Noah Millman

Post-Debate Analysis

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

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

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Speaking the People’s Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IP and Cultural Appropriation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fivethirtyeight.com on Douthat’s Democratic Disaster Scenario

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Failures to Communicate

So, let me see if I have this right.

The sorts of people who show up for a Mitt Romney fundraiser want to hear that 47% of the country should be written off because they are not financially self-supporting for whatever reason. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

The sorts of people who show up for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser want to hear that 50% of their opponent’s supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables” because they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, etc. They can’t be reached, but simply have to be defeated and kept away from power.

The elite, intellectual supporters of Donald Trump include the kinds of “alt-right” neoreactionary types who believe that the only hope for our civilization is to make Elon Musk dictator. Needless to say, for them the only important thing is for their opponents to be defeated and for them to finally taste power.

Andrew Sullivan, centrist-liberal-conservative iconoclast, was so panicked about Trump’s populist threat to democracy, that he found new wisdom in Plato’s political ideas, and called for the deployment of any means necessary to stop him, because sometimes you have to destroy a democracy in order to save it.

Our own Rod Dreher, a religious right populist, has a forthcoming book calling on religious traditionalists to focus less on engaging with the world and more on protecting themselves and their children from the malign forces of the larger culture. The sorts of people who don’t hold to traditionalist views can no longer comprehend those views, and its important to make that incomprehension mutual.

Heck, last week a writer’s festival censored a writer for telling writers that they should feel free to write whatever they want.

I hesitate to give in to the counsel of despair, but it really does feel like we are all decreasingly interested in using words as anything but weapons.

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The State of the Race

I take a somewhat different view from Daniel Larison of the state of the race, much closer to Ross Douthat’s view.

Douthat’s main points are that if the polls continue to tighten, then Trump will be in a position to possibly win; that the most-likely scenario for polls continuing to tighten is for third-party candidates not to fade; and that Trump has a bit of an advantage in the electoral college in a very close outcome. I tend to agree with all of those points.

Larison takes issue with what he sees as Douthat’s implicit assumption that Trump will be able to mobilize voters that show up as supporters, particularly if they are disproportionately infrequent voters. It’s entirely fair to question whether these people will actually show up (since they usually don’t), but I’m not sure that a strong ground game (which Larison correctly points out Trump doesn’t have) actually makes as much of a difference for these voters specifically. The thing about a ground game is that it’s primarily about getting voters you’ve identified to the polls. If you don’t know who your voters are, because they’re historically disconnected from the political process, then that’s harder to organize around. If any plausible scenario for a Trump victory revolves around him generating enthusiasm among unlikely voters who likely aren’t on anybody’s list, then the ground game may not be Trump’s most important game — compared to whatever strategy does motivate these people to come out and vote for him.

Of course, you can still lose if you generate higher turnout among unlikely voters but also fail to deliver your more traditional voters, the sorts of people a good ground game is designed to bring out. So I still think it’s reasonable to assume that Trump’s poor ground game will cost him — just not necessarily for the reason Larison gives.

The rest of Douthat’s argument, though, strikes me as pretty solid. Nate Silver has been saying for some time that Trump may have a slight edge in the electoral college if the race is extremely close, for the very reasons Douthat highlights: Trump lags a typical Republican nominee in a bunch of red states more than he does in some of the traditional swing states. In other words, Trump’s vote is arguably more efficiently distributed than a typical Republican nominee’s.

That doesn’t mean that Trump is more likely to win than a typical Republican nominee. It means that if the election is close, then Trump has a bit more of an edge. But it could simultaneously be true that, with Trump on the ticket, it’s less-likely to be close in the first place.

Meanwhile, third-party candidates are very hard to model, both because there’s little history and because the history that we do have is highly idiosyncratic. (How much do George Wallace’s, John Anderson’s and Ross Perot’s campaigns really have in common?) Which means that many different scenarios are plausible once you make the assumption (as Douthat does) that Johnson and Stein don’t fade as the election gets closer. And one very plausible scenario could be that Johnson and Stein wind up hurting Clinton more in the swing states, while they hurt Trump more in the safe red states. And in the extreme case, yes, that could lead to the sort of scenario Douthat outlines at the end where Trump wins without a plurality in the popular vote.

In theory, it’s also plausible that the opposite could be true, and third-party nominees could hurt Trump more. Anderson initially looked like he was going to hurt Reagan, but wound up hurting Carter. This year, Stein could fade, and Johnson could become the vehicle for libertarians, Mormons and other folks who would never vote Clinton but don’t want to assent to Trump, and could thereby tip Nevada and New Hampshire to Clinton to win a race where she marginally loses the popular vote. Right now, though, it feels like Clinton hasn’t held on to the younger voters who went overwhelmingly for Obama, and hasn’t closed the deal with moderate Republican-leaning suburbanites who she needs to offset losses among working-class whites who are swinging Trumpward. Some of the former are going to Stein and some of both are going to Johnson.

Finally, the electoral college needle that Trump needs to thread isn’t nearly as narrow as Larison suggests, because the swing states tend to swing together. Yes, it’s true that Clinton has a larger electoral college base (states where the projected margin has been larger than the national margin). But arguably so did John Kerry in 2004: Bush won only 254 electoral votes by a margin at least equal to his national margin of 2.4%, while Kerry won 237 electoral votes by at least 2.4% in an election where he lost the national vote by that margin.

But all that means is that a large Clinton victory is more likely than a large Trump victory. If Clinton wins every state where she has at least a 40% chance of victory according to Nate Silver, she’d win 348 electoral votes. If Trump won all the same states, he’d be at 266 — just shy of a majority, needing New Hampshire to put him over the top. If those states were all independent contests, than a sweep like that would be vanishingly unlikely. But they aren’t — a victory in Ohio means a victory in Florida is more likely as well. Which is why Trump has a real shot at victory — about 1 shot in 3 according to Silver.

I still would bet on Trump to lose — and I think his odds are worse than 1-in-3 to win. But that’s because of my personal read on him as a candidate, and Clinton as a candidate. I think the numbers are somewhat cyclical, so Clinton’s last big boost has been followed by a drop; I think Trump is going to be poorly served by the debates; and I think the window for events to significantly transform the campaign in Trump’s direction is closing fast. By the numbers, though, he’s totally got a shot.

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What Is to Be Done About Aleppo?

My latest column at The Week is about Gary Johnson’s appalling ignorance:

I didn’t even know that Aleppo was a place — I thought it was an acronym. Which is pretty embarrassing — at least TheNew York Times knew Aleppo was a city, even if they weren’t sure which one. But, as I learned in about five minutes from Wikipedia after I left the studio, Aleppo is in fact the site of a crucial conflict between the Syrian government and a variety of rebel groups. The four-year struggle has destroyed much of this ancient city, and resulted in more than 25,000 fatalities in the city and the surrounding province through the beginning of this year.

