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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.


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.


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.


The recent wave of terrorist attacks has made me worry if technology will ever, or during this century, advance to the point where regular terrorists are able to destroy the world. Humanity has, so far, survived 71 years when it was possible to blow up the world if you had the resources of a superpower. But what if technology advances further to the point where destroying the world gets within the means of your average, run-of-the-mill doomsday cult? Or even a deranged individual like Ted Kaczynski?

Related to this, I think if we would really live in a world like that of James Bond movies or superhero comics, with supervillains regularly trying to destroy the world, the world wouldn’t survive for long: in order for the world to survive, the James Bonds/superheroes would have to win every single time, while in order for the world to be destroyed, the villains would only have to win once. And eventually that one time would come- if you keep rolling the dice, sooner or later they will come up six.


Man, with Britain voting to screw itself, Turkey going full dictatorship, and Trump promoting fascism here, to say nothing of humans slowly roasting the ecosphere, you don’t have enough to worry about?

For what it’s worth, if the world gets blown up, it’s still more likely to be a superpower that does it. Or at least a medium-sized state. This isn’t meant as a reassurance; it’s a reminder that we’ve escaped from nuclear holocaust by the skin of our teeth several times.  Here’s a Mefi page on near misses.

For non-state actors, a weak consolation is that though they are careless about human life, they are rarely self-genocidal. That is, there’s a rough rationality to extremism: atrocities are cheap and get attention, but the extremists do not actually want their enemies to destroy them all, because of course then their cause is dead. Of course, like any other politicians, extremists can misjudge likely results. Osama bin Laden probably didn’t plan on getting killed in a raid.

It’s always worthwhile to get some historical perspective. Here’s a chart of terrorist deaths over 40 years:


That is, outside of three countries (two of which are basically in civil war), terrorism is down worldwide. (Also, for comparison, the annual number of road traffic deaths is 1.25 million.)  Nothing to be complacent about, but we can too easily get the impression from the news that everything is terrible and always getting worse.

If you’re thinking of futuristic threats, it’s also worth remembering that people will have a strong motivation to develop futuristic counters. It’s not great worldbuilding (or prediction) to suppose that some agents get doomsday-in-a-box weapons and the motivation to use them, while their enemies have no clue about this, no similar weapons, and no conceivable responses.

Not that doom is impossible! But terrorists generally have their own enemies, they don’t want to destroy the world, and their abilities are limited. But feel free to be terrified of Trump with the nuclear football.

In your review of Overwatch, you said that you appreciate the fact that characters speak appropriately in Chinese, Korean, Russian, and French. However, I have read some complaints that the French accent of Widowmaker sounds fake. Since I have heard similar complaints about Leliana of the Dragon Age series, and since both are voiced by French people, I would like to know if this perception comes from actors deliberately exaggerating their pronunciation, or if Hollywood or something similar have misled people into what constitute a true foreign accent.
Antonin BRAULT

Standards are changing, so I think this issue is in flux.

I can tell you what isn’t acceptable any more: mangling foreigners’ accents as in this book.

That is, it would be completely offensive if instead of having a Korean-Japanese-American woman (Charlet Chung) voice D.Va, they’d had a white American attempt a Korean accent.

So far as I can judge, Chloé Hollings, the voice of Widowmaker, pronounces the French perfectly— as she should; she’s French.

Is her French accent exaggerated? Yes, of course; Hollings is bilingual and speaks excellent English. I don’t have any inside knowledge of Blizzard’s production, but one can imagine for many of these voices a scene something like this:

Voice actor: (pronounces a line perfectly)

Director: Great! Only… can you make it sound more French?

And the director does have a point! If they’ve gone to the trouble of hiring bilingual voice actors, they kind of don’t want perfectly unaccented English. The characters are supposed to be cartoony, so they want to reach the sweet spot where the accents communicate the character but remain attractive. (Americans, at least, react negatively to a heavy foreign accent, but find a light accent enchanting.)

With Dragon Age, I saw a page that noted that Corinne Kempa (voice of Leliana) simply didn’t have the type of French accent Americans expect to hear. Again, American viewers aren’t very sophisticated here; few could even identify different varieties of French. (I liked Leliana— it was nice to have a fantasy game that didn’t over-rely on British accents.)

It’s hard to make everybody happy, but I think Blizzard took a pretty good approach. I also like the fact that, except for the two ninjas, the characters aren’t defined by their nationalities. E.g. Mei is a climatologist, who just happens to be Chinese. Zarya is much more defined as “butch power-lifting soldier” than as Russian. They do paint with a broad brush, but they’re nodding much more to media images than to ethnic stereotypes— e.g. McCree is a version of Clint Eastwood; Junkrat refers to Mad Max.  One character they could have done better with, in my opinion, is Pharah, who should speak some Arabic.

Edit: The new character, Ana, does speak some Arabic.

Is there any advice which you used to give to conlangers but now
consider misguided? What was it, why did you think it was good advice,
and how has your attitude changed to make it not-good?


This is going to be pretty boring, but: nah, not really. My stuff is mostly not advice per se; it’s just introducing linguistics to people. When I do have regrets, it’s usually that I haven’t covered somnething, and the solution is usually to write another book.🙂  So a lot of things that didn’t get into the LCK got into ALC instead.

I did take the opportunity to revise the LCK to give a better introduction to aspect, though.

I always wanted to give a better overview of transformations and how they revolutionized syntax. I studied that a lot in college and found it fascinating.  On the other hand… well, I can’t really say a conlanger has to know that stuff.  Plus the field never reached a consensus on the best way to handle syntax.  (My Axunašin grammar attempts to do justice to transformations, though I think it’d have to be three times as long, and include lots of cumbersome trees, to really explain the concept.)


What’s your opinion of [Gregory Mankiw’s] response to Piketty?


It’s very weak; it seems like he hasn’t read the book. Even skimming the diagrams would have helped.

First, he says “r < g could be [a problem]. If the rate of return is less than the growth rate, the economy has accumulated an excessive amount of capital. In this dynamically inefficient situation, all generations can be made better off by reducing the economy’s saving rate…we should be reassured that we live in a world in which r > g…” Yet Piketty shows that r < g was true in our world, in the postwar period— precisely the period when there was not an excess of capital; capital was at a historical low. And they were golden years, precisely because r (growth) was so high and so widely shared. (Sadly, one of Piketty’s lessons is that they were also a fluke, not easily repeated.)

Mankiw notes in passing that “the average growth rate of the U.S. economy has been about 3 percent”. Ugh, no. Krugman recently provided a chart of the last 57 years:


The average growth is more like 2%— and it’s plummeted in the last few years. Rates over 2% are generally due to high population growth or developmental catching-up; developed nations will be lucky to get 1 to 1.5% in the next century.

Next, he says that a rich person faces three obstacles to passing on his wealth:

  1. he consumes a good deal of his income
  2. his wealth is divided among his descendants
  3. governments tax estates

I don’t have Piketty at hand, but I’m pretty sure he covers all three points.

  1. He shows that capital is dramatically increasing, going back to 19th century levels and showing no signs of stopping.  So consumption does not reduce the accumulation of capital.
  2. Mankiw actually assumes that “the number of descendants doubles every generation”. Seriously, does he not remember that in developed nations population growth is negative?  Or that to have a family you have to have a couple, and thus 2 children do not double the number of wealth-holders but only maintain it? To make an error this gross is a sign of flailing desperately to avoid unwanted truths.
  3. Is Mankiw really unaware that his party is in favor of reducing or eliminating the estate tax?

He proceeds to argue against Piketty’s capital tax, again ignoring that we already have capital taxes (we call them property taxes), as well as Piketty’s argument that an enormous virtue of a tax on wealth would be making wealth visible. Mankiw is pretty sure that great capital is fine, but we can hardly know for sure since capital is so easy to hide.  Before Piketty’s research people mostly focused on income because we actually have data there. Without Piketty would it have been widely realized that there is no country where capital, as opposed to income, is widely distributed in society?  The Nordic countries come close to a fair distribution of income, but they are still highly unequal in the distribution of capital.

Finally he moves on to some moral arguments.  He says “Piketty writes about such inequality as if we all innately share his personal distaste for it.” And at least Mankiw is up front about being in favor of inequality!  He certainly doesn’t have to share Piketty’s morals. But the same can be said for the rest of us about Mankiw’s morals!  Mankiw writes about inequality as if we all innately share his personal enjoyment of it.

He doesn’t see anything wrong with the present state of plutocracy, but, well, he’s certainly in the 10% who gains enormously from it. For the 90% of Americans who don’t, we’ve been watching for 35 years as the gains of productivity no longer lift us up, but go only to the 10%.  Morally, he’s just wrong: it’s immoral to make the lives of the majority of the population crappier.  And intellectually, he’s ignoring Piketty’s carefully accumulated evidence that the situation is getting worse.  Is there really never a point where the rich have accumulated so much that it’s slightly bothersome to Mankiw?

And pragmatically, he’s a shortsighted fool.  Short-changing 90% of the population works only so long as the 10% have a really good story to fool the majority with. Maybe in 2014, when he wrote the paper, he could be satisfied that the Republican con was working.  Surely it’s a little harder to think so in 2016. A huge swath of Republican and Democratic voters are rejecting establishment answers— Trump and Sanders both speak to the people who feel they’ve been left behind by the 10%.  Is Mankiw happy with either a populist-nationalist or a socialist reformation?  And if inequality continues to rise, does he think the popular response won’t get far worse?



I notice that Verduria feels a bit European, which I like. What are some ways that I can replicate that Euro feel in my own stuff?


This was asked on Twitter, but it’s hard to answer in 140 characters.

282 72 Fiesole.jpg

For Westerners creating fantasy worlds, it’s hard not to make it European. The Standard Fantasy Kingdom is mostly European (from medieval to steampunk). The more of these elements you have the more European it’ll feel:

  • A large temperate agricultural zone, sometimes threatened by nomads
  • Kingdoms (with a smattering of republics)
  • Parliaments (especially as a counter-power to the king)
  • A division into multiple ethnic states
  • Powerful nobles who ride horses and live in rural castles
  • Towns, dense in population, without city planning, with a high degree of autonomy
  • At least some maritime nations, with a lot of ship-borne trade
  • Advanced in technology compared to other nations, or at least not dominated by larger civilizations
  • Large forests where you can hide the trolls or nymphs
  • Lots of pretty stone buildings
  • A single religion that crosses national boundaries
  • Monogamy
  • Clothing runs to shirt + pants for men, dresses for women

Visually, you would expect to see gothic cathedrals, big stone castles, Renaissance palaces, pleasant hobbitish villages. Buildings are rectilinear; roofs are either flat or A-framed. Animals, plants, and food are all recognizable to Westerners. Armies consist of horse cavalry, sailing ships, infantrymen wielding swords, bow and arrow, or pikes, with catapults as artillery; the upgrade path is to steamships, muskets, and cannons.

Linguistically, the languages could be directly influenced by Europe (as Verdurian is), and don’t stray too far from European languages.  Thus, mostly—

  • Standard Fantasy Phonology (English plus kh)
  • SVO
  • nominative-accusative
  • Verbs marked by tense, and possibly number + person
  • Articles
  • No gender, or masculine/feminine
  • Prepositions
  • Decimal number system
  • Adjectives may be like nouns, definitely aren’t like verbs

Perhaps more subtly, Europe is old. Everywhere has at least two thousand years of history, and things were probably very different 500 or 1000 years ago— different nations, different languages or religions. (By contrast, China is even more ancient, but as far back as you go, it’s still ethnic Chinese. With India,  whenever anyone invaded or started a new religion, the old peoples and religions are in general still there. And of course the US is by European standards young and low-density).

Now, in all of the above, I’ve not only downplayed differences between European nations (it makes a difference if you’re aiming at England, Italy, or Poland), but also I haven’t been too concerned with actual medieval history, which often differs from the tropes that we get from fantasy and even from medieval literature. If you really want a European flair to your conworld, my usual suggestion is to read less fantasy and more history. Reality is always far weirder than imagination.

Now, Verduria started as a Standard Fantasy Kingdom, and is certainly affected by my own affection for Europe and European languages. Plus I’ve more or less tried to make Almea stranger the farther you go from Verduria, which means Verduria itself is supposed to seem familiar to Western readers.  Still, it’s not designed as a mask of Europe— e.g. particular nations of Eretald are not simply caricatures of particular European nations. It does have some elements that aren’t European at all, and hopefully its history is coherent on its own level— things happen because of their internal logic.

It may be relevant that I aimed at something like 1750s Europe, and if anything pushed that toward 1800 in later work. So one thing you may be noticing is that Verduria is a little more like modern Europe than many fantasy kingdoms— it has steam power, colonies, cannons, universities, joint-stock companies, printing, religious conflicts, and parliamentary politics.

