The election is almost here, take the opportunity to show everyone that you are morally superior and refuse to condone the two-party system.
Charles Pierce is usually On, although like all of us I've gotten the feeling that he's struggling to think of what to say at this point about this election. I know he's taken a look at this site at least a few times, and I'd like to think that my post from Saturday was his inspiration to use the term "fee fees" (although I'm sure it's just two stellar minds thinking alike) in his latest missive. But his description of the media treatment of Trump (and conservatives in general) cannot be improved upon.
There is an accomplished woman saying something everybody knows is true and there is a vulgar talking yam who apparently could set his own dick on fire and not pay much of a price for it on television. That is grading on the curve, but it's nothing new. Hell, we've been grading Republicans on a curve for decades. We graded Reagan on a curve when he burbled about trees and air pollution. We graded him on a curve during Iran Contra on the grounds that he was too dim to know what was going on around him. We graded W on a curve for the whole 2000 campaign when he didn't know Utah from Uzbekistan, but Al Gore knew too much stuff and what fun was he, anyway? We graded Republicans on a curve when they attached themselves to the remnants of American apartheid, when they played footsie with the militias out west and with the heirs to the White Citizens Councils in the South. We graded them on a curve every time they won a campaign behind Karl Rove or Lee Atwater or the late Terry Dolan back in the 1970s. We talked about how they were "reaching out" to disillusioned white voters who'd suffered in the changing economy, as though African-American workers didn't get slugged harder than anyone else by deindustrialization. We pretended not to notice how racial animus was the accelerant for the fire of discontent in the "Reagan Democrats." That was, and is, grading on a moral curve.
I'd be grumpy that I was working on something along these lines and now it's irrelevant, but the "grading curve" is so much better a metaphor than anything I was coming up with that I can't even be mad. Sometimes you just take a bow.
So I'm trying hard to collect more data on this, but I noticed an odd anomaly on the the "Poll of Polls" aggregator on Pollster.com (now part of Huffington Post). There are three blue dots (representing Clinton support in the respective polls) that are equal (at 37%) and clear outliers, showing much lower Clinton support than any other polls.
All three are conducted by the same agency, Rasmussen Reports. Rasmussen is a well-known partisan hack outfit that makes its money by generating results that please potential conservative donors. It tells clients what they want to hear, which in this case would be that the presidential race is either close or even favorable for Trump. The rightward lean of RR has been well documented, most publicly by Nate Silver after the 2010 midterm election. The green arrows identify the three Rasmussen results that stand out, as you can verify for yourself on Pollster's interactive site.
Two questions: What does the "poll of polls" look like without Rasmussen's data? Since they contribute only a few polls to a very large pool of data for a site like Pollster, I wouldn't expect a dramatic change. Their inclusion is, however small, exaggerating the competitiveness of the race in national polling. Second, why is data so clearly suspect not being looked at more closely, or perhaps withheld until its notable skew toward Trump relative to other polling can be explained? I tend to be suspicious of media efforts to depict the race as competitive, so although the explanation is probably innocent ("We need to be Fair and Balanced! Which means including intentionally skewed data as long as it's skewed to the right!") part of me feels like we're beginning a repeat of 2012 when all the networks insisted up until the last possible minute that Romney was OMGSOCLOSE to winning in order to prevent viewers from getting bored and wandering away.
The travel/adventure writer Robert Young Pelton is not the first person that would come to most minds when asked to name an expert on global politics and international affairs. He is an entertaining writer with a large supply of war correspondent / stringer / freelance journalist "So there I was, in the middle of the chaos" anecdotes. His books are readable and fun, occasionally informative. That said, he really deserves some credit for writing as early as the mid to late 1990s that the South China Sea was going to be a key axis of international conflict in the early 21st Century. Seriously. This guy was writing about the Spratly Islands, the Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Shoal back when the rest of the world was still in the mindset of the Cold War or sagely explaining that India and Pakistan seem not to like one another very much. Pelton has made me sound prescient more than once for being able to cite the conflict over rock and coral clumps in the South China Sea long before the international press started bandying about terms like "Great Wall of Sand" and The Nine-Dash Line over the past year or two. Simon Winchester was also ahead of the game on this one, as were (I'm sure) many Asian experts whose writing is not widely available in this hemisphere. Searching "South China Sea" on Amazon shows a dozen nonfiction books on the topic written in 2014, 2015 or 2016. It's pretty impressive that some people were 20 years ahead of the game on it.
The Japan Times has a good Scarborough Shoal piece today, and other than to give Pelton some props I don't think I can explain the conflict any better than I could inform you by sharing some useful writing on the subject. Long story short: China and a number of others in the region – Taiwan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and others – assert historical ownership of a number of tiny, uninhabited rocks that were of no interest to anyone until modern times. They contain no resources, which one might expect, but they are outposts for establishing Exclusive Economic Zones and national-military sovereignty in an economically and strategically vital area of the world. China's approach has been one of extreme belligerence, building artificial islands (hence "Great Wall of Sand", referring to landfill) around rocks barely big enough to stand upon and staging military personnel and equipment there. Shipping lanes, fishing areas, potential undersea oil resources, and the patrol lanes of international navies (particularly the US Navy) are all affected by the outcome of this strategic land-grab.
