FAKE NEWS, FAKE ELECTIONS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 27th, 2017 by Ed

For the handful of you who have been reading since like 2003 I hope you will join me in the thrill of seeing "Gin and Tacos" in the Washington Post. The opinion editor was kind enough to provide me with space to make a very important point based on one of the more useful and relevant findings in political science in recent years: conservative, anti-government parties benefit tremendously from undermining political trust and efficacy among the public. When people internalize the message that government is inept, incompetent, and unable to touch anything without ruining it, the party with the message, "Government sucks and should be torn down" inevitably benefits.

That has been the basis of conservative politics in the U.S. since the late 1970s. But now Trump is extending it to the electoral process – one of the few remaining aspects of our system that people had some modicum of faith in. By undermining confidence in election results he is setting up a future in which any and every election outcome can be cast as illegitimate because "everybody knows" that there's massive fraud and the votes are Fake anyway.

It's a dismal future. This is the dynamic in banana republics where the elections really are fake. And we see what it takes for power to change hands in that environment.

THE MYTH OF JOHN McCAIN

Posted in Rants on July 24th, 2017 by Ed

John McCain is the Beltway's wet dream – a man constantly talking about Solutions, bipartisanship, and his oft-troubled conscience. I think he enjoys being idolized by everyone on the Sunday Morning shows, constantly fawned over and taken seriously and never, ever challenged on his record or asked to explain why for all his hand-wringing his voting record is one of a reliable, party line Republican.

McCain and his like-minded compatriot Joe Lieberman sure talk a great deal about doing the right thing. They bring it up, in fact, far more often than they actually do it. And now, a week after giving his usual sanctimonious musings about how badly Congress needs to stop doing all these deeply Troubling things, he's rushing back to Washington to help his party pass a health care bill that not even the Senate has been allowed to see.

This is classic McCain. Everything about him as a politician is a myth. He has made a career out of playing the Moderate character to a tee and he wears the permanently pained expression that lets the Chuck Todds of the world conclude that he is constantly tormented by the battle between good and evil in his mind. He has mastered the Moderate the same way George Will mastered looking like a Smart Person without actually saying things that are smart. But that's it. It's an act. He plays the media like a performer manipulates an audience.

Honestly, it took me a while to recognize this pattern. I felt legitimately bad for McCain in 2008, at least until he almost saddled the country with Sarah Palin. Frankly I hadn't paid a ton of attention to his voting record, and I was familiar with his Senate career mostly in the context of the McCain-Feingold legislation and his statements opposing torture during the G.W. Bush administration. So like everyone else, I thought of him as a Moderate.

It's natural to think that because we are constantly being told he is a Moderate, a voice of reason in a madhouse. But if you pay attention, you start to notice that he does shit like this all the time. He wrings his hands, he looks Troubled, he basks in the glow of some laudatory media coverage, and then he votes for it. Over and over. That's his game. From the outside we can only speculate what he gets out of it – Attention? Validation? Straight ego boost? – but his career is long enough to give us all the evidence we need to establish the pattern.

Look, I feel as sorry for him as I would if my bus driver said he had cancer. I feel badly for everyone with cancer. But look at what he is doing, not what he is saying or what is being said about him. That is the real John McCain, and there's very little Hero there.

TWOFER

Posted in Quick Hits on July 24th, 2017 by Ed

Two new pieces went up today. One is on The Week and offers a closer look at what I think Trump is most worried about Mueller's investigation poking around in. Hint: It's something members of Congress have been indicted for in the recent past.

The second is on Rolling Stone and looks at the design of the presidency and the need for presidents to be knowledgeable. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, depending on how much attention you've paid to the Constitution and your history classes) the Executive Branch is designed so that a pretty thoroughly mediocre person can do the job without the system breaking down. However, we've tested and now surpassed the lower limits of presidential competence required to do the job. Without it, the whole thing is going haywire.

