Category Archives: Articles

About the Foundation

Somehow, we have a pay-for-play scandal without either pay or play.


[You can think of this article as a sequel to “About Those Emails“.]

Most of the articles about the possible conflicts-of-interest involving Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation dive right in to some set of details: Somebody wrote an email to somebody else, and then something did (or did not) happen, maybe (or maybe not) because of some other consideration.

But before we go there, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and observe how bizarre this whole controversy is: It’s being billed as a pay-for-play scandal, but two essential items are missing:

  • pay: No one has yet postulated any credible mechanism by which money from the Clinton Foundation gets back to the Clintons. A considerable sum ($4.3 million, according to The Washington Post) has flowed from the Clintons to the Foundation, but nothing in the other direction.
  • play: There are no specific examples of a Foundation donor receiving some inappropriate government concession [1], and no examples of someone who was denied something, then contributed to the Foundation and got it.

None of the Clintons — not even Chelsea — draws a salary from the Foundation or gets reimbursed for expenses. The Foundation doesn’t own mansions the Clintons live in or fleets of cars or planes to take them places. It doesn’t fund their political campaigns or buy their books or pay them speaking fees. It just does charitable work, spending a remarkable 88% of its money on programs and only 12% on overhead.

So trying to bribe Hillary Clinton by giving money to the Clinton Foundation is a lot like trying to bribe the mayor of your town by giving money to the local United Way drive, or to the hospital that has a wing named for his family. You can hope that the mayor hears about your donation and thinks good thoughts about you, but you’re not paying him off in any meaningful sense.

On the “play” side of the so-called scandal, two recent developments have been presented by the media as raising suspicions, when it’s not clear why they should: State Department emails released by a conservative organization, and an analysis of Hillary Clinton’s schedule as Secretary of State by the Associated Press.

Paul Waldman of the WaPo’s Plum Line blog summarizes what we learned from the emails:

Judicial Watch, an organization that has been pursuing Clinton for many years, has released a trove of emails it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, emails that supposedly show how donors to the Clinton Foundation got special access, and presumably special favors, from Clinton while she was at State.

The only problem is that the emails in question reveal nothing of the sort. What they actually reveal is that a few foundation donors wanted access, but didn’t actually get it.

Judicial Watch presumably highlighted the worst examples it could find, and came up with these (summarized  by Waldman):

  • A sports executive who had donated to the foundation wanted to arrange for a visa for a British soccer player to visit the United States; he was having trouble getting one because of a criminal conviction. [Top Clinton assistant Huma] Abedin said she’d look into it, but there’s no evidence she did anything and the player didn’t get his visa.
  • Bono, who had donated to the foundation, wanted to have some kind of arrangement whereby upcoming U2 concerts would be broadcast to the International Space Station. Abedin was puzzled by this request, and nothing was ever done about it.
  • The Crown Prince of Bahrain, whose country had donated to the foundation, wanted to meet with Clinton on a visit to Washington. Abedin responded to Band that the Bahrainis had already made that request through normal diplomatic channels. The two did end up meeting.

Unless you find it unusual or inappropriate for a Secretary of State to meet with the crown prince of an important ally in the Middle East, there’s literally nothing to see here.

Then we get to the AP article.

At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.

That sounds really damning. I mean, 85 out of 154 is more than half. But there’s a problem with AP’s whole project. By limiting themselves to counting “people from private interests”, AP right at the start eliminates the vast majority of Clinton’s meetings, which are necessarily with people in the U.S. government or foreign governments. If you look at her whole schedule, those 85 donors are not 85 out of 154, they’re 85 out of well over a thousand.

And who are they? As Matt Yglesias points out, all the specific examples AP comes up with seem to be people the Secretary of State ought to be meeting with: Nobel Prize winners, people running charitable operations in foreign countries, and so on. Yglesias acknowledges the potential for sinister conflicts of interest when the State Department dealt with Clinton Foundation donors, but says the real story is that a major news organization invested a lot of time in this story and didn’t find anything.

Conceivably, there still might be a scandal here, among the people Clinton didn’t meet with: You could imagine equally deserving people who didn’t get through the door because they weren’t Foundation donors. But again, AP does not produce examples. If they looked for such people, they appear not to have found any.

There’s just nothing here. That’s the story. [AP reporters] Braun and Sullivan looked into it, and as best they can tell, she’s clean.

… The real news here ought to be just the opposite [of a scandal]: Donors to the Clinton Foundation may believe they are buying Hillary Clinton’s political allegiance, but the reality is that they are not. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is someone, somewhere whom Clinton met with whom she wouldn’t have met with had that person not been a Clinton donor of some kind. But what we know is that despite very intensive media scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation, we don’t have hard evidence of any kind of corrupt activity. That’s the story.

So let’s summarize: While Hillary was Secretary of State, rich and influential people gave money to the Clinton Foundation. That money went off to plant trees in Malawi or install solar panels in Haiti or construct playgrounds in Los Angeles, and in no way made it back to Bill, Hillary, or Chelsea Clinton. In exchange for your contribution, you could call up Huma Abedin and ask for the State Department to do you a favor, but as best anybody can tell, unless you had that service coming anyway you wouldn’t get it. Or you could ask to meet with Secretary Clinton, but unless you had legitimate State Department business to discuss with her, you wouldn’t get in.

That’s the pay-for-play scandal.


[1] The example that sticks in everybody’s mind is the one involving Russian interests buying Canadian uranium mines. For complicated reasons, the U.S. State Department had to sign off on that deal, along with nine other government agencies that weren’t under Clinton’s control. People interested in the sale donated large sums to the Clinton Foundation — mostly well before the sale was negotiated — and the sale went through.

That sequence of events sounded suspicious when Peter Schweizer called attention to it in his book Clinton Cash,  and over the last year and a half a lot of effort has gone into trying to make something out of it. But no one has been able to add anything substantive to the story; the juiciest details in the book turned out not to be true, and the author eventually admitted that he had no direct evidence of wrongdoing. Paul Waldman summarizes everything that was known about this as of April, 2015, and PolitiFact discussed it this June. I don’t know of any developments since.

Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 1970s and early 80s, doesn’t make headlines all that often. It’s been a top academic institution for more than a century, but hasn’t had a great sports team since Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was pushed out the door in 1932. The most famous thing that ever happened there — Enrico Fermi’s self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction in December, 1942 — was secret at the time. [1] And despite the occasional law lecturer like Barack Obama or econ professor like Milton Friedman who wanders into the public eye, the bulk of Chicago’s faculty does research far too esoteric to draw any reaction from the mass culture.

But like a disguised celebrity who succeeds in attending a public event without being recognized, the U of C community takes a perverse sort of pride in its relative obscurity: History will notice us, so CNN doesn’t have to.

Nonetheless, the University caused a buzz this week because of an unusual welcome letter the Dean of Students sent to the incoming freshman class. The letter made the Chicago experience sound more like boot camp than a nurturing environment where young people can find themselves and achieve intellectual maturity. The Dean warned his new flock that the rigorous academic debate they will hear “may challenge you and even cause discomfort”, and that the U of C

does not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not approve the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter received a wave of acclaim from the sorts of elders who think the younger generation has gone soft, [2] or who wring their hands and clutch their pearls about “political correctness”. Like much of the discussion of political correctness, the Dean’s letter struck me as disingenuous. Academic freedom is not the simple issue Dean Ellison is making it out to be, and he is not necessarily on the side of the angels.

To begin with, he pulls together two issues — trigger warnings and controversies over invited speakers — that are related only through the false frame he has constructed for them. In neither case is the alleged over-sensitivity of today’s students the real issue. Most of the commentary on this has focused on trigger warnings (and I’ll get to that), but I think I’ll start with controversial speakers, because I have some history there.

Controversial speakers. The Dean’s statement that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” took me back to the only protest I participated in during my years at Chicago: In 1979 a substantial segment of the student body was outraged when the University decided to give a prestigious award (for “outstanding contributions to international understanding”) to Robert McNamara, one of the con-men who had sold the American public the idea that we were winning the Vietnam War. The anti-McNamara demonstration was a true 60s flashback; Chicago cops dragged people away by their throats and everything. (I was on the sidelines and escaped unharmed.)

Nearly four decades later, I remain convinced that we were right and the University was wrong. By mingling Chicago’s prestige with McNamara’s toxic legacy, the administration was failing in its duty to protect the University’s reputation. And this absolutely was the student’s business, since we were working and paying to attach that reputation to our names.

That’s typical of the “controversial speaker” flaps that are still happening today. They’re not about limiting free speech or protecting over-sensitive students from upsetting ideas. They’re about administrators misusing (and hence endangering) their universities’ prestige.

So, for example, when faculty and student protests got former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to back out of speaking at the 2014 Rutgers commencement, the issue wasn’t that a conservative speaker might say something liberal students would find upsetting. The issue was that “commencement speaker” is a position of honor; a university implicitly presents the speaker as a role model for its graduates. Many in the Rutgers community found it inappropriate to honor someone who promoted the deceptions that started the disastrous Iraq War and collaborated in the Bush administration’s torture regime. Rather than expecting honors from universities like Rutgers, Secretary Rice should be happy that she’s not on trial at The Hague.

Appropriate gatekeeping. A university is not and should not be a podium from which all ideas are proclaimed equally. When a university presents speakers in some official context — at commencement, in named lectures, as course presenters, and elsewhere — it legitimizes their message. The university doesn’t necessarily endorse that message as truth, but it does say that the speaker deserves attention and presents a point of view that an educated person should be familiar with.

So while, for example, it could be entirely appropriate for a political science department to host Ben Carson so that he could discuss his experiences running for office, it would be malpractice for a history department to invite him to present his belief that the Biblical Joseph built Egypt’s pyramids to store grain. There are many academically legitimate theories about the pyramids, but that is not one of them.

The Tattooed Professor offers an edgier example:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

Especially in the internet era, when any kind of wild notion can gain a wide audience and corporate money can create an imposing facade of intellectual authority, this gatekeeping role is an important part of a university’s mission. For example, universities should promote a well-informed and wide-ranging debate about President Obama’s anti-terrorism policies, but not about whether he is secretly a Muslim in league with our enemies. A university that legitimizes baseless conspiracy theories diverts attention from topics that need and deserve it.

The major threat to universities’ ability to perform this function honestly comes not from students below, but from administrators above. Like political candidates, universities face a constant temptation to bend to the will of their funders, and the Koch Brothers and other billionaires are working hard to buy academic legitimacy for ideas that could not compete on their intellectual merit. Like big-name journalists, university presidents can also be corrupted by their exposure to power; once you get accepted into the social world of cabinet secretaries and corporate CEOs, their point of view takes on an authority it does not deserve.

