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.

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.

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:

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:

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.

  • Purely as a piece of rhetoric, I liked his Inaugural Address more.  For one thing, it was shorter. In general, the fewer words you use to make your point, the better.
  • That said, the pundit class that this speech was clearly designed to impress obviously prefers long speeches that cover too many topics to have any punch to them.
  • I suspect Bannon wrote most of it.  It sounds like him.
  • I have never liked the “Free Trade / Fair Trade” line, which Democrats have often used in the past and which Trump used here. “Fair Trade” in this context is a meaningless phrase that can be used to justify virtually any tariff or other protectionist measure, whether warranted or not.
  • Of course, I’m sure it will play great with the “Reagan Democrats” (or now, I guess, “Trump Democrats”) who are the linchpin of his coalition.
  • It was woefully short on specifics, but no one expects that out of these anymore.  They are just glorified performances of political theater, and have been as long as I can remember. (And Trump excels at theater.)
  • I am not sure why the Press is so surprised by the style of the speech.  I guess they were expecting him to do his usual rambling and improvisational monologue.  I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting more or less what we got.
  • Moreover, this is not the first time Trump has done something like this. He gave “normal” speeches both at the convention and in his victory speech on election night. Trump has never had an issue acting like a normal politician for brief periods of time–it’s just that he’s never sustained it. And there’s mounting evidence to suggest he doesn’t need to.

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”–Polonius. William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2.

In an interview with Sean Hannity, Trump once again complained about the Saturday Night Live sketches mocking him:

“It’s a failing show, it’s not funny. Alec Baldwin’s a disaster, he’s terrible on the show and, by the way, I don’t mind some humor but it’s terrible.”

People have again expressed amazement at how thin-skinned the guy is.  And he is, but there’s actually a bit more going on here besides that.

SNL isn’t exactly the only shop in the Trump-mocking business. Making fun of the President isn’t a niche or novel concept, and Trump is currently very unpopular. Lots of comics and satirists are mocking him. MAD magazine mocks the hell out of him, and I’ve yet to hear him complain about it.

If Trump were just hellbent on responding to everyone who mocks him, he’d never do anything else. No, he singles out SNL.

Why?

I have a theory: NBC, which broadcasts SNL,  is also the network that aired Trump’s show The Apprentice. I suspect Trump has some feud with the upper management at NBC, and so is fighting a proxy war against them by attacking one of their shows.

Another frequent target of Trump’s wrath is CNN, which he repeatedly attacks as “dishonest” or lately, “fake news”. But CNN isn’t the only news organization to report negative stories about him–CBS does that too, as does ABC.  And PBS does too. (Yes, I know he plans to shut that down, but that’s a standard Republican wish-list item. I don’t recall him tweeting about it.)

It makes more sense once you know that the President of CNN is one Jeff Zucker, who had been President of NBC until a few years ago.  In fact, Zucker originally signed Trump for The Apprentice. I don’t know all the details, but it seems likely that Trump had some sort of falling out with him.  I hear Trump can be temperamental, believe it or not.

My point is, Trump isn’t just randomly lashing out at any group that insults him.  Rather, he is deliberately lashing out at specific organizations tied to people whom he most likely personally dislikes.

Read Richard Branson’s account of meeting Trump–it indicates that Trump has personal animosity towards specific individuals. Most of the people Trump personally knows, whether as friends or enemies, are wealthy men like himself. So I’m guessing that when he starts attacking something, it’s usually because it’s owned or managed by some personal foe of his.

I love conspiracy theories. I wrote a novella centered on the conspiracy theories and political machinations.  (Not to spoil it, but it involves a takeover of the United States government by an insane dictator.  But that’s another story.) The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time reading popular conspiracy theories.

Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “fake news” on social media, and the role they played in the recent U.S. Election.

I’m not sure why they are calling these stories “fake news”–they appear to be similar to the old conspiracy theories that flourished, beginning in the late 1990s.  It’s part and parcel of what Warren Spector, the creator of the great conspiracy-theory video game Deus Ex, called “millennial weirdness”.

People who listen to the radio frequently are familiar with these things.  A lot of strange ideas have been floated over the air on shows like Coast to Coast AM for decades now. It’s not new.

I think what is new is the politicization of conspiracy theories. In the old days, conspiracies were about the Illuminati or Extraterrestrial life, and those are never on the ballot. But now, the conspiracy theories are deliberately meant to certain political factions.

