Category Archives: Marketplace of ideas

Sneering at the masses, and how it helped lead to Trump

This guy's off the air now, but I think he did more than anyone to produce the phenomenon under discussion.

This guy’s off the air now, but I think he did more than anyone to produce the phenomenon under discussion.

Bryan, who is off somewhere in foreign parts today (California, I think), brings to my attention this piece from The Atlantic. Its headline is “How Late-Night Comedy Fueled the Rise of Trump,” with the subhed, “Sneering hosts have alienated conservatives and made liberals smug.”

Or at least, they were smug until Nov. 8.

The piece isn’t bad, although it gets sidetracked here and there, and reading it didn’t make me a whole lot smarter than I was after reading the hed and subhed — with which I agreed from the start.

Not that I didn’t learn anything new. For instance, I heard of this Samantha Bee person, and her salacious-sounding show “Full Frontal.” (Remember, folks, I don’t watch TV beyond Netflix, Amazon Prime and PBS.)

When I read the headline, I was picturing Jon Stewart — who, although he’s been replaced by Trevor Noah, still seems the perfect example to illustrate the point.

Here’s probably the best bit in the piece. It comes after the author has established, in fairness, that Donald J. Trump is any comedian’s dream, and richly deserves every bit of mockery aimed at him and more (which is obviously true):

So Trump has it coming, and so do the minions pouring out of his clown car, with their lies and their gleeful disregard for what Nick Carraway called “the fundamental decencies.” But somewhere along the way, the hosts of the late-night shows decided that they had carte blanche to insult not just the people within this administration, but also the ordinary citizens who support Trump, and even those who merely identify as conservatives. In March, Samantha Bee’s show issued a formal apology to a young man who had attended the Conservative Political Action Conference and whom the show had blasted for having “Nazi hair.” As it turned out, the young man was suffering from Stage 4 brain cancer—which a moment’s research on the producers’ part would have revealed: He had tweeted about his frightening diagnosis days before the conference. As part of its apology, the show contributed $1,000 to the GoFundMe campaign that is raising money for his medical expenses, so now we know the price of a cancer joke.

It was hardly the first time Full Frontal had gone, guns blazing, after the sick or the meek. During the campaign, Bee dispatched a correspondent to go shoot fish in a barrel at something called the Western Conservative Summit, which the reporter described as “an annual Denver gathering popular with hard-right Christian conservatives.” He interviewed an earnest young boy who talked about going to church on Sundays and Bible study on Wednesdays, and about his hope to start a group called Children for Trump. For this, the boy—who spoke with the unguarded openness of a child who has assumed goodwill on the part of an adult—was described as “Jerry Falwell in blond, larval form.” Trump and Bee are on different sides politically, but culturally they are drinking from the same cup, one filled with the poisonous nectar of reality TV and its baseless values, which have now moved to the very center of our national discourse. Trump and Bee share a penchant for verbal cruelty and a willingness to mock the defenseless. Both consider self-restraint, once the hallmark of the admirable, to be for chumps….

She returns to that incident at the end:

… I’ve also thought a good deal about the boy on Samantha Bee’s program. I thought about the moment her producer approached the child’s mother to sign a release so that the woman’s young son could be humiliated on television. Was it a satisfying moment, or was it accompanied by a small glint of recognition that embarrassing children is a crappy way to make a living? I thought about the boy waiting eagerly to see himself on television, feeling a surge of pride that he’d talked about church and Bible study. And I thought about the moment when he realized that it had all been a trick—that the grown-up who had seemed so nice had only wanted to hurt him.

My God, I thought. What have we become?

Indeed.

But there’s something to her thesis beyond citing pain inflicted upon victims with whom even the most indoctrinated liberals might sympathize. She touches on the broader point when she says “the tone of these shows [is] one imbued with the conviction that they and their fans are intellectually and morally superior to those who espouse any of the beliefs of the political right.”

And then she wonders whether that tone is largely responsible for Trump supporters’ dismissal of “the media,” by which she means in this context HBO, Comedy Central, TBS, ABC, CBS, and NBC — the very networks that present the comedy shows. The point being that folks who feel so insulted by the late-night comedy tend to associate it with the news programming on the same networks, and dismiss it all.

You say “media” to me, and I think of the news that I consume — from leading print outlets to NPR. Others don’t see it that way, I’ve long been forced to realize. They think of television, and sometimes — perhaps most of the time — they have trouble distinguishing between the “news” presented by celebrities one hour from the entertainment presented by other celebrities in a different time slot.

Which is understandable, if regrettable…

I'd say the King of the Sneerers now is probably this guy.

I’d say the King of the Sneerers now is probably this guy.

David Brooks on the Crisis of Western Civ

The_Parthenon_in_Athens

Before the weekend’s over, I want to call your attention to David Brooks’ excellent piece from Friday, headlined “The Crisis of Western Civ.”

It’s good not because it says anything particularly original, but because it says things I knew (and most of us should know), but which it wouldn’t have occurred to me to come out and explain.

Anyone steeped in the ideas that have shaped our civilization over the centuries knows:

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals…

But then two things happened.

First, the people who should be the guardians and propagators of these liberal values — academics — ceased to believe in them.

Then, when the barbarians attacked, there was no one ready to stand up and defend the foundations of our civilization:

The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did. Over the past few years especially, we have entered the age of strong men. We are leaving the age of Obama, Cameron and Merkel and entering the age of Putin, Erdogan, el­Sisi, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong­un and Donald Trump….

More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-­based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party­-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous….

He saves his last shot for the feckless guardians of our intellectual traditions, who have abandoned the citadel walls:

These days, the whole idea of Western civ is assumed to be reactionary and oppressive. All I can say is, if you think that was reactionary and oppressive, wait until you get a load of the world that comes after it.

Probably his best insight is that bit about how formerly liberal states “begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-­based commercial clans.” Because they’re run by people for whom the main purpose of power is to do something as staggeringly trivial as, for instance, promote one’s clothing line.