Student protest is a counterweight to this executive corruption, and students should be commended, not condemned, for keeping watch on who their universities honor and which ideas they legitimize. To the extent that Dean Ellison’s letter intimidates students into shutting up, or emboldens other administrators to ignore students’ views, it undermines the mission of a true university.

Trigger warnings. This is not a new controversy, and a very good defense of trigger warnings appeared in New York Magazine in 2014. First, Kat Stoeffel explains the history:

They were popularized in the feminist blogosphere, to warn participants of the self-designated safe spaces about stories involving rape, abuse, or self-harm that might induce flashbacks to their own past traumas

From there the concept expanded to blog posts about racism and various other isms, until eventually they started showing up in university course descriptions. Stoeffel describes how she initially rolled her eyes at the whole idea, but has since changed her mind.

Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose.

In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.

Erika Price describes how this works from both an instructor’s and a reader’s point of view.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

… Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. [3] And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Like anything else, the idea can be misapplied. [4] But we don’t abandon the whole notion of product-safety liability just because people sometimes sue for trivial reasons. By rejecting the trigger-warning notion wholesale, Dean Ellison is short-circuiting a potentially fruitful academic discussion: What kind of consideration do individual students have a right to expect, and when are they imposing too much on the group? By declaring this whole debate illegitimate literally from Day One, it is Dean Ellison who is retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with his own. He “wins” not by marshaling a better argument, but by invoking his institutional power: ME DEAN. YOU STUDENT.

Safe spaces. I think this part of the discussion borders on the ridiculous. Nobody lives 24/7 in an environment of unfettered academic critique. Nor is that a goal anyone should aspire to.

I hope every student finds a safe space somewhere and retreats to it when under stress. Even if it’s just a friend’s dorm room or some remote corner of the library stacks that no one else seems to know about, everybody should have one. And if students collectively decide to create a limited space where, say, no one is going to tell you that rape victims had it coming, I don’t see the harm.

Ali Barthwell nailed it:

Imagine you’re inviting a friend over to your house and before they say yes, you go “Oh, by the way, I have a dog in case you’re allergic.” THAT’S a trigger warning.

Imagine your friend says they do have a dog allergy so you agree to keep your dog out of your living room and vacuum everything so there’s no dander. THAT’s a safe space.

That’s what you assholes are against.

Trauma and empathy. Every life contains some amount of trauma, which really ought to give us all empathy for people who have been through worse.

Twenty years ago, I accompanied my wife to a doctor’s appointment, where we heard an unexpectedly bad diagnosis. For a time, I was convinced that I would spend the next two years or so watching her slide into a painful death. (That didn’t happen; she’s fine.) Afterwards it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a Mexican restaurant we used to go to occasionally. It was the only time since childhood when I literally could not stop crying.

I’ve never been back to that restaurant. It’s not their fault, and I imagine their food is still good. But there are other Mexican restaurants where I don’t have to remember crying my eyes out in public, so I go to them instead. If you’re ever going out to lunch with me and innocently suggest that restaurant, I’ll politely nudge you somewhere else. Indulge me; it’s not that big an ask.

Most of us — even if we were never raped or held hostage by terrorists or forced to watch our parents’ murder — can recall some lesser trauma. And I suspect a lot of us have some place we don’t go or thing we don’t do or product we stay away from. Maybe we could all pluck up our courage and confront those limitations, but most of us don’t. Life is too short and courage too limited to spend it so freely.

Whatever traumatic moment you can remember, imagine somebody who went through something ten times worse. If they’re not asking you for much, maybe you could indulge them. That’s all this controversy is about.


[1] Funny story related to that: Decades before I came to Chicago, Eckhart Hall, which houses the Mathematics Department, was a Manhattan Project building. As a math teaching assistant I had an office in the basement, and for several years I spent about as much time down there as a troll spends in his cave. After I got my degree, I was packing up my books when workmen came in to grind off and repatch hotspots in the floor and walls, because the government had just tightened the standards for allowable background radiation. “Now you tell me,” I said.

[2] By any objective standard (other than maybe background radiation) the current generation of students has it much harder than mine did. Most of them will leave school with a vast amount of debt, and will enter a far more uncertain job market. Older folks should be looking for ways to make their lives easier, not harder.

[3] There’s an analogy here from the history of commerce: The insurance industry did not grow because ship captains became more fearful. Quite the opposite, the protection provided by insurance allowed captains to become more adventurous.

[4] Another resemblance to the political correctness debate is the high urban-legend factor. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who read about a really outrageous example of a demand for a trigger warning (that for some reason could not be answered by a simple “no”). But when you go looking for verifiable examples of real damage to academic freedom, the pickings are pretty slim.

The one example that keeps showing up, Jeannie Suk Gerson’s discussion of teaching rape law at Harvard, seems to me to be as much about faculty laziness as student sensitivity. Gerson concludes:

If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss — above all to victims of sexual assault.

Yes it would. But are “cover the topic insensitively” and “drop it” really the only options? I discussed a similar excluded-middle thought pattern with regard to policing in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

What’s a 21st Century Equivalent of the Homestead Act?

A typical featured article on this blog is supposed to tell my readers something they might not already know, or at least to get them to think about it in a different way. But this time I’m just trying to raise a question, hoping that the combined wisdom and creativity of the readership will come up with stuff I haven’t thought of.

Before I ask the question, some background: One of the most radical things the United States government ever did was pass the Homestead Act (actually the Homestead Acts; there were a series of them). Beginning in 1850, and picking up steam after the Civil War, the government gave away relatively small plots of land — usually 160 acres — to settlers who over a period of five years would build a home on the land, live there, “improve” the land to make it farmable, and then farm it. Wikipedia claims that 10% of the total area of the United States was given away in this manner, to the benefit of 1.6 million families. [1]

I doubt Karl Marx had much influence on the U.S. Congress (though he was writing during this era) and there’s nothing particularly communist about establishing 1.6 million plots of private property. But I like to look at the Homestead Act in the light of the Marxist concept of the means of production. In a nutshell, the means of production is whatever resources are necessary to turn labor into goods and services. So, in a given society at a given state of technology,

Labor + X = Goods and Services

Solve for X, and that’s the means of production. Today, X is complicated: factories and patents and communication systems and whatever. But for most of human history, the means of production had mostly been land. And it still could be, even in the 19th century with its growing industrial economy; if you had fertile land, you could work it and produce sustenance for yourself, plus some extra to trade.

To Marx, the problem of capitalism is that the means of production — land, factories, mines, and so on — wind up privately owned by a fairly small group of people, and everybody else can only get access to the means of production by negotiating with those people. In other words, your productivity is not up to you; you can’t just go work and collect the fruit of your labor, you need an employer to hire you, so that you can have a job and get paid. Your labor only counts if you can get an employer’s permission to use his access to the means of production. Otherwise, you’re like a landless farmer or an auto worker who has been laid off from the factory.

Marx foresaw a vicious cycle: The narrower the ownership of the means of production became, the less bargaining power a worker would have, and the larger the premium an employer could demand in order to grant access. [2] This imbalance in bargaining power would increase the concentration of wealth, making the ownership of the means of production even narrower.

Usually, communists end up talking about state ownership of the means of production, but I want to point out that that’s a method, not a goal. What is really important is universal access to the means of production. State ownership is one way to try to do that, and I’m not sure how many other ways there might be — that’s part of the question here — but the real goal should be access: If all the people who want to work can find a way to turn their effort into goods and services, without needing to make a extortionate deal with some gatekeeper, then we’re on to something.

Now let’s return to the Homestead Act. What it did was vastly increase the number of Americans with access to the means of production. Mind you, it didn’t establish universal access — if you were a freedman sharecropping in Georgia, or were making pennies an hour in some dangerous factory in Connecticut, you had little prospect of assembling a big enough stake to go out West and homestead for five years — but it was vastly expanded access.

So now you’re in a position to understand what I’m asking: What would do that now? What change could we make (where we includes but is not necessarily limited to the federal government) that would vastly increase access to whatever the means of production is today?


[1] Probably most of you have already realized that this was an example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The only reason the U.S. government had all this land to give was that they were in the process of stealing it from the Native Americans.

I would argue that at this point the decision to rob Peter had already been made; I doubt any major figure in the government saw much future for the Native Americans other than being pushed back onto reservations or annihilated. However we do the moral calculations today, at the time Congress saw itself with the power (and even the right, though don’t ask me to defend it) to dispose of that land however it wanted.

Given that robbery-in-progress, I think the decision to pay Paul is still remarkable. It certainly wasn’t the only thing Congress could have done. The government could have applied the Spanish model, and created a bunch of large haciendas to be controlled by a wealthy elite. Or it could have applied the English model, and granted the land in huge swathes to public/private companies like the East India Company or the Virginia Company, who could develop it for profit. What it did instead created a middle class of small landowners rather than an aristocracy or a managerial elite.

[2] Workers don’t usually pay an explicit “premium for access to the means of production”, but it’s implicit when a profitable business pays low wages: Money comes in and the owner keeps the lion’s share. If you don’t like it, go get another job.

One way to read the productivity vs. wages graphs I post every few months is that access premiums have been growing since the mid-1970s, and really started to accelerate in the mid-1980s.

It’s not just Freddie Gray

The Justice Department’s new report shows how wide and deep Baltimore’s police problems are.


In Season 4 of HBO’s The Wire, a landmark TV drama centered on the Baltimore Police Department, a new gangster has been taking over the city’s drug trade. Normally this would mean a bloodbath, but strangely the bodies of rival gangsters haven’t been turning up. Eventually Detective Freeman figures out where a dozen or two of them must be hidden: inside abandoned houses that have been re-boarded-up using a recognizable type of nail. When he explains this theory to his colonel, he gets this response:

You’re asking us to call out half of public works, and pull the plywood off thousands of vacant houses, all so we can raise the city’s murder rate by 10%.

The Wire has a lot of underlying themes, but one of the key ones (particularly in Season 4) is just how badly the statistics-based management fad interacts with municipal government, where statistics never quite capture exactly what you want. Think about it: What measurable quantities can define a good education, an efficient transit system, usable parks, or a safe and livable community?

Worse, the statistics you end up trying to optimize largely come from the people you will judge by those statistics. So for them, it will always be easier — and more tempting — to manipulate the count than to genuinely improve outcomes. It’s easier to teach to the test — or maybe just to change the answers later — than to provide a better education on a smaller budget. It’s easier to make more arrests and give out more tickets — or maybe even to misclassify crimes — than to improve public safety.  And if the statistical goals are set are unreasonably high, even people who are committed to the public they are supposed to be serving might end up cooperating with deception, because fudging the numbers is the only way to avoid the unfair and destructive consequences of perceived failure.

That’s what Detective Freeman is running into: The gang-war murders have in fact been committed already, but they don’t show up in the stats if the bodies are never found, so until then no one has to explain to the press why the murderers haven’t been caught. Finding the bodies — a genuinely good piece of police work — makes everybody look bad by raising the murder rate. Why should BPD do that to themselves?