So, now that I know what and where Aleppo is, what would I do about it as president?

I don’t know. Do you?

Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t. She was a strong advocate of intervening in the Syrian civil war from its earliest days, just as she was one of the strongest supporters of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and of President Obama’s war in Libya, which she called “smart power at its best.” Those countries are now, along with Syria, hotbeds of ISIS activity. She has repeatedly called for a no-fly zone in Syria, at the risk of war with Russia, even though a no-fly zone would be ineffective at protecting civilians.

Donald Trump certainly doesn’t. His plan is to let Russia defeat ISIS. But Russia never had any interest in defeating ISIS, but instead focused on shoring up Bashar al-Assad in his battle against other rebel groups — the groups active in cities like Aleppo. In other words, Trump’s plan to save Aleppo is to let Russia help Assad destroy Aleppo.

So I really don’t know what to do about Aleppo. And in that ignorance, I’ve got good company.

But the real question is: Should I know what to do about Aleppo? Should you?

Read the whole thing there. And then watch this.

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Free Speech Is For Jokers

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Rod Dreher asks, apropos of this clown:

Let me put it like this: if some alt-right joker played Pokemon Go at the Auschwitz site just to get a rise out of people, how would you feel about Polish authorities jailing him?

If some alt-right joker did that, I’d expect him to be evicted from the site, and have no other sanction applied. If he refused to leave, I could understand him being forcibly removed, even arrested for creating a disturbance or some other misdemeanor if his resistance was serious enough. In terms of legal sanction, I’d expect at worst that he’d be assessed a fine. Anything more severe strikes me as clearly excessive. And even those sanctions are only appropriate because free speech is not a license to disrupt, and I’m assuming that the hypothetical alt-right joker was being actively disruptive. If he’s minding his own business, then even eviction sounds excessive.

When the American Nazi Party marched through Skokie, they were entirely within their rights. Those Westboro Baptist jerks who brandish signs saying “God Hates Fags?” That’s protected speech, provided they are not directly harassing individual people. Ditto for anti-abortion protestors waving graphic images of dismembered fetuses; if they don’t disrupt access or harass individual people, they are wholly within their rights. Ditto for cartoons depicting the founding prophet of Islam as a pedophile, or Ronald Reagan as a zombie cannibal, or Hillary Clinton being raped.

Of course, Russia is not obliged to be absolutist about free speech; few countries are. But that’s the way free speech works: the test cases are jokers, clowns and jerks, and if you don’t pass the test when your personal god is being blasphemed against, then you don’t really believe in free speech.

UPDATE: So, based on the comments, the main objection to the above is that playing Pokemon Go isn’t speech, but action. Granted: playing Pokemon Go in a sacred space (whether a church or a Holocaust memorial) is not a statement of any kind; it’s just being rude. The appropriate thing to do with somebody rude is to ask them politely to stop being rude. How would I feel about jailing somebody for rudeness? I would feel like the jailers were completely out to lunch. My bottom line remains: what we’re talking about is laws against blasphemy, and I’m categorically against blasphemy laws.

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The Last of the Sensitive New Age Jewish Guys

Gene Wilder was something special.

I don’t just mean his extraordinary comic talent. He had that, of course, but the pool of talent is always being refreshed and renewed. And I don’t even mean that he was such a mensch — which he was as well. Believe it or not, there are nice guys born every minute, and not all of them are suckers.

But Wilder had a very distinctive persona, one that I valued enormously, and which I fear has passed from the scene for good.

Wilder was part of a wave of Jewish screen actors in the late 1960s and 1970s who made “Jewish leading man” a thing. Of course there had been plenty of Jewish leading men in Hollywood before this, from Kirk Douglas to Paul Newman to Tony Curtis. But they didn’t “play” their Jewishness as part of their persona. And there were Jewish leading men who did “play” their Jewishness — you can go back to Groucho Marx for examples.

But Gene Wilder, along with guys like Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould and others of their generation, did something new by being as unambiguously Jewish as they were, with all the quirks and foibles that came along with that, while simultaneously being leading men. Not sneaking or insinuating or conning their way into the position: just being there. Their moves were recognizably Jewish, but they were legitimate moves. You could see why they would work.

Wilder, though, had different moves than most of the others. While Hoffman and Allen and the rest were working the “smart is sexy” angle, Wilder’s thing was: sensitive is sexy.

Think about the sequence at the bar early in “Stir Crazy.” In his conversation with Richard Pryor, it’s clear that he’s slept with multiple women at the bar; he’s a “player.” But there’s not only nothing braggadocious about the way he talks about the women he’s known; he reminisces specifically about their qualities of soul. This ingenuousness, and this interest in the hearts of people he only knows casually, clearly has a great deal to do with how he’s gotten to know them intimately so easily. It’s what gets him into danger, both at the bar and, later, in prison. But it’s also the way he gets himself out of danger. He leads something of a charmed life, because he’s fundamentally innocent, but an innocent possessed of the usual human share of lust and fear.

“Innocence” is not a quality I associate with his knowing compatriots. But it’s what made Wilder’s victories in his films so compelling. He wasn’t a yearning, striving, hungry Duddy Kravitz type. He didn’t expect the world to hurt him — he was surprised when it wanted to hurt him, over and over again. And then he was delighted when it didn’t.

That innocence, and that sensitivity, is a quality Wilder brought to virtually all his roles, from Leo Bloom in “The Producers” to Avram in “The Frisco Kid.” And with it came a profound sadness, because the world just isn’t as sensitive as he is, a sadness manifest from “Willy Wonka” to “Blazing Saddles” to his performances as the Fox in “The Little Prince” and as the Mock Turtle in a television version of “Alice in Wonderland.” But it was a sadness, not a whiny hurt. Wilder wasn’t a man child looking for a mother to soothe him, of the kind we have plenty of these days. He was a man, with a man’s desires and a man’s knowledge of the world, but with a child’s heart.

It’s a rare quality in any person, at any time, and a precious one for that reason. In whom, among our leading men, does it live now?

 

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The Evolution of a Joke Campaign

My new column up at The Week traces the evolution of the Trump campaign. It’s always been a joke. But the nature of the joke has changed over time.

First, Trump was a Shakespearean fool:

A year ago, I asked the question: Why not Trump? It was a funny question for me to ask, I wrote, as I had “barely ever thought about [Trump] over the past 30 years, and never seriously,” and that “Trump’s greatest weakness as a candidate has always been the utter ridiculousness of the proposition.”

But the 2016 election desperately needed Trump. Before his entry, it looked likely that in the end former President Bill Clinton’s wife would face off against former President George W. Bush’s brother. The election would have been pure trench warfare, with both candidates aiming to vindicate their party’s preexisting positions, and avoid any reckoning with the ways in which they have failed. Trump changed all that. Suddenly, what was going to be a slog turned into a circus.

