginia, and still be about 300 delegates ahead of Cruz:

Total

Trump

Cruz

Kasich

Indiana

57

9

48

0

Nebraska

36

0

36

0

West Virginia

34

34

0

0

Oregon

28

10

13

5

Washington

44

15

18

11

South Dakota

29

0

29

0

New Mexico

24

8

11

5

New Jersey

51

51

0

0

Montana

27

0

27

0

California

172

51

94

27

TOTAL

502

178

276

48

Current

954

562

153

Grand Total

1132

838

201

Shortfall

105

399

1034

That’s about as bad as it could plausibly get for Trump, and about as good as it could plausibly get for Cruz. Carly Fiorina can’t change that math except at the bare margins. (Though, as I recall from her tenure at HP, math was never her strong suit.)

Meanwhile, Cruz just gave away a bargaining chip that might have been useful for winning over Rubio’s or Kasich’s delegates, which he will absolutely need in the unlikely event that the convention considers turning to him rather than putting Trump over the top (which would be a whole lot easier).

Cruz is by all reports a very clever strategist. I feel like I’m missing something.

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Not For An Age But For A Moment—And Therefore For All Time

This past weekend marked the beginning of the Passover holiday, and it was only when I was deep into my annual preparations that I was alerted to the fact that Saturday April 23rd would be William Shakespeare’s 400th yahrzeit. Which occasion surely deserves to be marked, even if belatedly. I’ll take the occasion of this anniversary of his death to speculate just why it is that Shakespeare didn’t die – why he lives on, seemingly going from strength to strength even as his chosen medium (the theater) has receded from its central place in the culture, as the culture has swung wildly in its own artistic and political enthusiasms, and as the English language itself has evolved far enough from Shakespeare’s own usage that a major North American festival thought it appropriate to translate his plays into contemporary idiom. What accounts for this extraordinary life after Shakespeare’s own death?

As has been noted elsewhere, Shakespeare did little if anything to prepare an afterlife for his works. Partly, this is because at the time plays were not considered serious literature on the level of poetry. But Ben Jonson – Shakespeare’s rough contemporary and sometime rival – famously challenged that view by publishing a folio edition of his work including his plays. We don’t know whether Shakespeare was mulling the same idea before his sudden death, but if he was he showed no signs of it. Does that mean Shakespeare agreed with the contemporary prejudice that plays were not “serious” art?

I suppose that’s possible. One can imagine the author of Titus Andronicus or A Comedy of Errors saying to himself: I’m really quite good at this, but this isn’t meant to last. But it doesn’t take long before you come to works that simply cannot be explained as the product of a hack working for money, not even a naively brilliant hack. Even a relatively weaker early work like the Henry VI trilogy demonstrates a level of ambition impossible to square with being a purely popular entertainer. Henry VI is a sprawling, multi-part saga about a deeply traumatic period in his country’s recent history. Its ambition is to be War and Peace, or at least “Gone With the Wind.” I don’t personally think it reaches that level – but the scale of the ambition is wildly at variance with what you’d expect of someone who saw himself as merely a popular entertainer.

And if Shakespeare’s ambition was obvious at that early point, it only gets more obvious as his career goes on. Shakespeare’s Richard II  and Henry V weren’t just far more complex and sophisticated than the three parts of Henry VI – they were far more dangerous, asking quite probing questions about the foundations of political order. Coriolanus contains speeches so dense scholars are still debating what they actually mean, while plays like Measure For Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well are so fundamentally unsatisfying they get classified as “problem plays” – “problem” not usually being a descriptive that producers want to read in a review.

And then there’s Hamlet, a downright bizarre idea for a drama, when you think about it. In the original story, Amleth pretends to be mad in order to fool his usurping uncle into thinking he’s no threat, all the while plotting revenge for his father’s murder. That’s a straightforward story that would be easy to tell – and easy to sell. Instead, Shakespeare makes a quite deliberate hash of it, removing his hero’s obvious motivation for acting mad (because Claudius, at the start, is trying to win Hamlet over, not get rid of him), and then on top of that having his hero mysteriously unwilling or unable to take revenge when the opportunity is handed to him on a platter. In other words, Shakespeare took a story with clear character motivation, strong dramatic tension and robust forward momentum, and turned it into a story about puzzled wills losing the name of action. And, yes, thereby created one of the greatest works of art in the history of Western civilization – but there’s no way he could have known that he’d achieve that, and he would have been mad to want to. What we can surmise, though, is that Shakespeare was motivated by some other ambition than merely to entertain, or why make so many choices contrary to the demands of the genre, or even of good story-telling?