In real-life policing, optimizing “productivity” statistics interacts badly with another idea that sounded good for a long time: the Broken Windows theory. Broken Windows says that police can keep a neighborhood from turning bad by strictly enforcing relatively minor laws. By doing so, they maintain public order and keep the citizenry from retreating behind locked doors and leaving the streets and sidewalks to the criminals.

Baltimore’s version of Broken Windows was called “zero tolerance”, a strategy that (according to the Justice Department) “prioritized attempts to suppress crime by regularly stopping and searching pedestrians and arresting them on any available charges, including discretionary misdemeanor offenses.”

Put a statistics focus together with zero tolerance, and police start to have a predator/prey relationship with the community: When a policeman drives through a poor neighborhood, he isn’t looking for a way to help, he’s looking for someone he can turn into a statistic that will look good on his record. Arrest someone for loitering or jaywalking or driving with a broken taillight, and you’re having a productive day. If the stop turns into more than that, so much the better. Stop a fight before it starts, and you have nothing to show for your effort; arrest somebody for assault, and you’re doing your job.

A year ago, a Slate reporter took a drive through Baltimore with former cop Michael Wood Jr., who explained the motivations embedded in the system.

Now you have the background to appreciate the new Justice Department report on the Baltimore Police Department and its relationship with its poorer citizens, who are mostly African-American. The executive summary gives you the highlights:

BPD engages in a pattern or practice of:
(1) making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests;
(2) using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches and arrests of African Americans;
(3) using excessive force; and
(4) retaliating against people engaging in constitutionally-protected expression.

This pattern or practice is driven by systemic deficiencies in BPD’s policies, training, supervision, and accountability structures that fail to equip officers with the tools they need to police effectively and within the bounds of the federal law.

… The agency fails to provide officers with sufficient policy guidance and training; fails to collect and analyze data regarding officers’ activities; and fails to hold officers accountable for misconduct. BPD also fails to
equip officers with the necessary equipment and resources they need to police safely, constitutionally, and effectively.

… BPD deployed a policing strategy that, by its design, led to differential enforcement in African-American communities. But BPD failed to use adequate policy, training and accountability mechanisms to prevent discrimination, despite longstanding notice of concerns about how it polices African-American communities in the City.

 The background section on Baltimore is horrifying:

[A] recent Harvard University study found that Baltimore has the least upward mobility in America. In the nation’s 100 largest jurisdictions, Baltimore’s children face the worst odds of escaping poverty. … The City has nearly three times the national rate of lead poisoning among children. … This past year reflected a notable surge in violence. On a per-capita basis, 2015 was the deadliest year in Baltimore’s history with 344 homicides. The City’s overall gun violence increased more than 75 percent compared to the previous year, with more than 900 people shot.

BPD itself is largely an external force:

Most BPD officers are neither originally from Baltimore nor live in the City, and many commute long distances to work at the Department. Indeed, BPD leadership informed us that roughly three-fourths of BPD officers live outside the Baltimore City limits.

DoJ documents BPD’s predator/prey relationship with the community.

BPD’s law enforcement practices at times exacerbate the longstanding structural inequalities in the City by encouraging officers to have unnecessary, adversarial interactions with community members that increase exposure to the criminal justice system and fail to improve public safety.

… BPD frequently makes investigative stops without reasonable suspicion of people who are lawfully present on Baltimore streets. During stops, officers commonly conduct weapons frisks — or more invasive searches — despite lacking reasonable suspicion that the subject of the search is armed. These practices escalate street encounters and contribute to officers making arrests without probable cause, often for discretionary misdemeanor offenses like disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, loitering, trespassing, and failure to obey.

… These and similar arrests identified by our investigation reflect BPD officers exercising nearly unfettered discretion to criminalize the act of standing on public sidewalks.

and the role of statistics:

One of the reasons that the intended move away from zero tolerance policing has not sufficiently curbed BPD’s practice of unconstitutional street-level enforcement is a persistent perception among officers that their performance continues to be measured by the raw numbers of stops and arrests they make, particularly for gun and drug offenses. Many officers believe that the path to promotions and favorable treatment, as well as the best way to avoid discipline, is to increase their number of stops and make arrests for these offenses. By frequently stopping and searching people they believe might possess contraband, with or without requisite reasonable suspicion, officers aim to improve their statistical output, which will in turn reflect favorably in their performance reviews. … Other officers told us that they were denied the opportunity to work overtime because supervisors believed they did not make enough stops and arrests.

But of course, you can’t boost your numbers by manufacturing charges against middle-class white people. As the Slate narrator (Leon Neyfakh) summarizes:

To close out our tour, Mike took me to a part of Baltimore that was very different from everything we’d seen so far: a white neighborhood on the north side of town, where he was transferred after about four years on the force. He found the contrast astonishing. He also found it difficult to make his numbers, because all of a sudden he didn’t have anyone to arrest. His solution? Drive two blocks away, to a part of town where he could easily find young black men.

The DoJ report validates that observation:

Statistical evidence shows that the Department intrudes disproportionately upon the lives of African Americans at every stage of its enforcement activities. BPD officers disproportionately stop African Americans; search them more frequently during these stops; and arrest them at rates that significantly exceed relevant benchmarks for criminal activity. African Americans are likewise subjected more often to false arrests. Indeed, for each misdemeanor street offense that we examined, local prosecutors and booking officials dismissed a higher proportion of African-American arrests upon initial review compared to arrests of people from other racial backgrounds. BPD officers also disproportionately use force — including constitutionally excessive force — against African-American subjects. Nearly 90 percent of the excessive force incidents identified by the Justice Department review involve force used against African Americans.

This is where the process goes from here:

The Department of Justice and the City have entered into an Agreement in Principle that identifies categories of reforms the parties agree must be taken to remedy the violations of the Constitution and federal law described in this report. Both the Justice Department and the City seek input from all communities in Baltimore on the reforms that should be included in a comprehensive, court-enforceable consent decree to be negotiated by the Justice Department and
the City in the coming months, and then entered as a federal court order.

Democracy Will Survive This, With Damage

 

Donald Trump will lose, but afterward the Republic will be weaker and more vulnerable.


Almost as soon as President Obama took office, his opponents began trying to delegitimize his presidency. He couldn’t really be president, they claimed, because he wasn’t really an American, or at least not a native-born one, as the Constitution requires. Within two months of his inauguration, the Oath Keepers organization was formed, for the purpose of encouraging members of the military and the police to disobey the “unconstitutional orders” they were sure would soon come from the new tyrant.

It’s tempting to believe this is just how partisan politics has always worked, but in fact it’s new. In 2000, by contrast, there were very legitimate questions about whether George W. Bush had really won the election. But Al Gore conceded graciously, and when 9-11 happened ten months later, Democrats rallied around their president. As recently as 2008, John McCain politely corrected supporters who raised bizarre theories about his opponent. “No ma’am,” he told one elderly woman, “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign’s all about.”

After Obama was sworn in, though, everything changed.

Conspiracies. Every month or two for the last eight years, the fringe of the conservative media has found some new reason to tell its audience that we are on the brink of martial law or some other illegal seizure of power. FEMA is setting up camps to hold dissidents. ObamaCare is establishing death panels to eliminate the unworthy. New executive orders will soon confiscate guns. Obama plans to start a race warcancel the 2016 elections and stay in office forever. He’s secretly running ISIS from the White House. On and on.

Somehow, this apocalyptic mindset has achieved eternal youth. No matter how many times the predicted coup or edict or confiscation fails to materialize, the next one is absolutely going to happen, even if you’re hearing it from the same people who told you all the others. To conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, the American Republic is like Kenny in South Park: Somebody has always just killed it, but with no explanation it will be back next week, when somebody else will kill it in a different way.

Occasionally — as with last summer’s Jade Helm 15 exercise — the mainstream press notices enough of the craziness to let the rest of us laugh at it. But usually these stories pass beneath most people’s radar until some uncle or cousin forwards them an email warning of the looming disaster.

GOP fellow travelers. Republican leaders have occasionally winked and nodded in the direction of this lunatic fringe. Maybe they “joke” about Obama’s citizenship, or pass laws to make sure that all future candidates have to present their birth certificates, or add legitimacy to one of these issues in some other way, without actually promoting them in so many words. They know these people are crazy, but they’re part of the Republican base, so why alienate them?

But the answer to that question ought to be obvious: Democracy only survives in a country as long as the overwhelming majority of people believe that it is working, or that it could work with some achievable revisions. The more Americans who believe in the kind of crazy crap that can only be corrected by an armed rebellion, the more fragile our whole system of government becomes.

The Trump normalization. Particularly since the conventions, Donald Trump has moved these fever-swamp issues into the spotlight, normalizing them as beliefs respectable Republicans might hold.

From the beginning of his candidacy, Trump has specialized in saying wild and dangerous things that draw media attention, whipping up white Christian anger, and flirting with violence. The sheer volume of bonkers things he says has overwhelmed the fact-checkers, [1] and can overwhelm our own ability to process each new outrage.

But it’s important to notice the recent shift in the kind of crazy he’s been promoting. As long as he was doing well (or could convince himself he was doing well), he played the bully, targeting politically weak groups like immigrants or Muslims. But as the polls turn against him, he has devoted more and more of his effort to undermining democracy itself.

Consider the claims in this week’s three major Trump stories:

  • He can’t lose this election, he can only be cheated out of it. [2]
  • Obama and Clinton are “founders of ISIS“, i.e., working for our enemies and against the American people.
  • If Clinton wins, only “Second Amendment people”, i.e., gun owners, will be able to stop her from “abolishing” constitutional rights. [3]

It’s hard to lay things out much more clearly than that: If Trump loses, then democracy has failed and it’s time to move on to more violent forms of resistance. After all, once an election has been stolen, what’s the point of waiting around for the next election? On the lunatic fringe, that message is coming through loud and clear.

This kind of talk goes far beyond fantasies about Mexico paying for a border wall or claims to have personally witnessed events that never happened. It strikes at the legitimacy of the government — or at least of any government that Trump doesn’t head himself. After he loses, a substantial number of his supporters are going to go on believing what he said about cheating and implied about violence. And that sets up a lot of bad things in the future.

We’ll get through this, this time. It’s important not to over-react. Despite his authoritarian and nativist tendencies, Trump is not Hitler. (As a friend recently pointed out to me, Hitler was more talented and more dedicated to his cause.) And all the signs currently point to him being soundly rejected by the American people. The more dangerous he sounds, the more likely it is that the electorate will turn out en masse to vote against him. Even many Republicans are disturbed by the idea that they are now in the party of Alex Jones.

