Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

‘The Perils of Empathy?’

The other day, I mentioned the effort to make SC roads safer in the name of Glenn Forrest Rabon, Jr., a young man who was killed on a road that everyone had known needed an upgrade.

I neither endorsed nor argued against the proposal, because the petition didn’t give me sufficient information to evaluate the proposal. And I wasn’t going to back the idea just because there was a sympathetic story attached.

Doug Ross went further, saying:

There’s something about naming these laws after people that just seems a little too self-centered for me. Calling the report on road conditions the “TRIPP Report” goes even further. Must we make this into an emotional “how can you refuse to support our dead son” campaign?

I wouldn’t put it exactly the way Doug did, but I think he and I had a similar problem with the petition. It’s not a matter of “self-centered,” exactly. But it’s governing by emotion rather than reason, and I see that sort of thing as problematic. At a moment in our history when the country just voted an expression of their viscera into the White House, I suppose that makes me a bit quaint, but…

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend headlined, “The Perils of Empathy.” At first I assumed the author was, like Doug, a fan of Ayn Rand, which I most assuredly am not. After all, her followers regularly decry altruism as a bad thing.

But that’s not what the piece was about. It was all for compassion, just not empathy — or at least, not empathy taken to place where it should not go. Here’s what they’re saying:

Our empathic responses are not just biased; they prompt us to ignore obvious practical calculations. In studies reported in 2005 in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, researchers asked people how much money they would donate to help develop a drug that would save the life of one child, and asked other people how much they would give to develop a drug to save eight children. The research participants were oblivious to the numbers—they gave roughly the same in both cases. And when empathy for the single child was triggered by showing a photograph of the child and telling the subjects her name, there were greater donations to the one than to the eight.

He felt our pain, but was that a GOOD thing?

He felt our pain, but was that a GOOD thing?

Empathy is activated when you think about a specific individual—the so-called “identifiable victim” effect—but it fails to take broader considerations into account. This is nicely illustrated by a classic experiment from 1995, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Subjects were told about a 10-year-old girl named Sheri Summers who had a fatal disease and was low on a wait list for treatment that would relieve her pain. When subjects were given the opportunity to give her immediate treatment—putting her ahead of children who had more severe illnesses or who had been waiting longer—they usually said no. But when they were first asked to imagine what she felt, to put themselves in her shoes, they usually said yes.

We see this sort of perverse moral mathematics in the real world. It’s why people’s desire to help abused dogs or oil-drenched penguins can often exceed their interest in alleviating the suffering of millions of people in other countries or minorities in their own country. It’s why governments and individuals sometimes care more about a little girl stuck in a well (to recall the famous 1987 case of Baby Jessica in Midland, Texas) than about crises that affect many more people….

The author goes on to say that “Most people would agree, on reflection, that these empathy-driven judgments are mistaken—one person is not worth more than eight, we shouldn’t stop a vaccine program because of a single sick child if stopping it would lead to the deaths of dozens.”

Indeed.

We don’t have to be hard-hearted. As the piece also notes, “Empathy can be clearly distinguished from concern or compassion—caring about others, valuing their fates.”

But we need to evaluate something called, for instance, “So-and-so’s Law,” where “So-and-so” is an emotionally appealing person who has suffered from the lack of such a law. We must always ask whether what is being proposed would actually help other so-and-sos, and whether it is the best way to help and whether the law does more good in the aggregate than it does harm.

Good points, but ones which may sometimes be counterintuitive…

Tony thinks we’ll be OK. Let’s hope he’s right, as usual

Tony has always been one to feel our pain.

Our pal Tony has always been one to feel our pain.

Bryan calls my attention to the fact that while my main man Tony Blair is very concerned about the state of liberal democracy in Europe, he thinks his American friends will weather the Trump crisis:

WASHINGTON — Former British prime minister Tony Blair warns that political upheaval from Great Britain’s Brexit vote in June to the collapse of the Italian government on Sunday signals the most dangerous time for Western democracies in decades….

It has been a year of unexpected victories by populist and nationalistic forces that are challenging the establishment: passage of the referendum pulling Britain from the European Union, the election of Donald Trump as president in the United States, defeat of a measure in Italy that prompted the prime minister to announce his resignation.

And in the Austrian election Sunday, the candidate representing the party founded by former Nazis lost — but after commanding 46% of the vote….

“I’m less worried about America than I am about Europe; I’ll be very frank with you,” he said. “America is such a strong country and you’ve got so many checks-and-balances and you’ve got such resilience in your economy and so on; you guys will do fine, I’m sure. In Europe, we have systems that are at a point of fragility that troubles me.”…

Tony’s almost always right. Here’s hoping he is this time. Although for once, I doubt him. Rome thought it was big enough and strong enough and had checks and balances, too…

NO! The problem is NOT that the election was ‘divisive’

I’m getting sick of people saying this, so I need to speak up.

A story today in The Washington Post by the eminent Dan Balz, headlined “Raw emotions persist as Donald Trump prepares for his presidency,” repeats a fallacy that needs to be countered:

But everyone knew or should have known that the wounds from an election that was as raw and divisive and negative as campaign 2016 would not be quickly healed…

No, no, NO!

The problem is not that the election was “divisive,” or even “negative.” Those factors have been givens in American politics in recent decades. We’ve had negative campaigns across the country since the early 1980s, when the old guideline that a candidate would damage himself if he “went negative” died and was buried. Lee Atwater rose during those days, but the rule was being broken by others, such as Robin Beard, who used creative, negative ads against Jim Sasser in the 1982 Senate race in Tennessee (where I was at the time), gaining national attention but failing to win the election (which briefly seemed to confirm the old commandment against negativity).

As for divisive — well, it’s been pretty awful ever since the election of 1992, when bumper stickers that said “Don’t Blame Me — I Voted Republican” appeared on cars even before Clinton was inaugurated in January 1993. Since then, the parties have not been satisfied merely to disagree, but have increasingly regarded leaders of the opposite party to be illegitimate and utterly beyond the pale.

So it is that the terms “divisive” and “negative” say nothing about the recent election; they do not in any way distinguish the presidential election of 2016 from any contest that preceded it.

And yet we all know that this election was different from every one that preceded it in American history, right? So how do we describe that difference?

THIS is the difference, folks.

THIS is the difference, folks.

Well, it’s really not all that hard — although describing the underlying causes is more difficult. The difference is Donald Trump.

This was an election between a relatively normal, reasonably qualified candidate, and a grotesquely unfit one — a crude, rude, petty, childish, ignorant, unstable man who had done nothing in his life that in any way prepared him for the job.

You can complicate it if you wish. Feminists want to characterize Hillary Clinton as a groundbreaking candidate of historic proportions — which is silly. She was as conventional as can be: As a former senator and secretary of state, you don’t even have to mention her time as first lady to describe her qualifications. She was Establishment; she was a centrist (center-left if you prefer); she was someone completely at home in the consensus about the role of the United States in the world that has prevailed since Harry Truman. The main thing is, she was qualified.

Yes, she was the second most-hated major party nominee (second to the man who beat her) in the history of keeping track of such things, which is an important reason she lost. Some people who should have known better hated her so much that they were able to rationalize voting for the astonishingly unfit Trump in order to stop her, so that was definitely a factor. But aside from that, she was a normal candidate, from the usual mold, a person who people who knew what they were about — such as Republican foreign-policy experts — were comfortable voting for, knowing the nation would be in reasonably safe hands.

She was business-as-usual (which also helped sink her, as we know), while Trump was a complete departure from anything that had ever before risen its ugly, bizarrely-coiffed head to this level in American politics. It wasn’t just a matter of resume. This man got up very early every morning to start making statements — by Twitter before others rose, out loud later in the day — that absolutely screamed of his unfitness. A rational employer would not hire someone that unstable to do anything, much less to become the most powerful man in the world.

I need not provide a list of his outrages, right? You all remember the election we just went through, right?

TRUMP is what distinguishes this election from all others. TRUMP is what people are trying to get over — which we can’t, of course, because he’s now with us for the next four years. I ran into a former Republican lawmaker yesterday — a member of the revolutionary class of 1994, the original Angry White Male revolt — who expressed his utter bewilderment and sense of unreality that has been with him daily since the election. To him, as to me, the fact that Trump won the election can’t possibly BE a fact. Nothing in our lives prior to this prepared us for such a bizarre eventuality.

