Category Archives: Articles

White House, Inc.

How can something be a “conflict of interest” if the people who do it don’t seem conflicted about it? Josh Marshall raises a good point.

[S]top talking about ‘conflicts of interest’. Those are guide rails meant to help ethical people to stay ethical or unethical people put on a show of it. There’s no show here. Trump is openly using the Presidency as the world’s greatest marketing opportunity.

So, for example, his Mar-a-Lago Club (where he has been spending a lot of weekends and recently met with the Japanese Prime Minister) doubled its membership fees after the election, to $200K per year. It’s a direct payment for access to the president (or the appearance of access).

Melania’s defamation lawsuit against The Daily Mail is pretty explicit about the marketing opportunities she sees in being First Lady:

The economic damage to Plaintiff’s brand, and licensing, marketing and endorsement opportunities caused by publication of the Mail Online’s defamatory article is multiple millions of dollars. Plaintiff had the unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as an extremely famous and well-known person, as well as a professional model and brand spokesman, and successful businesswoman, to launch a broad-based commercial brand in multiple product categories, each of which could have garnered multi-million dollar business relationships for a multi-year term during which Plaintiff is one of the most photographed women in the world.

In retrospect, wasn’t it silly of Michelle Obama to waste her eight years of fame on unmarketable causes like childhood obesity? Pity poor Lady Bird Johnson, who spent her term as FLOTUS trying to “Make American Beautiful”, or foolish Nancy Reagan, who frittered away her “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” telling kids to “Just Say No” to drugs. How much cold, hard cash did any of them get for their efforts?

This week, Ivanka Trump’s prospects for plunder were in the spotlight. When Nordstrom’s dropped her brand because of falling sales, the President of the United States called them out. Richard Painter, who was an ethics lawyer in the Bush White House and is now at University of Minnesota, commented:

The president’s tweet — posted on his personal account and then re-sent from his White House account — is an act of intimidation. Nordstrom interacts with many executive branch agencies: the Department of Labor, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and others. Each one of these agencies will be headed by Trump appointees. Most will be staffed with other political appointees as well. The president is telling all of these people that he is very angry with Nordstrom. The message is clear, and it won’t take much for a political appointee in some agency to conceive of an ingenious way of ingratiating himself with the White House by making life difficult for the store chain.

… And now every other department store knows that it had better not make a similar “business decision” that displeases the president. In other words, do business with the Trump family and help the Trump family promote its products, or else.

Kellyanne Conway ingratiated herself with the president by doing some Ivanka marketing from the White House briefing room.

“It’s a wonderful line. I own some of it,” Conway told “Fox & Friends.” “I fully — I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.”

Conway’s remark appears to violate the executive branch’s ban on staff endorsing products or companies. The regulation, from the Office of Government Ethics, also prohibits using public office for private gain of oneself or friends or relatives.

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that Heather Nauert from Fox and Friends is looking for a job at the White House and also tweeting about buying Ivanka stuff “in solidarity”. She couldn’t possibly think that Trump family marketing is part of a government job, could she? Wherever would she get such a notion?

What makes this behavior particularly galling to Democrats is the hypocrisy of it: Not so long ago Trump was regularly attacking Hillary Clinton for the apparent (though not particularly real) conflict between her management of the State Department and her connection to the Clinton Foundation, from which the Clintons have never received any direct benefit. Now government employees are openly working to put money into the pockets of the Trumps, and it’s all good.

The Trump defense for this egregious behavior is his usual somebody-else-started-it: Ivanka’s brand was targeted by an social-media boycott campaign #GrabYourWallet. “They’re using her to get to him,” Conway said.

Here’s the point that observation should bring to mind: Trump and his advisors (which formally includes Ivanka’s husband Jared Kushner and in every practical sense includes Ivanka herself) should have divested their business interests and put their assets into blind trust. When public officials are actively involved in business, that opens them not just to bribery, but also to pressure from boycotts. But if the Trumps’ assets were in blind trust where they belong, #GrabYourWallet would be no threat to them.

As far as I can tell, no one in the White House is drawing that conclusion. Nothing I’m hearing from White House, Inc. indicates any sense of conflict over using the presidency to further the Trump family’s business interests. So if you want to talk about “conflicts of interest” talk about governing: It’s Trump’s responsibilities to the American people that he’s conflicted about, not his profiteering.

Your Sift-Archive Review for the Trump Era

Trump’s attempt to roll American history back to some previous era of “greatness” makes a number of old Sift articles relevant again. 


When you blog about current events for more than a decade, sooner or later you look into more or less everything. (I’m sure my friends are sick of hearing me say, “I wrote an article about that once” in response to whatever topic has entered the conversation. People who claim to have read about everything are boorish enough.) So when a world leader tries to reverse history and undo all the progress of the last eight years (or eight decades) — why else would the word again be in his slogan? — you wind up with a perpetual case of deja vu: Didn’t I cover this already?

Good communicators, like good teachers, are shameless about repeating themselves: If it comes up again, they cover it again. It’s foolish (not to mention arrogant) to imagine that your class or your readers have been hanging on your every word and remember perfectly all the points you made months or years ago. The great communicators develop catch-phrases that they keep coming back to, and somehow those phrases never sound old. (How many times, for example, has Paul Krugman satirized the Confidence Fairy, whose magic makes pro-plutocrat policies work out for everybody by raising investors’ and managers’ confidence in the economic future?)