In the short run, Trump’s loss might make things better. Mainstream Republicans seemed to have no answer for him in the primaries. But if Trump-like candidates appear in 2020, sane Republicans can at least say, “We don’t want to do that again.” A sound thrashing this fall might well send the Republican establishment back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll conclude that pandering to the crazies wasn’t such a good idea after all.

But what about the sizable minority that will come out of the election believing what Trump said? That will be far fewer people than the 40-45% who will vote for him, but what if it’s 10%? What if 10% of the American electorate comes to the inauguration believing that their candidate legitimately won the election, but had it stolen? What if 10% believes that election fraud is not just a one-off event, but is how America works now? That our enemies are now in charge, that everything the government does is illegitimate, and that violent resistance is the only way for justice to prevail?

I don’t believe that there will be riots, assassinations, and civil war. As many people as might fantasize such things, I think few will try to carry them out. But Trump’s legacy could leave a very fertile ground for the next demagogue to mix politics and violence in a brownshirt fashion. As I said, Trump is not Hitler. But we may look back on him as Hitler’s warm-up act.


[1] The Week‘s Paul Waldman was already complaining about this in March:

The real genius of Trump’s mendacity lies in its brazenness. One of the assumptions behind the fact-checking enterprise is that politicians are susceptible to being shamed: If they lie, you can expose the lie and then they’ll be less likely to repeat it. After all, nobody wants to be tarred as a liar. But what happens when you’re confronted with a politician who is utterly without shame? You can reveal where he’s lied, explain all the facts, and try as hard as you can to inoculate the public against his falsehoods. But by the time you’ve done that, he has already told 10 more lies.

[2] Adding on to widely debunked comments he made last week, Trump said this Friday in Altoona:

Is everybody [here] voting? [Cheers.] If you do that, if you do that, we’re not gonna lose. The only way we can lose — in my opinion, I really mean this — Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on. I really believe that. Because I looked at Erie and it was the same thing as this. And I’ve been all over the state, and I know this state well. I know the state well. But let me just tell you, I looked all over Pennsylvania, and I’m studying it, and we have some great people here, some great leaders here, of the Republican Party, and they’re very concerned about that. And that’s the way we can lose the state. And we have to call up law enforcement, and we have to have the sheriffs and the police chiefs and everybody watching. Because, if we get cheated out of this election, if we get cheated out of a win in Pennsylvania, which is such a vital state. Especially when I know what’s happening here folks — I know it. She can’t beat what’s happening here. The only way they can beat it, in my opinion, and I mean this 100%, [is] if in certain sections of the state, they cheat.

We’re gonna watch Pennsylvania. Go down to certain areas and watch and study and make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times. The only way we can lose, in my opinion – and I really mean this, Pennsylvania – is if cheating goes on. I really believe it.

His I-can’t-really-lose claim flies in the face of the last four polls of Pennsylvania, all of which have Clinton up by double digits. And that ties the “cheating” claim to another bogus claimall the polls are skewed against Trump. (Romney supporters claimed the same thing before the 2012 election, and the results proved them wrong.)

Think about what this means: After Trump loses Pennsylvania — which he will — his supporters will have already denied any basis for claiming that he lost legitimately. The polls were biased, the election results were fraudulent — all that remains is Trump’s pure feeling that he would have won a fair election.

The substance of the fraud claim also deserves to be addressed, particularly since Sean Hannity and others have been backing Trump up on it. They have nothing. There is no reason to believe voter fraud played any role in 2012 or will play a role in 2016. 

Trump and Hannity discussed the fact that Mitt Romney got zero votes in 59 precincts of Philadelphia as evidence that some kind of fraud must have happened. Ryan Godfrey, an independent (former Republican) election inspector in Philadelphia, explained in a tweetstorm just how ridiculous that accusation is to anyone who understands the process.

Here’s how it looks to anyone who understands journalism: Hannity has been complaining about those 59 precincts since 2012, as if he were not part of a news organization and is helpless to investigate any further. But if in fact fraud happened in Philadelphia, it would not be hard for a real journalist to come up with solid evidence. That’s the beauty of that zero result: If you can turn up anybody who claims to have voted for Romney, that’s evidence of fraud.

So Sean, here’s how you could do it:

  1. First, get access to the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote data for these precincts, and see if they were expecting anyone to vote for him. (That’s how GOTV works: You compile databases of the people you expect to vote for you, then on election day you remind/cajole/nag them until they vote.) If there are no such people, then you’re done; the zero-vote outcome is credible.
  2. If there are, check publicly available records to see if any of them voted. (Again, if none did, you’re done; there’s no story.)
  3. If you still have some names on your list, contact them and see if they will testify that they voted for Romney in a precinct where no Romney votes were recorded. One person might be explained away, but if you get a half-a-dozen-or-so such witnesses, you can probably send somebody to jail and maybe get yourself a Pulitzer.

The Philadelphia Inquirer tried something like this immediately after the election: They went looking for registered Republicans in the zero-for-Romney areas. They didn’t find them. (In Godfrey’s tweetstorm, he notes that some of those areas didn’t record any votes in the Republican primary either.)

Take North Philadelphia’s 28th Ward, third division, bounded by York, 24th, and 28th Streets and Susquehanna Avenue. About 94 percent of the 633 people who live in that division are black. Seven white residents were counted in the 2010 census. In the entire 28th Ward, Romney received only 34 votes to Obama’s 5,920. Although voter registration lists, which often contain outdated information, show 12 Republicans live in the ward’s third division, The Inquirer was unable to find any of them by calling or visiting their homes.

… A few blocks away, Eric Sapp, a 42-year-old chef, looked skeptical when told that city data had him listed as a registered Republican. “I got to check on that,” said Sapp, who voted for Obama.

That’s real journalism: You go out, talk to people, and get answers, rather than just raise questions because you think something smells off. The fact that Hannity, after four years of suspicions, still can’t point to anything more solid than his feeling that zero can’t be right, tells me that he knows there’s no real fraud here. Either he has so little confidence in the charge that he didn’t even think it worthwhile to do the follow-up work, or he did the work, turned up nothing, and decided his listeners didn’t need to know that.

This is a general pattern in election-fraud stories: Somebody does just enough research to find something that sounds suspicious, and then runs with it. Either they never do the follow-up investigation that seems called for, or when somebody else does, it turns up nothing — like this case in South Carolina, which I told you about in 2013.

[3] This also deserves a lengthy discussion. Here’s the quote:

Hillary wants to abolish — essentially abolish — the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick [booing from crowd] if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don’t know.

The official Trump-campaign explanation — that he meant gun-rights supporters could use their political power to make sure Trump wins — is obviously nonsense. The scenario Trump had laid out in “if she gets to pick her judges” assumed she’d already been elected.

My favorite response was tweeted by Sarah Milov:

Maybe 19th amendment people can do something about Trump

(The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.)

Paul Ryan interpreted the quote as a joke gone bad, and if you watch the video, Trump’s tone and phrasing is consistent with a joke. But English-professor-turned-lawyer Jason Steed, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the social function of humor, explained in a tweetstorm that

Nobody is ever “just joking”. Humor is a social act that performs a social function (always).

A joke, he explains, defines an in-group that laughs and an out-group that doesn’t.

If you’re willing to accept “just joking” as a defense, you’re willing to enter [the] in-group, where [the] idea conveyed by the joke is acceptable.

This is why you should never tell a racist joke, even if everybody in the room knows that you’re joking: The joke itself normalizes racism; by laughing, your audience ratifies that normalization.

Rolling Stone‘s David Cohen connected Trump’s “joke” to the important notion of stochastic terrorism: when you mark someone for attack by the wackos that you know are out there, while keeping your distance from the attack itself. Last November, after a mass shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, Valerie Tarico explained the process:

1. A public figure with access to the airwaves or pulpit demonizes a person or group of persons.
2. With repetition, the targeted person or group is gradually dehumanized, depicted as loathsome and dangerous — arousing a combustible combination of fear and moral disgust.
3. Violent images and metaphors, jokes about violence, analogies to past “purges” against reviled groups, use of righteous religious language — all of these typically stop just short of an explicit call to arms.
4. When violence erupts, the public figures who have incited the violence condemn it — claiming no one could possibly have foreseen the “tragedy.”

Previous examples include the role Bill O’Reilly played in the assassination of the Kansas abortion-provider Dr. George Tiller, and Byron Williams, who shot two California policemen when stopped on his way to attack the Tides Foundation, which had become central in Glenn Beck’s fantastic theories.

BTW: Hillary Clinton has never called for “abolishing the Second Amendment” — essentially or otherwise. Here’s her list of proposals on guns, all of which are within current Supreme Court interpretations of the Second Amendment.

Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy

Open misogyny, like open racism, has become a fringe position in America. But even people who believe they don’t have a sexist bone in their bodies are still influenced by it.


I’m a guy, and I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. Lots of us are.

Naturally, I also know men who aren’t voting for her. But you know what I haven’t heard? Not one of the anti-Clinton men I know personally — not even in a wink-and-nod, just-between-us guys sort of way — says that it’s because she’s a woman, or that women in general have no business being president.

Of course, it’s also true that if you go looking for that opinion, you can find it. (Samantha Bee even found a woman who thinks women shouldn’t be in charge.) And if you want to rile yourself, it’s not hard at all to dredge up comments on Facebook and other social media calling the former Senator, First Lady, and Secretary of State a bitch, a cunt, or some other misogynistic name. If you visit the vendors outside a Trump rally, you can even get a misogynistic epithet on a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

But still, open misogyny has become a fringe position. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 92% of Americans said they could vote for a woman for president. Maybe that’s only because admitting otherwise has become uncool, but there are also more specific signs of progress. Just two election-cycles ago, during Clinton’s first presidential run, whether a woman could be commander-in-chief still came up from time to time. In this cycle, though, she has managed to turn that issue around, contrasting her own experience and gravity against Donald Trump’s impulsiveness. In a recent Fox News poll, voters trusted Clinton more than Trump on “making decisions about using nuclear weapons” by a 56%-34% margin.

So hurray! Sexism is over in American politics and we can stop talking about it.

Well, not exactly.

The racism parallel. Eight years ago, after we elected our first black president, a lot of people convinced themselves that racism was over. And if we’re talking about open KKK-style racism, they were almost right. Few people in 2008 or 2012 said they wouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black. Using the N-word against him in public, openly calling for white supremacy — you can still find that if you look, but it’s a fringe position.

And yet, the last eight years have been a lesson in just how pervasive the more subtle forms of racism are. If few white Americans would admit — even to other whites — that they didn’t want a black president, many many white people have seemed to hunger for some non-racial reason to dislike or mistrust Barack Obama.

And so, based no credible evidence whatsoever, a large segment of the American public have decided that he isn’t really an American, and so isn’t eligible to be president at all. Another large segment (with considerable overlap, I imagine) has convinced themselves that Obama’s whole religious history is a fraud, that he is secretly a Muslim, and is probably rooting for the jihadi terrorists (the same ones that he’s been killing with raids and drone strikes).

