Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Believing in Change

Thank you for everything. My last ask is the same as my first. I’m asking you to believe—not in my ability to create change, but in yours.

President Barack Obama

This week’s featured posts are “Farewell, Mr. President” and “Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest“. In honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I want to point to an older Sift post “MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection“, where I attempt to recapture the often-suppressed radical side of King.

This week everybody was talking about the Trump dossier

Part of Trump’s briefing from the intelligence services included a two-page summary of a longer document (neither of which was endorsed as true by the intel people) listing alleged dirt that the Russians have on Trump. Buzzfeed somehow got hold of that longer document and published it, filling the airwaves with vague allusions to sexual practices you can’t talk about on TV.

Nobody who has commented (other than Trump himself, of course) actually knows whether any of this is true, and the major media outlets, in my judgment, are doing a good job of saying that at regular intervals.

I would feel sorry for any person this happened to, if he or she had maintained any standards of decorum in talking about others. But these are exactly the kinds of unsupported rumors Trump has been trafficking in for years. So this is more a case of what-goes-around-comes-around or they-that-touch-pitch-will-be-defiled.

That said, the claims aren’t well-supported enough to figure in my thinking, and probably shouldn’t figure in yours either. The proper use of them, at this point, is in jokes that needle Trump and his supporters. If they complain, you might remind them what it was like to listen to years of jokes about Obama and Kenya, or to see “humorous” images of the Obamas as monkeys.

The point of including the summary in the briefing, I suspect, is that Trump publicly resists the conclusion that the Russians were trying to help him win. But it’s hard to avoid that conclusion if the Russians had dirt on both candidates and only released what they had on Hillary. (He continues to deny that. Wednesday he said: “I think, frankly, had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would’ve released it just like they did about Hillary.”) If Trump recognized anything in the document as true, the point was made.

and his plan to deal with conflicts of interest

I broke that out into its own article.

and Obama’s farewell speech

Also its own article, part of my retrospective on the Obama years.

and Senate hearings on the cabinet nominees

Like everybody else, I’m not paying the kind of attention to the nominees that they deserve.  I didn’t eight years ago, either, but that was different. My whole response to Steven Chu was something like: “A Nobel winner as secretary of energy. Cool.” But Jeff Sessions’ history on race, or Exxon-Mobil’s takeover of the State Department — these seem to deserve more thought.

The Christian Science Monitor bends over backwards not to condemn Sessions, but there’s still plenty there to set your teeth on edge. It quotes an SMU professor saying, “But he’s not evidently a mean-spirited guy. He has a narrow view, but not necessarily a mean view.” That’s a pretty low bar for an attorney general: He may not protect minority rights, but at least he won’t be screwing them out of spite.

And Tillerson will be making decisions about sanctions against Russia that have cost his former company more than $1 billion, by some reports.

And Ben Carson, well, we already know he’s a loon. I stand by my judgment in 2015 that he would be an even scarier president than Trump. In his confirmation hearings, he used the phrase “extra rights” when asked about LGBT rights in public housing. In 2014, he used that same phrase about same-sex marriage: Gay people don’t get the “extra right” to redefine marriage.

I’m sure I’ll have the occasion to say this many times, but I might as well start now: It’s invariably conservatives who are claiming “extra rights” or “special rights”. Same-sex marriage is a great example of that: Until recently, marrying the person you love was something only straight people could do. That’s a special right. Carson is complaining because gay people got the same rights he has. He exemplifies the right-wing-Christian sense of entitlement; they view their own rights as natural, and everybody else’s as “special”.

and ObamaCare

The Senate approved a budget blueprint that would be the first step towards repealing ObamaCare through a filibuster-proof process called “reconciliation“. Several Republican senators have expressed reservations about repealing ObamaCare without even having a replacement proposal written, but only Rand Paul abstained from the final vote. If the rest are going to buck the leadership on this, they’ll have to do it at a later stage. For now, they’re staying in line.

If any of you live in places like Maine (Susan Collins) or Tennessee (Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker) or Ohio (Rob Portman), you might want to give your wavering senator a call. They’re in a difficult political situation, and pressure either way might make a difference. On the one hand, they don’t want a primary opponent to say, “Senator X kept us from repealing ObamaCare.” On the other, they don’t want a general election opponent to say, “Senator X took your health care away.” But it’s shaping up to be one or the other.


In a 60 Minutes interview shortly after the election, Trump said this about ObamaCare.

Stahl: And there’s going to be a period if you repeal it and before you replace it, when millions of people could lose -– no?

Trump: No, we’re going to do it simultaneously. It’ll be just fine. We’re not going to have, like, a two-day period and we’re not going to have a two-year period where there’s nothing. It will be repealed and replaced. And we’ll know. And it’ll be great healthcare for much less money. So it’ll be better healthcare, much better, for less money. Not a bad combination.

It’s worth noting that as Congress moves towards repealing (and not replacing) ObamaCare, he still hasn’t said anything more substantive or constructive: Provide better healthcare, great healthcare, for less money. Do it immediately. At his press conference Wednesday, Trump did what he so often does: promised something in the future that there’s no reason he couldn’t deliver now, if he had it.

As soon as [HHS Secretary Tom Price] is approved and gets into the office, we’ll be filing a plan.

I don’t know what is going to happen, but I guarantee you it won’t be better healthcare for less money, immediately. And Trump will blame Congress, rather than take any responsibility for not offering a plan of his own. I continue to wonder whether Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell understand what they’ve gotten themselves into.

and you might also be interested in

Part of the ongoing project to understand Trump voters: Read “We have always been at war with Eastasia” by Michael Arnovitz. He’s addressing the way that conservative voters’ opinions can turn on a dime when the partisan winds shift: Putin and WikiLeaks are popular now. Protectionism is suddenly a good thing. There’s no need to drain the swamp, and we’ll see if anybody still cares about deficits when Trump runs one.

Arnovitz postulates that liberals and conservatives frame the partisan battle differently. Liberals believe that we’re contesting with conservatives over policy: The winner gets to decide whether we get national health care or free college, which are the really important things.

But conservatives view policy arguments as battles in the larger war against liberals. This is essentially a religious battle for the soul of America, and Russia or taxes or deficits are secondary.

BTW: In case it’s been a long time since you read 1984, the title refers to the moment when Oceania suddenly shifts its alliance from Eastasia to Eurasia. Eastasia, the former ally, is now the enemy — but no one is allowed to point that out. Instead of explaining the change, Oceania just alters history to claim that it was always at war with Eastasia.


On the Moyers & Company site, Neal Gabler writes about progressives going through the stages of grief about Trump’s election. I kind of get his point: You start out saying “This isn’t happening”, then get angry, and so on from there. But then he makes it clear that he doesn’t really understand the stages of grief:

The last stage of grief is acceptance, and one thing I do know: It is imperative that anyone who thinks of Trump’s election as perhaps the single greatest catastrophe in American political history must never reach that stage.

No, actually it’s imperative that we do get to acceptance. Acceptance isn’t an aw-fukkit attitude. It’s not resignation. It just means that you stop arguing that the world isn’t the way it is, or that the world owes you something for being the way it is. If you don’t get there, your actions have a brittleness or desperation that undermines your effectiveness.

Resignation means not just that you accept the present, but that you’re not going to try to change to future either. That’s where you should never let yourself get. (I talked about this at length recently.)

Trump will become president Friday. That’s bad, but the badness of it doesn’t change the fact. We’ve got work to do if we want to the future to be better.

and let’s close with a modern sorcerer’s apprentice moment

So Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant is default-set to allow you to voice-order products from Amazon. But what if it misinterprets something you say as an order, or recognizes somebody else’s voice — maybe a voice on the TV — as yours?

Channel 6 in San Diego admits that happened. Its news anchors were talking about an incident where a little girl ordered a dollhouse and four pounds of cookies, when one of them said:

I love the little girl, saying “Alexa ordered me a dollhouse.”

All over San Diego, Amazon devices heard somebody say “Alexa, order me a dollhouse”.

Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest

Last week I talked about how Trump’s followers don’t care about process issues. To them, process issues are about getting the appearances right and filling out the correct forms. Only lawyers and fussbudgets care about technicalities like that.

Avoiding conflicts of interest is a process issue. Trump has been appealing to his supporters indifference to such concerns when he sloppily says “I have a no-conflict situation because I’m president.” or “The president can’t have a conflict of interest.” The grain of truth in those statements is that the president is exempt from the primary conflict-of-interest law (for reasons that will be explained below). So he’s free from some (but not all) legal technicalities, which he expresses by saying that he’s free from conflicts of interest.

This refusal to acknowledge the problem, other than as a set of meaningless hoops people expect him to jump through, explains a lot about the conflict-of-interest plan he revealed Wednesday. The Atlantic ‘s Jeremy Venook comments:

Trump and his lawyer Sheri Dillon laid out the plans that they claimed would resolve the questions about conflicts of interest that have dogged the president-elect since he was elected. Instead, what they announced were piecemeal steps that, though designed and packaged to mitigate the appearance of conflicts of interest, do almost nothing to substantively address concerns that his business entanglements will undermine his ability to faithfully execute the office of the presidency.

The plan. Trump’s plan has a few basic points:

  • He resigns as an officer of the Trump Organization.
  • His assets go into a trust that he continues to own, but which will be managed by his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, together with a Trump executive, Allen Weisselberg.
  • He pledges not to discuss business with his sons or Weisselberg. (Venook calls this a “pinky-swear assurance”. Obviously Trump will continue to meet with his sons, and we’ll have no idea what they talk about.)
  • The Trump Organization does not make any new deals in foreign countries, or any deals at all with any “foreign country, agency, or instrumentality thereof.”
  • New domestic deals will need the approval of “independent” ethics officers, one in the government and one in the Trump Organization.
  • Profits earned from foreign governments — say by diplomats staying at or holding events at Trump hotels — will be donated to the U.S. Treasury.

