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No facts? What does that mean?

Since Wednesday, you have undoubtedly seen several headlines about some Trump surrogate denying the existence of facts. It’s from Scottie Nell Hughes talking to NPR host Diane Rehm, and the money quote is: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts,” Sometimes condensed to “There are no facts”, that quote exploded across the internet in the same way that many fake news headlines do. But it had the added virtue of being true (to the extent that there is such a thing as truth any more).

But what does it mean?

If you make Hughes’ sentence stand alone, the most obvious interpretation is some kind of New Age you-make-your-own-reality philosophy. But I’m pretty sure that isn’t what she meant. For example, there are 2.6 million more Hillary voters than Trump voters, but even if we all get together on January 20 and visualize really hard, we won’t be transported to a world where President Clinton is being sworn in. Reality just isn’t that flexible, and I don’t believe Hughes was claiming otherwise.

So what was she saying? Let’s expand the context a little.

One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say “facts are facts”, they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way, it’s kind of like looking at ratings or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth or not true. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some facts—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there are no facts to back it up.

I’m hearing a less metaphysical claim, which I’ll restate like this: You can’t win a political argument any more by claiming to have the facts on your side, because the other side can generate its own apparent “facts”, and the public as a whole doesn’t trust anyone to decide between the two sets of “facts”. So in the end, all that matters politically is who you like: If you like Trump, you’ll believe his “facts” and if you don’t, you’ll believe the “facts” that contradict him. Worse, no one can set himself up as a neutral fact-checker, because as soon as he decides the case one way or the other, his presumption of neutrality goes away: All the public will hear is that he likes Trump or he doesn’t.

So when The Atlantic‘s James Fallows (who was on the same episode of NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show as Hughes) listed a series of Trump lies, Hughes responded that the sources Fallows was relying on were all biased against Trump. Fallows immediately zeroed in on a Trump claim that the NFL had written to him about something, to which the NFL had responded by denying writing any letter to him at all. “The NFL?” Fallows challenged. “The NFL is biased?” And Hughes responded: “That’s the question you have to ask right now.”

So that’s Hughes’ not-quite-a-syllogism: What Trump asserts is true. People biased against Trump will say otherwise. Therefore anyone who says otherwise is biased against Trump. (Compare Woody Allen’s reasoning in Love and Death: “A. Socrates is a man. B. All men are mortal. C. All men are Socrates.”)

The interesting thing, if you listen to the rest of the episode, is that the other guests — Fallows, Glenn Thrush from Politico, and Margaret Sullivan from The Washington Post — are pretty much saying the same thing in terms less quotable than “There’s no such thing as facts.” Fallows begins the show by describing the old state of affairs as

a sort of built in constraint of most public figures, that they would at least try to tell the truth most of the time and they would recognize it as a significant penalty if they’re shown not telling the truth.

And then pointing out how this has changed:

This does not apply in the same way to Donald Trump and therefore, we sort of need to recalibrate our gears to say, how do we treat assertions where the speaker himself doesn’t seem to care whether they can be proven false five minutes later, just goes on and doesn’t show any affect from that.

One perverse result of this is that Trump has gotten a reputation among his fans as “telling it like it is”. In other words, we are used to politicians spinning; they speak in elaborately constructed sentences so that they can give a misleading impression without saying anything provably false. But Trump doesn’t spin. He speaks in very direct sentences because he just doesn’t care whether he’s saying something provably false. If he wants to give you the impression that millions of people voted illegally (when they really didn’t), he’ll just say that.

I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.

In the same way that “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue“, spinning is the homage liars pay to truth. Bill Clinton’s famous “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” was his attempt to recognize established facts, but still carve out some tiny sliver of interpretation in which he hadn’t been lying when he claimed nothing was going on with Monica Lewinsky.

It sounded weaselly. How much bolder and telling-it-like-it-is Clinton would have sounded if he had just kept saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” He could have claimed that the lab that analyzed Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress was biased against him, and DNA testing is junk science anyway. Surely some “experts” could have been manufactured to go on TV and make that argument.

He didn’t do that, because sounding weaselly was a “significant penalty” Clinton was willing to pay in order to live in a world of facts. But Trump has declared his independence from the world of facts, so he never has to sound weaselly. If more than a dozen women accuse him of groping and other sexual assaults similar to his bragging claims, they’re liars and he’s going to sue them. (He hasn’t sued any of them, and he won’t.) If Trump University students claim he defrauded them and the instructor’s manual backs them up, he looks forward to refuting their baseless case in court. (He settled right after the election, paying the students $25 million.)

No spin. Just bold, direct statements that aren’t true. He hasn’t paid a political penalty for those false statements, because his supporters have neither the inclination nor the attention span to check up on him, and they don’t trust anybody who does.

If that’s not disturbing enough for you, there’s a way things could turn worse from here. An Elliott Lusztig tweetstorm explained how:

Hannah Arendt in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism provides a helpful guide for interpreting the language of fascists. She noted how decent liberals of 1930s Germany would “fact check” the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews like they were meant to be factual. What they failed to understand, Arendt suggests, is that the Nazi Jew hating was not a statement of fact but a declaration of intent.

So when someone would blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat in [World War I], naive people would counter by saying there’s no evidence of that. What the Nazis were doing was not describing what was true, but what would have to be true to justify what they planned to do next.

Did 3 million “illegals” cast votes in this election? Clearly not. But fact checking is just a way of playing along with their game. What Trump is saying is not that 3m illegals voted. What he’s saying is: I’m going to steal the voting rights of millions of Americans.

It’s not hard to see how this might apply to other Trump lies. For example, his claim that the murder rate is the “highest it’s been in 45 years“, when in fact it’s close to a low for that period. Combine that with his characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapists and “Islam hates us“, and and you get a justification for a harsh police crackdown on those communities.

What Lusztig is pointing out here is how this kind of widespread lying can turn partisanship into horror: People accept claims as factual for partisan reasons, and then later can be moved to draw consequences from those false claims. Those consequences might include horrible actions that those same people would have rejected had they been proposed directly.

It’s hard to see what to do about this, but it has to start with identifying the advantages reality has over falsehood. Obviously, reality also has many disadvantages, but its advantages include that it is persistent, self-consistent, and infinitely detailed.

Fantastic lies depend on an ability to constantly change the subject, so that the thinness of the fantasy world can’t be compared to the richness of reality. When a topic becomes so important that it stays in the public mind for long periods of time — the Iraq War is a good example — it becomes harder to lie about. The closer a topic impinges on the everyday experiences of large numbers of people, the harder it is to lie about. And finally, anything a person cares deeply about can become a conduit to reality. For example, many otherwise conservative churches have made a project out of helping refugees resettle in America. Their commitment to those projects makes it harder to sell them horror stories about the refugee threat.

This is another example of a larger theme: The Trump administration is going to force us to think seriously about things we used to take for granted. (That’s why I wrote about white pride last week.)

For a long time, many of us have taken for granted that facts are facts, truth ultimately wins out, and lies eventually rebound against the liars. Those principles may still hold, but they’re not in the “of course” category any more. We’re going to have to study more closely exactly what strategic advantages reality offers, and figure out tactics that bring those advantages into play.

Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit

Designed to appeal, without regard to the boring constraints of reality


Have you ever thought about what makes a female cartoon or comic-book character sexy? (I know, I know: sexy animated character and thinking don’t go together. But bear with me on this; I’m going somewhere.) Wonder Woman? Holli Would? Storm of the X-Men?

We can eliminate one factor immediately: realism. Those balloon-like breasts, pencil-thin waists, enormous eyes … I mean, it’s not like anyone has actually had sex with such a woman and come back to tell us how great it was. Real-life movie stars are the kind of people you are unlikely to meet, but the animated characters are outright impossible. 

Hot male comic-book characters — Batman, say, or Thor — are impossible in different ways, with shoulders the size of truck bumpers and jaws drawn with a T-square. As with the women, no one has ever reported back from a date with such a guy, because there are no such guys. So why do with think we know anything about them as lovers?

Obviously, I’m being intentionally obtuse here. Sexual attraction doesn’t work that way. It has very little to do with experience, either our own or anybody else’s. Attraction is based on fantasy rather than reality, and the building blocks of those fantasies have been programmed into us at some very deep level. A lot of it is cultural, and some of it probably even goes back into biology: A stone-age man attracted to perky breasts would be more likely to pursue women of child-bearing age, rather than those who were too old or too young. A broad-shouldered man was probably going to swing a mean club when the wolves come looking for your babies.

But here’s the thing: That programming isn’t complex enough to be subtle. It just pushes you in a direction; it doesn’t tell you how far to go. At some point in evolutionary history, peahens got it into their heads that big peacock tails were sexy. Fast-forward a few thousand generations, and the guys have these ridiculous appendages that interfere with flight and make it nearly impossible to hide from predators. Nowhere in the peabrain programming language is there a command for “That’s enough already.”

It’s the same for us. If the kind of breast development that differentiates child-bearing women from immature girls is good, then ridiculously impossible balloon-breasts are that much better. And so on. Batman and Jessica Rabbit are sexy because they are extreme; they’ve been designed to appeal to our biological/cultural programming without needing to satisfy the constraints reality imposes.

So what’s any of that got to do with news, fake or otherwise?

We may like to think that we pay attention to the news for all kinds of virtuous reasons: It makes us better citizens, we are intellectually curious about our world, and stuff like that. And there are a few ultra-serious news sources that take us at our word, like The Economist or PBS Newshour. In terms of sexiness, the stories you read or watch there are like the people your mother tries to fix you up with: very practical marriage partners and good bets to produce grandchildren Mom could be proud of. But they usually don’t give your lizard brain much to work with.

The reason ultra-serious news doesn’t dominate the market is that we also are interested in news stories for a lot of other reasons: They give us something impressive to tell our friends, they provoke an energizing rush of anger at our enemies, or they prove that we were right all along about something.

That’s why, throughout human history, tales have always grown in the telling. If I tell you that I caught a bigger fish today than I usually do, you might mention it to somebody else if they happen to be talking about fish. But if I caught the biggest fish anybody has ever seen, and I embroider that story with all kinds of remarkable details, then you certainly will retell it. If the truth is that the new parson and the blacksmith’s daughter exchanged what looked like a meaningful glance, that’s kind of interesting. But if the story grows to where they were caught half-naked in the woods, that news will spread all over the county.

Journalists at more ratings-conscious news outlets — CNN, say — have to take more account of those less virtuous factors, so they are constantly repackaging real events to make them compelling. They pick out whatever is remarkable or stunning or infuriating and feed it to us as a concentrate, like the one zinger out of an hour-long speech. The stories they produce are like Kate Upton or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: They appeal to the inner programming that tells us what is interesting, while continuing to respect the constraints of reality. And if a detail gets fudged here or there — think Fox News — it’s like airbrushing or make-up: still real, more or less, just enhanced a little.

But fake news can be Jessica Rabbit. It’s designed to appeal, without regard to reality. And it works.

Did you hear that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump? (He didn’t.) Or that an FBI agent investigating Clinton died in a suspicious murder-suicide? (Untrue.) Or that Mike Pence credits gay conversion therapy with saving his marriage? (Nope.)

I don’t know about you, but when I saw that Pence headline, my first reaction was: “I knew it!” That’s what fake news is designed to evoke.

Real news, especially if it’s told accurately, almost never does that. Real events nearly always include some mitigating detail that disrupts our comic-book reaction of triumph or fear or anger. Even the worst stories about the public figures we dislike usually just show them to be common assholes rather than Dr. Doom style villains. Real reporting nearly always leaves room for doubt; there’s stuff we still don’t know that might change the conclusion.