Yes, there are complicating factors — the populist impulse that has swept the West recently, which sometimes seemed would prevent Hillary Clinton from winning her own party’s nomination, despite her socialist opponent’s clear unsuitability and the fact that it was understood in her party that it was Her Turn. The roots of that are difficult to plumb. As is the fact that the GOP was bound and determined to reject all qualified candidates and nominate someone completely unsuitable — if not Trump, it would have been Ted Cruz, whom tout le monde despised. Both factors can be attributed to the populist obsession, but contain important differences.

So yes, there was a force abroad in the land (and in the lands of our chief allies) that was determined to sweep aside qualifications, good sense and known quantities in favor of the outlandish. And that helped produce Trump.

But still, particularly if you look directly at what happened on Nov. 8, the difference is Trump himself.

And that MUST be faced by anyone attempting to explain what has happened.

Ever since he started closing in on the nomination, I’ve been begging everyone in the commentariat and beyond to resist the lazy temptation to normalize Trump, to write or speak as though this were just another quadrennial contest between Democrat and Republican, to be spoken of in the usual terms. I was hardly alone. Plenty of others wrote in similar terms about the danger of pretending this election was in any way like any other.

And now, we still have that battle to fight, as veteran (and novice) scribes seek to describe the transition to a (shudder) Trump administration in the usual terms, even though some have admirably noted the stark difference. (I particularly appreciated the Post piece yesterday accurately explaining the similarities between this unique transition and Reality TV. — which is another new thing, folks, as we slouch toward Idiocracy.)

It’s a battle that must be fought every day, until — four years from now, or eight, or however many years it takes (assuming our nation even can recover from this fall, which is in doubt) — a normal, qualified person is elected president.

Is this really where the light of liberal democracy grows dim?

In a comment earlier I wrote about how concerned I am about the course of my country — and of the world. More so than I’ve ever been in my more than six decades on this planet.

It’s not just Trump — he’s just a glaring, ugly sign of it. Take a step back, and reflect: Who came in second in the GOP primaries? The only guy who gave Trump any kind of a run for his money as the worst candidate ever — Ted Cruz. All the better-suited candidates were stuck in single digits. And the Democrats have nothing to brag about — they put forward the second-most (second to Trump) despised candidate in the history of such things being measured. And she had trouble putting away a cranky old socialist to get that far.

How can I blame Trump when the real problem is that millions of people voted for him? I actually almost feel sorry for this bizarre figure, because he truly had zero reason to expect that he’d actually end up in this position.

I mean seriously: If you don’t even go deeper than his hair, you can tell at a glance that the country’s really, really in trouble. This is what will lead us?krauthammer

And the rest of the world, too. As Charles Krauthammer wrote today, “After a mere 25 years, the triumph of the West is over.” The promise of 1991, with the Soviet Union finally collapsing and the U.S. leading a broad coalition against Saddam in Kuwait — the New World Order in which Civilization, led by the City on a Hill, would enforce its values against aggressors — is behind us.

The United States is pulling back, and the bad guys just can’t wait to flow into the vacuum. In fact, they haven’t been waiting — in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine or the South China Sea. Or even in our own backyard.

He sums it up this way, blaming BOTH Obama and Trump:

Donald Trump wants to continue the pullback, though for entirely different reasons. Obama ordered retreat because he’s always felt the U.S. was not good enough for the world, too flawed to have earned the moral right to be the world hegemon. Trump would follow suit, disdaining allies and avoiding conflict, because the world is not good enough for us — undeserving, ungrateful, parasitic foreigners living safely under our protection and off our sacrifices. Time to look after our own American interests.

I think he’s trying a little too hard at false equivalence there, but at the same time, while Obama’s a smart guy who knows how to say the right things (unlike, you know, the other guy), there has been a noticeable tinge of “Oh, this country isn’t all that special” in his stance toward the world. A tinge that some of you agree with, and with which I couldn’t disagree more. But if you’re right, if the United States isn’t all that special — if it can’t be relied upon as the chief champion of liberal democracy — then the world doesn’t stand much of a chance. Because there’s always somebody wanting to be the hegemon, and the leading candidates running to take our place are pretty much a nightmare.

ISIS is a wannabe and never-was on that score. Russia wants to be a contender again, instead of bum, Charlie. But my money has long been on the oppressive authoritarians of the world’s largest country, China.

One of the first editorials I wrote for The State — maybe the first — when I joined the editorial board in 1994 was about the disturbing signs I saw of the Chinese buying friends and influencing people right here in our hemisphere, the long-forgotten Monroe Doctrine notwithstanding. I was worried that nobody else in this country seemed to see it, thanks to the fact that few of my fellow Americans ever took a moment to think about what happens to the south of us. (Side note: We wrote a lot about international affairs when I joined the editorial board; when I became editor, we would focus far more closely on South Carolina, which needed the scrutiny.)

Well, more people have noticed it since then. But not enough people. And not enough of the ones who have noticed care. President Obama, to his credit, started his “pivot” to focus on the Pacific Rim. That was the smart thing to do for this country’s long-term interests, and those of liberal democracy in general. China needs to be countered, with both soft power and, when necessary, hard.

Probably the most chilling paragraph in Krauthammer’s column is this one:

As for China, the other great challenger to the post-Cold War order, the administration’s “pivot” has turned into an abject failure. The Philippines openly defected to the Chinese side. Malaysia then followed. And the rest of our Asian allies are beginning to hedge their bets. When the president of China addressed the Pacific Rim countries in Peru last month, he suggested that China was prepared to pick up the pieces of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now abandoned by both political parties in the United States….

TPP was smart policy, encouraging our allies in the region to join with us in confidence, tying themselves more closely with U.S. interests in the face of the Chinese challenge. And this year, neither party was willing to stand up for it — even though one of the nominees (the one who lost, of course) knew better. If she’d been elected, at least we’d have had the chance of her breaking that bad campaign promise.

We painstakingly fashioned that strategic instrument, then dropped it like a hot potato when the populists began howling. And China is preparing to pick it up. And maybe you don’t, but I feel the Earth’s center of gravity shifting in the wrong direction.

Oh, but hey, Carrier’s not moving a plant to Mexico — at least, not completely. So everything’s OK, right? We’ve entered the era of short-term, inwardly focused international goals. Or something…

Fareed Zakaria on ‘The two sins that defined this election’

fareed_zakaria_peabody_awards_2012_croppedHere’s another thing I recommend if you’re looking for good commentary on the election.

I complained yesterday that I found most of what I was reading unsatisfactory. Perhaps the best, most helpful piece I’ve read yet was this one by Fareed Zakaria, headlined “The two sins that defined this election.”

By way of spoiler, the two sins are:

  1. The utter disdain in which elites held Trump voters.
  2. The real racism that was at work in support for Trump.

So, as you see, he has criticism for both sides.

You should read the whole thing. An excerpt:

Over the past three or four decades, the United States has sorted itself into a highly efficient meritocracy, where people from all economic walks of life can move up the ladder of achievement and income (usually ending up in cities). It is better than using race, gender or bloodlines as the key to wealth and power, but it does create its own problems. As in any system, some people won’t ascend to the top, and because it is a meritocracy, it is easy to believe that that’s justified.

A meritocracy can be blind to the fact that some people don’t make it because they have been unlucky in some way. More profoundly, it can be morally blind. Even those who score poorly on tests or have bad work habits are human beings deserving of attention and respect. The Republicans’ great success in rural communities has been that even though they often champion economic policies that would not help these people — indeed, policies that often hurt them — they demonstrate respect, by identifying with them culturally, religiously and emotionally….

 

What I ended up saying to Rotary

capital-rotary

Your suggestions — especially Kathryn’s — led more or less directly to my drafting the words below, which I delivered to the Capital Rotary Club at the Palmetto Club early this morning.

I pretty much zipped through the prepared stuff in order to get to my favorite part — questions. But here’s what I started with:

I was asked to come talk about the current election, and I hardly know where to start.

I think I’ll start with PREVIOUS elections.

