I’m post-surgical, so not really up to a proper post, but did want to point to my latest column at The Week, which is kind of a follow-up or counterpoint to my last post here about the VP debate and just what Mike Pence was up to.
As a highly orthodox and thoroughly boring VP nominee, the sort of person who one can imagine being president but have a hard time picturing getting elected under his own power, his selection bares some resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s choice of George H. W. Bush in 1980. He represents almost perfectly the party that existed prior to Trump’s triumph. By accepting a spot on the ticket, then, Pence has positioned himself uniquely as someone who could attempt to bridge the gap between the conqueror and the conquered.
Tuesday’s VP debate was our first glimpse at how that gap might be bridged. But to see it clearly, we have to see past the smoke screen that Pence emitted for much of debate.
That smoke screen was a consistent effort to pretend that there was a clear thread of continuity between Trump and prior Republican history. Pence simply refused to acknowledge that Trump represented anything particularly new, except in personality terms. This has been described variously as a gaslighting of the American public, as a form of political performance art, and as possible further evidence of the strength of conservative epistemic closure.
But if you set aside the fact that Pence egregiously misrepresented Trump, and consider merely how he represented him, you can see the outlines of Pence’s bridge between Trumpism and the GOP. Here’s what it looks like.
Go there and read the rest to find out.
Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote probably the best take on Mike Pence’s performance last night over at The Week:
Pence seemed to know that it would be a losing strategy to explain or defend the scores of zany, offensive, or discomfiting things Trump has said. So he just pretended to be Lindsey Graham’s veep candidate instead.
Months ago, Trump gave a foreign policy speech in which he praised the values of an “America First” foreign policy. Citing the disasters in Iraq, Egypt, and Libya, Trump criticized the Bush Doctrine itself. “It all began with a dangerous idea that we could make Western democracies out of countries that had no experience or interests in becoming a Western democracy,” he said.
Mike Pence ignored this. Instead, he went with what had become the normal Republican attack on Democratic foreign policy over the last five decades: that the Democrats are too weak. ISIS and other calamities in the Middle East were caused by a lack of American action, Pence implied. Or by the Democratic president withdrawing troops on the schedule set by a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq.
Pence laughed and shrugged when Kaine pointed out that Trump said NATO is obsolete. Pence then launched into a long discourse about Russian perfidy. He said that the solution to Russian expansionism in its near-abroad was sterner American leadership, and he even started talking about a military buildup. You’d have no clue that a few months ago, Trump had dismissed pessimists about America’s relations with Russia by saying, “Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon… Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.”
It’s normal for members of a political party to project onto their party leader their own beliefs. Millions of Republicans are going to pull the lever for Trump this year because they believe a man who spent years defending even late-term abortions and most gun restrictions will faithfully defend pro-life causes and the Second Amendment. But it is not normal to watch a candidate’s running mate go through this exercise publicly.
It’s as if Pence was the designated survivor of the Republican primary, a man held away from the carnage Trump has inflicted on the Republican Party, its conventions, orthodoxies, and pieties. Party figures like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani embrace Trump as he is. Others, like Paul Ryan, try to demand more, and get nothing in return. Ted Cruz tried to shiv Trump at the convention, then feebly extracted a meaningless promise from him before endorsing him in September. Every strategy of blocking Trump, co-opting Trump, or parlaying with him as failed.
But in this debate, Pence did something that no one has tried before. He simply refused to acknowledge that there was any problem at all. You’ve heard lots of crazy things about Trump. But I’m here to do a job, and frankly, acknowledging the reality of his situation or ours can only get in my way. Pence made it seem as if Trump’s own words, when spoken by Tim Kaine, somehow discredited Tim Kaine. Mike Pence was a walking, talking memory hole.
That’s the best version of the take, but it’s hardly a unique take. Dougherty was joined in his overall assessment by Jamelle Bouie, Matt Yglesias, and Frank Bruni on the left, and by John Podhoretz on the right, among others. The clear consensus among the pundit class is that Mike Pence won the debate by not doing his job of defending the ticket, instead pretending he lived in an alternate reality in which Donald Trump never happened.
But why did he do it?
One possibility is that Pence isn’t thinking about 2016 but about 2020. Forced to choose between opposing his party’s choice and opposing his party’s principles, he’s chosen to pretend that there was no choice to make, so as not to alienate any faction. But if that’s the way he’s thinking, then what does that say about his views of the Republican electorate who chose Trump? After all, Pence is the kind of opponent Trump ate as a between-meal snack back when the primaries were going on. Why would he think the GOP electorate would want somebody like him next time if they wanted Trump this time? And if he thinks in 2020 the GOP will be looking for an anti-Trump, why did he accept the VP slot in the first place?
The best explanation, assuming he’s thinking about 2020, is that he thinks Trump’s loyalists will be thinking only about the appearance of loyalty, while the donor class and the pundit class will care about the substance of his positions. And that’s a rather contemptuous attitude to take towards the electorate, when you think about it.
Which is why I don’t think it’s quite correct.
An alternative possibility is that he is indeed thinking about 2016, and that the performance was aimed at people who are queasy about Trump. From this perspective, Pence isn’t gaslighting anybody — he’s speaking to people who badly want to be gaslit, conservatives who never supported Trump in the primaries and who are distraught by their choice in the general election.
These people want a choice they can believe in, and Pence gave them one — two, actually, depending on just how far down the rabbit hole they are willing to go. They can either believe in his fantasy version of Donald Trump, and choose not to listen to the real thing at all between now and election day, the better to preserve their innocence. Or they can believe that the real Donald Trump exists, but that he isn’t actually interested in being more than an entertaining figurehead, and that Mike Pence will make sure that the actual decisions made reflect orthodox conservative Republican priorities.
The latter in particular is a potent fantasy that more than one Republican leader has fallen prey to over the course of the past year. Maybe it’ll work on those stubborn Republican sheep who still won’t come back into the fold?
Or, maybe that performance wasn’t aimed at anyone. Maybe this is who Mike Pence is.
Pence always struck me as an real exemplar of the kind of faith-based “thinking” according to which what must be true is true. Therefore because the Republican Party stands for certain things then Donald Trump by definition stands for those things, too, and anything that doesn’t fit that picture must just be a misunderstanding.
That’s not an explanation to be casually discarded just because Pence is a guy who’s been around politics a while and has had his share of success in that game. There are plenty of people like that in politics — indeed, there are plenty of people like that in both parties. Donald Trump would never have happened in the first place if the GOP hadn’t gotten so good at that kind of “thinking with the church” that much of the leadership had forgotten how to do anything else.
Regardless of the reason, Pence’s performance doesn’t bode well for the prospects of a post-Trump debate within the GOP.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Latino turnout rises from 48 percent in 2012 to 54 percent, and their support for Democrats increases from 71 percent to 74 percent.
- Asian/other turnout rises from 49 percent in 2012 to 54 percent, and their support for Democrats increases from 69 percent to 74 percent.
- African-Americans continue to give Democrats 93 percent of the vote, but their turnout falls from 66 percent to 60 percent.
- Among college-educated whites, turnout remains steady at 78 percent and Republicans’ share falls from 56 percent to 47 percent.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.