politics


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.

elections-us

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.

So, that was a surprise.

burns-trump

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.)

 

 

I know, everybody’s sick of this election, but it’s not over yet.

Remember when Trump was supposed to do The Pivot, and being a canny politician, he’d smarm his way past us?  Instead he’s basically imploded, and as he’s going down he aims to take down as much of the country and democracy as he can.

trumpo

Trump has always been ridiculous, but sometimes we can forget that ridiculous people can also be deeply frightening. Fascism was ridiculous too, and created dictatorships that led to world war and genocide. Watching Trump, you can perceive the close relationship between narcissism (or prolonged toddlerhood) and authoritarianism. He doesn’t seem particularly ideological, but he cannot bear disagreement. By his nature he doesn’t just want power, he wants absolute power.

  • He’s presently attempting to destroy the norms of elections in a democracy, claiming that any result except his election is “rigged”. When dictatorships fall and there are elections, the key point is the transitions of power: you don’t have a democracy if people do not accept that they can lose elections. With our 200 years of experience we tend to look down on the noobs— only now we have a major party nominee declaring that he won’t accept the election results even before they happen.
  • Along with this he has been encouraging his supporters to intimidate minority voters (which, needless to say, is illegal).
  • The key phrase of the GOP political convention and Trump’s rallies is “Lock her up.” That is, when he’s not suggesting that gun nuts assassinate Hillary, he’s suggesting that the political opposition simply be made illegal.
  • He’s promised to use the power of the presidency to shut down news organizations he doesn’t like. Or entertainment programs that dare to criticize him.
  • He openly admires Vladimir Putin, asked Putin to conduct cyberterrorism against his opposition, and hopes to meet him before his inauguration. One of his campaign managers, Paul Manafort, worked for Putin’s stooge in Ukraine and actually inserted language in the GOP platform to lessen support for a free Ukraine.
  • All along he has encouraged violence toward reporters and opponents at his rallies.
  • His whole rise to fame is of course tied to demonizing ethnic minorities— Hispanics, blacks, and above all Muslims.
  • He has the enthusiastic support of overt white supremacists.

I should add: if Trump loses, his calls for a coup will probably be ignored. (He called for one last time the GOP lost, too.) He doesn’t have the energy or skill to seize power by force— he can’t even run a political campaign. But if he wins, he doesn’t have to be personally competent to enact a fascist agenda. Hitler wasn’t particularly competent either. When you’re leader, people will enact your agenda for you. Hand the reins of power to this man, and bad things will happen.

And those are only the reasons he’s a fascist; there are other equally compelling reasons why he should be entirely disqualified to be president:

  •  He boasts of being a sexual predator. His own words are that he can “do anything”, including direct sexual assault, because he’s a “star”. And of course there is now a list of women coming forward to say that he behaves just as he said he does.
  • His means of engaging with any opponent is toddler-level mockery and brazen lies. Someone so easy to rile up is also someone easy to manipulate. (Consider that his approach to Ted Cruz, a popular figure on his own side, was to insult his wife and to bizarrely insinuate that his father was involved with JFK’s assassination.
  • As the only interaction he can handle is fawning servility, he cannot be told bad news, and he can barely maintain allies. He’s spent a good fraction of his candidacy feuding with his own party and media.
  • He’s spectacularly uninformed about policy in any area (even areas he should know about as a businessman, like taxes).
  • He’s just as spectacularly lazy— he barely prepared for the debates, he doesn’t bother to run an effective campaign, his proposals are never detailed, he doesn’t attempt to educate himself on any of the issues he would be facing as president.
  • He has abandoned support for the US’s bedrock foreign policy achievement— NATO and our alliances with Japan and Korea.
  • As a businessman, he relies on corrupt practices like simply not paying contractors, or shenanigans with a fake charity. He had to be sued to force him to rent to black customers.
  • Trump’s rise to political prominence was due to his racist embrace of birtherism— which even he has now admitted is a lie.

Now, he’s gone so far that an unprecedented number of Republicans have repudiated him, from George Bush to Mitt Romney to Robert Gates to George Will to Glenn Beck. The conventional wisdom would be that you shouldn’t alienate your own party, and, well, the conventional wisdom is not wrong about this; by all accounts Trump is losing.

But the vast majority of Republicans still support Trump.  Paul Ryan, Mitch McDonnell, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, Chris Christie, Rudolph Giuliani, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Scott Walker, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Eric Cantor, Bobby Jindal, Rick Santorum, Orrin Hatch— they’re all on the Trump train. The fascist comments, the sexual predation, the lies and insults, the war on Muslims, the isolationism, it’s all perfectly fine with them. After all Trump has promised to address the most important problem they see in the world, which is that rich people don’t have enough money. He’ll shower them with it.

