Sunday, January 15, 2017


Weekend Roundup

Odd that this week intellectuals promoting Trump had more interesting things to say than intellectuals still defending Hillary Clinton. Not necessary truer things, but less hackneyed and disturbing, even if the overall trend is a race toward complete stupor.


Some scattered links this week:

  • Michelle Goldberg: Democrats Should Follow John Lewis' Lead: I have considerable respect for Lewis, a long-time civil rights leader before he became (thanks to gerrymandering) Georgia's token black Democrat in the House, and it doesn't bother me in the least that he's decided not to attend Trump's inaugural. I don't see why his presence is in any way necessary, and I sure can't think of anything more stupefying a person can do on that day than attend. But according to Goldberg, this all turns on the Clinton Democrats' favorite scapegoat, Vladimir Putin:

    Lewis was speaking for many of us who are aghast at the way Trump benefited from Russian hacking and now appears to be returning the favor by taking a fawning stance toward Putin. He spoke for those of us who are shocked by the role of the FBI, which improperly publicized the reopening of its investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails but refuses to say whether it is investigating Trump's ties with Russia. Trump lost the popular vote; he is president-elect only because the country values fidelity to the democratic process over popular democracy itself. (The Constitution, it turns out, may in fact be a suicide pact.) If the process itself was crooked -- if Trump's campaign colluded in any way with Russia -- his legitimacy disappears. If he scorns the Constitution by, say, violating the Emoluments Clause, it disappears as well. A president who lost the popular vote, who may have cheated to win the Electoral College, and who will be contravening the Constitution the second he's sworn in is due neither respect nor deference.

    I suppose there's a focus group somewhere that says anti-Putin rants are politically effective, but really, this has got to stop. The fact is Hillary Clinton lost for dozens of reasons, and the fact that WikiLeaks (with or without Russian help) exposed John Podesta and Donna Brazile as political hacks didn't help but is surely way down the list. They must realize as much because they never mention the substance of Russian interference: they focus on Putin as an evil manipulator who will wind up dominating a submissive US president because Trump owes his election not to the millions of Americans who voted for him but to a foreign ogre who orchestrated some dirty tricks -- a ruse they can only get away with by replaying cold war stereotypes (e.g., Putin is a dictator, although he's been elected several times by large margins in reasonably fair and competitive elections, and his background in the KGB proves he's always been anti-US); and secondly, they posit Trump as a dissenter from the consensus views of the American "intelligence community" -- the secret clan of spooks who have one of the world's worst track records for truth and accuracy.

    Worse still, I think, are the practical consequences: they are demanding that the US ramp up its hostility toward Russia, including sanctions that were previously in place for other supposed affronts, threatening a war that unlike America's recent attacks on marginal or failed states could be genuinely disastrous. And why should we risk world peace? To revenge Podesta's tarnished reputation? Because Clinton Democrats can bear to take responsibility for blowing the election to Donald Trump? There's plenty of blame to go around for the latter, and it's well nigh time for Clinton and her career to admit that they should have done a better job campaigning. And when they do so, they should realize that obsessing over the Trump-Putin connection was one of the things they did wrong. The first fact is that people don't care. The second is that it's not healthy for Democrats to be seen as the war party (and bear in mind that Hillary, given her past hawkishness, is already so tainted).

    Still, if you have to blame someone else, there are real ogres much closer to home. Look first at the Republican laws aimed at suppressing the vote, and gerrymandering congress. Look especially at the billion dollars or so that the Koch network and other GOP mega-financiers spent on getting their vote out. I think it's quite clear that there was a sustained, methodical effort to undermine democracy in 2016, but it wasn't the Russians who were behind it. It was the Republicans. Maybe if you hack some emails -- seems like fair play at this point -- you might even find a smoking gun showing that the Russians were working for the Republicans (a much more credible story than vice versa; it would, in fact, be reminiscent of finding out that Nixon interfered with the talks to end the Vietnam War, or that Reagan kiboshed Carter's efforts to negotiate the release of hostages in Tehran).

