November 2016

Everyone’s fixating on Donald Trump. As is to be expected! But the fixation can be misleading and counterproductive if people think that he is some aberration that’s taken over the Republican Party, or that Republicans will somehow restrain his worst excesses.

Nope. The problem isn’t Trump, it’s the Republican Party. They won’t save us from Trump; they are Trump now.

But first, some reminders about US party politics.


What’s that? It’s the winners of presidential elections from 1860 on, when our current party system emerged. I’ve purposely kept it small and unlabeled so you can see the overall picture, which is: the parties alternate in power. If you look at just the last hundred years (1916-2016), it’s quite even: 13 wins each. (If you look at the whole chart, it’s skewed Republican 24-16; the Gilded Age was the golden age for the GOP.)

The bottom half of the chart shows popular vote wins. There are four mismatches, in all of which the Democrats won the popular vote and the Republicans the electoral vote.  Corollary: Republicans will never touch the electoral college.

I emphasize the basics here because I’ve seen too many reactions that seemed to expect that the GOP would never win again. Democrats have the demographic advantage, the better candidates, the moral high ground, and surely no one would go back to the party of Bush. Nope. The other party always wins eventually, and if it wasn’t Trump it would be someone else.

Does this mean you shouldn’t freak out, or that things will be fine?  Of course not; freak out all you want. But I think a lot of people on the left have just assumed that the right doesn’t really matter; the real struggle was against moderate liberals. Uh, nope.  Despite all those demographics, the Republicans are very, very powerful.  More people vote for Democrats than Republicans for the House, but their grip on the House is secure, and they control the vast majority of state governments. And your problem in the next four years isn’t going to be moderate liberals; it’s going to be Republicans all down the line.

I’d also suggest that Democrats shouldn’t over-do the soul-searching.  The overall picture of US politics is that the parties alternate in power; also that they stay close to appealing to 50% of the electorate each. It’s not an accident; it’s how winner-take-all election systems work. There are occasional long runs (the Gilded Age GOP; the New Deal Democrats), but in general, if a party keeps losing elections, it adapts its policies and candidates till it reaches 50% again. If anything, voters’ patience is wearing thinner all the time: they’ve only granted a third term to a party once since 1952.

There’s no huge lesson in why Trump won.  He squeaked out a win in two key states, Pennsylvania and Florida, and blew out Ohio, and that was enough to win the electoral college. Hillary was not unpopular; she won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.

The surprise was that all the infighting in the GOP this year turned out not to matter. It solidified behind Trump.  And that’s why I say that Trumpism is the GOP. The anti-Trump movement disappeared without a trace on November 8.

If you think Trump is still somehow opposed by Republicans, consider:

  • The Never Trump movement and the high-profile defections had no effect. The cold feet of rivals, the worries that Trump was not conservative enough, the preference of Evangelicals for a candidate more like Cruz— no effect. None of that had any impact where it matters, in votes.
  • Republican voters went for Trump. Maybe they didn’t love him, but they preferred him to Clinton. All of his obvious lies and flaws and outrages did not matter, and there is no reason to hope that they will suddenly start to matter.
  • Paul Ryan is eager to work with Trump— and no wonder!  It’s like Christmas for him.  He’s going to get to do what he’s alway wanted to do: give the rich more money, take programs away from the poor, shred 20 million people’s insurance coverage, deregulate the banks, and maybe even destroy Medicare. All things that would have been  done, mind you, if Romney had been elected in 2012.
  • Have you seen the outrage from Republicans as Trump appoints white nationalists to his inner circle, uses the presidency to advance his business interests, or makes grandiose lies about “illegal voting”?  No, neither have I.
  • Is there any more pathetic sight in 2016 than Mitt Romney meeting with Trump, hat in hand, to be considered for a cabinet post?
  • If you have trouble understanding how Republicans can stomach Trump… consider most Democrats’ reactions to 20 years of GOP excoriation of Hillary Clinton. From our point of view, it’s a nothingburger; it’s just noise and absurdity. Dialing up the outrage will not make Republican voters rethink their acceptance of Trump.

About the only positive to set against all this is that the Republican Senate seems like it won’t eliminate the filibuster. That won’t matter for a lot of Paul Ryan’s program— he will be happy to gut Obamacare with a reconciliation bill; he doesn’t actually intend to pass a replacement bill.  But it might mean that (say) Medicare privatization won’t pass.  Unless McConnell changes his mind next session.