Shakespeare was, indeed, a preternaturally brilliant wordsmith, and if that were all he was then yes, one might imagine that he was a kind of savant, someone who just didn’t know that what he was doing was art. But his thematic, characterological and structural innovations were far too profound to be chalked up to naive genius.

The puzzle, then, is how to square Shakespeare’s obvious artistic ambition with the plain fact that he didn’t do much of anything to ensure that his ambition would outlive him. It’s my belief that part of the answer is simply that Shakespeare didn’t think that plays were things that sat on shelves, nor that he was an “author” as a playwright in the way that he, himself, was when he wrote the Sonnets or The Rape of Lucrece. Every blues tune, every German fairy tale, had an author of some sort at some point, because only people compose tunes or stories. But we don’t think it’s weird that those authors may be lost, or a sign that those authors didn’t care about their work.

If that supposition is correct, then perhaps Shakespeare thought his art was deeply serious – but also essentially ephemeral, like a sand mandala. That may or may not account for certain qualities of his language – but, unintentionally, that attitude may have had another effect. I’m going out on a bit of a limb here, but I think that the peculiar authorlessness of Shakespeare is part of the reason why his art has proved capable of conquering the world the way it has.

In the Western canon, there are really only two other works that rival Shakespeare’s for influence: Homer and the Bible. Both are works of towering genius, of course, and both were backed by large projects of cultural expansion, just as Shakespeare was. As well, though, I don’t think it’s an accident that they are the two other works around which there is a real mystery regarding authorship. In Homer’s case, the text as we have it was written down centuries after its legendary author had died. Before then, it was passed down orally – and we cannot possibly know, therefore, to what degree it was altered and augmented in transmission (not to mention that the Iliad and Odyssey appear to have been part of a larger poetic cycle). As a consequence not only of our ignorance of the author, but also of the mode of transmission itself, Homer’s work has a mystical quality to it, simultaneously seeming to have been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all, a beauty like Aphrodite born of the sea itself. Read Homer and Virgil side by side, and it is immediately apparent that the Aeneid has an obvious and self-aware author in a way that The Iliad does not.

The Bible, of course, comes packaged with a proclamation of its divine authorship, notwithstanding that it is manifestly a collection of books compiled over time, that many of those books themselves refer to having specific authors, and that even the core text of the Pentateuch, which tradition ascribes to divine authorship, reads much more like a novel about God than anything plausibly written by God. But that core text, again, contains stories that simultaneously manifest the quality of having been authored by someone very specific, with an individual style, and by nobody at all. Read the saga of Jacob and his sons, and you know you are in the hands of a great writer – but that writer gives none of the signs that he (or she!) is conscious of telling us a story, and wants us to be conscious of it, the way that, say, Ovid is. Again, I suspect this is an artifact in part of the mode of transmission of the text.

The limb I’m going out on is to suggest that something of the same effect is at work with Shakespeare. The very fact that he did not curate his own work – that, instead, it had to be cobbled together from actors’ rolls and the like, and that we have to reckon with Good Quarto and Bad Quarto versions of many of the plays, along with the Folio version – has allowed a multitude of individuals to become co-authors with Shakespeare of his seminal works. And this multitude is layered on top of the fact that many if not most of Shakespeare’s works were adaptations of previous work (only two of Shakespeare’s plays – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest – have original plots, and in both cases “plot” is a generous description of the action), that he more than occasionally collaborated with other writers, and that theater is inherently a collaborative and evolving art form, such that we cannot know whether individual actors made contributions to their roles, or whether Shakespeare – or anyone else – ever altered plays in response to their reception by the public. The result is a body of work that is at once highly individual, with a distinct verse style, distinct thematic preoccupations, etc. – but also strangely authorless, uncreated, eternal.

None of this would have availed were it not for Shakespeare’s genius. But Dante was also a genius; Chaucer was also a genius; Goethe was also a genius; Tolstoy was also a genius; Joyce was also a genius. And while their influences are titanic, Shakespeare’s influence really is different in kind. I cannot think of any other work that so belongs to us, the reader, the audience; of which we feel so free to talk about our versions of the work, as opposed to his, the author’s – to the point where this supreme genius of the English language has seen his work become foundational in entirely foreign tongues. The exception, again, being the Bible (and, in the ancient world, I suspect Homer would have been another exception).