    And by all means, note that Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly three million votes, yet through a 227-year-old quirk in the constitution is being allowed to install the most extreme right-wing oligarchy ever. Then, if you like, you can point out that Putin enjoys a similar relationship to Russia's oligarchy -- I never said he was beyond reproach, let alone a saint, but has to be respected as leader of a major nation, and (unlike Trump) a democratically-elected one at that.

    As for John Lewis, bless him: after spending his life working hard to make this country a better place for all who live here, he's earned the right to take a day off, especially when the alternative is having to witness such tragedy.

    Relevant here: Patrick Lawrence: Trump, Russia, and the Return of Scapegoating, a Timeless American Tradition.

  • Tony Karon: The US media is not equipped to handle a Trump White House: There's an old adage that generals always prepare to refight the last war, and as such are always surprised when a new war happens. Something similar has been happening in media coverage of politics, but in many ways the media landscape has changed over the last 4-8-16 years, yet veterans of past campaigns (and clearly HRC fits this mold) still seem to believe that what worked in the past must still work today. Not clear whether Trump was smart or lucky -- I'd say he was selected from the large Republican field because he fit the evolving right-wing media model remarkably well, and he merely lucked out over Clinton due to a wide range of factors, including an electoral structure which allowed him to squeak out a win despite losing the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Still, his election was especially astonishing to those of us who thought, based on long experience, we understood how the system works. In the end, his biggest assets were a vast electorate willing to believe anything and the opportunistic and unscrupulous media that indulged them with all manner of fantastic innuendo.

    Mr Trump emerged as a public figure by mastering this fractured landscape, where distinctions between news and entertainment were increasingly blurred and where the business model's reliance on "click-bait" favours provocation. He connects instinctively with a public likely to judge the veracity of information not on its own merits, but according to existing attitudes towards the news outlets publishing it. Thus the logic behind his off-the-cuff remark last summer that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters."

    But while painting him as a pawn of Moscow is certainly unlikely to weaken Mr Trump's political base, his empty promises on health care and job creation are a real weakness, because failure to deliver will increase the pain of many people who voted for him.

    It's critically important, therefore, for the media to focus on what Mr Trump's government and their allies on Capitol Hill are actually doing -- not simply what they say about what they're doing.

    The problem is that sort of journalism hardly exists anymore, anywhere, and certainly not on the 24-hour news torrents. And while the election seemed to set new qualitative lows practically every week, post-election coverage has been even lamer: even for "reporters" who never delve any deeper than sifting quotes for gotchas, the only Washington source sure to get reported on is Trump's latest tweetstorm -- and that's more for entertainment than insight. You'd think that as America goes to hell the vested interests that own big media would realize that they actually need to better know and understand what's happening, but recent experience suggests that groupthink (the Bushies used to call it "message discipline") breaks hard.

  • Paul Krugman: There Will Be No Obamacare Replacement: Read past the snark about Comey and Putin, and look at the policy analysis.

    From the beginning, those of us who did think it through realized that anything like universal coverage could only be achieved in one of two ways: single payer, which was not going to be politically possible, or a three-legged stool of regulation, mandates, and subsidies. [ . . . ]

    It's actually amazing how thoroughly the right turned a blind eye to this logic, and some -- maybe even a majority -- are still in denial. But this is as ironclad a policy argument as I've ever seen; and it means that you can't tamper with the basic structure without throwing tens of millions of people out of coverage. You can't even scale back the spending very much -- Obamacare is somewhat underfunded as is.

    Will they decide to go ahead anyway, and risk opening the eyes of working-class voters to the way they've been scammed? I have no idea. But if Republicans do end up paying a big political price for their willful policy ignorance, it couldn't happen to more deserving people.

    I have little faith that sanity will save the Republicans at this late date, but to destroy Obamacare they're going to run afoul of some powerful special interests, and while they may try to assuage them by permitting them to operate even more fraudulently than before the ACA was passed, the result will be millions of people screwed, and most likely the health care industry itself will lurch into contraction.