His lawyers claim that in giving up foreign-government-related profits, he goes over and above what the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause requires, because it does not apply to “fair-value exchanges” like renting a hotel room. (That’s a controversial view, to put it mildly. And who’s to decide the “fair value” of a room in a hotel whose main selling point is the prestige of its image? What if he later claims that a stay in a Trump hotel is — as the MasterCard commercials say — “priceless”.)

The problems. The foremost obstacle to a credible conflict-avoidance plan is that Trump has a long history of welching on his deals and not carrying out his promises. For Trump, no deal is ever done; he’s constantly pushing its boundaries and trying to re-negotiate its terms. At a minimum, we should expect Trump to interpret any constraints on his actions as loosely as possible. So his conflict-of-interest plan needs to have ironclad enforcement provisions.

This one has none. The public knows nothing and will continue to know nothing about the internal workings of the Trump Organization. The ethics officers are appointed by Trump or his sons, and if they rubber-stamp deals that clearly violate the stated terms — say, an interest-free loan from a sovereign wealth fund — we’ll never know. And what is “profit”, anyway? In the real estate business, profit is as much or as little as an accountant is willing to sign off on. Unless Trump volunteers to tell us, we won’t know how much he is remitting to the Treasury or what that number is based on. (Or he might tell us he’s giving so many millions to the Treasury and then not bother to write the check unless or until somebody notices; he’s done that kind of thing before.) 538‘s Ben Casselman sums up:

It’s hard to evaluate Trump’s promises because as a private company, the Trump Organization doesn’t have to disclose many details about its finances or operations and because Trump himself — in a break from the practice of past presidents — has refused to release his tax returns. Trump on Wednesday displayed huge stacks of documents that he said were part of the process of turning his business over to his sons, but he didn’t make those documents available for public inspection. So although Trump did, as promised, provide new details about how he will handle his finances as president, the news conference didn’t do much to change the bottom line: When it comes to conflicts of interest, Trump’s message to Americans remains, “Trust me.”

And then there’s the stuff that’s not covered at all. Even without any new deals, foreign governments will have plenty of opportunities to favor or threaten existing Trump properties. The Trump Organization can hire people that the Trump administration wants to pay off or keep quiet, and we’ll never know. Banks that loan money to Trump businesses — we recently found out there’s a whole lot more debt than Trump previously admitted to — will be regulated by the Trump administration. Quid-pro-quo deals can be arranged to begin after Trump leaves office. And the lease on the Old Post Office, which houses the new Trump International Hotel in Washington, explicitly forbids any “elected official of the Government of the United States” from participating. Presumably Trump thinks he’s solved the problem by having a trust that he owns be party to the lease, but he hasn’t.

Perhaps the most serious potential conflict of interest isn’t financial: Imagine that terrorists in some country, say Turkey, start targeting Trump properties, and Trump concludes that the Turkish government isn’t doing enough to protect them. Is that an issue between the Turkey and a foreign corporation? Or is it an issue between Turkey and President of the United States?

The Schaub speech. Also on Wednesday, the Director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Schaub, gave an unprecedented speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

I wish circumstances were different and I didn’t feel the need to make public remarks today. You don’t hear about ethics when things are going well. You’ve been hearing a lot about ethics lately.

I need to talk about ethics today because the plan the President-elect has announced doesn’t meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting and that every President in the past four decades has met.

We learn a bunch of things from Schaub’s speech. First, that Trump constructed his plan with no input from OGE, the organization that his cabinet nominees have been working with. (Schaub spoke glowingly of Rex Tillerson’s cooperation, and the plan they came up with to insulate him from Exxon-Mobil.) Trump’s attorney had explained the decision not to sell his interest in the Trump Organization because its assets are too illiquid to dispose of quickly or easily. Schaub brushed that off:

[Trump’s] attorney [Sheri Dillon] also said she feared the public might question the legitimacy of the sale price if he divested his assets. I wish she had spoken with those of us in the government who do this for a living. We would have reassured her that Presidential nominees in every administration agree to sell illiquid assets all the time.

He might not get top dollar if he sold now, but people make sacrifices to serve at the top levels of government.

I appreciate that divestiture can be costly. But the President-elect would not be alone in making that sacrifice. I’ve been involved in just about every Presidential nomination in the past 10 years. I also have been involved in the ethics review of Presidents, Vice Presidents, and most top White House officials. I’ve seen the sacrifices that these individuals have had to make.

It’s important to understand that the President is now entering the world of public service. He’s going to be asking his own appointees to make sacrifices. He’s going to be asking our men and women in uniform to risk their lives in conflicts around the world. So, no, I don’t think divestiture is too high a price to pay to be the President of the United States of America.

Tillerson, for example agreed to forego “millions of dollars” in bonuses from Exxon-Mobil. Everybody who joined the Obama administration, including Obama himself, had to sell their stocks at the worst possible time. (The exact bottom of the market was in early March, 2009, but November, 2008 was close.)

Finally, we get an explanation of why Congress exempted the president from certain conflict-of-interest laws.

Now, some have said that the President can’t have a conflict of interest, but that is quite obviously not true. I think the most charitable way to understand such statements is that they are referring to a particular conflict of interest law that doesn’t apply to the President. That law, 18 U.S.C. § 208, bars federal employees from participating in particular matters affecting their financial interests. Employees comply with that law by “recusing”, which is a lawyerly way of saying they have stay out of things affecting their financial interests. If they can’t stay out of these things, they have to sell off their assets or get a waiver. That’s what Presidential appointees do. But Congress understood that a President can’t recuse without depriving the American people of the services of their leader. That’s the reason why the law doesn’t apply to the President.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? If a president who owned oil wells had to recuse himself from any energy-policy discussion, he couldn’t really do his job.

[In response to this speech, House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz sent a letter to Schaub warning him against “blurring the line between public relations and official ethics guidance” and implying that his office’s funding might be cut.]

Other expert opinion. The Atlantic interviewed Norman Eisen, who used to oversee ethics for the Obama administration. Eisen echoes Schaub’s explanation:

You don’t want to have the president in the middle of a crisis where he’s about to make an urgent decision, and his White House Counsel says to him, “Oh, Mr. President, you have a conflict of interest. You have to leave the room. You can’t decide whether to rescue those hostages.” We don’t want to have that.

And points out another way in which “The president can’t have a conflict of interest” is at best “a half truth”.

It is the case that there are certain portions of the federal conflict-of-interest laws that apply to all other federal officials, but do not apply to the president and vice president. But those occur in a large body of constitutional, criminal, and civil law that is intended to regulate conflict. There’s no dispute that the president is covered by the federal criminal law, including 18 U.S.C. § 201, for example, which is bribery of public officials.

Eisen answers questions about enforcement. Impeachment is the ultimate enforcement mechanism, but he outlines other steps that could play out in Congress or the courts, like competitors suing because they feel they’ve been damaged by favors given to Trump businesses.

But why are we even talking about this? He could sign his stuff over to a true, independent trustee, not a family member, let the independent trustee liquidate, put the liquidated assets behind a big, beautiful, blind-trust wall, and set up another ethics firewall for your kids and other managers of the organization. That simple, four-step process would spare us all of this.

The argument against this solution is one I suspect we’ll hear a lot these next four years: Trump is very rich, and it’s unreasonable to expect the very rich to follow the same rules or live by the same standards the rest of us do.

Farewell, Mr. President

This week he said good-bye to us. It’s time to reflect on what it means to say good-bye to him.


For about a year now, President Obama has been doing “lasts”: last State of the Union, last Democratic Convention as president, last press conference, and so on. It all leads up to Friday, when he will pass the presidency on to someone I don’t trust and feel is simply not up to the job.

Tuesday, he gave his Farewell Address, a presidential tradition that goes back to George Washington [1] and includes such memorable moments as Dwight Eisenhower warning us against “the military-industrial complex”.

The speech. In Obama’s farewell, he focused on the challenges that American democracy faces:

  • lack of economic opportunity for all
  • continuing conflict over race
  • retreat into bubbles of like-minded people
  • weakening democratic values by giving in to fear of each other
  • erosion of democratic institutions.

He presented these not just as political problems to be address by leaders and solved with new laws, but as cultural problems all citizens need to be aware of and work on. In a lot of ways it was typical Obama: He gives inspiring and engaging speeches, but he always assigns homework. He never loses sight of the truth that government can’t really be of the People, by the People, and for the People unless the People are willing to work on it.

Looking back personally. For me, any reflection on the Obama administration has to start with the personal: Over the last eight years I’ve developed a real affection for Barack Obama and his family. During campaigns, pundits sometimes ask whether voters would like to have a beer with a candidate. I’ll put a somewhat different spin on that idea: Of all the First Families of my lifetime, I’d most like to eat dinner with the Obamas.

For eight years, they have endured an unprecedented level of hatred and vindictiveness, some of it due to the increasing partisanship in America, and some due to racism. [2] Through it all, they have maintained a level of dignity and decorum that the entire country ought to take pride in, even if half of it doesn’t. I have memories of all Obama’s predecessors back to LBJ, and each, Republican and Democrat alike, have at one time or another left me embarrassed or ashamed to think of him as my president. I never felt that way about Obama.

Conversely, I always felt respected by him. From his campaign rallies in 2008 to the farewell address Tuesday, he always talked to us as if we were adults. He wasn’t above using a slogan like “yes we can” or “hope and change”, but there was always something behind it. He never turned America’s enemies into cartoon villains, or proposed cartoon solutions for dealing with them. (And yet, he dealt with them.)

When historians look back at the Obama administration, I think they will rate it as the cleanest of modern times. There was no Watergate, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky. Republicans kept trying to label things as “Obama’s Katrina” because none of them stuck. Every time they ginned up a new faux outrage, they had to relate it to something from a previous administration, because Obama had left them nothing. That is not just a testiment to his managerial ability and his good judgment in choosing subordinates, but to the example of the man at the top.

