Sunday, November 12, 2017

Weekend Roundup

Matt Taibbi is a dedicated, insightful journalist and a terrific writer, but ever since the 2016 campaign started he's repeatedly gotten tripped up by having to meet advance deadlines for Rolling Stone that have left many of his pieces dated on arrival. His latest is especially unfortunate: A Year After Trump's Election, Nothing Has Changed. The factoid he chose to build his article around was a recent poll arguing that 12 months later, Trump would probably still win the 2016 election. The assumption is that Trump is still running against Hillary Clinton. Trump, of course, has been in the news every day since the election, and is already raising money for 2020 and making rally appearances in active campaigning mode. Aside from her self-serving, self-rationalizing book tour Clinton has largely dropped out of site, conceding she's not running again, and not scoring any points attacking Trump -- not that Trump's stopped attacking her, most recently accusing her of being the real "Russia colluder." Still, the poll in question shows Trump and Clinton in a dead 40-40 tie -- i.e., both candidates are doing worse than they did one year ago, but in the interest of sensationalism, the author gives Trump the tiebreaker ("Given that Trump overperformed in key, blue-leaning swing states, that means he'd probably have won again.")

As it happens, Taibbi's article was written before and appeared after the 2017 elections where Democrats swept two gubernatorial races (in VA and NJ), and picked up fairly dramatic gains in down-ballot elections all over the country. For details, start with FiveThirtyEight's What Went Down on Election Night 2017. Nate Silver explains further:

Democrats had a really good night on Tuesday, easily claiming the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races, flipping control of the Washington state Senate and possibly also the Virginia House of Delegates, passing a ballot measure in Maine that will expand Medicaid in the state, winning a variety of mayoral elections around the country, and gaining control of key county executive seats in suburban New York.

They also got pretty much exactly the results you'd expect when opposing a Republican president with a 38 percent approval rating.

That's not to downplay Democrats' accomplishments. Democrats' results were consistent enough, and their margins were large enough, that Tuesday's elections had a wave-like feel. That includes how they performed in Virginia, where Ralph Northam won by considerably more than polls projected. When almost all the toss-up races go a certain way, and when the party winning those toss-up races also accomplishes certain things that were thought to be extreme long shots (such as possibly winning the Virginia House of Delegates), it's almost certainly a reflection of the national environment.

Silver also notes:

  • President Trump's approval rating is only 37.6 percent.
  • Democrats lead by approximately 10 points on the generic Congressional ballot.
  • Republican incumbents are retiring at a rapid pace; there were two retirements (from New Jersey Rep. Frank LoBiondo and Texas Rep. Ted Poe) on Tuesday alone.
  • Democrats are recruiting astonishing numbers of candidates for Congress.
  • Democrats have performed well overall in special elections to the U.S. Congress, relative to the partisanship of those districts; they've also performed well in special elections to state legislatures.
  • The opposition party almost always gains ground at midterm elections. This is one of the most durable empirical rules of American politics.

The thing I find most striking about these election results is the unity Democrats showed. Mainstream Democrats still bitch about lefties who defected to Ralph Nader in 2000, but as someone who remembers how mainstream Democrats sandbagged McGovern in 1972 (and who's read about how Bryan was repeatedly voted down after 1896), I've long been more concerned about how "centrists" might break if anyone on the left wins the Democratic Party nomination. Yet last week saw a remarkably diverse group of Democrats triumphant. The lesson I take away from the results is that most voters have come to realize is that the problem isn't just Trump and some of his ilk but the whole Republican Party, and that the only hope people have is to unite behind the Democrats, regardless of whether they zig left or zag right. Especially after last week's flap over Donna Brazile's book Hacks, that's good news.

It's also news that belies Taibbi's main thesis: not so much that nothing has changed in the year since Trump's shocking election win as the charge that we're still responding as stupidly to Trump as we did during the campaign. On the former, the administration's worker bees have torn up thousands of pages of regulations meant to protect us from predatory business, major law enforcement organizations have been reoriented to persecute immigrants while ignoring civil rights and antitrust, and the judiciary is being stock with fresh right-wingers. The full brunt of those changes may not have sunk in -- they certainly haven't hit all their intended victims yet -- but even if you fail to appreciate the threats these changes have a way of becoming tangible very suddenly. And given how Republican health care proposals polled down around 20%, you may need to rethink your assumptions about how dumb and gullible the American people are.

Republican proposals on "tax reform" are polling little better than their effort to wreck health care. This polling is helping to stall the agenda, but Republicans in Congress are so ideological, and so beholden to their sponsors, that most are willing to buck and polls and follow their orders. What we've needed all year has been for elections to show Republicans that their choices have consequences, and hopefully that's started to happen now.

But whereas the first half of Taibbi's article can be blamed on bad timing, the second half winds up being even more annoying:

Despising Trump and his followers is easy. What's hard is imagining how we put Humpty Dumpty together again. This country is broken. It is devastated by hate and distrust. What is needed is a massive effort at national reconciliation. It will have to be inspired, delicate and ingenious to work. Someone needs to come up with a positive vision for the entire country, one that is more about love and community than blame.

That will probably mean abandoning the impulse to continually litigate the question of who is worse, Republicans or Democrats. . . . The people running the Democratic Party are opportunists and hacks, and for as long as the despicable and easily hated Trump is president, that is what these dopes will focus on, not realizing that most of the country is crying out for something different.

Well, I'm as eager as the next guy for a high-minded conversation about common problems and reasonable solutions, but that's not what politics is about these days (and probably never was). But let's face it, the immediate problem is that one side's totally unprincipled and totally unreasonable, and the only way past that is to beat that side down so severely no one ever dares utter "trickle down" again. They need to get beat down as bad as the Nazis in WWII -- so bad the stink of collaboration much less membership takes generations to wash off. Then maybe we can pick up the pieces.

As for the "hacks and opportunists," sure they are, but they're approachable in ways the Republicans simply aren't. I've seen good people, hard-working activists, come into Wichita for years and urge us to go talk to our Congressman, as if the person in that office (remember, we're talking about Todd Tiahrt, Mike Pompeo, and Ron Estes) was merely misinformed but fundamentally reasonable. I've met plenty of hacks and opportunists who are at least approachable, but not these guys. They've sold their souls, and they're never coming back.

By the way, Thomas Frank's article on the Trump Day anniversary runs into pretty much the same problem: We're still aghast at Donald Trump -- but what good has that done? Well, the American political system doesn't give you a lot of latitude to repair a botched election -- everyone in office has fixed terms, the option of signing recall petitions is very limited (and doesn't apply to Trump), impeachment is virtually impossible without massive Republican defections -- so sometimes being constantly aghast is all one can do. And while the last three US presidents had their share of intractably obsessive opponents, they pale to the numbers of people constantly on Trump's case. Frank wants to minimize our effect, not least because he wants us to consider bigger, wider, deeper, older faults that Trump makes worse but isn't uniquely responsible for.

Trump's sins are continuous with the last 50 years of our history. His bigotry and racist dog-whistling? Conservatives have been doing that since forever. His vain obsession with ratings, his strutting braggadocio? Welcome to the land of Hollywood and pro wrestling.

His tweeting? The technology is new, but the urge to evade the mainstream media is not. His outreach to working-class voters? His hatred of the press? He lifts those straight from his hero Richard Nixon. His combination of populist style with enrich-the-rich policies? Republicans have been following that recipe since the days of Ronald Reagan. His "wrecking crew" approach to government, which made the cover of Time magazine last week? I myself made the same observation, under the same title, about the administration of George W Bush.

The trends Trump personifies are going to destroy this country one of these days. They've already done a hell of a job on the middle class.

But declaring it all so ghastly isn't going to halt these trends or remove the reprobate from the White House. Waving a piece of paper covered with mean words in Trump's face won't make him retreat to his tower in New York. To make him do that you must understand where he comes from, how he operates, why his supporters like him, and how we might coax a few of them away.

The parade of the aghast will have none of that. Strategy is not the goal; a horror-high is. And so its practitioners routinely rail against Trump's supporters along with Trump himself, imagining themselves beleaguered by a country they no longer understand nor particularly like.

As an engineer, I've long related to the idea that you have to understand something to change it -- at least to change it in a deliberate and viable way -- but politics doesn't seem to work that way. For nearly all of my life, the most powerful political motivator has been disgust. And while that may seem like a recent bad trend, I pretty clearly remember characters like Dick Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and George Wallace. So it really doesn't bother me when people are simply aghast at Trump without understanding the fine points. Sure, at some point we need to get a better idea of what to do, but all the present situation demands is resistance, and as people line up to defend and demean Trump, those connections Frank wants us to learn are getting made.

My tweet for the day:

Wasn't #VeteransDay originally Armistice Day (a celebration of peace at the end of an unprecedentedly horrific war)? I guess when the US went to a permanent war footing, they had to rename it.

Some scattered links this week: