August 2016


An alert Twitter user asked me to explain Trump and Hillary. Yes, both of them. I already covered the Republican primaries, but it’s time to update the story and add the Democratic side.

Trump

burns-trumpAs I said in the earlier piece, Trump is not some weird, crazy outlier in the Republican field. Almost all of his rivals were worse. The real extremists in the party hate Trump because he’s not extreme enough.

An old, old piece of GOP strategy, attributed to Richard Nixon, is that to win the GOP primaries you move as far right as possible, and to win the general you move as far left as possible. This is The Pivot.

The summer was filled with predictions that Trump, now exalted as a canny manipulator of press and public, would perfectly execute The Pivot.

It turns out Trump doesn’t pivot.

In the last month Trump attacked a US war hero’s parents, suggested that Hillary should be assassinated by gun nuts, invited a foreign power to hack his opponent, proposed to abandon NATO, picked a petty fight with John McCain and Paul Ryan, and prematurely declared the election fraudulent. Oh, and his just-fired campaign manager Paul Manafort used to work for the pro-Russian party in Ukraine, and the one intervention the Trump people insisted on in the official GOP platform was to soften support for Ukraine against Russian invasion.

Meanwhile, as Clinton is opening campaign offices across the country and spending millions on TV ads, Trump’s campaign staff is less than a hundred people nationwide, and he bought his first TV ad just four days ago. Oh, and he insists on holding rallies in safe Democratic states like Connecticut and California, while key battleground states are starting to lean Democratic.

There’s still over two months to go, and we haven’t seen the debates. But he’s trailing in the polls, he still hasn’t won over all of the party, and he may well not only lose, but make the GOP lose the Senate as well. (Probably not the House: more people will vote for a Democratic Congressman, but thanks to gerrymandering they’ll get a Republican House anyway.)

What went wrong? What happened to the canny manipulator of press and public?

There shouldn’t be any real surprise. Trump didn’t change; he’s always been Trump, acting on the assumption that all press is good press. The thing is, the general election is not the GOP primaries. A strategy of name-calling, provocations, feuds, lies, and general aggression worked to get attention in a large dull candidate field during the primaries; it only turns off the much larger presidential electorate. Plus, a year spent alienating his allies means, well, that he has few allies and even fewer enthusiastic ones.

He’s still going to get a lot of votes and win a lot of states, because of the polarization of American politics. All recent presidential elections have been very close; at least 80% of the electorate will never budge from their parties. And to be fair, a good quarter of the electorate really likes him! And people like Paul Ryan, though pretending to be fair by occasionally criticizing him, will vote for him because he is not apostate on the #1 key element of Republican politics: he will lower taxes on the super-rich.

If he does win, the best we can do is call it Fallout 5 and stockpile bottle caps. If he loses, the interesting question is, what does the GOP do next?

Despite his fascist tendencies, I can’t see him leading an insurrection. If he can’t run a damn election campaign, there’s no way he can run a military operation. It’d be too much work, and too much risk. More likely: TrumpTV.

The campaign has revealed two things: there is a large appetite in the GOP electorate for white populism; and there is nothing the GOP establishment can do to stop it. Of course this is a monster of their own creation— Mitt Romney, the epitome of the establishment, also did his best in 2012 to alienate everyone who wasn’t a well-off, Christian, heterosexual white man. But demographics make this an ever-more difficult strategy— not only are there more and more non-whites, but young whites are turned off by the GOP message. Some of the desperation of current GOP politics is due to their fearful sense that it’s their last chance to get back to the 1950s. Or the 1850s.

But they’re still powerful at the state level, and they’ve got the House. But who are they now? Will there be an organized Trumpist faction, as there is an organized Tea Party far right, and a much less organized establishment? My guess: without Trump, possibly the most heretical Trumpisms will be quietly forgotten, and candidates will simply pander more to the most popular one: anti-immigrant fervor.

(If they’re smart, the establishment will come up with something to discourage Trumps for 2020— but I’m not sure what that is. More superdelegates? Some sort of clever loyalty test? When the whole GOP ecosystem is designed to encourage extremism, it’s not easy to  prepare for The Pivot.)

A bunch of pundits have been worried that Trump has a special appeal to down-and-out white voters allegedly ignored by everyone else. Some responses to that:

  • Most Trump supporters are not working class; their median income is higher than the national figure.
  • Republicans have never ignored poor whites; the whole basis of the Southern Strategy is to forge cultural connections with poor whites in order to advance the interests of the rich.
  • And because the key constituency of the GOP is the 1%, you will never get GOP policies that actually help the working class.

Hillary

As for Hillary, I don’t think there’s much to explain, once you get past thirty years’ worth of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) thrown up by her opponents.