One interesting thing I can add is that all of this has been made possible in part by a volcano. True story. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 in the Philippines – the largest eruption of the 20th Century, incidentally, which not many non-Asians realize – the US closed Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base. Both were heavily damaged and in the post-Cold War mindset of the 90s, once evacuated the decision was made not to return to either. The US withdrawal from the region left a power vacuum that the Chinese armed forces were more than eager to fill. In March of 2016 the Philippine government cordially invited the US military to place personnel and equipment at 5 bases in the region, a result of Obama's "Asian Pivot" strategy.
Thanks for helping me sound like I know what I'm talking about sometimes, RYP.
If I can offer you some advice on the American version of Labor Day, stop reading the internet and go do something. I mean, finish reading this and then go do something.
Rather that recount at great length the pitiful condition of the labor movement in the United States – and, surprise, since it declined we've been working more hours, more productively, for essentially the same income we were earning 35 years ago – I'll simply ask you to review this series of nine figures summarizing the extent of wage stagnation in the past few decades. Like most non-wealthy Americans, when inflation is considered relative to (hypothetical) changes in my income I'm actually working for less money with each passing year. Meanwhile the people in charge seem to be doing alright. They must be smarter and better than the rest of us.
There is a breaking point for this. I've no idea what it is or if I'll live to see it, but this trend can't continue indefinitely unless we revert to feudalism.
Shit. We're probably going to revert to feudalism, aren't we.
Throughout this campaign we've all laugh-cried at Trump supporters pressed to name any policy position he holds that they find appealing. No matter how clueless, every Trumper can name one (if only one) thing: Build. The. Wall. They chant it. They wear shirts and wave signs printed with it. They talk about it incessantly. If there is any one thing that Trump and his supporters agree upon unconditionally – one universal truth in their bizarre alternate reality – it is build the wall. I daresay the wall is a deal-breaker for them. They do not appear willing to negotiate about this wall. They want The Wall. Demand it, even.
So of course Trump, in some sort of idiotic effort to "court" "moderates" and perhaps convince a slightly larger portion of the GOP that he is not an actual fascist, spent the weekend trying to backpedal on the goddamn Wall. Because any competent campaign would strongly consider, nine weeks out from the election, injecting huge amounts of ambiguity into the one idea, however misguided, that its supporters agree upon without exception and about which they are rabidly enthusiastic. Over the past few days the campaign's surrogates have been sent out to float the idea that maybe the Wall isn't actually a wall, but a "virtual wall" – which Trump supporters cannot but note is not a wall at all. I give up; he may actually be trying to lose.
But wait! It turns out that when they said The Wall was not a real wall but actually just some kind of metaphor, it turns out they were being misquoted. It is, in fact, A Wall. The same sad-sack surrogates, who cannot help but deeply regret their decision to be in any way involved with this three ring circus, are being pushed before the cameras less than 48 hours later to "clarify" that their previous introduction of confusion into the conception of what exactly The Wall is has focus-grouped poorly and is being banished to the Land of Wind and Ghosts. Because obviously the way a campaign floats policy trial balloons is by appearing on media watched closely around the world and throwing out the possibility that what they have been saying all along may not actually be what they mean. And then abandoning that when it isn't well received.
The kind of person who is all-in on Trump 2016 is not likely to be a big fan of subtlety, nuance, symbolism, or metaphor. When these people say they want A Wall, they mean A Wall. One might assume that if the campaign understands literally nothing else they would understand that their supporters really, really want A Wall and it might not be a good idea to do a soft rollout of the possibility that The Wall is actually a thing that exists in our hearts and minds.
It's not exactly a startling insight to point out the logical inconsistency of the extreme patriotism, if not outright jingoism, found among people who believe that America needs to be Made Great Again. How can America simultaneously be the greatest country in the history of human societies AND a nightmare, degenerate hellscape in need of a Strongman to make it great again? Well, if semantic issues like this bother you there's an excellent chance you're not a Trump supporter. Suffice it to say that the mental gymnastics necessary to reconcile these viewpoints are strenuous.
Nowhere is the underlying message of "Make America 'Great' Again" more apparent than when a prominent public figure who is not white complains about America and white people absolutely lose their shit at the thought of an ingrate (insert racial slur) defaming their beloved country…the same country about which they complain bitterly and incessantly. If you have any doubt that Trump's inane slogan is a racist dogwhistle wherein "Great" and "White" are interchangeable, then explain how the same people who believe in the right to hoard guns so they can violently oppose the government so completely fly off the handle when a black man says he has a difficult time respecting a country that treats people like him with so much obvious disrespect.
If angry-as-hell white people have the God-given right (and, as some of them see it, duty) to malign the country, its government, and their fellow citizens incessantly and in every available format but Colin Kaepernick can't exercise a simple, tame protest without the explicitly racist knives coming out, then the social scientist in me suspects that there is something other than the expression of an opinion involved here. Then again I'd expect no less from people who envision themselves having the right to violently resist any attempt of the state to impinge upon their imaginary version of their rights but can't watch a video of cops killing an unarmed black guy without using words like "comply" and "obey."