Others look at his family through jaundiced eyes. To them, Michelle — a beautiful, elegant woman by any standard — resembles a gorilla. When Sasha and Malia wear typical teen-age-girl clothes they get admonished to “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar“. The luxurious White House lifestyle, never an issue when white families lived there, suddenly looks uppity; and the cost of keeping the First Family safe on vacations — again, never an issue for the Bushes, Clintons, or Reagans — has been a point of resentment.

Whenever Obama acts like the President of the United States and accepts the deference that is due his office — like when a Marine holds an umbrella for him, or he puts his feet up on a White House desk — it just looks wrong. Sure, white presidents have been doing the same things for decades without irritating anybody, but this is different because … because … well it just is.

And the aura of respect that has sheltered even our most unpopular presidents from direct abuse in formal settings? That vanished as soon as a black man took control of the White House. Undoubtedly, Joe Wilson was not the first congressman to think a president had said something dubious in a State of the Union address. But none of the previous doubters had judged it appropriate to yell “You lie!”.

Summing up, a lot of Americans might say to President Obama: “I don’t hate you because you’re black. I hate you because so many of the things you do look wrong to me.” But if you take a step back and look at comparable situations from previous administrations, it’s hard to escape the realization that what is really wrong in Obama’s actions is that he’s black when he does them.

It’s not that blackness is bad per se — that would be the Jim-Crow-style racism we’ve almost all outgrown. It’s that for many Americans, blackness-in-power invokes a harsher standard of judgment that makes “This black president is bad” an almost inevitable conclusion.

Back to Hillary. So I think we should bring some skepticism to the idea that Hillary Clinton’s high unfavorable ratings are simply a fair public reaction to things she has said or done.

As with Obama and racism, not everybody who opposes Clinton is a sexist or dislikes her for gender-related reasons. But even if you can list apparently good reasons for not liking her, you need to consider the possibility that the things she says or does seem as bad as they do because Clinton is a woman when she does them.

Like racism, sexism may no longer dictate the views of most Americans, but it still has a strong influence.

Appearance. The most obvious way that Clinton is treated differently from male candidates is with regard to her appearance. Prior to Clinton’s acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, one of the most googled questions was what she would wear. A white pantsuit was the answer, a decision deemed worthy of historical analysis in The Atlantic.

For a man, of course, the question has a standard answer: a dark suit with a light-colored shirt and a red or blue tie. If a man wears that, he can count on everybody to forget what he’s wearing and concentrate on what he’s saying. But there is no standard choice for women, because no woman has ever been in this situation before. Whatever she wears, it just doesn’t look presidential. I mean, would Abe Lincoln wear a white pantsuit?

For contrast, look at the two men Clinton has run against — Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Both men have unusual hair. Both take some ribbing for it, but it’s really not a big deal. (Clinton could never have turned a bad-hair day into a t-shirt, as Bernie did.) I doubt that either of their campaigns wasted a single minute of meeting time discussing “What are we going to do about his hair?”

Ditto for wardrobe. Trump wears expensively tailored suits, while Bernie sometimes looks like he slept in his. Both choices are OK and raise no issues. But every fashion choice a female candidate makes is fraught. Does she look too “frumpy“? Or is she too vain? Does she worry too much about her appearance, or spend too much on her clothes? (Both Clinton and Sarah Palin got skewered on that one.) It’s fine for Mitch McConnell to get increasingly jowly as he ages, but could Nancy Pelosi get away with that? And if she takes action to avoid facial sagging, that’s an issue too.

Clinton’s voice is another perpetual problem: It’s too shrill and she shouts too much. But Trump and Sanders also shout a lot without anybody making an issue of it. Bernie’s gravelly voice is far from what they’re looking for in broadcasting school, but somehow it makes him more authentic, like Bob Dylan.

Sex and marriage. There’s also a moral double standard. As we all remember from high school, someone who has a lot of sex is a stud if male, and a slut if female. That double standard hasn’t gone away.

Imagine, for example, if Clinton had a marital history like Trump’s. Picture her standing on the convention stage with a much-younger male model for a husband, waving to the crowd while surrounded by the children she conceived with three different fathers, all still alive. It’s an absurd vision, because no such woman could be elected to any office whatsoever.

Oratory. The big fear leading up to Hillary’s acceptance speech was whether she could match the great speeches of the previous nights’ speakers: Michelle Obama, Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and the ultimate master of the convention speech, Barack Obama.

By all accounts, she didn’t. It was a good speech that made her case and did her credit, but she didn’t even attempt to lift our spirits like Obama did in 2004, 2008, and 2012.

But consider this: Is an Obama-level speech even possible for a woman candidate in 2016? Would we know how to listen to it and recognize its greatness?

I don’t think we would. I’m not even sure that I would. We’re well trained to hear certain kinds of ideas from men, and respond in a certain way to them. Hearing the same speech from a woman would be a different experience entirely. For example, Joe Biden basically gave a Knute Rockne halftime pep talk. Could a woman have pulled that off?

“But what about Michelle?” you might ask. “She’s a woman and her convention speech was magnificent.” Indeed it was, but it was rooted in her experience as a wife and mother. She was not a candidate, and was not asking us to give her power. If she had been, say, running for the open Senate seat in Illinois, we might have heard her speech very differently.

The rogue’s gallery. The example of Bernie’s “authentic” voice points to an even more subtle pattern that is frequently overlooked: Just as there are negative stereotypes (like slut or ball-buster) for women, there are endearing stereotypes that make excuses for the flaws of men. As a result, if a man needs us to cut him some slack, it doesn’t seem like that big a stretch.

As Franklin Roosevelt is supposed said about a Central American dictator: “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” That line has been repeated about a number of American politicians since, including Richard Nixon. It’s a compliment of sorts: This guy may be immoral, but he’s going to do immoral things for us.

Trump’s long history as a con-man generates a similar excuse: Yes, he cheats people, but that’s why we need him: so that he can cheat the Chinese and the Mexicans on our behalf. Trump claimed that dubious virtue in his acceptance speech:

Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens.

Lyndon Johnson was known as a wheeler-dealer, a stereotype that makes a virtue out of a man’s ability to bribe and threaten. If he can wheel and deal his way to Medicare and the Voting Rights Act, so much the better.

A standard character in our movies and TV shows is the charming rogue: Indiana Jones, Rhett Butler, Serenity‘s Captain Mal. He’s a rebel, a rule-breaker. He may be annoying at times and completely unreliable, but you keep forgiving him because it’s just so entertaining to watch him wriggle in and out of trouble. Trump and Bill Clinton both benefit from this stereotype, and in some circles so does Ted Cruz. (“Shut down the government? That scamp! What will he pull off next?”)

Female leaders don’t have any of those forgiving loopholes available to them. When the FBI announced that Hillary’s email mistakes were not indictable crimes, her supporters sighed with relief and her critics seethed with anger. (“Lock her up!”) Literally no one was charmed by her skill as a escape artist. (“She’s so smart! They’ll never nail her.”) If she were a man, though, many would be.

Clinton has been known to lie or mislead when she’s accused of something, behavior which (as the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof pointed out Sunday) is pretty standard for an American politician. And yet, a fairly small set of examples is enough to support an image of exceptional untrustworthiness.

Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to hold a conversation with Donald Trump — on any subject — without hearing him lie. (Kristof: “In March, Politico chronicled a week of Trump remarks and found on average one misstatement every five minutes.”) The result: Slightly more voters describe Trump as “honest and trustworthy” than say the same of Clinton.

This is a pattern we should recognize from racial discrimination: We insist on high standards from our leaders, except when we don’t. Members of privileged groups — whites, men — can wrangle exceptions. Only the non-privileged — blacks, women — are actually held to those standards.

“But I just don’t like her.” Any woman running for office has to thread a very narrow needle: She has to look good without appearing vain, to sound strong but not bossy, project as friendly but not soft, and have years of experience without seeming old and stale. (Donald Trump can have no track record in government and be an outsider. A comparable woman would just be unqualified.) For a lot of Americans — even the 92% who told Gallup they could imagine voting for a woman — there might not be an eye in that needle at all.

Marianne Cooper, a sociologist at Stanford’s Clayman Institute, writes:

High-achieving women experience social backlash because their very success – and specifically the behaviors that created that success – violates our expectations about how women are supposed to behave. Women are expected to be nice, warm, friendly, and nurturing. Thus, if a woman acts assertively or competitively, if she pushes her team to perform, if she exhibits decisive and forceful leadership, she is deviating from the social script that dictates how she “should” behave. By violating beliefs about what women are like, successful women elicit pushback from others for being insufficiently feminine and too masculine.

Michael Arnovitz looked at the long-term graph of Clinton’s favorability and noted:

What I see is that the public view of Hillary Clinton does not seem to be correlated to “scandals” or issues of character or whether she murdered Vince Foster. No, the one thing that seems to most negatively and consistently affect public perception of Hillary is any attempt by her to seek power. Once she actually has that power her polls go up again. But whenever she asks for it her numbers drop like a manhole cover. … Most of the people who hate Hillary when she’s running for office end up liking her just fine once she’s won.

I’ve heard a number of people, even a few women, tell me that they wish the first woman nominee had been someone different. To which I respond: How different could she be and still have gotten here?

“But I’m not sexist! I’m voting for Jill Stein.” As every Green voter knows in his or her heart, Jill Stein is not going to be our next president. So the disorientation and the fear-of-the-unknown that Clinton evokes simply does not rise for anyone considering Stein.

Likewise, Stein hasn’t run the decades-long gauntlet (with its corresponding decades of unfair criticism and invented scandals) that puts a woman in position to be a major party nominee. If she had, I suspect she would seem like damaged goods too.

We’ve seen something similar to the Stein option with the Republicans and race. Herman Cain in 2011 and Ben Carson in 2015 both had moments in the sun, as Republicans waved their signs and said, “See! I’m against Obama, but I’m not racist.” Strangely, though, both candidacies had faded long before the first primaries. So no one ever had to cast a vote that had a serious chance of putting Cain or Carson into power. Similarly this November, no one will cast a vote that has a serious chance of putting Stein into power either.

A woman as a message-carrier? A woman as the symbol of an impossible dream? We’re all fine with that. But the prospect of giving a woman real power is something else.

Can we compensate? Obviously, it would make no more sense to vote for Clinton because she’s a woman than to vote against her for that reason. So what am I asking you to do?

Here’s my point: It is a very human reaction to instinctively recoil from something you’ve never seen before, to imagine that there’s something wrong with it, and then to go looking for reasons you can use to justify that pre-rational feeling of wrongness. I strongly suspect that lots of people who hate Hillary Clinton (and even a few who are going to hold their noses and vote for her out of disgust with Trump) have done that, or have been influenced by opinion-makers who do that.