    Also see: David Dayen: Trump Just Stumbled Into a Canyon on Obamacare.

  • Kelefa Sanneh: Intellectuals for Trump: I must admit that I never liked the idea of intellectuals -- I always thought that learning and reasoning were things that everyone did, so dividing people between a self-defining intellectual elite and the ignorant masses never set well with my democratic instincts (not to mention that those same self-identified intellectuals tended to exclude me, not because I didn't know or think but because I often knew and thought the wrong things -- elites, as ever, being jealous guardians of their ranks). But I was also quick to realize that thinking doesn't always work out right: indeed, that clever people could contort their command of history, logic, and rhetoric to justify almost anything, most often whatever their interests and upbringing (which is to say, class identity) favored. So perhaps we're best off characterizing intellectualism as a style with no intrinsic merit. Throughout history, political leaders have had little trouble gaining the rationalizing support of intellectuals, just as intellectuals have struggled to raise their baser instincts to fine principles.

    Donald Trump makes for a fine case in point. He has so little cred and rapport with liberal intellectuals that some scurried off to re-read Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life for a refresher course on how willfully stupid the people can be. Even conservatives with intellectual pretensions were almost unanimous in their dismay over Trump: his early vocal supporters were almost exclusively limited to professional bigots like Ann Coulter and Michael Savage. Still, what finally made Trump palatable to Republican elites was the only thing they really cared about: winning. So, as Sanneh chronicles, of late right-wing intellectuals have started flocking to Trump. Two varieties have emerged. One, including Heritage Foundation chief honcho Jim DeMint and his crew, are ordinary conservatives continuing to spout their usual nostrums while claiming validation by Trump's victory. The others, including an anonymous group which evidently started "The Journal of American Greatness" as "'an inside joke,' which in the course of a few months, attracted a large following, and 'ceased to be a joke.'" The website was subsequently deleted, but blogger Publius Decius Mus, the main subject of Sanneh's piece, is still attempting to develop a coherent intellectual Trumpism:

    Decius is a longtime conservative, though a heterodox one. He had grown frustrated with the Republican Party's devotion to laissez-faire economics (or, in his description, "the free market Řber alles"), which left Republican politicians ill-prepared to address rising inequality. "The conservative talking point on income inequality has always been, It's the aggregate that matters -- don't worry, as long as everyone can afford food, clothing, and shelter," he says. "I think that rising income inequality actually has a negative effect on social cohesion." He rejects what he calls "punitive taxation" -- like many conservatives, he suspects that Democrats' complaints about inequality are calculated to mask the Party's true identity as the political home of the cosmopolitan Úlite. But he suggests that a government might justifiably hamper international trade, or subsidize an ailing industry, in order to sustain particular communities and particular jobs. A farm subsidy, a tariff, a targeted tax incentive, a restrictive approach to immigration: these may be defensible, he thought, not on narrowly economic grounds but as expressions of a country's determination to preserve its own ways of life, and as evidence of the fundamental principle that the citizenry has the right to ignore economic experts, especially when their track records are dubious. (In this respect, Trumpism resembles the ideologically heterogeneous populist-nationalist movements that have lately been ascendant in Europe.) Most important, he thinks that conservatives should pay more attention to the shifting needs of the citizens whom government ought to serve, instead of assuming that Reagan's solutions will always and everywhere be applicable. "In 1980, after a decade of stagnation, we needed an infusion of individualism," he wrote. "In 2016, we are too fragmented and atomized -- united for the most part only by being equally under the thumb of the administrative state -- and desperately need more unity."