Speaking of mafias, did you ever read The Godfather? The book, I mean. Have you read anything else by Mario Puzo, something not as directly related to the Mafia, such as The Fourth K? If you have, you may have noticed that the theme that obsessed the writer was the conflict between the personal and the core principles of Western civilization, such as the choice of whether to look out for oneself and one’s family at the expense of larger things, such as the rule of law.

That’s what we’re seeing now. And the personal, the petty, the selfish approach is winning. The larger ideas we’ve been developing over the past centuries are being swept away…

One thing should be deader than Trumpcare — the idea that you can (or should try to) run government like a business

By Michael Vadon via Flickr

By Michael Vadon via Flickr

Maybe Trumpcare — or Ryancare or, more accurately, Don’tcare — is dead. But I know of one thing that should be even deader: The absurd notion, which too many people cling to as an article of faith, that government can and should be “run like a business.”

And even deader than that (if, you know, you can be deader than something that’s deader than dead) should be the laughable idea that the best person to run a government is a businessman with zero experience in government — especially if that businessman is Donald J. Trump.

Remember all the silliness about how Trump was going to be so awesome because he’s such a great deal-maker (just ask him; he’ll tell you — over and over)?

Well, so much for that. The one deal he had to close to meet minimum expectations of the base — repeal that “awful” Obamacare — was so far beyond his abilities, it would be hard to find a better case study of how the skills involved in accumulating a bunch of money in real estate have nothing to do with the skills involved in corralling votes in Congress.

And yet… in spite of all the above… we read this this morning:

Trump taps Kushner to lead a SWAT team to fix government with business ideas

President Trump plans to unveil a new White House office on Monday with sweeping authority to overhaul the federal bureaucracy and fulfill key campaign promises — such as reforming care for veterans and fighting opioid addiction — by harvesting ideas from the business world and, potentially, privatizing some government functions.

The White House Office of American Innovation, to be led by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, will operate as its own nimble power center within the West Wing and will report directly to Trump. Viewed internally as a SWAT team of strategic consultants, the office will be staffed by former business executives and is designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington, float above the daily political grind and create a lasting legacy for a president still searching for signature achievements….

Wow! He’s still spouting that stuff! You’d think that, after it was all proved to be nonsense on Friday, he’d give it a little time before repeating it!

But when you live in a fact-free universe, I guess this is how it goes…

Defining the Presidency Down (what would Moynihan say?)

Yes, I realize this is likely to feel like déjà vu — this is about much the same point as this post yesterday.

But I was conversing via email with someone about that, and he shared this, so I’m going to share it with you.

Why return to the same topic? Because it’s an important one, making points that I think a lot of folks still haven’t absorbed.

Ever since Election Day — or maybe even since Trump captured the nomination — I’ve had this conversation over and over with some of you, and with others… Someone will say, “What are you so upset about? Why don’t you wait until Trump does something truly horrible, and react to that?” Which I answer with what seems to me excruciatingly obvious: He’s doing it already, every single day — with every crude lie he Tweets, with every embarrassing moment with a foreign leader, practically with every breath he takes. By being our president, he’s taking the greatest country on Earth and making it smaller, cruder, stupider, tackier — demeaning the treasure that our forebears bequeathed us.

It’s not something I can kick back and regard as normal. In fact, that would be inexcusable.

Anyway, like the one I cited yesterday, this piece captures that pretty well:

is probably too much to expect President Donald Trump to have read “Defining Deviancy Down,” the 1993 essay by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Much noted at the time, and remarkably prescient, Moynihan’s essay warned that Americans were seeing a decay in social behavior (for example, the rise in gun violence), and were becoming inured to it. To accept such deviant behavior as normal—to “normalize” it, to use a word lately in fashion—was bound to render America a less civilized society, Moynihan wrote.

Moynihan

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

He was, of course, correct: In the quarter century since, we have accustomed ourselves to the ongoing coarsening of our society, from small things like the vitriol of Americans writing on social media and in the comments sections of news articles, to big things like our increasingly ugly political debates.

Early on in the presidential primary season, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart cited Moynihan in declaring that candidate Trump’s embrace of “nativist, racist, misogynistic slop” was defining deviancy down in the presidential campaign—mainstreaming coarse rhetoric and prejudicial views. Today, with President Trump continuing to exhibit deeply unpresidential behavior in the White House, he isn’t just defining deviancy down for political campaigns; whether intentionally or not, he is defining the presidency itself down.

Moynihan would have turned 90 this month. Decades ago, I had the honor of serving as one of his top aides. He was in many ways Trump’s polar opposite—a self-made statesman, sociologist, political scientist and lifelong student of history, someone who had seemingly read every book in the Library of Congress. The man had a core set of principles. He insisted on factual accuracy, believed that “governing requires knowledge,” and, famously, often said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” He required his staff to double- and triple-check factual assertions, and was known to include footnoted citations in his speeches and sometimes even his letters….

I like that this one cites Moynihan. I always liked that guy. Not that I ever met him or anything.

In fact, I only saw him once in person. (Warning! Brad’s about to reminisce again!) It was that time in 1998 that I mentioned recently, when I went to Washington to check on Strom Thurmond and see if he was still functioning, and also visited Mike McCurry at the White House. Anyway, as long as I was there, McCurry arranged for me to attend a ceremony in the East Room marking the 50th anniversary of NATO.

That afforded me an extra opportunity to observe Strom, as it happened. After everyone else was seated, President Clinton walked in with Strom beside him holding onto his arm. Bill walked the nation’s senior senator to his front-row seat and got him situated before heading up to the podium to speak. (We Southern boys are brought up to act that way with our elders, and I thought better of Bill for it.)

Anyway, after the event was over and most of the media folks were headed back to the West Wing, I stepped out of the door that opens into the covered portico on the northern side of the House. I stood at the top of the steps for a moment deciding whether to continue to the press room or go back in and chat with folks, and watched as cars picked up the dignitaries, there at my feet.

I nodded to Strom as he came out, and watched him negotiate the steps pretty well. But there was a guy in front of him having all sorts of trouble hobbling down to his car.