For another point of comparison, take another genius, who died the same day as Shakespeare did – Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes’ influence was, in some ways, as large as Shakespeare’s. He not only arguably invented the novel (though there are clear precursors in the picaresque), he went right on to invent the metafictional novel immediately after, thereby permanently marking the form with a self-consciousness and reflexivity it has never managed to shake. But that very invention of metafiction was prompted by an identity crisis of copyright infringement. Don Quixote and Sancho were so popular that numerous knock-offs were being written about them by all sorts of people – and their creations were plainly inferior to Cervantes’s original. Given the state of the law at the time, there was nothing to do about this but to respond artistically, and so Cervantes did: Book 2 of his master work is an explicit reaction to those knock-offs, and takes place in a world where Quixote and his squire are well-known, and can no longer have naive adventures because they are everywhere recognized.

The result is an absolutely brilliant and supremely fecund piece of invention, but one which makes it all but impossible to avoid Cervantes’s authorship as a fact to be reckoned with. Resisted, perhaps, and there have been numerous attempts at such resistance, most prominently Kafka’s parable and Borges’s story, but these can be understood as somewhat desperate efforts to liberate Cervantes’s much-beloved characters from his authorial grasp, so that they might more directly and completely belong to us, an accomplishment which Shakespeare’s Hamlet achieves without even a hint of a struggle, because it is not the ever-elusive Shakespeare who labors to confine him, but Denmark, that prison, that nutshell whose bounds cannot confine the horror of his dreams. And we are penned in there right along with him.

Woody Allen famously quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.” Which – good luck to him with that. Meanwhile, we don’t know why Shakespeare, who was tenacious in other ways to carve out a name that would last beyond his life – carefully and expensively securing a place among the gentry, for example – was so cavalier about the ultimate disposition of his plays. But, in the end, that’s a question primarily of interest to his biographers. From my perspective, we should be thankful rather than frustrated that he was, for perhaps it was this blithe disregard that has made it possible for his work to assume the form, and therefore the status of a kind of secular scripture, and for us to treat it as such, living our lives through his words, his characters, his stories, and so to keep someone we really don’t know at all, alive, four hundred years after his death.

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The Indebted Way We Live Now

When I was in school, I remember having an argument with a friend whose family lived pretty close to the edge, financially. The argument occurred during a particularly rough patch when my friend explained to me that she was hungry because didn’t always have enough money for proper meals.

Now, another person would have been sympathetic, maybe even bought her a danish or something. But no! I was going to teach a man (well, girl) to fish, so she would not only eat today, but never hunger more. So I asked her: what about rice? Rice is really cheap. Anybody can afford rice. Figure out what the most expensive food is that she bought last month, and next month buy rice instead. Presto! Problem of hunger solved.

I came by this attitude fairly honestly, my family – my mother’s side, anyway – having gone through the privations of the war. And while I like to think I’ve gotten more compassionate with time, I know that, deep down, I haven’t really. I still basically think that most people could perfectly well live within their means if only they exercised some simple discipline. (I do hope – and believe – that I behave more compassionately now than I did then, precisely because I am aware that this ingrained attitude of mine is sub-rational.)

All of this comes to mind apropos of Rod Dreher’s post linking to this article about the democratization of financial insecurity. The author, Neal Gabler, laments the precariousness of his finances, notwithstanding the fact that he’s a successful writer earning a decent middle-class income. The author is aware of the various questionable choices he’s made that put him in this precarious position, but says this:

[W]ithout getting too metaphysical about it, these are the choices that define who we are. We don’t make them with our financial well-being in mind, though maybe we should. We make them with our lives in mind. The alternative is to be another person.

That’s very true – but it’s worth recognizing that it’s nothing new. Read Trollope, or Balzac, or, Tolstoy, or, well, any novelist of the 19th century, and you’ll find the books peopled with members of the gentry struggling with debt problems. Sometimes they go into debt because of bad habits – gambling, frequently – but plenty of times it’s about keeping up position. You only have so much income from your lands, but you need to keep up a place in society so that your children will marry well, and, well, soon the cost of keeping up that position has bankrupted you.

This position has indeed been democratized, thanks to credit cards, and it’s possible that Gabler and people like him just don’t recognize that they are the functional equivalent of impoverished gentry in the 19th century. But credit cards themselves are merely the latest manifestation of a long history of financial innovation to extend credit – innovation that tends to get more innovative in response to opportunity. Because those with credit to extend will always find ways to extend it as far as is profitable – and then use force, if necessary, to make sure they are repaid. Read Livy. His description of the Roman republic is an instructively repetitive tale of plebeians going deeper and deeper into debt, rioting against their patrician creditors, getting some relief, and then starting the cycle over again – a cycle that only “ended” by turning to plunder and conquest, first of Italy, then of the rest of the Mediterranean world.

