(Kudos if you get the reference.)
(Kudos if you get the reference.)
You’re going along in life, a typical, liberaltarian American millennial, enjoying a materially comfortable life with your friends, who are of every gender, religion, race, sexual orientation and ethnic background. It all seems quite nice.
And then you come to find out that, all of sudden, the Presidency has fallen into the hands of a nasty, misogynistic liar who despises you and all your friends, and who means to ruin the culture you grew up in, all on the pretext of “bringing back the coal jobs”.
“Well, now, that’s quite the caterpillar in my buttermilk,” you say. “What manner of devilry hath wrought this state of affairs?”
For a detailed explanation, see here. But the short answer is, it’s a thing called the Electoral College.
“That’s about the meanest trick I ever heard of,” you cry. “Can’t the Congress do something about this horrible chicanery?”
No, they can’t. Because the problem with the Electoral College is directly tied to the problem with Congress: apportionment of seats has caused both to favor one party. They have systematically designed the system to work for very specific voting blocs.
“Well, none of this sounds like it would stand up in a court of law,” you reply (rather exasperatedly). “I believe I’m going to fight this all the way!”
Good luck with that. Because the outfit running Congress has also stacked the Court in their favor, even violating the spirit of the Constitution to do so. So, even if you somehow get your case to the Supreme Court, don’t count on winning it.
“Has the world gone mad?” you ask in frustration. “I was raised to believe that liberal values had won out all across the developed world, and that racism, misogyny and robber barons were all relics of a bygone era.”
Yes–we were all told that. But as it turns out, liberalism only really controlled one branch of government–the so-called “fourth estate”. And that doesn’t get you as much you might think.
“It all sounds hopeless when you put it like that! They control all the levers of power; and all we have are our social media accounts and some safety pins. What can we do to dig ourselves out of this?”
Well, some people have said we should re-draw the Congressional districts to be more fair—
“Yes,” you exclaim, filled at once with gallant liberal élan. “Let’s go for that!”
–but the problem with that is that to redraw the districts, you need to have political power, and to gain political power…
“…you need to redraw the districts,” you finish, in a defeated monotone, realizing the depth of our plight. “Then it really is impossible, isn’t it?”
No. It’s not impossible.
“Really?” Your ears perk up at this. “I thought you were just now trying to convince me that it was.”
No, no–we just need to think outside the box, that’s all. After all, what are Congressional districts? Are they, once drawn by a given party, henceforth and forevermore ordained to be in favor of that party even unto eternity?
“That’s a pretty highfalutin way of putting it,” you answer, a bit annoyed. “But even so, I can tell you that the answer’s ‘no’.”
Right! Congressional districts are just lines on a map. So just because they are drawn around a specific area…
“…doesn’t mean that the people living in that area have to stay there forever!” you say slowly.
Correct again! You are a sharp one, you know that?
(“Why, thank you,” you reply.)
Here, look at this map of the margins of victory by county in the 2016 Presidential election. Look at all those giant blue columns towering over everything.
“Great Scott! Look at all those surplus blue votes in California!”
I know, right? So my thought is: what if we simply transferred some of those extra blue votes into the red areas?
“You mean… people living in liberal cities should move out into the hinterlands, and cancel out all the redistricting and apportionment shenanigans?”
You ask this cautiously, because you are understandably skeptical that such a crazy idea could ever work. After all, isn’t it awfully difficult for people living in the city to just pack up and move out into the countryside? How will they get jobs and housing?
Good question. Maybe just moving to smaller cities would do the trick, though. Even the cities in the heartland have some liberal enclaves. The local politicians there may be sympathetic to bringing in more liberals. That seems like a promising place to start.
“Look,” you say, striking a more realistic tone. “This all sounds great on paper, but do you really think it can happen? Can we really save America just by moving to different cities?”
Maybe. I’m not saying it’s guaranteed. And certain… interested parties are already passing laws to make it difficult to vote for people who have just moved to a new state. So, it’s by no means a sure thing.
But, at the same time… can you think of a better plan?
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?”
Like so many things Trump says, this makes no sense. But I think I know what he meant.
I think he is alluding to the Nullification Crisis–a conflict between the Federal Government and South Carolina during Jackson’s presidency. The stated reason for the crisis was that South Carolina claimed they didn’t have to abide by Federal tariff laws. The real motives were a bit deeper, and are an obvious prelude to some of the issues that sparked the Civil War.