MOMENT OF CLARITY

Posted in Quick Hits on July 20th, 2017 by Ed

Guys. I'm trying my best to be serious and not take the easy path to making fun of how stupid the person in charge of the country is at the moment. But. You guys. I have to ask a question without sarcasm, without subtext, without winking and nudging. Read this, and then tell me…



…does the President of the United States know what health insurance is? Like. It sounds like he is describing one of two things here: 1) nothing, because this is basically word salad or 2) whole life insurance, which might (for a very young, healthy person) have something extremely low like a $12/year premium. Nothing else in the world of insurance is even in the ballpark of what he's talking about. The trip insurance on Priceline costs more than $12.

If we do as we are encouraged by our upbringing and attempt to treat our elected officials and their ideas respectfully, reading these words leads to the conclusion that the President of the United States does not actually know what health insurance is. That is one of the most depressing thoughts I've had to absorb in a year of seriously depressing thoughts from the world of politics.

GOING BIG

Posted in Rants on July 18th, 2017 by Ed

As their total inability to govern in anything but a cyclone that leaves a trail of destruction in its wake becomes increasingly obvious, the White House and congressional Republicans are engaging in a strategy that can be described as, if nothing else, "bold." They're lying. They've always lied a lot, but they've progressed to lying big, to lying in ways that do not even have a definable reference point in reality.

The sad thing is, were I paid to advise them I would recommend doing exactly that.

The hardcore Trump base has proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will accept the things he says as the gospel truth. Hell, they accept staggeringly ludicrous things they find in internet comment sections as the truth so long as it tells them something they're inclined to believe. Liberals and the media, in contrast, point out the lies and let loose with streams of invective. And it must be dawning on Trump that these reactions are not affected by the magnitude of the lie. And if you're going to expose yourself to the risk that lying might cost you something in terms of political capital, you might as well lie big. Real big.

That whole "bring back coal" bullshit isn't working out? Whatever – just say you made up 50,000 coal jobs even though that's more people than the entire coal industry employs. Republicans can't pass a bill to save their souls? Just say it's the Democrats' fault (it doesn't have to make any sense). Caught in a web of lies with unseemly Russian operatives? It was…uh, a Clinton-Obama setup! Health care bill is an embarrassing flop? Hell, just assume your idiot supporters don't know who controls the Senate and blame it on the Democrats.

These aren't the standard political lies that rely on stretching the truth, cherry picking the data, fudging interpretations of events in creative ways, or offering partial truth in place of the whole thing. This is fantasy stuff. This is stuff made up out of thin air. We're accustomed to things like the Bush administration relying on an extremely selective reading of dubious information to justify the Iraq War, or elected officials lying about personal sex scandals as long as they believe they can get away with it. We don't have experience, though, with Russian-style "Make up your own reality" lying, at least not from the White House and not on this scale.

The sad fact, again, is that this makes perfect sense strategically. If your base will believe literally anything as long as you say it, there's really no incentive to hold back.

This new political reality in which there are no consequences for lying as blatantly and boldly as shame will allow is not going to turn out well. Good things will never come of this. The discomforting question, though, is what anyone can do about it at this point. It is already here.

WE ARE NIHILISTS; WE BELIEVE IN NOTHING

Posted in Rants on July 17th, 2017 by Ed

When the latest terrible version of the terrible Republican "alternative" to the ACA finally died its inevitable death Monday evening with the twin GOP defections of Mike Lee and Jerry Moran, it seemed an opportune moment for reflection. The party leaders tried everything to pass this POS bill, with McConnell resorting to, take your pick, either lying to his own caucus and telling them that the Medicaid cuts would not happen, or admitting that the bill contained no "reform" as conservatives understand it. They couldn't pass it despite being in the majority.

That might suggest starting over, perhaps by asking, "Why didn't we have an alternative ready? Why are we voting on some crap thrown together over a weekend?" and building a new bill from the ground up. When Medicare/Medicaid cuts are so substantial that even some pretty hard right Senators balk, you might have a tear-down rather than a simple remodel on your hands.