What he accomplished. In the farewell address, President Obama summed up his accomplishments like this:

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history; if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11; if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high. But that’s what we did.

Republicans by and large refuse to talk about the Bush-Cheney administration, so the eight years before Obama sometimes seem like one big memory hole. But it’s worth remembering that he entered office in the middle of a historic crisis. The economy was hemorrhaging jobs, the banking system was insolvent, and the auto industry was bankrupt. There were questions about whether states would be able to pay their bills.

We were also in the middle of two bloody and expensive wars with no end in sight. So let’s start there: During George W. Bush’s two terms, 5984 American soldiers died in Iraq or Afghanistan. In Obama’s two terms, 921.

Obama turns over to Trump a far better economy than the one he inherited. The Dow was just under 8,000 when Obama was inaugurated. It’s now just under 20,000. Unemployment was at 7.8% and rising fast when Obama took office. It would peak at 10% by October. It’s now at 4.7%. [3]

When Obama took office, federal fiscal year 2009 was already in progress, having started on October 1, 2008. Politifact reports:

On Jan. 7, 2009, two weeks before Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for fiscal year 2009 was projected to be $1.2 trillion.

The FY 2009 deficit eventually came in at $1.4 trillion, with the extra $200 billion attributed mostly to Obama’s stimulus plan. Since then the deficits have come down considerably; the FY 2017 deficit Trump inherits is estimated at just over $500 billion.

ObamaCare, for all the abuse it takes, has succeeded in its major goals: The percentage of the population that is uninsured is the lowest in history. Unless and until it gets repealed, all of us are secure against becoming uninsurable because we get sick. [4]

The Iran deal, assuming Trump doesn’t screw it up somehow, was a great piece of diplomacy. As I described elsewhere, we got the concessions we wanted and gave the Iranians nothing but their own frozen assets. Compare this to the Bush administration’s handling of North Korea: The bluster sounded impressive, but in the end North Korea got nuclear weapons and Bush did nothing about it. He would either have done the same thing with Iran or started a third war bigger than his other two.

The opening to Cuba was long overdue. We’ve kept the embargo in place for half a century mostly because no president was willing to admit it had failed.

Marriage equality did happen on Obama’s watch, but I don’t think he deserves much credit for it. When he changed his mind on the subject, he was following the country rather than leading it. That’s better than holding the country back, but it’s nothing to brag about.

Where he failed: war powers. My substantive disappointment in Obama is best symbolized by the prison at Guantanamo: He signed an order to close it on the second day of his presidency, and it is still open. Guantanamo was the Bush administration’s attempt to find a “law-free zone“, where the treatment of prisoners couldn’t be judged either by U.S. courts or those of some host nation. It was part of a larger vision in which the War on Terror would be unconstrained by the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, or any national sovereignty that would prevent us from killing whoever we want wherever we want.

That vision is still functioning, limited in some ways, but in others more secure than ever. Obama hinted as much in the farewell address:

For the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firmer legal footing.

He limited torture by executive order, which Trump will be free to reverse next week if he’s so inclined. Drone strikes continue in countries where we are not at war and do not have the prior approval of the local government. There is a more rigorous process — also established by and reversible by executive order — to prevent the most egregious abuses of these extraordinary powers. But if President Obama could order the death of an American citizen like Anwar al-Awlaki, a more malevolent future president could kill any of us.

As in so many areas of disappointment, his inability to get Congress to go along with him played a huge role (especially with Guantanamo).

Where he failed: economic justice. The ongoing economic collapse Obama inherited from President Bush created both dangers and opportunities. The banking system was insolvent and government action was necessary to prevent the kind of cascading bankruptcies that characterized the Great Depression. Sweden took advantage of a similar crisis in the 1990s to get control of its banks and re-organize them. Obama missed that opportunity, preferring to leave the existing bank managements in place and simply provide government cash and guarantees. His Justice Department also failed to prosecute bankers, even though it seems clear that a great deal of fraud was involved in the housing bubble.

As a result, bankers got bailed out and homeowners didn’t. The too-big-to-fail banks are still too big to fail, and the whole disaster could happen again.

In an effort to gain Republican support that never came, his stimulus proposal was too small and about 1/3 of it came as tax cuts. So American infrastructure continued to decay, even as large numbers of workers were unemployed and interest rates were near zero.

The bottom line was that when recovery came, its benefits were focused on the wealthy. Inequality continued to grow. Only in the last year or two have wages for the middle class begun to increase.

Where he failed: climate change. There is still no price on carbon, which is the most obvious and most necessary step to battle climate change. He was not able to get any substantive climate-change bill or treaty through Congress, so such advances as he made through the executive branch are vulnerable to the next administration.

The mirages of transformation. Whether you love Obama or hate him, probably you feel a certain amount of disappointment about his administration and his era. Looking back, I blame our unrealistic expectations more than failures on his part.

Obama’s 2008 landslide (and the large Congressional majorities that came with it) created a hope among liberals that he could be not just a good president — which I think he was — but a transformational one on the scale of FDR or Lincoln. The lesson of the Bush economic collapse was that conservative economics does not work: If you lower taxes on the rich, they won’t hire more workers; if you de-regulate banks and businesses, they’ll rob you. Surely now all of America recognized that great liberal truth, and was willing to follow the new president into a fundamentally new vision of how American society and economy should work.

In retrospect, Obama was slow to catch on to the scorched-earth nature of Republican resistance, and tried too hard and too long to find common ground with people who were content to reject their own ideas as soon as Obama adopted them. (John McCain, for example, opposed what was essentially the McCain-Liebermann proposal on climate change, as well as his previous ideas about immigration reform.) He never moved quickly enough because he always thought he had more time than he actually did. His filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, for example, lasted not two years, but only about half a year: from Al Franken’s delayed swearing-in in July, 2009 to Scott Brown’s upset victory in January, 2010.

But I think the idea that 2008 represented a chance to reshape the longterm political landscape of America was always a mirage. The speed with which the Republicans rebranded themselves and pulled their party back together, the quick and unified resistance to such changes as Obama managed to make, the willingness of white Americans to believe any bad thing propagandists could dream up about their black president … it all belies the vision of a transformational moment. It’s very human to fantasize about change and then resist such change as actually appears. We do that every day in our personal lives, and we did it as a country in the Obama era. (I think Trump is discovering a similar truth about now.)

Another mirage projected onto Obama, this one more often by conservatives, was that his presidency would mark the beginning of a “post-racial America”. Now that a black man had been elected president, we could all admit that racism was over and move on. Blacks and other non-white Americans would be satisfied now and stop making demands for any more substantive equality.

On the Right, it’s now widely accepted that Obama was a “divisive” president who made race relations worse: witness Ferguson and Baltimore. Rather than settle down and accept their unequal place in the world, blacks seem more riled up than ever by movements like Black Lives Matter, and Obama encourages them rather than urging them to get back in line.

But racism has never been over in America, or even close to over. Obama’s presidency brought to the surface racial currents that had remained hidden and deniable. He was “divisive” in the same way that Martin Luther King was: He raised black hopes for justice, and became a target for white racial anxiety. [5] The racial divide in America is more visible now than it was in 2008, and that’s probably a good thing, because we can’t solve problems we refuse to see.

Summing up. I’ve had things to complain about these last eight years, but I’ve never missed George W. Bush, or pined for the lost opportunities of a McCain or Romney administration. And as for next administration, the cartoon below rings far too true. For the next four years, I suspect I will miss Barack Obama every day.


[1] The writing of Washington’s farewell address is commemorated in the song “One Last Time” from Hamilton.

[2] Elsewhere, I’ve discussed the implicit racism embedded in attacks on the Obamas. For now, let me just say that I don’t believe it would ever have occurred to Joe Wilson to interrupt a white president’s State of the Union address by yelling, “You lie!” One simply didn’t do stuff like that during previous administrations, and probably no one will once again, now that the White House is back in white hands. I predict that Donald Trump’s addresses will be full of lies, as all his speeches are, but no congressman will yell at him.

[3] If you don’t like the way the unemployment rate is defined, we can compare a broader number, which the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls U6: In addition to the people the more widely publicized unemployment rate (U3) counts, it includes those who want jobs but are too discouraged to actively look for them, and those part-time workers who wish they could find full-time work. That rate was 14.2% in January, 2009 and peaked at 17.1%. It’s now at 9.2%.

[4] This is real to me because my wife is a two-time cancer survivor. If you look around at the people close to you, I predict you won’t have to look far to find somebody with a pre-existing condition no profit-minded insurance company would touch.

[5] Another comparison is the antebellum South. Slaveholders had convinced themselves that their slaves were happy — “You’re happy, boy, aren’t you? Don’t I treat you good?” — and believed that the only problem was those meddling abolitionists.

The Monday Morning Teaser

There’s really too much news to sift these days. I chose to write two featured articles this week, one a farewell to President Obama, and the other a response to Trump’s plan to appear to do something about his conflicts of interest. But also the Senate began hearings on cabinet nominees, several of whom are worth serious objections. Both houses of Congress started maneuvering to repeal ObamaCare, while claiming to want to replace it, but not coming any closer to producing a replacement. The Inauguration is coming up Friday, and the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday — which will draw the bigger crowd is an interesting question. Trump held an outrageous press conference, where he staked out a more hostile relationship with the press than any previous president. The Senate Intelligence Committee is going to investigate Russian influence on the election, while James Comey is taking a wildly different position on discussing possible FBI investigations of Trump than he did on discussing investigations of Clinton. Trump’s approval rating is far below any previous president-elect on the eve of inauguration. And oh, by the way, Congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis said publicly that he doesn’t think Trump is a legitimate president.