This wasn’t the dispiriting clown car of 2012 in which candidate after delusional candidate did their pandering little tap-dance before the cane pulled them off into the wings. Trump was different. From the moment he descended his golden escalator, Trump dominated the stage — not merely because he was entertaining, but because he exposed the folly of his betters. As Jan Kott said of the Fool in King Lear, Trump also “does not follow any ideology. He rejects all appearances, of law, justice, moral order. He sees brute force, cruelty, and lust. He has no illusions and does not seek consolation in the existence of natural or supernatural order, which provides for the punishment of evil and the reward of good.”

It felt like America needed to hear from a fool like that. From foreign policy to trade to immigration, Trump punctured the comfortable Washington consensus that everybody knew was right even though anybody could see it wasn’t working.

Then, Trump won the nomination, and became the Lord of Misrule:

He treated New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie like a glorified manservant, because everybody likes having a fat guy around. After selecting Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, he leaked to the press that he doubted his own decision, and publicly stated that he chose Pence mainly for reasons of party unity. Then he put on a thoroughly embarrassing convention seemingly designed to repel anyone who wasn’t already a loyalist.

There was something wickedly funny about this, watching those who had conspicuously failed to muster the will to rescue their party from this travesty wrestling with their consciences over just what it would take to cause them to abandon ship. And there was something especially delightful in watching them realize that they had sold their birthright for a mess of potage that wouldn’t even be served.

Then, as his standing in the polls dropped, the joke got darker:

Trump has long trafficked in conspiracy theories, some unfortunately common among a distrustful populace, some tailored to partisan hysteria, some simply bizarre. But increasingly, Trump has prepared his supporters to believe that a conspiracy is afoot against him specifically — and, hence, against them. Warning repeatedly that the upcoming election will likely be stolen, Trump has protected his own psyche and public image against loss at the price of threatening the legitimacy of the democratic process itself. . . .

Add into the mix Trump’s gleeful introduction of some of the most unsavory elements into our political culture, and a new picture emerged, not of Trump the entertainer, but of Trump as The Joker, an agent of pure, uncontrollable chaos.

And now?

Go read the whole thing there for the punch line.

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Why The Clinton Foundation Is Gross

The Clinton Foundation is back in the news because of the possibility that donors got special access to the Secretary of State, which has always struck me as the least-interesting argument for why the foundation is a problem. If a Lebanese-Nigerian billionaire wants to get a meeting with somebody high up in Washington because he’s got a favor he needs done, he’s going to figure out a way to get the meeting. And if the favor is innocuous, or somewhat nocuous but unlikely to be noticed, he’s going to get the favor done. Anybody who thinks otherwise, or that there is any meaningful difference between the parties on this score, is dreaming.

No, the Clinton Foundation has been called a shakedown racket because it wasn’t trading access for donations — it was going to people who were already going to get access, and asking them to pay a toll for it.

Is that a problem? Well, that depends on how you feel about a former President and a hopeful future President creating an organization with their name on it, hobnobbing with the rich and famous all over the world on the organization’s dime, having the organization hire their relatives and long-time aides — and having the organization be a charity.

That, when I think about it, is what sticks in my craw. If the Clinton Foundation were Clinton Associates, a Washington consultancy that advised global solutionizers on how to optimize their solutionizing, and they hired a bunch of relatives and long-time aides, traveled all over the place optimizing the hell out of everybody’s solutionizing, and made it understood that it would be a good idea to hire them for at least some of your solutionizing needs if you plan on doing lots of business in Washington, that would be . . . pretty much par for the course.

But because it’s a charity, and because what Bill, Hillary and Chelsea do for that charity looks precious little like what Jimmy Carter does for Habitat for Humanity, it just makes me feel a little disgusted.

Is that reasonable? I’m not sure. There’s something disturbing about concluding that I’d be less upset if it were a for-profit venture blatantly trading on the Clintons’ access. Wouldn’t I rather they at least put their vanity in the service of a worthy cause? Am I unaware that the game in big-time philanthropy is all about figuring out how to shake down super-rich people for big donations? What’s my problem?

But reasonable or not, it’s how I feel. There’s something just plain gross about oleaginous self-branding on this scale. It’s almost . . . Trumpian.

Of course, if it were the Trump Foundation, they wouldn’t actually raise any money, or make any grants at all. But still.

 

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Flood The Zone?

My colleague Rod Dreher has truly been doing God’s work helping his Louisiana neighbors in their hour of acute need. He’s also been scathingly furious at the media for their apparent lack of interest in either the disaster or the response.

My latest column at The Week has the temerity to suggest that this rage may, itself, be a product of mis-placed media values:

The flooding around Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy, but it’s barely made the front page, overshadowed by the Olympics and Donald Trump’s latest antics. Nor have the political leaders of either party seen fit to speak about the disaster. President Obama remains on vacation, and both major party nominees for president have largely ignored Louisiana’s plight.

The silence has been so deafening that it itself has become the story, with an increasing number of think pieces, ranging from angry to ruminative, asking why we aren’t talking more about the floods. The floods aren’t news, but our indifference is.

But what does the indifference signify? Not that the disaster is actually being ignored by those who can make a difference, that’s for sure. South Louisiana’s residents have actually done a spectacular job of responding to the crisis. The “little platoons” have deployed themselves, just as Edmund Burke said they would. As well, national organizations like the Red Cross and federal agencies like FEMA have mobilized promptly, and have promised the resources necessary to respond and recover. The “system,” so far, is working.

Read the whole thing there.

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A Tale Of Two States

From the beginning of the campaign, we’ve been hearing that Pennsylvania is the key state (you might even say the “keystone” state) to Trump’s strategy for victory, because his unorthodox positions on trade and immigration could pull in disaffected blue collar white voters who feel both parties have abandoned them. And, also from the beginning of the campaign, Republicans have fretted about Trump’s racially-divisive rhetoric being a potential problem for the GOP in states like Florida with large and growing non-white and Hispanic population.

So it’s probably worth noting that Trump is consistently underperforming his national numbers in polls of Pennsylvania, and that he’s consistently outperforming his national numbers in Florida.

Trump is also outperforming his national numbers in heavily-Hispanic swing state Nevada, while underperforming in largely white and frequently cranky New Hampshire. States like Georgia, which should be very safe for a Republican, or North Carolina, that should only be competitive in a 2008-style blow-out, are actually looking about as good for Clinton as Florida is. Meanwhile, states like Arizona remain close even as the national numbers have moved strongly in Clinton’s favor.

What do I conclude from the above?

Tentatively, I conclude the following.