The best article I’ve read on her is this one by Ezra Klein. In brief: there’s a huge perception gap between the general public, who distrust Hillary (though not as much as Trump), and people who have worked with Hillary, who often like her very much.

As a public figure, Hillary has many positives— she’s calm, cautious, hard-working, pragmatic, well informed— but not exactly charismatic. When she’s working with people— and that includes political opponents, or activists she’s only just met— her chief quality is that she’s an excellent listener. She wants to know what you think and what you advise, and she’s likely to turn it into a policy proposal later on. As a Senator, she did surprisingly well with Republican Senators— she didn’t hold grudges from the ’90s and she worked hard to find proposals, however small, that they could both support.

This is a rare quality— Obama doesn’t have it, he comes off to his opponents as what he once was, a professor. And arguably it’s one of the best qualities a president can have. Presidents need to make alliances and motivate people to get a lot done. It’s nothing like being a CEO, where you can just bluster people into submission— yet another reason Trump is spectacularly unsuited for the job.

As for her policies, I’d call her a pragmatic liberal. Despite the animosities of the primary season, she doesn’t have many political differences from Bernie Sanders. (She basically adopted his two biggest policy proposals— free university tuition and a higher minimum wage.) They both come from the more liberal side of the Democratic Party. The big difference is the “pragmatic” part. Sanders seems to have little knowledge about or interest in why big liberal ideas don’t get passed. Hillary has a laserlike focus on what can be done— and she’s willing to take that rather than wait forever for what progressives would prefer. (It also means she doesn’t show much patience with people who want to complain but don’t have any specific proposals for their pet issues.)

In practical terms, she will almost certainly face the same obstacle as Obama— a House in opposition. On the other hand, the Dems will probably get the Senate back, which means a more Democratic judiciary and a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court. She might do better than Obama working with the House… but until House GOP members start losing seats because of their obstructionism, they are going to be far more afraid of Tea Party challengers than they are of the President.

(On the meager plus side… though there’s going to be drama, I think both sides have discovered the advantages of kicking the can down the road. So we won’t actually be getting that free tuition, or cap-and-trade, but at least we probably won’t get the Paul Ryan Plutocracy Budget.)

Here too the interesting question is: where does the party go next? Two years ago no one would have predicted that a self-declared “socialist” could almost get the nomination. We’re finally seeing, I think, the long-awaited surge of progressivism after the reactionary turn of the 1980s.

The fervor is there; what’s lacking is organization. The conservatives learned this long ago: you become an influence in your party not by voting for a presidential candidate, but by running candidates locally, wearing down your shoe leather to drum up support, ferrying voters to the polls on election day, and running your own media outlets.  And above all, voting even in midterms.

 

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I’ve been reading about Pakistan and Islam recently, not least to spite the rather plentiful books on India which are either explicitly Islamophobic, or simply drop Pakistan after Partition.

A good short history of Islam, by the way, is Karen Armstong‘s A Short History of Islam. Despite the title, it feels meaty.  One of her theses is that Islam is focused on politics in the way Christianity is focused on theology. This is partly due to Muhammad ending up, unlike most religious founders, as a head of a burgeoning empire; also to the fact that the main religious schism within Islam was originally pure politics: whether Muhammad should be followed by his son-in-law Ali or by someone else. But in her telling, even from the beginning Muhammad was chiefly motivated by a desire for unity and equality among the Arabs of his time. So Muslims have always been worried about how to create an Islamic state, and always been bothered by injustice and inequality, the very things Islam was supposed to eliminate.

Tonight I finished V.S. Naipaul‘s Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1982).  I emphasize the date because books about Islam are often books about the decade they were written.  Naipaul was writing just after the Islamic revolution in Iran, a time when Muslims around the world were contemplating reform, revival, or revolution. He spends time in Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Naipaul is a good interviewer and portraitist– you get to know and like all the Muslims he meets. At the same time he is very much out of sympathy with their projects.  He appreciates Islam as a religion, but doesn’t think it has much to say about politics or development. Basically he thinks the countries he visits would do better to concentrate on economics, law, and technology; his informants seem to think that no particular programs or institutions are required, only prayer and piety. At the same time, he’s very good at teasing out, from each informant, just what they find bothersome about the modern world (or their country), and how they decided that Islam was the solution. So he sees that in Iran, religious revival was caught up with the eagerness to topple a hated dictator; while in Malaysia, it’s tied to nostalgia for the simple peasant life of the tropical villages, uncorrupted by colonizers and the influx of dismayingly successful Chinese.

He likes to tease out absurd ideas people have about the West, such as that it’s full of atheists who have sex in public, or that Britain is 60% homosexual. One Malaysian sees his pajamas, which he condemns as un-Islamic; Naipaul amusedly informs him that pajamas are a Persian invention.