We’ve been talking quite a bit on my blog this week about The State’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton on Sunday – or rather, to put it more accurately, The State’s endorsement of the person running against Donald Trump. The paper has no love for Secretary Clinton.

Of course, my responsibility for The State’s endorsements ended when I left the paper in 2009, but it remains a subject that highly interests me.

It was noted in the editorial that this was the first time the paper had endorsed a Democrat for president since 1976.

Someone – a person I’m pretty sure almost always votes Democratic [is that fair, Kathryn?] – asked on my blog why we endorsed all those Republicans. Which is a fair enough question to ask me, since I don’t like either party, and think they have both been enormously destructive to the country in recent decades.

I could only answer for the elections in the years when I was on the editorial board, so here goes:

In 1996, We liked Dole better than Clinton – although by the end, I had my doubts about Dole, and asked Tom McLean, who was then editor, to write it instead of me, which he did. But personally, I still voted for Dole.

In 2000 — We liked Bush better than Gore – as a board, anyway – personally I was rather noncommittal. I was lukewarm on Bush because I had much, much preferred John McCain to him, and had argued very strenuously for endorsing McCain in the primary. We had endorsed Bush instead, which was probably the biggest argument I ever lost as editorial page editor. Also… I worked in Tennessee in the 70s and 80s and got to know Al Gore, interacted with him a good bit, and liked him. But after eight years as Clinton’s vice president, I liked him less. On election night, I remember the lead changing back and forth, and at each point, I couldn’t decide how I felt. I only knew that when the Supreme Court decided Bush had won Florida, I was relieved, and grateful to Gore for promptly conceding at that point.

2004 — We disliked Kerry more than we disliked Bush (if you look back, you’ll see most of the editorial was about Bush’s flaws, but ultimately we didn’t trust Kerry on national security – and for me, that tends to trump everything)

2008 — My man John McCain was running, although we liked Obama a lot. That was really an unusual election for us at the paper. For once, the two candidates we had endorsed in their respective party primaries back at the start of the year faced each other in the general. So we were happy either way, but I had been waiting 8 years to endorse McCain, and I wasn’t going to miss my chance. Besides, Obama was untested. We trusted McCain’s experience.

In 2009, I was laid off from the paper for the sin of having too high a salary when the paper was desperate to cut costs. So I wasn’t involved in 2012, or this year.

Another way to explain our preference for Republicans over the years, a very simplistic one: we were essentially a center-right board, and as long as the GOP remained a center-right party and the national Democrats were so ideologically liberal, we would tend toward Republicans. But I don’t like that overly simple explanation because I don’t like the liberal OR conservative labels, and we prided ourselves on being pragmatic. [I then went on a brief digression of our official point of view, which we called, rather oxymoronically, “pragmatic conservatism.”]

This brings us to today.

The general thrust of the editorial page remains the same as in my day. The core of the editorial board is Cindi Scoppe, and the joke during our many years working together was that we were two people with the same brain. Of course, there are different people involved along with her (Mark Lett, Sara Borton, Paul Osmundson), but the general editorial positions remain the same.

And in this election cycle, the paper did the only thing it could do under the circumstances: It endorsed the only person on the planet in a position to stop Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States.

As I said, the paper was pleased to endorse Republicans as long as it remained a sensible, center-right party. This year, the GOP completely went off the rails, and nominated a man who really isn’t any kind of conservative: an abysmally ignorant – and unwilling to learn – bully who considers attacking people who have criticized him personally as his top priority. A man who admires tyrants, who would abandon our allies, throw out nuclear nonproliferation policies that have served us since 1945, who plays to xenophobia, who would institute religious tests for entering the country, and the list goes on and on.

But that seems like a good place to stop and take questions. I’d love to get questions about local politics, but I can speak to national ones as well. Whatever y’all prefer…

My audience did not disappoint, but provided enough good questions to keep a likely interaction going until time was called. We pretty much stuck to national politics, which I guess was to some extent my fault, for having started us in that direction. But the discussion was interesting, relevant and civil. And you can’t beat that…

I thank my optometrist, Dr. Philip Flynn, for inviting me, and the Club for putting up with me this morning.

Zuckerberg’s right about diversity, although I question his judgment

In defending Facebook for having Trump supporter Peter Thiel on its board, Mark Zuckerberg said:

“We care deeply about diversity. That’s easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It’s a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post visible only to Facebook employees, a photograph of which was shared on Hacker News on Tuesday.

“We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate,” Zuckerberg continued….

Absolutely. Diversity of thought is the most important kind — and too often, the kind people have the greatest trouble accepting. If you have a wide variety of skin colors and a perfect balance of gender, but everyone in your group thinks exactly alike, you have utterly failed to achieve a diverse result, and your group is weaker because of it.zuckerberg

Zuckerberg probably should have stopped there, though. He kind of lost me when he went on to say, “There are many reasons a person might support Trump that do not involve racism, sexism, xenophobia or accepting sexual assault.”

Are there? At this point, it’s getting a little hard to see those “many reasons.” Hard for me, anyway; perhaps the vision of others is sharper.

So let’s assume those many reasons exist. There’s another problem here.

Diversity of thought, of ideas, is indeed critically important. It is essential, in a liberal democracy, to respect those who see things differently. (And to accept it if they win an election.)

But in 2016, we’re not experiencing a contest of ideas. We’ve gone well past that. We’re experiencing an election in which one of the major-party nominees is a man of demonstrably contemptible character, not just somebody you or I may disagree with on matters of policy.

And there’s a point at which, to the extent that we respect our own ability to reason and to form opinions that may or may not differ from the opinions of others, we have to make a judgment.

And in doing so, it’s legitimate for us to question Mr. Thiel’s judgment in continuing to support Mr. Trump despite shock after shock. And to question Mr. Zuckerberg’s for defending having someone of such questionable judgment on his board.

Mr. Thiel, and Mr. Zuckerberg, are entitled to their opinions. And we are entitled to ours…

The harshest words yet about Trump in the WSJ?

It’s interesting to watch the way The Wall Street Journal has dealt with the phenomenon they struggled so mightily to resist back during the primaries — having Donald Trump as the GOP standard-bearer. And Hillary Clinton, whom they have vilified for so long, as the only sane alternative.

One of their editorialists recently took the plunge, noting that rational people truly have no alternative:

The end of the election is now in sight. Some among the anti-Hillary brigades have decided, in deference to their exquisite sensibilities, to stay at home on Election Day, rather than vote for Mrs. Clinton. But most Americans will soon make their choice. It will be either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton—experienced, forward-looking, indomitably determined and eminently sane. Her election alone is what stands between the American nation and the reign of the most unstable, proudly uninformed, psychologically unfit president ever to enter the White House….

But while he doesn’t quite go to the logical conclusion and say “vote for Hillary,” the WSJ’s Bret Stephens, deputy EPE, has perhaps gone farther than anyone in trashing the alternative.

Today, he likened Trump’s conspiracy-mongering to Joe McCarthy and Charles Lindbergh (the Nazi-loving, anti-Semitic Lindbergh, not the “Lucky Lindy” version). In other words, he invoked some of the darker strains of Western prejudice, specifically with regard to Jews:

Here, then, was the real Donald, fresh off his self-declared unshackling from the rest of the GOP. No longer will the nominee content himself with pursuing petty mysteries such as President Obama’s birth certificate or Alicia Machado’s alleged sex tape.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

Now he’s after the Compleat Conspiracy, the one that explains it all: the rigged election, migrant Mexican rapists, the lying New York Times, thieving hedge funds, Obama-created ISIS, political correctness, women insufficiently attractive to grope, Chinese manufacturers, the Clinton Foundation. If it isn’t voting for Donald Trump and has recently crossed an international border, it’s a problem.

It did not escape notice that Mr. Trump’s remarks smacked of darker antipathies. A reporter for the New York Times suggested that the speech “echoed anti-Semitic themes.” The Daily Stormer, which bills itself as the premier publication of the alt-right, was less delicate, praising the speech for exposing the mass media as “the lying Jewish mouthpiece of international finance and plutocracy.”