First, polarization cuts both ways. Alabama and Mississippi have very large minority populations. They also have very racially-polarized voting. If you’ve got a white majority, even if it’s a relatively narrow one, and you can mobilize that majority to vote as a bloc, then you can win even if the other bloc votes in a similarly solidaristic manner. Arizona, Nevada and Florida all have narrowing white, non-Hispanic majorities — but they are still majorities, at least for now.

Second, achieving that kind of polarization is more plausible when there is a real divergence of interests between the groups. Arizona, Nevada and Florida are all states with large numbers of recent Hispanic immigrants — but also with large white retiree populations. There’s a generational divide that lines up with an ethnic/racial divide, which may drive economic competition between groups that are relative strangers to each other.

That may explain why Trump is doing relatively better with these particular swing states. But why is he doing worse in places like Pennsylvania?

Well, one possibility is that for all his rhetoric, Trump actually has very little to offer on the economic front. His Detroit speech, for example, was mostly a rehash of very standard and longstanding Republican boilerplate. Relatedly, his emphasis on racial and cultural issues may reinforce the impression that he doesn’t have any actual answers to manufacturing decline. But most important, Trump may be losing white-collar whites at a rate that more than offsets any gains he’s making among blue-collar voters.

This may also explain Clinton’s relatively strong performance in states like North Carolina and Georgia. Prosperous, Republican-leaning suburbanites in these states, a contingent that includes many internal migrants from states like New Jersey, Michigan and Ohio, may not be looking to overthrow the establishment, because the establishment is working for them.

Trump is following a version of the “Sailer strategy,” and what he may be proving is that the strategy only works when white voters view their situation as highly precarious and see racial and ethnic solidarity as a compelling response. And while that may be true in certain states, it just isn’t true on a national basis. Instead, a strategy of mobilizing blue collar whites who feel left behind threatens to undermine the position of more successful communities, driving them to the other party.

That’s probably a good thing for the country, overall. But it’s a bad thing for the constituency Trump is speaking to, who need a tribune who could actually get them a seat at the policymaking table, and not just drive them to further marginalization.

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Clinton’s Next Move

Meanwhile, I’ve got my own column at The Week, about how Clinton should capitalize on Trump’s horrible no good very bad week:

Hillary Clinton has had a good week.

She concluded a successful convention that united the Democratic Party and positioned her as the presidential candidate who believes in America’s future. In its wake, her opponent has gone into full meltdown mode, attacking a Gold Star family and, in response to widespread outrage, doubling down on his attacks. Worse still, at least from a partisan Republican’s perspective, he’s threatened to withhold his support from Republican officeholders like House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.) who have been critical of some of his more outrageous outbursts. And as his standing in the polls has fallen, he’s begun encouraging his supporters to view any loss as the illegitimate result of a rigged election.

The panic has gotten bad enough that there is talk of mass defections from the Republican leadership. All of which no doubt has the Clinton campaign ecstatic. If she can win over a good number of relatively sane Republicans, surely she’ll win in a landslide.

I’m not so sure. And even if I were sure that it would work, I’m not sure it’s the right thing to do.

First of all, it’s not clear how many head of cattle those big-hatted Republican leaders are actually driving. Remember, in the Republican primaries, 70 percent of the vote went to the two candidates deemed least acceptable to the Republican leadership. For all we know, Reince Preibus himself could endorse Clinton and it wouldn’t move the needle.

Second, Clinton still needs to turn out her own voters. Let’s say she actually could get the endorsement of Mitt Romney, John McCain, and Jeb Bush. How would Democrats who favored Bernie Sanders during the primaries feel about that? Is she so sure that the gains she made on the Republican side would outweigh the losses she’d face from her own base?

Third, Trump’s entire campaign strategy has been running against a rigged system — and against the leadership of both parties. Bipartisan support for Hillary Clinton only reinforces the narrative that got Trump the nomination. Is she so sure that wouldn’t help him in the general election as well?

Fortunately, Clinton doesn’t need to win over Republican leaders. A Mitt Romney endorsement of Gary Johnson would be worth far more than any prominent Republican defections to Clinton herself. Clinton does need to reach out to college-educated whites — whom she has a good shot at being the first Democrat to win in 60 years. But doing so doesn’t require her to pinch policy ideas from Paul Ryan. It’s enough that she portray herself as steady, mainstream, and non-radical.

Clinton is already doing that, and her vice presidential pick reinforced that message. But the other thing Clinton needs to do is limit her losses among white voters without a college education — Trump’s base. That effort would be set back badly by an overt pitch for elite Republican votes — because these are the very people who voted in record numbers to repudiate the Republican leadership. So what can she do to limit her losses in this crucial demographic segment?

Read the whole thing there if you want to know what I think.

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Are Religious Voters Even Backing Trump?

Damon Linker asks a question in his column today at The Week:

The evangelical embrace of Trump (after considerable early skepticism about his bid for the White House) is remarkable for several reasons. It indicates that evangelicals are considerably less concerned about the personal moral and religious character of presidential candidates than many (including, I suspect, many evangelicals themselves) have typically presumed. It also demonstrates that social conservatives are more willing than members of the Republican Party’s other two major factions — pro-business economic libertarians and hawkish foreign policy internationalists — to embrace a brash, populist insurgent. Many members of the first group have remained on the sidelines and some appear willing to entertain defecting to Libertarian Party ticket of Gary Johnson and William Weld; members of the second, meanwhile, have gravitated to Hillary Clinton.

But not evangelicals.

The question is why. Why would voters who engage in politics in large part because of their attachment to a social-conservative agenda rally around a blustering, bragging vulgarian who’s on his third marriage; who specializes in such un-Christ-like behavior as mocking a reporter with a disability; who favors such policies as rounding up and deporting millions, torturing terrorism suspects, banning the members of specific religions from entering the United States, and striking first with nuclear weapons; and perhaps most pertinent of all, who shows no interest in, knowledge of, or sympathy for the social-conservative agenda?

He goes on to dispense with possible reasons for an actual affinity, before coming to the following conclusion:

Today the religious right’s theoconservative agenda of injecting orthodox Judeo-Christianity into the nation’s public life has shriveled into an effort to protect devout Christians from being forced by the government to conform with the dictates of anti-discrimination law in all of their dealings with the wider world. Which means that a movement to reclothe the “naked public square” in vestments has become a rear-guard defense of religious freedom.

If you’re part of an ambitious, self-confident movement out to transform the country in a traditionalist Christian direction, you want a president like Dubya, who will speak boldly and unapologetically about his faith and how it informs his policy agenda. But if you’re feeling defeated and demoralized, weak and vulnerable, you probably want a president who will serve as your protector.

That’s what I suspect a fair number of evangelical Trump supporters believe they’ve found in the Republican nominee.

That’s pretty much what Rod Dreher has been arguing in our dialogue on the subject (see here, here and here to catch up). I’ve made my argument in those previous posts about why religious conservatives shouldn’t be looking at it that way. But are they?