Real news stories, in other words, are like the real people you might meet for lunch: interesting in some ways but not others, maybe worth spending more time with in the future, but not all like Thor.

In other areas of life, we eventually get good at recognizing the fantasies people construct to manipulate us, appealing as they might be: that Nigerian prince who wants to give you a pile of money in exchange for an insignificant amount of help; the titanium designer watch you can buy on a street corner for twenty bucks; the celebrity you can see naked if you just open this attachment. We’re onto that stuff now. Some offers are just too good to be true; learning to accept that they almost certainly aren’t true is part of growing up.

Fake news that goes viral on social media, that you hear about because it’s already been shared by somebody you know — that’s new enough that most of us don’t have a too-good-to-be-true filter yet. But that 100% pure news satisfaction feeling, that “I knew it!” or “Those bastards!” or “Everybody needs to hear about this!”, it’s too good to be true. It’s a sign of fakery and manipulation, not a ring of truth.

I’m not saying you need to give up your news fantasy life; just respect the line that separates it from reality. Similarly, you can, if you want, go on fantasizing about Storm or Thor or even Jessica Rabbit. There’s no harm in it. But if you come home from lunch believing that you’ve met one of them, you need to think again.

Should I Have White Pride?

2016 brought white nationalism into the mainstream discussion. Now we have to answer questions we used to ignore.

Writing them off. Throughout my lifetime, liberals have felt that we didn’t really need to argue against the more explicit forms of white racism. The KKK was bad; Jim Crow was bad; the Nazis were bad — that was pretty much all you needed to know.

Of course you’d run into arguments where racism might play a more subtle role and be harder to isolate: Affirmative action is unfair to whites; neighborhood schools are more important than desegregation; the over-representation of blacks in prisons or among the poor is due to their own broken family structure and lack of middle-class values; and so on. Whites who weren’t necessarily hostile to blacks or to civil rights in the abstract often found these points convincing, and some skill was required to defend the liberal view without alienating people who might be with you on some other issue.

But if the conversation came around to “I just think they’re genetically inferior” or “I’d like to send them all back to Africa” or “The Jews run everything anyway”, you didn’t need any skill. Just stop the conversation and write those people off. That kind of dinosaur racism was dying a well-deserved death, and those who still spouted it were probably turning off a lot more people than they convinced.

Many forms of white grievance just merited a one-line answer. Why isn’t there a White History Month? Because in American schools every month is White History Month; teachers don’t need any special reminder to mention George Washington or Thomas Edison.

You particularly didn’t need to argue against explicit racism during political campaigns, because all major national candidates considered racism toxic. That’s why there were “dog whistles“: Even a candidate as conservative as Ronald Reagan couldn’t appear to side with white racists, so he went to a town made famous by civil-rights murders and came out in favor of “states rights”. That was as far as he could go without risking a backlash from whites who found racism disgusting.

The new world of 2016. But the 2016 campaign sent us a clear message that times are changing. It was never any secret who white racists were supporting for president, and Donald Trump did relatively little to distance himself from them. When David Duke, an unrepentant former KKK grand wizard, endorsed him, Trump’s first reaction was to refuse to reject that endorsement:

I know nothing about David Duke. I know nothing about white supremacists.  And so you’re asking me a question that I’m supposed to be talking about people that I know nothing about.

His speech to the Republican Convention centered on a non-existent immigrant crime wave: brown Hispanics and Muslims are coming for your family. Indiana-born Judge Curiel couldn’t possibly handle the Trump University fraud case fairly, because “He’s a Mexican.” He called for an explicit religious test on immigrants and tourists. He retweeted stuff from @WhiteGenocideTM. Trump’s ostensible appeals to black voters were typically delivered in white suburbs to almost entirely white audiences, and consisted of negative stereotypes of black life:

You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?

He even touched what (since the Holocaust) has been the third rail of American political racism: antisemitism. In what Senator Al Franken called a “German shepherd whistle“, Trump’s closing-argument commercial connected Clinton to Jewish financiers, echoing an earlier tweeted image of Clinton, a pile of money, and a Star of David — which also originated with white supremacists. (Trump has never explained how so many racist memes come to his attention. Does he follow Twitter users like @WhiteGenocideTM?)

Since the election, Trump has gotten far more agitated by a polite appeal from the cast of Hamilton to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us” than by a roomful of white supremacists shouting “Hail Trump!” and giving straight-arm Nazi salutes. When asked about the neo-Nazis during his interview at The New York Times, he said, “Boy, you are really into this stuff, huh?” When pressed, he said “I disavow and condemn.” But it wasn’t at all something he felt he needed to clear up.

So Trump doesn’t treat racism as toxic, and in fact it hasn’t been. He won anyway, or perhaps he won because. And that puts us in a new world. White nationalist and white grievance arguments are entering the mainstream, and we have to answer them now.

White grievance. The essence of the white-grievance argument is that mainstream culture imposes a double standard on whites, and puts us in impossible situations where anything we might say or do is wrong.

At that neo-Nazi conference Trump eventually got around to disavowing, the speaker who started the “Hail Trump!” chorus was Richard Spencer. He put the white-grievance argument this way:

In the Current Year, a white who takes pride in his ancestors’ accomplishments is evil, but a white who refuses to accept guilt for his ancestors’ sins is also evil.

In the Current Year, white families work their whole lives to send their children to universities where they will be told how despicable they are.

In the Current Year, the powerful lecture the powerless about how they don’t recognize their own “privilege.”

In the Current Year, a wealthy Jewish celebrity bragging about the “end of white men” is “speaking truth to power.’

In the Current Year, if you are physically strong, you are fragile. Black is beautiful, but whiteness is toxic.

In a lot of ways, I’m Spencer’s target audience: I’m a white man whose German Lutheran ancestors settled in rural Illinois just before the Civil War. I think I come from good people — nobody who shows up in history books, but ordinary folks who worked hard and did right by their neighbors and raised their kids to do the same. My parents’ hard work (and mine; I got scholarships) sent me to universities (Michigan State and the University of Chicago), where I did indeed get introduced to the dark side of American racial history and some of the advantages being white had given me.

Like Spencer, I don’t believe that whites are despicable or that whiteness is toxic. I do think slavery was a very bad thing — not sure whether Spencer agrees or not — but my personal feelings about its legacy are too complicated to sum up as guilt. (BTW: I think right-wingers went off the deep end responding to Lena Dunham’s short conversation with her Dad about “the extinction of white men”, and I’m not sure why her Jewishness is relevant. I don’t feel the least bit threatened by her animated video, and I’m confident that no actual white men were harmed in the drawing of it.)

So why don’t I have the kind of white pride Spencer is trying to promote and defend? And why don’t I feel aggrieved by a culture that doesn’t approve of expressing that pride?

My pride. I’ve got some. As I said already, I feel pride in my ancestors.

I also feel pride in being an American. I write a lot on this blog about American history and the Constitution and the tradition of our laws, and I hope my words convey the amazement and wonder I find in it all. Naturally, we have villains as well as heroes, and I try not to pretend otherwise, but none of that ruins it for me. In some ways it’s even better once you understand that none of the characters in our story were gods, that they were humans with all the flaws you can see in humans today. Many of the great things they did were also terrible at the same time, and at the end of it all, somehow, here we are.

I love the English language, and what other writers have done with it. Not just the giants like Shakespeare or Faulkner, but anybody who can turn a good phrase. If you ever happen to be in the room while I have my nose in a book, don’t be surprised if I suddenly jump up and interrupt everybody else’s conversation with: “Oh, you have to hear this!” and then start reading aloud.

I take pride in Western Culture, the whole dead-white-male tradition of the so-called “Great Books”. I have loved Plato since I stumbled across a translation of “Apology of Socrates” in junior high. The abstract beauty of Euclid, Periclean democracy, the cosmopolitan Stoics, infinitely logical Spinoza, and that long, long dialog (continuing to this very moment) between what we want to believe about the world and what we can make sense out of — irrationally, I feel like it is all in some way my own, as if in rediscovering it I had thought of it myself.

I even feel a certain amount of ethnic German pride, though American Germans have been playing that down since the world wars. I can’t speak the language, but I read it well enough to appreciate its unpretentious logic, where you can reason a word out syllable-by-syllable in the same way you might sound it out it letter-by-letter. (Wahrscheinlichkeit, for example, breaks down as true-seeming-ness: probability.) Watching the World Cup, I started rooting for the German team as soon as the Americans were eliminated.

If you ask white supremacists about their “white pride”, they’ll point to a lot of this same stuff: White people wrote the Constitution, created German and English, and are responsible for nearly all the Western classics. The pride I just expressed, they would claim, is white pride.

And that’s where they lose me.

My identity. Ancestry is largely genetic, I’ll grant you. But the other pieces of my identity aren’t. When I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack, for example, I feel both American pride and English-language pride; the fact that Lin-Manuel Miranda is Puerto Rican and most of the cast is  something other than white doesn’t diminish that.

One of the things I love about my national heritage is its lack of boundaries. If you have something good in you and you want to bring it to America, we’ll take it and make it our own. Is Einstein too Jewish for Hitler? Fine, we’ll take him. English literature is the same way: Joseph Conrad‘s first language was Polish, but who cares? Heart of Darkness is an English classic. Western culture is great because it is porous and permeable; anybody who masters it, like Salman Rushdie, becomes part of it, no matter where they were born or who their parents were.

Without that permeability, I couldn’t claim most of Western culture either. Plato and Homer were Greek; they’re no relation of mine. (If Plato ever talked about my Germanic ancestors, he would have used the Greek word barbaros, from which we derive barbarian.) Descartes was French, Tolstoy Russian. So why should it bother me that Edward Said was Arab or Haruki Murakami is Japanese? I envy the things Martin Luther King did with spoken English and Ta-Nehisi Coates does with written English. Should I not learn from them because they’re black?

Anybody who claims Western culture as “white” doesn’t really get the point of Western culture.

White identity is artificial. But there’s an even bigger problem with identifying as white, which the last section only hinted at: Most of the historical heroes I would want to claim had no idea they were white.

The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock didn’t think they were white, they thought they were English. Columbus wasn’t white, or even Italian; he was a Genoan working for Spain. (Spain itself was a new idea then, having just formed from the union of Castille and Aragon.) Shakespeare, Milton, and Cervantes weren’t white. Whiteness just wasn’t a thing yet.

When it did it become a thing? When the white/black distinction became the basis of slavery.

Blackness was invented at the same moment. The dark-skinned people who were loaded onto the slavers’ ships weren’t black, they were Yoruba, Ashanti, Dogon and dozens or maybe hundreds of other ethnicities. They spoke different languages, ate different foods, and worshiped different gods. They became black when their new masters imposed a common experience on them and saw them as interchangeable.

Something similar, if much less extreme, happened to the Poles, Czechs, Irish, and other Europeans who came through Ellis Island. They were allowed to keep a little of their previous identity, but considered backwards if they took it too seriously. (You can see that process happening in the background of all those making-of-the-Mafia movies. Lucky Luciano had become an Italian-American, but the previous generation of bosses — Maranzano, Masseria — were still greaseballs.)

Imagine trying to organize a White Heritage Festival. What food would you serve? What ancestral costumes would you dress your staff in? The reason those question seem so silly is that there is no white culture. There never has been.

Whiteness is about being the master rather than the slave. That’s the sum total of it.

Why white pride is different from black pride. Whiteness and blackness were created at the same moment, by the same act of enslavement. But they were not created equal. White identity and black identity are both in some sense artificial, but there is no equivalency between them.

