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:

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:

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Here’s a little conspiracy theory for you to mull over…

During the Republican primaries, Trump tended to perform much better in states that held primaries vs. those that held caucuses. Trump only won two of the eight Republican caucus states (Nevada and Hawaii).

A caucus is a meeting of party members where they discuss which candidate to support, as opposed to simply casting a ballot in a voting booth.  Ted Cruz won most of the Republican caucus states in 2016.  Most analysts assumed this was because the Cruz campaign spent more time and money organizing at the local level. A few others suggested that people were ashamed to openly admit that they supported Trump.

These explanations seem logical. And Occam’s Razor suggests these factors explain what happened.

But, it’s also worth considering that it would far easier to hack or otherwise manipulate primary elections than caucuses. To interfere in a primary, you would just have to be able to tamper with some machines. It’s much harder to do with caucuses.

I’m not saying I think this happened. I’m just saying it’s worth asking about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[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.”

JANE: We’re gonna be outnumbered…

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

–dialogue from Jane Got A Gun.

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

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

–dialogue from Knights of the Old Republic II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all know which side won.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

I’m about to do something my friends hate.  I’m going to use a football analogy to make a point about politics. People tell me this is over-simplifies things, but in this case, I think it is appropriate.

The football coach and theoretician John T. Reed wrote a book called The Contrarian Edge for Football Offense. The gist of it is that a team’s offense gains an advantage by doing things the opponent doesn’t expect.  Reed once said something like “one way is to run a brand new offense.  Another way is to run an offense so old that no remembers it or prepares for it.” (I can’t find the exact quote, or I would link to it.)

This is a very basic element of all good strategy throughout history. (Reed is a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, so he would know more about military strategy than the average person.)

In all strategy, doing what the opponent doesn’t expect is the way to win.  So why do people sometimes play into the opponent’s hands by doing what they expect?

As Reed says: some of it is that people do what is fashionable.  A certain style of offense comes into favor, and everybody starts copying it.

Another element is group-think.  When you have a group of like-minded people, it’s possible no one will be able to think up original or innovative ideas.

How does this relate to the election?

Trump ran a contrarian campaign in almost every respect, and so almost all the professional political strategists couldn’t see what was happening until it was too late.

After the loss in 2012, the Republicans famously created a report to figure out why they lost, and made recommendations for steps to take to win in the future.  ABC News summarized it as follows:

The report, called the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” lays out an extensive plan the RNC believes will lead the party to victory with an extensive outreach to women, African-American, Asian, Hispanic and gay voters. Among the plans: hiring paid outreach staffers across the country in a $10 million push that begins right away; backing “comprehensive immigration reform”.

Four years later, the winning Republican campaign did none of that.  In fact, it did the exact opposite of most of it.

The conventional wisdom, among both Republicans and Democrats, was that the Republicans couldn’t win just by mobilizing their base of white voters in the Midwest. Trump’s campaign challenged this, and proved it completely wrong.  He won by doing precisely that.

They made no secret of what they were trying to do, but because most of the career strategists thought that wouldn’t work, they didn’t take it seriously.