One reason I’m skeptical is that it’s really only evangelical Protestants who have rallied to Trump’s side.

Catholics are tilting the other way. As Leah Libresco reported recently at fivethirtyeight.com, Clinton is not only winning Catholics generally — she’s winning Catholics who attend mass at least weekly by a comparable margin of around 20%. And this isn’t just a Hispanic effect. White Catholics went roughly 3-to-2 for Romney over Obama in 2012. But they are split roughly 50-50 between Clinton and Trump — not because they like Clinton better than Obama, but because of extremely negative feelings about Trump.

Mormon voters were obviously especially strong supporters of their co-religionist in 2012. But they have been a solidly Republican bloc of voters for a many cycles. Not this time, though. The LDS Church made a point of explicitly rebuking Trump back in December, and the Republican nominee’s reputation among Utahns remains so bad that people are speculating he could even lose the state.

Mass-attending Catholics and Mormons are key parts of the religious conservative coalition that George W. Bush cemented. And they have been very vocal about their fears about the application of anti-discrimination law. But they are not getting on the Trump train the way evangelical Protestants are. Why not?

Well, let’s look at evangelical Protestants themselves. It’s notable that the most regular churchgoers are supporting Trump at the same overwhelming rates to their support for Romney and McCain. It’s possible that this group is looking for a “protector.” But it’s also possible that they are just being loyal to their party — or that they have more of a Manichean mindset than, say, mass-going Catholics. In that regard, it’s worth recalling that prior to 2012 there was real concern that evangelical Protestants might not come out for Romney because he is a member of a church some evangelical groups consider to be a pagan cult. But they didn’t falter in their support. Which suggests that we already knew that evangelical Protestants were perfectly willing to support a nominee who wasn’t “one of them” provided he checked some other set of boxes.

On the other hand, mass-going Catholics may abhor Clinton’s stance on abortion but find other things appealing about the Democratic message. And Mormons, who place such great emphasis on personal rectitude, may be less-willing to forgive Trump his appalling personal behavior than are sola fide Protestants. Finally, Catholics and Mormons are likely far more sensitive to the fact that Trump is actively hostile to a minority religious group, and apprehensive about the precedent thus set. White evangelical Protestants may not see that as a problem in the same way.

But the real movement towards Trump has been among relatively unchurched evangelical Protestants — people who don’t go regularly even on Sundays. This group has moved more than 20 points in Trump’s direction, according to Pew. It seems to me very unlikely that they are moved by the search for a specifically religious protector.

In any event, I strongly suspect that evangelical leaders have noticed who is showing up for Trump rallies. So one possible reason why they have been lining up behind Trump is that they know where their flock is — as well as where the lost sheep are flocking. And that’s where they need to go politically to continue to be heard. After all, they largely backed other horses like Rubio during the nomination fight, and saw their parishioners rush to Trump’s banner. If they don’t support Trump now, who’s going to listen to them if he loses?

 

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Clinton and the God Vote

Bill and Hillary Clinton at a Texas campaign rally in 1992. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com
Bill and Hillary Clinton at a Texas campaign rally in 1992. Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

I appreciate Rod Dreher’s response to my post questioning religious conservatives who are supporting Trump because they think he’ll be better for their distinct issues.

As he describes the bottom line:

[T]he religious conservative case for Trump comes down to gambling. That Hillary would be a disaster for religious conservatives is one of the safest bets you can make in American politics. Betting on Trump is a long-shot gamble, but as I tell myself when I buy lottery tickets, hey, you never know. Even if Trump were to come through on religious liberty protections, voting for him is still taking an incredible gamble on so many other things, both domestically and internationally.

Still, it might be worth it to some. If a religious conservative takes all of this into consideration and still chooses to vote for Trump, I won’t judge him. I suppose it is possible that I may be that man come November. I don’t see how, but maybe I will be. (I also might be the man who votes for Hillary Clinton, though it’s even more unlikely.) But I do not understand religious conservatives who enthusiastically support Trump, as opposed to supporting him in fear and trembling, knowing what a bad man he is. They are no better than the feminists who rallied to Bill Clinton’s side during the Lewinsky scandal because no matter how much Bill’s actions and character went against the things they believe in, it was more important to deny the Right a victory than to stand on principle. Similarly, many conservative Christians involved in politics this fall are not covering themselves with glory, to put it charitably.

I could make a crack about how I thought traditional Christians were morally opposed to gambling, but I won’t.

I could also point out that betting on religious freedom protections from a candidate explicitly running on heightened vigilance against a particular religious group is a pretty poor strategy. Even if you don’t think Trump himself will be cracking down on the freedom of Christians, how do you think the precedents he’d set with regard to Muslims will be used by a progressive secularist Administration in the future? His fellow conservatives in the LDS church have certainly thought about that even if he hasn’t.

But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll ask another question: what’s the plan if Hillary Clinton wins?

Or, let me pull back to a broader question. Suppose that you look out a couple of decades, and you see, as Dreher does, an America in which traditional Christians are a dwindling minority ever more clearly out of step with American culture, to the point of mutual incomprehension and even loathing. In that world, a polarized party system in which one party is resolutely determined to circumscribe the freedom of that dwindling minority while the other party pays lip service to its defense is a world in which that minority’s life gets progressively worse and worse year after year. One can dispute the probability of that world coming to pass, but I believe that’s what Dreher believes is coming.

If it is, my question is: what’s the political strategy for heading it off? Voting over and over again for a party that pays less and less attention to your concerns is clearly a losing strategy — for obvious reasons. So what’s the alternative?

It seems to me, clearly, that the alternative is making an overture to the enemy party. After all, as Yitzhak Rabin famously said, you don’t make peace with your friends — you make peace with your enemies. And you cannot make peace with your enemies if you decide, from the start, that your enemies will never make peace, on any terms. It seems to me that if Dreher really believes the Democratic Party is moving in the direction of outright persecution of traditional Christians, then it is a moral and practical imperative for traditional Christians to engage in outreach to the Democratic Party to try to change their course, and to keep trying if the first efforts bear no fruit.

But suppose the enemy really is as implacable as you imagine. If the correlation of forces is similarly dire, then what we’re talking about isn’t making peace but negotiating the terms of surrender. Even then, terms have to actually be offered. And it’s the people seeking an end to hostilities who have to offer them.

If that is the case, then — and I know this is a very ugly way of putting it, and I apologize in advance, but Dreher himself is the one who brought up “Japanese-soldier Religious Rightists hiding out on a desert island in the South Pacific” — my question is: what is the traditional Christian version of “we’ll surrender if you let us keep our Emperor?”