I envy that skill, but I just can’t make myself imitate it. Whenever I start describing the same thing in the same way, I imagine some very smart regular reader saying, “Yeah, yeah, we know all this. Tell us something new.” It’s a weakness. Where, for example, would Donald Trump be if he didn’t hammer home the same false or ignorant points over and over? And his crowds never get bored with the repetition, even when it is so predictable that he can do call-and-response with them. (“Who’s going to pay for the wall?” “Mexico!”)

Anyway, this post is my attempt to start dealing with the inevitable repetition involved in America moving backwards. I’m not going to pretend I’m telling you something new. Instead, I’ll point you at the earlier posts and maybe make some comments about what has changed in the meantime.

Pipelines. Trump has put the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines back on the agenda. I’ve covered DAPL piecemeal (and probably inadequately) in the weekly summaries, but I wrote an article about Keystone in 2013: “A Hotter Planet is in the Pipeline“.

The basic reasoning of that article still holds: Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a long time, so even if atmospheric CO2 leveled off, we’ve already signed up for a century or so of increasing temperatures. If we burn all the fossil fuels on the planet, that would set off a true ecological catastrophe, putting into serious doubt the Earth’s ability to support a population anything like what we have. So some fossil fuels are going to have to stay in the ground, and the Canadian oil sands are good candidates for that role. So spending money to create infrastructure to make it easier and cheaper to produce Canadian oil-sand energy is a bad idea.

I point I should have hit harder: Pipelines are expensive to build but cheap to operate (compared to other methods of transportation like rail). So the justification for building one involves imagining that the pipeline operates for a long time. In other words, by building a pipeline we’re committing to keep burning large quantities of fossil fuels for decades.

What’s new in the pipeline debate since 2013 is that the pro-pipeline case has gotten worse due to falling oil prices and increased domestic production. The potential profitability of the pipelines has gone down, and the national-security case (i.e., Canadian production lowers our dependence on the volatile Middle East) is less urgent.

Dead voters. As part of his denial that he lost the popular vote, Trump made the claim to ABC that “dead people are registered to vote and voting“. Also in 2013, I covered one paradigmic example of that urban legend in “The Myth of the Zombie Voter“. Leaning heavily on an article from Free Times, I look at what happens when somebody seriously investigates one of those dead-people-are-voting stories you hear now and then.

In this one, the South Carolina Attorney General was on Fox News and a bunch of other conservative media with his claim that he had found 953 votes cast by people who had died before the election. He got that number by running a computer search of voter records versus death records over a decade, and then not thinking too hard about how somebody could wind up on both lists.

The State Election Commission — in South Carolina, mind you, so we’re not talking about a liberal bastion trying to cover its butt here — started investigating the 207 “dead voters” from the most recent election in 2010. They found innocent explanations that knocked that 207 down to 10 suspicious ballots. (For example, some living people mailed in legal absentee ballots, but then dropped dead before election day. In other cases, the poll watcher put a mistaken checkmark next to the name of the dead John Smith rather than the living John Smith. In a whole state, you’d be amazed how often stuff like that happens.) So they turned those ten cases over to the state police.

Having more manpower to devote to the task, the staties found innocent explanations for 7 of the 10, expressed doubt that even the other three were intentional fraud, and decided not to prosecute anyone. In sum, this is what the AG’s breathless hype boiled down to: Out of the 1.3 million votes cast in South Carolina in 2010, as many as three votes might have been cast illegally in the names of dead people, but the state police believe that zero dead voters is also a strong possibility.

Since 2013, I keep observing that this outcome is typical of massive-voter-fraud stories: There’s usually just enough evidence to make suspicion seem reasonable, but as soon as somebody gets serious about investigating, the case evaporates.

Terrorism. The possible return of torture, and a variety of other policies that are supposed to “get tough on terrorism” makes one very old post — it goes back to my Daily Kos days before I started the Sift — relevant: “Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz“, which I updated on its 10th anniversary in “Terrorist Strategy 101: a review” in 2014.

The point of both posts is that terrorists want you to “get tough” on them; that’s often the whole point of what they’re doing.

If you’re a would-be Supreme Leader, it’s a huge challenge: Around the world, people would rather get on with the business of living than give their all to the Great Struggle.

Somehow you have to screw that up.

So your big mission — which, ironically, you share with the extremists on the other side of the spectrum — is to flatten the bell curve. In order to bring your air-castles to Earth, you need to make the center untenable. All those folks who consider themselves moderates — if you let them, they’ll muddle along while you get old and the Great Historical Moment slips away. You need everyone to realize right now that compromise is impossible, the other side can’t be trusted, and we all have to kill or be killed.

Perversely, your best allies in this phase of the struggle are the people you hate most, who also hate you. Of course you’d never actually conspire with them, minions of Satan that they are. But you don’t need to, because the steps in your dance are obvious from either tail of the distribution: rachet up the rhetoric and escalate an attack-and-reprisal cycle until compromise really is impossible and everyone is radicalized. Only after the center is gone do the two extremes meet in the second round of the play-offs. It’s a very basic pattern of history, and it never changes: from Caesar/Pompey to Bin Laden/Cheney, extremists have to come in pairs, because they need each other.

So who is ISIS’ greatest ally in the world right now? Donald Trump.

Religious Freedom. Among other things, the Neil Gorsuch nomination represents the Religious Right’s first return on its investment: It surrendered all its principles by supporting a non-religious confessed pussy-grabber for president, and in exchange Trump has given them a Supreme Court justice.

What makes Gorsuch a hero to the RR is his appellate-level Hobby Lobby decision, which prefigured Justice Alito’s 5-4 majority opinion at the Supreme Court. I discussed what’s wrong with Alito’s decision in “How Threatening is the Hobby Lobby Decision?” But the more general piece I want to call attention to is the earlier “Religious Freedom Means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“.