Which is not to say that everyone who isn’t whole-hearted supporting Hillary is reacting out of sexism. She’s an American politician who has views, plans, and a record, none of which are perfect. No candidate — even great presidents who were white men — gets 100% of the vote.

But think about what you would like to have told those 2012 voters who were convinced that Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born terrorist-sympathizing fake Christian who hates America and wants to undermine our culture and society. Not that those wouldn’t be good reasons to vote against him, but why do you believe them? Could the thinking process that led you to those beliefs have been influenced by the subtle racism that infects almost everything in our society?

Our society is similarly infected with subtle sexism. Those things you believe about Hillary that make her uniquely objectionable, or so repellant that the difference between her and Trump seems too insignificant to take seriously, why do you believe them?

Could sexism have played a role in forming those beliefs? Think it through again.

Disbanding NATO: Why Vlad loves Donnie

Nobody’s sure exactly what Trump sees in Putin. But in the other direction, the allure is obvious.


Last week I characterized the idea that Vladimir Putin hacked the Democratic National Committee to help Donald Trump become president as “mostly a conspiracy theory” and “pretty speculative”. That theory got quite a bit more believable this week.

Trump even called for Russian hackers to try to find the emails deleted from Clinton’s server, though he later backed off and called the request “sarcastic“. (No doubt Trump would be equally amused if Clinton called on Chinese hackers to find the tax returns he refuses to reveal.)

Then he got caught in a tangle of his own previous lies. In the past he has exaggerated his connection to Putin, because that’s what hucksters do: namedrop to make themselves seem more important than they really are. But now that he’s accused of having an improper relationship with the Russian dictator, he says “I never met Putin.

In The Atlantic, David Frum lists the various ways Trump has deferred to Putin.

  • When asked whether he would tell Putin to stay out of U.S. elections, Trump said that he would not tell Putin what to do.
  • He has called NATO “obsolete”, and told the NYT he would not necessarily defend NATO countries if Russia attacked them.
  • He weakened a pro-Ukrainian plank in the Republican platform. (As Rachel Maddow points out, he showed little interest in the rest of the platform.) (Sunday, he appeared confused about Ukraine, saying that Russia was “not going to go into Ukraine” under a Trump presidency, when in fact it has occupied parts of Ukraine for two years.)
  • He replied “Yes, we would be looking at that” when asked whether he might drop the sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its takeover of Crimea. (Again, though, Trump may just be a victim of his own bluster. In TrumpSpeak “We will be looking at that” usually means “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He says it fairly often.)

Various people have proposed reasons he might be so pro-Putin. Maybe he admires Putin’s strong-man style of leadership. Or his investments are entangled with Russian oligarchs. Or he wants to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. So far, though, that’s still the speculative part of the theory.

But regardless of why Trump loves Putin so much, it’s obvious why Putin would want to help Trump: The best thing that could happen to Russia is for NATO to disband, and a President Trump might well make that happen.

NATO has not been a partisan issue in the U.S. since the alliance was formed during the Truman administration. But now it is. In an interview with the NYT’s David Sange and Maggie Haberman, Trump was explicitly asked whether he would defend the Baltic republics from Russian attack, as the NATO treaty obligates us to do. And Trump did what Trump does with any contractual obligation: He looked for a loophole.

SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——

TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

HABERMAN: And if not?

TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

At the time, I thought he was referring to a longstanding American complaint that the other NATO allies don’t spend enough on defense, leaving us to shoulder the burden. NATO guidelines call for members to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense, but only  the U.S., Greece, United Kingdom, Estonia, and Poland currently do. Getting tougher with the other members about their defense spending would be consistent with Trump’s “America First” slogan. (Even so, one member-nation failing to meet a guideline is hardly legal justification for another member to violate the treaty. To make an analogy: I retain my constitutional rights as an American even if I’m behind on paying my taxes.)

But in subsequent statements, Trump made a very disturbing word choice: He talked about NATO countries paying “us”. Not fulfilling their obligations to spend money on their own defense, but paying us for defending them.

Trump offered an even more explicit ultimatum to NATO allies.

“I want them to pay,” he said. “They don’t pay us what they should be paying! We lose on everything. Folks, we lose on everything.”

He went on to criticize former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy record: “She makes it impossible to negotiate. She’s not a negotiator. She’s a fool.”

“We have to walk,” Trump added. “Within two days they’re calling back! Get back over here, we’ll pay you whatever the hell you want.”

“They will pay us if the right person asks,” he said. “That’s the way it works, folks. That’s the way it works.”

Trump’s view of NATO, in other words, is not an alliance; it makes Europe an American protectorate, which it has never been before. Currently, member countries may pay the cost of the bases on their soil and then invite our troops to use them, but no NATO country pays us for defense.

If you know your classical history, this should ring bells: After the wars with Persia, Athens led the Delian League, an alliance of city-states that contributed ships, soldiers, and money to the common defense. Eventually, though, Athens moved the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens and told the other members of the league to just send money. In other words, Athens now collected tribute from its former allies, who became subjects in an Athenian empire.

Unless he just doesn’t understand what his words mean — another distinct possibility — that’s what Trump is proposing to do with NATO: We threaten to “walk”, leaving European countries to face Putin alone, and offer the alternative that they start paying us tribute and become provinces in an American Empire.

I strongly suspect that Germany, France, Britain, and Italy have no interest in being American tributaries, and so NATO would cease to exist in anything like its current form.

If I were Vladimir Putin, and I could get that result for the price of a few computer hacks, I’d consider it a very good deal.

Why Bernie Backed Hillary

The path to an eventual progressive victory is to take over the Democratic Party, not break it.


Monday night at the Democratic Convention, Bernie Sanders came through for Hillary Clinton in a big way.

His speech contrasted sharply with much of what we heard at the Republican Convention from the candidates Donald Trump defeated, or with the unenthusiastic support for Trump from Republican office-holders like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Bernie didn’t have to put his heart into it like that. He could have stayed home and watched the convention on TV, like John McCain and John Kasich. He could have made the minimum necessary party-unity statement, like Marco Rubio did by video. Or he could have left his party’s nominee out of the picture entirely, restated his own principles, and then urged his followers to “vote your conscience”, as Ted Cruz did. He could even have denounced Clinton by name, as Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney have denounced Trump.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein has been begging for Sanders to join her, and vigorously campaigning for the votes of his frustrated supporters. So even while keeping his word by tepidly supporting Clinton, he could have winked and nodded at Stein, giving his tacit blessing to Berners who decided to turn Green.

He did none of that. Instead he endorsed Clinton with enthusiasm in prime time.

This election is about which candidate understands the real problems facing this country and has offered real solutions – not just bombast, fear-mongering, name-calling and divisiveness.

We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor. We need leadership which brings our people together and makes us stronger – not leadership which insults Latinos, Muslims, women, African-Americans and veterans – and divides us up.

By these measures, any objective observer will conclude that – based on her ideas and her leadership – Hillary Clinton must become the next president of the United States. The choice is not even close.

He reviewed in detail all the issues where a Clinton presidency would be far more progressive than a Trump presidency: the minimum wage, infrastructure, the Supreme Court, the cost of college and student debt, climate change, health care, and immigration reform. And just in case you thought he was making a lesser-of-two-evils argument, he closed with a clear positive statement:

Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her here tonight.

He didn’t have to go that far. So why did he? If you find that decision mysterious, or think it requires some dark conspiracy-theory explanation, I have three responses:

  • Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think.
  • Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think.
  • Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it.

Bernie was never as anti-Hillary as you might think. In the beginning of his campaign, Sanders was relentlessly positive, and refused to go negative on Clinton at all. Recall his line from their first debate:

Let me say — let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.

In the MSNBC debate in March, he prefaced his response to her first comments with:

I have known Secretary Clinton for 25 years and respect her very much.

As the primary campaign got more contentious, there were three levels of criticism of Clinton: fairly mild criticism from Sanders himself, more aggressive statements from his campaign manager Jeff Weaver, and all-out Hillary-is-evil diatribes from Sanders supporters on social media. If you have feel-the-Bern friends on Facebook or Twitter, you know that everything Hillary did seemed sinister to them. Even if she put Elizabeth Warren on the ticket, it would only be to get Warren’s independent voice out of the Senate.

Memory has a way of mixing those criticisms together, so it may seem as if Sanders must be a complete hypocrite to support Clinton now. But Sanders was never running a stop-Clinton campaign. At the beginning, I doubt he thought he had any chance to deny her the nomination.

But he didn’t want a repeat of what happened in 2008, when none of the three candidates who emerged as serious contenders — Obama, Clinton, and John Edwards — proposed single-payer healthcare. As a result, when the ObamaCare discussion began in 2009, single-payer never got a hearing. It was a fringe idea that no “serious” person supported.

This year, if Clinton ran to keep Social Security as it is and the Republicans ran on cutting it, the logical eventual outcome would be to cut it a little less than the Republicans wanted. The idea that it ought to be expanded would be a fringe notion unworthy of discussion. And so on across the board.

Hillary has always been more progressive than you might think. A staple of the Bernie-or-Bust social-media posters is that Clinton is the enemy of progressive change: Whatever they want, she is opposed to, and every move she makes is part of a sinister plan to thwart their ambitions.

But again, if we return to the first debate, Clinton says this to Sanders about healthcare: “We agree on the goals, we just disagree on the means.”

That isn’t just rhetoric. All along, on a wide variety of issues, the debate between Sanders and Clinton has been more about how change happens than about where they want to go. Sanders believes you state your big idea and keep converting people to it until you have a majority, while Clinton believes change happens incrementally: You grab the small amount of progress you can get right now, and hope that its success sets the stage for the next small step. Sanders believes that you call out your opposition and take them on directly, while Clinton looks for proposals that will split the opposition.

If they were football coaches, Sanders’ team would throw deep and often, while Clinton’s team would have a bruising ground game that pushed the ball down the field 3-5 yards at a time. Sanders is always looking to the end zone, while Clinton is looking for the soft spot in the opponent’s line.

So on health care, Sanders has supported a Scandinavian-style single-payer system for as long as he’s been in politics, while Clinton’s 1993 plan was a more complicated public/private mix that she thought she could pass. When it failed, she looked for the opposition’s soft spot and found it: children. The Children’s Health Insurance Program got through Congress in 1997, moving the ball a little further towards universal coverage. And if you were surprised to hear her support putting a public option back into ObamaCare — it was taken out during the congressional debates in 2009 — you shouldn’t be: Her 2008 plan had a public option.

One reason Clinton hasn’t gotten credit for the progressive positions she’s been running on is that across the board Sanders has proposed something bigger and better. His $15 minimum wage trumped her $12 minimum wage — which in a different campaign would have been a bold increase over the current $7.25. Her quarter-trillion-dollar plan to create jobs by building infrastructure looks small next to Bernie’s trillion-dollar plan.