To be clear: I’m not endorsing Dreher’s worldview, nor his perception of what the Democratic Party wants or what the immediate future portends for America’s traditional Christian groups. I think he’s far too pessimistic about the prospects for some kind of change in the Democratic Party’s attitude towards traditional religious believers. I also think he’s far too pessimistic about the prospects for traditional religious groups in the emerging America — I think all kinds of churches may well flourish in the next twenty years, even as others are going to falter (and personally I expect some of the biggest conservative denominations may join the liberal Protestant mainline in faltering). I do agree that the Religious Right as we’ve understood it since the 1970s is thoroughly played out as a political force, and that this radically changes the context within which traditional Christians need to pursue their interests. But that doesn’t imply that I agree with all of the implications Dreher derives from that fact.

Nonetheless: if you believe the situation is as dire as Dreher seems to believe, then I think I’m asking a pertinent question.

I’d love to know the answer.

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The Incoherence of the Religious Conservative Case For Trump

I have to quibble with Ross Douthat’s “shoe on the other foot” analysis of why it’s tough for conservative Trump critics to get off the Trump train. But I do think the game is worth playing. So let me try it.

First of all, come up with an appropriate Republican analog of Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton is a thoroughly mainstream and highly experienced politician who has held numerous public offices. Her foreign policy views put her on the right edge of the Democratic party. She’s got a history of relative centrism on a host of domestic and economic issues, including some social issues, but is running in this election, per Douthat, as an extremist on the issues that matter most to the social right, and to the left of her historic positions across the board.

The Republican analog to that description is someone with Colin Powell’s experience and views on foreign policy, John Kasich’s experience and views on domestic and economic policy, and Mike Huckabee’s views on social issues, running on a platform substantially written by Paul Ryan. Of course, Clinton is also viewed as deeply untrustworthy and corrupt, so let’s say that the Republican analog in question has Richard Nixon’s reputation for probity and transparency.

I can’t think of any single Republican who looks anything like that description. Santorum is an absolute hysteric; Cruz is an across-the-board extremist with virtually no experience; and Newt Gingrich is a highly volatile mess of a man both personally and ideologically. Mitt Romney is actually not a terrible analog in some ways, if one imagines a version of Mitt Romney who could plausibly be charged with being personally corrupt and not just tin-eared and blatantly ambitious. Clinton, after all, isn’t really a liberal version of Mike Huckabee on social issues — she’s just running as one this time around.

Second, pick a fair Democratic analog to Donald Trump. It has to be somebody not merely utterly unfit for high office, but also completely untrustworthy on those same social issues on which our imaginary Republican is extreme. Let’s imagine that well-known conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone somehow became the Democratic nominee, and let’s say he had a history of saying that abortion was murder and that homosexuality is a disease, but that during the campaign he made half-hearted gestures toward promising to appoint liberal judges. Meanwhile, he’s got to be unreliable on a host of other important issues as well — occasionally suggesting that he’d privatize Medicare, say, or calling for a Balanced Budget Amendment.

But: our hypothetical Oliver Stone nominee has staked out an extreme and unwavering position on an issue dear to the hearts of part of the Democratic coalition, a part that feels like it just can’t make itself heard. He’s called for a complete and permanent withdrawal of all American forces from the Middle East; an end to support for Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states; the immediate closure of Guantanamo Bay and the release of all prisoners back to their home countries; to rip up the Patriot Act, ban drone warfare — basically, an end to the War on Terror in all its forms, the whole nine yards, with no equivocation or qualification.

That, I would venture to say, is a fair analogy. Am I confident that hordes of Democrats would turn to “sleazy Romney” if the other choice were Oliver Stone? No — but I don’t think it’s an incredibly big ask. Frankly, I think it would be a no-brainer for just about anybody, with the possible exception of people who thought ending the War on Terror in all its forms was the overwhelmingly most important issue, one that justified a complete break with normalcy, even including the election of someone manifestly unsuited to the office.

Is Clinton making a huge ask of Republican-leaning voters? It depends which voters. Clinton is making obvious overtures to foreign policy neoconservatives. She’s also reached out to Chamber of Commerce conservatives to come aboard. She’s making asks in each case — but hardly extraordinary ones. She is making no similar overtures to religious conservatives, or to conservatives who care about Trump’s signature issues of immigration and political correctness — instead, she is drawing a strong contrast with Trump. In other words, Douthat’s problem isn’t that Clinton is making too big of an ask generally — it’s that she’s making a big ask of him specifically, because he is not only a religious conservative, but is also sympathetic to much of Trump’s critique of the domestic and foreign policy consensus, while recognizing that Trump himself is a walking catastrophe. That’s a tough spot to be in — but as Douthat realizes, it’s entirely the GOP’s fault for putting him there.

Meanwhile, for those who can’t stand either candidate, there’s always Gary Johnson. He’s a perfectly normal candidate in a host of ways, to the point where libertarians are legitimately annoyed that he’s more of a Republican than a libertarian. If you’re a conservative appalled by Trump but unable to stomach a vote for Clinton, why not vote for him? It cannot be because Johnson is socially liberal and won’t reliably appoint conservative judges, because to say that is to imply that Trump would be reliable on these matters, a view for which there is no evidence whatsoever. And if you really, really can’t vote for anybody with whom you don’t agree on these conservative shibboleths, there’s always Darrell Castle. No, to rule out these kinds of protest votes, you have to argue not merely that you can’t stomach voting for Clinton, but that Clinton is so bad that you should vote for Trump specifically in order to stop her from winning. And I just don’t think there’s any way Ross Douthat believes that. Which means he knows Clinton is right about who he needs to root for, regardless of who he will vote for, and he just wishes she’d make it easier.

Finally, I have to ask a serious question of folks like Rod Dreher who are seriously considering voting for Donald Trump because of judges. If you really believe that traditional Christian conservatives are on the brink of suffering real and substantial persecution, and you believe that electing Donald Trump so that he’ll appoint some right-leaning judges will prevent that from happening, then it seems to me you believe two contradictory things.

This country has had Democratic and Republican Presidents in recent memory. The pendulum swings this way and that. Each side periodically gets to pick a bunch of judges, and some of those judges vote more or less the way you want them to on some of your pet issues. Meanwhile, the country continues to change — and the judges often change their views along with it. Frankly, in the face of a real popular movement to stifle traditional Christian witness, a handful of additional judges would prove largely impotent. And if a handful of judges really could sway things, then how much more so could a real and substantial movement of public engagement, civil disobedience, etc.

If the political tide is running strongly against you, that’s not a reason for apocalypticism. It’s a reason to rethink your political strategy — which is the exact opposite of what a vote for Trump would represent.

After all, Donald Trump’s primary victory is the final proof that even the religiously conservative base of the GOP doesn’t really care about things like abortion and gay rights, because Trump manifestly didn’t care about these questions or was actively on the other side from religious conservatives, and yet he won plenty of evangelical Christian votes in the primaries. So voting for Trump out of religious conservative conviction sends a clear-as-day message that Republicans need do absolutely nothing on those issues in order to win religious conservative votes. It is a statement of abject surrender.

