There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016. All the major groups have their version of it. The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:
“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization. Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”
That seems pretty reasonable. But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:
“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted. This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”
This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.
The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well. It can be summarized as follows:
“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”
All of these explanations are fairly similar. In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.
Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.
But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis. If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbartor some other site. You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.
In other words, you want to know what really happened.
Before we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine. (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)
George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships. He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.
Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.
In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis. The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.
And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.
The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting. In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.
In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:
“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”
This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests. In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.
Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.
Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.
Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.
Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power. The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.
There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.
This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right. Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law. Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.
Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.
This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic. Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.
The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it. Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.
Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking. Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing. Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.
As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.
What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.
Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.
Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?
Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences. (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)
Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring. The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.
The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer. Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.
The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.
I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”
“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.
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.
Well, it’s been about 8 days since Donald Trump officially became President. Here are some facts that have jumped out to me about his administration:
1. Trump is influenced heavily by what he sees on TV, especially CNN and Fox News.
Starting with the crowd size kerfuffle, it’s clear that image matters a lot to President Trump. He was upset when he saw reports on CNN comparing his smaller crowd with the one at the Inauguration of President Obama in 2009. He was so incensed that he sent his newly-minted spokesman out to argue with the Press Corps about it. This was widely seen as a huge disaster, since it was done in such haste and with such lack of preparation, and was ultimately a losing argument anyway.
That has been a pattern throughout the week: Trump reacts to what he sees on television. Perhaps the most striking example was this:
14 minutes apart: Fox says “ungrateful traitor,” Trump says “ungrateful traitor,” Fox says “weak leader,” Trump says “weak leader.” pic.twitter.com/f7urTOUG1L
Bottom line: Trump watches the news, and responds to what he sees. This is interesting because it inadvertently makes Fox News and CNN way more powerful than they already were, since they are clearly influencing the opinions of the most powerful man in the world.
If I were an executive at either network, I’d be delighted by this. It means that their reports now carry unprecedented weight. This could be used to shape the President’s agenda in a variety of ways.
2. Stephen Bannon is the driving force behind the administration’s actions.
Not really a surprise, but good to have it confirmed. Bannon’s hand was obvious in Trump’s inaugural address, and all subsequent actions have conformed to Bannon’s pro-nationalist, anti-globalist philosophy.
Clearly, Bannon is the main guy Trump listens to. What is not yet clear is whether Trump’s other advisors are ok with this, or if they are disagreeing with Bannon and being overruled. I suspect, based on the leaks that have occurred so far, that at least some of them are not satisfied with this state of affairs.
There appear to be two distinct lines of command that go as follows:
Note which one of these branches is tasked with crafting substantive action, and which one was used for a pointless and unwinnable argument with the press.
“It’s a failing show, it’s not funny. Alec Baldwin’s a disaster, he’s terrible on the show and, by the way, I don’t mind some humor but it’s terrible.”
People have again expressed amazement at how thin-skinned the guy is. And he is, but there’s actually a bit more going on here besides that.
SNL isn’t exactly the only shop in the Trump-mocking business. Making fun of the President isn’t a niche or novel concept, and Trump is currently very unpopular. Lots of comics and satirists are mocking him. MAD magazine mocks the hell out of him, and I’ve yet to hear him complain about it.
If Trump were just hellbent on responding to everyone who mocks him, he’d never do anything else. No, he singles out SNL.
I have a theory: NBC, which broadcasts SNL, is also the network that aired Trump’s show The Apprentice. I suspect Trump has some feud with the upper management at NBC, and so is fighting a proxy war against them by attacking one of their shows.
Another frequent target of Trump’s wrath is CNN, which he repeatedly attacks as “dishonest” or lately, “fake news”. But CNN isn’t the only news organization to report negative stories about him–CBS does that too, as does ABC. And PBS does too. (Yes, I know he plans to shut that down, but that’s a standard Republican wish-list item. I don’t recall him tweeting about it.)