Several news items during the Olympics have commented on the twin phenomena of less violence than anticipated and the absence of American spectators. Apparently – and it's hard to evaluate this claim without data, as most of it seems to be anecdotal from journalists – fans have attended the games in ordinary or expected numbers from around the world with the conspicuous exception of the United States. The most obvious explanation, discussed in the linked EspnW story above, is the extensive amount of coverage in the American media of Rio violence and the Zika virus.
That makes sense on its face. But it doesn't hold up to much scrutiny.
Stories about the ineptitude of Rio's preparation for the games (shoddy housing, dirty water, etc) were not by any means unique to American media. Since the journalists' housing was among the shoddiest and the earliest occupied, journalists from around the world were all subject to the same conditions with ample time to write listicle-style "Look at this shit!" stories. Second, Rio's reputation for having a poverty-crime problem is hardly a secret. Not only was it written about prior to the games (again, not exclusively by American journalists) but it hardly even needs to be written about. Even in Brazil, where I traveled a bit in 2014 prior to the World Cup, Brazilians I encountered described their country's crime rate as totally overblown – except for Rio. The consensus was that Rio was in fact very dangerous, and not just for tourists. So, its reputation appears pretty well established and merited. Finally, stories about Zika were similarly popular in media outlets American and non-American alike. Tabloid media love a good "outbreak" story irrespective of nationality (Ebola, Avian flu, SARS, etc).
The more likely explanation is that Americans are really bad at traveling abroad in general. No doubt the sensational stories about Rio dissuaded some people who might have considered going, and things like warnings from the CDC and State Department reinforced that. But 64% of Americans do not even have a passport. Few of us have traveled abroad, and a good portion of those who have been to another country have been to places like Canada, Mexican resort towns, and Caribbean cruise-stop islands. Most of us have no paid vacation days. Most of us lack the disposable income for expensive vacations to overpriced Big Events like the Olympics. Most of us do not speak Portuguese and may know that unlike in Europe or even most of Asia, facility with English will be very rare among the population. The percentage of the American population able to go to these Olympics even if they wanted to is small. And if the media dissuaded some of them who were on the fence, it stands to reason that a drop in an already small cohort would be noticeable in the stands.
The scary media narrative isn't outright wrong, but it's deceptive. It suggests a set of conditions that are not in fact unique to the United States but ignores others that are.
Last call for these exciting 3"x10" bumper stickers at the affordable price of four American dollars. Let your bumper tell other drivers what's the what with this patriotic design, timely in sentiment for another couple of months. These have been popular and I'm down to the last 20, so let's work together to give me the enormous thrill of being able to describe them as "sold out."
Also suitable for amps, guitar cases, keyboards, surfboards, windows, wall mounting, decoupage, and…essentially any flat or semiflat surface to which ordinary adhesives can bond. Makes a great gift, provided you hate your friends.
The journalistic low hanging fruit of the summer is overwrought "Who are Trump supporters?" pieces, sometimes using that exact phrase as a title in a truly impressive feat of laziness. The format varies only rarely. Attend a Trump rally, interview a bunch of morons, interview one or two people who seem nice and sincere albeit misinformed and weird (for balance), and make sweeping generalizations about how everything is now Different in some way that nobody can quantify.
If this all feels strangely familiar, that's because it's almost identical to all of the "Who are the Tea Party?" pieces from 2010. Some of these articles read like the authors did little more than ctrl-F those pieces and replace the proper nouns to reflect 2016. If you're a journalist and you're reading this (I know, I know. Just pretend they might be.) let me save you the trouble and point out that Trump supporters are the same as the Tea Party enthusiasts, and in both cases the question "Who are they?" has a very simple answer: They're Republicans.
We already sat through years of rampant speculation about the Tea Party. Are they blue collar disaffected Democrats? Working class poor people fed up with ineffective government? Previously apolitical people being brought into the political process by economic difficulties? A nonpartisan social movement with no historical antecedent? Well, it turned out that Tea Partiers were Republicans. Old, white Republicans. The angriest, loudest, least informed portion of the Republican base. Oh, and a good number of them seemed more than a little put off by the idea of having a black president.
When all of the survey data is collected, political scientists will plow through the numbers dutifully and show, once again, that this is the profile of a Trump supporter. They're Republicans. Perhaps they will skew a bit younger than the Tea Partiers did – finding someone under 55 at a TP rally was nearly impossible, suffering children under 10 notwithstanding – but the magical diversity and "newness" that journalists and pundits are desperate to read into the Trump phenomenon simply isn't going to be found. They're not Democrats. They're not "independents." They're not people who do not regularly participate in electoral politics. They're Republicans. Far-right, really angry Republicans who have obvious issues with people who do not look, act, and believe like they do.
I understand the impulse to write the story. What journalist could resist the temptation of seeing the shitshow that is Trump 2016 firsthand? The story practically writes itself and is guaranteed to generate clicks. But understand that there is no real story here, there is no real question that can't be answered. Trump supporters are Tea Partiers, and both are simply the part of the party that the Republican establishment has tried very, very hard to keep away from public view for a long time.