Look: there is nobody running in this election in whom religious conservatives should put the slightest sliver of hope with regard to their issues. If you really care overwhelmingly about those issues, you have a practical obligation not to vote for President. Large scale abstentions by religious conservatives would make it abundantly clear that attention must be paid to their concerns, in a way that voting for Trump never could do.

Or, if issues like abortion are just one of a complex of issues that have to be weighed in any election, then vote for the person who you think is best on balance, and fight for those other issues on another front. Maybe that means voting for Trump — in which case you’ll still need to be doing that fighting on other fronts, because trust me, Trump is not going to have your back. Regardless, don’t kid yourself that a vote for Trump will advance the cause of religious conservatism one iota. You know full well it won’t.

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Obama and the Limits of Progressive Patriotism

Paul Waldman uses the perfect phrase to describe Obama’s speech last night:

For the last eight years, Obama has been making a case for a progressive patriotism, one based on the idea of “a more perfect union,” that phrase from the preamble to the Constitution that he returns to again and again. It’s the idea that the American story is one of constant improvement and progression toward the realization of the country’s founding ideals. In that story, change isn’t incidental, it’s essential. And it’s a fundamentally different kind of patriotic story from the one conservatives usually tell. It’s why Obama frequently brings up dark periods in our country’s history, like slavery (as the first lady did on Monday) or Jim Crow or McCarthyism — those periods are a critical part of the story, because they remind us what we overcame.

So over these years, Obama has taught Democrats how to clearly and unequivocally celebrate America while remaining true to their progressive values. And in the process, he turned his party into a confident one, after it had cowered in fear for a quarter-century before his arrival. It seems like a long time ago now, but during that time Democrats were constantly afraid — afraid they’d be called unpatriotic, afraid they’d be called weak on crime, afraid they’d be called tax-and-spenders, and afraid that Republicans who always seemed more skilled and more ruthless would whip the stuffing out of them.

They don’t look that way anymore, do they? This may be a party that has suffered defeats at the state level (as the president’s party often does), and is still in the minority in Congress. But Donald Trump’s campaign of white nationalism has made Democrats more sure than ever that the future belongs to them, their broad coalition, and their inclusive vision.

And more than a few Republicans understand it too. On Wednesday evening, Tony Fratto, who served as a spokesperson for George W. Bush, tweeted, “Watching Democrats talk about America the way Republican candidates used to talk about America.” As Obama neared the end of his speech, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Reviewtweeted, “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they’re trying to take all our stuff.”

But it isn’t their stuff alone, not anymore.

What these Republicans are responding to isn’t just that Obama is stealing their rhetoric or their optimistic stance. There’s a real kinship between progressive patriotism and the patriotism of the conservative movement, inasmuch as both assume that what America is about, and what makes her worth fighting for, is ideological in nature. There are real differences between the left-wing progressive and right-wing liberal versions of that ideology, but in either case America is something that mere Americans can only aspire to live up to.

The problem with an ideological definition of American patriotism, though, is that we don’t actually all agree on the ideological content. Progressive patriotism, like movement conservatism’s version of patriotism, turns dissenters into un-Americans.

Worse still, it invites the inversion of the proper relationship between the government and the governed. The promise of democracy is, maximally, that we will learn to reason together towards arrangements that we can all live with, and minimally that the government will be accountable to us for its actions. But if the ideal arrangements are objectively out there, rather than something we reason together towards, then democracy becomes a test of the people — they are the ones held accountable, the ones who fail if they vote the wrong way.

Donald Trump’s appeal is, in part, a visceral reaction to that way of thinking on the part of both the right and the left. He’s a walking reminder that the people are sovereign, and that American patriotism is defined not by a theory of what America stands for but by what actual Americans feel.

Trump’s alienated voters don’t feel what Obama feels. That doesn’t mean they’ve failed him. That means he’s failed them, in the sense that he has failed to speak to them in a language they understand, which is his job.

You know who knew how to speak that language? Bill Clinton. Take a look at his speech from Tuesday night. Ostensibly aimed at Sanders voters, what struck me as most important about it was the way in which it reflected a real understanding of the mentality of those who have moved, over the past twenty years, from Clinton to Trump.

Or just check out what I had to say about that speech in my latest column for The Week:

Here’s how the important part begins:

There are clear, achievable, affordable responses to our challenges. But we won’t get to them if America makes the wrong choice in this election. That’s why you should elect her. And you should elect her because she’ll never quit when the going gets tough. She’ll never quit on you. [Bill Clinton]

As someone who’s argued that loyalty should be the key theme for the Clinton campaign, this brought a smile to my face. But it’s worth noting as well that loyalty is also a cardinal virtue among Appalachian whites. Moreover, suspicions of disloyalty are precisely what have made Barack Obama uniquely unpalatable in this region. Bill Clinton is taking this tack not only because it’s a good one for his wife, and because it connects her personal story to her qualities as a candidate in an effective way, but because it’s a good way to speak to the voters she’s having the most trouble with.

She sent me in this primary to West Virginia where she knew we were going to lose, to look those coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back you had 50 years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future. [Bill Clinton]

This may be the most important sentence of the whole peroration, but not because of the content. He’s talking about the primary against Sanders, but the argument works equally well to puncture the magical nonsense claims of the Trump campaign. But what’s really important is how the argument is being made. Bill Clinton is talking to voters in West Virginia. He’s talking to them, not about them. He’s not reducing them to psychology or sociology. He’s giving them agency. What they think matters. What they do matters. And it’s their choiceThey have to decide whether they are going to let themselves be played for sentimental fools or not.

It’s sad to realize how infrequently Democrats in the Obama era have talked this way, particularly to this constituency.

And so I say to you, if you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes and you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over somebody that wants to send you back.

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.

If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be, help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future. [Bill Clinton]

The most important word in this section is “if,” and the application of that conditional is instructive. Clinton isn’t saying to native-born American citizens that they should welcome immigrants. He’s saying to undocumented immigrants that if they love America, then they should try to stay. He’s not saying that Christian Americans should avoid prejudice against Muslims. He’s saying to Muslim Americans that if they love America, then they should join the fight against America’s enemies. He’s not saying to white Americans that black lives matter. He’s saying to African Americans that if they are afraid of police violence, then theyshould work to reduce violence generally, both by and against the police.

Implicitly, Clinton is assuming some of the key premises of the archetypal Trump voter. There is such a thing as “America” that can be loved or not, and that the condition of entry to a political coalition is demonstrating that love. The job that the police and the armed forces do is inherently noble, and even those who fear being on the receiving end of state violence can only join the coalition to reduce it if they first acknowledge its essential nobility of purpose. He’s challenging the people who Trump’s voters likely view as the ones making demands to instead become allies of the sorts of folks implicitly assumed to already be in the fight, because we already know they love America.