[C]onservative Christians need to divert attention from the people they are mistreating by portraying themselves as the victims. And that requires cultivating a hyper-sensitivity to any form of involvement in activities they disapprove of. So rather than sympathize with the lesbian couple who gets the bakery door slammed in their faces, the public should instead sympathize with the poor wedding-cake baker whose moral purity is besmirched when the labor of his hands is used in a celebration of immorality and perversion.

There’s a name for this tactic: passive aggression.

Obviously, if we all developed such hyper-sensitivity and got the law to cater to us in this way, society would grind to a halt. Why should a Hindu waitress be forced to choose between losing her job and enabling your barbaric cow-eating? Why are atheist cashiers required to distribute pieces of paper that say “In God We Trust”?

So in practice, these are going to be special rights that apply only to Christians from relatively popular sects like the Catholics or the Baptists, or to people from smaller sects who agree with Catholics or Baptists on some particular point of doctrine. Seriously, is a court going to rule that a Christian Scientist nurse can refuse to participate in any healing activity other than prayer? Can a pharmacist who practices Dianic Wicca decide that distributing Viagra to men (who might be rapists, after all) violates her religion? [Full disclosure: The church I belong to is testing whether our religious freedom allows us to defy our local historical commission and put solar panels on our historic building. If more non-Baptist-or-Catholic groups sue for the same rights as popular Christians, these laws will fall of their own weight.]

The law as it was interpreted before Hobby Lobby and before the RFRA gave Americans all the religious freedom we need, as I outlined in 2015 in “Religious Freedom: Colorado’s Sensible Middle Way“:

Let me take this out of the gay-rights arena with a hypothetical example: Suppose I represent an atheist group that is about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. I go to a baker and ask for a cake. Suppose I want him to write “God is Dead” on the cake, and he refuses. If I sue, then I believe he should win the case, because his freedom of speech is violated if he’s forced to write something he doesn’t agree with.

But now suppose we didn’t get that far: As soon as I say why I want a cake, the baker responds, “I’m not going to make a cake for an atheist group.” All I want is a cake with a 10 on top of it, and he says no. Now if I sue, I believe I should win, because the baker is discriminating against atheists as a religious group. In other words, a business open to the public should be (and I believe is, without any new religious-freedom laws) free to refuse to endorse an idea, but it should not be free to refuse service to people merely because they practice or promote that idea.

Bigotry and Racism. Wednesday, Ted Cruz called the Democrats “the party of the Ku Klux Klan“, a charge that never seems to die, no matter how out-of-date it is. In 2012, I did the research and spelled out how white racists moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party over a period of decades in “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“.

The Jeff Sessions nomination brought the usual squeals of horror that Democrats wanted to talk about race. One of the constant myths of American politics is that liberals throw around charges of bigotry and racism lightly, as ways to shut conservatives up. The truth is quite the opposite: Conservatives have redefined bigotry and racism so tightly that they become practically useless concepts.

Last summer I spelled this out in “What Should Racism Mean? Part II“:

In today’s Newspeak, as spoken by devotees of AmCon, racism has been stripped of all meanings beyond getting up in the morning and saying “I don’t like Mexicans, I’m going to go out and try to make them look bad.” It applies to active white supremacists like David Duke, and no one else.

Part I was from 2014. It lists a series of incidents where President Obama and his family provoked outrage by doing things that all presidents and their families do, but which had never bothered anybody when the president was white. Admittedly, that’s not KKK-style racism, but it’s something.

If you don’t want to call it racism, fine. But it’s a real phenomenon; it needs a name. What do you call it? … For a lot of whites who don’t harbor any conscious racial malice, things just look different when blacks do them. What do you call that?

And the answer, of course, is that conservatives don’t want to call it anything. They would rather never talk about it.

And finally, combining this category with the religious freedom category above, is the Sift’s third-most-popular post ever “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot“. It reviews the long (and mostly forgotten) history of religious and intellectual justifications of bigotry, which were created and believed by generations of people who claimed (probably sincerely, most of them) that they didn’t hate anybody.

With no one left to defend them, our memory of the social conservatives of the past reduces to Simon Legree, KKK lynch mobs, police unleashing dogs and fire hoses against peaceful marchers, and the white rabble screaming obscenities at little black girls on their way to school. The thoughtful, intellectual, devout defenders of an unjust status quo are forgotten, because their memory embarrasses their heirs.

Consequently, in every generation, the well-considered, devout bigotry of nice people is presented to the world as a new thing. They’re nothing like the villains we recall from past social-justice movements. This time they have good reasons to block progress. They have looked deep into their souls and read their Bibles and taken it to the Lord in prayer. They don’t hate anybody, they just believe that the world as it was when they were growing up was endorsed by God, and they want to stop today’s amoral radicals from upsetting God’s appointed order.

In other words, they are just like every generation of social conservatives before them.

So that’s this week’s trip down Memory Lane. As we keep moving backwards, I suspect it won’t be the last.

What to do with Neil Gorsuch?

If these were normal times, if, say, Antonin Scalia had dropped dead yesterday, leaving new Republican President Jeb Bush (elected, as presidents usually are, with more votes than the other major-party candidate) the opportunity to nominate Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, I’d expect Gorsuch to be confirmed without a lot of bother.

I’d be bummed at the prospect of that seat remaining conservative for another 30-40 years. And I’d find a lot to criticize in Gorsuch’s approach to the law — mainly that he’s far too willing to side with the powerful against the powerless, and to invent new constitutional rights for corporations and fundamentalist Christians. But he is within the broad stream of American jurisprudence, and people who understand these things better than I do consider him an outstanding example of a conservative judge.