Instead, within seconds of the Lee/Moran announcement the Freedom Caucus came up with this:

As dumb as Freedom Caucus types tend to be, they can't realize how clearly they are demonstrating the shortcomings of their own ideology here. From the perspective of practical politics, the reason they were able to pass bills to "repeal Obamacare" a million times was that the votes were entirely symbolic. They knew there was exactly zero chance Obama would sign, so it was a consequence-free vote for congressional Republicans. It was, in essence, a stunt. A serious but not-serious bill. It was never going to become law.

By resurrecting that idea now that the GOP has the majority, they're recognizing that the Republican Party is incapable of creating anything. They can repeal, cut, obstruct, filibuster, defund, and grandstand. They can talk, feign moral outrage, dog-whistle, and mud sling. The one thing they cannot do, as we now can all see plainly, is write a bill that makes policy.

It is a mob chanting "no," a cargo cult of nihilists hell-bent on tearing down and destroying, but when they are handed the keys that they ostensibly want, they freeze up like deer in headlights. They dislike everyone and everything, including (or perhaps especially) each other. When forced to come together and agree upon something, even among themselves, they are incapable of doing it.

So they retreat to the comfort of the one and only thing that they know how to do: opposing. Even with all of the institutions of power in their control they can't overcome their own individual and collective obstreperousness. That's the problem when all of your goals are variations on "Destroy this thing I don't like." Focus on that for a handful of decades and one day you'll find that you can't recall what you do like.

LAST CHANCE AT TERRIBLE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 16th, 2017 by Ed

Remember the "Everything is Terrible All the Time" t-shirts? If memory serves, I had 400 printed. There are three remaining, all in Unisex/Men's Small. When those three are gone these shirts are officially No More. If you're a man or woman on the slight side, have at 'em.

BEGIN BY HOARDING SUPPLIES

Posted in Rants on July 16th, 2017 by Ed

Well, the end of the world is upon us. Bill Kristol made a good point.

If there is one thing this President is not, it is complex. He and his motivations are baldy, even embarrassingly, obvious. As even some people in the conservative media are starting to figure out, his entire anti-media, anti-intel barrage since being elected has all been an attempt to ready his base for the information that he and everyone involved with his campaign knows is going to come out. When you know that it is going to be revealed that intelligence professionals have evidence of collusion with Russia on a grand scale, the only play you have is to convince people that everything intelligence professionals say is a lie and oh by the way the media reporting the story is lying too.

This is Chapter 1 of the authoritarian playbook; only I can be trusted. The elites and institutions are scared of me because I am so powerful and honest that they feel threatened, so they will lie to destroy me. Believe nothing and no one except me.

(It's also how cults operate, but that's tangential at the moment. Or is it.)

As Kristol somehow notes astutely, what I have been saying for six months now appears to be true: this is just going to get worse and worse. The dribble of damning information will never stop. Six months is enough to establish a decent understanding of the pattern, and it is (with respect to my old man, a career prosecutor) a very obvious Prosecutor Trick that Trump will never, ever stop falling for. First, present Fact A. Give Trump a week to lie about it in an attempt to explain it away. Reveal Fact B, proving that everything said in response to A was a lie. Give him another week to tie himself to a made-up story. Reveal Fact C. Repeat.

Works every time, at least on people who are wildly overconfident or extremely stupid.

I tend not to believe in large conspiracies – collective action is too difficult to coordinate for most conspiracy theories to be plausible. I don't think, then, that there is one person or a small group of people coordinating the release of this information. But the revelations about Trump's Russian ties do feel eerily regular, like a conveyor belt that neither speeds up nor slows down. Like clockwork, every week brings a new piece of information. Ample time is provided for Trump to throw temper tantrums and make up a bunch of garbage. Then the next one arrives just as the media furor begins to abate.

One thing you will not hear Bill Kristol say, though, is that 2017 is the year we can put to rest any pretensions the GOP had left of having any integrity as a group. It is abundantly clear that they would have strapped Obama into the electric chair on the steps of the Capitol with 1% as much evidence as there now is regarding Trump, yet all we hear are excuses. Ultimately, I still believe that even without principles or integrity, self-preservation is enough to motivate some of these people. Eventually. A House Republican in this era is the perfect example of the person who will do the right thing (and expect to be lauded for it) only after literally every single other option has been exhausted.