But one needn’t accuse Mr. Trump of personal animus toward Jews (there’s no evidence of it) to point out that his candidacy is manna to every Jew-hater. Anti-Semitism isn’t just an ethnic or religious prejudice. It’s a way of thinking. If you incline to believe that the world is controlled by nefarious unseen forces, you might alight on any number of suspects: Freemasons, central bankers, the British foreign office. Somehow, the ultimate culprits usually wind up being Jews….

He adds that “a Trump administration would give respectability and power to the gutter voices of American politics. Pat Buchanan would be its intellectual godfather, Ann Coulter and Ms. Ingraham its high priestesses, Breitbart and the rest of the alt-right web its public trumpets. American Jews shouldn’t have to re-live the 1930s in order to figure out that the “globalist cabal” might mean them.”

As I say, he doesn’t quite get to the point of, “So vote Clinton.” Which would be weird, if we lived in a rational world…

The interesting debate we could have had, under other circumstances

immense-power

Let’s set aside for a moment this contest of character and pretend we have the luxury of talking about ideas in this presidential election.

Were that the case, the most interesting moment in last night’s debate would have come at this point:

RADDATZ: … This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes…

Let’s set aside the loaded wording of the question (“two-faced”), and look at the underlying issue, which speaks to the nature of leadership and the ways we communicate in a representative democracy.

Can an honest person have a public position that differs from what he thinks in his heart of hearts? Yes, he (or she) can. In fact, there are times when he or she must.

As a longtime editorial page editor, I’m quite familiar with this. Most of the time, our editorial position was consistent with my own personal position. But we operated by consensus — I was not the only member of the board — and what we ended up with was not always exactly what I thought. I deferred to my colleagues, at least to the extent of modifying the position so that we could get everybody on board. And once the decision was made, I did not publicly say things to contradict it, because that would have militated against our consensus. I had a duty as leader of the board not to undermine its positions — even on the extremely rare occasions when our official position was very different from my own, such as when we endorsed George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.

But my care with my utterances in order to keep the board together was nothing compared to what a president faces.

The president of the United States daily, if not hourly, faces situations in which it would be grossly impolitic, unwise, and even harmful to the country to say precisely what he or she personally thinks or feels about a situation. A president must be diplomatic, not only with representatives of other nations, but with multiple contending and overlapping constituencies right here at home. This is why a president is surrounded by people who are talented at helping choose precisely the right words needed to help move things in a desired direction. It would be grossly irresponsible, indeed a dereliction of duty and perhaps a deadly danger to the country, for a president simply to spout off from the gut without pausing to temper the message (see “Trump, Donald”).

People who don’t work professionally with words are sometimes pleased to call carefully moderating one’s speech “lying.” Those of us who work with words know better. You can say the same true thing many different ways, and how you choose to say it can make all the difference between communicating effectively and having the desired effect, or failing miserably.

Back to the debate

Secretary Clinton responded this way to that loaded question:

As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic…

Did you see the film? If so, you know there was a lot more to Lincoln than the fine words in the Gettysburg Address. He may have been the most skilled, determined, clear-eyed, illusionless man ever to hold the office — and the most effective. (The only two men I can imagine coming close to him in these regards were FDR and LBJ.)

The film shows Lincoln involved in the noble task of permanently saving our country from the stain of slavery, going beyond what fine words or even four years of unbelievable bloodshed could accomplish. The Emancipation Proclamation had been a stratagem in winning the war (and one he had held back from issuing, with flawless timing, until the political climate was ripe for it), an ephemeral, self-contradictory thing that did not truly free the slaves. He needed something that went far beyond that; he needed to amend the Constitution.

And he pulled out all the stops — all the stops — in getting that done. Set aside the unseemly spectacle of promising government jobs to lame-duck congressmen — that was routine horse-trading in that day. Let’s look at the central deception — and the word is apt — that was essential to getting the 13th Amendment passed.

Lincoln knew that once the war ended, Congress would see little need to ban slavery — and the war was in danger of ending before he could get it done. In fact, a delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was on its way to Washington to sue for peace. It would in fact have arrived if Lincoln hadn’t ordered Union troops to detain it some distance from the capital. While the delegation cooled its heels, Lincoln worked feverishly to get his amendment passed.

At a critical moment in the debate in Congress in the film, a rumor spreads that there is a Confederate peace delegation in the city. This threatens to defeat the amendment. Lincoln tells Congress that not only is there no such group in Washington, but that he does not expect there to be. He conveniently leaves out the fact that the reason he doesn’t expect there to be is because he has issued orders to that effect.

Another instance in which Lincoln has a public position differing from his private position is with regard to Republican power broker Francis Preston Blair. The reason the Confederate delegation started on its journey to begin with was that Lincoln had reluctantly allowed Blair to reach out to Richmond. Why had he done that? Because Blair urgently wanted peace, and Lincoln needed his support to keep conservative Republicans in line on the amendment.

So… Lincoln did these things — playing every angle, and saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear them –, and rather drawing our disapprobation for having done so, he is rightly revered.

As I said above, the only two presidents I can see even coming close to Lincoln in terms of political skill and effectiveness were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Which reminds me of a contretemps from 2008. An excerpt from my column of January 20 of that year:

It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”…

Hillary Clinton was not my choice for president that year. Several weeks later, we endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination (right after endorsing John McCain — whom we would later endorse in the general — for the Republican).

Her point was that fine words (such as those with which her opponent excelled) are well and good, but if you want to see a good thing get done, you need someone who will roll up sleeves, dig in and do what it takes. Which LBJ never shied away from.

When she was a fresh grad at Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was dismissive of politics being the art of the possible. As she grew up, ran into brick walls of opposition and in other ways found how resistant the world could be to fine words and finer sentiments, she learned. Her concept of what it took to get things done — and of what things were doable — matured.

Hence what she said in that leaked speech.

I don’t say this to defend Hillary Clinton personally. As I said, I wanted to raise a point that we might discuss were we in a different situation. But we’re not in a different situation. Right now, our representative democracy faces supreme degradation, and possibly worse, if Donald Trump is elected. So we have that appalling threat to deal with, and fine points and ethical ambiguities are not the order of the day.

So pretend that speech — the one to the paying audience, not to Wellesley grads — was delivered by someone else. Think for a moment about the ideas being expressed, not the person expressing them.

It’s a question that all of us should wrestle with as we grow and mature. When I was a young and cocky editor, very free with my thoughts on everything, and to hell with whether others agreed, my then-boss posed me a question: Would you rather be right, or effective?

Of course, I wanted to be both. But what about when you can’t be?

Our proud American tradition of anti-intellectualism

know-nothings

There’s a piece in The Washington Post today about the rise of denial in our society, as in denial of climate change, the efficacy of vaccines, the Holocaust.

What grabbed me, though, was the subhed “Anti-intellecualism on the rise.” That drew me because my study of history all those years ago in college deeply impressed me with what a powerful theme that has been in our history (particularly coming into its own when the flat-Earther Andrew Jackson beat John Quincy Adams in 1828).

Anyway, to quote from the piece:

In the United States, anti-intellectualism dates back to the founding fathers, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans favored the wisdom of the common man over the expertise of the elites, embodied by Alexander Hamilton. Since then, the American population has tended to support a belief that ‘regular people’ know best and experts are suspect. This notion flares up when we think that our core values are under attack, as with McCarthyism, and today — with immigration, cyber security and other national concerns — it seems to be back with a vengeance….

Yeah, we’ve noticed. Although the chief evidence, it seems to me isn’t suspicion of vaccines, but the rise of Donald Trump, to whom facts are inconvenient, hostile things.

And let me hasten to say, had I lived in Jefferson’s day, I’d have been a Federalist…

On ‘truthiness’ and the 2016 election

pilate-cropped

What is truth?” asked Pilate, and washed his hands. Sometimes I ask the same question, because it’s not always as simple as people like to think it is. At least, not in politics. (As a Catholic, I accept that the One of whom Pilate asked the question did trade in actual Truth.)

I had the chance to explore that a bit over at WACH-Fox studios this morning. Cynthia Hardy asked me to participate in a discussion of truth, lies and the current presidential election for the weekly TV version of her OnPoint show. Catch the show on WACH Sunday morning at 8:30. (Hey, you can DVR it, can’t you?)