The Founders intended presidents to pick judges, and for the Senate to use its advise-and-consent power to weed out incompetence and cronyism. Gorsuch isn’t a Trump crony, and he seems competent. So after some hearings and speeches and a good look around for skeletons in his closet, I’d expect him to be confirmed with a large number of Democratic votes.

In normal times. Lawrence Lessig is looking at it pretty much the same way:

In normal times, with a normal (right wing) president, Neil Gorsuch would be a fine nominee for the Supreme Court. One can disagree with his views (I do); one can disagree with the manner in which he understands “originalism” (I do, in part). But if you believe (as I do) that an ordinary President has an ordinary right to choose the political character of his or her Supreme Court nominee, then, in ordinary times, the only question should be whether the nominee is qualified. Gorsuch is at least an order of magnitude better than qualified. He is a great, if very conservative, judge.

But these are not ordinary times.

No, they aren’t. The reason this seat is open is that the Republican Senate blockaded it during the last year of the Obama administration. If they had objected to Merrick Garland for some reason, they could have voted him down and Obama could have nominated someone else. Maybe Obama and McConnell could even have gotten together and agreed on somebody, moving the two parties back from the civil-war path they’ve been on for several years.

Voting down Garland would have been unprecedented in itself, because he is exactly the kind of experienced, respected, well-within-the-mainstream judge who usually sails through the Senate. But at least formally it would have fit the constitutional model. Instead, by simply refusing to hold hearings and announcing explicitly that they would similarly refuse any other Obama nominee, regardless of qualifications, Senate Republicans moved completely out of the previous course of American history.

That’s why it’s ironic that Gorsuch bills himself as an originalist, a judge who tries to find the lawmakers’ original intent and rule according to it — because the only reason this seat is open at all is that Republicans decided to let the Founders’ original intent be damned.

But their guy is in the White House now, so they want to turn the normal rules back on again, like the kid on the playground who calls time-out just before you tag him, and time-in when he’s safe on base. The question is whether Democrats should let them get away with it, and, if not, what the other options are.

This isn’t a stand-alone circumstance; it’s  part of the long-term decline of America’s democratic norms, which I’ve been writing about for several years (most recently when the Republicans blocked Garland). The model I always cite is the decline of the Roman Republic, where the norms were repeatedly whittled down for about a century until they were ultimately swept away by Augustus, who established the Empire.

Moments like this underline just how difficult it is to escape that downward spiral: Giving in won’t get you out of it, and there is usually not a reprisal option of just the right size to make your point without pushing further down the spiral.

For example, suppose Senate Democrats decided that they wanted to set a good example for future opposition parties and consider Gorsuch on his merits, independent of the history of this vacancy. In other words, they would accept getting rooked out of a liberal Supreme Court majority, in exchange for ending the cycle of attack-and-reprisal. They would sacrifice their partisan interests for the greater good of democracy in the United States.

The problem: This gracious move wouldn’t end the cycle of attack-and-reprisal. Quite the opposite, it would establish the precedent that Republicans can suspend democratic norms whenever it works to their advantage, and pay no price for it. It’s like when some guy sucker-punches you and then wants to declare peace. Agreeing to that deal won’t get you peace, it will just get you sucker-punched again somewhere down the line.

But what’s the alternative? Democrats are at a 48-52 disadvantage, so they can only block Gorsuch by filibustering. Republicans might then decide to escalate further by eliminating the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations (the only kind of nomination that was exempted when the Democrats limited the filibuster after Republicans came up with the unprecedented tactic of blockading positions entirely rather than just blocking particular nominees for cause). And if they don’t nuke the filibuster, and Gorsuch gets blocked, then what? Do the same thing with the next nominee, on and on for four years? That would also be an escalation. (Some Republicans threatened to do this if Hillary Clinton got elected, but it’s not clear whether they would have held together on that point.)

There is no reprisal of precisely the right size, and so we’re left with bad choices. Ideally, the process would go like this: Democrats would block Gorsuch, and Republicans would then negotiate in good faith, resulting in a nominee who moved the Court closer to consensus than to polarization. In other words, a new swing vote — someone ideologically between the most liberal conservative justice (Kennedy) and the most conservative liberal justice (Breyer). In other words, somebody in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor. (It’s worth pointing out that Justice Garland would have fit that description as well. Obama was trying to do the right thing, and was spurned by Republicans.)

Do I expect that to happen? No. But I think we need to start down that road and let the Republicans be the ones to step off of it. So I support filibustering Gorsuch, while wishing somebody would offer me another viable option.


The argument Republicans made last year was that the American people should decide whether the Court flips from a conservative majority to a liberal majority. That’s explicitly not what the Founders wanted — they intentionally insulated the Court from politics — but even on those terms Gorsuch should be rejected, because the American people did not vote for Trump. As I said two weeks ago, Trump winning in the Electoral College makes him president; but losing the popular vote by such a wide margin wipes out any claim he might have to a mandate from the people. He certainly received no mandate to move the Court to the right.


If we ever do get back to a sane judicial appointment process, one piece of it should be that presidents stop appointing such young justices. Gorsuch is 49. If he lives as long as Ruth Bader Ginsberg already has, he’ll still be on the Court in 2051. This is a bipartisan thing, as presidents attempt to extend their influence as far into the future as possible: John Roberts was 50 when he joined the Court, Sonia Sotomayor 45.

This is another way that Merrick Garland would have been a step in the right direction, since he is 64. The Supreme Court ought to be the capstone of a long, distinguished career, not an attempt to claim an advantage 30 years in the future. It used to be that way: Oliver Wendell Holmes was 61 when Teddy Roosevelt appointed him in 1902. Thurgood Marshall was 59.