When Africans were enslaved, the masters did their best to erase any prior African identity. Italian immigrants could form their own neighborhoods, like Little Italy in Manhattan. On the frontier, entire regions were settled by Germans or Swedes. But the cotton plantations did not recognize any prior tribal distinctions, and any attempt by the slaves to practice a non-Christian religion or preserve a language the masters did not understand was put down harshly.

Slaves of all tribes were all housed together, and encouraged to breed like cattle. To the extent they were taught anything about their African motherland, they were told it was a land of savages who were little better than animals. How generous the white man had been, to bring them to a Christian land and teach them civilization!

When you grasp even that much about the black experience in America, you understand the job black pride needed (and still needs) to do: On the one hand, it needed to celebrate the polyglot culture the slaves made for themselves, how it continued after Emancipation, and its contributions to the larger American culture. And on the other, it needed to reach back beyond slavery, and recapture a sense of Africa as a place of origin, with its own history and traditions.

There is no similar task for white pride. I know exactly what part of Europe my ancestors came from, and German ethnicity is there for me whenever I want it. If I eat schnitzel and drink beer during Oktoberfest, no one will condemn me. I could put on lederhosen and dance to an oompah band if that would do something for me. If I want to go deeper, I could read Faust, recite the poetry of Rilke, or attend a Wagner opera.

Similarly, you can celebrate your Irish roots on St. Patrick’s Day, and make something more out of that identity if you need to. If Italians want to congregate on Columbus Day, critics might dispute their choice of hero, but not their right to a holiday. A few miles from my apartment, there’s a Greek festival every year on the day of some saint whose name I can never remember. It’s a good place to get baklava and spanakopita.

The various European identities were never completely erased, and are totally recoverable. In most cases, you can visit the original country, where the original culture may have evolved since your ancestors left, but was never overwritten by colonialism. There is no hole for white pride to fill.

Dark whiteness. But there is a dark place white pride can go to, and in practice it quickly goes there. Whiteness and blackness originate in slavery. So in the same way that black pride focuses on healing the injuries of slavery, white pride can celebrate that enslavement.

Maybe there is no white culture, but there was Confederate culture, the lifestyle of the slave-master. Spend any length of time on a white-pride web site, and you’ll run into the stars-and-bars, and “heroes” like Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Nathan Bedford Forrest. You’ll run into white people whitesplaining that slavery wasn’t really so bad, that the house slaves were practically members of the family, that blacks were better off on the plantations of Charleston than they are in the ghettos of Detroit, and so on.

Strangely, I never hear any black people, no matter how poor they are, waxing nostalgic about the old plantation days — just white people claiming that they should.

Guilt and responsibility. Probably the most persuasive part of the white-grievance argument is that people are trying to make us feel guilty for things we haven’t done. I personally had nothing to do with enslaving the blacks, committing genocide against the Jews of Europe, or stealing the homelands of the Native American tribes. All of that happened long before I was born. So why do liberals want me to feel guilty about it?

a white who takes pride in his ancestors’ accomplishments is evil, but a white who refuses to accept guilt for his ancestors’ sins is also evil.

This objection is based on a gross (and I think intentional) misreading of the liberal position on race.

Guilt is personal, not collective; if you didn’t do it, you shouldn’t feel guilty about it. But responsibility for making the world more just is collective.

Blacks were brought to America by force. They had their ethnic identities stripped away by force. Their labor built a great deal of this country and its wealth, both during slavery and during the times that followed when they were an exploited underclass. In exchange, they received very little of that wealth. Today, many continue to live as an underclass, with slim opportunities to make a better life.

I didn’t do that to them. No living white individual did. But American society as a whole — all of it, not just the white part — bears a responsibility to correct that injustice, or at least to stop perpetuating it.

How to do that, what would be fair, and what stands a chance of working — those are all open questions. Many legitimate points of view are possible. What is not legitimate, and what individual whites ought to feel guilty about, is taking a sucks-to-be-them attitude and sloughing off responsibility entirely. That’s not just something our collective ancestors did long ago. That is something we might be doing as individuals right now.

So what are we being asked to do? Not to feel guilty, but to open our eyes and stop rationalizing that American society is already just and everybody is exactly where they deserve to be. To recognize the ways that the game has been rigged in our favor. And to participate — fully, intelligently, responsibly — in figuring out and implementing plans to achieve a more just society.

Personally, I find that a project that I — as an American, a German-American, a participant in Western culture, and yes, even as a white — can take pride in.

The Trump Administration: What I’m watching for

So far, I haven’t been tempted to protest against President-elect Donald Trump, at least not yet. If I am angry at all right now, it is at the swing-state voters who put him in office, not at him for taking advantage of our ridiculous Electoral College system, which allowed him to win when Hillary Clinton got more votes (about 1.7 million more, at last count). But demonstrating support for immigrants, Muslims, gays, and others who feel threatened by a Trump administration is a different matter.

Mostly for the sake of my own sanity, I have resolved not to react to things Trump hasn’t done yet. So, for example, in this week’s summary post I will comment on the appointments he has made, but not on the people he is rumored to be considering. During the next four years, I expect to see plenty of actions worth objecting to. But this will be a marathon, not a sprint, so I see no reason to jump the gun.

That said, I am also not naively hoping for the best. I am watching the Trump administration closely, and will be quick to object as soon as there are actions worth objecting to. Here is a list of the primary things I’m watching for, starting with the most mundane:

Taking credit for Obama’s accomplishments. President Obama has left his successor a country in much better shape than the one he inherited from President Bush. Republicans in general and Trump in particular have refused to give Obama credit for his accomplishments, or even to recognize good news when it appeared. Now Trump is in a position to acknowledge American success and take credit for it.

So, for example, ISIS has been losing territory for some while now. Mosul, its last stronghold in Iraq, is cut off and likely to fall in the next few months. Its de facto capital of Raqqa is under attack in Syria. If events continue on their current path, sometime in 2017 President Trump will be able to declare victory in the territorial struggle, though ISIS will continue to be a significant underground movement. That victory will be the result of Obama’s strategy, but I expect Trump to crow about how “America is winning again.”

Similarly, expect Republicans to suddenly notice that the number of undocumented immigrants is dropping, gas prices are down, unemployment is low, and that rates of murder and other major crimes are at their lowest levels in decades. Already, Gallup reports that Republicans have drastically changed their opinion about how well the economy is doing: “Just 16% of Republicans said the economy was getting better in the week before the election, while 81% said it was getting worse. Since the election, 49% say it is getting better and 44% worse.”

The beauty of this (from Trump’s point of view) is that no lying is necessary. On the contrary, all he has to do is stop lying about the state of country, and bask in the glow of instant success.

Taking credit for averting dangers that never existed. This has already started. Trump is taking credit for keeping a Kentucky Ford plant from moving to Mexico, when Ford never had a plan to move it. Who knows what he’ll prevent next? War with Belgium, maybe. By May, he will have decisively beaten winter.

In the conspiracy-theory swamps where many Trump supporters live, this will be incredibly easy: All they have to do is celebrate the end of things that never existed to begin with: You know those FEMA detention camps where anti-Obama dissidents were going to be sent? Trump closed them! They’re gone.

I’m reminded of a joke about a political leader answering charges of nepotism. Asked why his mother was on the public payroll, he explained that she oversaw the government’s anti-tiger policy. “But there are no tigers for a thousand miles,” the interviewer objected. “Don’t thank me,” the leader responded. “Thank Mom.”

Profiteering. This picture is worth a thousand words:

It’s President-elect Trump’s first meeting with a foreign head of state: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. And who is that in the chair on the right? Ivanka Trump, the daughter who is expected to take control of Trump’s business interests.

It’s a staged photo, and the message it sends is unmistakable: There will be no distance between Trump’s government and Trump’s profit-making enterprises. The Trump children have all played significant roles in the transition, so many officials in the new administration will be in their debt. And presumably they will continue to have their father’s ear after the inauguration, even as they negotiate deals in foreign countries.

This week, Trump also met with three businessmen who are building Trump-branded properties in India. Two are sons of a member of India’s Parliament.

What this means is that there is a wide-open door for foreign governments to bribe President Trump: Go to Ivanka (or maybe even directly to Donald) and cut a lucrative deal to build a new Trump Tower in your capital city. Or if you are afraid the President is going to do something you don’t like, threaten to cancel such a deal.

This kind of thinking is toxic:

In interviews with a dozen diplomats … some said spending money at Trump’s hotel is an easy, friendly gesture to the new president.

“Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’ ” said one Asian diplomat.

So if you’re competing against a Trump business, you’re competing against the Trump administration. It’s one enterprise now.

All this runs afoul of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which conservatives were inclined to interpret strictly when imagining President Hillary Clinton. Unless Trump has some amazing plan he hasn’t announced yet, his violation of the Clause looks likely to be far more blatant than anything Clinton did or was even accused of doing. So we’ll soon see which conservatives have actually been serious about that uphold-the-Constitution rhetoric.

Changing the electorate. All through the campaign, conservative voices like Laura Ingraham have been referring to the Trump campaign as “the last chance, last stand for America as we know it”. The racial dog whistle there is pretty obvious: “America as we know it” is White America, and the electorate becomes a little less white every year.

To a certain extent that process can be slowed down by preventing non-white immigrants from becoming citizens. But that won’t change the demographics, because the non-white population is younger and more inclined towards large families. So if you really want to preserve the United States as a white-majority nation, you have to prevent non-whites from voting.

That has been the Republican strategy for several years now. As soon as the Supreme Court opened the door, states governed by Republicans began changing election rules to make it harder to vote, especially for blacks, Hispanics, poor people, and college students. Fortunately, this year courts struck down the most outrageous attempts to rig the electorate, like North Carolina’s.

The court said that in crafting the law, the Republican-controlled general assembly requested and received data on voters’ use of various voting practices by race. It found that African American voters in North Carolina are more likely to vote early, use same-day voter registration and straight-ticket voting. They were also disproportionately less likely to have an ID, more likely to cast a provisional ballot and take advantage of pre-registration.

Then, the court, said, lawmakers restricted all of these voting options, and further narrowed the list of acceptable voter IDs. “… [W]ith race data in hand, the legislature amended the bill to exclude many of the alternative photo IDs used by African Americans. As amended, the bill retained only the kinds of IDs that white North Carolinians were more likely to possess.”

Unfortunately, the federal Justice Department plays a big role in bringing such cases to court, and under Attorney General Sessions it’s likely to get out of that business. (Sessions’ home state of Alabama has been one of the worst offenders, and he has not raised a word of protest.) Then there’s the question of how President Trump’s appointees will stack the courts.

Winking at right-wing paramilitary groups. To be honest, I’ll be relieved if we make it through the next four years with nothing worse than financial chicanery. Much darker stuff is possible.

When we think of fascist governments, we usually picture the police doing things like destroying the printing presses of critical newspapers and dragging their editors off to jail. But that kind of thing only happens at a much later stage. Early on, fascist violence is unofficial: Organized thugs destroy the printing press and send the editor to a hospital, not a jail. Police are not involved, but they show no interest in catching the people who are.

Right-wing violence in America was already a problem before Trump: There are groups that support firebombing abortion clinics and murdering doctors. Hate crimes against blacks, immigrants, or Muslims are usually portrayed as the work of isolated maniacs, but in fact killers like Dylann Roof and Wade Michael Page have had far stronger relationships with organized hate groups than, say, Omar Mateen had with ISIS. The Bundy gang in Nevada has openly challenged the federal government with armed resistance.