It was Moynihan. He was only 69. Strom was 95 at the time.

It’s a shame Moynihan didn’t take better care of himself. If he had lived to be 100 like Strom, he’d still have 10 years to go now, and we’d have the benefit of his perspective as the nation so dramatically defines its self-respect downward…

Kathleen Parker on the Marine nude-photos scandal

Defense.gov_News_Photo_090703-M-6159T-116

Marines in combat in Afghanistan in 2009.

Kathleen Parker, in her reaction to the Marine nude-pictures scandal, takes an iconoclastic approach, as she tends to do in her best work.

Of course she condemns the actions of the Marines, as anyone should, and links it to our tawdry, “narcissistic, show-and-tell-all culture,” to which neither male nor female Marines are immune.

But she also brings to bear a couple of themes of her past work, such as her dim view of sending women into combat, and our society’s recent failure to value males qua males.

You won’t see many leading columnists make such points, especially the male ones; they wouldn’t dare:

Must men be treated as women? That is, should they be trained to be more “sensitive”? If so, Kathleen Parkercan you simultaneously create sensitivity in the desensitizing, killing culture that breaks down an 18-year-old’s humanity and instills in him an instinct for extreme brutality?

Put another way, how stupid are we?

There’s a reason we say in times of great peril, “Send in the Marines,” and it’s not because of the few brave, committed women among them. But try to find someone in today’s military willing to say so….

Then at the end, she quotes a retired Methodist minister who counsels veterans navigating post-traumatic stress disorder:

“Marines embrace the warrior archetype more than other branches. The shadow of this is patriarchy, misogyny and brutality. We are trained to be killing machines, deadening all emotion except anger. We’re told we don’t have the luxury of sensitivity, so we objectify everything, including women.”

Still, he’s optimistic, saying that we need to return to “the embodiment of the hero archetype in the medieval knight. Aggressiveness can be coupled with honor, nobility and compassion.”

Maybe so. But knights typically didn’t joust with women, which may be the most salient inference. That said, chivalry has a place here. An apology to the women who exposed themselves to the few, not the proud, would be appropriate — both as gesture and punishment.

Has the West ceased to believe in itself?

Last week, I read another excellent piece by Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. It was headlined “Do We Still Want the West?,” with the subhed, “The best antidote to the politics of Trump or Le Pen is a course in Western Civ.”

Because of that paper’s pay wall, I’m going to push the envelope a mite on Fair Use here so that you get the point fully, and I hope the Journal will forgive me.

The piece begins anecdotally, telling about how the left’s culture warriors chanted Western Civ right out of the curriculum at Stanford in the ’80s, and how a vote to bring it back (a student vote, because grownups no longer dare to make such decisions) failed, 6 to 1.

Then, he sets out the problem:

The thought comes to mind following Sergei Lavrov’s Orwellian speech last week at the Munich Security Conference, in which the Russian foreign minister called for a “post-West world order.”…

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.

The West? Not so much.

The United States has elected as president a man who has repeatedly voiced his disdain for NATO, the World Trade Organization and other institutions of the Western-led world order. He publicly calls the press “an enemy of the American people” and conjures conspiracy theories about voter fraud whose only purpose is to lend credence to his claim that the system is rigged. He is our first post-rational president, whose approach to questions of fact recalls the deconstructionism of the late Jacques Derrida: There are no truths; reality is negotiable….

He goes on about the crisis of faith in Western ways in Europe, and notes how the non-aligned — who once were so eager to join the Western club — are drifting toward other power centers, such as Russia and China.

In other words, moving toward cultures that still believe in themselves, or at least in their own myths.

Then comes the best part:

There was a time when the West knew what it was about. It did so because it thought about itself—often in freshman Western Civ classes. It understood that its moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome. It treated with reverence concepts of reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility, whose contradictions it learned to harmonize and harness over time. It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and in the superiority of its political ideals. It was not ashamed of its prosperity. If it was arrogant and sinful, as all civilizations are, it also had a tradition of remorse and doubt to temper its edges and broaden its horizons. It cultivated the virtue of skepticism while avoiding the temptation of cynicism.

And it believed all of this was worth defending — in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields….

Donald Trump was elected by people who for whatever reason just don’t seem to get the fundamental assumptions of the West — they don’t know the history; they don’t embrace the ideals. It’s hard to talk to them about what’s wrong, because they don’t see it. Maybe it’s too late for them, but it’s time we started overtly teaching our children what’s valuable about the West.

But first, of course, we need to decide whether we still believe in it ourselves…

You MUST read David Frum’s brilliant piece in The Atlantic

David Frum on Tavis Smiley's show earlier this week.

David Frum on Tavis Smiley’s show earlier this week.

The other night, as I turned off the Apple TV and paused just before turning off the tube altogether, I saw that Tavis Smiley was interviewing David Frum — former speechwriter for George W. Bush and current senior editor for The Atlantic.

So I stopped myself from turning it off, because Frum usually has smart, interesting things to say.

He immediately said something rather outlandish. He suggested it was highly possible that Donald Trump’s main goal in being president of the United States is to become the richest man in the world. And that as long as his tax returns are not disclosed, he’s likely to achieve it.

I was about to scoff, but paused. That would be a ridiculous goal to me, or to Barack Obama, or to George W. Bush (despite what Bud and others seem to believe about Republicans.) The sheer petty, two-bit cupidity of it is laughable, particularly since in our history, no one who was thus motivated has ever sought such a position, much less attained it.

But I then reflected that lots of people actually are that motivated by money, as Doug keeps insisting to me that everyone is. And if there’s anyone on the planet who might be that acquisitive, it’s Donald J. Trump.

Well, fine. I don’t care if he does become the richest man in the world. Were it in my power, I would write him a check for the full amount he wants if only he’d walk away and stop doing what he’s doing to our country.