I’m having trouble keeping up with all that myself, much less explaining it all in a reasonable length. And what about the states, or the world outside the United States? There must be news there too — it’s not like they all shut down or something —  but I couldn’t tell you what it is.

So I go into this week’s sift admitting that I’m bound to leave out something important, or give a one-line mention to stuff that deserves serious thought. There’s just not enough serious thought to go around these days.

I wonder if that situation will settle down after the inauguration, or just get worse?

Anyway, I’ll guess that “Farewell, Mr. President” comes out around 9 EST. “Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest” at 10, and the weekly summary between 11 and noon. In the meantime, it’s MLK Day, so you might want to look at a post I wrote in 2013 to recall Martin Luther King’s radical side, which so easily gets swept under the rug these days: “MLK: Sanitized For Their Protection“. I take some pride in its opening line: “One of the best ways to silence a dead revolutionary is to venerate him.”

Dark Woods

This is the deepest part of the deep dark woods. Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.

Charles Pierce

This week’s featured post is “How Populism Goes Bad“.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s feud with the intelligence services over Russia

Friday, Trump got briefed by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA Director John Brennan and FBI Director James Comey about Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. Also on Friday, an unclassified report on the findings of the CIA, FBI, and NSA was released to the public. (Actual content begins on page 6. The report says it was based on a “highly classified” document. The conclusions are the same but some “supporting information” was left out.)

We assess with high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election

This effort seems to have unfolded on three levels: first, a “longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order”, then a specific animus against Hillary Clinton, and finally a desire to help elect Donald Trump.

When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency. … Starting in March 2016, Russian Government–linked actors began openly supporting President-elect Trump’s candidacy in media aimed at English-speaking audiences.

The report describes a wide-ranging effort, including hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign emails that were released by WikiLeaks, direct propaganda on Russian-government supported outlets like the RT news network, internet trolls, and fake news sources.

Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 US presidential election represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at US elections.

Until Friday, Trump had minimized any implication that Russia helped him get elected, saying that there was no way to know who had done the hacking, and describing the Russian-influence controversy as a “witch hunt“. His statement Friday didn’t double down on that, but changed the subject. He continued to acknowledge no special role for Russia, and shifted attention to hacking voting machines, which has been sometimes rumored but seems not to have happened.

While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations, including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines

In short: Russia played a key role in getting Trump elected, and he’s still carrying water for them. How far the pro-Russian tilt of his administration will go is still anybody’s guess.


BTW, if you believe the NYT’s interviews in Lousiana, Trump supporters don’t care. That’s disturbing, but I think it’s important not to confuse the enthusiastic Trumpers with the 46% who elected him. The 46% included a lot of Republicans with doubts about him.


In possibly related news, former CIA director James Woolsey resigned from the Trump transition team. According to the WaPo:

People close to Woolsey said … that Woolsey had grown increasingly uncomfortable lending his name and credibility to the transition team without being consulted.

and ObamaCare

President Obama, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine about the proposed repeal of ObamaCare.

If a repeal with a delay is enacted, the health care system will be standing on the edge of a cliff, resulting in uncertainty and, in some cases, harm beginning immediately. Insurance companies may not want to participate in the Health Insurance Marketplace in 2018 or may significantly increase prices to prepare for changes in the next year or two, partly to try to avoid the blame for any change that is unpopular. Physician practices may stop investing in new approaches to care coordination if Medicare’s Innovation Center is eliminated. Hospitals may have to cut back services and jobs in the short run in anticipation of the surge in uncompensated care that will result from rolling back the Medicaid expansion. Employers may have to reduce raises or delay hiring to plan for faster growth in health care costs without the current law’s cost-saving incentives. And people with preexisting conditions may fear losing lifesaving health care that may no longer be affordable or accessible.

Does anybody remember the deal that came out of the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011? We were assured that the sequester, which would cut spending across the board without regard to its importance, would never come to pass. It was just an enforcement mechanism to make sure that the bipartisan “Supercommittee” really did come up with $1.5 trillion of deficit reduction over the next ten years. And they would, because nobody wanted the sequester.

Well, threatening the committee with something awful didn’t magically make the partisan deadlock go away: Republicans still wouldn’t consider any tax increases, and Democrats still weren’t willing to offer $1.5 trillion of spending cuts without any tax increases. So the sequester happened, even though everybody swore it wouldn’t.

Same thing here: We’re told that if ObamaCare is repealed, effective two or three years in the future, then Congress will be forced to come up with a replacement, because nobody wants to be responsible for 20 million people losing their health insurance and everybody losing protection against being locked out of the insurance system by a pre-existing condition.

And that’s exactly right: Nobody wants to be responsible. So when it happens they’ll all do their best to duck the responsibility.


Repeal-and-delay or repeal-now-and-replace-someday may have trouble in the Senate, where it only takes three Republican dissenters to derail the plan. So far

Rand Paul (R-KY), Bob Corker (R-TN), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Susan Collins (R-ME) are all signaling a potential break from the rest of their party. Though it’s not yet clear whether these senators will cast a vote against Obamacare repeal, the growing unease in the Senate puts the GOP on shaky ground.

They’re not coming out as ObamaCare defenders by any means, but each is reluctant to vote for repeal without knowing what the replacement proposal will be.

There’s a distinction to make here between sharp, hard-nosed tactics and irresponsibility. Much of the repeal of ObamaCare can be done through a reconciliation process that can’t be filibustered, but a replacement proposal would need 60 votes to get through the Senate, which it is unlikely to get at the moment.

So it makes tactical sense for the Republicans to separate the two votes, figuring that after ObamaCare is repealed, some Democrats will come around to a Republican replacement plan rather than revert to the broken healthcare system we had in 2009. What’s irresponsible, though, is that the replacement plan doesn’t even exist yet, and it’s not at all clear that Republicans can agree on one, even among themselves. They’ve had seven years to concoct a plan; it’s a mystery why the 8th or 9th year would be the charm.


Various Republicans are insisting that no one will be worse off under their plan, whatever it turns out to be. They almost certainly can’t make good on that, “since they are backing themselves into having no money to insure 20 or 25 million people” (as Josh Marshall observes), “But they’re on the record.”

For what it’s worth, Trump said during the campaign: “Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.” This week, spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway said: “We don’t want anyone who currently has insurance to not have insurance.”

Paul Ryan: “Clearly there will be a transition and a bridge so that no one is left out in the cold, so that no one is worse off.” But later, his people walked that back, claiming that the Speaker was talking only about the transition period before the replacement took effect.

but I’m thinking about resistance

There are a number of events you could go to, either this weekend or next. You can search for something near you at the Our Revolution event page. (There are probably other event pages; if you know of any, mention them in the comments.)

The big ones, of course, are the Women’s Marches January 21, a week from Saturday and the day after the Inauguration. The central one in D.C. is expected to draw hundreds of thousands, and there are sister marches in cities all over the country.

If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t usually do this kind of thing, one question you might be asking yourself is: If I go, what difference will it make?

I won’t try to convince you that you’ll have some major impact on Trump himself, or on most of his supporters either. But a big news-making crowd might make congresspeople of both parties think twice before they sign on to Trump’s agenda, and also affect the way the media covers the administration going forward. We want to short-circuit the narrative that says the public is coming around on Trump, that nobody really cares about his conflicts of interest, his racist chief strategist and attorney general, his targeting of Muslim Americans and Hispanic immigrants, his anti-woman proposals and personal history, his pro-billionaire agenda, and all the rest of it.

But beyond all those good effects (which I admit that one more person would advance only marginally), you should think about the effect that going to a march will have on yourself. By getting out and marching on the first full day of the new administration, you start to change your self-image and your political identity. Rather than being someone who just pays attention to the news and votes, you start becoming someone who is more involved and does things on a regular basis. You may meet other people who get involved and do things, or discover that people you already know are out there with you. You may start feeling less helpless and hopeless. You may do less yelling at the TV and more planning how to respond. Seeds will get planted, and who can predict what will sprout from them?

So sure, do it for the country. But also do it for yourself.


As for affecting Congress, some ex-staffers for Democratic congresspeople have used their inside knowledge to put together Indivisible: a practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda. It’s about tactics for forming constituent groups and influencing your members of Congress.

It includes a number of tips that are obvious once you’ve read them, but that not everybody would think of. Like this one for attending town-hall meetings:

SHOULD I BRING A SIGN?
Signs can be useful for reinforcing the sense of broad agreement with your message. However, if you’re holding an oppositional sign, staffers will almost certainly not give you or the people with you the chance to get the mic or ask a question. If you have enough people to both ask questions and hold signs, though, then go for it!


The House Republicans’ attempt to do away with the independence of the Office of Congressional Ethics failed. After an immediate public outcry, they backed down. I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of this issue, but it points out that the public’s voice still matters, if we choose to use it.


Sleeping Giants “is an organization dedicated to stopping racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic news sites by stopping their ad dollars.” The main tactic seems to be pointing out to companies that their online ads are appearing next to horrible content, implying that the company endorses such views. Current target: Addidas.

We’ve reached a point in our country where sitting it out isn’t an option. If you’re a part of ad dollars flowing to racist sites like Breitbart, then you’re part of the ugliness undermining a strong, diverse America.

and here’s the most important story nobody’s paying attention to

From ProPublica, an organization that has a history of doing good, accurate reporting:

The rate of pregnancy-related deaths in Texas seemed to have doubled since 2010, making the Lone Star State one of the most dangerous places in the developed world to have a baby.

The increase is largest among African-American women, and the timing corresponds to a funding cut for family-planning centers that serve low-income women. Coincidence?

and you might also be interested in

Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes: “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.” Read the whole thing. Or watch it.

Trump, of course, doesn’t have the grace to let something like that stand — imagine if President Obama had felt obligated to respond to every bad thing said about him — so he tweeted:

Meryl Streep, one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big

“Overrated” is also how he described Hamilton, so it’s starting to look like a badge of honor. Being called “overrated” by Trump is something to aspire to.