An Oathkeeper "protecting" Ferguson

An Oathkeeper “protecting” Ferguson

During the campaign, Trump frequently praised violence and valorized violent responses from his followers. My question is whether this will continue after inauguration and if violent Trump supporters will organize in a brownshirt fashion. Or perhaps already existing groups — Oathkeepers, for example — will shift into this role. Militia groups that organized to resist imaginary “tyranny” from Obama might welcome the opportunity to support an actual tyranny of their own.

And if this happens, how will Trump react? He could condemn such a development, or he could suggest targets to his paramilitary supporters by labeling people as “traitors” or using some similar language.

Richard Engel drew on his observations of other countries to describe the signs of creeping authoritarianism to Rachel Maddow.

If you start to hear the word “traitor” being used a lot about the opposition, that’s a red flag. If those criticisms escalate to “cancer”, that’s an even worse sign. So I think we should be listening for things like that. After that, the next stage would be mass rallies by his supporters that look potentially intimidating. And after that, to see if there’s any kind of call for a referendum to go right to the people to get around the constitutional system.

Subverting government agencies for political advantage. If Trump does intend to push America in an authoritarian direction, institutional forces within the government might resist — or not.

I don’t expect Trump to carry through on his promise to appoint a special prosecutor to go after the Clintons. The whole point of the accusations against Hillary was to defeat her politically and neutralize the Clintons as a political force — not to pursue justice or enforce the law. That political mission has been accomplished now, and attempting to prosecute her would only demonstrate how baseless the charges were.

But the mere fact that he would suggest such a thing is gravely troubling. In America, prosecutions bubble up from investigators, they don’t come down from the President. He has also threatened antitrust action against Amazon because its founder (Jeff Bezos) also owns The Washington Post, which Trump found too critical.

FBI Director Comey’s highly unusual commentary on the Clinton email server problem — ordinarily, an investigation that didn’t produce prosecutions would not be revealed to the public, and certainly not late in an election campaign — as well as the leaks from inside the FBI about some nebulous Clinton Foundation investigation, suggests that there has been considerable political corruption of the FBI already.

The FBI, CIA, NSA, SEC, IRS, and other agencies all have considerable power to make Trump’s critics miserable, as well as to provide valuable information to his business interests. Will they be asked to do so, and will they give in?

Paying Putin back. Trump and Vladimir Putin both know that Trump could not have won without Putin’s help. The Russian hack of DNC and Clinton campaign emails was a major factor in the campaign. We have since found out that the Trump campaign was in regular contact with Russian officials. This should come as no surprise, since former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had previously received millions of dollars from pro-Russian organizations in Ukraine.

Two questions immediately come to mind: Will the Russian government continue committing crimes for Trump’s benefit? And what do they want in return?

Obvious ways to pay Putin back include: supporting the Russian-allied Assad regime in Syria, turning a blind eye to further encroachments in Ukraine, or letting Putin dominate our NATO allies in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

 

Did I miss anything important? What else should we be on the lookout for?

How did my home town become Trumpland?

[OK, I said I wasn’t going to do a Sift this week, and mostly I’m holding to that. But this single article just popped out.]

On the morning of Election Day, my wife and I cast our ballots in New Hampshire and then started driving west, heading to Quincy, Illinois, where I grew up. I didn’t think I was on a research trip. I just thought we would be visiting friends and that I would give a talk at the local Unitarian church.

We listened to the early returns on the radio, then stopped for the night in Erie, Pennsylvania. I went to bed comparatively early, around midnight. Ezra Klein had just explained why there probably weren’t enough uncounted Democratic votes in Wisconsin to erase Trump’s lead, and I decided I didn’t need to see any more.

At least Illinois was a blue state, called for Clinton shortly after the polls closed. But it differs from Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan mainly in that Chicago is a bigger city than Cleveland, Milwaukee, or Detroit. Once you get past the Chicago suburbs, you’ll find rural areas and small towns just like the ones that made Trump president.

Small towns like Quincy. It has roughly 40,000 people, a population level that has been fairly constant since it was a Mississippi riverport boom town in the 1840s. It is a small regional center, the biggest town for a hundred miles in any direction, and it dominates Adams County, which has a total population of 67,000. The vote totals from Adams County look like this:

Trump      22, 732
Clinton      7,633
Johnson    1,157
Stein              248

The people I had come to see are all liberal Unitarian Universalists, and their problems put mine in perspective. Like most Democrats, I felt kicked in the stomach by the election results. Trump’s victory didn’t feel like an ordinary defeat; even nearly a week later, it feels like a rejection of everything I believed America stood for. I have been looking at my country, wondering what had happened to it and where it might be headed. But my friends in Quincy are looking out their doors and feeling surrounded by the Trump signs in their neighbors’ yards. They weren’t surprised to see their town go Republican (and truthfully, neither was I), but Trump? Their neighbors?

If I were a real journalist, I would have spent my week interviewing local Trump supporters at random and telling you what they said. But to be honest, I didn’t have it in me. And over the last few months I’ve seen a number of such interviews on television and learned relatively little from them. (Some different language is being spoken, and I can’t crack it. Wednesday morning, during breakfast back at the hotel in Erie, I overheard a table of people telling each other that Hillary was corrupt, but Trump just wanted to do what was right for America. I don’t know how anyone can look at Trump’s long history as a con man and come to that conclusion, but I suspected that asking that question wouldn’t have gotten me an enlightening answer.)

Instead, I did what I usually do in Quincy: I walked. It’s a very walkable town, much of it unchanged since I was a boy. But some of it has changed, and as I walked I thought about that in a new way.

By now, Quincy has exported most of two generations of intellectual talent. At my high school reunions, people mostly fall into three groups: the few who inherited local family businesses and are doing fine; a much larger group that got a college education, moved away, and are mostly also doing quite well; and a third group of probably about the same size that didn’t go to college, stayed, and are surviving. (The people who don’t survive, I suppose, don’t show up at reunions.)

Like any regional center, Quincy requires trained professionals — the town’s biggest employer is the local hospital — which it mostly imports. A few years ago, when I was coming home often and spending far too much time with my parents’ doctors, those doctors were mostly Asians. (The doctors I remember from growing up were old white men with names like Brenner and Johnson.) When I would read articles in the local paper about my old high school, the prize-winning kids would often not have the Germanic names of old Quincy families, but names I associate with China or India.

In the mid-20th century, Quincy was a manufacturing center. My Dad worked in one of the factories, which had been owned by a local family; the corporate headquarters was one building over from the manufacturing plant. The company has long since been sold to ADM, headquartered in Chicago 300 miles away. I doubt it employs nearly so many people now, or that the high school graduates who work there make enough money to own a house and send their children to college. Most of the town’s other factories are either gone completely or are shadows of their former selves.

One other striking difference from the town of my youth is the subdivisions of McMansions on the east side of town, in areas that I remember as fields. When I saw them starting to go up, I was incredulous: Who in Quincy could afford them? I knew there were old families with old money, but surely not this many of them. But strangely, every year, there were more of them and they got bigger.

Eventually somebody explained it to me: Outsiders were retiring here. Quincy has a comparatively low cost of living (thanks in part, I imagine, to my high school classmates working for not much money), and low construction costs. If you sell your three-bedroom in St. Louis or Chicago, you can afford to build your dream house in Quincy.

I’ve known all this for a while, but I had never put it together before. This time, as I walked I wondered: All those people who stayed here without a family business to inherit, how did the town look to them? The promising kids who move away and never come back. The good jobs going to foreigners and to corporate climbers who are spending a few years in the sticks in hopes of returning to headquarters at a higher level. The acres of mansions that you can’t figure out who lives in them. How do they feel about all that?

The word that popped into my mind was colonized. Like this wasn’t their town any more.

Trump supporters have been telling us this for a while, of course. They’ve been saying “We need to take our country back.” But I had always interpreted that as metaphor, having something to do with gay rights and racial integration. But maybe they very literally feel like the natives in a colonial empire.

Election Night 2016: an hour-by-hour returns-watching guide

General stuff to know going in

While there are important races up and down the ballot — not to mention referenda in many states — the two big national questions that will be decided tomorrow are

  • Who’s going to be president?
  • Which party is going to control the Senate?

If a huge Democratic wave develops, Democrats could theoretically also take the House, but nobody really expects that. (Afterwards, it will be interesting to add up vote totals and see which party’s candidates got more votes. In 2012, Democratic House candidates got more votes, but Republicans maintained their majority through gerrymandering.)

The presidential race is leaning to Clinton, though she is not in as good a position as Obama was in 2008 or 2012, and a Trump upset still can’t be ruled out. The Senate looks like a true toss-up; we’ll just have to wait and see — probably until Nevada’s race gets called sometime after midnight (on the east coast).

Senate. If Clinton wins, the Democrats need to net four seats to gain control. (VP Tim Kaine’s vote would break a 50-50 tie.) Two pick-ups are considered very likely: Tammy Duckworth winning in Illinois and Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. The third seat is probably Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania, who is favored. The fourth would be Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, which is a coin flip. If all that happened, Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto would still have to hang on to the seat Harry Reid is retiring from in Nevada. Masto is favored there, but just barely. It’s not impossible that Democrats could also pick up seats in Indiana, Missouri, and North Carolina, but all those candidates are underdogs. Stranger things have happened than Marco Rubio losing his seat in Florida, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Presidency. Here are two graphics you’ll want to refer to as returns come in and states get called. The first is the minimal Clinton win map from the NYT’s Upshot column.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-6-41-32-am

Any result that deviates from that map — except for 1 electoral vote in Maine, which we’ll talk about later — is a clear signal that the election is not going to go down to the wire. If Trump wins Pennsylvania, say, or Clinton wins Florida, it might be over early.

The other important graphic (which I think is brilliant in a pure visual-presentation-of-information sense) is the snake from Nate Silver’s 538 site:

screen-shot-2016-11-07-at-6-21-00-am

The two sites disagree on whether Nevada or New Hampshire is the last state Clinton needs to win. I favor the Upshot in this case, because Nate’s model only counts polls, while the Upshot is also factoring in the huge Hispanic early-voting turnout in Nevada, so a Clinton win in Nevada seems more likely, all things considered. 538’s Harry Enten seems to agree with this analysis. (Nate Silver has a whole other argument going about the overall probability of a Clinton win, which he places lower than just about anybody but rabid Trump supporters. I’ll explain that disagreement in the weekly summary.)

What happens when on Tuesday night

Before 6 p.m. you’ll see some novelty returns from small precincts (like Dixville Notch in New Hampshire), and it’s possible that some exit polls will leak out. (Don’t trust them. The early exit polls in 2004 had Kerry winning.) But nothing genuinely newsworthy will happen before the first official poll-closing times at 6.

In general, the networks will not declare a winner in a state until all the polls in that state are closed, and will declare a winner right away only if the exit polls are stunningly one-sided. The closer a state appears to be, the more votes the statisticians will need to see counted before they’re sure which way it’s going.

Almost all the states will be called within two or three hours of their polls closing, and probably all of them within five or six hours. But really, really close races, the kind that need recounts, may not be decided for days or even weeks. (Remember Florida in 2000.)

So here’s how I expect the returns to come in.

6:00 p.m. EST: parts of Indiana and Kentucky. You’ll see some raw vote totals start coming in (and probably favoring Trump), but no projections will be made about electoral votes. Clinton 0, Trump: 0

7 p.m.: the rest of Indiana and Kentucky, Vermont, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, parts of New Hampshire and Florida. Almost immediately, Indiana, Kentucky, and South Carolina should be called for Trump and Vermont for Clinton. Georgia should eventually go for Trump and Virginia for Clinton, but are likely to be more competitive. So that’s the first sign of how the presidential race is going: How close are the early returns in Virginia and Georgia?