I don’t know, but suspect, that Frum would do the same. Because the problem for him, and for me, is the startlingly insidious ways that Trump is undermining our republic, its institutions — particularly the effectiveness of our vaunted checks and balances — and its standing in the world as a beacon of how self-government can work. Whatever Trump’s goal is — money, popularity, power for power’s sake — the really horrible thing is what he’s doing to get there.

During the interview with Smiley, Frum alluded to a piece he’d written in The Atlantic. I finally read it tonight. It is without a doubt the most brilliant, incisive, on-point, and chilling thing I’ve read since this nightmare began.

The title is “How to Build an Autocracy.”

Orwell’s 1984 has been enjoying a surge of popularity in recent weeks, especially it seems since Kellyanne Conway’s remark about “alternative facts.”

Well, the first 878 words of this essay is a bit of speculative fiction imagining the world four years from now, when Trump has just easily won re-election. It’s scarier than 1984 because it’s not a theoretical projection of just how horrible things might get in a place like Stalin’s Russia. It’s chilling because everything it describes, in explaining how Trump becomes a power that can’t be challenged, is completely, immediately believable. It wouldn’t have been before the past year, but it is now. We’re seeing it happen.

The other several thousand words of the piece elaborates on how we get from here to there, and it’s amazing. Frum doesn’t generalize. He explains in detail why it’s highly likely that the checks and balances we rely on — from official ones like Congress to unofficial ones like the press — are being quite effectively neutralized. He sets out beautifully, for instance, how Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are motivated to look the other way because they need Trump more than he needs them. It explains so much.

As for the media, well, Trump is redefining the nature of truth itself, or at least the way Americans regard it. An example of how that works:

One story, still supremely disturbing, exemplifies the falsifying method. During November and December, the slow-moving California vote count gradually pushed Hillary Clinton’s lead over Donald Trump in the national popular vote further and further: past 1 million, past 1.5 million, past 2 million, past 2.5 million. Trump’s share of the vote would ultimately clock in below Richard Nixon’s in 1960, Al Gore’s in 2000, John Kerry’s in 2004, Gerald Ford’s in 1976, and Mitt Romney’s in 2012—and barely ahead of Michael Dukakis’s in 1988.

This outcome evidently gnawed at the president-elect. On November 27, Trump tweeted that he had in fact “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” He followed up that astonishing, and unsubstantiated, statement with an escalating series of tweets and retweets.

It’s hard to do justice to the breathtaking audacity of such a claim. If true, it would be so serious as to demand a criminal investigation at a minimum, presumably spanning many states. But of course the claim was not true. Trump had not a smidgen of evidence beyond his own bruised feelings and internet flotsam from flagrantly unreliable sources. Yet once the president-elect lent his prestige to the crazy claim, it became fact for many people. A survey by YouGov found that by December 1, 43 percent of Republicans accepted the claim that millions of people had voted illegally in 2016.

If you sow enough cynicism, you don’t have to murder journalists or imprison opponents. There are subtler ways of achieving autocracy, which have been employed in recent years in places like Hungary, and we Americans are just beginning to learn about them.

He sort of leaves open the idea that Trump is a fascist, and moves beyond it, to tell us that our notions and labels and expectations are behind the times:

Whatever else happens, Americans are not going to assemble in parade-ground formations, any more than they will crank a gramophone or dance the turkey trot. In a society where few people walk to work, why mobilize young men in matching shirts to command the streets? If you’re seeking to domineer and bully, you want your storm troopers to go online, where the more important traffic is. Demagogues need no longer stand erect for hours orating into a radio microphone. Tweet lies from a smartphone instead….

But I’m not going to be able to do justice to this piece with excerpts. You need to go read it yourself. If you care, you have to.

I’ll just close with a neat thing Frum did today on Twitter. He set out some of the main points of his essay with a series of 21 Tweets. Here they are:

2) Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).

3) In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk

4) In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions

5) Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters

6) American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …

7) … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress

8) The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection

9) Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …

10) … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.

11) And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look

12) Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.

13) So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.

14) Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.

15) But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle

16) The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to dealmaking as usual.

17) As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …

18) GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president

19) And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not

20) Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.

21) I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself. END.

Illustration by Jeffry Smith in The Atlantic.

Illustration by Jeffry Smith in The Atlantic.

Putting your heads in the sand is no solution

coalition

I thought this was pretty dumb:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Democratic Coalition Urges People to #BlackoutTrump During Speech Tonight

February 28th, 2017 – Washington, DC – The Democratic Coalition, part of Keep America Great PAC, today called on people to skip watching President Trump’s address to Congress. Using the hashtag #BlackoutTrump, the organization urged Americans to do something that will actually help “Make America Great Again.”

“Donald Trump cares about ratings more than he cares about this country and its people,” said Scott Dworkin, Senior Advisor to the Democratic Coalition. “Let’s send him a message by skipping his speech and instead working to help the people his administration is going to hurt.”

There are lots of ways to use the time that would otherwise be wasted watching the President talk about how terrible our country is. The Democratic Coalition provided a quick list:

-Plan your attendance at a townhall – if GOP members of Congress ever hold them again
-Get organized for campaign volunteer opportunities
-Volunteer to rebuild recently desecrated Jewish cemeteries or clean anti-Semiitc graffiti off houses of worship
-Make calls to raise money for organizations that help refugees
-Dine out at literally any restaurant in the nation (providing work for immigrants)
-Call your member of Congress urging them to keep ACA in place
-Volunteer to improve your local community
-Retweet/Share the hashtag #BlackoutTrump
-Review the Dossier on Trump’s connections with Russia, more of which gets confirmed daily

Jarad Geldner, Senior Advisor of The Democratic Coalition added: “Though it will be closely watched in Russia, this speech doesn’t really mean anything to Americans. The President’s been in office an excruciating 39 days, but he hasn’t really accomplished anything beyond signing executive orders that scare people. We should all focus on ensuring that he cannot enact his agenda which aims to rob America of all its greatness.”

The hashtag was first deployed in late January, by deploying it today, the Super PAC intends to send the message that the American people are stronger and less divided than the White House would have us believe.

