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.

It’s not a coincidence that Bannon got removed from the NSC and two days later, Trump orders missile strikes that Bannon and his “alt-right”/”America First” crowd oppose.

My question is: did Trump simply become outraged because he saw the pictures coming out of Syria, and decided he didn’t care what Bannon said?  Or is this the result of Trump’s long-term dissatisfaction at the series of apparent failures spearheaded by Bannon?

Or is it that Trump is now listening more to his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner than he is to Bannon? (Possibly as a result of said Bannon-led failures?)

There are a number of different explanations, all of which suggest that Trump is pretty impulsive and won’t hesitate to radically change his mind in short order.

But of course, that goes both ways.  If Bannon can get thrown in the doghouse this easily, he can get pulled back out just as quickly. And that’s the main takeaway for me: Trump acts quickly–some would say decisively, others would say recklessly.  Even his apparent friendly relations with Russia couldn’t quell his desire to take action in Syria. It must have really been important to him, because it meant reversing one of his core campaign positions, and losing a lot of his most zealous supporters.

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:


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.

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.

They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes. And if you don’t understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it’s going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.–Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) June 28, 2006.

I’ve heard a lot over the past few weeks about how the government’s new health care site doesn’t work, how the rollout was “botched”, and so on.  What I haven’t heard–and I admit, I haven’t followed the story closely–is what actually is wrong with it.

So far, I have only found one concrete account with screenshots showing a problem definitively: Rob Nikolewski at the New Mexico Watchdog shows that the security question boxes don’t work. Besides that, the only thing I have heard is that “it’s slow”. Well, of course. Lots of people are using it. Glitches like this happen when launching something that will have a lot of users–look at some famous Massively-Multiplayer Online games, for example.

To me, it’s unfortunate that this happened, but its also far from unprecedented or even unexpected.  The Republicans are acting like it’s a massive scandal.  Personally, I think everyone is overreacting to it.  I wonder if, because many politicians tend to be less-than-web-savvy types, it seems like a bigger problem to them.

Let’s check up on Greek politics again, shall we? Things have played out about like I’d expect from the last time I wrote about them.

So, it seems that the failure of the austerity policies in Greece has led to the people who implemented it suffering huge losses at the polls. Well, that’s only to be expected. A nationalist party, known as the “Golden Dawn”, has made significant gains. Their leader, Nikolaos Mihaloliakos, appears to have modeled himself after Mussolini to an alarming degree.

Why are they so popular? Well, they are anti-austerity. They also are anti-immigrant. Perhaps the most troubling thing I’ve read about them comes from this article in the Miami Herald:

Golden Dawn toughs maintain a security watch in parts of central Athens and, upon request, provide escorts to people going to shop or retrieve their pension checks. If immigrants are squatting in an apartment owned by a Greek, Golden Dawn volunteers will clear them out and fix up the dwelling.

After a Greek man was killed in May 2011, reputedly by Afghan immigrants, Golden Dawn militants stopped traffic every afternoon for weeks, and hauled immigrants off public transport and beat them up, according to Marina Vichou, formerly a journalist with the BBC Greek service, who lives near scene and witnessed some of the incidents. ‘The police did nothing but protect Golden Dawn,’ she said.

As if that by itself weren’t disturbing enough, there is the historical parallel it evokes. Quoting from Wikipedia:

The First World War (1914–18) inflated Italy’s economy with great debts, unemployment (aggravated by thousands of demobilised soldiers), social discontent featuring strikes, organised crime,and anarchist, Socialist, and Communist insurrections. When the elected Italian Liberal Party Government could not control Italy, the Revolutionary Fascist Party (Partito Fascista Rivoluzionario, PFR) Leader Benito Mussolini took matters in hand, combating those societal ills with the Blackshirts, paramilitary squads of First World War veterans and ex-socialists; Prime Ministers such as Giovanni Giolitti allowed the Fascists taking the law in hand.

Some people wonder how the Fascists got to be so popular, when they were all obviously a bunch of bullies. That’s the answer: the government was so weak that people liked having a bunch of bullies to turn to who could provide a primitive kind of order. However, I don’t want to be hasty and assume that the worst things being said about the Golden Dawn are true; I’m just saying it is extremely troubling if true.

Historical similarities aside, though, this is where alliances between cosmopolitan (or “multicultural”) factions and the business interests tend to collapse: when the free market, microeconomic thinking of the businessmen wrecks the macroeconomy, allowing the nationalistic faction to take power.

David Wong, writing in Cracked, lists “5 ways to spot a B.S. Political Story”. He highlights certain words that appear in political headlines, and what they often signify. It would be easy to blame this on lazy journalists; however, it’s really very easy to find yourself repeating the same phrases that are familiar to you. And it’s a huge hindrance to writing about politics. George Orwell famously advised in his essay Politics and the English Language:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Great advice, and so naturally very difficult to heed. I’ve probably fallen back on time-worn phrases countless times in writing this blog. As people acquire language largely through imitation, it’s only natural that we fall easily into imitation when using it.

Wong also laments how stories often couch everything purely in terms of political points scored. He writes of the headline “Slowdown in U.S. jobs growth deals a blow to Obama.”:

How about the millions of people who are out of work? Hey, guys, I don’t know if you realize this, but the world actually exists. Those numbers on the screen represent actual humans who are actually suffering. No, really! It’s not a video game!

The reason the press has to couch everything in this manner is simple: otherwise, they get called for political bias. Wong talks about stories that treat, for example, the healthcare law as merely a political “horse-race” issue, but the poor writers have only two other options:

  1. Write headlines like “Supreme Court to render millions uninsured”–a headline which would cause all the Republicans to gripe even more than usual about “liberal bias”, and whine that this was “value-laden language”.
  2. Capitulate to the Republicans entirely and write headlines like “Supreme Court to free millions from yoke of socialism”.

The first thing will never happen, because hell hath no fury like a Republican who is mad at the press. The second thing is out at every news source that has some interest in the truth. So, all that’s left is the horse-race approach. After all, no one can complain that it’s biased.