Florida and New Hampshire are the really important important states here, but again, they’re not going to be called until all the polls have closed. (Florida looks like a 7 o’clock state at first glance, but check out that part of the panhandle under Alabama.)

Indiana is the first of the competitive Senate races: Evan Bayh (D) against Todd Young (R). I’d expect the decision to take a while in all the toss-up races; but if it’s called right away in either direction, that could be a signal of how the night is going. Trump 28, Clinton 3.

7:30 p.m.: Ohio, West Virginia, North Carolina. West Virginia should go immediately to Trump. Ohio and North Carolina should both be close and take longer to be decided. Trump needs to win both of them to have any chance. If either goes early to Clinton, we’re looking at a romp, but I wouldn’t expect that. If either goes early to Trump, it’s probably going to be a long night.

North Carolina is another close Senate race, with Richard Burr (R) favored over Deborah Ross (D), but not by much. Trump 33, Clinton 3.

8 p.m.: the rest of Florida and New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, District of Columbia, Michigan, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, most of Texas, and parts of the Dakotas.

A bunch of this list should go right away, or before long: Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, D.C., and Illinois for Clinton; Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Kansas, Oklahoma for Trump.

Texas looks like an 8 o’clock state on the map, but there’s a tiny fragment under New Mexico that stays open until 9.

I’ll also guess that Georgia (Trump) and Virginia (Clinton) come in as expected.

Florida and New Hampshire should take a while. Trump absolutely has to have Florida, so if it goes to Clinton, whenever it goes, we have a winner. New Hampshire isn’t part of Clinton’s minimum-victory map, but if she wins it she won’t need Nevada later on.

Pennsylvania and Michigan are traditionally Democratic states where Trump thinks he has a chance, but the polls disagree. Missouri will eventually go to Trump, but maybe not right away. As with Virginia, how long they take to come in is a sign of how the night is going. If Trump wins either Pennsylvania or Michigan, he probably wins the election unless Clinton takes Florida. (That’s an unlikely combination, because it requires last-minute voters to break in opposite directions in different states.)

Maine is the first of two special cases, Nebraska being the other. Both award two electoral votes for winning the state, and one for each congressional district. Maine as a whole is going to Clinton and Nebraska to Trump, but Maine’s 2nd district is in the likely-Trump category. (That 1 electoral vote might matter.) So in the total so far, I’m awarding 3 of Maine’s electoral votes to Clinton but hanging back on the last one.

New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Missouri are the Senate races to watch. There’s an outside chance that Marco Rubio loses in Florida, but only if it’s a big night for Democrats across the board. Conversely, the Democrats have to have the Illinois Senate seat (Duckworth) to have any chance of taking back the Senate. Probably she wins almost immediately.

Clinton 91, Trump 88. Still waiting: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Michigan, Missouri, and that 1 vote in Maine.

8:30. Arkansas to Trump. Trump 94, Clinton 91.

9 p.m. the rest of Texas and the Dakotas, New York, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona.

Texas is supposed to be closer than usual, but it’s probably not that close. I’ll concede it to Trump right away (especially since the bulk of the state has been counting votes already since 8). Trump also gets the Dakotas, Louisiana, Nebraska, and Wyoming.

Clinton gets New York. She’ll get Wisconsin, Minnesota, and New Mexico eventually, but it might take a while. Trump will get Arizona and that last vote in Nebraska eventually, but not yet. Colorado is one of the states that the election hinges on; Clinton has to have it. If Trump takes Colorado,there are still ways that he can lose, but he would have the inside track.

By now, I’m guessing that Pennsylvania and Michigan will have come in for Clinton and Missouri and that last Maine vote for Trump.

Democrats have to have the Wisconsin Senate seat (Feingold) and the Republicans have to have Arizona (McCain). If either goes the other way, so will the Senate. By now the Pennsylvania or New Hampshire Senate races might have been called either way.

Trump 164, Clinton 156. Still waiting: Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona.

10 p.m. Iowa, Montana, Utah, Nevada, part of Idaho and Oregon. Montana goes to Trump immediately. Usually Utah would also, but the McMullin third-party effort makes this year interesting.

Of the waiting states, Arizona and that last Nebraska vote goes to Trump; Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, and New Mexico to Clinton.

Probably the others are called about now too, but it’s hard to say how they’ll go. Probably Ohio goes for Trump (if Clinton gets it, the election is essentially decided). The others I’m going to start calling unpredictable.

Trump 197, Clinton 190.

unpredictable: Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina

still waiting: Iowa, Utah, Nevada.

11 p.m. California, Washington, Hawaii, the rest of Oregon and Idaho. California, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii go for Clinton almost immediately. Idaho goes to Trump.

Iowa and Utah probably come in for Trump by now. Iowa is usually close and has only gone for Republicans once (Bush in 2004) since Reagan took it in 1984. But it has an extra-large segment of whites without college degrees, a.k.a. the Trump base.

Clinton 268, Trump 213.

unpredictable: Florida, New Hampshire, North Carolina.

So if any of the unpredictable states have come in for Clinton, she wins at 11. If they’ve all gone for Trump, it’s 268-261 and we’re all still biting our nails.

Midnight. No new states, but this is probably when Nevada comes in for Clinton, who wins with 274 electoral votes, even if she’s lost the unpredictable states. By now I’ll bet we still don’t know who won the Senate. There’s bound to be one Senate race that keeps everybody up until 3 a.m., though I can’t predict which one it is.

1 a.m. Alaska. Trump’s victory path includes winning Nevada, which I don’t think he will. But if he has won Nevada, Florida, New Hampshire and North Carolina, then Alaska puts him over the top with exactly 270. (Unless, by some miracle, McMullin has won Utah. Then it’s 268-264-6, and the election is headed to the House.)

I don’t know why we’re having this conversation.

In order to persuade Trump voters, I’d have to understand them first. Believe me, I’ve tried.


For months I’ve been imagining the closing argument I would post the day before the election: a devastatingly persuasive case why voters should choose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

To a large extent I’d be preaching to the choir, of course, since most of my regular readers already agree with me. (That’s true for just about all bloggers.) But I’m sure a lot of them have friends or relatives who are undecided or leaning towards Trump. My convincing analysis would be something they could forward or quote, or maybe it would just help them marshal their thoughts before making some argument of their own.

It was a pleasant fantasy. But now it actually is the day before the election, and I have to admit failure: I can’t hope to convince Trump voters, because I can’t understand them. I can’t fathom why we are even having a national conversation about making Donald Trump president. Why did anyone ever think that was a good idea?

I’ve tried to understand. I’ve spent months listening to the Trump supporters I happen to run into, watching interviews with them on TV, reading books and articles about them, and even quieting my own revulsion as I listen to Trump so that I can look deep inside myself for something that responds to his message.

I got nothing.

As guys with erectile dysfunction often say: This doesn’t usually happen to me. I didn’t support John McCain or Mitt Romney, but I understood how other people could. (In 2012 I wrote an article claiming that Romney could win if he’d run as a problem-solver rather than an ideologue. I even included a campaign speech he could give.) Sure, I often thought “I don’t agree with that” or “I don’t think that’s true” when I watched McCain or Romney. But with Trump it’s different. All I can think is “What the hell is wrong with that guy?”

So I have no idea what his supporters are thinking. I can repeat some words back to you, but I can’t grasp why anyone believes them.

“Politicians have screwed this country up. Maybe it’s time to give one of our top businessmen a chance.” This could be the start of an interesting national conversation, if Trump were a top businessman. But he’s not, he just plays one on television. [1]

Yes, I know, Trump is rich. [2] But that’s because he was born rich. He inherited a New York real estate empire from his father, and the last few decades have been good to the New York real estate market. On the other hand, just about everything he’s done on his own, outside his father’s shadow — the bankrupt casinos, the failed airline, the mortgage company he opened just before the real-estate bubble popped — has been a disaster. Romney was right about Trump: “A business genius he is not.”

Now, I have to admit, he did pull off one good trick: He turned inherited wealth into celebrity, and then turned celebrity back into wealth (by charging people for the right to put his name on things he had nothing to do with). But you know who else has mastered that maneuver? Paris Hilton. Strangely, no one ever tells me that Paris Hilton should be president.

What else is he good at? He’s good at getting government subsidies. He’s good at avoiding taxes. He’s good at stiffing the small businessmen who work on his projects. He’s good at scamming middle-class people out of their money. If that’s the kind of stuff you admire in a businessman, then I guess Trump is your guy.

But the businessmen I admire see into the future. They change our lives by creating new products and new ways of doing things. They build opportunity for others. They bring prosperity to their communities, and enrich lots of other people, not just themselves. [3]

Donald Trump has never done any of that.

He’s also never done anything remotely like being President of the United States. And whatever you think of government service, President is not an entry-level job. We need somebody who can go in already knowing the major players, the major issues, and the nuts-and-bolts of how government functions. That’s not Trump, as you can see whenever anyone pushes him past the slogan level. [4]

I think Trae Crowder (a.k.a. the Liberal Redneck) nails something here:

Look, it’s like this. Think of your football team. Imagine y’all have been bad for years and years — not a stretch in my case. And imagine they fire the coach, and they come to you as a fan base and they say, “Look. You’re gonna love this new guy. He promises we’re gonna win twice as many games. We’re gonna score all kinds of points. He’s gonna go get our touchdowns back from the Mexicans. It’s gonna be awesome.”

You’d be like “Hell, yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ about. So where’s he coming from? Where’d he coach at before this?”

And they’re like, “Oh, actually he’s not a football coach. He’s a European soccer coach with the emotional intelligence and fingers of a fucking six-year-old. Also, he rapes.”

You’d be like, “What the fuck? No. Why would we do that? That would be an embarrassment to our program, to everything we stand for. No.”

Wouldn’t you?

“He’s not politically correct.” When did avoiding political correctness become a blanket excuse for being an asshole?

When Trump waves his arms around to make fun of a disabled man, when he suggests that Natasha Stoynoff isn’t attractive enough to assault, when he critiques Hillary Clinton’s butt in front of thousands of cheering fans, when he says that an Indiana-born Hispanic judge can’t be fair to him because “he’s a Mexican“, when he taunts a bereaved mother of a decorated Muslim-American soldier — that’s not “politically incorrect”. He’s just an asshole.

“He’s one of us.” You were born filthy rich? You attended expensive private schools? You’ve spent a bunch of your life hanging around with supermodels in Manhattan nightclubs? No? So how exactly do you feel similar to Donald Trump or imagine that he identifies with you?

Not only don’t I think Trump is “one of us” (whoever you think “we” are). I wonder if he even knows any of us, other than as flunkies he can boss around.

“But Hillary is so awful!” Really? Did you happen to watch the Benghazi hearings on TV?

This was like the eighth investigation of Benghazi, so by then every little detail had already been analyzed to death. And to hear folks like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh tell it, Hillary had practically murdered those four guys with her bare hands. So a Republican-controlled House committee finally gets Clinton right where they want her: testifying under oath on national TV, where they can finally make her answer for every horrible thing she did.

And you know what? They didn’t lay a glove on her.

That’s a typical Hillary Clinton “scandal”. Fox and Breitbart and so forth are really good at ginning up wild charges and whipping their audiences into frenzies of rage. But when someone has to back those claims up with real evidence … there never was any.

Now we’re watching the same thing happen with her emails. (Remember how we got into the emails? That was where Republicans were going to find the smoking gun that nailed her for Benghazi. Seen it yet?) Again: lots of wild charges, lots of rage. Actual wrongdoing? Not so much.