Jackson himself wrote: “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object.” It was sort of a trial run for the South, which would later use similar states’ rights-style arguments as a reason to preserve slavery, ultimately leading them into conflict with the North.
Trump, of course, knows none of that. But Stephen Bannon, an admirer of Andrew Jackson, probably does know it, and Trump vaguely remembered him saying something about it once. Of course, he couldn’t remember specifics, like that it was about the issue of Federal vs. State power, or that it led to Southern states claiming they had a right to preserve slavery. He just remembered “Andrew Jackson” and “something that led to the Civil War”.
(I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect Bannon is one of those guys who argues that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but was instead about “states’ rights.)
The end result is the totally rambling and nonsensical quote above. But I think on this one, it’s pretty easy to trace Trump’s incoherent babble back to the primordial Bannon-stew that spawned it.
My friend Thingy objected to applying the word “charisma” to Trump, saying:
“I want to use another word for him other than charisma, because it doesn’t seem the right one for me. I always thought charisma was a positive trait, someone people turn to and smile.”
She’s not alone. Several people to whom I’ve told my theory disagree that Trump has charisma.
So, first, I should define what I mean by “charisma”. I’m using Max Weber’s definition:
“[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”
Interestingly, Weber defined charisma as something that originated more with the followers rather than the leader. As the Wikipedia article puts it:
“In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers. The validity of charism is founded on its “recognition” by the leader’s followers.”
That’s my first reason for arguing that Trump has charisma: he’s able to inspire devotion from his followers independent of any specific thing he says or does, but simply by being him.
Now it’s true that Trump’s appeal is definitely not even close to universal. Many people find the mere sight of him repulsive. That argues against the idea that he has charisma. At the very least, shouldn’t people not be repulsed by him if he’s so charismatic?
I’ll admit: part of the reason I say he’s charismatic is that otherwise, it’s hard to see what enabled him to beat not only Clinton, but also all the other Republican primary contenders.
His policies were (and are) vague and change depending on the day, he had no political experience, he had a bad temper, and he had scandals like the Trump University case hanging over him. And all that was before the Access Hollywood tape.
He wasn’t even the most extreme conservative in the primary–that was Senator Ted Cruz. So it’s not even possible to argue that his ideological purity was what got him through.
You might argue, as Thingy does, that Trump’s appeal to racist and ethno-nationalist elements was what propelled him to victory, rather than charisma.
This is very plausible. After all, we know that racist and nationalist groups did endorse Trump. So maybe that was the key to his success.
My counter-argument is that Trump isn’t the first politician to appeal to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Patrick J. Buchanan famously ran on a nationalist platform that attracted the support of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other such groups. Buchanan had a strong-ish primary showing, but never got close to the Republican nomination; let alone the Presidency.
(Ironic historical trivia note: Buchanan ran for and ultimately got the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000. During the Reform party primary, Buchanan was labelled a “Hitler lover” by one of his rival Reform party candidates…. Donald Trump.)
Buchanan was a veteran political operative who had previously worked for Richard Nixon. And his nationalist message in the 1990s was very similar to Trump’s message in 2016. The major differences were that Buchanan’s policies were more detailed, and his speeches were much better-written than Trump’s.
Yet Buchanan never had the kind of electoral success that Trump did. Why not?
One possible explanation is luck. Maybe Buchanan had stronger primary opponents; or maybe the increase in sheer number of primary opponents worked in Trump’s favor.
Let’s say that hypothesis is correct and that Trump just got lucky and drew a better hand than Buchanan did in the primaries. It was still a one-on-one contest in the general election.
“Well, that’s easy to explain,” you say. “Trump lost the popular vote! He only won the election due to a convoluted set of rules about apportionment of Congressional seats being equal to the number of Electors. He won on a technicality.”
True, but even so, it’s kind of amazing that he could even get close enough to be able to win the Electoral College. This is why I resort the charisma theory–because it’s the only thing that explains how he was able to win both the general election and the primaries. Plus, charisma has a strong historical track record that makes it very compelling as an explanation for an election outcome.
All that said, there are other terms that you could use besides “charisma”. “Showmanship” is one that some people have suggested to me. “The gift of the Blarney”, as they say in The Music Man, is what I always think of.