On an individual level, the thing to remember is, indeed, not to let yourself get into extremity. For anybody in the middle class, this doesn’t require financial genius – just some serious discipline. Either make a budget, and live by it, or, if that feels like too much work, sock money away up front and wing it to live on what’s left while scrupulously avoiding touching that savings. And – this is the hardest part – take perverse pride in living more poorly than your neighbors with similar incomes. It’s not rocket science. The truly poor are another story, but for anyone with a solid middle-class income, these are real choices you can make.

But on a societal level, this is pretty much meaningless advice, because, in aggregate, financial resources cannot be saved for a rainy day – only real resources can. You can burn all your firewood now, or you can save some to make sure you don’t run out before the end of winter. But every single dollar that somebody saves has to be borrowed by somebody else – it’s a basic accounting identity. If you put that dollar in a box, you’re just taking it out of circulation – doing your small part to contribute to deflation. And so, in a very real sense, if everybody behaved like I was raised, and ate rice while stuffing currency in a box for later, we’d all be much poorer, and not a bit more financially secure.

Which is why, on a social level, questions of distribution can’t be reduced to questions of giving people what they deserve. There will always be some people who spend more than they earn, and some who earn more than they spend – that’s just human variation. Some of the people who spent more will turn out to have spent it wisely – the kid who goes to the expensive school winds up rooming with the founder of Facebook, and poof: you’re set. Most won’t. And those with a financial and information advantage will always find ways to press that advantage to the detriment of those with less money and poorer information. If you simply let that process ride, without regard to the consequences, you’ll learn pretty soon what the consequences are – and they are, on a societal level, pretty horrible.

Rising levels of indebtedness across the population aren’t a sign of moral decay; they are exactly what you’d expect in a society that has democratized affluence (so that virtually the whole population is living well above subsistence levels, and expects to do so) but has a low rate of productivity growth (so that expectations of future prosperity for most people run ahead of reality). That leads to a politics of scarcity – the kind of politics Livy and Balzac understood just fine. But the good news is that we actually do have tools for tackling those problems – not in a permanent way (these kinds of problems never get solved permanently), but well enough to kick the can of social unrest well down the road, and to make sure that in aggregate we’re not driving the middle class into poverty and saying “well, they lived beyond their means; they must deserve it.”

You want to get worried? Don’t focus on how quickly we are burning through our financial savings. Focus on how quickly we’re burning through the earth’s real resources.

 

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In Defense of ‘Hamilton’s’ Great Man Theory of History

Christopher Jackson as George Washington and the cast of "Hamilton". Photo by Joan Marcus.

That’s the title they gave my latest column at The Week – but it’s not really a defense of the Broadway show as history so much as a defense of “the way in which Hamilton makes a ‘great men’ story more accessible and less objectionable than it otherwise would be.”

Teaching the American founding as the story of great statesmen gathering to create the first large-scale republic in human history out of sheer genius and public-spiritedness is not merely false, it’s obviously false, and hence unlikely to inspire anyone of independent mind and spirit. But the Howard Zinn approach to American history, while emphatically worth engaging with, can’t ever rise above being a critique of traditional history. It can’t displace it. Nor can it ever really tell you what it must have been like to be in the room where the founding happened.

Hamilton does that: It makes the founding present, so we can understand it in our own terms. It doesn’t so much bring the founders down to our level as bring us up to theirs. Instead of having us believe they were born great, the show submits that they were present at an extraordinary time and rose to the occasion that their moment in history offered them. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now” is the lyric — not, “gosh, you guys in the audience are so lucky it was us who were alive back then instead of you.”

Some people in the audience will be blessed — and cursed — with considerable ambition. Some could imagine themselves as Alexander Hamilton, as Lin Manuel Miranda did — or as his dark doppelganger, Aaron Burr, who I suspect Miranda understands pretty well, too. Most of those people will be Americans, and speaking to them matters, because how they direct their ambitions will do much to shape the country’s future.

Because the show’s story is the story of our nation’s founding, you might think it would speak to them automatically. But most of them will not be lineal descendants of the founders, or of anyone alive at the time of the founding. Even the tiny minority who are will have grown up in a very different America, culturally-speaking — or so they think. The audience might well start from a position of either inferiority, or opposition, or feigned indifference — on the grounds that these people are not their people. If they are to have any relationship with the American past, then, it will be akin to that of Major General Stanley — from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance — to his “ancestors”:

General Stanley: I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

Frederic: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco in your baronial hall is scarcely dry.