About The Democratic Coalition

The Democratic Coalition Against Trump, now The Democratic Coalition, formed in the Spring of 2016, with the main goal of making sure that Donald Trump never became President. The Democratic Coalition now exists to hold the Trump White House accountable, and is directly countering Donald Trump, along with Republican elected officials and candidates who support him, through aggressive digital and traditional advertising, grassroots action, in-depth opposition research, and a nationwide rapid-response team.The organization has chairs in all 50 states, comprised of Democratic elected officials, party chairs, delegates, grassroots leaders and activists.

Really? You’re going to get rid of this guy by hurting his ratings? And you don’t think going in ignorance about the insane things he may say is a bit of a high cost to pay to accomplish that?

You want a hashtag? How about #Vigilance?

Did you notice what the release said in the “about” footer? “The Democratic Coalition Against Trump, now The Democratic Coalition, formed in the Spring of 2016, with the main goal of making sure that Donald Trump never became President.”

Yeah, great job. Evidently, you still have the same strategists running your organization…

The LAST thing we need is more partisanship

The usual partisan nonsense is even more pointless than usual in the face of the Trump crisis.

The usual partisan rubbish is even more pointless than usual in the face of the Trump crisis.

There’s an argument I keep having with Democrats lately, on social media and elsewhere.

On one such occasion recently,  I went on at some length in writing. And as y’all probably know, I hate to spend time typing something and then not put it on the blog. So I’ll share it with you.

This was on an email thread started by friend of mine who has a long list of people he regularly shares things with. On this occasion, he was sharing this story from The New York Times: “Who Hasn’t Trump Banned? People From Places Where He’s Done Business.”

Well, I couldn’t read the Times piece because I’d exceeded my free reads for the month, and I have no intention of subscribing. But I was able to read this response from another recipient of the email — someone who you can see is obviously a Democrat (and someone I’m not going to name because I have no indication he meant it to be published):

An answer:  do not normalize the Administration in any way whatsoever.

An answer:  daily resistance.

An answer:  reorganize the left-of-center ship—and well, frankly, be organized—and call failed leadership to account.

An answer:  approach 2018 as if the everything is on the line (it is).  It’s time to stop playing backyard croquet campaigns.

An answer:  Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans.  (I can’t even believe I live in a state where that is necessary to type.)

I responded thusly:

I agree with [the gentleman] that Trump must not be normalized, and that he must be resisted daily — which I certainly do on my blog.

I disagree VEHEMENTLY with his apparent assumption that the answer is more partisanship… Especially his assertion that “Democratic officials need to stop endorsing Republicans…”

There is nothing MORE likely to normalize Trump than to treat this problem as just another inning in the absurd left-right, Democratic-v.-Republican game.

You really need to get out of that “left-of-center” rut and recognize that Trump is a phenomenon that has no place on the left-right spectrum. He is a unique problem, unlike anything this country has ever seen.

And conservatives — real conservatives — are just as capable of seeing that as liberals. If not more so — at least they can see this is not about the usual partisan games.

You need those people — and people like me who reject the whole left-right thing altogether (and are fed up with it) — on your side in the matter of Trump.

This isn’t about winning the next inning of the perpetual game in 2018.

This guy has to go. And you know who has to reach that conclusion? Republicans in Congress.

Yep, we’re a long way from that happening right now. Republican members are tiptoeing around as though in a minefield.

But you and I and everyone who understands what a threat to the nation Trump truly is should do anything and everything we can to give them room to reach the right conclusion.

And every time a Democrat tries to make it about party, that makes Republicans more likely to close ranks. In other words, it normalizes the situation.

You know where you could start to make the situation better? By supporting and encouraging Republicans who have the guts to stand up to Trump. Sure, it’s just Graham and McCain so far, and writers such as Bill Kristol and Bret Stephens. But the more of this bad craziness that Stephens wrote about today that we see, the more likely others are to wake up.

… IF the rest of us don’t chase them back into their partisan comfort zones. Which I see too many Democrats are eager to do.

MORE of the partisan nonsense that has turned off people across the political spectrum, from Sanders’ supporters to Trump’s, is most assuredly NOT the answer to this national crisis.

It’s time to rise above, and help all Americans, not just those of your own ideological ilk, to see what’s at stake…

I wrote all that in response to an email thread on Jan. 31. Since then, I’ve seen more and more instances in which Democrats act like this is business as usual. For instance, there is talk of pulling out all the stops to try to block Neil Gorsuch from the Supreme Court. Which is insane. It shows that these Democrats completely fail to understand what is going on — or, they don’t care.

Gorsuch is a highly qualified nominee and representative of the kind of judge that a mainstream Republican would nominate. If Democrats waste what tiny amounts of political capital they have left (were it gunpowder, they’d hardly have enough for a firecracker) on this, then they’re saying Trump doesn’t pose any sort of extraordinary problem for the nation — because they’d do the same with any Republican president.

It’s hard to think of a better way for Democrats to normalize Trump than to fight Gorsuch with all their might.

Bottom line, it just looks increasingly unlikely that the Democratic Party is going to play any kind of constructive role in helping the country out of this mess. Which leaves it up to the rest of us.

Well, that’s the UnParty response. What’s yours?

Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians

If you’d like to soothe your jangled nerves with an interesting intellectual take on WTF just happened to America, you might want to read this piece in Foreign Affairs by Walter Russell Mead, Columbia native and “radical centrist.”

It’s headlined, “The Jacksonian Revolt.”

Mead

Mead

Here’s the short version: We Hamiltonians and Wilsonians (going by Mead’s descriptions, I’m kind of both, which is unsurprising) have pretty much defined America’s prevailing values and role in the world for the past 70 years. We thought this was the natural, proper order of things, and the way everything was trending as well. But while we were thinking globally and in terms of universal principles, there was… I suppose one would call it discontent… at home. The Jeffersonians (a category that includes Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, which clues you in that I’m not one of them) thought this was a wave they could ride to power, but they reckoned without the way the Jacksonians ran in and grabbed the nation by the throat with all the thoughtfulness and refinement of the backwoodsmen who trashed the White House after the original Jackson’s inauguration. (Some of the editorializing in that last sentence is me, not Mead. In case you wondered.)

