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.
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?
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.
Go read the whole thing there for the punch line.