This Trump Jr. story is interesting for several reasons.  My take:

1. Strange though it may seem, I think this actually makes it seem less likely that the Trump campaign actively colluded with Russia to steal the election.  My impression is that Trump Jr. was lured into the meeting without having much prior knowledge.  This is based on the email exchange, which reads to me like an amateur who doesn’t know what he’s doing.

2. If Russia actually wanted to release anything incriminating they had on Clinton, they wouldn’t do it via the Trump campaign. That would be stupid, since it would automatically make the information seem suspect. Instead, they would distribute it through some friendly-but-seemingly-independent media outlet, and let the Trump campaign pick it up later. Indeed, this is actually what happened with a lot of the Russian-supported anti-Clinton/pro-Trump propaganda that was circulated online during the election. This also makes it seem unlikely they actually gave the Trump campaign any useful information.

3. A few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that the Russians would be unlikely to tell the Trump campaign about their election interference.  Rather, they did the election interference independently, and then arranged the meetings with campaign personnel in order to undermine the people’s faith in the electoral process.

This meeting is totally consistent with that. They lured Trump Jr. into a meeting by claiming they had dirt on Clinton, and then didn’t give him anything, knowing how bad it would make him look when it came to light.

In summary, I don’t think Russian operatives would ever work with the Trump people to interfere with the election, simply because many of the Trump people are too incompetent to be trusted with anything like that. The Russian intelligence operatives could handle it by themselves.

My sense is that the Russian plan had two distinct components: one was to influence the election in favor of Trump. The other was to play on the amateurishness and arrogance of the Trump campaign staff to goad them into doing stupid stuff that could be used to undermine them later.

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.

Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.

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.

I have yet to read the book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by  Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  It sounds promising, though–full of interviews from campaign insiders giving first-hand accounts of what went wrong.

But the common thread coming out of reviews of the book, interviews with the authors like this one, and of Clinton campaign autopsies generally, is really ringing false to me. Or, maybe not exactly false, but at least woefully incomplete.

There are two main theories that have emerged as explanations for why Clinton lost. They are:

  1. The controversy surrounding her email server
  2. Her inability to connect with people

Both of these are valid explanations.  But I have not seen anyone analyze how these two things are related; and moreover, why the mainstream political press did not realize it until after the election.

This requires further investigation.  We will start by tackling point 2 first, since it is related to my favorite subject: the importance of charisma.

I firmly believe in the theory that charisma wins elections.  And Hillary Clinton has been my go-to example of someone who does not have charisma for years now. (Note: lack of charisma is often described as “could not connect” or “was not likeable”.)

So, to that extent, I agree that Clinton lost because the voters could not connect with her the way they could with a charismatic billionaire television star who lives in a golden tower.

The problem is, everyone has known for years that Clinton doesn’t have charisma.  It is not like this is some big revelation. This doesn’t mean the press is wrong to say that is the reason she lost… it is just that until election night, the press was right there with her, convinced she would win.

When the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would win, the mainstream political press dismissed concerns about her likeability.  When Clinton suddenly lost, they picked up on this as the obvious explanation for why she did.

And maybe it is.  But if that is the case, why didn’t the press seize on it sooner?  This isn’t the first time we ever had an election–they should have some idea of what is likely to happen based on past elections.  The charisma theory holds up pretty well over the past 50+ years of Presidential elections, so you would think there would have been more talk about it beforehand.

Part of it is the old “hindsight is 2020” problem.  And another part of it is groupthink: Once a few experts started saying Clinton would win, a lot of other people assumed the experts would know, and started following them. (I myself was guilty of this–I ignored Trump’s obvious charisma advantage because so many of the major forecasters were favoring Clinton.)

There’s an even bigger problem with political journalism here, but I want to wait to examine that.  For now, we can just say that it seems probable that Clinton could not connect with voters in 2016, since that had long been a problem for her.

Now to address the theory that it was not Clinton’s anti-charisma that cost her, but rather her email server–or more specifically, the FBI’s investigation of her email server. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has some convincing data indicating that it was FBI director Comey’s letter to Congress that swung the election to Trump.

Intuition seems to favor the “lack of charisma/could not connect” explanation; the hard data indicates that Comey’s letter was decisive.

Here is the significant thing, though: both explanations can be correct.

In truth, the letter was pretty mild.  It cast a cloud of suspicion over Clinton and enabled Trump to ramp up the number of sinister insinuations he made about her, but that’s about it.  Compared with the Access Hollywood tape which featured Trump literally admitting to a crime, it was small potatoes.

Yet the press hyped the Comey letter as though it were comparable. Why?

The answer is… charisma.  Remember, charisma is the ability to make people want to like you, irrespective of anything you do.

Trump has charisma.  That is why so many voters wanted to like him, and were willing to overlook so much to vote for him.

In contrast, Clinton does not have charisma and as a result many voters were glad to seize on any excuse to vote against her, even a trumped-up (pun not intended) one.

If the email thing had happened to Obama, he could have weathered it.  It probably would not have even been front-page news.

By the same token, if it had not happened to Clinton, there would have been some other heavily-hyped scandal the press would have touted.  Scandals make for good stories, and plenty of people wanted to read about the alleged crimes of Hillary Clinton. People were looking for an excuse to dislike Clinton.

