Sunday, November 12, 2017
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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:
Matthew Yglesias: The 4 most important stories in politics this week:
Democrats won a landslide in Virginia; New allegations surfaced about
Roy Moore; The House moved ahead with a tax bill; Senate Republicans
unveiled a different bill. Other Yglesias pieces this week:
Democrats ought to invest in Doug Jones's campaign against Roy Moore.
I agree, but less because I think "Roy Moore is dangerously unfit for
office" -- true enough, but he's angling to replace Jeff Sessions, who
was dangerously unfit himself -- than because I think Democrats should
challenge everywhere a reversal of the slide toward oligarchy would help
most of the people. There's a risk, of course, that Democrats may focus
so much on Moore's peculiar degeneracy they fail to make their best case,
but as Yglesias concludes, "hey, you never know."
Gary Cohn explains the GOP tax plan: "The most excited group out there
are big CEOs": easy to see why, as the main effect is to shore up
the already booming stock market, but Cohn sees more benefits in "the
whole trickle-down through the economy."
It's not just Virginia: Maine has a crucial lesson for Democrats:
"Medicaid expansion ran well ahead of Hillary Clinton, and that serves
as a potent reminder that the Democratic Party's basic bread-and-butter
promise of taxing rich people to provide useful public services is more
popular than the broader Democratic gestalt."
2 ways of reading Trump's objections to the AT&T/Time Warner
merger: Some hints that the Trump administration has surprisingly
found an antitrust case to get interested in, mostly because it involves
their arch-nemesis CNN. Still, would be a good thing if the merger didn't
go through. Last section subtitled "It would be nice to have a trustworthy
But we don't have a president like that. We have a president who lies
constantly, who disregards the norms of American government, who's openly
disdainful of the social function of a free press, and who's set up his
administration in a way that seems to generally sideline expertise while
opening the door to massive financial conflicts of interest.
A simple, boring lesson from Democrats' landslide in Virginia and
beyond: "There is no microtargeting magic -- when you win you do
Being out of power has boosted Democratic enthusiasm, making it easier
to recruit more and better candidates and easier to turn voters out for
lower profile elections. At the same time, Trump is broadly unpopular
nationwide which flips some voters into the D column while anti-inspiring
others to stay home. In an atmosphere like that, a lot of different kinds
of candidates using a lot of different kinds of strategies can win in a
lot of different kinds of places.
Democrats picked up 2 seats in the Georgia state legislature, too.
Notable fact here is that both seats were not only previously held by
Republicans, they were uncontested in 2016. Shows Democrats do better
when they actually run candidates.
Northam's win in the Virginia governor race shows the GOP is in big
What's really at stake in Tuesday's elections.
The real fix for gerrymandering is proportional representation.
The Republican tax plan's original sin: The big corporate tax cut,
especially the idée fixe of reducing the rate from 35% to 20%.
There's simply no way to make that work -- even with what amounts to a
long-term tax increase on middle incomes, which seems to be what
"reform" is adding up to.
Anne Applebaum: Trump is part of the Saudi story: As Crown Prince
Mohammed bin Salman consolidates his power base, he's arrested rivals
and charged them with "corruption" -- Applebaum notes that Putin and
Xi have leveled that same charge against their own rivals, and also:
But Trump is also part of the story. By his own example -- through his
disdain for courts and for the media, through his scorn for ethical
norms -- Trump has cast doubt on the Western model. He may even have
encouraged the Saudi prince more directly. Jared Kushner, Trump's
son-in-law, a living embodiment of American nepotism, visited Riyadh
for long talks -- officially to promote Mideast peace, but perhaps
business and politics came up, too -- in the days before the arrest.
The image of two princelings, scheming late into the night, makes a
textbook illustration of the decline of American prestige and American
values, even in a country that is closely allied to the United States.
Still, Saudi Arabia seems to have graduated from the allies that
follow America's lead to become (like Israel) an ally that "wags the
dog" according to its own peculiar logic. See several recent pieces:
Dean Baker: Blaming Inequality on Technology: Sloppy Thinking for the
Educated. Also by Baker (from Sept. 15), a review of Yanis Varoufakis'
Adults in the Room: The Sordid Tale of Greece's Battle Against Austerity
and the Troika.
Katheryn Brightbill: Roy Moore's alleged pursuit of a young girl is the
symptom of a larger problem in evangelical circles.
Nancy Cook: How Flynn -- and the Russia scandal -- landed in the West
Wing: This is amusing:
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the early transition chief for a newly
elected Donald Trump, and his team had deep reservations about Flynn,
fearing the retired three-star Army general who had been ousted from
the Obama administration suffered from poor judgment and espoused
far-out ideas on foreign policy. . . .
But when Christie was fired from his transition perch on Nov. 11 --
replaced by soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence -- Flynn and former
White House chief strategist Steve Bannon celebrated by tossing binders
full of potential personnel picks, carefully culled by Christie's team,
into trash bins with a sense of ceremonial glee.
Note that Christie's shortlist was long on generals -- in fact, it
doesn't appear he considered anyone else.
Cora Currier/Danielle Marie Mackey: Trump Administration Suddenly Cancels
Refugee Program That Saved Lives of Central American Children.
Peter Dreier: Most Americans Are Liberal, Even If They Don't Know It:
A lot of polling data, on issues rather than policies, e.g.: "78 percent
of Americans say we need sweeping new laws to reduce the influence of
money in politics"; "76 percent believe the wealthiest Americans should
pay higher taxes."
Thomas Frank: Why have we built a paradise for offshore
Jacob Greene/Allison McManus: Mysterious Deaths and Forced Disappearances.
This is Egypt's U.S.-Backed War on Terror.
Gardiner Harris: State Department to Offer Buyouts in Effort to Cut Staff.
Well, what would Exxon do? Still, I find it incomprehensible that all of
Tillerson's efforts to eliminate useless State Dept. jobs have still left
an appointment in the works for Sam Brownback. Still, note this:
Some employees will not be eligible for the buyouts, including many
members of the security, information technology, medical and building
staffs, areas in which the department is trying to hire more people
or is offering bonuses for them to stay.
Fred Kaplan: Lost in Asia: "Trump's trip shows what happens when a
world leader is set adrift in the world with no strategy or goals."
Sarah Kliff: Obamacare just had its best week in months: Sign-ups
during the first week of open enrollment are up, despite Trump executive
orders to cut advertising and support. Maine approved a referendum to
expand Medicaid, and Virginia will lean more toward expanding.
Paul Krugman: Leprechaun Economics and Neo-Lafferism: One of a
series of posts on economist claims about growth under the Republicans'
"tax reform" bill. Due to several assumptions I don't begin to buy,
the theory is that lower corporate taxes will be matched by a massive
capital inflow that will increase GDP. Since such investment will
return profits abroad, Krugman argues that GNI (Gross National Income)
is the more relevant measure, and that will be much less than growth
in GDP (again, assuming that any such thing happens). "Leprechaun"
refers to Ireland, which has attracted a lot of foreign investment
with low corporate tax rates, so is the most relevant example (but
a very small country compared to the US, so effects are likely to
be much less notable here). Lafferism is the theory that tax cuts
generate such enormous economic growth they actually increase tax
revenues. Neo-Lafferism is the next formulation after Lafferism
itself has been proven to be total horseshit.
Dara Lind: Thousands of immigrants are losing their DACA protections
Robinson Meyer: Syria Is Joining the Paris Agreement. Now What?
Well, that leaves the United States as the only country to reject
the climate accord.
Charlie Savage: Trump Is Rapidly Reshaping the Judiciary. Here's How.
Jon Swaine: Offshore cash helped fund Steve Bannon's attacks on Hillary