It makes more sense once you know that the President of CNN is one Jeff Zucker, who had been President of NBC until a few years ago. In fact, Zucker originally signed Trump for The Apprentice. I don’t know all the details, but it seems likely that Trump had some sort of falling out with him. I hear Trump can be temperamental, believe it or not.
My point is, Trump isn’t just randomly lashing out at any group that insults him. Rather, he is deliberately lashing out at specific organizations tied to people whom he most likely personally dislikes.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
Donald Trump: President-Elect Barack Obama: Outgoing President John Roberts: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (And a good judge too!) Bill Clinton: A former President Hillary Clinton: A former Secretary of State Al Gore: A former Vice-President Chorus of Senators, Representatives, and Townspeople.
Act I. Scene: Washington D.C. A frigid winter day. The familiar landmarks seen in the background. TRUMP discovered standing at podium.
TRUMP: Well, well, at long last the fruits of my eighteen months’ labor are to be crowned with inestimable glory. At noon today, I shall finally achieve the august rank of President, defying all the many baleful prophecies set forth by the ignorant laymen and avowed antagonists of my singular quest. The prospect is Elysian–big league!
(Enter BARACK OBAMA, BILL and HILLARY CLINTON, AL GORE and Chorus. Chorus seen begging OBAMA in a furious state of agitation.)
OBAMA: There’s no getting out of it. The law is the law. At 12 o’ clock today, I relinquish control of the office to my elected successor.
(Chorus much dejected)
OBAMA (aside): Never mind my misgivings about his personality, or his total contempt for my liberal policy agenda; not to mention his hiring investigators to find evidence that I am not a legitimate president. I’m a constitutional lawyer–it’s built into my, er, constitution– and respect for the law, unpleasant as it may be, is paramount! (aloud, to TRUMP) Well look, Donald, I certainly wish you the best with your efforts to undo everything I have done. I have heard it said that you wish to, er, how does it go? “Make America Great Again” by “draining the swamp” is that right?
TRUMP: Yes, that sounds like something I would say.
OBAMA: I know we have had our differences over the years, but I do hope we can put those behind us, and work together in a spirit of mutual bipartisan cooperation for the betterment of the country.
TRUMP (aside): This fellow still thinks I listen to people. Sad! (aloud) Beautiful, very very beautiful! I’ll have my people look into it.
(Enter CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, looking harried and nervous)
TRUMP: What’s the matter with you?
OBAMA (checking his watch): The inauguration does not occur for another half-hour yet.
ROBERTS (frenzied): Stop–stop, both of you! There is a problem here.
TRUMP: Problem? What do you mean? Explain!
ROBERTS: Mr. Trump’s investigators have just completed their report on President Obama’s birth certificate and by extension, eligibility to hold office!
(OBAMA and TRUMP both much affected)
TRUMP: I had forgotten all about that!
ROBERTS: Yes, well it seems that Mr. Obama’s birth certificate really was a forgery! They fabricated it using someone else’s birth certificate.
(OBAMA staggers in disbelief.)
TRUMP (Triumphantly): I knew it all along!
ROBERTS: But there’s more to it than that–it seems that the certificate they used was yours, Mr. Trump! They simply wrote “Hawaii” over “New York”.
ROBERTS: So, technically you’ve already served two terms–
OBAMA (clapping TRUMP on the back) –and a fine two terms they were, if I may say so myself.
ROBERTS: –and you can’t serve a third.
TRUMP: This is ridiculous–then who is going to be President?
ROBERTS: I’ve checked into that–the results of the last three elections are all invalid, and so we can’t use those. And the winner of the two before that is obviously ineligible to serve as well. As such, I have taken the liberty of convening the court to overturn the results of Bush v. Gore.
(All gasp. ROBERTS motions GORE to step forward.)
ROBERTS: I give you: the Next President of the United States!
ALL except TRUMP: Hurrah!
GORE: Fallacy somewhere, I fancy.
All except TRUMP exeunt in jubilation. TRUMP lowers his head dejectedly.