Now, in some ways this is just what a first-past-the-post election system does. It divides and polarizes the electorate into teams that will support The Candidate no matter what they do. (Is it better when a party questions and hobbles its own leader every chance they get?  Ask John Boehner and Paul Ryan.) It’s very very hard for people in such a system to admit that their own party has produced a monster. A columnist like George Will can tear up his party membership card; an elected official rarely does so: they’ll lose their own supporters and the other side won’t trust them anyway.

Still, democracy is endangered when people no longer want it. Though this is a lesson taught by many an emerging country, it’s most familiar from Weimar Germany. It was relatively easy to abandon democracy, because only a minority actually supported it. The fascists and communists openly rejected it. The conservatives and socialists distrusted it and didn’t bother to support it. That left only a small minority of centrist politicians, trying to run a system that a majority of the population didn’t actually like. And of course whatever they did, or whatever happened to the country— reparations, the Depression— only delegitimized them, and democracy, even further.

So, even if Trump loses, it’s not encouraging that 40% of the population was willing to go along with a fascist and vote for him. Republicans evidently don’t value democracy very highly. Even someone like John McCain, who opposes Trump, made news this week by saying that the Senate should not accept any Supreme Court nominee from Hillary Clinton. And McCain is supposed to be a “moderate”. To simply not allow the government to work is now mainstream Republican doctrine.

Trump raises an interesting question— was he the worst of the candidates? Is he some kind of inexplicable disaster that’s befallen the Republican Party? I’ve said all along that he isn’t, and I’ll hold to that. As I noted in the spring, the typical attack on Trump from his rivals was from the right— that he wasn’t conservative enough, not tough enough on immigrants or the poor, a secret supporter of abortion and gun control and Obamacare. The real firebrands in the GOP preferred Ted Cruz, who is only better than Trump in the hair department.

Pretty much every objectionable trait of Donald Trump is something the Republican Party has encouraged for twenty years or more.

  • The business of “rigging the election” is part of a long attempt to rewrite laws to disenfranchise the poor and minorities, based on a nonexistent threat of “voter fraud”. The previous manifestation of this campaign was slander about ACORN.
  • Complaints about the “mainstream media” have been a staple of conservative outrage since the 1980s. What’s a wonder is that they still bother with it even though they now have their own powerful media.
  • Hostility to women and feminism is as old as the anti-ERA movement, the nomination of Clarence Thomas, the Tea Party candidates who told us that rape never results in pregnancy, and attempts to defund Planned Parenthood.
  • Trump hardly invented birtherism; for years GOP politicians refused to shut down the crazies on the issue. What’s new about Trump isn’t the racism; it’s the overtness of it. You were supposed to piously support diversity speaking to the New York Times, while dog-whistling to the base that you were against it.
  • Hostility to immigration isn’t new either; the last attempt at immigration reform was shut down by the wingnuts with no help from Trump.
  • The whole apparatus of functioning American democracy— horse-trading on the budget, court confirmations, restricted filibustering, bipartisan legislation— has been systematically dismantled by the GOP starting with Newt Gingrich. Rather than try to make government work, the goal has been to make democracy impossible.
  • Dark mutterings about coups and rebellions are also not new; we have had armed militias, people taking federal land by force, domestic right-wing terrorism, elected GOP officials musing about the armed forces taking power.
  • Even Trump’s ignorance and lies are simply the standard from talk radio and Sarah Palin.

The party establishment, such as it is, has been perfectly happy to keep the base riled up with hatred and a disdain for compromise: it delivered votes and the majority of state governments. Mitt Romney made a big deal of opposing Trump this year, but happily accepted his endorsement in 2012, and ran a campaign just as hostile to minorities and women. It’s hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Paul Ryan, whose distaste for Trump is obvious— but it’s also obvious that Ryan’s disdain is mostly over Trump’s vulgarity. You’re not supposed to be blatant in your hatred of the majority of the population.

I should also say something about the faux-profound concern of some pundits that Trump happened because of economic anxiety. Ha, no, economic anxiety is not what makes people call Obama a foreigner, rough up journalists, attack Mexican judges, grope women, and admire Putin. Trump’s supporters are better off than the national average, and better off than the average for Democrats.

The “economic anxiety” story has to confront the fact that Trump does very badly among precisely the people who have most reason to be anxious: minorities, young people, and women. The best the pundits can do is talk about the anxiety of “white men” and glide over the facts that a) Trump’s white men are not actually badly off, and b) white men are a minority of the working class. The only age group that supports Trump is those 65 and over— that is, those who aren’t even part of the work force.

There’s a basic fact about American politics that you always have to keep in mind: the Republican Party is the Money Party. It’s been that way since the Civil War and it’s not changing soon.  Its bedrock policies are the policies rich people like: low taxes, a weak safety net, few regulations, a strong foreign policy. Trump, Ryan, and the rest of them are absolutely agreed on these things.

The thing is, openly advocating for Money doesn’t go over well with the electorate— even in such a pro-capitalist country as the US. The Republicans thus have to either distract the voters, or lie to them. The usual distraction is cultural: harness the energy of Christian conservatives, or racists, to get out the vote. Then when you get power, you don’t actually do what they want.

Or you just lie; you tell the voters that government is bad and they don’t really need health insurance, Social Security, unemployment compensation, unions, food regulations, etc.

In 1980, the Republicans won the game: they were able to start dismantling liberalism, tearing apart the New Deal, destroying unions, sending the good jobs overseas, and sending all the economic gains to the rich rather than to the whole population. So it’s a bit provoking when conservative pundits offer this story that the Democrats abandoned the working class.

It’s true that Trump has appealed to economic anxiety— among other things. But his very framing of the issue shows that he doesn’t understand the issues or have any notion on how to solve them. He talks as if the problem is foreigners— either Mexicans coming to this country to steal jobs, or Chinese somehow taking advantage of us by selling us cheap things. He isn’t running for President of Mexico or China, so he can’t actually do anything about either problem, nor would building walls (whether made of bricks or tariffs) actually re-create manufacturing jobs.

 

The good factory jobs left because American manufacturers wanted them to.  Union workers were expensive; Chinese ones were not.  (Mexicans are not an issue— if anything it’s the other way around; cheap US imports have made it hard for the Mexican economy to improve.)   You, the consumer, abetted the process with your tendency to prefer affordable cars, TV sets, and other goodies. (Also, US manufacturing never disappeared; it’s actually larger than ever. But automation means it employs far fewer workers.)

Could or should all this have been handled differently?  Probably; but impeding productivity is rarely the best economic policy. Should we have prohibited industrial robots, or be content to pay more for everything?  That’s just paying the price in another way. In any case, repudiating trade agreements now will not solve the problem. A better solution would be more liberalism: better wages to share the gains of productivity; education and generous unemployment benefits (or a universal basic income, if you like that) to move displaced workers into better jobs; unions to keep employers from exploiting distressed people.

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.

 

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.

–Raphael

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:

Terrorism_fatalities_1970-2010

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.

I used to do Traveler’s Guides to the US elections, but I stopped when US politics got even more depressing. However, the rise of Trump seems to demand some effort, especially since I think it’s widely misinterpreted.

trumpo

A lot of people are outraged over Trump, and for good reason: he’s a bad man. The thing is, they’re outraged for different and in fact completely opposed reasons.  Liberals hate him because he’s a blowhard racist and proto-fascist.  Conservatives hate him because he’s not extreme enough.

Now that Trump has won 10 states and has a large delegate lead, it’s evident that he’s not going away by himself. The Republican establishment is in a tizzy— today Mitt Romney is giving a speech attacking Trump. I see too much of the narrative that Trump is somehow the crazy outlier and that one of the establishment candidates would be more moderate.

This is absurd: the other candidates are even crazier and Trump’s support is greatest among (Republican) moderates. The most dedicated evangelicals, the scrap-the-gummint libertarians, the nuke-em-all neocons, all hate Trump because he is less committed to their orthodoxy than the other candidates. Very conservative and Tea Party voters prefer Cruz.

This doesn’t mean Trump is actually moderate, just a foul-mouthed Bush Sr.  If elected, he would do bad things.  But these are precisely the bad things that any Republican candidate would do, and which he would do because he agrees with the GOP Congressional leadership: pass a huge tax cut for the rich, name a neo-Scalia to the Supreme Court, repeal Obamacare, ignore climate change, deport illegal immigrants, build a wall on the border, reverse gay marriage, restrict abortion, be aggressive abroad, and return to torture.

(Whether he or any GOP president would actually be able to get those things passed is another issue.  The Republicans have 24 Senate seats in contention— won during the 2010 election, which was far friendlier to the GOP. The Democrats only need 5 seats to take control of the Senate.)

When the other candidates criticize him, it’s always from the right. Cruz has called Trump’s immigration policy “amnesty”, and he and Rubio have pledged to immediately deport DREAMers (i.e. children and students). Cruz isn’t just against illegal immigration, but wants to reduce immigration period (hey, who needs a growing economy?).  When Trump stated, accurately, that Bush didn’t keep us safe from terrorism and ignored warnings about Osama, Rubio was outraged and blamed 9/11 on Bill Clinton. Trump has claimed he could produce an Israeli-Palestinian deal, while Cruz and Rubio assert the standard GOP line that it’s impossible to negotiate with the Palestinians. They attacked Trump in the last debate for not being sufficiently callous about universal health care. Both want to reverse the Iran deal, so Iran can go back to developing nukes. For Rubio, austerity budgets and giveaways to the rich are not enough; he wants a balanced budget amendment and to eliminate the estate tax. Both of them have condemned Trump for speaking up for the non-abortion things Planned Parenthood does.