SUBMITTING TO PEER PRESSURE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 14th, 2017 by Ed

After holding out for about a decade, I gave up and joined Twitter this week. Here I am on the Twitters. Follow me on the Twitters. Am I doing this right?

Also, the "None of this is OK" t-shirts have shipped, and I have a scattered half dozen still available (men's and women's XXL included). Submit to peer pressure and buy one. Be one of the lucky remaining few.

AGE OF CONSENT

Posted in Rants on July 13th, 2017 by Ed

Although I catch myself in writing, my friends can confirm that in casual conversation I refer to my students as kids. "How was your day?" "Oh, the kids were really dead this morning, there must have been parties last night" or whatever. Technically this is a thing I should not say, because every single student I've ever encountered in my career has been, legally, an adult. Most are 19. The bare minimum for some overachievers is 18. The upperclassmen are like, SUPER adults. They're almost 22.

The reason I and so many other academics I interact with say "kids" is twofold. One is the recognition that even though we teach in universities, we are still teachers; there is a common thread to what I do and what a kindergarten teacher does, as it sometimes becomes all to clear. The other is that a veteran college professor can usually count on two hands the number of students he or she has had who truly carried themselves as adults. It's very easy to lapse into calling them Kids because they are, in all but the legal and physical-medical sense, children.

That is not a way of saying they're Bad. They are often a real joy to deal with. But on the whole they display distinctly kid-like behaviors. They pout. They eye-roll. They throw tantrums when they don't get what they want. They need to be told (begged, cajoled, threatened, etc) a thousand times to do things. They are readily distracted. Their interests tend toward the juvenile.

Again, that's not intended as a string of insults. It's just what they are, with some exceptions. Occasionally I lose time pondering what it says about me, about us, about higher education, and about American students that we call them "kids" when they are properly adults. In the long run it's likely a harmless reaction to forces beyond our control. Society encourages over-parenting and over-protection (Scary threats are everywhere!!) so colleges receive Men and Women who are in many important ways still Boys and Girls. So they mature a little later, socially and personally. No big deal in the grand scheme.

Last year during the Olympics, several famous American athletes embarrassed themselves and the country with drunken loutishness. It was widely noted that the IOC and many apologists for the men, notably Ryan Lochte, concluded that they were just kids having some fun and making some mistakes. Ryan Lochte is 32. This stands in contrast, of course, to black males who are adults – big, terrifying, scary Adults – the minute they graduate from diapers to underwear. The comments about Lochte and other famous "Boys will be boys" white adult men were widely contrasted, for example, with descriptions of 18 year old Michael Brown or 14 year old Tamir Rice. A 14 year old black male must bear the full brunt of the consequences of his actions, while white males of sufficient social class and fame get to play the Boys Will Be Boys card for half of their lives or more.

I bring this up now as I read this comment about Donald Trump Jr., here in WaPo but quoted widely this week:

"The kid is an honest kid," said one friend of Trump Jr. "The White House should’ve never let that story go out on the president’s son"

Donald Trump Jr. is thirty-nine years old. Perhaps the speaker is an older person and to him, everyone under 50 is "kid." But it seems more likely, given his behavior, demeanor, and absolute absence of contact with anything that could be described as Real Life, that people who know him think of him as a kid because he is not an adult in any meaningful way. And because nobody and nothing has ever forced him to accept responsibility for his decisions as an adult might be expected to, here we are talking about the 39 year-old son of a billionaire President of the United States like a teenager who egged the principal's house. Look at his innocent little face; how was he to know?

No one, it goes without saying, will synthesize this view of Donald Jr. as a helpless little puppy-child and his father's decision to give him a great deal of power and authority over a multinational corporation and the affairs of the state. "He's just a kid" and "I'm gonna let him and Jared handle China" blend together seamlessly in a country that's a half step away from just giving up altogether.