For comparison, Trump faces a real court case that he managed to put off until after the election: his Trump University fraud. (He’s going to lose that lawsuit, because he really did defraud those people.) You know whose family foundation is a seething pile of corruption? Trump’s, not Clinton’s. Whose friends in the media have been hushing up scandal? Trump’s. His wife broke those immigration laws that he supposedly cares so much about enforcing. And the guy he tapped as the head of his transition team — the guy who is going to staff the new administration, in other words — is Chris Christie. Christie staffed his own administration in New Jersey with people who just got convicted of felonies.

What else could you be thinking? I can’t guess. Maybe you’re for Trump because you like being on the same side as the KKK and Vladimir Putin. Maybe you think American politics needs more playground insults like “Lyin’ Ted” or “Crooked Hillary”. Maybe you enjoy being told that you that you didn’t just see what you saw or hear what you heard. Maybe you’re sick of political spin and would rather hear a candidate tell whopping lies instead.

I know, I’m grasping at straws here, because I really don’t understand.

Donald Trump as President of the United States? I’ve got nothing to say. Why are we even having this conversation?


[1]  To get a sense of just what a manufactured character the “Donald Trump” of The Apprentice is, listen to the men who manufactured him: the show’s editors.

Setting up story beats to justify the contestant that Trump ultimately fired required editorial gymnastics, according to the show’s editors. Manipulating footage to invent a story point that did not exist organically is common in reality TV editing, although with The Apprentice, it proved a tremendous feat.

“We’d often be shocked at whomever Trump chose to fire,” Braun explained. “Our first priority on every episode like that was to reverse-engineer the show to make it look like his judgment had some basis in reality. Sometimes it would be very hard to do, because the person he chose did nothing. We had to figure out how to edit the show to make it work, to show the people he chose to fire as looking bad — even if they had done a great job.”

[2] Though probably not as rich as he says he is. He claims to be worth $10 billion, but some estimates place his net worth at less than a billion. You have to wonder why he has systematically avoided revealing anything (like tax returns) that could give us a clearer idea of his actual wealth.

[3] For enriching other people, look at Sam Walton or Bill Gates. Lots of ordinary folks are millionaires because they got close to those guys early in their careers and then hung on to their stock options. But the most frequent story you hear from people who have worked with Trump over the years is that he cheated them somehow.

[4] Take his signature issue, immigration: Do we need a “deportation force” to round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants and force them to leave? Or do we just focus on the “bad ones”, as President Obama is already doing? Trump says different things at different times, because he’s never really thought about how any of this works.

What’s up with ObamaCare (other than premiums)?

President Obama’s legacy accomplishment has problems that can be patched up. But will they be?


In the insurance business, the big thing you worry about is a vicious cycle called a “death spiral”. It goes like this:

  1. An insurance company realizes it isn’t making enough money because it’s paying more claims than expected. In other words, the risk pool is riskier than it predicted.
  2. It tries to increase profits by raising premiums.
  3. Supply-and-demand works in the usual way, so the increased price causes fewer people to want the product. But because of the unique properties of insurance, the people who drop coverage are mostly the ones who think they are less likely to make claims; the insurance was worth it to them at the old price, but not at the new. Meanwhile, the high-risk customers, the ones who will want insurance at virtually any price, all stay.
  4. As the low-risk customers defect, the risk pool gets even riskier. So the insurance company is back at Step 1, paying too many claims to make the profit it wants.

To a certain extent this cycle happens whenever an insurance company underestimates risk or overestimates the number of people who will want its coverage. But usually the effect damps out. In other words, each time around the cycle, fewer and fewer people drop coverage at Step 3, so after some small number of price hikes, a new equilibrium is reached: The higher premium covers a smaller, riskier insurance pool while still leaving the company a profit.

But in a death spiral, the cycle never damps out and there is no new equilibrium. Or, more precisely, the equilibrium point everything trends towards is zero: No one is covered, so the zero premiums balance the zero claims.

Now let’s talk about ObamaCare: Millions of people have signed up for insurance through the ObamaCare exchanges, but not as many as expected. In particular, not as many young, relatively healthy people have signed up. So the total covered population is sicklier than the insurance companies had planned on, and they’re not making money the way they thought they would.

So Step 2 is starting to happen: Last Monday, a report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said that baseline premiums on the ObamaCare exchanges would be going up 22% on average. In addition, some insurance companies have decided to pull out of the ObamaCare marketplace in a various states, reducing competition and making it easier for the remaining insurers to raise premiums.

That raises the question: Is this a blip that will quickly settle out into a new equilibrium, or is it the start of a death spiral?

It’s hard to get good information on this, because everyone knows which answer they want: Conservatives want a death spiral, and liberals want a blip.

Underenrollment. Let’s start with numbers. Back in 2010, the Congressional Budget Office projected much higher enrollment than we’ve seen.

CBO and [the Joint Committee on Taxation] project that, under current law, 6 million people in 2014 will receive insurance coverage through the new exchanges. Over time, more people are expected to respond to the new coverage options, so enrollment is projected to increase sharply in 2015 and 2016. Starting in 2017, between 24 million and 25 million people are expected to obtain coverage each year through exchanges, and roughly 80 percent of those enrollees are expected to receive subsidies for purchasing that insurance.

That didn’t happen. 2016 enrollment through the exchanges was about half the projection, around 10.4 million, and (prior to the premium increases) the most optimistic estimates projected around 13 million for 2017.

You can argue about why. Maybe the carrots (subsidies) and sticks (the individual mandate’s tax on the uninsured) weren’t as compelling as they should have been. Or maybe the scorched-earth nature of Republican resistance made a partisan issue out of decisions that (in an alternate universe) might have seemed public-spirited. Larry Leavitt pictures that alternate universe:

Imagine a world where the ACA passed with significant bipartisan support and there was a national effort involving politicians of all stripes and figures, and athletes, all encouraging people to get insured. That is not the world we live in. It’s more like what happened in Massachusetts [with RomneyCare].

Instead, we saw something altogether unprecedented in American history: a well-funded ad campaign trying to convince people to avoid a government program that had already been enacted into law. Who can forget the Koch Brothers’ creepy Uncle Sam who was going to “play doctor” with you?

For comparison, try to imagine it’s 1942 and some anti-war billionaires blanket the country with creepy Uncle Sam posters to convince people not to buy war bonds, or it’s 1966 and ads interrupt The Beverly Hillbillies to scare seniors out of signing up for Medicare. Nothing remotely like that happened or could have happened under the political culture of those eras. But it did for us.

Premiums. One important thing to realize about ObamaCare premiums is that up until now they’ve been running under the original projections.

There are a variety reasons for that: In part, it’s that healthcare inflation in general has been lower since the Affordable Care Act started coming into effect.

But a piece of it is also that insurance companies lowballed their initial offers, hoping that once people had health insurance they’d be reluctant to give it up or switch companies. The LAT’s Michael Hiltzik reports:

Some big insurers have found that their initial estimates of customer costs were unduly optimistic. They set premiums lower than they should have, sometimes to buy market share, and incurred losses as a result. Rate-increase requests in the double-digit range for 2017 are the harvest

So what looks like a malfunction in the program might just be premiums getting back to the level they should have been at to begin with.

Subsidies. One reason to think that the premium increases won’t start a death spiral is that most of the people who use the federal exchanges get some amount of subsidy. As their premiums go up, their subsidies do as well. So the sticker shock is diminished.

The people to watch are the ones whose incomes are too high to qualify for subsidies. According to Leavitt, that’s about 15% of the people who use the federal exchanges, but also almost seven million other people whose premiums are based on the rates on the federal exchanges (and whose business the insurance companies are figuring in when they set their premiums). If those people start cancelling their policies, then we could be back in the death-spiral scenario. But if they decide that they like having health insurance and are willing to pay the higher premium to keep it, then everything should be fine.

Fixes. Even if the vicious cycle starts, there are fairly simple ways to stop it — if that’s what everyone wants to do. Basically, the problem, if there turns out to be one, is that the incentives aren’t right yet: The subsidies need to be higher or extend to people with somewhat higher incomes. Or the individual-mandate penalty on the uninsured (the one you would pay when you file your 1040 income tax form) needs to be higher.

Other things could be done to lower insurer costs: The sign-up periods might be tighter and more strictly enforced, to prevent people from abusing the system by waiting until they get sick to get covered. Price controls could prevent profiteering by big pharmaceutical or medical-device companies. The bundle of services that need to be included in an ObamaCare policy could shrink.

Or you could change the market in other ways: In parts of the country (like Arizona) where premiums are rising faster because fewer companies compete, adding a public option (i.e., something like letting you buy into Medicare even if you’re not 65 yet) would increase competition.

Or if you want to go whole hog, the entire health-insurance system could be replaced by some kind of single-payer system, as Bernie Sanders campaigned on, and as gets better outcomes for less expense in just about any other advanced country.

The problem is getting any of that through Congress. So far, Republicans have refused to cooperate in making any mid-course adjustments to ObamaCare, in hopes that it will crash. This also is brand new in American politics. Previous programs like Social Security, Medicare, and even the prescription-drug benefit that President Bush added to Medicare in 2003 all have required tweaks as they got up and running. Once a program had been passed into law, Congress typically has accepted it and tried to make it work. But scorched-earth opposition to ObamaCare continues six years after the law passed: The only change Republicans are willing to consider is repeal.

We can’t go back. In the same way that President Obama’s economic critics often conveniently forget how the economy was collapsing when he took office, critics of ObamaCare forget how the old healthcare system was collapsing under the middle class. The poor could get Medicaid, but health insurance was increasingly out of reach for people who weren’t covered through their employers, and employers faced rising pressure to wriggle out of rapidly increasing premiums.

As a result, the number of Americans with no health insurance at all was approaching 50 million. Millions more Americans had “junk insurance” — low-maximum-benefit policies that would quickly be exhausted by any major illness, or short-term policies the insurer could refuse to renew if you got seriously ill. (Many of the much-publicized horror stories about premiums that skyrocketed when ObamaCare took effect were from people who previously had junk insurance. They didn’t pay much, but they would still face bankruptcy if they got seriously ill.) No one knows how many people were trapped in jobs they couldn’t leave because their pre-existing conditions would prevent them from qualifying for health insurance with a new employer.

In 2009, Time correspondent Karen Tumulty drew the lesson from her brother’s inability to pay for his medical care, even though he had insurance when he got sick.

What makes these cases terrifying, in addition to heartbreaking, is that they reveal the hard truth about this country’s health-care system: just about anyone could be one bad diagnosis away from financial ruin.

As the so-called “gig economy” grows, the lifetime-employment ideal of the 20th century is realized for fewer and fewer people, exposing more and more people to gaps in their healthcare coverage that they may not be able to fill due to pre-existing conditions. So going back to the system that was already starting to fail in 2010 would be trading a fixable death spiral for an inescapable one.

Replace? “Repeal and replace” has been the Republican slogan since 2010, but the “replace” part never materializes. Some vague ideas are thrown around: insurance competition across state lines, health savings accounts, and so on. But the discussion always stops short of an actual bill that the CBO could analyze and members of Congress could be asked to support or oppose.

Most likely that’s because the numbers don’t work, either in an accounting sense or a political one. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell know they can’t assemble their fractious troops behind any specific proposal. And if they did, the resulting plan would vastly increase the number of uninsured people, while leaving those with insurance vulnerable to losing it if they get sick or change jobs.