Curiously, the one country he seems to really like and enjoy is Indonesia.  The local Muslims are (or were) more moderate, and less political (though at the time they were unable to do much politics, as the country was a dictatorship). He likes the fact that Indonesians had, at least till then, diverged from the stark rules and pieties of the Arabs, and incorporated their own cultural history.  One of the national pastimes was the puppet play, and the chief subjects were still the stories of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata– though in the local version, the five Pandava sons represents the five pillars of Islam.

His basic method is clear from the book: rely on recommendations and chance meetings to find interviewees who, hopefully, represent the country’s mood. As a sampling technique, it’s likely to be biased– after all, his informants have to speak English, which eliminates most of the population, and they have to have time to spend a day or two with him, which would lean toward the more disaffected and underemployed of the Anglophones. Not that he doesn’t have a good eye… in Indonesia one of his contacts turns out to be a future president. Still, as a method, it’s only a few steps up from Tom Friedman interviewing his taxi drivers.

Especially in Pakistan, and despite growing up in Trinidad, he sounds like many an American visiting the Third World for the first time: why is there so much poverty and corruption, why aren’t they developing fast enough, why are they simultaneously angry at the West, fascinated by it, and dependent on it?  It’s not wrong to ask these obvious questions, but he doesn’t get too far in finding the obvious answers: it takes a lot of effort to go from subsistence agriculture to (post-)industrial, and these countries are doing it in fifty years rather than the three hundred the West took.

As a portrait of Pakistan, I preferred Anatol Lieven‘s Pakistan: A Hard Country (2011), which goes far deeper into the institutions, regions, and conflicts of the country.  Pakistan worries people (Naipaul was worried too, and yet another book I’m reading, by Mary Anne Weaver, is also worried).  But Lieven makes a case that it’s far more stable and resilient than people think.  Which is good, because it’s subject to far more stress than most countries. (For instance, it’s #3 in the world for suffering terrorist attacks.)

His main point is that Pakistan’s institutions of government, inherited from the British Raj, are far weaker than its ancient, powerful, violent clan system.  Civil politics, in fact, is largely an extension of the clans– e.g. the PPP party is controlled by the Bhutto clan, and all the parties are weak on ideology, strong on handing out jobs and skimming off state money.  Many practices that outsiders and even Pakistani call “Islamic” are really non-Islamic clan custom, such as the tradition of settling clan disputes by trading extra daughters. Clan justice is preferred to state justice because the latter is inconceivably slow, distorted by bribes, and doesn’t satisfy local values. (A clan member might well complain, “the law has hanged my brother’s killer, but now who is to support my dead brother’s family?”)

All this gets in the way of state institutions; on the other hand, it helps make Pakistan far less unequal than it would be otherwise. Clan leaders maintain their power by largesse. If they have no money or jobs to distribute, they have no power.  And almost everyone has someone they can court for favors.

Outsiders worry about Islamism; here Lieven’s reassurance is that there are too many Islams in Pakistan for any one of them to dominate.  Sunni and Shia, Pashtun and Balochi and Punjabi, moderate Barelwis and severe Deobandis, radical Taliban and mellow Sufis– no one group can impose its vision on the whole country.  (This is also the reason that, since Bangladesh left, the country has held together despite its centrifugal tendencies for 45 years.)

The one state institution that works, and stands apart from the clans, is the military. (Of course it’s also the one institution that’s fully funded.) Naipaul was appalled at Pakistan’s periods of military rule, but as Lieven points out, the distinction between military and civilian rule doesn’t really mean what we think it does here.  When the civilian parties are essentially coalitions of clans who take the opportunity to persecute the opposition, a period of rule by the one competent institution in the country can be a relief, at least until it becomes evident that the army can’t really rule the whole country as it does itself.

Outsiders also worry about Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban. A number of elements converge here:

  • The US and Saudi support for fundamentalist fedayin in Afghanistan starting in the 1980s to resist the Soviet occupation. One you release this jinn, he doesn’t easily go back in the bottle.
  • Pakistan’s longstanding grudge against India, and its perceived need for an allied state to its west.
  • The fact that the Taliban are Pashtun, the same people as the northwestern part of Pakistan.
  • The fact that, historically, neither the British nor the Pakistanis nor anyone else in the last centuries has ever really had control over the Pashtuns.

So, in brief, most Pakistanis like the Taliban because they were a known, friendly element in a strategically important neighbor; and they were not fond of non-Pashtun alliances or governments. They were much less fond of their imitators, the Pakistani Taleban.

Anyway, Lieven is perfectly aware of how dysfunctional the country often is, and yet the book comes off as more hopeful than most Western journalism.

The other important bit about Pakistan: it’s really very similar to India, and Sri Lanka for that matter. The clan system, the clan-linked political parties, the clashing ethnicities and religions that have lived together for centuries, the limited state institutions, all are South Asian rather than Pakistani realities.