Mead is not saying anything new, for him or anyone else — I called your attention to him when he made some of the same points more than a year ago. And I’ve spent much of the past year worrying that our country was repeating the horror of the Election of 1828, only more so.

But now that it’s happened, and now that this latter-day Jackson is trashing not just the White House, but practically every aspect of rational U.S. policy in the world, this seems like a good time for a deeper look into what has happened, and is happening.

An excerpt from Mead’s piece:

The distinctively American populism Trump espouses is rooted in the thought and culture of the country’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson. For Jacksonians—who formed the core of Trump’s passionately supportive base—the United States is not a political entity created and defined by a set of intellectual propositions rooted in the Enlightenment and oriented toward the fulfillment of a universal mission. Rather, it is the nation-state of the American people, and its chief business lies at home. Jacksonians see American exceptionalism not as a function of the universal appeal of American ideas, or even as a function of a unique American vocation to transform the world, but rather as rooted in the country’s singular commitment to the equality and dignity of individual American citizens. The role of the U.S. government, Jacksonians believe, is to fulfill the country’s destiny by looking after the physical security and economic well-being of the American people in their national home—and to do that while interfering as little as possible with the individual freedom that makes the country unique. 

Jacksonian populism is only intermittently concerned with foreign policy, and indeed it is only intermittently engaged with politics more generally. It took a particular combination of forces and trends to mobilize it this election cycle, and most of those were domestically focused. In seeking to explain the Jacksonian surge, commentators have looked to factors such as wage stagnation, the loss of good jobs for unskilled workers, the hollowing out of civic life, a rise in drug use—conditions many associate with life in blighted inner cities that have spread across much of the country. But this is a partial and incomplete view. Identity and culture have historically played a major role in American politics, and 2016 was no exception. Jacksonian America felt itself to be under siege, with its values under attack and its future under threat. Trump—flawed as many Jacksonians themselves believed him to be—seemed the only candidate willing to help fight for its survival….

As you can see, his tones are measured as he describes this resurgence of anti-intellectualism in our politics. That’s what I’m talking about when I say you may find reading the piece soothing. Then again, maybe you won’t…

Mead writes politely of the Jacksonians, but Foreign Affairs paired his piece with this image of them celebrating on Election Night.

Mead writes politely of the Jacksonians, but Foreign Affairs paired his piece with this image of them celebrating on Election Night. Even I’m nicer to them than that…

People, can you just chill a bit over court nominations, please?

10569-003-C-P

So Trump nominated someone last night for the Supreme Court, and it looks like he had good advice and listened to it for a change: I’ve seen no indications at all that this Gorsuch guy is anything other than a qualified jurist. Which means that, in a rational world — barring currently unknown problems coming to light — his confirmation should be routine. Which would be welcome; we have enough turmoil in our public life at the moment.

But then, I read this main story (there were many sidebars) about the nomination in The Washington Post:

President Trump nominated Colorado federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court on Tuesday, opting in the most important decision of his young presidency for a highly credentialed favorite of the conservative legal establishment to fill the opening created last year by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia….

WHAT?The most important decision?” In what way, in what sense, in what universe completely lacking in any sense of proportion?

To keep it simple, let’s just consider three things this “young presidency” has done that are much more far-reaching in likely effect:

  1. Pulling out of TPP. This has disengaged America from the Pacific Rim, and invited the accelerated rise of China, in a way that is likely to have staggering consequences in this century both for us and for the billions of others affected — economically, strategically, culturally and almost any other “-ly” you care to name.
  2. Sticking a finger in the eye of every Muslim on the planet. Never mind the momentary unjust treatment of 90,000 or so individuals from Muslim countries, or the unconscionably inhumane “no” to refugees. This has indelibly engraved in a billion or so people’s minds that America regards them and their faith as the enemy, the one impression that our last two presidents have gone out of their way to avoid giving, even as they prosecuted the War on Terror.
  3. Naming Gen. Mattis as defense secretary. Just as Gorsuch’s appears to be, this was one of Trump’s rare good calls. Deciding upon such a qualified leader for our military at a time when the world is so unsettled and there are so many places where things can go really wrong really quickly was of the utmost importance. But it was also an historic precedent, since we had avoided naming recent generals to that post for my entire life. (By contrast, presidents have named LOTS of Supreme Court justices who have come and gone in my life, and none of them held immediate sway over the immense power of the U.S. military.)

Speaking of Mattis — despite the semi-Constitutional issue his nomination raised, an issue worthy of respectful consideration, but not one that should have been an obstacle in light of his qualifications, and of the nation’s desperate need of some qualified people at this point in our history — all but one senator had the good sense to confirm him.

And if our nation had good sense, something similar would happen with Gorsuch. Will it?

No, of course not. As another piece in the Post, by the venerable Dan Balz, noted:

The coming fight over his Supreme Court nominee will be fiercer than before.

Yes, it will. Else we would all be shocked. (I, for one, would be pleasantly surprised.) And what is likely to happen will be an utter waste of energy in a time when political capital needs to be saved for so many other more important battles.

My attitude toward Gorsuch is exactly the same as it was toward President Obama’s pick for this seat, Merrick Garland. They were both qualified for the job. They had already been vetted; they had already proved themselves. They had the requisite knowledge and experience, and reputations for probity and good judgment. There were detectable differences in judicial philosophy — differences that in a calm, proportional world would matter only to legal scholars. But both were qualified for the job — far more qualified than most people elected to Congress, for instance.

Whether one or the other was confirmed is not the Ultimate Issue. It’s not Armageddon.

Here’s the way I see it: The vast, vast majority of times the Court decides cases with wisdom and with ultimate respect for the law and for our civilization. Most decisions are unanimous — which seems remarkable to this layman, since the court deals mainly in matters lower courts were unable to settle conclusively. This has been the case over the decades, no matter whether the majority of the court is labeled “liberal” or “conservative.” Controversy exists only in a minority of cases, and most of those are at least decided intelligently, even if not the way you or I would prefer.