    Decius takes perverse pride in having been late to come around to Trump; as a populist, he likes the fact that everyday American voters recognized Trump's potential before he did. When Decius started paying serious attention, around January, he discerned the outlines of a simple and, in his view, eminently sensible political program: "less foreign intervention, less trade, and more immigration restrictions." [ . . . ] In his "Flight 93" essay, Decius called Trump "the most liberal Republican nominee since Thomas Dewey," and he didn't mean it as an insult. Trump argues that the government should do more to insure that workers have good jobs, speaks very little about religious imperatives, and excoriates the war in Iraq and wars of occupation in general. Decius says that he isn't concerned about Trump's seeming fondness for Russia; in his view, thoughtless provocations would be much more dangerous. In his telling, Trump is a political centrist who is misconstrued as an extremist.

    Emphasis added, the rare insight a conservative's focus on social order is likely to latch onto that liberals, whether individualistic or utilitarian, tend to miss. Of course, what pushes conservatives in that direction is the belief that cohesion involves acceptance of the traditional pecking order.

    The "Flight 93" post, by the way, comes off as a sick joke: he's arguing that folks should vote for Trump for the same reason that Flight 93 passengers committed suicide by rushing their hijackers rather than wait for the hijackers to kill them (and presumably others). No rational person can claim that Obama or Hillary would affect much change, much less destroy the country, and no Republican (much less a Trump partisan) can plausibly claim to care about the effects of America's self-destruction on the rest of the world. The post tacitly admits that electing Trump would be suicidal, yet like suicide bombers all around the world (indeed, like their old "better dead than red" slogan) were so convinced of their righteousness they no longer cared about the consequences.

    The rest of Decius' argument is more interesting, but still deeply confused. He's not the first Republican to recognize that inequality is a serious problem, not just because it hurts the people who get pushed aside and makes the so-called winners look callous and unjust, but because it threatens to undermine the entire fabric of society. Kevin Phillips, who back around 1970 plotted out The Emerging Republican Majority, wrote three remarkable books in 2004-08 -- American Dynasty, American Theocracy, and Bad Money -- which recognized the problem squarely. And there have been others, but the only policies that would mitigate inequality are ones that move the nation to the left, and the mindset of the conservative movement is constructed like a valve which only permits policy to flow ever further to the right.

    I think the key to Trump's primary victory was in how he reinforced the party base's prejudices, thus showing he was one with them, without embracing the slashed earth destruction of the liberal state which has become unchallenged gospel among conservatives -- therefore the base didn't find him either alarming (like Ted Cruz) or callow (like Marco Rubio). On the other hand, to win the election Trump had to keep the support of dogmatic conservatives and moneyed elites, which he paid for by basically delivering the administration to their hands (cf. Pence and the cabinet of billionaires and their hired guns). The dream that Trump might blaze a new path that breaks from conservative orthodoxy while avoiding the taint of liberal-baiting, even assuming he had the imagination and desire to do so, has thus been foreclosed. The only question is the extent to which he can act as a brake on the damage his administration might cause, not least to him. And he really doesn't strike me as sharp enough to keep himself out of trouble, much less to help anyone else out.

    Yet "intellectuals" will keep constructing fantasies about what a truly Trumpist Trump might do, and in the end will wind up blaming his failures on him not being Trumpist enough. After all, nothing defines an intellectual like one's commitment to pursue unfounded assumptions to ridiculous ends.

  • Justin Talbot-Zorn: Will Donald Trump Be the Most Pro-Monopoly President in History? Given the competition, it's going to be hard to tell. I can't recall any big cases either for Bush or Obama. The Clinton DOJ mounted (and won) a case against Microsoft, which Ashcroft settled as soon as he took over, achieving virtually nothing. But it's becoming more widely recognized that mergers and lack of competition not only drive profits up, increasing inequality, but also kill jobs.

    While Republicans have been skeptical of antitrust enforcement since Robert Bork came on the scene in the late 1970s, Democrats have been part of the problem too. Bill Clinton took antitrust out of the party platform in 1992, and, only in 2016 -- with a push from Bernie Sanders -- was the plank restored.

    This also ties into Brian S Feldman: How to Really Save Jobs in the Heartland.


Also, a few links for further study (briefly noted: