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The U.S. Capitol Building, as depicted in the post-apocalyptic video game “Fallout 3”

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” With those words, written more than 200 years ago, the authors of the Federalist Papers explained the most important safeguard of the American constitutional system. They then added this promise: “In republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates.” Congress enacts laws, appropriates funds, confirms the president’s appointees. Congress can subpoena records, question officials, and even impeach them. Congress can protect the American system from an overbearing president.

But will it?

As politics has become polarized, Congress has increasingly become a check only on presidents of the opposite party. Recent presidents enjoying a same-party majority in Congress—Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, George W. Bush from 2003 through 2006—usually got their way. And congressional oversight might well be performed even less diligently during the Trump administration.

–“How To Build An Autocracy”, by David Frum. The Atlantic. Read the whole thing.

Frum actually understates the case that Congress is weakening. The decline of the Legislative branch has been going on for at least a century.

It takes a long time to unravel a system of government like the one the Founders created.  “Erosion” is a fitting way to describe it–it’s occurred slowly, over generations.  But there is one entity that has consistently worked over the decades to reduce the power of the legislature.

That entity is… the United States Congress.

“Wait, what?” you say. “Congress is taking power away from itself?  Why would it do that?”

Well, it’s a long story.  And, as you probably suspected, it all began with the increasing costs of farming in the late 1800s.

Confused yet?  Trust me; this is going to be a long slog, but at the end of it, you will have a better understanding of the United States government.  If that seems boring or depressing, watch this video of Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones playing with kittens before you start. It always cheers me up.

All ready now? Let’s go.

(more…)

This weekend, in response to the Women’s Marches in various cities across the country, the new President tweeted:

The President of the United States had 140 characters to comment on massive protests against him and his policies, and he used 24 of them to offer the advice that celebrities were detrimental to the protest effort.

Now, why would he bother to do that? What interest does he have in teaching them how to protest more effectively?

Answer: the celebrities are actually very effective.  Thus, he is trying to discourage the Democrats and other groups opposed to him from utilizing them.

Let me repeat what I said in my first post on this subject:

[Celebrity supporters] made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

Again, it’s instructive to look at examples of a similar phenomenon from the past: Democrats advising Republicans on what sort of candidate they should run to win elections.

“You can never win with somebody so unpalatable to the diverse, socially liberal electorate”, they said. “Republicans need moderates like McCain and Romney if they want to win elections”.

This line of thinking was so influential that prominent Republicans bought into it.

The Democrats, meanwhile, convinced themselves that running against an extreme candidate like Trump would mean an easy win for them.

This was conventional wisdom in both the Republican and Democratic establishments. And it was wrong. The Republicans didn’t win with moderates, but did win with an extremist, completely contrary to what the Democrats (and the moderate Republicans) said would happen.

Let me repeat myself: Democrats would be wise not to listen to the advice given by their opponents.

I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

 

Everyone is talking about the above speech.  Trump himself, who can never resist a celebrity feud, was compelled to respond on Twitter.  Apparently, that took priority over listening to intelligence briefings.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain, also tweeted about it, saying:

This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how – you will help him get re-elected

This echoes many commentators, both Republicans and Democrats, who blame Hillary Clinton’s loss partly on her support from various actors, singers, and other celebrities. It made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

President Obama received overwhelming celebrity support in both of his campaigns. That didn’t hurt him a bit.  If anything, it helped, because many people admire celebrities and respect their opinions.

Moreover, Trump went out of his way to bring up all his celebrity endorsements, even though he had way fewer than Clinton.  He would even claim celebrities supported him when it wasn’t clear that they did.

So, if that’s the case, why do we keep hearing this “blame-the-celebs” line?

Simple: Republicans fear the Democrats’ famous and influential supporters.  So they are trying to stop them.

This is nothing new. Lots of Democrats (and moderate Republicans) said Republicans could never win with someone like Trump as their nominee.  They claimed they could not get enough votes with a candidate so widely despised.

But clearly, that claim was incorrect. And many of the people who made it probably knew it was incorrect. The real reason they did not want the Republicans to nominate Trump was precisely because they feared he would win.

It is the same thing here: Republicans are attempting to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage in mobilizing voters using celebrity endorsements. Democrats should not listen to them.

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According to Intelligence reports, Russian hackers influenced the U.S. Presidential election by hacking and leaking Democratic emails.  The Russians also sought to influence the election in a number of other ways, all of which fall broadly under the label of “propaganda.”

Moreover, the goal of all these operations, the reports say, was to help Trump’s campaign and hurt Clinton’s.

All this has left many of the Republicans–normally National Security hawks–in a bit of a quandary. Most of them seem to (at least implicitly) subscribe to the following view:

“Yes, it is bad that Russia hacked communications belonging to one of our political parties.  And yes, we should probably stop them from doing that in the future.

But, since there is no evidence that Russia tampered with the actual vote totals, it in no way casts doubt on the election or makes it illegitimate. The people voted in a fair election, and Trump won enough electoral votes to win the election.”

The argument can be distilled down to “it’s not our fault if people voted for us on the basis of foreign propaganda.”

There seems to be a sort of “gentleman’s agreement” among the major powers of the world that they won’t interfere in each others’ elections.  But, to quote the movie Lawrence of Arabia: “There may be honor among thieves, but there’s none in politicians.” So ti’s not really surprising that the agreement got violated.

Hillary Clinton said she believed Russia carried out this operation because Putin had “personal beef” with her. Apparently, Putin blames her for interfering in Russian elections in 2011, and took this opportunity to get revenge.

This makes me wonder: would the Russians have conducted an operation like this no matter who Clinton’s opponent was? Or was it motivated by Trump’s business ties and friendly stance toward the Russians?  In other words, were the Russians primarily trying to hurt Clinton, or to help Trump?

That may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I think it is a question worth asking.

Probably the best chapter in Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal was about his renovation of the Wollman ice rink.  Trump, operating as a private businessman, could get the job done much faster and cheaper than the city bureaucracy could. That was good.

Trump claimed he did it to be a nice guy.  But I don’t think that was it.  I think he did it because he knew he could get publicity, and that he could make his nemesis, then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch, look stupid.  It was about getting attention and getting revenge, as it often is with Trump.

But that’s ok.  Who cares what his reasons were? He did something good.

This gives me an idea for how the Democrats might be able to prevent the Trump Presidency from being a total disaster: trick him into thinking he is getting revenge on them by doing stuff that they want.

I’m not sure precisely how to do this.  I think even Trump would see through it if Pelosi were to say “Oh, don’t you dare make sure all Americans have affordable healthcare, Donald. That sure would make me mad.”  Or if Obama said “Boy, Donald; the egg would really be on my face if you appointed Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Then I’d just look silly.”

They will have to be more subtle about it. (Not too subtle, though. He wouldn’t pick up on it then.) But it’s worth considering.

JANE: We’re gonna be outnumbered…

DAN: To hell with numbers. We had the Johnnies outnumbered well and truly. You know, it took us four years to do what we should’ve done in a few months–because they had Will and Purpose. If you’ve got those two things… numbers ain’t shit.

–dialogue from Jane Got A Gun.

ATRIS: You offer your aid? After turning your back on me… on the Council? The Jedi is not something you embrace out of fear.  The commitment is stronger than that–something you never seemed to understand.

EXILE: But I always understood war. And that’s who you need.

–dialogue from Knights of the Old Republic II

You know which political slogan annoyed me most, of all the ones used in the 2016 campaign? More even than the stupid “lock her up” chant or the abbreviation of Trump’s stolen campaign catchphrase to the caveman-sounding “MAGA”?
This one:
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Seemingly, you can still get these from Clinton’s campaign site.

There are so many things wrong with this slogan. For one, it repeats the opponent’s name.  That’s a huge marketing mistake.  It would be like if Microsoft made a line of devices and marketed them with the line “they will be the apple of your eye”.

That’s not even the biggest problem.  The biggest problem is that it illustrates a fundamental flaw with modern liberalism: liberals don’t know when hate is an appropriate response.

This wasn’t always the way.  The old liberals of the early 1900s had quite a bit of hatred in their hearts for those who oppressed the working people.  I think the big reason that the throwback-style socialist Bernie Sanders inspired such a following was that he seemed genuinely furious about what he perceived as injustice in the world.

Love is a wonderful emotion, but it is not a great motivating emotion to win political struggles.  Hate is.

Moreover, talking about “love” and “hate”in the abstract is pointless.  Love of what?  Hatred of what?  These are the key questions you need to answer.  If somebody says they are motivated by love, that sounds good. But if they go on to say they are motivated by love of the pure-blooded Aryan Fatherland, that sounds not so good.

It’s healthy to hate evil.  But in 2016, liberals–who battled such evils as sexism, racism, child abuse, misogyny,  and countless others–forgot that they were fighting against something.  They thought it was enough to proclaim their love for everyone, and that by so doing, they would defeat opponents who were driven by hatred of liberalism.

We all know which side won.

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2016 U.S. Presidential Election results by county. Image via Wikipedia. Made by user Ali Zifan.

The big lesson from the 2016 election is that hate is a more effective tool for rallying your base than love is.

Now, this isn’t the whole story. After all, Clinton actually won the popular vote. But, as I discussed, the liberals have another problem in that they are all packed in cities and a few states on the coasts.  In a lot of states, they are completely surrounded, as the map above shows.

In military terms, the Republicans can effectively lay siege to Democratic stronghold cities.  Look at my hometown of Columbus, Ohio–it’s that blue dot in the middle of the state. We liberals are concentrated in small areas that are physically cut off from one another, surrounded by lots of very angry people who hate liberals and who have tons of weapons.  This is an extremely bad situation.

Since the election, there have been lots of anti-Trump protests and demonstrations. But ironically, almost all of them have taken place in cities and states that are liberal strongholds.  That’s not effective protesting.  There’s no point in blocking traffic in a heavily Democratic city to protest a Republican President.

Contrast that with the Republicans during the campaign: they would pour in to the heavily Democratic cities from the surrounding countryside to see their hero speak at his vitriolic rallies.

These, then, are the lessons that liberals must learn from the 2016 defeat:

  1. A little righteous hatred now and then can be a good thing.
  2. Take the fight to the opponent

 

Before we begin, here’s some irony for you:

 

Well, I was obviously wrong when I predicted that Clinton would win comfortably.

To be honest, I screwed this up badly.  My gut instinct told me that Trump fit the model of a winning candidate, and  Clinton fit the model of a losing one. Why? Because of the all-important “charisma” factor, which I have now spent nearly seven years analyzing.

But because most polls said otherwise, and because most experts thought it was impossible, and because of all the appalling things Trump has done and said, I went with the conventional wisdom and assumed the charisma theory wouldn’t apply.

Instead, it was vindicated.

I had the following exchange on Twitter with Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote the original essay that introduced me to the charisma theory of politics:

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I know I’ve said it a million times, but read Graham’s essay. Parts of it are prescient:

The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were so similar in that respect that they might have been brothers. Good thing for the Democrats that their screen lets through an occasional Clinton, even if some scandal results.

Talking of which, this post of mine from 2010 was also rather disturbing to reread:

The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.

What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time…

…So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.

The point here is that even people like me and Graham, who had devoted a lot of time and thought to how this sort of thing could happen, failed to realize it even as it was happening.

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about charisma, about rural nationalism, about political advertising–even about Vladimir Putin–and in this election, almost all of it played out like I would have expected, if I’d only trusted what I knew, rather than assuming that others knew better.

Of everything I’ve written about politics, I suppose this post was the most explicitly relevant:

The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign.  The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.

But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning.  Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.

The Republican I was thinking of was Palin. Trump wasn’t even on the radar at that point.

And, as it turned out, being undisciplined and arrogant was no hindrance to running a successful campaign.

That said, the truly arrogant ones here were political analysts–including myself–who refused to believe in what we were seeing; who stubbornly clung to the notion that a candidate as obnoxious and scandal-plagued as Trump could not win, even after he proved us wrong once.

If I had simply been honest with myself about how Trump’s campaign corresponded to everything I knew about how politics works, maybe I would have been more vocal about the surprisingly high probability he would win.  And that might have motivated more people on my side to do things differently.

Paradoxically, if more people had believed he could win, his chance of actually winning probably would have declined.

I remember when I was 15 years old reading in a book of military history about how, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon ignored some of his own long-standing tactical rules, leading to his defeat.  At the time, I made a mental note that ignoring one’s own beliefs was usually a bad idea.

The warfare analogy is pretty apt in a larger sense, too. Trump’s campaign resembled a lot of successful military campaigns throughout history, in the sense that it won by being smaller and more able to change and adapt quickly than its larger, better-funded, but also more conventional opponent. (This is also the same logic that leads to small startups defeating big corporations.)

Finally, the Trump campaign won by challenging conventional wisdom and proving it wrong.  Nearly all professional political strategists took for granted that you couldn’t win by appealing to nationalist sentiments.  Trump’s campaign challenged that idea, and proved it incorrect.

I’ll have much more later.  This is going to require a lot of work.

Supporters of both Presidential candidates will often say the opponent is “just out for power”, or “doesn’t care about principles–they just want more power”.  The Republicans constantly say Clinton is so corrupt, and involved in so many scandals, that it shows she just wants power and will stop at nothing to get it.

Democrats say that Trump is trying to gain the powers of the Presidency to satisfy his own ego, and that his willingness to lie, scream and bully his way into office reveals him as a power-hungry maniac.

If you asked Clinton if she wants power, she would probably say no, she wants to “bring us together” and “help people”. If you asked Trump the same question, he would probably say no, he just wants to “fix things” and “make America great again”.

In politics, it works like this: “I want to help people and solve problems. They are power-hungry monsters.”

The truth is, both of them want power.  How do I know this?  Because there is no other reason to want to be President.  Actually, I imagine that being President is fairly miserable, since you can’t go anywhere or do anything on your own, and you and your family live under constant threat.  The reward for all that is the power.

“Power” is just the ability to get things done–to accomplish meaningful change.  But it has a negative connotation. Nobody gets mad when someone says “I want to make a difference in the world”, but they do if someone says “I want power”.  And yet, they are the same thing.  Power = ability to make a difference.

The real question is “what will someone do with power once they have it?”  That’s the important part.  To figure that out, you have to study the candidates’ policies, background and statements.  But all politicians try to sidestep this by using the rhetorical maneuver that condemns their opponent for the simple fact they are seeking office.

For the record: Clinton seems likely to use Presidential power in much the same way that both her husband and Barack Obama did as President.  A Clinton administration would be close to a third term of Obama.  Trump, on the other hand, seems very impulse-driven and knee-jerk.  If he had power, he would probably do whatever struck him as a good idea at any given moment.

In the words of Prince Feisal in the movie Lawrence of Arabia: “You may judge which is more reliable”.

The most effective part of Trump’s speech was a brief, apparently ad-libbed line.  The crowd had begun chanting “lock her up”, a phrase they had used all week and which many commentators felt crossed the line from heated rhetoric into a promise to jail political opponents, in the style of a third-world dictator. (Or Woodrow Wilson)

But Trump, for once, didn’t egg the crowd on, but instead pulled them back.  “Let’s defeat her in November” he said, in a tone of friendly correction.

This was a mix of showman Trump–guy who can play the crowd–and politician Trump, who can remain within the bounds of political propriety.  He used his rapport with the angry mob to calm, not to incite.

It reminded me of one time in ’08 when Obama was speaking about McCain and the crowd started booing McCain’s name.  Obama quickly said “You don’t need to boo, you just need to vote.”  It made him seem very (dare I say it?) classy and professional about the whole thing.

Granted, Trump has many more inappropriate remarks to make up for than Obama did at this point–but still, he showed he can at least momentarily maintain discipline and not give in to the blind rage of his cheering base. Whether he can do that over a long period remains to be seen.  My bet is he can’t.