At this point, I don’t recall precisely what was said during the taped segments, because we were talking about all this before and after the taping, and during breaks. But here are some of the points I made at some time or other while I was there:

  • Someone raised the question of why, with so many of his statements being easily proved to be false, Donald Trump’s followers still accept, and even cheer, them. I mentioned the point, made here so often before, that even though most of us once accepted Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” people today believe they are entitled to the “facts” they prefer, and gravitate toward those who offer them such.
  • Continuing on that point, I said we should think in terms of the Stephen Colbert concept of “truthiness.” Trump regularly says things that are wildly untrue, but his supporters eat it up because his claims strike them as “truthy.” It’s what they want to be true, and they appreciate him for saying it is, and never backing down on the point.
  • I tend to look askance at all these people who propose to do “fact-checking” in real time. First, even if one can determine incontrovertibly whether a statement is true or not, getting the job done frequently takes a lot of time. Not all facts can be instantly Googled. And sometimes — quite frequently — there is no pat answer. Some things are demonstrably untrue — for instance, we are spending tens of billions updating our nuclear arsenal, in direct contradiction of something Trump said in the debate Monday night. On the other hand, some assertions are more slippery, more matters of opinion. For instance, the NYT tried to “fact-check” Mrs. Clinton’s assertion that the U.S. needs an “intelligence surge” to stop homegrown terrorists before they act. The Times said we already collect and share more intel than ever. Perhaps so, but if something happens because we didn’t know something that might have enabled us to prevent it, how can one say we had enough intel? That said, there is the eternal debate over how much we need to protect people from snooping. Since Snowden, we’ve unfortunately erred in the wrong direction on that, but striking a balance will always be difficult. Bottom line, I can give you a pretty good answer to whether what she said was true if you give me 1,000 words or so to do it. Anything less and I’m shortchanging you. But be forewarned that the answer will contain a lot of my own opinion. Why? Because it’s that kind of question.
  • Elaborating on that: People who think it’s easy to separate fact from opinion should try editing editorial pages for a couple of months. The challenge is this: You’re publishing a lot of stuff written by nonprofessionals with strong opinions — letters to the editor and their big brothers, guest columns. If you’re me, you’ll have a rule against letting people make assertions of fact that are false in the course of expressing their opinions. Frequently, in the proofreading process, one of the editors — some of the top, most experienced journalists in South Carolina, when I was doing it at The State — would cross out something in a letter or oped because it was false. But then a terrific argument would ensue as we editors disagreed over whether that point was a matter of fact, or of opinion. In the latter case, we’d allow the writer to say it. These matters were never easily settled, because if you’re intellectually honest and doing your best to be fair to people and not dismissive of their views, it’s complicated.
  • It’s seldom black and white. Even lies have gradations. That’s why The Washington Post‘s pinocchio_1respected Fact Checker feature has levels. A “lie” can earn one, two, three or four “Pinocchios,” with four denoting something that is completely false. Then there is the rare “Geppetto Checkmark” for things found to be completely true. And these judgments are subjective. I forget the “fact” in question, but a couple of months ago, they gave Donald Trump four Pinocchios for something that, having read their findings, I thought should only have earned him two or three. (Of course, even if they had amended that would, Trump would still be the all-time record-holder for four-Pinocchio statements.)

I could go on and on, but there’s real work to be done. I’ll check back in and see what y’all think…

Samuelson comes out for a wall — and actually makes a decent argument, unlike you-know-who

Robert Samuelson has joined his Washington Post Writers Group colleague Charles Krauthammer in saying that maybe a wall along our southern border isn’t such a crazy thing after all.

Of course, he does so based in facts and political realities rather than bluster and xenophobia, but that’s because he’s a rational person, and not Donald Trump. And it makes him worth listening to:

Just because Donald Trump isn’t qualified to be president — and just because much of his agenda is hateful and undesirable — doesn’t mean that everything he says is automatically wrong. Some of his ideas deserve consideration and enactment. One of these is building a wall across our southern border with Mexico….

samuelson

Robert J. Samuelson

The crucial question is: If we had a wall, what would we get for it? The answer: A wall probably represents our best chance of reaching broad agreement on immigration policy, a subject that has frustrated Congress and the two most recent presidents….

Without a wall, it’s doubtful that Republicans would enter meaningful negotiations on immigration policy — and without Republican participation, the stalemate would continue. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, 63 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters supported a wall and only 34 percent opposed it. The distrust is deep. Republicans think Democrats don’t truly care about stopping illegal immigration; they mainly want “amnesty” for existing undocumented immigrants. In the same Pew poll, 84 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democrat opposed a wall….

In other words, we may need to build the wall because the GOP, now fully in the grip of Trumpistas, will never agree to the rational parts of immigration reform without it. To put it another way, we don’t need a wall, but they’ll never stop thinking we do, and we need to move on and deal with some actual problems.

No, Samuelson hasn’t gone ’round the bend. He knows as well as the rest of us how absurd Trump’s approach is:

Let’s be clear on one issue: Trump’s insistence that Mexico pay for the wall is absurd . No self-respecting Mexican president would accept it. If one did, the wall would become a subject of endless bickering between the two countries as to who actually owned and controlled it. The fact that Trump made this so central to his proposal suggests that he’s simply grandstanding….

Indeed. But Samuelson, economics writer that he is, says that the ridiculous amount of money that a wall would cost could be a good deal in the long run:

If we could buy an immigration bargain for $25 billion, or even a bit more, it would be a fabulous deal. That’s the opportunity facing the next president. But we won’t make it any easier by stigmatizing the one change — a wall — that could be the foundation for compromise….

Barton Swaim on how Kaepernick fails to make his point

barton

Columbia’s own Barton Swaim has yet another nationally published opinion piece out there, headlined “Kaepernick’s symbolism misses the point,” in The Washington Post today.

And unlike Kaepernick, Barton hits the mark.

You know how I’m always blathering about how I think street protests, among other unseemly forms of expression, are generally unhelpful? That’s what Barton’s on about. And the problem, as he identifies it, is imprecision. Quite right.

Noting that Kaepernick now protests that he was misunderstood, Barton writes:

He was right. It was a misunderstanding. And that’s precisely the problem with symbols and symbolic gestures in the realm of political debate — they’re understood by different people in different ways, and not always in ways consistent with original intent. By choosing not to stand (he sat on the bench during the anthem for the Aug. 26 game against Green Bay and knelt during the anthem for the Sept. 1 game in San Diego), Kaepernick wants to say something about racial injustice. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network after the Packers game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Kaepernick evidently has some strong views on this subject, but what are they, exactly? Does he believe, say, that most Americans are racists? That most police officers target African Americans for harassment? That the United States as a whole deliberately and systematically persecutes African Americans? Somehow I doubt he would agree with any of these things without qualification — and yet they are all rational inferences from his refusal to honor the flag of a “country that oppresses black people and people of color.”…

Indeed. Barton is a wordsmith, and seems to share my horror at the thought of expressing oneself without being specific and explanatory.

And yet we are surrounded by people doing precisely that, from tattoos to grand public gestures. Harrumph.

In an age when there is no barrier to blogging, for instance, there is no excuse for failing to explain oneself — especially when one has done something that shouts only one thing clearly: “Look at me!”

As young mothers tell toddlers, use your words.

Now, changing the subject slightly, Barton’s piece goes on to say:

When pressed further to explain his views after the Chargers game, he wasn’t helpful. What was he trying to convey? “The message is that we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with. We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, aren’t given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, need to be brought to life, and we need to fix those.” President Obama reinforced that message on Monday. “If nothing else,” the president said, “what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” Reminding Americans that they need to “talk about” and “deal with” a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations. And in any case, one wonders what nation in the history of the world has not had dire “issues” that needed to be talked about and dealt with. Has there ever been a nation sufficiently issue-free to merit Kaepernick’s reverence?

I call your attention in particular to this bit: “Reminding Americans that they need to ‘talk about’ and ‘deal with’ a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations.”

I’ve been told for all my adult life that we need to “talk” about race in America. And you know me; I have generally obliged without hesitation. I can talk all day and all night about such a thing, and on occasion can even bring myself to listen.

