Before you do anything else, read this Andrew Sullivan column. It’s a few months old, but still incredibly relevant in many ways, and it’s worth your time to read the whole thing. Don’t worry; I’ll wait.
All done? Good.
The part I loved most was this:
“In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.”
This is a highly significant point. On a superficial level it’s related to what I wrote about here–the fact that so many of America’s problems stem from the high concentration of young, talented, well-educated people in a few cities.
But there’s also a deeper significance to it–the Oswald Spengler quote I referenced here that “the landscape exercises a secret force upon the extinction of the old [culture] and the appearance of the new one,” applies.
Sorry to reference my own posts, but my point here is that Sullivan has very clearly articulated something I’ve subconsciously thought about but have never been able to express. It’s a fundamental change in the culture of the United States, and it’s something that needs to be understood to ensure a prosperous future for the nation.
We know that Russian Intelligence worked to increase Donald Trump’s election chances by spreading propaganda. And we now know that they also attempted to tamper with US voting systems. And we know that President Trump has long spoken approvingly of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And we know that Trump campaign personnel met with various Russian officials during the campaign.
All of this looks highly suspicious, and suggests that something was going on between Trump and Russia.
However, there is one thing about the “Russia colluded with the Trump campaign to steal the election” theory that doesn’t add up. Namely, if Russia was covertly influencing the election, why would they bother to tell the Trump campaign about it?
Think about it: there’s no reason for them to have any contact beyond perhaps an initial meeting to lay out the plan. Why keep having these meetings between Trump’s people and Russia’s people? All it did was increase the likelihood of the plot getting exposed.
This is actually the best argument the Trump people have in their favor, as far as I can see. If they were committing such a serious crime, why leave such incriminating evidence?
The “Trump’s campaign is innocent” scenario could be something like the following: sure, they met with Russian people, but it was nothing to do with election-hacking. Trump’s platform and Russia’s interests in promoting a new nationalistic world order just happened to align, and they were hashing out details of what they would do in the event that Trump won. Russia independently carried out their manipulation of the election without the knowledge of the Trump campaign.
Which would be the way to do it, if you were running a remotely competent espionage operation. You don’t tell people stuff they don’t need to know, and from Russia’s perspective, the Trump campaign wouldn’t have needed to know that Russia was attempting to influence the election.
But this leads to the question: why did the Russians meet with them at all? Presumably, Russian officials knew about the plan, even if the Trump people didn’t. And they would therefore know how bad the meetings would look if word of the Russian interference ever came out.
This points strongly to the conclusion that the Russians suckered Trump, or at least Trump’s people. They knew it would make them look bad when these meetings came to light, and so would undermine the American people’s faith in the entire government and the electoral process.
If this is the case, Trump and his personnel, rather than being willing pawns of a Russian plot, are actually naïve victims who fell into a Russian trap.
Personally, I find it hard to imagine the people working for Trump were that unbelievably easy to trick. But it’s hard to see any other explanation.
“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.
“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.
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”.
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 Breitbart or 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.
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.
[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is based off an old essay I wrote years ago, and didn’t publish. I revised and updated it for the present.]
I think I have a better understanding of the so-called “alt-right”–which I refer to as “nationalists”–than most people do. I blame H.P. Lovecraft.
I had just read his horror novella At the Mountains of Madness, and learned that certain ideas in it had been suggested to him by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. I decided I wanted to find out more about Spengler, so I read it.
I should note that at this point in my life I was your typical college “liberaltarian”. I thought that all those people on the right on who hated gays and feminists and liberals in general were just ignorant, uneducated hillbillies; probably waving Confederate flags.
I have not changed my views on the issues that much since then, but I have changed my perception of my opponents. And reading Spengler was the cause.
Spengler was an immensely intelligent man, and his education was tremendous. I constantly had to look things up to be able to attempt to understand him–not just words, you see, but concepts, incidents in history, philosophies, even civilizations. Spengler was many things, but “ignorant” was not one of them.
And yet… throughout his work ran a strangely familiar undertone. The hostility to the cosmopolitan liberal, and the admiration of the people bound to the blood and soil. The intellectual and cultural gap between Oswald Spengler and the average Trump supporter is inconceivably vast; yet the sentiments that motivate them are shockingly similar.
This, I don’t mind saying, was troubling. For if an intelligent person, steeped in knowledge of not only his own culture and civilization, but of others, could hold these same views, it meant that one of my core assumptions was wrong. It was not ignorance which made the conservatives think as they do, but something else–something much deeper.
Spengler had done the work of a philosopher, which was to follow and articulate coherently those impulses and thoughts which motivated him. He explained, logically and thoroughly, a worldview which I could never share, but which I could now, at least, understand.
After that, I began to see many so-called “conservatives” in a different light. I sought to understand as much of their underlying motivation as I could–the unseen, visceral instinct that made some people, regardless of education or background, into what we today call the alt-right, but which might be better described as “nationalists”.
It is not easy thing to describe, and indeed I read many upsetting ideas, which I considered immoral and wrong. But ultimately, I became convinced of one thing: that this is something felt very deeply in people’s hearts, not in their minds.
This was an oddly–dare I say it–liberating moment for me. I realized that I was a liberal, and they were conservatives, and that was that.
A good deal of what is called the “alt-right” movement is nothing more than some very old philosophies, recycled for our times. The spirit of nationalism which Spengler described is not as dead as liberals believed.
I started this post with Lovecraft; so I wil give him the last word. From his most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu:
“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”
A lot of Democrats said that if Clinton lost the election, they would move to Canada, or New Zealand, or somewhere else altogether different.
Seems to me that what they should have done instead was move to the Midwest or the Southeast. After all, that is where Clinton lost the key states with high electoral vote counts.
To illustrate: Clinton won California with 5,860,714 votes to 3,151,821–a difference of 2,708,893 votes. Meanwhile, she lost Pennsylvania by 2,905,958 votes to only 2,841,280–a difference of 64,678 votes.
So, if 64,679 Democrats had been in Pennsylvania instead of California, she would have still won California handily, and also carried Pennsylvania.
That would get her to 248 electoral votes–still not enough to win. Can we take this any further?
Yes, we can. Clinton lost Michigan by 13,225 votes. So lets take 13,226 more Democrats out of California and move them into Michigan. Clinton is now winning California 5,782,810 to 3,151,821, and she’s winning Michigan and Pennsylvania as well. And she’s got 264 electoral votes. Still six shy of the number needed. Can we scrounge up those votes somewhere?
Clinton lost Florida by a score of 4,605,515 to 4,485,745, a difference of 119,770 votes. So, let’s do one more giant population shift, and move 119,771 voters from California to Florida. Clinton is now eking out a razor-thin 2.5 million vote win in California while winning Michigan, Pennsylvania and Florida. This puts her at 293 electoral votes–more than enough to win.
This is the the thing about urban cosmopolitanism vs. rural nationalism: the Democrats have more total voters, but they are concentrated in a few areas. The Republicans are spread out all over the place.
In theory, this could actually help the Democrats, since the number of electoral votes is based on the number of congressional districts, which is in turn based on population. But clearly, the size of California’s voter population is disproportionately large relative to their number of electoral votes. Moreover, the districts are only redrawn every ten years, so population changes that take place within that interval are not reflected.
The Democrats’ problem is that huge numbers of their voters are concentrated in a few states, where the marginal impact of a vote is low. If they were more spread out, they would likely have better results.