There are undoubtedly ways in which a Trump presidency will be worse than (say) a Cruz presidency. (Name three!)  But basically anything that Trump does, that is what Republicans knowingly voted for, and will eagerly help him do.  And honestly, is Trump’s outrageousness really worse than Rush Limbaugh, the id of the Republican Party for the last few decades?

When people worry about “normalizing” the idea of President Trump— folks, that ship has sailed.  I’ll grant you that people probably wouldn’t be freaking out quite so much over a President Jeb! Bush… but, folks, here’s the number of states Jeb! won in the primaries: zero. Here’s the number of delegates he won: four. Republicans were hellbent on electing either a monster or an idiot this year.  And they’ll keep doing it until they start losing elections.

All this isn’t to say that Trump couldn’t get into huge trouble later with Republicans. Nixon managed it, after all, though it took 6 years. But this is the thing with authoritarians: they have enormous tolerance for whatever their leader does. 90% of what he does will be things they either happily support now, or can be talked into. (Repudiating trade deals, for instance. Free trade is generally orthogonal to ordinary party politics in the US anyway.)  I haven’t heard a good story yet on what things Trump is likely to do which Paul Ryan or other Republicans will resolutely oppose. It’s easier, in fact, to imagine things on Ryan’s wish list which Trump will nix– and even that will probably go fine so long as Ryan gets his huge tax cut.

I know you were all waiting to hear what the king said. Here’s a bit more of the passage. The order of the lines is Devanāgarī, transliteration (with sandhi), pre-sandhi words, glosses, English.
एतच्चिंतयित्वा स राजा पंडितसभां कारितवान् ।

etacciṃtayitvā sa rājā paṃḍita-sabhāṃ kāritavān

etad cintayitvā sas rājā paṇḍita-sabhām kāritavān

this-s.nom.n think-gerundive that-s.nom.m wise-assembly-s.acc make-PassPart-caus-s.nom.m

Having considered these things, the King convened an assembly of wise men.

राजोवाच । भो भोः पंडिताः श्रूयतां ।

rājovāca bhobhoḥ paṃḍitāḥ śrūyatāṃ

rājā uvāca bhobhos paṇḍitās śrūyatām

The King said, “O wise men, let it be heard:
अस्ति कश्चिदेवंभूतो विद्वान्यो

asti kaś-cid-evaṃ-bhūto vidvān yo

asti kas-cid evam-bhūtas vidvān yas

be-PresPart-3s who-s.nom-ever such-s.nom.m sage-s.nom.m who-s.snom.m

Is there any sage among you who—
मम पुत्राणां

mama putrāṇāṃ

mama putrāṇām

I-gen son-p.gen

my sons


nityam unmārga-gāminām an-adhigata-śāstrāṇām idānīm

constantly wrong.way-go-gerund-p.m not-read-PassPart-book-p.m. now

being always wayward and never reading books—
नीतिशास्त्रोपदेशेन पुनर्जन्म कारयितुं समर्थः ।

nīti-śāstr-opadeśena punar-janma kārayituṃ samarthaḥ?

nīti-śāstra-upadeśena punar-janma kārayitum sam-arthas?

behavior-book-instruction-s.ins again-birth-s.acc effect-infinitive with-capable-s.nom.m

can instruct them in reading and proper behavior, [giving them] a second birth?”


This is from the prologue to the Hitopadeśa.  The king, whose name is Sudarśana, has a problem many kings have had: his sons are pretty worthless. He asks the pundits for help. (Yep, pundit is a borrowing from Sanksrit.) As he appears in a book written by a brahmin, the dude who steps up to help, one Viṣarma, believes that the answer is that they sit with a brahmin, i.e. himself, and learn moral tales.

I will report back later on the actual fables. But for now let’s look at one of the words in the text:



First, you may well ask, is that one word?  It’s written as one. And by the rules of sandhi, it’s pronounced as one. But Müller transliterates it as four words:

nityam – constantly
unmārga-gāminām – wrong-ways-going
an-adhigata-śāstrāṇām – non-reading-books
idānīm now

The first three words are a description of the unruly princes, and grammatically this can be considered a really big compound. Idānīm ‘now’ probably got dragged in only because it was too tempting to combine the initial i– with the preceding –m.

Sanskrit is extremely fond of these combined words, and this is by no means on the longer end of the possibilities— you can easily have compounds with 20 or 30 roots.

Now, you can certainly do this in English:

“Can anyone instruct my undirected, non-book-reading sons by reading-conduct-instruction?”

But we usually consider this sort of thing inelegant; it reminds of bureaucratic language: “You must submit the project extension protocol revision form to the acting assistant operations and processes group manager.” We’d be more likely to use subclauses:

“My sons are constantly going the wrong way and never read books; can anyone teach them to value good conduct and literature?”

You only have to inflect the last member of a compound, so possibly the compounds were easier than regular clauses. Or perhaps they were embraced for their difficulty. After all, when the Hitopadeśa was written, the spoken language was already very different. A.L. Basham describes classical Sanskrit as one of the most “ornate and artificial” languages in the world. He also suggests that these compounds may be influenced by Tamil, which also encourages concatenations without explicit connectors or inflections.




If someone has gone through and transliterated it and done a word-for-word gloss. But I have worked through the grammar enough that I can at least follow that.

Let’s work through an example. We start, as Westerners have for more than a century, with the Hitopadeśa, a medieval book of sagely advice told through animal stories. I start with Max Müller’s 1864 edition.  Here’s a sample line.

राजोवाच । भो भोः पंडिताः श्रूयतां ।

râjâ   -jan,  The King
uvâcha:  vach,  said:
bho  Ind.  O
bhos  Ind.  ye
paṇḍitâs  -ta,  wise,
śrûyatâm  śru, 3 sg. Imp. Pass.   be it heard

Now, Devanāgarī is not hard to read. It’s an abugida, meaning that the basic grapheme is a single consonant with an inherent vowel. E.g. it starts with क = ka. Diacritics modify it to change the vowel: कि ki, कु ku, का , and so on. If you really want a naked k, perhaps at the end of a word, you write क्.

If you actually transliterate Müller’s Devanāgarī, syllable by syllable, you get this:

rā-jo-vā-ca bho bhoḥ paṃ-ḍi-tāḥ śrū-ya-tāṃ

Which, if you look carefully, isn’t what Müller provides.  What happened?

Sandhi happened. All languages have processes of assimilation and relaxation that happen as words are uttered in context. Occasionally these become noticeable to people and they attempt to write them down— e.g. someone is represented as saying “I hafta go” for “I have to go”.  Sometimes the assimilations are lexicalized, which is why we write assimilation and not adsimilation.

Well, in Sanskrit there are a lot of such adaptations, and you have to write them all. So for instance the vowels ā + u combine into o: rājā uvāca > rājovāca. (Müller’s â / ch are older transliterations; we now use ā / c.)  The –s at the end of paṇḍitās changes to ḥ before the following  ś, while the final in the last word changes to ṃ, which in this case indicates nasalization. Before a stop, it’s pronounced as a homorganic stop, which is why paṇ- changed to paṃ-.

There are special diacritics for these last two letters: e.g. kaṃ would be कं, and kaḥ would be कः.

So, Müller is providing the pre-sandhi versions of the words, which makes them easier to look up in a dictionary.

(A complication for the actual book I’m writing: It turns out that Word and Illustrator don’t properly handle Devanāgarī. They can’t do the combinations– e.g. nra should be written न्र, but they turn that into न् र, like barbarians. So I won’t be able to use a lot of Devanāgarī except as, shudder, bitmaps.)

Next we need to translate his glosses to a briefer and more modern convention:

king-s.nom say-perf.part.-3s oh wise-p.voc.m hear-imper.pass.-3s

Müller glosses bho bhos as “O ye”, but this is a bit confusing— bhos is not a pronoun. An online dictionary suggests that it’s an interjection often used in addressing people: oh! hello!  indeed!   And it seems that we’re actually dealing with a reduplicated form here, bhobhos.

Finally we can provide the translation:

The king said: O wise men, let it be heard…

That’s enough for today, but on request I’ll tell you what the king wanted heard. And you should request it, because then I can talk about Sanskrit’s insane mega-compounds.

By the way, classical Sanskrit wasn’t written in Devanāgarī— it was written in the local, contemporary script. All modern Indian scripts, and Southeast Asian ones as well, ultimately derive from Brāhmī, which is what Aśoka knew. If you write your vernacular in Devanāgarī, as of course Hindi speakers do, then you write your Sanskrit in Devanāgarī; but if you speak Tamil you use Tamil script, and so on.