Explaining why they hate Trump, conservatives like Erick Erickson and Rick Wilson accuse him of being pro-abortion, pro-gun-control, and for single payer health. (All calumnies, but it shows what direction they’re attacking from.)

Would Trump get behind Paul Ryan’s budget? He’s less likely to do so than Cruz or Rubio; he’s really not against big government or the middle-class entitlements. Cruz doesn’t just want a tax cut; he wants a 10% flat tax and no IRS.  (I guess the tax would be implemented as a tip jar.)  Would Trump start wars? He’s the one who’s been ragging on Bush for the Iraq War; Cruz has promised to “carpet bomb” the Middle East.

Trump has burned a lot of bridges with GOP leaders, but so has Cruz, to the point that Sen. Lindsay Graham remarked, “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate and the trial was in the Senate, nobody could convict you.” It would have seemed insane a year ago to predict that a GOP candidate would do well by purposely feuding with Fox News— but nobody can say Trump isn’t media-savvy.

So what’s wrong with Trump? In my sf novel, I suggested that it’s less of a problem for a conservative leader to be immoral than to look ridiculous.  Trump is ridiculous.  He’s angry and unfocused, doesn’t bother much with consistency or truth, responds to all disputes with schoolyard insults. He just doesn’t do gravitas.

The GOP establishment hates him partly because he doesn’t care much about GOP orthodoxy, and because they can’t control him. They’re not bothered by his racism— all the GOP cares about is white men anyway.  They just wish he’d learn to express it in more filtered and conventional terms.

For thirty years the GOP has valued, above all else, tax cuts, deregulation, free trade, and a non-expanding government— basically, what the rich elite want.  Cultural concerns are thrown on to attract actual non-rich voters, but tossed away when inconvenient— which is why the GOP base always hates the GOP establishment. Though Trump doesn’t leave the conservative church, he is something of a heretic.  He doesn’t care about (all of ) “movement conservativism”; he doesn’t want to drown government in a bathtub; his statements on free trade veer toward protectionism.

The GOP is torn between libertarianism, the religious right, big business, and right-wing populism. Trump is best understood as the voice of the last group. Rather like Bernie Sanders, he resonates with the many white people (the majority, really) who feel left behind by modern plutocracy.  Of course he’s a businessman himself and doesn’t promise to reduce inequality, but he speaks to people’s feelings that they’ve lost something.  Cruz and Rubio have done nothing to connect better with these people, and I don’t think Romney attacking their champion will do any good either.

It’s been a crazy year, but it’s not crazy in the same way as 2012, where the GOP electorate flirted with various not-Romneys and then selected the establishment candidate.  But if they wanted an extreme candidate, they’d’ve gone for Cruz. (And there’s very little air between Cruz and Rubio.)  They wanted a non-establishment candidate— and to the extent Trump differs from the rest of the field, it’s not that he’s crazy, it’s that a) he’s unfiltered, and b) he’s not (quite so) tied to GOP orthodoxy.

What happens now?  A lot depends on whether the GOP falls into line behind Trump or not. The party decided to have an early convention, in July, believing that the bruising 2012 fight didn’t allow enough time for intra-party wounds to heal.  That’s looking like a mistake now: is just four months enough time for Romney and other party elders, to say nothing of the other candidates, to rally enthusiastically at a Trump coronation and focus happily on Hillary?  That’s kind of their job, but (say) Romney’s speech today is going to make excruciating contrast to Romney’s speech at the convention.

(The Plan Z of the establishment, if Trump wins a plurality but not a majority of delegates. seems to be a brokered convention. Hoo boy, does that seem like a poor plan. Trump voters are supposed to fall in line and vote for Mr. Establishment after their man is robbed?  If anything could actually break the party in half, that would do it.)

Edit: Forgot to add that Trump is just an intensification of GOP strategy for the last eight years: rile up the base’s anger, encourage government dysfunction, court white men by opposing every other group, aggressively disregard the facts.  The elite doesn’t like someone doing all this even better than they can.

Also, in the GOP debate last night, the position of the other candidates was that Trump was a dishonest con man who couldn’t be trusted to be president, and that they’d be voting for him in the fall. They really deserve the drubbing they’re getting.

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

—Owen

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:

us-historical-growth

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?

 

 

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