This has been true my entire lifetime.

To me, this testifies to presidents and senators having done a phenomenal job of picking good, qualified justices. The political branches have a much better record in this than in any other area I can think of.

Am I unhappy with some of the decisions? You bet. My opposition to Roe v. Wade is well documented here. I object not only to its legalization of abortion, but to the devastating effect that decision has had on our national politics — specifically, to exacerbating the very problem that I’m on about in this post.

(Considered logically, I am if anything even more opposed to the absurd precedent upon which Roe is based — the Griswold decision, which magically “discovered” an absolute right to privacy hiding in the shadows of the Constitution, a right that had somehow gone unnoticed in the nation’s previous 189 years.)

Today, in part because of Roe, we have vast numbers of people — thousands, if not millions of Americans will vote for a president based largely if not entirely on the basis of what sort of justices he or she is likely to name — “liberal” or “conservative.” Which is insane, given the far more immediate and far-ranging powers of the presidency. A president has the power, at every morning of every day, to make decisions that could lead to the destruction of all human life on this planet — and yet people will actually let their vote be decided on a narrow range of factors involved in a decision the president might make once, or maybe twice, in a four- or eight-year period.

It’s ridiculous. It’s far out of rational proportion.

Of course, since I’ve described the devastating effect of that one decision on our nation’s politics, you might say judicial nominations should be treated as seriously as they are. But no. That decision was an aberration. The number of bad decisions made by presidents in the same period of time since, say, Plessy v. Ferguson or Dred Scott is far, far vaster. Which argues that we ought to devote more of our attention and political energy on the 99.999 percent of what a president does, and less on this one.

Maybe Dan Balz and other experienced observers are wrong — just as they were wrong about Trump’s electoral chances.

Maybe the enormity of what Trump is doing in virtually every other area within his authority will shock our political players into having a sense of proportion. Maybe they’ll save their powder for the big battles that must be fought, some of which (who knows?) might even be won by the forces of reason. Maybe this confirmation will be as routine as it should be, as most of them should be.

But I doubt it. There is a vast infrastructure of political advocacy out there that exists purely for fights such as this one. And both political parties are closely wedded to those interest groups, and fearful of not doing their bidding with utmost zeal.

We’ll see…

WSJ’s Stephens on Trump: ‘capricious, counterproductive, cruel and dumb’

Kudos to The Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens, who is continuing to keep the heat on Donald J. Trump, even as some others on the paper’s editorial page — who also know better — seem to have lost the will to do so.Bret Stephens

His piece today, headlined “The Wrong Kind of Crazy,” plays off of the Nixonian global strategy — the “madman theory” — of keeping adversaries in the dark about what you might do in a crisis, which theoretically causes them to tread lightly. In the hands of grounded figures such as Nixon and Kissinger, the approach made some sense. But that was in the case of rational actors — the “madman” part was that you wanted your adversaries to want to act in ways that would keep you rational.

It doesn’t work so well when your president is an ignoramus who basically doesn’t do rational, or at least doesn’t do it any more often than a stopped clock states the right time.

Which brings us to the present day, of course, since this is the first time in our history that we’ve been in such a situation.

Stephens says Trump has done one thing so far that — against a background of Nixonian stability and pragmatism — could have fit in the “good crazy” category: throwing China off-balance with that phone call with the Taiwanese president. As he wrote, If Beijing wants to use ambiguous means to dominate the South China Sea, why shouldn’t Washington hit back with ambiguous devices of its own?”

Unfortunately, practically all of Trump’s brand of nuttiness is “the wrong kind of crazy: capricious, counterproductive, cruel and dumb:”

So much was evident with the president’s refugee ban on Saturday. And with Steve Bannon’s elevation to the National Security Council, and the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s demotion from it. And with the announcement Wednesday that Mexico would pay for the wall. And with the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal on Monday and the aggressively protectionist themes of his inaugural. And with his performance at CIA headquarters. And with his incontinent fixations on crowd size and alleged voter fraud….

That’s quite a list, isn’t it, describing the insane things done by an administration that’s only 11 days old? (And that’s a nice phrase: “incontinent fixations.”)

Just take one item: Replacing the head of the Joint Chiefs with Breitbart’s Bannon on the National Security Council would by itself be enough for me, were I a member to Congress, to start looking into impeachment procedures. That’s just beyond gross.

Anyway, I appreciate that Stephens isn’t going all wobbly…

The theory is, there's good crazy and bad crazy.

The theory is, there’s good crazy and there’s bad crazy.

 

Of course, we don’t know the Russians DIDN’T win it for Trump, either — and that’s the genius in what they did

As serious people do everything they can to persuade Donald Trump and his followers that they must take the Russian attack on the bedrock of our democracy seriously, they keep stressing, in the most soothing tones they can muster:

We’re not saying the Russians threw the election to Trump. We’re saying they tried to, and that’s something that must be taken seriously, however you voted…

I’ve done the same thing here, repeatedly, although with no discernible effect.

And I and others will keep on saying it, because it’s true: We don’t know, we can’t know, whether Russian meddling actually threw the election to Trump.

Of course, there’s an unstated second side to that coin. If we don’t know Putin decided the election, we don’t know that he didn’t, either.

And that’s the side of the coin that I think everyone sort of instinctively understands, and which therefore makes this conversation so difficult.

Here’s the problem: It was a close election, so close that Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote. That means any one of a number of factors could, by itself, account for the losing margin.