Another key factor to remember is that charisma works on the press, too.  They try to be neutral, but they are just human beings–their personal feelings about a candidate are going to affect their coverage. So,if they are covering somebody who is uncharismatic, they are going to include that in their narrative, even if only subconsciously.

This is leading me to that bigger problem that I mentioned earlier, and it has to do with how the press covers everything.  The problem is that they need to have a simple answer for everything. They cannot say, “we do not understand what happened”.  They have to come up with some explanation, and it has to be something simple that they can explain quickly.

This does not just apply in politics, but to pretty much all mainstream press analysis of anything.  I remember, as my liberal friends and I watched the election results in mounting horror, I kept thinking inexplicably about Super Bowl XXV.

If you are unfamiliar with football history, it went like this: the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills and their record-setting offense lost by a single point to the New York Giants and their strong defense.  On the last play of the game, the Bills missed a field goal that would have given them the victory.

The “narrative” coming out of that game was that the Giants’ defense stifled the mighty Bills offense. (Then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s game plan is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) But if the Bills had made the field goal, it would have been different–even though the Giants defensive performance would have been exactly the same.

The perception of both the Giants’ defense and the Bills’ offense was decided by the performance of neither unit, but by the Bills’ kicking game.

This does not mean that defense does not win championships, any more than the fact that Clinton winning the popular vote means charisma does not win elections.  We have enough examples of both throughout history that it is fair to say it constitutes a pattern.

But the sporting press largely did not acknowledge that prior to the game, just as the political press didn’t acknowledge charisma’s strong track record prior to the election.

In each case, it took a specific event (a missed field goal/the Comey letter) before the press were able to recognize the larger pattern.  (Defense wins championships/charisma wins elections.)

In other words, if a Clinton scandal did not exist, the press would have found it necessary to invent one.

The press does not analyze things as closely as they want you to think they do.  They generally report on what happened and then seize on anything that seems convenient to explain why it happened.

(Another area where this is especially transparent is business and financial journalism.  Most journalists have no idea what made the markets go up or down, unless there’s some major world-shattering event that makes it obvious. Most of the time they just make some guess that investors are optimistic or pessimistic based on same random bit of data that seems plausible.)

In general, the press wants their viewers to think they know what is going on.  This makes sense, because the purpose of the press is to convey information.  However, if you do not have all the information readily available, it is hard to know what is going on. This leaves journalists with two options: They can either admit they do not know what is going on, or they can spin some narrative that sounds plausible.

Option 1 is unattractive for a couple of reasons.  First, it is always hard to admit you don’t know something people expect you to know.  And second, suppose some rival press outfit does know what is going on.  Then they might gain an edge in credibility and thus increase their audience.

Option 2 looks a lot better.  If you do that, people come away thinking they learned something.

To most people, Option 2 sounds a lot like lying.  But it’s not the same thing–most journalists aren’t deliberately making up lies; they’re just saying stuff that seems like it’s probably true.  And most of the time, it is true.  If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

But sometimes it is not a duck.  Sometimes, it is a black swan. And when that happens, the press can look pretty stupid.

Trump and his campaign were so weird that it distracted the press from the fundamentals of politics.  Trump’s charisma advantage got overlooked or minimized because everything else about him was in total opposition to the normal laws of politics.

This is the ultimate problem with the political press: once a narrative gets established they tend to disregard all information that contradicts that narrative, unless it becomes impossible.

But even once a narrative has been conclusively disproved, the press still has a hard time putting the pieces together and explaining why the narrative was wrong. Notice how, in the interview linked at the top of this post, Allen keeps coming back to the “email scandal” as the deciding factor. He is not completely wrong, since the emails led to the FBI investigation, but he has trouble putting it all in context.

The correct interpretation is that Clinton lost because her lack of charisma made many voters predisposed to dislike her, and the sensational coverage of the allegations about her email server–and the FBI’s investigation into it–turned enough swing voters against her.

This is a fairly straightforward explanation: Clinton’s lack of charisma was an ongoing problem throughout her career, and the email investigation was the catalyst that ignited the anti-Clinton sentiment that was created by her lack of charisma.

I think many journalists are reluctant to put it in these terms however, since according to this interpretation, they were accessories to the loss because of how they covered the email investigation.

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.

[The video above is substantially the same as the text below.  The text has more links and a few additional notes.  The video may be more convenient for some.]

Nicholas Kristof wrote a very interesting column imagining a conversation between Jesus Christ and Speaker Paul Ryan. There will no doubt be controversy as to whether it is brilliant satire or blasphemy.

Kristof’s point is that Ryan is a hypocrite for professing to be a Christian and yet supporting a health care bill that would result in poor people losing health insurance coverage.

The theme is one that Democrats have hammered on for decades: how can the Republicans get such strong support from Christians, and vocally proclaim their own devout Christianity, while simultaneously pushing policies that appear to be in opposition to what Christ taught?

Not being a religious person, I don’t really consider myself qualified to get involved in this argument.  What I can do, though, is talk about the historical and philosophical background of this apparent hypocrisy.  As my readers know, I like to try to understand things in their historical context.

In this case, we are going to need some 2000 years of historical context to properly understand what’s going on here.

Buckle up.

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