For Americans, Europe has a certain attractive quaintness, fading at the edges into eccentricity or annoyance. We see ourselves as straightforward, pragmatic, and business-oriented, Europeans as alternately charming, hidebound, and arrogant. We imagine that a duchess is somehow much more interesting than a billionaire. Harry Potter’s crumbly old castle of a school is as fantastic an element for us as his magic; Samwise’s forelock-tugging deference to Frodo as alien as the elves. These things would all read very differently to actual Europeans.

I hope that helps— I don’t know exactly what you’ve read about Verduria, and perhaps I haven’t captured what you notice about it at all!

(The picture, by the way, is of Fiesole, Italy, and was taken by my father in 1972.)


Events in the Ukraine had me wondering about fascism, and I remembered your essay on Bush. I went back to it, and read through nearly all of Neiwert’s essay you linked. It’s interesting to read material a decade on from those events leading up to the invasion of Iraq. It was a different time.

Both your piece and Neiwert’s extended essay haven’t aged very well, no offense. We know Bush fizzled out as Iraq devolved into genocidal bloodletting and he lost serious alignment with the far right wing before the end of his second term. Frankly, coming from the extreme right background I have, I was never very worried about a Bush dictatorship. I guess my reasoning was something like, all my childhood I’d heard horror stories of how Clinton was going to hold onto office, and now as a much more liberal adult, I couldn’t put any weight to the liberal fears of a similar thing happening with Bush.

Anyway, we know Bush let his hubris and idiocy destroy the right tidal wave. But how do you view the danger of right-wing American fascism today?

It’s been 6 years of increasingly bizarre conservative extremism. It’s been easy to pass off as racists and old people, but Neiwert’s essay in particular has me wondering if this is mistaken. Certainly, it’s hard to downplay the real world successes of the extreme fringe, and the rightward track of the Republican Party is hard to ignore. And the fact that Tea Partiers and militia men are still around suggest to me that this isn’t as fringe as we on the liberal side of things would like to believe.

The question of marginalization is seemingly obvious, but by 2016 there will have been 8 years of contentious Democratic rule, an economy that hasn’t fully recovered, potentially unpopular wars in Syria and Iraq, a devolving (and increasingly fascist) climate in Europe, and the potential for a Clinton candidacy. These are all things which could push the electorate towards the GOP.

Is that GOP more likely to move further along Paxton’s five steps of fascist movements than with Bush? Violence was the missing piece for both you and Neiwert, and that hasn’t exactly changed, but a lot else seemingly has.


I think you’ve put your finger on a paradox: the right has become crazier and crazier, and yet the threat to democracy seems less. There were some worrying moments in 2009— wingnuts fantasizing about military coups or assassinations.  But they turned their attention to winning the House in 2010.

So, the basic answer to why they haven’t turned to violence is that they haven’t needed to. They have the House and a good chance at picking up the Sentate this year. They have 29 Republican state governors, 28 state legislatures, and 5 of 9 Supreme Court justices.   They can’t get everything they want, but they can bust unions, shut down abortion clinics, punish the electorate with austerity measures, stop gun laws, restrict voting rights, and obstruct a liberal agenda in Congress. 

As you say, times change— ten years ago they not only held the whole federal government, but it seemed (to them and to their enemies) as if they might be settling in for a long haul of governing.  But the demographics, and their own zealotry, makes that seem less and less likely. Their message is out of date and they’ve systematically outraged every constituency but straight, old, white, Christian males.  And yet there’s nothing pushing them to change in the short term. I don’t see how they can continue on this path for twenty more years… but they can easily keep going as they are for five or ten years.

I’m not too worried about the other things you mention. I don’t think Obama has any intention of restarting the war in Iraq. European politics never affects the US.  And though a Clinton presidency looked in 2008 like it would be horribly contentious, well, that’s business as usual today. 

But 2016 will be interesting. The GOP generally nominates the most centrist guy they can find— though they hate themselves for doing it. But do they have any non-crazies left?  

Edit: Forgot to add that though the vehemence of the extreme right always seems surprising, actually it’s been that way forever. You can easily recognize the Tea Party and the birthers in Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics“.

Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy list changes over time, but the style remains. 

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