If you want to know how bad things could get, look to Brazil. After President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party was impeached in August, the current un-elected president, Michel Temer, took over, despite being just as corrupt as Rousseff. Temer has pushed through a constitutional amendment to freeze public spending on all social programs at current levels (plus inflation) for the next 20 years. A whopping 24% of the public supports that limit — 43% of Brazilians were unaware of the plan a short time before the Senate approved it — but the business community loves it, so it passed.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, says the freeze “clearly violates Brazil’s obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” and “will place Brazil in a socially retrogressive category all of its own”.

A separate pension-reform proposal forbids retirement before age 65, in a country where the life expectancy in many poorer communities is lower than that. Labor laws are also under attack. In many, many ways, the government is taking an attitude of: Yeah, it’s unfair and unpopular, but so what?


I frequently link to Pressthink by Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at Columbia who is one of the sharpest people thinking about American news coverage. Recently he had a very good two-part series about the challenge Trump poses to journalism and some (admittedly incomplete) suggestions about how to respond.

One of the problems he cites:

A crisis of representation around covering Trump in which it is not clear that anyone can reliably tell us what his positions are, or explain his reasons for holding them, because he feels free to contradict advisers, spokespeople, surrogates, and previous statements he made. As Esquire’s Charles Pierce put it to me: “Nobody speaks for the prez-elect, not even himself.” … [E]xisting methods for “holding power to account” rest on assumptions about how it will behave. A man in power untroubled by contradictions and comfortable in the confusion he creates cannot be held accountable by normal means.

The usual model of trying to gain access to high-ranking officials can backfire in such a regime: What if your inside source has no more idea what the President thinks than you do?


Hearings are starting on Trump’s appointees, even though background checks on conflicts of interest are unfinished. How are senators supposed to know what to ask about?


It looks like Trump is going to ask Congress to pay for the wall. Supposedly, Mexico will reimburse us later. I think this is a pattern we’ll see a lot of: Magical things are going to happen someday to fulfill Trump’s promises, but in the meantime something else will happen.


Yonatan Zunger has a different metaphor for talking about tolerance, and it gets around the tolerating-intolerance issue: He thinks of tolerance not as a virtue, but as a peace treaty. You tolerate those who sign onto the treaty, but not those who reject it.

There may be bad consequences to this view that I haven’t identified yet, but I’m going to think about it.


At the Pink Panthers blog, dissident liberal Christians are asking for secular help getting their message out.

Obviously, a religious establishment which would pressure their followers elevate a man like Donald Trump to office and claim that this pleases God is, at the least, dangerous to our survival as a nation. Most of what passes for Christianity in this country is nothing more than complicated explanations for how a person can reject everything Jesus ever said while remaining Christian. Which is a travesty. Real Christianity is something which most human beings would look at and say, “even if I can’t believe in the religious stuff, I can see that this is good and right. It makes sense.” But right now, that kind of Christianity has been rendered all but voiceless both inside and outside the church.

Which is why I am asking secular, liberal America to start sharing the voices of Christian dissent on social media.


The Wall Street Journal (link behind paywall; summary at ThinkProgress) reports that Trump businesses owe far more than the $315 million he has admitted to.

Last May, Mr. Trump filed a financial-disclosure form with the Federal Election Commission that listed 16 loans worth $315 million that his businesses had received from 10 companies, including Deutsche Bank AG. But that form reported debts only for companies he controls, excluding more than $1.5 billion lent to partnerships that are 30%-owned by him.

ThinkProgress adds:

[The] financial institutions [that hold this debt] include many firms that are under the scrutiny of the federal agencies that Trump will soon control. Wells Fargo, for example, which services over $900 million in loans connected to Trump, “is currently facing scrutiny from federal regulators surrounding its fraudulent sales practices and other issues.”

and let’s close with something adorable

One of my friends has been working on this project for some while now, but has had to be circumspect about discussing it until the company was ready to announce, which it did this week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Kuri, a gender-nonspecific name pronounced like the spicy Indian dish, is a different take on the idea of a home robot: It’s more of a pet than an appliance, and isn’t trying to look like a human or replace your maid service. So it won’t vacuum your rug, but it will roll around your house looking cute and evoking interactions — kind of like a puppy on wheels, but without the mess.

Its appearance owes more to R2D2 than C3PO. Techcrunch describes Kuri as “an Amazon Echo designed by Pixar”, and in fact somebody who used to work at Pixar did have a hand in the design. After decades of sci-fi about emotionless androids who are preternaturally competent and useful (i.e., Star Trek‘s Data), the idea that emotional connection needs to happen first is a fascinating reversal.

NBC News covered it like this:

How Populism Goes Bad

Perversely, sometimes “We the People” are anti-democratic


The word populism sounds like it ought to mean something close to democracy. Both are based on ancient words for “the People” (demos and populi), so you might expect them to be just different ways of saying the same thing: rule by the People.

The Trump campaign has been widely (and I think accurately) described as populist. He has constantly talked about “giving government back to the People”. The Tea Party rhetoric he built on was all about “We the People”. I don’t think that rhetoric was cynical: Tea Partiers really believe that they represent the People.

And yet Trump has also been widely described (again accurately, I think) as authoritarian and anti-democratic. Populist and anti-democratic: How is that even possible?

Like this: Populism differs from democracy in a few important ways:

  • In populism, “the People” isn’t everybody.
  • While democracy is “government of the People, by the People, and for the People”, populism can get so focused on the for that it stops caring about the of and by.
  • Because democracy is of and by the People, democratic government is defined by process. But populist movements want results.

Let’s go through that in more detail.

Who are the People? By its nature, populism is oppositional. In addition to the People, there is also an Elite they need to struggle against. As John Judis puts it in The Populist Explosion:

Leftwing populists champion … a vertical politics of the bottom and the middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.

But in fact the problem in rightwing populism lies even deeper. In my Conservative-to-English Lexicon, I make fun of the Tea Party practice of describing some Americans as more “real” than others.

Real America. Rural areas and small towns, where the majority of voters are real Americans. Usage: “the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America.”
Real American. 1. A white conservative Christian born in the United States at least 30 years ago. 2. A typical resident of real America. Usage: “Real Americans do not recognize [Obama] as a president.”

But this isn’t just a quirk of language, it points to a genuine difference in worldview. For comparison, consider what people mean when they describe someone as “a real man”. Being biologically male isn’t the half of it. To be real, a man has to match a cultural ideal of how men are supposed to look, think, and act. So gays are out, as are men who have effeminate voices or gestures, are too fat or too skinny, or  aren’t interested in sports.

Similarly, in populism “the People” are the real people — the real Americans, real British, real Poles, real Austrians. There is an implied ideal of the kind of people the nation is “for”. Some people match that ideal model and some don’t.

For Trump/Tea Party populists, the real Americans are as I described: mature white conservative Christians. They’re also English-speaking (with a native-born accent), straight, and pro-capitalist. They are comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth, and if they happen to be unemployed, divorced, or without children, it’s not their fault; they identify as hard-working family people, whether they really are or not.

If you define the People that way, then I suspect Trump did win the “massive landslide victory” he claimed. The “millions of people who voted illegally” he tweeted about might be a pants-on-fire lie, but the notion in his supporters’ minds that millions — even tens of millions — of votes were cast by someone other than the People is absolutely true. Black lesbian Spanish-speaking atheist socialists voted, and those votes counted just as much as their own. It doesn’t seem right to them, because America is for real Americans, not just the people who satisfy the legal requirements to become citizens and vote.

This is why they aren’t bothered by what Democrats describe as “voter suppression”. If blacks or immigrants or people who don’t speak English have to jump through some extra hoops before they vote, and if some large number of them get frustrated and give up before they manage to cast their votes, that’s all good. The franchise wasn’t really meant for them anyway.

A lot of liberals interpret this attitude as hatred of the left-out groups, but it doesn’t feel that way from the inside. More accurately, it is a sense of ownership and entitlement: It’s my country, not your country, but I’m content to let you live here in peace as long as you recognize that. The hatred only shows up when that ownership feels challenged.

For, not of or by. As the Trump administration took shape after the election, most of the key positions went either to billionaires, generals, or people connected to Goldman Sachs. The top-level departments (State, Defense, Treasury, Justice, Homeland Security, Intelligence) are all to be headed by white men. Of the top White House staffers, all are white men but Kellyanne Conway, who holds the vague title of “counselor”.

It’s been a long time since an administration looked so little like America.

The white male dominance comes from what we just talked about — who “the People” are, and what it means to be “real”. (Real women don’t want to rule the world. Even Conway had to explain how she could work in the White House but still put her family first. Nobody raises this question about Trump’s male appointees, and Trump himself has no similar worries about his responsibilities to his 10-year-old son Barron, who at least for now will remain in New York with Melania.) But it’s hard to understand how the stereotypic white-working-class Trump voter can see himself in the 3G (Goldman, generals, and gazillionaires) axis.

And the answer is: He doesn’t expect to see himself, any more than he sees any resemblance between his own life and Trump’s ostentatious lifestyle of celebrity and wealth. Trump is supposed to be his champion, not his buddy. Likewise, he expects the Trump administration to be for him, but not to listen to him or be filled with people like him.

Results, not process. If you look at the Constitution, you’ll see that it says practically nothing about results. The Preamble is a mission statement expressing broad hopes about what the new government might accomplish with the powers the Constitution defines. But beyond that, the document is all process: This is how you pass a law. This is how you elect Congress and the President. This is how judges get appointed, treaties get approved, and so on.

It doesn’t tell you much of anything about the results that will come out of that process: who will serve in the government and what laws or treaties they might approve. It doesn’t specify a maximum tax rate, a balanced budget, the size of the army, an official language, or much of anything else.