But I bring the point up now because, right after reading Barton’s piece this morning, I saw this other opinion item in the Post, headlined, “It’s time to stop talking about racism with white people.” Excerpts:

Why are we losing solid hours out of our day, wearing our fingertips numb on keyboards and touch screens in an attempt to explain to some dense dude-bro why “All lives matter” is a messed up and functionally redundant response to “Black lives matter”?…

If Colin Kaepernik’s decision to stand against social injustice by sitting during the National Anthem has shown us anything else, it’s that much of white America is more bothered by our methods of protest than they ever will be about the injustices we’re protesting. Let’s dispel the notion that if we only protested better, white people will miraculously become more receptive of our message and less scornful of our audacity in speaking out….

Black people, it is long past time for us to start practicing self-care. And if that means completely disengaging with white America altogether, then so be it….

Zack Linly seems to have given up on making himself understood at a fairly early age (I’m going more by the way he expresses himself in seeing him as young, but for all I know he could be as old as Brett Bursey). Which is sad. Because as Barton suggests — even though he, too, seems a bit weary of the conversation, we need to communicate better about these things.

But there’s hope! Mr. Linly and Mr. Swaim seem to have some promising common ground, judging by the cover photo the former chose for his Facebook page. They both have a sense of the futility of some street action. But then, I could be misunderstanding this message, too…

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We’ve come to this — a ‘reporter’ delivering an editorial

There’s nothing special about this example I’m sharing with you. It’s just a fairly clear-cut one of the blurring of news and editorial functions in the New Normal.

In today’s Open Thread, I shared this item about where we stand 20 years after the End of Welfare as We Knew It.

Later, I glanced at the above video that appeared on the same page with it.

Most of the way through it, I didn’t think much of it until the very end, when the young woman on camera says, “I’m Emily Badger, reporter for Wonkblog.”

Did she really just say “reporter?” I ask because if you take every word she just said and put it on an opinion page, you have an editorial. Or an op-ed column, but it was largely spoken in the truth-from-above, ex cathedra tones of an editorial. Only by an engaging young woman, rather than some gray, disembodied, royal “we.”

Which I expect from a blog. I mean, really, how many blogs do you go to for straight news? And as I say over and over to any who remain confused, this is an opinion blog. I don’t have the resources — reporters, and editors to guide and read behind them — to publish a news blog. All I can do here is comment on the information provided to us by organizations that still do have such resources. (Sure, there are exceptions — I occasionally attend some news event and share what I saw and heard — but generally I’m not set up to inform so much as to engage with information obtained elsewhere.

And I certainly don’t call myself a reporter. I haven’t been a reporter since the spring of 1980.

That’s what grabbed me — her title.

I have no problem with blogs offering opinion. That would indeed be the height of hypocrisy

But it’s an adjustment for me seeing and hearing it coming from a “reporter.”

Reporters who unapologetically spout editorials. O brave new world, That has such people in ’t!

Badger

Is this whole campaign just a business move for Trump?

Roger Murray at the wheel in 1978. As the compleat journalist, I did my own photography.

Roger Murray at the wheel in 1978. As the complete journalist, I did my own photography, of course.

When I was a young and inexperienced reporter at The Jackson Sun in 1978, I spent a few days covering Roger Murray, who was seeking the Democratic nomination for governor of Tennessee.

It was an immersive experience, one that would seem quite alien to reporters today. I went on the road with him for several days as he traveled across Middle and East Tennessee. (For those of you not familiar, we speak of the Three Great States of Tennessee, and Jackson was located in the middle of West Tennessee.) And when I say “on the road,” I mean something more reminiscent of Kerouac than a typical political campaign.

I rode with the candidate himself, who drove his own car. I was on my own for finding places to spend the night, which wasn’t easy in some of those small towns. One night, I nearly had to double up with the woman from The Commercial Appeal who had joined us in the car for part of the trip. At least, she offered — in a matter-of-fact, platonic way. I must have looked particularly lost. But I managed to get a room of my own.

When on the road like that, I’d write out my story each night for the next day’s paper in my notebook, call it in and dictate it first thing in the morning (it was an afternoon paper), and call in updates and new ledes — from pay phones, of course — before each of the two editions. At one point on this trip, Roger asked if he could read what I’d written for that day (in those days before the web, children, he wouldn’t see the paper until we got home days later), so I handed him my notebook. He read it while driving down a two-lane highway, which I’ll have to tell you was a bit unnerving.

But Roger was like that. He was a bustling, charge-ahead, multitasking kind of guy who operated on full speed whether he was legislating in Nashville or running his business — a private security company — back in Jackson. He had made something of a name for himself chairing hearings looking into the shady doings of Gov. Ray Blanton, and he was trying to parlay that into a shot at the governor’s office.

Speaking at a Democratic rally somewhere east of Nashville. I think this was the rally at which I first met Al Gore. Note all the Butcher and Clement posters.

Speaking at a Democratic rally somewhere east of Nashville. I think this was the rally at which I first met Al Gore. Note all the Butcher and Clement posters.

And inside the bubble — going everywhere he went, seeing everyone he saw — it felt like it was working. There had just been a televised with the other four or five candidates running, and everywhere we went — Democratic party rallies, factory shift changes, talking to loafers sitting on benches around a sleepy small-town courthouse — people said he had been the one who made the most sense. Which made me think that meant they were going to vote for him. But I should have listened to the few who said, “You made the most sense, but I’m going to vote for Jake Butcher or Bob Clement.”

I dismissed those who said things like that, because what they were saying was irrational. But they were the ones telling the truth. I did not yet understand two things about politics: One, voters don’t necessarily vote rationally. Two, the bandwagon effect: Clement and Butcher were seen as the two front-runners, and some people were going to vote for them simply for that reason.

I forget how much of the vote Roger got in the primary, but he came in well behind Clement and Butcher. (Butcher won the nomination, and went on to lose the election to Lamar Alexander.)

I found it shocking. Caught up in the bubble of my first gubernatorial campaign, I had thought he made the most sense, too. That was his slogan, by the way: Murray Makes Sense

Yeah, I know. I’m digressing all over the place. But I’m coming to the point.

A few days after this foray onto the campaign trail, we were visiting my in-laws in Memphis and I was telling them about my adventures on the hustings. My father-in-law, who had a more realistic impression of Murray’s chances than I did, offered the opinion that Murray was just running to raise his profile for the good of his business.

I found that a shocking idea. It seemed dishonest to me, and I didn’t see Roger as a dishonest guy. To my father-in-law, it just made sense. He, too, was a businessman. In retrospect, I’ve had occasion to think he may have been right. Roger was older and more experienced than I (which didn’t take much), and I’m sure had a much more realistic idea of his chances than I did. And whether he intended it or not, the campaign did raise his profile a bit, and may have helped his business. If I remember correctly, not all that long after, he left public office.

Which brings me to my point.

Friday morning, I heard a segment on The Takeaway suggesting that maybe Donald Trump’s whole candidacy has been a business move — something that would not shock me nearly as much as what my father-in-law said about Roger Murray, back when I was so much younger and more naive:

It’s no secret that Donald Trump is in a tough spot heading towards the November general election. Projections from FiveThirtyEight and our partners at The New York Times have former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commanding a serious lead over the Republican presidential candidate.

So when Trump recruited Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News Network, the conservative alt-right website, as his chief campaign executive this week, it was a perplexing strategy. If you’re failing to attract mainstream voters, why further align yourself with the margins of the right wing?

Sarah Ellison, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and author of “War at the Wall Street Journal,” suggests that Trump — understanding that a loss in November is imminent — has ulterior motives post-election: To create his own conservative media empire.

This I could believe, especially with Trump. It would explain a lot — such as his running like a guy who wants to make a big splash (to build the brand), then lose.

If, of course, all that trying-to-lose stuff wasn’t a fake.

Thoughts?

court square

A classic old-school campaign shot: Murray works the courthouse square in a small town in Middle Tennessee, greeting the loafers — that classic Southern stereotype — and handing out leaflets.

Did Trump just head-fake us into looking the wrong way?

The main narrative the last couple of days is that Donald Trump has essentially delivered the coup de grâce to his moribund campaign.