Another way to achieve the same result would be to term-limit Supreme Court justices at, say, 20 years. But that would take a constitutional amendment. Lifetime appointments were supposed to shield the Court from outside influences: It would be your final job, so you couldn’t be threatened with firing or bribed with the offer of a position after you left the Court. We’d have to address that problem some other way, but it doesn’t seem unsolvable.


Lawrence Lessig makes an alternative proposal: Gorsuch gets a hearing after McConnell resigns as majority leader. He calls it a “hypocrisy tax”. I think that’s about as likely to happen as getting an O’Connor-like replacement for Gorsuch.


Richard Primus expresses a somewhat nuanced approach on Balkinization: Yes, the Senate did wrong by Garland, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that the Republic survived Scalia and it will survive Gorsuch as well; the real threat is Trump. So the opposition to Gorsuch should always have its eye on Trump.

the Democrats need to see the confirmation process as an opportunity for shaping public discussion about Trump rather than as an occasion for attacking Gorsuch. Time spent attacking Gorsuch in particular (whether about qualifications or about substantive views or pretty much anything else) might not be time well spent: he is going to be confirmed. But what Democrats can do, I’d think, is keep saying that we are only here because the Republicans stonewalled a nominee at least as qualified as Gorsuch for no justifiable reason, and that the plurality of American voters voted to authorize Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, to fill the seat. They can ask Gorsuch himself to stand by his earlier written statements that Garland was a highly qualified nominee (for the DC Circuit) and to ask him whether the stonewall was appropriate. And they can ask him what he thinks about all sorts of Trump’s actions and statements. Is it appropriate for a public official to attack a federal judge as biased on the grounds of the judge’s ethnicity? What is the point of the Emoluments Clause? Do you think that this or that statement (quoted from Trump) is consistent with our constitutional values? And so on. Gorsuch might or might not answer, but the Democrats should find good ways to keep asking and to make those questions a big part of what people hear and talk about when they hear and talk about this process.

I don’t see why we can’t oppose both Gorsuch and Trump, but I agree this far: Personal attacks on Gorsuch, beyond his legal record, distract from the main narrative — unless somebody discovers something so damning that it will turn Republicans against him.

The Ban: Ten Days of Drama

It’s hard to believe how much drama has played out in the last ten days. Even the Advise and Consent style political novels I loved in high school didn’t move this fast.

It all started a week ago Friday, when President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 (a.k.a “the Muslim ban” and “it’s not a Muslim ban“) which Wikipedia summarizes like this:

The order limited refugee arrivals to 50,000 and suspended the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for 120 days, after which the program would be conditionally resumed for individual countries while prioritizing refugee claims from persecuted minority religions. The order also indefinitely suspended the entry of Syrian refugees. Further, the order suspended the entry of alien nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries — Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen — for 90 days, after which an updated list will be made. The order allows exceptions to these suspensions on a case-by-case basis. The Department of Homeland Security later exempted U.S. lawful permanent residents (green card holders).

The immediate result was chaos. The order had been reviewed by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for “form and legality”, but beyond that was pretty much unvetted, parts of it apparently leaping straight into the world from Steve Bannon’s brain like a malformed Athena from a not-very-godlike Zeus-wannabee. Congressional leaders were not consulted. (Though Trump apparently was helped by Republican congressional staffers who were obliged by a non-disclosure agreement not to tell their bosses; so far history does not record what the out-in-the-cold Republican congressmen think of that.) The border-control officials who were supposed to implement the ban in America’s airports were not briefed in advance. (NYT: “customs and border control officials got instructions at 3 a.m. Saturday and some arrived at their posts later that morning still not knowing how to carry out the president’s orders.”)

People already in the air, including permanent legal residents (i.e. green-card holders) who were returning to their jobs or students with valid visas coming back to their universities, were sent back or detained in airports. City University of New York claims it has 100 students from the affected countries. Two Iraqis who had helped the American military and feared for their lives if they had to return to Iraq were detained at JFK airport.

The public response was immediate. On Saturday, crowds of protesters spontaneously formed at JFK and other airports. By 9 p.m., a federal judge had issued an order preventing the administration from sending the detainees back where they came from. Sunday, the administration backed off of the restrictions on green-card holders.

Internal dissent. On Monday, acting Attorney General Sally Yates (an Obama appointee held over until Trump can get his own AG approved) ordered the Justice Department not to defend Trump’s order in court.

I am responsible for ensuring that the positions we take in court remain consistent with this institution’s solemn obligation to always seek justice and stand for what is right. At present, I am not convinced that the defense of the Executive Order is consistent with these responsibilities nor am I convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.

Also on Monday, an internal State Department dissent-channel memo — reportedly with over 1000 signatures — leaked to the press. It called the Trump order “counter-productive” and said

Looking beyond its effectiveness, this ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.

Rejecting the whole concept of internal dissent from experienced professionals, Press Secretary Sean Spicer called the signers “career bureaucrats” and responded that “they should either get with the program or they can go”. Yates was fired Monday night in typical Trump fashion; the White House statement descended from policy disagreement into personal insult: Yates had “betrayed the Justice Department” and was “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration”. (One of Trump’s most disturbing traits is his apparent belief that it’s not enough simply to overcome opposition; the people who oppose him must be shamed and punished. This authoritarian impulse alone should have disqualified him from the presidency.)

Also Monday night, Samantha Bee weighed in.