The reason for that focus on process is that government of and by the People doesn’t happen by itself. A constitution for an absolute monarchy could just be one line: “Do what the King says.” But any large group of people is a cacophony. The larger the group and the more democratic it wants to be, the more processing it needs. (Occupy Wall Street encampments were famous for their General Assemblies, whose meetings could go on for hours each day.)

But populists typically don’t care that much about simply being heard or having representation. They are fighting a battle against the Elite (whatever that term means in their particular situation) and they want to win it.

To his critics, one of the most mystifying aspects of Trump’s nomination and election has been why the voters didn’t hold him responsible for his repeated violations of democratic norms. Every major-party candidate since Nixon has released his tax returns, but Trump never did and apparently never will. Presidents since Lyndon Johnson have used blind trusts or generic investments like government bonds or index funds to avoid financial conflicts of interest, but not Trump.

His supporters don’t seem to care. If foreign governments want to put money in Trump’s pocket by holding events in his hotels or by giving regulatory favors to his construction projects, they’re free to do so. It may seem incestuous for Trump to have regulatory authority over banks he owes money to, but so what? Who cares whether he holds press conferences, whether there’s any way to make him answer a question, or whether his answers bear any resemblance to reality (or even to what he said last week)?

Those are process issues. His supporters want stop illegal immigration, and perhaps legal immigration as well. They want manufacturing jobs to come back from China, and coal miners to be able to make the kinds of wages their fathers did. They want to stop gays from getting married and women from getting abortions. They want terrorist attacks to stop, ISIS to fall, and America’s enemies to be sorry they messed with us.

They’re sick of good process, and of politicians who check the right boxes and say the right things, but don’t get the results they want.

How democracies die. Democracy does have a way of getting tangled in its own processes, and American democracy has gotten more and more tangled as polarization has increased. Back in October, I listed a series of situations where the country is stuck in a status quo that nobody wants: millions of undocumented immigrants living off the books, a budget process that yields perpetual deficits and lurches from one threatened government shutdown to the next, unfilled judicial vacancies, and a Medicare system that creeps ever closer to bankruptcy.

At some point, people stop caring about good process, they just want it all fixed. If a Julius Caesar can come in and make things happen, that sounds like an improvement. (I’ve been discussing this prospect for a while in my “Countdown to Augustus” posts.)

But all those processes are there for a reason, as countries that discard them usually find out fairly quickly.

How populism turns very, very bad. If a populist movement’s definition of the People matches the voting rolls closely enough, or if it includes a lot of people who can’t vote but wish they could, then that movement will be pro-democracy, as Occupy Wall Street or the Bernie Sanders campaign were.

But that’s not the only way things can go. If a populist movement feels blocked by the checks-and-balances of democracy, or by the votes of people it thinks shouldn’t have a vote at all, then democracy itself can become the enemy. If it is forced to choose between democracy and the results it wants, it may choose the results.

That’s why authoritarian populism is not a contradiction. The pattern of a popular dictator enacting laws to defend the common people against an entrenched aristocracy goes back not just to Caesar, but before that to the Greek tyrants. (The word tyrant didn’t pick up its cruel, negative connotation until Plato — an aristocrat — wrote about tyranny generations later.)

The ultimate example of populism gone bad is Nazism. We don’t usually tell the story that way: In pop-culture references, Hitler’s regime is usually presented as a totalitarian pyramid of fear, which nearly everyone would have liked to topple if they hadn’t been so intimidated. [1] And many certainly were cowed into submission, but most were not. The sad truth of Nazism is that for most of its reign, the Hitler regime was popular.

This comes through in a book I mentioned last week, They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer. After the war, Mayer went to Germany and befriended ten low-level Nazis in a small town. Almost unanimously, they faulted Hitler only for making tactical errors, like attacking Russia. But until the war, or even until the war started going badly, they felt that Hitler had come through for them: He pulled Germany out of the Depression. Good jobs were plentiful. Roads got built. Social services (for the People) improved. Law and order was restored. Germany was great again.

Unless you were Jewish, of course, or belonged to some other disapproved or disloyal group. But if you were a member in good standing of the German Volk, you were probably doing OK. A few thugs were expected to do horrible things in the name of the regime, but most people only had to avert their eyes from time to time, and not wonder too much about those who had been sent away.

Having a restrictive definition of the People, letting a leadership cadre govern for you without much oversight, ignoring process issues to focus on results … it doesn’t necessarily have to go to a bad place, but it certainly can.

The present moment. It’s usually a mistake to invoke the Nazis in a political discussion. [2] In our pop culture they’ve become cartoon villains [3], so associating them with your opponents often becomes a cheap shot.

So I should explicitly state that I don’t think Trump is Hitler, and I have no specific reason to think he wants to be. A few of his supporters are openly Nazis, but the vast majority are not. I invoke the Hitler regime as a cautionary tale, not a prediction.

If we want to make sure that the Third Reich continues to be nothing more than a cautionary tale, though, we need to learn its lessons.

  • It’s dangerous to exclude anyone from the People. Any time some infringement of rights has an implicit justification of “It’s only Muslims” or “It’s only inner-city blacks”, that implication needs to be called out. It’s hard to explicitly defend the contention that certain people don’t count, but it’s easy to slip such an assumption into the background.
  • The inability of democratic government to make progress on widely recognized problems is itself an argument for authoritarianism. So Democrats need to be very careful about how they use obstruction. “Turnabout is fair play” is a dangerous principle. We should block things because they’re bad, not just because we want to be as big a nuisance to Trump as Republicans were to Obama.
  • While continuing to call Trump to account for ignoring good process, we can’t make our stand entirely on process issues. We always need to be looking for the connection between bad process and bad results. It’s not enough to point out that there’s a hole in the fence; we need to catch the sheep getting out or the wolves getting in. For example, it’s not going to bother most Trump supporters if he profits from being president, but it will bother them if he sold them out.

We always need to keep in mind: Trump a the symptom, not the disease. Healthy democracies don’t get taken down by demagogues. Trump’s version of “the People” may not be everybody, but it is a lot of folks. The way to save democracy is to make it work for everybody, them included.


[1] That’s the reason so many believe the Hitler-confiscated-the-guns myth that so often comes up in gun control debates. He certainly didn’t want Jews to have weapons, but Jews were not part of “the People” as he defined it. Racially pure Germans (as Hitler defined them) remained armed, because there was no reason for them not to be. By and large, they supported the regime.

[2] I could also have used the Reconstruction South as an example. Here the People means Southern whites, and the KKK is their champion against the Yankees above and the blacks below. A semblance of democracy is maintained, but only after blacks are disenfranchised. This is justified by the assumption that America isn’t really for blacks.

[3] An occasionally disturbing exception is the current Amazon TV series The Man in the High Castle, which often brings out the ordinariness of the American Nazi regime, and at times even shows how human generosity can still express itself. In an early episode of the second season, Juliana, who has been approved as racially pure, is being resettled in the Reich by the wife of an SS officer. The officer has ulterior motives, but the wife doesn’t know that. “I don’t know what to say,” Juliana tells the wife.

“You don’t have to say anything,” she responds. “You’ve come a place where good people take care of each other.” If good means “racially pure”, she’s not entirely wrong.

The Monday Morning Teaser

My focus this week is on the difference between populism and democracy, exploring the question of how a populist movement can also be anti-democratic, as I think the Trump movement is. That post will be titled “How Populism Goes Wrong”, and it should be out around 10 EST.

The weekly summary discusses Trump’s dispute with the intelligence community about Russian meddling in his election win, the looming repeal of ObamaCare, how to start resisting the Trump administration’s agenda, the disturbing increase in pregnancy-related deaths in Texas, and a number of other things, before closing with a video of an adorable home robot. Expect that around 11.

Raising Doubt

Trump doesn’t care if we think he’s telling the truth – he just wants his supporters to doubt that anyone’s telling the truth.

Jon Favreau

This week’s featured post is “All Democrats have some introspecting to do“.

This week everybody was looking back at 2016

If good thing happened in your personal life last year, I’m happy for you. But in collective terms, 2016 was a nightmare.

CNN has a photo gallery of people who died in 2016: Muhammed Ali, David Bowie, John Glenn, and many others.

TPM presented the annual Golden Dukes awards, for outstanding achievement in “public corruption, outlandish behavior, The Crazy, nonsense and all relevant betrayals of the public trust”.


The stylistic contrast between the old and new presidents in a nutshell:

Conclusion of the Obama New Year message:

It’s been the privilege of my life to serve as your President. And as I prepare to take on the even more important role of citizen, know that I will be there with you every step of the way to ensure that this country forever strives to live up to the incredible promise of our founding—that all of us are created equal, and all of us deserve every chance to live out our dreams. And from the Obama family to yours—have a happy and blessed 2017.

The Trump New Year tweet:

Happy New Year to all, including to my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they just don’t know what to do. Love!

and talking about Israel

The relationship between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu administration is ending with a lot of shouting. The U.S. refused to veto a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu accused the Obama administration of a “disgraceful anti-Israel maneuver”. And John Kerry gave a speech highly critical of current Israeli policy.

I may comment at length after I’ve had time to sort through the details, but for now I’ll rely on analysis from Vox.


For decades, every military crisis between Israel and the Palestinians has ended with the U.S. pressuring the Israeli government to stand down. And many of us have wondered how much real effect that pressure had. Maybe the Israeli leaders had completed whatever they wanted to do and used American pressure as cover against their political right flank at home. Or maybe they really were about to wreak massive vengeance, but America stopped them. Nobody really knew.

During the Trump administration, I think we’re going to find out. Because I don’t think Trump cares what happens Palestinian civilians. His people think we’re in a global war between Christendom and Islam, and anybody fighting Muslims is on our side. So if you’re an Israeli right-winger who has secretly been pining to do some ethnic cleansing, or to herd Palestinians into impoverished, unsustainable bantustans on the apartheid model (or the Gaza model, for that matter), the next four years are your chance. We’ll see who tries to take advantage of it.