Actually, The Music Man isn’t a bad analogue for Trump. It’s about a con man who gets money by convincing people the youth are being corrupted, and they need to pay him to organize a band to keep them from going bad.
The concept of someone whipping people into a frenzy and profiting off of it is nothing new–this being perhaps the most remarkable example:
This is the thing about Trump (Donald, I mean; not the guy on Trackdown.): He so clearly fits this specific stock-character mold that I think at some level, it became part of his appeal. People like to see a larger-than-life character like that, even when they sort of know he’s lying to them.
Trump may have started out as a property developer, but his real skill lies in entertainment and promotion. He learned some things from his time as a TV star, and he knows how to put on an entertaining show for his audiences.
Call it charisma, call it showmanship–call it a cult of personality. Ultimately, Trump’s one notable talent is his ability to make the crowd look at him.
On CNN this morning they were talking about the fact that Trump has been golfing far more than previous Presidents. What makes this especially ironic is that before he ran for office, he tweeted all sorts of insults at then-President Obama for how much time he spent golfing. And before that, Democrats criticized George W. Bush for this:
(Bush quit golfing shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)
As I’ve discussed in the past, I don’t actually mind that Presidents (or other executives) play golf. Their jobs mostly involve giving people orders, and as long as they have working communications equipment, that can be done from a golf course.
The problem with Trump’s golfing is that he plays at courses he owns, which means his company charges his government support staff for the use of equipment and facilities while they are there to provide security and other support to Trump.
This is a massive conflict of interest, but seemingly no one in government can be bothered to make Trump stop doing it and go play on a course he doesn’t own instead. The press should focus more on that and less on the raw amount of time that Trump spends golfing.
What I expected to happen in the 2016 election was that Clinton would win, but Trump would do better than most people expected, and it would scare the political establishment into making some concessions to the nationalist movement that had propelled Trump to the nomination.
My assumption was that it would be similar to what happened in the 1990s when Ross Perot ran a highly successful campaign based on reducing the budget deficit. He didn’t win, but his support was sufficient to convince both parties they needed to balance the budget. (At least for a while.)
I figured that the Republicans and Democrats would realize they had to do something to appease the fury Trump had awakened.
Looking back, I think this might have been a better outcome for the nationalist faction than the Trump victory has been.
“Over the past 48 hours, the outsider politician who pledged to upend Washington has:
— Abandoned his vow to label China a currency manipulator.
— Rethought his hands-off assessment of the Syrian conflict — and ordered a missile attack.
— Turned his warm approach toward Vladimir Putin decidedly chilly and declared U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low.”
— Decided NATO isn’t actually obsolete, as he had claimed.
— Realized the U.S. Export-Import Bank is worth keeping around.”
In the aftermath of Bannon’s fall from… well, not “grace” exactly, but you know what I mean–Trump has abandoned many of the nationalist ideas he campaigned on.
I’ve often thought that even if I supported nationalist policies, Trump is one of the last people I would want advancing the cause. As I wrote back in October:
Trump himself, the de facto nationalist candidate, has even less interest in the merits of globalism vs. nationalism. His decision to promote nationalist policies is purely pragmatic. He adopted it when he discovered it would enable him to win the Republican nomination. I think that the only reason he won’t abandon it now is because, for a host of reasons, only ardent nationalists will support him at this point. If he drops nationalism, he is left with nothing.
Well, things have changed since then. Now, instead of nothing, Trump’s potential reward for abandoning nationalism is the adulation of the Washington establishment, the political press, and most of the government.
Also, it means he gets to put the most powerful military on earth to work destroying stuff on his command.
Given this, combined with everything we know about Trump’s personality, it’s easy to see why Trump now refuses to, as the expression goes, “dance with the one that brought him”.
It’s not a coincidence that Bannon got removed from the NSC and two days later, Trump orders missile strikes that Bannon and his “alt-right”/”America First” crowd oppose.
My question is: did Trump simply become outraged because he saw the pictures coming out of Syria, and decided he didn’t care what Bannon said? Or is this the result of Trump’s long-term dissatisfaction at the series of apparent failures spearheaded by Bannon?
Or is it that Trump is now listening more to his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner than he is to Bannon? (Possibly as a result of said Bannon-led failures?)