Defiance. Throughout the week, court orders piled up from judges around the country, and multiple reports indicated that the Trump administration was at best slow-rolling its compliance and at worst simply defying the orders. Friday Politico reported:

Hours after a federal judge ordered customs officers to provide lawyers to travelers detained at Dulles airport last Saturday, senior Trump administration officials instructed the guards to give the travelers phone numbers of legal services organizations, ignoring a mass of lawyers who had gathered at the airport. Most of the legal services offices were closed for the weekend, effectively preventing travelers with green cards from obtaining legal advice.

The move was part of what lawyers contend was a series of foot-dragging actions by the administration that appeared to violate court orders against the Trump’s controversial travel ban. … The [Customs and Border Protection] officers at airports were not rogue individual actors, according to the documents obtained and people interviewed by POLITICO. Rather, the agents on the ground were following orders from high in their chain of command.

For example, a federal judge in Boston ordered the administration to admit travelers with valid visas. The travelers did not get into the country, though, because the administration claimed it had the power to revoke those visas. Slate‘s Jeremy Stahl interviewed an immigration lawyer, who concluded:

When you have an executive that is acting the way that Donald Trump is acting and not controlling what his officers are doing in noncomplying, that’s a constitutional—that’s leading to a constitutional crisis.

Yonatan Zunger put a dark spin on it:

[T]he administration is testing the extent to which the DHS (and other executive agencies) can act and ignore orders from the other branches of government. This is as serious as it can possibly get: all of the arguments about whether order X or Y is unconstitutional mean nothing if elements of the government are executing them and the courts are being ignored.

Yesterday was the trial balloon for a coup d’état against the United States. It gave them useful information.

Writing on the Lawfare blog, Ben Wittes put a dark spin on the whole enterprise: He thinks the ban’s whole purpose is to appeal to the anti-Muslim bigots in Trump’s base, and has nothing to do with keeping Americans safe.

Put simply, I don’t believe that the stated purpose is the real purpose. This is the first policy the United States has adopted in the post-9/11 era about which I have ever said this. It’s a grave charge, I know, and I’m not making it lightly. But in the rational pursuit of security objectives, you don’t marginalize your expert security agencies and fail to vet your ideas through a normal interagency process. You don’t target the wrong people in nutty ways when you’re rationally pursuing real security objectives.

When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do.

Where it stands. Friday, a federal court ruling came down from Judge James Robart in Seattle, applying nationally and stated in as sweeping terms as possible, clearly intending to allow no wiggle room. Saturday, the Trump administration said it would comply, pending appeal.

Meanwhile, a State Department spokesperson tells NPR that officials with the department are also adhering to the decision. The department has provisionally revoked somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000 individuals’ visas, according to different accounts; under Saturday’s announcement, the State Department says that move has been reversed — and that “individuals with visas that were not physically cancelled may now travel if the visa is otherwise valid.”

Trump again personalized the conflict, tweeting:

The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!

(Lots of people pointed out that Robart’s claim to be a judge is at least as good, if not better, than Trump’s claim to be a president.) Late Saturday night, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the Justice Department’s motion to reverse the suspension of Trump’s executive order. The order will remain suspended until the court can make a ruling on the merits of the case. That could happen as early as today, or not.

Over the weekend, congressional Republicans gave strong indications that they don’t want this conflict to escalate to a constitutional crisis. Sunday, Mitch McConnell, who (like Paul Ryan) has been stepping very carefully to avoid the President’s sensitive toes, told CNN’s Jake Tapper:

The courts are going to decide whether the executive order the President issued is valid or not, and we all follow court orders.

The unstated implication is: “You’d better follow them too.”

What will the courts decide? Deborah Pearlstein posted a good summary of the arguments both ways on Jack Balkin’s legal blog Balkinization. And the answer is: It’s a close call.

On the one hand, the Constitution gives the President a lot of power to manage our dealings with other countries, and Congress has supplemented that power in various ways over the years. So the administration has a lot of possible arguments it might make to defend its actions.

On the other hand, courts often look beyond simple questions of authority to rule on intent: If your clear intent is to achieve an unconstitutional result, then a court might block your actions even if they fall within the letter of your legal powers. A good example of this came last summer, when a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter-suppression law. Everything in the law — changing the dates and hours of early voting, requiring IDs, etc. — was within the legislature’s power. But the fact that legislators researched how and when black North Carolinians vote, and then systematically restricted their favorite options, pushed the law beyond the pale.

Here, there is a clear record of intent to create a religious test for entering the United States, which would be unconstitutional. Trump promised a Muslim ban during his campaign. Advisors like Rudy Giuliani have spoken in public about coaching Trump on how to “do it legally” by focusing on the threat of terrorism from particular countries rather than on religion. The order’s provisions to prioritize religious minorities for exceptions to the ban seems intended to make sure Christians aren’t caught in a ban intended for Muslims. (If the administration is serious about offering refuge to persecuted religious minorities, that provision should apply to a lot of Muslims as well: Shia in Sunni-majority countries, Sunni in Shia-majority countries, and Sufis and other smaller Muslim sects everywhere. Will it? Or is it just a Christian loophole?)

Will that be enough to convince an appeals court, and to split the 4-4 Supreme Court so that it doesn’t overrule? Maybe. But even if it does, that ruling is likely to illuminate a path that would allow some future objectionable executive order to pass legal muster.

Then what? Pearlstein says it’s not enough to count on the courts: Protesters need to focus their attention on Congress as well:

There is, however, one foolproof way to ensure the President’s order in its current form does not stand. And it lies with the body that gave the President the authority to issue it in the first place. A growing, bipartisan group of congressional representatives have expressed concern about the order’s scope and effect. And while Senator McConnell has proposed the matter be left to the courts to decide, it is not wise – and should not be easy – for Congress to avoid responsibility here. At a minimum, it would be a serious strategic mistake for the many groups sprung up post-election to push back against the new administration not to focus some of their energies on demanding Congress act.