The basic vision of ObamaCare — private health insurance made universal through a system of government mandates and subsidies — was created by conservatives who wanted an alternative to a single-payer system. More than 20 years later, those are still the only two viable ideas out there. If you really want to replace ObamaCare, single-payer is your only choice. If that’s not what you want, then you should help fix ObamaCare.

Why so frustrated, America?

Divided government and partisan polarization have us stuck in a status quo that no one wants. Maybe we need fewer principled stands and more compromises.


For decades, Gallup has been asking people how satisfied they are with “the way things are going in the United States”. As you can see from the graph, results vary. Painting in broad strokes, most people were dissatisfied under President Carter, the country got increasingly more optimistic under Reagan, got discouraged again by Bush the First, were pretty happy by the final days of the Clinton administration, stayed happy for a while, and then became almost unanimously negative by the end of Bush the Second’s administration. Then the graph flattens out: There was an initial bump towards optimism when President Obama took office, but since then satisfaction has been running somewhere in the 20s. [1]

The last time a majority told Gallup they were satisfied was more than 12 years ago, around the time that we captured Saddam Hussein and thought the Iraq War might be over soon.

Ordinarily, you’d expect this level of dissatisfaction to lead to a series of throw-the-bums-out elections, but it hasn’t. Obama won a second term by nearly 5 million votes in 2012. Year after year in Congress, over 90% of incumbents get re-elected. President Obama’s approval rating is over 50%, and the candidate promising to continue most of his policies is far ahead in the polls. A handful of incumbent Republican senators are in trouble, but once again the majority of incumbents in both parties will return to Washington with the apparent mandate of their voters.

So we think things are screwed up, but we don’t seem to be taking it out on anybody in particular. Why not?

Neither party claims the status-quo. In a typical election year, the party in power tells us that things are going pretty well, while the party out of power says that things are bad and we need a change. So there’s a status-quo party and a change party.

The first step towards unraveling our current political mystery is to realize that neither party thinks it represents the status quo. Obama in 2012 didn’t run a stay-the-course campaign, and neither has Clinton in 2016. [2] Neither party’s congressional candidates are telling us that Congress is doing fine, so we should leave them in office to do more of it.

Both major-party presidential candidates talk extensively about the changes they want to make. Trump wants to scrap our trade deals, build a wall on the Mexican border, stop admitting immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries, cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy, reduce commitments to our NATO allies, get friendlier with Russia, repeal ObamaCare, repeal the Dodd-Frank rules on Wall Street, and reverse all of President Obama’s executive orders on climate change.

Clinton wants to raise the minimum wage, substantially increase spending on infrastructure, give undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, let students graduate from college debt-free, put more restrictions on Wall Street, increase taxes on the wealthy, reverse the Citizens United ruling, end mass incarceration of non-whites, expand and repair ObamaCare, and invest in sustainable energy sources.

So the paradox isn’t that a status-quo-hating electorate keeps voting for the status-quo party and rejecting the change party. It’s that we have two would-be change parties dominating different parts of a divided government. Neither can achieve its vision alone, but they also can’t work together on more-or-less anything. So on issue after issue, the country is stuck in a place that no one likes, but neither side can muster the power to move it somewhere else.

Let’s look at some examples.

No one wants millions of people to keep living in the United States without legal status. The usual estimate says there are about 11 million undocumented immigrants. They have to work under the table, possibly for less than minimum wage or in unsafe or unsanitary conditions — which drags down conditions for any legal worker who competes with them. They are afraid to call the cops if they witness or are the victims of a crime. They are afraid to go to the emergency room if they’re sick, so God help us if there’s an epidemic. They may or may not dare to send their kids to school.

This is a bad situation that neither party likes, but they can’t agree on what to do about it. Throw them all out? Legalize them? Just throw out the “bad hombres”? If you legalize them, can they become citizens or just residents? Will legalization encourage more people to come, or can we prevent that somehow?

Three years ago the Senate, after much wrangling, negotiated a bipartisan compromise and passed it 68-32. And that was the last official action taken. The House has not even held hearings on that bill or any alternative. No one has any idea when or how we might resolve this situation.

No one wants to keep anticipating the next government shutdown. Back in 1974, Congress laid out a sensible budget process that used to produce a product more-or-less on time every year.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Each year the executive branch puts together a budget, which the president submits to Congress by February. Congress then either edits or rewrites it and passes a budget resolution by April 15. The various congressional committees then know how much money they have to work with, so they write 12 separate appropriation bills that spell out the programs in more detail and authorize the Treasury to write checks. Congress passes those bills, maybe with some amendments. The President either signs or vetoes them; if he vetoes, he and the congressional leadership work out their differences promptly, so that all 12 bills get passed and signed in plenty of time for the fiscal year to start on October 1.

There hasn’t been a successful budget process in years. In 2013, the government shut down for a little over two weeks, and we’ve had “fiscal cliffs” and a series of other scary deadlines that usually get met with only hours to spare.

This year’s struggle was comparatively tame: Authorization to keep the lights on past October 1 got passed on September 29. But that wasn’t an annual budget; it just keeps things going until December, when the lame-duck Congress can do it all again.

Nothing is gained by this brinksmanship. Whatever numbers and programs come out of the December negotiations — assuming something does come out of it — could have been agreed to by the end of summer.

No one wants a perpetual budget deficit. Most economists understand that a budget deficit can be useful in shortening a recession or necessary when fighting a war. But no one believes that a large annual deficit should be a permanent feature of the federal budget.

The federal government’s trillion-dollar annual deficits between FY 2009 and FY 2012 were worrying, but maybe not unreasonable as long as they were temporary. By FY2015, the shortfall was down to $438 billion — a number that used to seem stratospheric, but by then looked like progress. But FY2016’s deficit increased to $587 billion and seems to be headed back up. CBO projections have it returning to the trillion-a-year altitude by FY2022. That’s the baseline, and doesn’t assume any extraordinary emergencies. If there’s another major recession or war, the numbers could be much higher.

No one argues that this is a good idea, but (like the mule who starves because he can’t decide which pile of hay to head towards) we are caught between two solutions and end up pursuing neither: Conservatives won’t agree to higher taxes, and liberals won’t agree to spending cuts without higher taxes. So nothing happens, and the deficits continue to build.

No one thinks Medicare is in good financial shape or wants it to go bankrupt. Healthcare inflation has been lower since the Affordable Care Act passed, but Medicare is still expected to run out of money in 2028, when I’ll turn 72. (The Social Security trust fund is expected to hit zero in 2034, but for a variety of reasons that fix should be easier.)

Medicare is an enormously popular program, because no one wants to see themselves or their parents face a choice between death and bankruptcy. And there are many ways to keep it going well past 2028: raise taxes, cut benefits, raise the age of eligibility, or fold it into a larger universal healthcare program with a new funding stream. But we can’t decide which way to go, so the bankruptcy clock continues to tick down.

No one wants to leave Supreme Court seats vacant. The Constitution describes a simple process: the President

shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for

Justice Scalia died in February, and his seat is still unfilled. President Obama nominated Merrick Garland in March. But the Senate has not seen fit to hold hearings or votes on his nomination, so no one has had to explain to the public why Garland should or shouldn’t be on the Supreme Court.

Senator McCain recently said that the Senate might continue refusing to fill the seat after the election, if Clinton wins. If Trump were to win and Democrats regained control of the Senate, they might feel that turnabout is fair play. So there’s no telling when that seat might be filled, or what will happen if some other justice dies or retires.

Without a new justice, the Court often has a 4-4 deadlock, which leaves lower court rulings intact but does not establish any new national precedents. The longer this goes on, the more issues there are on which the country has no official interpretation of its laws.

You may blame the Senate for not acting, blame President Obama for not nominating someone Senate Republicans like better, or blame both of them for letting their relationship reach this low point. But you can’t argue that this is a good practice or a good outcome.

I could go on, but I think you get the idea well enough to find your own examples.

How did the Republic last this long? When the Founders wrote the Constitution, they were mostly worried about tyranny, so they created a system of checks and balances that kept any one person from having too much power. To get anything done in the Founders’ system, a political leader either needs overwhelming support from the public or has to cooperate with leaders of other parties or factions.

As a result, backdoor deal-making and horse-trading goes back to the beginning of the Republic, as the Hamilton musical makes clear

No one really knows how the game is played,
the art of the trade,
how the sausage gets made.
We just assume that it happens,
but no one else is in the room where it happens.

Hamilton comes out of that room with the votes for his financial plan, and Jefferson gets the national capital located next to Virginia.

We’ve made deals like that all through our history. Henry Clay was known as “the Great Compromiser” for the ways that he kept the slavery issue from wrecking the country. (In retrospect, he delayed the Civil War by several decades.) Think about that: These days it’s an insult to call someone a “compromiser”. We’re all supposed to be people of firm principles, not compromisers — much less “great” ones.

President Eisenhower and Majority Leader Johnson

President Eisenhower and Majority Leader Johnson

When FDR was preparing the country to enter World War II, he didn’t try to run over Republican opposition, he appointed Republicans to be his War Secretary and Navy Secretary — and they accepted.

We’ve had a number of periods of divided government before, and presidents of both parties have worked amicably with congressional opposition leaders, like President Eisenhower with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, and President Reagan with Tip O’Neill [3]. The historic Clean Air Act of 1970 came out of President Nixon’s cooperation with an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.

Traitors and the principle budget. The last such bipartisan pairing was President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich, who managed to shrink the deficit to the point that Clinton could claim a surplus after Gingrich left office. Clinton ended his term not just with a budget surplus, but with low inflation, low unemployment, and the nation at relative peace.

President Bush and Speaker Pelosi never developed such a relationship. Neither did President Obama and Speaker Boehner or Speaker Ryan.

One reason Clinton/Gingrich was the last bipartisan power-pairing is that Clinton is remembered in some circles as having betrayed the Left. Betrayal is a word you hear a lot in our politics these days. Paul Ryan “betrays” conservatism every time he avoids a government shutdown. Bernie Sanders “betrayed” his movement by endorsing Hillary.

Principled, on the other hand, is an entirely good word. We all want to be principled. We admire the man or woman who takes a strong principled stand and refuses to be moved. If we have a choice between framing our positions as good ideas and framing them as principles of the highest order, we choose the later. It just feels stronger and purer.

Here’s the thing, though: We can’t afford too many principled stands. Our system of government isn’t set up that way. It’s set up for people who will take half a loaf and keep the process moving. In our history, we have had one period where principle won out over all other considerations: the Civil War. It was, by many descriptions, a glorious time during which giants walked the Earth. But it was also the fucking Civil War. It was the bloodiest, most destructive period in our history, and the Republic would not have survived if we’d tried something like that more often.

So I want to throw out a radical idea: Rather than trying to found our entire platform on unshakeable principles, we should be giving ourselves a principle budget: Is this the issue we want to be principled about? Is this short list of issues the hill we’re prepared to die on?

By all means, we should have principles and try to do right by them. But at some point we all need to accept a mixture of the things we want and the things our opponents want. The alternative is to wind up with things that nobody wants.


[1] Real Clear Politics averages a lot of polls asking similar questions, and shows a similar result: All through the Obama years, the “on the right track” number has struggled to stay above 30%.

[2] Most of us don’t even remember what a stay-the-course campaign sounds like. But examine some past presidential re-election slogans. War-time presidents Lincoln in 1864 and Roosevelt in 1944 ran on “Don’t swap horses in midstream”. In 1956, Eisenhower edited his 1952 slogan: “I still like Ike.” Reagan in 1984 optimistically claimed “It’s morning again in America”. “Stay the course” was not literally a Nixon slogan in 1972, but he said it a lot. His actual slogan was “Now more then ever”.