The units of change she calls for have always been smaller than Bernie’s units, but on the vast majority of issues the direction of change is the same.

Long-term, Bernie wants to capture the Democratic Party, not break it. At 74, Bernie is probably too old to run for president again himself. But he sees himself as part of a larger movement that will go on after he bows out of presidential politics. His hopes are not just that the movement will be a way for democracy-loving progressives to express their fine sentiments — the Greens have that covered already — but that it will someday take over the government and implement its policies.

If that’s the goal, the movement has two possible strategies: Take over one of the major parties, or break one (or both) of them and form something new out of the resulting chaos. Both strategies have worked in American history, but the last time the second strategy worked was in the 1850s, when the Whig Party ruptured on the slavery issue, and abolitionists and other slavery-restricting forces created the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln was an anti-slavery Whig who became a Republican. He was elected president in 1860 in a bizarre four-candidate race that he won with 40% of the vote. If the Southern Democrats hadn’t walked out of the convention that was set to nominate Stephen Douglas, Republican success could have been delayed a lot longer.

The last 150 years have seen third-party challenges by candidates like Eugene Debs, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ross Perot, but none of them came close to winning the presidency. You can argue that they had their effect by changing the two major parties: Debs’ socialist campaign can be seen as a forerunner of the New Deal, while Thurmond and Wallace were part of the decades-long shift of white Southerners from the Democratic to the Republican Party. But none of them created a new party that outlived their candidacies and replaced either the Republicans or the Democrats.

However, the rise of the primary system in the 1970s created a new possibility: If you can win primaries, you can take over a major party from the inside. Ronald Reagan was the first person to pull that off. At the time, many conservatives thought the Nixon/Ford Republican Party was a lost cause and urged Reagan to lead a Conservative Party. But Reagan ran as a Republican in 1976, narrowly lost the nomination, again resisted the temptation of a third party, and came back to win the Republican nomination and the presidency in 1980. The Republican Party has been the Reagan Party ever since, with the moderate-to-liberal Republicans of the mid-70s going extinct.

In recent years, the Tea Party has been a second wave of conservative revolution within the Republican Party. Despite calling itself a party, it has all along been a faction within the GOP, and has picked up a number of seats in both houses of Congress. Through primaries, it has deposed even members of the Republican congressional leadership like Eric Cantor, and has struck fear into the hearts of non-Tea-Party leaders like John Boehner and Paul Ryan.

Bernie clearly has decided — I believe correctly — that under the current rules the Reagan model is a more viable path to reform than the Lincoln model. The Lincoln Whigs had to spend 1852 and 1856 in the wilderness, and watch a Supreme Court dominated by slavery-supporting appointees produce the Dred Scott decision. By contrast, Tea Partiers have been able to maintain and make use of Republican control of Congress, while building their own revolutionary caucus inside that majority.

A Sanders/Stein Party might or might not outpoll the Democrats in some far-future election. But in the meantime the split center/left vote would virtually guarantee right-wing dominance of the government, and a far-right Supreme Court that would stymie any progressive who might eventually manage to win the presidency.

But the prospect of winning primaries at all levels — producing a strong Progressive Caucus within a Democratic Party that could reasonably aspire to a majority in Congress, and capturing the Democratic presidential nomination for a strong progressive in 2020 or 2024 — seems like a far more promising and less risky path to victory.

That vision explains not just Bernie’s endorsement of Hillary, but also its fervor and his plea for his supporters not to disrupt the Convention with protests: He foresees the day when some future Bernie will be the Democratic nominee seeking party unity. The enemies that he avoids making today may be the friends that candidate will need, if that transformed Democratic Party is going to succeed in winning elections and governing the country.

You Have to Laugh


Whatever else you may have thought about last week’s Republican Convention, it was a gold mine for comedians.


If you watched the Republican Convention live, it didn’t seem like a laughing matter: chants of “Lock her up!”, endless talk about the Muslims and Mexicans who are coming to kill us, and assertions that “our very way of life” is threatened. Even Donald Trump’s attempt to assure us that “I alone” can fix the rigged system was a bit creepy, along with his claim that “I am your voice.” (I’d been wondering why I’ve sounded so raspy lately.)

Away from the podium, the situation was even worse, with calls for Hillary Clinton to be “shot for treason” or left “hanging from a tree“. Perhaps even more disturbing was the Trump campaign’s half-hearted distancing from such rhetoric: “We’re incredibly grateful for his support, but we don’t agree with his comments [about shooting Clinton].”

Admittedly, there were a few moments of unintentional humor, like when Trump’s third wife did a Rickroll testifying to his loyalty, or his daughter introduced him by talking admiringly about policies — equal pay for women and affordable childcare — that are part of Hillary Clinton’s platform, not her father’s. Those thigh-slapping moments, though, were few and far between.

But events and people that are nothing to laugh about are often precisely the ones that we need to laugh at, so for comedians Donald Trump has been maybe the best opportunity since Charlie Chaplin had that German guy to spoof. And last week our political humorists did not let us down. Jon Stewart may have walked into the sunset last year, but the Daily Show alums — Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver — brought their A-game. The other late-night hosts pitched in admirably. And never say Donald Trump never did anything good for us: Jon even came back to cover him.

Trevor Noah got the week off to a good start, with his coverage of Rudy Giuliani’s opening-night fear-mongering.

In my opinion, he also had the best response to the Melania Trump plagiarism flap:

We should be encouraging her. Because if she feels comfortable stealing Michelle’s speeches and we make it normal, maybe Donald Trump will feel OK stealing Obama’s policies, and then the country won’t be in such a dangerous place. And I know people might say, ‘Wait, Trevor, we can’t just just plagiarize President Obama, can we?’ And I say: Yes. Yes we can.

Here’s the whole segment:

Runners-up for Melania coverage were Bill Maher, who reached a similar conclusion by a somewhat crueler path:

She stole a speech about her parents teaching her values, confirming what Donald has always said: Immigrants steal. I hate to generalize, but Slovenia is not sending us its best people. They’re plagiarists, they’re models — some of them I assume are good people.

… And of course in the media this is the only story anybody cares about. Have they been watching this convention? These assholes cheered letting off the cops who killed Freddie Gray. They’re against health insurance and for coal mining. I want them to steal more ideas from Michelle Obama.

and Late Night‘s Seth Meyers, who had the best one-liner:

Melanie did it: She found something less original than being a model married to an old billionaire.

Throughout the week, Meyers had a series of on-point characterizations. Trump’s fog-and-silhouette entrance Monday was “like ET returning to Earth“. Chris Christie’s Tuesday-night speech — with it’s repeated calls to the audience to pronounce Clinton “guilty” — was “a Stalinesque show trial“. Ben Carson’s linking of Clinton to Saul Alinsky to the Rules for Radicals dedication and from there to Lucifer was “the old six-degrees-of-Satan technique“. In his acceptance speech Thursday, “Trump talked about America like he was pitching a post-apocalyptic show to the SyFy network.” And Marco Rubio appeared by video

probably in hopes that once he was projected on a giant screen, Trump would stop calling him Little Marco. “Did you see me Donald? I was 50 feet tall!”

After Ted Cruz’ boo-provoking refusal to endorse Trump, Meyers asked: “Is there anybody more comfortable being hated than Ted Cruz?” Which was followed by my favorite: After playing a clip of Cruz telling the Texas delegation:

That pledge [to support the nominee] was not a blanket commitment that if you go slander and attack Heidi, that I’m gonna nonetheless come like a servile puppy dog and say “Thank you very much for maligning my wife and maligning my father.”

he imagined Chris Christie’s response: “Ruff-ruff-ruff-ruff.”

About Christie’s speech: Trevor Noah demonstrated how easy it is to evoke the verdict you want from a friendly audience by getting the Daily Show audience to pronounce Christie guilty of Bridgegate and a variety of other things, some completely absurd. And he protested the RNC’s favoring a chant of “Lock her up” over any serious discussion of the issues facing ordinary Americans, by leading his audience in a chant of “Cut the shit.”

Daily Show reporters also had some good moments. Here, they ask conventioneers: “When was America last great?

Samantha Bee’s Monday-night time slot was mistimed for convention coverage, so instead she emphasized her journey to Cleveland, during which she stopped in on a moderate Republican politician from Pennsylvania.

SAMANTHA: So we’re stuck with this shit sandwich, let’s eat it.

REP. JIM CRISTIANA: I think that’s a fair way to characterize what I just said.

She also filed short updates from Cleveland.

Trump named Omarosa as his African-American outreach person. She is uniquely qualified, since she is actually the only African-American the campaign has ever reached out to.

Stephen Colbert brought back the Bill-O’Reillyish character from his old show, and did a “The Word” segment on “Trumpiness“.

Eleven years ago, I invented a word: truthiness. Truthiness is believing something that feels true,  even if it isn’t supported by fact. … I have to admit [Trump] has surpassed me now. Truthiness has to feel true, but Trumpiness doesn’t even have to do that. In fact, many Trump supporters don’t believe his wildest promises, and they don’t care.  … Truthiness was from the gut, but Trumpiness clearly comes from much further down the gastro-intestinal track.

Colbert rediscovered his alter ego when he tracked Jon Stewart to the wilderness cabin where he has been hiding, and called him back to service.

I found that segment surprising, because I was sure Jon was hiding in the ruins of the old Jedi temple on the planet Ahch-To. But Colbert’s mission led to Jon taking over Colbert’s Late Show desk Thursday night.

And Jon closed by addressing Sean Hannity and other conservative voices directly:

I see you. You’ve got a problem with those Americans fighting for their place at the table. You’ve got a problem with them because you feel like the — what’s Rep. Steve King’s word for it? — subgroups of Americans are being divisive. Well if you have a problem with that, take it up with the Founders: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Those fighting to be included in the ideal of equality are not being divisive. Those fighting to keep those people out, are.

Prior to the convention, Colbert took on a different character and invaded the podium to announce “The Hungry for Power Games“.

As for printed humor, Andy Borowitz is the champion.

Donald J. Trump was jubilant Thursday night after accomplishing his goal of delivering a speech that no one will ever want to plagiarize, Trump aides confirmed. …

“There was one sentence toward the beginning that had traces of humanity and rational thought,” Manafort said. “Fortunately, we caught it in time.”

Of course, we can’t forget the great Trump comedy pieces of previous weeks. Like Australian comedian Jim Jefferies’ Trump rant:

He’s a lot of fun. And there’s a little bit of me that thinks: “Fuck it. Let’s do it. Let’s do it and see how fucking crazy shit can get.”