So far, McConnell, Ryan, and other congressional Republicans have had it both ways: They can tut-tut about executive overreach and incompetent implementation, while remaining uncommitted about the order’s overall intent. As much as possible, the public needs to pin them down. If a Muslim ban (or something like it) is a good thing, then Congress should authorize it. If not, it should establish specific boundaries on the President’s power.

The legitimacy and illegitimacy of Donald Trump

Is Donald Trump a legitimate president? Yes and no.


Not since Abraham Lincoln had to sneak into Washington has a president entered office facing so much organized opposition. Saturday, the day after his inauguration, marches explicitly for women’s rights (and implicitly against Donald Trump) were held all over the country, drawing (by some estimates) more than 3 million participants, and perhaps more than 4 million. The picture above is from much earlier demonstrations in the days following the election, but on the Boston Common Saturday I did see “Not My President” signs. During the boisterous moments before the official speakers took the stage, a “not my president” chant started in my section of the crowd, but quickly fizzled. [1]

It’s not just demonstrators. Last weekend, Congressman John Lewis told NBC’s Chuck Todd “I don’t see Trump as a legitimate president“, citing Russian interference in the election as a reason. Other observers — mostly Democrats, but not entirely — have given other reasons to regard Trump’s victory as shaky or suspicious: Hillary Clinton got nearly three million more votes than he did, winning the national vote 48%-46%. Trump was also assisted by the apparently improper interference of FBI Director James Comey. [2]

Trump has tried to bluster over such talk by tweeting about his “landslide” in the Electoral College, and making baseless charges about “the millions of people who voted illegally” for Clinton. The word legitimate came into the discussion from Trump’s supporters’ accusation that critics were trying to “delegitimatize”  his presidency. [3] By using that word, Lewis was swinging at the pitch thrown by Trump spokespeople like Kellyanne Conway.

So is he legitimate or not? On both sides, I think we’re getting lost in the vagueness of a word. What does it mean to be a “legitimate” president? I can’t speak for all the people who can’t bring themselves to call him “Mr. President”, but I thought I’d lay out exactly how legit I think Trump is, and what difference it makes.

Legal authority and moral authority. What confuses the issue, in my opinion, is that the presidency is really two things: on the one hand a legal office defined by the Constitution, but also a title evoking a much larger and fuzzier penumbra of traditional respect and moral authority. The President of the United States is not just the one who signs or vetoes laws, or gives orders to the Joint Chiefs. He is also the heir of Washington and Lincoln, the symbol and spokesman for the American people, the leader of the free world, and the recipient of the voters’ national mandate. Americans look to their president to express our collective sorrow in moments tragedy, and our resilience in the face of disaster. In our name, he recognizes outstanding achievements, and honors champions of sport and culture. We look to the president for direction in times of trouble. The Constitution says nothing about any of that.

In my mind, the legal office is really not in doubt. Congress counted the electoral votes and verified that Trump had a majority of them. So in the technical, legal sense spelled out in the Constitution, he is the President of the United States. All the powers the Constitution assigns to the President, or that Congress has delegated to him by law, are his to wield. [4]

As for the rest of it, though, Trump at this point deserves nothing, as far as I’m concerned. He is not my leader, and I do not respect him. He has no moral authority, because he deserves none. He carries no mandate, because the voters chose someone else. Our allies view him with suspicion, as they should. So he has the powers spelled out in the Constitution, period.

To a large extent, Trump has created this situation himself: When tradition would put burdens on him beyond those imposed by law, he sloughs those burdens off. [5] It is, after all, only tradition that insists that candidates reveal their tax returns or presidents put their assets in blind trust. Nothing in the Constitution requires that a president act presidential, rather than respond to even the most respectful criticism like a third-grader in a playground argument. [6] No law requires the winner of an election to be gracious, or to reach out to those who voted for other candidates, rather than gratuitously gloat over “my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly“. [7]

On top of his vote deficiency and his unworthy behavior since the election, his entire life shows him to be a genuinely reprehensible person. He assaulted those women. He defrauded those Trump U students. He stiffed those contractors. This is the heir of Washington and Lincoln?

The significance of moral authority. If you think it is toothless to deny Trump the intangible, extra-constitutional benefits of the presidency, consider how often he and his supporters ask for them.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that the election settled all the issues that were raised about him during the campaign. He shouldn’t have to account for his conflicts of interest, for example, because the American people knew that when they voted for him. There is no point in continuing to discuss the pussy-grabbing or the defrauding or the stiffing. Or his bigoted attacks on Mexicans or Muslims, or his mimicry of a reporter’s disability. The election washed all that away, as if the electorate were a 130-million-member jury that voted for acquittal.

If Republicans genuinely believed such a clean-slate theory of elections, then President Obama’s clear victory in 2012 would have washed away Benghazi, making all further hearings and rhetoric irrelevant and immaterial. But in Trump’s case even the internal logic of the theory doesn’t work, because the American people did not vote for him. The Electoral College may provide a legal loophole that allows him to take office, but it doesn’t grant absolution. The American people endorsed the case against Donald Trump; he still needs to answer it.

A related claim is that the millions of protesters are misguided, because we need to “give the guy a chance“. Similarly, the Senate should give his cabinet picks the benefit of the doubt, even those who are manifestly unqualified, don’t understand the laws they’re supposed to enforce, have a suspect history on racial issues, or appear to be corrupt.