It’s a vision of broad national unity across a multiracial and multicultural nation. But it is a vision that builds that unity on a core implicit identity of Americanness that must be chosen, even earned. Which, as it happens, is just how lots of white folks back in Bill Clinton’s part of the country tend to view the matter.

My conclusion:

Donald Trump is telling a story about American identity that is exceptionally ill-suited to the country that actually exists, much less the country that is emerging. That story is a corrective, though, to the failed ideological stories told by the past two administrations, one a story that put Christian religiosity at the core of American identity, and another that put progressivism at the core.

If the Democrats are to be able to speak to America as a whole, and have a chance of becoming a true majority party and not just capturing the presidency from time to time, they will need a way of talking about American identity that is neither exclusively ideological nor narrowly ethno-national. Their audience for any such message will have to include the most nationalistically minded among the American tribes.

And the starting point for speaking to anybody is learning to speak their language. Even if your aim is to change it.

We already know that Hillary Clinton won’t inspire progressive believers the way Obama can. We’ll see tonight whether she’s learned a trick or two from her husband.

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Mid-Century Modern

Some of my readers may have noticed that I’m writing less about theater in this space than I had previously. But I haven’t given it up entirely! Indeed, I’ve got a new piece up at The New Republic about a handful of exceptional European productions of classic American plays that came through New York this past season.

The middle of the 20th century was a golden age for the American theater. Tennessee Williams wrote his first masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, in 1944, towards the end of World War II, and A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof both followed in the subsequent decade. Eugene O’Neill wrote his titanic mature works, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, during World War II, and each was first performed in the first dozen years after the war. And in the same period, Arthur Miller gave the world arguably his greatest works: All My SonsDeath of a SalesmanThe Crucible, and A View From the Bridge.

These plays are the mainstay of the American theatrical canon, the ones that the greatest actors of every generation seek to leave their mark on, and make their own.

But are they still our own?

A series of recent productions that came to New York with great acclaim have implicitly questioned whether we can still see these plays for what they are, or whether they need to be made new to avoid seeming stale. These productions took plays that are deeply rooted in a particular time and place—and that deal, urgently, with the issues of their day—and ripped them up forcefully to re-pot them in fresh soil.

In foreign soil, one might say, as the three productions I’m thinking of in particular were directed by Europeans. This approach, of course, is not unique to European directors. For well over a generation, American directors have been taking Shakespeare’s plays and setting them wherever and whenever they liked—whether in a particular time and place, or an abstract nowhere, or a cosmopolitan everywhere that partakes of whatever bits of history and culture that may lie to hand. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has even famously (or infamously) commissioned translations of Shakespeare into more familiar English. For these classic works, whatever enables the audience to connect to the character and story is fair game.

What’s new is applying that approach to American classics. If these European directors are right, and these plays need a kind of translation to come fully alive, what does that say about our relationship to theater—and our relationship to our own past?

If you’d like to know what I think, check out the whole article there.

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Does It Matter If Putin Wants Trump?

The evidence that Vladimir Putin would prefer Donald Trump to win the American Presidential election is, by this point, pretty overwhelming. Whether or not Putin is behind the Wikileaks dump of hacked DNC emails, Russia Today’s coverage should make it clear enough who the Kremlin is behind. But should it matter to American voters?

It obviously matters if Trump is actually beholden to Putin for financial reasons, which is an extremely good reason to demand that he rise to the level of financial disclosure that has become standard practice for Presidential candidates. Republicans who raise completely legitimate questions about the Clinton Foundation’s buck-raking can’t really dispute that. It also obviously matters if Trump is a man of such weak character that cheap flattery from a foreign despot would readily sway his administration’s policies.

But does it matter what Russia wants? Should we be outraged if they are trying to influence the American election? Should we be incensed if they stooped to dirty tricks to do it? If so, I’m having a hard time figuring out why.

It should come as a shock to exactly nobody that Russia spies on American political institutions. Nor should anyone paying attention be at all surprised that Putin would resort to dirty and underhanded means to achieve his political objectives – he’s done far worse – and not only in his own back yard. If there’s a scandal about the email hacking, it’s that the DNC was so vulnerable to being hacked.

And it should be even less shocking that Russia would care to influence an American election. We do it all the time – and we use tricks at least as dirty. We’ve even done it in a partisan manner, with Republican and Democratic Presidents backing horses abroad who are more favorable to their partisan agendas. And other countries have done so as well with us. Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his preference for Republican Presidents, nor did Chiang Kai-shek before him. Nor were our European allies’ Democratic preferences in the 2004 Presidential election exactly a secret.

The Wikileaks dump itself is both appalling and banal. It’s appalling because of the outrageous breach of privacy. If a rival American campaign, or a domestic interest, engaged in those kinds of dirty tricks, criminal prosecution would be in order. But it’s banal because what has been revealed (so far) is merely embarrassing, and barely that. As anyone with eyes could have seen beforehand, the DNC was not as neutral as it formally claimed to be. This should be just as shocking as the revelation from the Sony hack that male Hollywood stars are paid more than women, or that behind closed doors executives make racial and other comments that are decidedly not appropriate for public disclosure.

But precisely because this kind of behavior from Russia should be no surprise, there’s no obvious reason why it should prompt a change in policy, or in America’s voters’ preferences.

Trump is running on policies that are more-favorable to Russia’s interests than Hillary Clinton is. He’s also running on policies that are less-favorable to Chinese interests. Either Trump or Clinton could be wrong about one, or the other, or both, or neither. But what really matters is whether those policies would be good for American interests, and whether either of them would be effective at implementing them.

And no: saying “I’ll put America first” doesn’t get you a pass on either question.

UPDATE: Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t think it matters much if Russia wants Trump to be President. I also don’t find it especially shocking that Russia is engaged in espionage, and would resort to dirty tricks to win the election. None of this as such should especially affect our opinion of Russia — or of Trump.

But Trump’s actual ties to Putin, financial or otherwise, do indeed matter — enormously. And Trump’s reaction to the revelations most certainly matters as well. The only appropriate response is to condemn foreign interference. Today, Trump did exactly the opposite. He explicitly cheered on Russia’s hacking, and said he hopes it proves even more fruitful.

Trump will undoubtedly defend himself by saying that we don’t know whether Russia is even behind the hack, that the American people deserve the truth from whatever source, etc. There is absolutely no defense for his comments, or for his attitude. Trump is calling on a foreign power to break American law in order to influence an American election in his favor. If that’s fair game then, to use a phrase Trump likes to use in another context, we don’t have a country.

None of which means Victoria Nuland was right about anything, or that I would expect anything good to come of following her preferred course in handling Russia. But seriously — if you wanted to prove David “Unpatriotic Conservatives” Frum right after all, you could not do better than to continue to support Trump.

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