While I was researching this issue, I ran across this thought-provoking essay by Uriel Abulof at Jewish Daily Forward. It doesn’t have a nice, pithy summary, but it’s basically about the temptation of tribalism, and its political consequences: We want to be free individuals, but we also have a deep need to belong to something.

The liberal conclusion has since crystalized: Tame the tribe! Turn those perilous peoples into civic, multicultural, cosmopolitan societies, rationally administrated by the state. Globalization, with the European Union as its beloved offspring, should have fostered that vision.

But it is not turning out that way. Liberalism’s advantage — the primacy of the individual — is also its Achilles’ heel: It captures a yearning for independence, but fails to grasp the equally powerful drive to belong. Consequently, in recent years, neoliberalism’s inadvertent repression of that yearning has spurred Rousseau’s revenge: the return of the tribe. And now the tribe is intent on taking over the state that sought to tame it.

and Milo

Unless you’ve been paying attention to the alt-Right, you may never have heard of Milo Yiannopoulos. On the other hand, if you read Breitbart, you think he’s a rock star — he’s just “Milo“, like Madonna or Beyoncé. Or even “MILO”.

Milo is a professional troll who came to public attention in the Gamergate controversy of 2014. He says and does outrageous things and profits from the attention they draw. That description could apply to any number of people, a few of whom I admire. But Milo takes it a step further, using his fame to focus his fans’ persecution on individuals, like actress Leslie Jones and this transgender student in Wisconsin.

He’s in the news now because he just got a $250K book deal from the respected publishing house of Simon & Schuster. This has incited a backlash against S&S, including such moves as The Chicago Review of Books announcing that it will not review any S&S books in 2017 or independent bookstores refusing to stock their titles.

It’s important to understand exactly what kind of protest this is, and why it’s really not a free-speech or freedom-of-the-press issue. No one is attacking either Milo’s legal right to write a book or Simon’s legal right to publish it. That’s the law and no one disputes it. The point is that S&S can’t promote this kind of garbage and remain a respected publisher. If Milo wants to self-publish, or if Breitbart wants to publish his book, fine. People who want to buy it should be able to. And if Simon & Schuster wants to become an alt-Right publishing house, that’s up to them. But no law says I have to respect them.

and you might also be interested in

Inauguration Day is January 20, two weeks from Friday. The next day is the Women’s March on Washington.

The Women’s March on Washington is quick to say it is not an anti-Trump protest. “We’re not targeting Trump specifically. It’s much more about being proactive about women’s rights,” said Cassady Fendlay, spokeswoman for the march.

I expect a certain amount of solidarity with other groups who feel threatened by Trump, like immigrants and Muslims. If you can’t make it to Washington, there are sister marches in at least 30 other cities. I plan to go to the Boston one.

I think this kind of thing is important to do. Trump has shown absolutely no interest in reaching out to the majority that voted against him, or the plurality that voted for Clinton. We need to establish that we haven’t gone away, and we need to start building the connections that we’ll need for more issue-specific protests as the Trump administration starts doing things.

I also agree with the framing: Trump hasn’t had a chance to do anything as president yet, so it’s premature to protest against him. But people worried about the Trump administration need to know they have support.


North Carolina can no longer be considered a democracy, according to a report by the Electoral Integrity Project. I’m withholding further comment on this until I can read the report, which I haven’t been able to find on the EIP web site.


Fascinating piece in Wired: Obesity might have more causes than just diet and exercise or genes. In particular, a virus might rewire your system to crave food and build fat.


Maybe comedians can succeed where more serious voices fail. Seth Meyers devotes 9 minutes to the Trump administration and climate change.

and let’s close with something beautiful

A video from the Beauty of Science channel on YouTube.

All Democrats have some introspecting to do

No matter who you supported in the primaries, you have a lot to think about.


As soon as the 2016 election winners take office, Democrats will be wielding far less power than they have for a very long time. The Presidency and both houses of Congress are under Republican control. The Senate blockade of Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court has apparently succeeded, setting up a return to the 5-4 conservative majority the Court had before Justice Scalia’s death. If Justice Kennedy or any of the four liberal justices were to quit or die in the next four years — a real possibility considering that Kennedy is 80 and Justice Ginsburg is an 83-year-old cancer survivor — we could be looking at the most conservative Court since the New Deal.

It’s no better at the state level. When the 2016 victors take office, Democrats will hold only 16 of the 50 governorships, with even states as blue as Massachusetts, Vermont, and Illinois having Republican governors. In 32 states, Republicans control both houses of the legislature, in some cases by supermajorities of 2/3s or more.

Some liberals may not consider themselves Democrats — Bernie Sanders, for example, is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate — but so far they haven’t found a path to power that doesn’t include the Democratic Party. So liberalism as also out in the cold right now.

You might think this situation would cause some soul-searching, but so far it seems to have produced mainly finger-pointing. Having watched a lot of back-and-forth on social media and elsewhere about why Democrats lost in 2016, I’ve been struck by how self-serving it is, on both the pro- and anti-Clinton sides. Everyone seems to be saying, “If everybody had just listened to me, we’d be fine. So I just need to keep saying and doing what I’ve been saying and doing all along.”

I’m not finding that message convincing. Not from anybody.

The pro-Clinton case. Clinton apologists have a long list of she-could-have-won-if points, all of which have some limited amount of validity. She won the popular vote by 2%, almost three million votes, so she’d have won if not for the Electoral College. The Russian interference in the election seems real, and given how small Trump’s margin was in many key states, that probably made the difference. Jim Comey’s last-minute re-raising of the email issue, for what turned out to be no good reason, was another bit of dirty pool that helped put Trump over the top. If Clinton’s internal polling had recognized how she was slipping in the upper Midwest, campaign resources that turned out to be wasted in places like Arizona could have been brought to bear on Wisconsin and Michigan. If Jill Stein hadn’t run, if the national news media hadn’t created a false equivalence between Clinton’s integrity problems and Trump’s, if social media had the kind of anti-false-news provisions it’s trying to develop now …

There’s no end to it, and it’s all more-or-less true as far as it goes. I’m sure that in most parallel universes, it’s Clinton who is getting ready to take the oath of office. Too bad for us that we live in an unlucky one.

But let’s imagine we could look in on one of those other universes, say the one where Comey kept his mouth shut about ongoing investigations, as FBI directors are supposed to do. Let’s imagine Clinton wins the popular vote there by 3% or 4%, rather than the 2% she won by in our universe, and that’s enough to tip the Electoral College in her favor.

OK, now consider this question: Is the Democratic Party in good shape? Is liberalism on track?

We still don’t get the Senate back, because even though Pennsylvania’s seat might also flip, there isn’t a second Senate race that the Republicans won with a razor-thin margin. You could imagine that a House race flips here or there, but again, it’s not enough to give Nancy Pelosi the Speaker’s gavel. And how exactly did Comey (or Putin) influence the governors’ races, or the state legislatures?

In a practical sense, then, Clinton winds up where Obama has been since 2010: unable to push an agenda through Congress, and relying on the veto and other executive powers to keep Republicans from trashing things too badly. Maybe she makes a Supreme Court appointment, or maybe the Senate blockade continues. (I suspect she does, but again, that mostly just prevents disasters; a liberal Court majority doesn’t put us on a path to a new liberal awakening.)

So OK: Clinton beats the Orange Menace with 49% or 50% of the vote instead of 48%, ObamaCare survives another four years, and the country continues to muddle along. That’s better than the situation we’re in now, but my impression is that disaster has just been forestalled a little while, not that we’re on the path to turning things around.

Even under President Clinton, then, the Democratic Party would have some serious rethinking to do.

Anti-Clinton. Inside certain echo-chambers of Bernie Sanders’ supporters, it’s obvious that Democrats just nominated the wrong candidate. Bernie would have beaten Trump, and everything would be wonderful. Trump won because voters wanted an outsider and Clinton was an insider. Or they would have responded to an authentic liberal, but Clinton isn’t one. Or something.

The main evidence for this view is that during the primaries Bernie did better than Clinton in the head-to-head polling match-ups with Trump. A lot of polls showed him winning by double digits, sometimes as much as 15%. But of course, Clinton also had some double-digit leads in polls, some of them fairly late in the campaign. We saw how quickly such leads can evaporate. Since Sanders was less well known than Clinton, and since Republicans had largely treated him with kid gloves that would have come off in a general election campaign, I would expect opinions about him to be more volatile in a general election, not less. So a polling lead over Trump in April is not very convincing evidence.

But the real reason not to buy the liberal-victory or outsider-victory scenario is that as best I can tell, nobody made that message work in downballot elections. If the Bernie-wins theory were correct, I’d expect to see some state or congressional district where Trump beat Clinton, but some plucky liberal outsider candidate pulled an upset win over a Republican incumbent senator or governor or representative. I can’t think of any such example. (The most notable downballot candidate to win a Trump state was Roy Cooper in the North Carolina governor’s race. But he’s not an outsider and his positions on key issues seem pretty Clintonish to me.)

Take Iowa, for example. In past elections it has been a swing state leaning blue. Bush won it in 2004, but Gore won Iowa in 2000 and Obama carried it twice. Trump won it decisively, 51%-42%. So Iowans must really have been fed up with the status quo and ready to throw out all the insiders, right? Well, not exactly. Other than Mitch McConnell, probably nobody is a bigger Washington insider than Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, who has been in the Senate since 1980. He got re-elected by an even bigger margin, 60%-37%.

Or look at Wisconsin, which Clinton lost very narrowly, 47.2%-46.5%. Russ Feingold, a liberal hero who in 2001 was the sole dissenting vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act, lost by a bigger margin, 50%-47%.