But my favorite has to be McKinley in 1900, who ran for re-election under the unbelievably modest: “Leave well enough alone.”

[3] O’Neill’s son wrote in 2012:

No, my father and Reagan weren’t close friends. Famously, after 6 p.m. on quite a few work days, they would sit down for drinks at the White House. But it wasn’t the drinks or the conversation that allowed American government to work. Instead, it was a stubborn refusal not to allow fund-raisers, activists, party platforms or ideological chasms to stand between them and actions — tempered and improved by compromise — that kept this country moving.

A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault

“It’s only been a week,” Liz Plank tweeted. “But we’ve all aged a year.”

Despite how ugly it’s been, though, the last ten days of the presidential campaign does have one redeeming feature: Sexual assault is being discussed in a setting where the whole country is listening.

I’m not naive enough to think that everyone is going to “get it” now and take a more enlightened attitude. (As someone once told me, “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you.”) But men who are open to understanding the topic better might be paying attention now. Women who had repressed thinking about it, or comparing experiences with other women, might now be having those thoughts and conversations. Teens and even younger boys and girls might be learning that things they had come to accept as normal, or even OK, are really not.

I believe the country as a whole is getting a powerful lesson about four things:

  • how ubiquitous sexual assault is,
  • the myths so many of us believe about it,
  • why women often don’t tell anyone about it,
  • the tactics men use to get away with it.

#notokay. Twitter is famous for insults and snark, but the most powerful hashtags are the ones that gather testimony. Shortly after Trump’s Access Hollywood tape came out, author Kelly Oxford tweeted:

Women: tweet me your first assaults. they aren’t just stats. I’ll go first: Old man on city bus grabs my “pussy” and smiles at me, I’m 12.

Last I checked, that had been re-tweeted more than 13 thousand times. Oxford reported that over the next weekend tweets came in at the rate of 50 per minute. On October 9, her Twitter feed got more than 20 million views.

Eventually she created the hashtag #notokay to move the discussion off her personal feed and open it to more than just first-assault stories.

This is something that pre-internet journalism couldn’t do. A 20th-century reporter could uncover one paradigmic story, or at most a handful of them, and tell those stories in a way that invited readers to identify or empathize, maybe adding a statistical claim that X% of women have had similar experiences. But there was no way to capture the sheer avalanche of testimony. Scrolling down the responses to Oxford’s original tweet, I was struck by their unity-in-diversity. The settings are infinitely varied: a bus, up against a door at granny’s, a couch at home, a bedroom at an aunt’s house, a Halloween party, a friend’s apartment, at work, at the supermarket. The perpetrators are strangers, neighbors, colleagues, bosses, cousins, uncles, teachers. Each tweet has its own unique details, yet pounds the same theme like a hammer.

And the hammer doesn’t stop. A TV news segment or a newspaper feature has to end, so you can leave with a feeling of being done. But a viral tweet defeats you; at some point you just decide to quit reading, knowing that there’s more and will always be more.

Liz Plank took that insight one step further and raised this question:

Trying to find ONE woman who has never experienced a man sexually touching her without their consent.

Scrolling through that hashtag, I still haven’t found the “I’m the one” tweet.

Myths. The typical folk explanation of sexual assault is simple: A man’s libido overcomes his impulse control. From there it’s a short trip to a long list of standard excuses and explanations:

  • virility. I just have such a strong sex drive, sometimes I’m overwhelmed by it.
  • it’s a compliment. You’re just so sexy, how could I stop myself?
  • it’s your fault. Your skirt is so short; your jeans are so tight; your neckline is so low. When you just put it all out there like that, what do you think is going to happen?
  • it’s inevitable. Boys will be boys. You can’t expect us to control ourselves all the time. (Or, as Trump put it on Twitter: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military – only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”)

and so on.

This is worse than just “objectification” of women, because we would never tolerate similar thinking about actual objects: If your drive for acquisition overcomes your impulse control, you’re a thief, period. The strength of your greed does you no credit; you’re not complimenting the wealth of the people you steal from; it’s not their fault for having such nice stuff or displaying it so attractively; and we don’t give in to the inevitability of theft whenever valuable objects are visible to people who might desire them. When it comes to object-lust, self-control is the price of staying in civilization; if you can’t muster it, we’ll lock you away.

But beyond moral considerations, that libido vs. control frame loses its explanatory power when you pay attention to women’s stories, or to the complexity of the male psyche. All women (or very nearly all) get victimized, not just the sexy, popular, or flirtatious ones. Sometimes it’s specifically the unpopular women, the ones no one is looking out for, who get assaulted. Sometimes it’s girls too young to understand what they’re supposedly “asking for”. Sometimes men are seeking dominance rather than pleasure. Sometimes it’s about asserting control over a woman whose self-assurance seems threatening. Sometimes it’s part of a man’s internal process that has nothing to do with the victim at all: Maybe assaulting a stranger is a man’s way of taking revenge on his spouse, or on the women who won’t go out with him. Maybe he’s been humiliated by his boss and wants to humiliate someone else to feel less helpless.

Another myth is that all men do it, or would if they were brave enough. At the very least, they wish they could do it and envy the men who do; so when they get together and trade “locker room talk”, they brag about real or imagined assaults the way Trump did with Billy Bush.

I remember believing something similar in junior high. (Maybe the worst thing Trump has done to me personally is make me remember junior high.) To see up a girl’s skirt or down her blouse, or to touch her somewhere we weren’t supposed to — it was a game: They defended the “goal” while we tried to “score”. To put it in a childish terms, it was like Yogi Bear trying to steal picnic baskets while the ranger tried to stop him. But imagine being an older Yogi, looking back at what once had seemed like youthful highjinks and realizing: “Oh my God, I was a bear. People must have been terrified.”

The earlier we can get that message to boys and young men, the better. And in some cases we are.

One afternoon, while reporting for a book on girls’ sexual experience, I sat in on a health class at a progressive Bay Area high school. Toward the end of the session, a blond boy wearing a school athletic jersey raised his hand. “You know that baseball metaphor for sex?” he asked. “Well, in baseball there’s a winner and a loser. So who is supposed to be the ‘loser’ in sex?”

Fortunately, this week many admired and imitated athletes came forward to say that the Trump/Bush conversation is not normal locker-room banter. Like LeBron James:

What is locker room talk to me? It’s not what that guy said. We don’t disrespect women in no shape or fashion in our locker room. That never comes up. Obviously, I got a mother-in-law, a wife, a mom and a daughter and those conversations just don’t go on in our locker room. What that guy was saying, I don’t know what that is. That’s trash talk.

Even Trump’s friend Tom Brady walked away from a microphone rather than defend him on this.

Why don’t they tell? One of Trump’s main defenses against his accusers has been: Why didn’t they say anything at the time? If these incidents have been happening for decades, why is this all coming out only now, just a few weeks before the election?

In particular, he wondered about People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff whose account of being shoved up against a wall and forcibly kissed by Trump while she was at Mar-a-Lago to interview Donald and Melania about their first anniversary seemed (to me) particularly compelling. He challenged her at a rally Thursday in Ohio:

I ask her a simple question. Why wasn’t it part of the story that appeared 12 years ago? Why didn’t they make it part of the story … if she had added that, it would have been the headline.

Picture what Trump is assuming: If Stoynoff had made such a claim against Trump, with no witnesses or physical evidence, her editors would have simply believed her, and would have been willing to put their magazine behind her in a battle against a famously litigious billionaire. Weigh the likelihood of that scenario against the explanation Stoynoff had already published before Trump spoke:

Back in my Manhattan office the next day, I went to a colleague and told her everything.

“We need to go to the managing editor,” she said, “And we should kill this story, it’s a lie. Tell me what you want to do.”

But, like many women, I was ashamed and blamed myself for his transgression. I minimized it (“It’s not like he raped me…”); I doubted my recollection and my reaction. I was afraid that a famous, powerful, wealthy man could and would discredit and destroy me, especially if I got his coveted PEOPLE feature killed.

“I just want to forget it ever happened,” I insisted. The happy anniversary story hit newsstands a week later and Donald left me a voicemail at work, thanking me.

“I think you’re terrific,” he said. “The article was great and you’re great.”

Yeah, I thought. I’m great because I kept my mouth shut.

Notice that the idea of making the assault part of the story never comes up; it’s not even suggested by Stoynoff’s colleague.

Liz Plank created the hashtag #WhyWomenDontReport, which is another assemblage of testimony like this:

Because I was a medical student and he was the attending surgeon

Because he was my landlord. Because I was 21 and feared homelessness. Because my father told me to figure it out myself.

Because it was easier to pretend it didn’t happen than to face the police, the courts and my perpertrator.

But maybe the best explanation of why women don’t report sexual assault is watching Trump trash the ones who reported on him, which Plank wrote about in “Donald Trump is giving us a master class in #WhyWomenDontReport“.

While I was on set Wednesday night with Chris Hayes, [Trump spokesperson A.J. Delgado] said, “If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.”

Any reasonable woman?

Was it reasonable for Jessica Leeds to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Lou Dobbs tweet her personal phone number and address, exposing her private information to his hundreds of thousands of followers? Was it reasonable for Natasha Stoynoff to come forward about her sexual assault only to have Donald Trump suggest she was too ugly for him to be interested in sexually assault her?

Trump said his accusers are “doing [it] probably for a little fame. They get some free fame. It’s a total set-up.” But who exactly wants this kind of fame? Are any women out there watching Jessica Leeds or Natasha Stoynoff and thinking “I wish people would pay attention to me like that”?

And that brings us to men’s tactics.

Tactics. Between the debate Sunday and the first wave of new accusers coming forward Wednesday, Liz Plank used Trump’s debate performance as an example of the tactics of abusive men. She listed

  1. Humiliation. Trump’s pre-debate press conference with women who have accused Bill Clinton wasn’t about seeking justice for them. It was about humiliating Hillary Clinton.
  2. Deflection. Trump minimized his behavior as “locker room talk”, and quickly segued to “ISIS chopping off heads”.
  3. Intimidation. He threatened to put Clinton in jail, and loomed behind her “in a way that almost made me feel unsafe for her”.
  4. Gaslighting. In other words: creating an entire alternate reality to make victims question their own perceptions and memories. For example, Trump asserted that it was Clinton, not him, who owes President Obama an apology for the birther movement. “So if you feel like you’re going insane during this election, that’s Donald Trump gas lighting you over and over and over.”

What we’ve seen since just bears this out. He’s been heaping humiliation on the women who have accused him. (They’re “horrible, horrible liars” who he obviously couldn’t have assaulted because they aren’t attractive enough.) He’s been deflecting his own guilt onto Bill Clinton (whose accusers should be believed even though Trump’s shouldn’t). He’s threatened completely ridiculous lawsuits against The New York Times and People for publishing women’s accounts of his misconduct. And (completely without evidence) he has gaslighted the nation by putting forward a theory that makes him the victim of a conspiracy involving the global financial elite and the entire corporate media. (He’s not a sleazeball who abuses women, he’s a messianic hero who suffers these outrageous attacks in order to save the common people. He’s not blowing an election Republicans might have won, he’s going to be defrauded at the polls.)

But the important thing to remember for the future is that this is not an isolated incident and Trump is not a unique character. Lots and lots of men do this kind of thing. They do it to anybody. They do it because they can. They have a standard list of excuses for doing it. They have tactics for getting women to shut up about it and men not to believe the women who don’t shut up.

The thing to remember the next time you hear something like this is that you’ve heard it before. It’s all part of the pattern.