How, you may wonder, does this compare to learning wényán for my China book? The script is way easier, of course. But sandhi is a nightmare, and the grammar is far less accessible. You can boldly translate wényán poems knowing little but the glosses, but I don’t think I’ll be doing my own translations of Sanskrit poetry.

So, that was a surprise.


My first question about the Trump victory was, what exactly happened electorally? If you look at the electoral maps in 2012/2016, they’re remarkably similar.As I write, a few states are still up in the air, but they don’t matter. But it all came down to three states that flipped from blue to red: Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida. That’s 67 electoral votes right there. Add them to Romney’s 206 electoral votes, and he wins.  (Note that only Ohio was a blowout; he won the other two by about 1%.)

Also noticeable: turnout is down. 127 million people voted last time; 120 million this time. Trump got less votes than Romney, though not by much. Clinton got way less votes than Obama– 60 million to 67 million. So, you know, that was a problem.

Edit: I got these figures from CNN, and it seems they’re out of date. Latest figures are that 131 million people voted.

It’s scant consolation for Clinton that she won the popular vote. That’s twice in the last five elections, but it doesn’t seem to bother people much.

The other question I had was, why did the polls get the wrong answer for the last six months? Probably it will take some time to answer that one, but I emphasize that Clinton was leading in the polls during that entire period. Nate Silver got some flak for being less bullish on Clinton, but he still estimated she had a 71% chance of winning. And he was spectactularly wrong about Pennsylvania and Florida. I don’t expect polls to be perfect, but something was systematically wrong here.

It’s worth browsing CNN’s exit polls. Trump won among men (53%), whites (58%), white evangelicals (81%), people with incomes over $50k (49%), people over 45 (53%).  He did terribly with nonwhites (21%) and LGBT folks (14%), badly with the college-educated (43%). For all you millennials saying it’s not your fault, note that he won among white men 18 to 29 years old.

Through the exit polls one senses a certain holding-their-nose vibe from Trump supporters. Among voters who were excited about their candidate, either one, he lost (42%). Trump votes correlate with ignoring the debates and with maintaining the conservative majority on the Supreme Court.

A very weird detail: 26% of respondents said they made up their mind in the last month– and that group broke for Trump (49-39).  How is that even possible? But then, this is one of those questions that respondents might suppose has a right answer– people may feel that you’re not supposed to admit you decided a year ago.

What does it all mean?  Honestly, not too much. Few people change their worldview because their party lost (or won).  If you think the election means that the US public has drastically changed in four years, I have to repeat: Trump’s victory was a 1% squeaker in two of the three key states, and the Trump vote is about the same size as the Romney vote. It’s a spectacular demonstration of how the electoral college can emphasize, or distort, small differences.

Also, I’d say that the result underlines what I was saying here: our political parties are devices for polarizing the electorate into opposed camps who will faithfully follow their leaders and hate the opponent. Republicans came in line behind their party’s candidate, not necessarily because they loved him, but because they hated the Democrats more. What’s surprising is how well the process worked despite the unprecedented incompetence of Trump’s campaign and his ongoing feuds with half the party.  (No, I don’t think he is some uncannily smooth manipulator who’s shown people a new way to win. He won despite his eccentricities, not because of them.)

What happens next?  Jeez, I don’t know.  It was never clear what Trump really believed in; now we’ll find out. An easy prediction, though: there will be a pretty long honeymoon with Paul Ryan and the rest of Congress.  They have lots of common ground, and motivation to show it, and so they’ll quickly do all the things that any Republican president would have done:  cut taxes for the rich, cut programs for the poor, throw away 20 million people’s health insurance, defund Planned Parenthood, pack the courts with conservatives.

Charlie Stross thinks that Trump is going to get a very rude awakening that the president is not a CEO who can do anything he wants. On some things, yes.  (“Give me the phone number for the Bureau for Building Walls!  There isn’t one?  You’re fired!”)  But again, there will be a long shopping list of things he and Paul Ryan can do together, so the natural course will be to concentrate on those things and downplay the rest. The one US institution that might push back on his nonsense is the army. There will probably be some awkward meetings. But it’s not like he has an actual strategy for ISIS that anyone can either implement or fight over.

(Wait, so does it matter or not that Trump is a fascist?  We don’t know yet. But ironically, perhaps, it may not matter, because the big orange Cheeto won, and took Congress with him. Republicans don’t have to destroy the game when they’ve just won it.)