It’s not a hard or unreasonable test: Find some electoral district where Trump won, but a downballot Democrat also won by running either as an anti-Establishment outsider or on a Bernie-like progressive agenda. I don’t believe there is one.

Another argument is that Bernie could have won just by not being Hillary Clinton. But the voters seemed to have no special distaste for Clinton in comparison to other Democrats. In Pennsylvania, a state that hadn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1988, and which Obama won 52%-47% in 2012, Clinton lost by 44,000 votes out of nearly 6 million. But in the senatorial election, Katie McGinity lost a close race by a slightly worse margin, 116,000. The story in New Hampshire was similar, but on the opposite side: Clinton won by 3,000 votes, and the Democratic senate candidate won by 1,000.

In other words, it was the party that lost, not just the candidate. Simply being not-Clinton didn’t gain Democrats anything.

So what should we be thinking about? First, I think we need to lose the Clinton and Sanders labels, because I don’t see the point in refighting that. It’s not like either of them is likely to run for president again, so there’s no need to keep your arguments against them sharp.

There will continue to be a struggle going forward, but let’s focus on ideas and approaches rather than personalities. On the one hand, there are the centrist, focus-on-what’s-possible-today, work-within-the-power-structure, gradual-change Democrats. On the other, the more radical, big-picture, go-for-it, overthrow-the-power-structure Democrats (or liberals who don’t call themselves Democrats because Democrats are too tame). Each group has some important introspecting to do.

The first group needs to answer questions like this: How are we going to inspire anyone? What’s my elevator speech, the simple statement that tells low-information voters what the Democratic Party is about and why they should support it? The half of the country that isn’t interested enough in politics to vote — what in my message will wake them up and get them involved? How can I explain to people that the small step I want to take right now is just the first step on a journey that goes someplace exciting? And — maybe most important of all — does it go someplace exciting? On an issue like climate change, for example, the clock is ticking. Does the gradualist approach deliver change fast enough to avoid global disaster?

Finally, the first group needs to stop waiting for something to happen. Stop waiting for the Republicans to cross some line that will finally make Americans realize that they’ve gone insane and look to us instead. Stop waiting for demographic change to create the electorate we want. Power will not come to us because it’s our turn; we have to earn it.

The second group needs to let go of a myth: There is no hidden liberal majority in America. The non-voters aren’t disillusioned left-wing radicals who are just waiting for a true believer to blow the battle horn. Bernie did that and he lost. [1] Even if he had won, he’d be one guy dealing with the same obstacles Obama has been facing. [2] The only way there ever will be a liberal majority in America is if we figure out how to make one.

I still believe the model I put forward last February in “Say – you want a revolution?“: The vast majority of non-voters are people who don’t have a political identity at all. If you ask the right poll questions, you can get them to express liberal ideas on specific issues. [3] You can sometimes get a number of them to show up in one election just by fielding an appealing candidate (i.e., Obama) or having a good slogan (“Yes We Can”), but that doesn’t change the long-term political balance of the country. Next time it might be the other guys who field an appealing (or energizingly appalling) candidate and have a good slogan (“Make America Great Again”).

Long-term political change involves people joining things that change their identities, the way that the blue-collar union workers of the 1960s became the evangelical church members of the 1980s. Where are we making that happen now? Do we have the vision, the stamina, and the local-organizing ability to facilitate that kind of change?

The turn-the-world-around movement won’t instantly coalesce around the right presidential candidate with the right message. It will start someplace small, with a new approach to very specific, very local concerns. Where are we running those experiments and giving lightning a chance to strike? [4]

So whether you think of yourself as belonging to the Democratic Party or the progressive movement, our power is at a low ebb right now. Nobody — I mean nobody — has cause to feel smug about this. It isn’t that she failed or they failed, but I’m all right. We’re where we are right now because I failed, you failed, we all failed. Each of us needs to be looking in a mirror and asking what we’re going to do differently.

Extra credit question. While researching an article I’ll probably post next week, I read the 1955 classic They Thought They Were Free by Milton Mayer, in which he relates his conversations with ten low-level small-town Nazi Party members after the war. I was struck by this comment from a high school teacher.

For the first time in my life I was really the peer of men who, in the Kaiser time and in the Weimar time, had always belonged to classes lower or higher than my own, men whom one had always looked down on or up to, but never at. In the [National Socialist] Labor Front— I represented the teachers’ association— I came to know such people at first hand, to know their lives and to have them know mine. Even in America— perhaps; I have never been there— I suspect that the teacher who talks about ‘the common people’ has never known one, really known one, not even if he himself came from among them, as I, with an Army officer as a father, did not. National Socialism broke down that separation, that class distinction. Democracy— such democracy as we had had— didn’t do it and is not doing it now.

In other words, in a cultural sense the Nazi regime felt more democratic to him than the Weimar Republic. As a Nazi, he felt that he was part of the German Volk, no better or worse than any other German. He believed this was a common perception among his acquaintances.

There’s a lesson here about how Trump won. It seems to me that Democrats have lost that sense of cultural democracy, and that this is why the stereotypic poorly-educated white working-class Trump voter resents us. Instead, our leaders (of all factions) seem to identify with the meritocracy, which is a fancy way of saying that some people are just better than others. Hal Walker explains why this is a problem:

Economic disenfranchisement becomes an issue of who did well at school and who didn’t, not structural forces acting on society. What should be a progressive politics becomes just another version of the bootstraps myth, with grades and scholarships standing in for sweat and prudent personal budgeting. … In the end, the snobs lost to the slobs, but true to the character of the well-educated, they simply will not hear criticism that does not come from the similarly credentialed.

Trump was able to nail Clinton — and would have been able to nail Bernie and most of the rest of us — as the kid who sat in the front of the classroom and always had her hand up. Every time we fact-checked him, his fans were identifying with him, not us. “I know. They think I’m stupid too.”

I’m really not sure what to do about this. It’s one of the things I’m introspecting about. The meritocracy says that people in the lower classes are just losers, particularly if they can’t point to some form of discrimination that has kept them down unfairly. Without turning our backs on facts and science, how do we establish and project a sense that all people have worth?


[1] Legitimately. In the primaries, Clinton got about 3.8 million more votes. Bernie-or-bust folks tried to de-legitimize that result in two ways, but in neither case does the quality of the logic rise above the conspiracy-theory level.

The more specific version was a direct election-rigging claim that foreshadowed Trump’s baseless claims in the Fall. For example, there was this report from Election Justice USA. Here’s one of the points from the executive summary:

Analyses in [this report] show that voter purges [in New York] also disproportionately affected Sanders’ vote totals: the percentage of purged voters for each precinct was a significant predictor of Clinton’s vote share.

Anybody who understands the first thing about statistics should see that the conclusion doesn’t follow. If you’re aiming at a group of people, you’ll hit more of them in places where they congregate. So if a voter purge were targeted at likely Sanders voters, you’d expect to see the exact opposite result: More voters would be purged in precincts that Sanders won. (And no, the rest of the report doesn’t explain or justify that backwards conclusion.)

The whole report is like that. If something looked off somewhere, it must have been part of the grand anti-Sanders conspiracy.

The more vague argument was that the all-powerful DNC somehow manipulated those 3.8 million people into voting for Clinton. The evidence for this is supposedly in those emails that Russia hacked and WikiLeaks released.

I can’t say I’ve gone through the whole trove, but I read the emails that made headlines, the ones Bernie supporters point to. You know what isn’t in them? References to some specific anti-Sanders action that they carried out. I am not shocked to learn that when they talked among themselves, DNC folks weren’t neutral. They’re professional politicians; they couldn’t possibly be neutral in their hearts. I’m also not shocked that they discussed anti-Sanders arguments or strategies. But did they do any of them? That’s what’s missing.

Here’s the parallel that rings true for me: I’ll bet that if you bugged the umpires’ dressing room in a major league baseball stadium, you’d hear lots of resentment against players who make the umps look bad and fantasies of things they could do to those players. And since umpires are baseball people, they’re probably also fans and have players they admire. But (absent other compelling evidence) I would not interpret those conversations as a plot to throw the game.

And even if they had wanted to throw the election, they couldn’t have done it. The DNC is not a masters-of-the-universe club. Primary elections are run by state election commissions, not the national parties.

The fact needs to be faced: Clinton beat Sanders by 3.8 million votes.

[2] On Day 1, President Sanders sends a Medicare-for-everybody plan to Congress. On Day 2, Speaker Ryan assigns it to a committee that decides not to hold hearings or have a vote. What happens on Day 3?

[3] You shouldn’t interpret polls on particular issues as expressions of the public’s political identity, because issue-polling has persistent paradoxes. For example, if you ask whether the government spends too much or too little, a solid majority will say “too much”. But if you then start asking about specific cuts — “Should we cut Social Security?”, “Should we cut defense?” — all the major spending lines have majority support. If you could balance the budget by ending foreign aid to countries that hate us, the public would be all over that. But the things we actually spend big money on are fairly popular.

In short: Public opinion on a list of issues does not typically cohere into a worldview. Interpreting it as if it did will cause you to make mistakes.

[4] I think that’s the message to take from Roy Cooper’s win in North Carolina. It’s not Cooper himself, it’s the Moral Mondays movement that is changing the conversation.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Happy New Year, everybody.

The featured post this week addresses the tendency I’m seeing among Democrats to finger-point rather than self-examine. Clinton people have a million reasons (well, almost three million) to claim she should have won, so they’re not the problem. Sanders people claim that the only problem is that the party didn’t listen to them. Meanwhile, Democrats (and liberals more broadly) wield less power than at any point in my lifetime. And that’s true not just nationally, but at the state and local levels as well. I think we’ve all got some rethinking to do.

That post is “All Democrats have some introspecting to do”, and I expect it to post by 8 EST.

The weekly summary is currently strewn all over my Bookmark folder, so I’m not sure how long it will take to assemble. Certainly it’s out by noon, probably earlier.