By demoting Paul Manafort — the guy who was trying to get him to run a serious political campaign and reach beyond his base of Trumpkins — and elevating the man from Bretbart, Trump was “doubling down,” betting it all that the loudmouthed nativist, populist approach that won the primaries for him was the way to go from now to Election Day.

And that, says conventional wisdom, means it’s all over for Donald J. Trump. His campaign is finished. Liberal pundits are celebrating the inevitable.

But what if he’s faking them — all of us — out? What if he’s getting us all to look in one direction — at the disarray in his campaign, underlined this morning with Manafort’s resignation — while he moves in a wholly new direction, one that could lead to victory?

After all, while everyone’s focusing in horror on Breitbart’s Stephen K. Bannon, the new campaign manager is in fact GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway, who is more someone you might characterize as the pro from Dover — someone who can read the numbers and knows how to speak to women, which Trump could use help with, to say the least.

Look away, for a moment, from the apparent train wreck of the Trump campaign, and see what he’s actually doing out there on the campaign trail.

Look at what happened Thursday night: “At a rally in North Carolina, Trump gave a speech that was the sort of speech that presidential candidates give, not the sort that Donald Trump gives.” It involved a teleprompter. It involved sticking to script. It involved doing those things that Manafort had been trying to get him to do, and which supposedly, he just decided to utterly reject.

And this was not just a one-time thing: “Thursday marked Trump’s third teleprompter speech since Monday, a departure from his typically free-wheeling campaign rallies.”

So he has head-faked in one direction — “Let Trump be Trump” — while his body has moved in the direction that offers his only chance of winning the election.

Perhaps most telling of all, in that speech Thursday night just up the road in Charlotte, he did the unthinkable, by Trumpian standards:

CHARLOTTE — Donald Trump on Thursday expressed regret over causing “personal pain” through ill-chosen words he has used “in the heat of debate,” an unexpected and uncharacteristic declaration of remorse for a candidate whose public persona is defined by his combative and bombastic style…

Don’t believe it? See the video above.

This shift has not gone unnoticed by every player on the court. Philip Bump of The Washington Post has picked up on it. To quote more fully from a piece I quoted partially above:

On Thursday night, 106 days since his last opponent dropped out of the Republican primaries, 28 days since he accepted the nomination and 82 days until Election Day, Donald Trump started running for president.

This is sort of an exaggeration, but only sort of. At a rally in North Carolina, Trump gave a speech that was the sort of speech that presidential candidates give, not the sort that Donald Trump gives. Speeches are one of the three ways that Trump gets himself into trouble (the other two being interviews and Twitter) so let’s not get too crazy assuming that Thursday-night-Trump is here to stay. But just in case he is, it’s worth planting a flag on where the race was when this change (however fleeting!) was made….

As Mr. Bump notes, if this is the start of a Trump comeback, he has a long, long way to climb.

But still. Must give us pause. And maybe we should stop focusing so much on the inside-baseball stuff, obsessing about what’s happening in the front office, and notice what’s actually happening out there in the game

regret

Lord, what fools these liberals be!

Hey, my liberal friends, it’s Shakespeare! And I couldn’t resist.

Besides, the particular liberals in question were asking for it.

"Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Some of us, deeply concerned about the possibility of Donald Trump becoming president and wanting to save the country (and the world) from that fate, were pleased when that group of 50 heavyweight GOP policy types came out and said that Trump “lacks the character, values and experience” and “would be the most reckless President in American history.”

We were more pleased when some of those same GOP policymakers and others went the next step and declared for Hillary Clinton — since voting for her is the only way to stop Trump.

Any sensible person would be pleased — particularly, one would think, the liberal Democrats who would want to see Hillary win no matter who her opponent was.

But no. Check this piece in the Post this morning headlined, “Clinton’s Republican outreach a step too far for already suspicious liberals.”

Sheesh. Double sheesh.

Ideologues will be the death of the country.

Apparently, these hammerheads would rather see Hillary Clinton lose — and Trump win — than have her win by appealing to independents and Republicans. It’s more important to them that she slavishly agree with them than that she have a chance of winning.

And yes, I’m even more dismissive of their concerns because unlike them, I am pleased that Hillary Clinton is the closest thing to a Scoop Jackson still extant in the Democratic party. What pleases me appalls them.

But that’s no excuse. There is no excuse for trying to pull Hillary back from courting and receiving the support she needs to stop Donald Trump. And I can’t respect anyone doing that.

I’ve had it with these “suspicious liberals.” It’s best for all of us — Democrats, Republicans and independents — that they be neither seen nor heard from until this election is over. But who can persuade them of that?

Pundits execute pincer movement on Trump & GOP

E.J. Dionne, on a visit to Columbia in 2011.

E.J. Dionne, on a visit to Columbia in 2011.

They’re closing in from the left and right.

E.J. Dionne went further than he has to date in a piece headlined, “The Republican Party has lost its soul.” An excerpt:

Let’s focus on the most revealing aspect of this week’s turmoil within a party now aghast over the unstable egotist at the top of its ticket.

Trump could falsely claim that Obama was born abroad, but that wasn’t enough to disqualify him. He could call Mexican immigrants “rapists,” but that wasn’t enough to disqualify him. He could lie repeatedly — about, for example, whether he had met Vladimir Putin and whether he had opposedthe Iraq War — but that wasn’t enough to disqualify him. He could call for a ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, but that wasn’t enough to disqualify him. He could make degrading comments about women and mock people with disabilities, but that wasn’t enough to disqualify him.

No, it seems, all this and more were sufficiently within the bounds of acceptability for House Speaker Paul Ryan to tell delegates to the Republican National Convention that “only with Donald Trump and Mike Pence do we have a chance at a better way.”

So what really set off the crisis in the Republican Party this week? Trump suddenly became unacceptable because, in an interview with Philip Rucker of The Post, he refused to endorse Ryan and John McCain in their Republican primaries.

No matter what Trump said, Reince Priebus, the Republican national chairman, was willing to bow and scrape before Trump for months in trying to pull the party together behind him. Now, and only now, is Priebus reported to be “furious” and “apoplectic” at Trump. The message: Trump can say anything he wants about women, the disabled, Mexicans and Muslims, but how dare The Donald cause any trouble for Priebus’s friend Paul Ryan?

The corruption of a once-great political party is now complete….

Attacking simultaneously from the right, George Will wrote that “Trump’s shallowness runs deep.” An excerpt from that:

His speeches are, of course, syntactical train wrecks, but there might be method to his madness. He rarely finishes a sentence (“Believe me!” does not count), but perhaps he is not the scatterbrain he has so successfully contrived to appear. Maybe he actually is a sly rascal, cunningly in pursuit of immunity through profusion.

George Will

George F. Will

He seems to understand that if you produce a steady stream of sufficiently stupefying statements, there will be no time to dwell on any one of them, and the net effect on the public will be numbness and ennui. So, for example, while the nation has been considering his interesting decision to try to expand his appeal by attacking Gold Star parents, little attention has been paid to this: Vladimir Putin’s occupation of Crimea has escaped Trump’s notice.

It is, surely, somewhat noteworthy that someone aspiring to be this nation’s commander in chief has somehow not noticed the fact that for two years now a sovereign European nation has been being dismembered. But a thoroughly jaded American public, bemused by the depths of Trump’s shallowness, might have missed the following from Trump’sappearance Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

When host George Stephanopoulos asked, “Why did you soften the GOP platform on Ukraine?” — removing the call for providing lethal weapons for Ukraine to defend itself — Trump said: “[Putin’s] not going into Ukraine, okay? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.”

Stephanopoulos: “Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?”…

I deeply appreciate Will’s efforts recently to try to focus our attention on international affairs, and Trump’s utter and complete lack of preparedness or inclination to properly address them.

Sure, you can dismiss my friend E.J. as a consummate liberal, and wave away Will as a supercilious snob who doesn’t think Trump’s supporters are of the right sort.

So how about something closer to home? Check out this piece by a South Carolinian who has long admired Pat Buchanan, which is as conservative — as down-home, no-frills, paleoconservative — as anyone can get. Jeff Quinton writes:

Trump is wholly unqualified for the job of president. On top of that, his character is so fundamentally flawed that he cannot be trusted. On the character issue, I feel the same way about Hillary Clinton so I will not be voting for her either.