It may have started with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which were inevitably explicitly political in nature.  Or it might have just been that political strategists realized they could take advantage of people’s love for conspiracies in order to advance their aims.  (Good strategists are always looking for any edge they can get.)

But I’m curious about is why the term “fake news” (which evokes something more like satirical sites on the order of The Onion) seems to have supplanted the term “conspiracy theory”. What reasons could there be for this?

“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958

[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed.  It addresses some of the same points.]

Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.

The famous line of demarcation in how media changed campaigning is the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon debates. They were the first-ever televised debates. Kennedy, the charismatic candidate, won over the supremely un-charismatic Nixon.

It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.

Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.

Television, as I once wrote, is a force multiplier for charisma.

Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win.  In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.

Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign.  Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.

There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them.  Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.

There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896.  However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity.  No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:

Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video.  It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.

If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense.  He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.

This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.

I’ve always liked Bill O’Reilly–which is weird, because I don’t agree with the majority of his political views at all.  His bombastic style is definitely not “real journalism”, but I’ve always found it entertaining–a lot like John McLaughlin.  People say he’s a bully, and I can’t really disagree, but his manner reminds me of my Irish family members–they’ll yell and swear and browbeat somebody in an argument, and then afterwards shake hands and say “great to see you”.

Yeah, I guess I’m probably in a tiny minority as a liberal who likes O’Reilly and can’t stand Olbermann.  I like to be different.  I once read that Robert Frost said “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.”

Anyway, so O’Reilly has been caught misrepresenting his role in various events–saying he was present in “a war zone” during the Falklands conflict, when in fact he was not; saying he was knocking at George de Mohrenschildt‘s door as de Mohrenschildt committed suicide, when O’Reilly was not even in the state at the time.  Coming so soon on the heels of the Brian Williams scandal, people are calling on Fox News to suspend him, just as NBC suspended Williams. Of course, Fox has not done that.

The reason for this discrepancy is that O’Reilly is an entertainer, whereas Brian Williams is a news reporter.  People who watched Williams expected to get factual information, and when he didn’t deliver, they got mad.  People who watch O’Reilly just want to be entertained.  Some love him, some hate him, but they all just want to see what he’s going to do next.  Whether any of it resembles truth is not relevant. This was proven quite conclusively when O’Reilly totally screwed up the history of the Malmedy massacre, saying the Americans committed the atrocity against the German SS prisoners, when actually it was the Germans committing it against the Americans. That’s a pretty pathetic error to  make.

But who cares if O’Reilly doesn’t know history?  He’s an entertainer.  Hence the comparison to McLaughlin–no one knows what he’s talking about half the time, even the other panelists, but it’s fun to watch, by golly!

That’s why NBC had to punish Williams, but Fox doesn’t need to punish O’Reilly: they’re not really in the same business.  In NBC’s business, credibility matters.

I have friends who don’t get blogging at all.  “What’s the point?” they ask. “Most blogs are not even reporting; they are just people pontificating about things.”

Which is more or less what I do.  And I have to admit, they have a point.  After all, when you are not reporting new information, all you can do is give your take on it.  And let’s face it: when you are giving your take, the three  major reactions are:

  1. I agree.
  2. I disagree.
  3. I don’t care.

If they agree, there was no reason to read it, since they already thought so.  If they disagree–well, this is the internet, so they will probably just insult you and leave.  (I have been fortunate to have intelligent readers who can disagree civilly and with reasoned arguments.)  Or they don’t care, in which case… they don’t care.  That’s probably worst of all, since it means the least traffic.

So, given all that, what’s the point of blogging if you are not going to be a shoe-leather reporter bringing the latest news?

One of my favorite quotes from literature is Lovecraft’s “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”  This, as longtime readers will remember, was on the footer of my old blog.

But despite the pessimistic tone, I actually like correlating contents. In my opinion, the best post I have done so far is this one, because it involves correlating a lot of disparate ideas and information.  It’s not like I did any original work, but I like to think it led people to information they might not have been aware of otherwise.

The other thing I like about blogging–and I realize many bloggers do not take advantage of this–is that it can be collaborative.  This poem, which I started and then Thingy and P.M. Prescott completed is a good example, and I’m sure I could find more.

I guess that’s really what I like about it more than anything else: the opportunity to exchange ideas with interesting people.