… But this is where it’s not fun. … You’re a 16-year-old boy or girl that’s a Muslim living in this country. You’ve lived your entire life in this country. You’ve always considered yourself American. And then all of a sudden, someone who could be your president says “You are not welcome here” and that you should be put on a register. Now that kid … how fucking quickly do you think that kid could be radicalized now?

And Jimmy Kimmel’s parody of The Producers.

Finally, John Oliver summed it all up last night:

It was a four-day exercise in emphasizing feelings over facts. … This is a graph of the violent crime rate in the United States. It’s not a fucking Rorschach Test. You can’t infer anything you like from it. … [Newt Gingrich] just brought a feeling to a fucking fact fight. … I think we can all agree that candidates can create feelings in people. And what Gingrich is saying is that feelings are as valid as facts. So then, by the transitive property, candidates can create facts. Which is terrifying, because that means somebody like Donald Trump can essentially create his own reality.

OK, I have to admit: That part wasn’t funny. There was a lot to laugh at last week, but when you boil it all down, the scary essence is still there.

Even Charlie Chaplin couldn’t sum up the reality of The Great Dictator in a funny way. The climax of his movie was both serious and a fantasy.

We didn’t get that speech Thursday night. So after we laugh — and hopefully regenerate our energies by laughing — we have to go back to the reality of a frightening political situation.

The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech

Stopping Mexican or Muslim immigration will not make you safe.


To explain Donald Trump’s acceptance speech properly, I have to go back to two previous posts: 2015’s “How Propaganda Works”:

If your target audience has a flawed ideology, then your propaganda doesn’t have to lie to them. The lie, in some sense, has already been embedded and only needs to be activated.

and also 2012’s “How Lies Work“:

You can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

In other words, the central lie in an effective propaganda campaign is the one you never explicitly say. It’s out there already, sitting in the minds of your followers, so you just need to allude to it, suggest it, and bring it to consciousness in as many ways as you can. Your target audience will hear it, and afterwards most will believe you said it. But because you aren’t saying it in so many words, it’s immune to fact-checkers, and you barely need to defend it at all. Let PolitiFact and NPR carp all they want about the details of your speech. They can’t touch your central point because it’s not really there.

The explicit promise of Trump’s speech is that he will make the country safe, not just eventually after doing the long, hard work of changing public policy, but almost instantly.

The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon — and I mean very soon — come to an end. Beginning on January 20th 2017, safety will be restored.

So if you have been hiding under your bed, you’ll be able to come out next January.

This is the kind of sweeping pledge that ordinarily would be met with embarrassed laughter. It’s as if Barack Obama had promised not just that he would get health insurance for millions of people before he left office, but that all the uninsured would be covered by the time he got done with his inaugural address.

Imagine if Hillary Clinton were to promise this week in her acceptance speech that poverty and unemployment “will very soon come to an end, beginning on January 20”. I’m voting for Clinton, but I’d laugh at that promise. I might give her credit for good intentions, but systemic problems like poverty and unemployment are obviously beyond the power of presidential wand-waving.

So are crime and violence, but for some reason Trump’s audience was not laughing. Why not? What in the worldview of Trump or his followers makes it credible that “the crime and violence that afflicts our nation” can be ended “very soon” by presidential action?

If you don’t already know, the speech will not tell you. In fact, if you don’t already understand the big lie that the speech is based on, you will have a hard time making sense of it at all: The whole hour-plus speech will seem like a grab bag of loosely related anecdotes and factoids, many of which are false.

Since the speech never lays out that central claim, I will: The main threat to your personal safety is the street crime and terrorism brought to America by Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

If you hold that (false) fact in your head, the speech hangs together. Many of its details are still untrue, but at least it begins to tell a coherent story.

Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.

Here we begin to see how crime and violence might come within the president’s power, and what could instantly change on Inauguration Day: President Obama doesn’t enforce the law; President Trump will.

But what laws has President Obama stopped enforcing? Murder laws? Rape laws? No: In the American law enforcement system, those crimes are almost entirely the responsibility of state and local officials. But there is one kind of law that falls almost entirely under federal enforcement: immigration laws.

Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens. [See endnote 1.] The number of new illegal immigrant families who have crossed the border so far this year already exceeds the entire total of 2015. They are being released by the tens of thousands into our communities with no regard for the impact on public safety or resources.

Trump goes on to mention several individuals (some of whom previously spoke to the Convention) who are victims of violent crimes by Hispanic immigrants. The existence of such stories should not surprise anyone; it wouldn’t be hard to compile anecdotes of crimes by any reasonably large group of people, like the left-handed or the red-haired. What makes these immigrant-crime stories more than just talk is the unspoken implication that they illustrate some kind of trend: an immigrant crime wave.

But in reality, the anecdotes are just anecdotes: There is no trend. Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, commit fewer violent crimes per capita than American citizens. They are responsible for such a tiny amount of violent crime in America that, if Trump does manage to make them all disappear somehow, your safety will be virtually unaffected. In short: There is no immigrant crime wave.

One more thing you should notice in that quote: how effortlessly Trump glides from immigrant criminals to immigrant families, and from public safety to public resources. Since there are so few violent immigrant criminals, the white voters Trump is targeting are very unlikely to be their victims or to know any of their victims. But many white families send their children to school with Hispanic children whose immigration status they don’t know. (Most are either legal immigrants or American citizens.) The point of lumping families and criminals together is to imply that those Hispanic children are a threat to your white child. [2]

In addition to crime, Americans are afraid of terrorism. This is another part of “the crime and violence than today afflicts our nation”. The federal government has a key role to play in disrupting 9-11 style plots, in which terrorist groups conspire to kill large numbers of Americans. In recent years it has been doing that job very well (or else the threat is not a large as we thought immediately after 9-11). No plot remotely comparable to 9-11 has been carried out.

But it’s not clear how much the feds can do to stop lone-wolf terrorists like Dylann Roof (a native-born American white Christian who bought a gun legally and used it to kill nine members of a black Charleston church) or Omar Mateen (a native-born American Muslim of Afghan heritage who used legal guns to kill 49 people in a LGBT nightclub in Orlando). For every American who carries out an attack, countless others fantasize about one in some vague way, and may even discuss their fantasies on social media. We can’t lock them all up.

But Trump again ties this threat to immigration.

Lastly, and very importantly, we must immediately suspend immigration from any nation that has been compromised by terrorism until such time as proven vetting mechanisms have been put in place. We don’t want them in our country.

My opponent has called for a radical 550 percent increase — think of this, this is not believable, but this is what is happening — a 550 percent increase in Syrian refugees on top of existing massive refugee flows coming into our country already under the leadership of president Obama.

She proposes this despite the fact that there’s no way to screen these refugees in order to find out who they are or where they come from. I only want to admit individuals into our country who will support our values and love our people. [3]

The only Muslim immigrant tied to a recent terrorist act is Tashfeen Malik, half of the couple who killed 14 people in San Bernardino last December. (Her husband was native born, as was the shooter in Orlando. So were the assassins who killed police in Dallas and Baton Rouge.) She came to this country on a fiancée visa, not as part of any refugee program or by sneaking across a border. So even in that exceptional case, building a wall or refusing to help Syrian refugees would have made no difference. There is no Muslim refugee terrorism problem.

The real American terrorist threat is overwhelmingly homegrown, and includes white supremacists, violent anti-abortion activists, and Bundy-and-McVeigh-style anti-government militiamen, in addition to native-born ISIS-inspired jihadists. Nothing Trump has proposed will do anything to make you safer from them.

The speech then segues from fear of violence to economic fears, and again immigrants are at fault:

Decades of record immigration have produced lower wages and higher unemployment for our citizens

Two things to notice here: First, in TrumpWorld those low wages have nothing to do with the decline of unions, which has diminished workers’ negotiating power. They also have nothing to do with the decades-long decline in the inflation-adjusted minimum wage, which Trump wants to see continue. In short, anything real the government could do to improve the lot of low-wage workers has been pushed aside in order to scapegoat immigrants.

Second, and perhaps even more important, adjectives like illegal or undocumented have vanished: All immigrants are the problem now. Having raised fear with anecdotes of violent crime by undocumented Hispanic immigrants and implications that Muslim refugees are responsible for our terrorism problem, that fear is now channeled into anxieties about jobs and money, and targeted at everyone who comes to America, including those who come legally hoping to find legal jobs, as my ancestors did 150 years ago.

So now that I’ve laid out the larger structure of Trump’s speech, and the unspoken big lie that pulls it together, I invite you to go back and read his text end-to-end, preferably one of the versions annotated by fact-checkers. If, as you read, you bear in mind that there is no immigrant crime wave and no Muslim refugee terrorism problem, I predict that the speech’s whole theme will fall apart. You will be left with a collection of cherry-picked statistics and random falsehoods, which the fact-checkers can handle quite well.


[1] The Chicago Tribune adds context to this number:

The actual crimes committed by this group are not documented, however, so Trump cannot easily claim that all of these illegal immigrants “threaten peaceful citizens.” A significant percentage of their crimes involve immigration violations and nonviolent offenses, according to historical records.

In other words, we’re more likely to be talking about paper crimes, like faking a driver’s license or other ID, rather than the violent crimes Trump is implying. And that stands to reason: If you’re in this country without legal status, you’re trying to hide from authorities, not call attention to yourself by assaulting someone.

[2] Obama’s most obvious non-enforcement of immigration laws is that he is not deporting the Dreamers, those undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children, who grew up in the U.S. and know no other country. Trump’s rhetoric also makes them a threat to your child.

Today, Dreamer Astrid Silva addresses the Democratic Convention. I invite you to watch her and do your own threat evaluation.

[3] Fact-checkers can catch all the individual lies here: We are admitting only a tiny number of Syrian refugees, so even a 550% increase will still be just a drop in the bucket. (About 5000 since October 1, and 1682 in the year before that. For comparison, Germany already had about 100,000 Syrian refugees a year ago, and is talking about admitting 500K a year. There are about five million Syrian refugees worldwide — 11 million if you count the ones displaced to other parts of Syria.) We are vetting them extensively. So far, the refugees who make it through the U.S. vetting process are responsible for zero acts of terrorism.

The “support our values and love our people” line is a dog whistle to Islamophobes. Newt Gingrich spelled it out on July 14:

Let me be as blunt and direct as I can be: Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in Sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up Sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door.

As other people have explained in more detail, sharia is not the same as terrorism, and asking Muslims whether they “believe in” sharia is like asking Jews if they believe in the laws of Moses. At some level of interpretation, of course they do; but that doesn’t necessarily mean they intend to kill adulterers or gay men. Gingrich’s implication — that we can accept Muslims in America only if they don’t take their religion seriously — ought to offend any person who does take religion seriously.

BTW: Cutting off Syrian immigration means turning away Syrian Christians, who are being wiped out in some areas and whose relief is a special project of many Evangelicals. But if Trump makes an exception for them, then he’s back to having a religious test for letting people into the U.S.

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