In other words, it’s not only possible but perhaps likely that all of the following elements had to be present to get Trump to an Electoral College win:

  • Let’s start with the biggie: The fact that the Democrats nominated the most hated major-party nominee in modern history, except for Donald Trump himself. This is the major factor that, while it couldn’t give him the win (since he was despised even more), it kept him in the game from the start. All other factors after this are minor, but remember: the whole thing was so close that it’s possible that every minor factor had to be present as well.
  • Clinton’s private server. Assuming this had to be present, she doomed herself years ago.
  • Her fainting spell. Here the Russians were, working like crazy to spread rumors about her health, and a moment of human weakness hands them this beautifully wrapped gift.
  • Comey’s on-again, off-again investigations. I’m not saying he was trying to sabotage the election, but if he had been, his timing couldn’t have been better.
  • The anti-qualifications madness sweeping through the electorate across the political spectrum. This populist surge produced both Trump and Bernie. In this election, solid credentials were a handicap. And poor Hillary had a great resume, as resumes have historically been judged.
  • The Russian operation, which gave us a drip-drip-drip of embarrassments (none of which would have amounted to anything alone) with the hacked emails, and a really masterful disinformation campaign as Russians blended into the crowd of alt-right rumormongers.

Could Trump still have won if you took away the Russian efforts — or the FBI investigations, or Hillary’s pneumonia, or any other factor? Well, we don’t know. We can’t know — an individual decision to vote a certain way is composed of all sorts of factors. I can’t give you a breakdown, with percentages, weighting every factor that goes into my own voting decisions — even though I’ve had all that practice over the years explaining endorsements. So I certainly couldn’t do it in assessing the decisions of millions of voters out there. And there’s no way to correlate the effect of any single factor meaningfully with the actual vote totals in the states Trump won.

So we don’t know, do we? The Russians think they know, which is why our intelligence establishment detected them high-fiving each other over Trump’s victory. But they can’t know, either. They certainly didn’t know they’d accomplished their goal before the vote, because they were geared up to sow doubts about the legitimacy of what they expected to be a Clinton victory.

It’s safe to say Trump wouldn’t have won if those other factors hadn’t been present. But I don’t see how we will ever know whether Russian meddling put him over the top.

And as much as anything, that is the most brilliant stroke by the Russians. The effect of what they did can’t be measured. Consequently, they have us doubting ourselves, flinging accusations about motives and completely divided in our perception of reality. We’ll probably be fighting over this for as long as this election is remembered.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I will again, for Bryan’s sake if no one else’s: In the Patrick O’Brian novels he and I enjoy so much, a favorite toast for Royal Navy officers in the early 19th century was “Confusion to Bonaparte,” or just, “Confusion to Boney.”

The ideal codename for the Russian operation messing with our election would be “Confusion to America.” Because there’s no doubt that they have achieved that

"Confusion to Boney!"

“Confusion to Boney!”

The Not-So-Great Man Theory

'GREAT:' Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: 'Confusion to Boney!'

‘GREAT:’ Regarding the most frequently cited exemplar of the Great Man Theory, I propose a toast: ‘Confusion to Boney!’

The Washington Post has this item today, headlined “How James Comey and Loretta Lynch made Donald Trump the president of the United States.” Seems a bit of an overstatement, but it’s interesting nonetheless. The beginning is provocative:

This morning Sari Horwitz has what may be the most comprehensive account yet of what happened behind the scenes as FBI Director James Comey decided to essentially hand the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. It’s an extraordinary story, one that provides an important lesson that goes beyond this one election: Political events with sweeping consequences are determined by individual human beings and the decisions they make. That may not sound surprising, but it’s a profound truth that we often forget when we look for explanations in broad conditions and trends (which are still important) or theories about dark and complicated conspiracies that don’t exist….

So basically, Paul Waldman — who wrote this opinion piece — is coming down fairly firmly on the side of the Great Man Theory, as opposed to explaining events in sweeping cultural or social terms.

Or in this case, since the man in question is Comey and a lot of us are really ticked at him, the Not-So-Great Man Theory…

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey

NOT-SO-GREAT: James Comey

 

… but lay off my Starbucks, George!

In his latest column, George Will makes similar points to ones I made in my last post, about our national orgy of conspicuous consumption. (And thank you, Thorstein Veblen! I’ve always thought that was a great term — and not just because of the alliteration.)

He concludes it thusly:

In any American city large enough to sustain a social ecosystem of snobbery, there is a magazine to guide fastidious consumers to “the five best craft breweries” or “the five best artisanal cheese shops.” Heaven forfend that anyone should have to settle for the sixth-best. For discerning tipplers, there are artisanal ice cubes. In San Francisco, The Mill, a cafe and bakery, offers artisanal toast for $4 a slice. It is to die for, say the cognoscenti.

Where will the positional economy end? It won’t. Stanford University professor Francis Fukuyama notes that it is a peculiarity of human beings that they desire some things “not for themselves but because they are desired by other human beings.” Hamsters have more sense. This characteristic of our species — the quest for recognition by distinguishing oneself from others — provides limitless marketing possibilities because for many wealthy people, “the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.” So wrote Adam Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” published in the resonant year of 1776.

And I’m down with all that. My one beef is that the thing that got him mounted on what Bryan would term his high horse was… my beloved Starbucks.

He was indignant that Starbucks is going to have these special, exclusive places called “roasteries” to attract the true poseurs among caffeineheads.starbucks_corporation_logo_2011-svg

Yeah, OK, those places do sound a bit pretentious. But a lot of people think regular ol’ Starbucks is pretentious and conspicuous, in the Veblen sense. And you know what? It isn’t. It’s just great coffee, and it’s consistent — I know that if I walk into a Starbucks in Columbia or Charleston or Memphis or New York or even London or Bangkok, I will get the same great cup of coffee.

Also — the really snooty people claim allegiance to their local, nonchain coffeehouses, and I suppose they’re all right in their way. But the service is better at Starbucks, and so is the coffee, IMHO. And I know I’ll get that same experience wherever I go.

As for the cost, people go on about $6 cups of coffee. Yeah, I suppose some of those slow, indecisive people I sometimes get behind in line are paying that and more for their over-elaborate soda-fountain drinks. But a cup of coffee — which is what I buy there, just black coffee — costs about 2 bucks. Which is about the same I pay for a large cup at Lizard’s Thicket. And a refill’s only about 50 cents.

So there…

‘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 places where it should not go. Here’s what it was 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….