Jeff Quinton

Jeff Quinton

As a veteran who served as an intelligence analyst in the military, I will not vote for Trump based on national security and foreign policy issues. As a former soldier, Trump’s assurances that the troops will follow his orders, even if they are illegal ones to target civilians just because he says so are troubling. Trump’s vow to violate our treaty obligations to NATO are a major problem as well. I have concerns about Trump and his campaign manager’s connections to the Russian government—whether it was the Republican platform plank that hangs Ukraine out to dry or the Russian connections to Trump corporate finances. That doesn’t include the investigation of the DNC email leaks and where that might lead. Another foreign policy issue that bothers me relates to immigration and religious intolerance.

Trump’s immigration policies play to the basest fears in society. Whether it is his proposed Muslim ban or his criticisms of Pope Francis, it brings out the worst in his supporters online. From Ann Coulter tweeting that the Founding Fathers were right to distrust Catholics to Trump’s own proposal to keep a registry of Muslims in the country, it reminds me of one of the worst parts of American history for religious freedom—the Know Nothing era.

Trump’s appeals to the “alt-right” are nothing but a dog whistle for the fringes of the Republican Party. I have seen them get caught up in questionable conspiracy theories. They post about “false flag” theories after mass shootings that were supposedly were arranged in support of gun control. Jewish critics of Trump have been threatened and ridiculed for daring to question anything the man says. Polls show self-identifying evangelical Christians largely support him—a fact that leaves many observers scratching their heads.

As a faithful Catholic, I have also been active in the pro-life movement both locally and nationally. I do not trust Donald Trump’s pandering on pro-life issues. Being around the conservative movement in Washington for the past few years, I should not have been surprised to see so many conservatives and pro-lifers in the capital who were dead set against Trump in the primaries roll over for him as soon as he became the presumptive nominee. It is about nothing but being team players for access, power, and fundraising purposes….

And so forth. Go read the whole thing at The Daily Beast.

As a lagniappe, I’ll close with this, the first in a series of seven Tweets from Bill Kristol yesterday:

What would you do to get the right to vote, if you didn’t have it?

rights

Following up a bit on my last post, about political demonstrations and whether they’re worthwhile…

I mentioned something about having seen the film “Suffragette,” and wondered about how wise it was for those women to break shop windows as a way of persuading men that they should be allowed to vote. Seemed kind of self-defeating, to me. Like, “I’m a rational, responsible, thoughtful human being who would make a great voter because I make good decisions! And to prove it, I’m going to break that window with this rock!”

Later, I got to thinking…

Just how precious is the right to vote? It’s a biggie, no question. Very important, even though it’s a little hard to fully appreciate it in an election year such as this one. Hard to have a representative democracy without it.

Interestingly, a 1913 film about suffragettes also emphasized the rock-throwing.

Interestingly, a 1913 film about suffragettes also emphasized the rock-throwing.

But is it the most essential right? Is it the one from which all others spring? Not really, I don’t think. I think the ones entailed in the First Amendment come higher, speak more to the essence of liberty — the ones that add up to freedom of conscience.

What would I be prepared to do to get suffrage if I didn’t have it? March? I suppose so. Break windows? I don’t know about that

But I would definitely use the other rights I just mentioned. I’d write about it; I’d speak about it. I’d peaceably assemble, and petition the government for redress. And I’d be very glad that I had all of those rights, which I would see as the key to getting the others.

The question may seem silly — of course, the right to vote is essential in a representative democracy.

But if you had to choose the lesser of two weevils — would it be the last right you gave up, or are others more precious?

90ef0250-ec33-0132-649e-0ecefe7c2201

Hillary Clinton’s perception gap

Understanding

My attention was drawn to this good piece about Hillary Clinton by this from my good friend Mike Fitts:

I had to smile at that, and respond, “The more open-ended the better, even though that really got on ‘s nerves…”

By which I meant that the task-oriented Cindi went into a meeting with a source with goals in mind. The more experience-oriented Yours Truly went into them to see where they would go — the more unexpected the direction, the better. I liked learning things I hadn’t expected to learn.

Given that I was so free-form, Mike was a particularly valuable member of the editorial board. He enjoyed the experience of finding out where, for instance, Joe Biden would go next as much as I did (I think). But he was also organizing what he heard into a structure that enabled him to help guide our discussions later so that they were more efficient, more fruitful. (I wrote about this in a column when he left the paper, “Mike Fitts helped us make up our minds.”)

So, when Mike tells me that a piece is worth reading because it takes the best you get out of a wide-ranging interview and goes it one better, I pay attention.

The piece is very good, and very insightful, and it’s hard to explain why in fewer words than the entire piece. The author, Ezra Klein, admits that the explanation of why people who personally know Hillary Clinton think a lot more of her than those only know her through media is… inadequate. At least at first. The thing is, she listens.

Yeah, I thought the same thing. So did Klein:

The first few times I heard someone praise Clinton’s listening, I discounted it. After hearing it five, six, seven times, I got annoyed by it. What a gendered compliment: “She listens.” It sounds like a caricature of what we would say about a female politician.

But after hearing it 11, 12, 15 times, I began to take it seriously, ask more questions about it. And as I did, the Gap began to make more sense.

Modern presidential campaigns are built to reward people who are really, really good at talking. So imagine what a campaign feels like if you’re not entirely natural in front of big crowds. Imagine that you are constantly compared to your husband, one of the greatest campaign orators of all time; that you’ve been burned again and again after saying the wrong thing in public; that you’ve been told, for decades, that you come across as calculated and inauthentic on the stump. What would you do?…

It’s right about there that I started to get it…

You know how impatient I get with people who are all excited that Hillary Clinton would be the first woman to be president? That’s because their explanations for why that matters are ridiculously inadequate, and it comes off as identity purely for the sake of identity (“a president who looks like me!”), and y’all know how much I dislike that.

The problem with feminism is that it makes like it matters to have women in office while simultaneously insisting that you believe that there’s no important differences between men and women — which of course means that it shouldn’t matter.

But a feminist friend once said, meaning to be kind, that I was a “difference feminist.” And perhaps I am. And Klein does a good job of explaining why Mrs. Clinton’s gender makes her a different sort of candidate, and why I should care about that:

Let’s stop and state the obvious: There are gender dynamics at play here.

We ran a lot of elections in the United States before we let women vote in them. You do not need to assert any grand patriarchal conspiracy to suggest that a process developed by men, dominated by men, and, until relatively late in American life, limited to men might subtly favor traits that are particularly prevalent in men.

Talking over listening, perhaps.

“Listening is something women value almost above everything else in relationships,” says Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown linguist who studies differences in how men and women communicate. “The biggest complaint women make in relationships is, ‘He doesn’t listen to me.’”

Tannen’s research suggests a reason for the difference: Women, she’s found, emphasize the “rapport dimension” of communication — did a particular conversation bring us closer together or further apart? Men, by contrast, emphasize the “status dimension” — did a conversation raise my status compared to yours?

Talking is a way of changing your status: If you make a great point, or set the terms of the discussion, you win the conversation. Listening, on the other hand, is a way of establishing rapport, of bringing people closer together; showing you’ve heard what’s been said so far may not win you the conversation, but it does win you allies. And winning allies is how Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination.

Given where both candidates began, there is no doubt that Bernie Sanders proved the more effective talker. His speeches attracted larger audiences, his debate performances led to big gains in the polls, his sound bites went more viral on Facebook.

Yet Clinton proved the more effective listener — and, particularly, the more effective coalition builder. On the eve of the California primary, 208 members of Congress had endorsed Clinton, and only eight had endorsed Sanders. “This was a lot of relationships,” says Verveer. “She’s been in public life for 30 years. Over those 30 years, she has met a lot of those people, stayed in touch with them, treated them decently, campaigned for them. You can’t do this overnight.”

One way of reading the Democratic primary is that it pitted an unusually pure male leadership style against an unusually pure female leadership style. Sanders is a great talker and a poor relationship builder. Clinton is a great relationship builder and a poor talker. In this case — the first time at the presidential level — the female leadership style won….

Anyway, you should go read the whole thing.