There are a number of different explanations, all of which suggest that Trump is pretty impulsive and won’t hesitate to radically change his mind in short order.
But of course, that goes both ways. If Bannon can get thrown in the doghouse this easily, he can get pulled back out just as quickly. And that’s the main takeaway for me: Trump acts quickly–some would say decisively, others would say recklessly. Even his apparent friendly relations with Russia couldn’t quell his desire to take action in Syria. It must have really been important to him, because it meant reversing one of his core campaign positions, and losing a lot of his most zealous supporters.
I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?” Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”
Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.
McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.
And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment. In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.
For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.
It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.
The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.
No, the real problem is that the serious stories in politics are slow-moving and gradual phenomena, and are imperceptible over the course of a week or even a year. You have to be able to see the big picture, not just which party is winning or losing on a given day, in order to understand them.
I was right there with you, watching that disaster unfold on the Rachel Maddow show last night. Not to brag, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t going to live up to the hype even before the show started:
Will it be Watergate or Al Capone’s vault? #TrumpTaxes https://t.co/VcJSXefzY0
— Berthold Gambrel (@BertholdGambrel) March 14, 2017
In general, if something is truly-earth shattering news, they will tell you about it right away, not tease it out with a countdown clock. That’s why election night coverage isn’t: “You’ll be shocked when you see who won the Presidency! Details at 11.”
David Cay Johnston, the journalist who says he received the tax forms in the mail, allowed that it was possible that Trump himself might have leaked them. However, the fact that Trump has tweeted angrily about it afterwards has led people to think that he probably didn’t leak them after all:
Does anybody really believe that a reporter, who nobody ever heard of, “went to his mailbox” and found my tax returns? @NBCNews FAKE NEWS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 15, 2017
People, in my opinion, are way too gullible. The wording of Trump’s tweet is highly suspicious. For one thing, he phrases it in the form of a question–he doesn’t say it didn’t happen; he just asks if people believe it.
Now, I admit: I myself am a bit skeptical of Johnston’s story. He says he got a package in the mail that contained these tax returns. Apparently, he doesn’t know who sent it to him or how they obtained it. Which would raise questions as to its veracity, except that the White House almost immediately verified it last night!
Either Johnston is an idiot who didn’t think it was worth looking into why he got the President’s tax returns in the mail–very unlikely, since he’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist–or he’s lying to protect a source.
So, Trump (a) knew immediately that it really was his 2005 1040 form and (b) questioned Johnston’s story as to how he got it. This strongly suggests that Trump knows perfectly well how Johnston got it–which in turn suggests that some agent acting on orders from Trump gave it to him.
As Johnston himself admitted, the tax forms are actually favorable to Trump. They prove he did pay taxes for at least that one year, and show little evidence of nefarious dealings.
The end result is that Rachel Maddow got humiliated. (I’m sorry; I usually like Maddow’s work a lot, but she really screwed up here.) More importantly, though, Trump can now use this episode as an excuse to brush off all further questions about his taxes. Journalists won’t ask about it because they don’t want to screw up like Maddow did.
And what’s worse is that if anyone does somehow get hold of more of his taxes, people will be less inclined to pay attention to it. “It’s another publicity stunt,” they’ll say.
It’s true: I’ve always found the whole Trump-won’t-release-his-taxes story to be a bit overhyped. Yes, it was bad and a violation of historical precedent that he didn’t release them. But, on the list of “things that are bad and violate historical precedent” that Trump has done, it’s far from the worst.
And then there’s fact that there can’t be anything that damning in them. They are taxes. They go to the Federal government. Logically, Trump is not going to put down anything illegal that he might be doing in his taxes.
As a thought experiment, let’s say the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Trump are true, and he’s actually colluding with the Russian government. He’s not going to put that in his taxes. There is no box that asks “Are you a spy for Russia?” on tax forms.
Furthermore, any circumstantial evidence that would suggest illegal activity by Trump, he would also not put in his taxes. If someone is already willing to commit crimes, he’s not going to hesitate to commit tax fraud to cover them up.
I’m not saying Trump has done any of this, but even if he has, there won’t be hard evidence of it in his taxes. At best, there might be circumstantial evidence, which Trump can dismiss with a simple “FAKE NEWS. Sad!” tweet.