General Stanley: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

That’s why Hamilton matters, and matters for being exactly what it is: yet another telling of the story of the American founding that focuses on those same old Founding Fathers. It’s not about how we feel about them — it’s about how they make us feel about ourselves. They are our ancestors, unavoidably, and as long as we are Americans we will necessarily have a relationship with them and their work. The question is whether that relationship is more intimate or more alienated. Hamilton — because of its non-traditional casting, because of the writing and musical style, because of the way the story is told, and just because it’s so good — does an exceptional job of building that relationship anew, and letting all Americans imagine themselves in the founders’ lives. That’s nothing to sneeze at.

I think it’s kind of funny that I wrote this piece, given that I also wrote an extended series of blog posts extolling the Tolstoyan view of history that would seem to contradict it. But, you know: I am large; I contain multitudes.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

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GOP Voters Deliberately Set The Party On Fire

Graphic by Tim Markatos

Daniel Larison has a bunch of explanations for Michael Brendan Dougherty as to how the GOP primaries wrecked so many promising political careers.

  • “Republican pundits and activists keep lowering the standards for acceptable presidential candidates, and . . . the same people consistently exaggerate and oversell the abilities and qualifications of the party’s latest group of new political leaders.”
  • “[W]e shouldn’t forget the candidates’ own significant weaknesses when accounting for their failure . . . Did Jindal do so poorly because the field was too large or because he had presided over a fiscal disaster in his home state? Rubio wasn’t ready to be president, and it showed during a campaign he should never have run.”
  • “Another factor that often gets overlooked in all this is the influence of the conservative media in creating an imaginary political landscape in which Obama is perceived as a deeply unpopular failure.”

The problem with these explanations for why so many candidates failed is that they don’t account for why the three candidates who remain are still in the race. Trump and Cruz, after all, are significantly less qualified and have significantly poorer abilities by most traditional metrics than the vast majority of the candidates they defeated, and are also the most over-the-top in their opposition to everything President Obama has done. Dougherty complains that for candidates like Huntsman and Perry “[o]ne branding problem or a bad debate becomes unfixable.” But Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have vastly worse branding problems. And let’s not even talk about the debates.

Instead, let’s talk about John Kasich. He’s a (relatively) moderate, non-insane candidate. He’s got perfectly respectable traditional qualifications for high office. And he hasn’t won much of anything, nor does he have much of a prospect of winning. Why is he still around, while Scott Walker and Rick Perry, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, all had to quit?

The main thing that distinguishes Kasich from all the people who have been driven from the field is that his candidacy has almost no support from the institutional Republican party, and never had it.

That’s it.

In 2012, the institutional Republican Party united behind Mitt Romney really early, and still struggled to push him over the finish line against largely ridiculous opposition. In 2016, the institutional Republican Party failed to unite behind anyone – and basically everyone to whom the party showed the slightest sign of favor went up in flames. The two remaining viable candidates are the two individuals who ran explicitly against the institutional party, and the also-ran candidate is someone the institutional party would find acceptable, but for one reason or another either ignored or treated as a joke.

The GOP’s problem is not fundamentally that too many more-or-less qualified candidates wanted to be President. That was not a problem for the Democrats in 1988 or 1992, after all. It’s that most of them thought the way to become President was to run for the Republican nomination. They didn’t understand that to have a chance with the Republican electorate, they first had to create their own, independent brand, and then run against the Republican Party.

Michael Brendan Dougherty suggests an “instant runoff” system as a solution to the GOP’s problems. But such a system, implemented in Iowa, would have left the top 3 finishers as Trump, Cruz and Rubio – exactly the three who actually finished on top there. Implemented in New Hampshire, it would have padded Trump’s plurality (I expect at least some Carson and Christie voters would have chosen Trump second). Beyond that, who knows? Would Fiorina voters in New Hampshire have picked Bush second? Or Rubio? Or Cruz? Does it matter? She dropped out anyway.

Since last September, well before voting began, a majority of GOP voters preferred the most-unacceptable candidates: Trump, Cruz and Carson. Since the voting began, that trio has earned a majority of the votes in essentially every contest. Not a plurality – a majority. No change in the voting system can make that majority preference go away.

As for simply banning unacceptable candidates from running – how exactly would that work?

When Reihan Salam suggested something similar back in September of last year, I said:

The evidence of the last few cycles is that the GOP’s voters deeply distrust the leadership. The evidence of the response of many insiders to this most recent cycle is that the distrust is mutual. If you want to solve that problem, you probably shouldn’t start by institutionalizing it.

Still true.

[UPDATE: I may have gotten a bit jumbled in my own head as to which arguments were Larison’s and which were Dougherty’s. Larison argues that the conservative echo chamber hatred of Obama may be responsible for Trump and Cruz’s success, for example, as well as for the overpopulation of the primary. My apologies for getting that mixed up.]

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Gangs of New York

Alexandra Lande / Shutterstock
Alexandra Lande / Shutterstock

Meanwhile, it has been brought to my attention that the best way to build an audience isn’t to write detailed ruminations on issues of the day, but to re-post stuff that other people report that you think your readers will want to read about.

Therefore:

A Borough Park businessman at the heart of a police bribery probe leaned on his police buddies to squash two assault raps involving his nephew, according to the victims of a pair of attacks.

Borough Park business honcho Jeremy Reichberg is being investigated by the feds for allegedly plying NYPD brass and at least one officer in the 66th Precinct with gifts in return for favors, according to multiple sources.

His nephew, Shlomo Reichberg, was part of a gang of disassociated Hasidic teens called Grouplech, which means forks in Yiddish, community sources said. The Hasidic hooligans were involved in two reported violent attacks in 2012, according to the victims.

In one scary encounter, Micha Kaplan, 45, says a group of Hasidic teens put him in the hospital for several days after a severe beating. The alleged beatdown started after the teens cut him off as he was driving in Borough Park.

At a red light, Kaplan rolled down his window and complained to the driver of the Chevy Impala.

That didn’t go over well.

Kaplan says the teens tailgated him for 20 blocks. The confrontation came to a head when one of the teens got out the car and tried to open Kaplan’s passenger side door. When Kaplan got out to close the door two of the teens started to punch and kick him, police records show.

During the attack they allegedly yelled “Litvak!” the Yiddish term for Lithuanian Jews, who are not Hasidic.

Kaplan, who works in real estate, went to Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn. He spent four days there with internal bleeding.

After his release, he did some research in the community, and identified several of the teens he believes attacked him. They included Reichberg’s nephew, who was with the group at the time, but did not hit Kaplan.

But police from the 66th Precinct didn’t care, Kaplan says.

“They were squashing it 100%,” Kaplan said. “They told me I was unable to identify the guy and that my witnesses were no good. They never tried to make an arrest.”

Kaplan filed a complaint with the NYPD’s Internal Affairs Bureau.

Afterwards, the officers issued a wanted poster for one of the alleged attackers, Yossi Follman. But cops made no effort to find him and warned Kaplan to stay away, the victim contends.

“They told me not to hang out in front of (Follman’s) house and suggested I call 911 when I see him on the street so they could send a patrol car to arrest him,” Kaplan said. “It was a joke.”

No arrest has ever been made. . . .

On Wednesday, Follman’s mother downplayed the incident.

“How is this something new?” she asked a reporter outside her Borough Park home.

“Are you sure Mr. Kaplan isn’t exaggerating things,” she asked.

Asked about the gang, she said, “They are just a group of friends. Never into anything violent.”

That’s not how Benjamin Blau (no relation to this reporter) sees it.

Blau says he was attacked by members of the gang as he was delivering religious court notifications in Borough Park in October 2012.

According to Blau, several of the teens inside four cars jumped out and yelled in Yiddish “Kill him!”

“Between eight to 10 guys approached our car,” Blau recalled several weeks after the assault. One kicked the driver’s side door and flashed a knife.

In a panic, Blau accidentally unlocked the door. The gang members then yanked him from the car and one began hitting him in the head with a metal bar, Blau says.

“At this point I started losing consciousness,” he recalled.

Police arrested three of the assailants but the case was later dropped, records show. It is unclear why the charges were never pursued.

Consider this a dispatch from the world of the Kiryas Joel Option. And no, I’m not suggesting that Hasidic communities have a bigger problem with street gangs than non-Hasidic communities – that would be ridiculous. I’m saying: insular communities that stand by their own against secular authorities on matters where they are resisting the larger culture may well also stand by their own against secular authorities on matters of clear-cut criminality, and it’s worth being cognizant of that likelihood.

Meanwhile: anyone know why a gang of Hasidic street thugs might call themselves “forks?”

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