But none of that is in the Constitution. Constitutionally, nobody has to give Trump or his people a chance, or any benefit of the doubt. He needs to earn all that, and he hasn’t.

Much of Trump’s power over Republicans in Congress, or his hope of intimidating red-state Democrats, comes from an intangible aura of popularity: If elected officials oppose him, his voters will rise up and smite them. That’s why it’s not just legitimate, it’s vitally important to focus public attention on the fact that he is not popular and he has never been popular. Mass demonstrations do that, and so do polls that show Trump’s approval at unprecedented lows for an incoming president. [8]

And finally, I sincerely doubt that the constitutional powers of the presidency are what Trump was aiming for when he ran. He has never shown much interest in governing or in public policy of any sort. I suspect it was the splendor of the presidency that appealed to him, and that is precisely what President Forty-six Percent must be denied unless or until he earns it.

How could he gain legitimacy? To say that Trump can’t be my president unless he agrees with me would deny the whole basis of republican government. We all lose elections from time to time, and we need to learn how to live with that. What keeps Trump from being a fully legitimate president has nothing to do with his beliefs or policies, and everything to do with how he behaves. He could gain legitimacy if he worked at it.

How? To be blunt, he could start by not acting like such an asshole all the time. [Look at note 5 again. I’m using asshole not as an insult, but as a well-defined descriptive term.] A good beginning would be to stop using the word enemies to refer to law-abiding Americans who wish we had a different president, or to journalists who report true things he’d rather people didn’t notice. It was bad enough when Nixon maintained an enemies list in secret. For the President of the United States to use that word in public to refer to anyone short of an ISIS leader is way beyond the pale.

To put that more personally: I will never recognize any man as my leader who uses the word enemy to refer to people like me, or one who takes visible pleasure in insulting me.

He could recognize and carry out the obligations that tradition puts on him, rather than simply claim the benefits. He could release his tax returns and stop setting his business up to profit from his presidency. He could apply the same moral standards to his appointees that all previous presidents have applied to theirs. [9]

He could approach his job with seriousness, and not speak unless he knows what he’s talking about. He could stop telling lies so obvious that they insult our intelligence, like the ones this weekend about the size of his inaugural crowd.

That’s what most of us mean when we say presidential. But if he won’t even attempt to become presidential, then to me he will continue to be president only in a technical legal sense.


[1] “Not my president” didn’t start with Trump protesters. It was also said about Obama and Bush.

[2] Lewis’ statement, as well as expressions of outrage by many other Democratic congresspeople, followed a classified briefing from Comey about the FBI’s investigation of the ties between the Trump campaign and the Putin government. We don’t know exactly what was said in this briefing, but a reasonable guess is that Democrats were angered by Comey’s blatant double standard: When Trump was the target, Comey upheld the FBI policies of not discussing investigations. But he repeatedly made damaging public comments based on investigations of Clinton.

[3] This charge was somewhere between ironic and hypocritical, since Trump himself had literally tried to delegitimize Obama’s presidency by promoting the belief that he isn’t a native-born American, as the Constitution requires. And after Obama’s re-election in 2012, he tweeted: “We can’t let this happen. We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!”

[4] Trump enters office under an ethical cloud that some think should lead to his impeachment, but that’s a different issue. There are legal methods for removing a president from office, and none of them have been carried out yet. So he is president under the law.

[5] In his insistence that he should receive the intangible benefits of the presidency, but shoulder none of the intangible responsibilities all other presidents have taken on, Trump is fulfilling the definition of asshole that Aaron James laid out in 2012 in his book Assholes: a theory.

A person counts as an asshole when, and only when, he systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages in interpersonal relationships out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people. … His circumstances are special in each case, in his view, because he is in them. If one is special on one’s birthday, the asshole’s birthday comes every day.

The asshole, in one paradigmic example, is the guy who cuts to the front of the line while believing firmly in the importance of lines

[6] I found his denunciation of the cast of Hamilton particularly noteworthy. If you watch the video of the event, the cast’s message for Vice President-Elect Mike Pence was entirely respectful, expressing no hostility. (“There’s nothing to boo here,” spokesman Brandon Dixon said to silence the audience.) Instead, they confessed to being “alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us” and encouraged Pence “to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us”.

Trump’s response (via Twitter) was not just to punch down, but to answer a respectful request for reassurance with personal insult:

The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior

[7] Contrast this with how Lincoln, another president elected with less than a majority, closed his first inaugural address:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

[8] Since Trump must denounce any mirror that doesn’t show him to be the fairest of them all, he claims these polls are rigged.

The same people who did the phony election polls, and were so wrong, are now doing approval rating polls. They are rigged just like before.

The flaw in this point of view is that although a few state polls (like Michigan) were badly wrong, the national polls were pretty close. The final RCP polling average had Clinton winning nationally by 3.2%. She actually won by 2.1%. There was a much bigger error in the opposite direction in 2012: the RCP final average was that Obama would win by less than 1%, and he actually won by nearly 4%.

Errors of that magnitude wouldn’t salvage Trump’s approval/disapproval spread, which is currently at -8.1% and dropping. Traditionally, pre-inauguration is when Americans are most optimistic about their new presidents. Gallup had Obama at +71% going into his inauguration in 2009. Even popular-vote-loser George W. Bush came in at +36%.

[9] HHS nominee Tom Price profited by trading healthcare stocks while he had inside knowledge of the industry through his position in Congress, and supported legislation that benefited his companies. Treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin “failed to disclose nearly $100 million of his assets on Senate Finance Committee disclosure documents and forgot to mention his role as a director of an investment fund located in a tax haven.”  The Senate should not have to vote on these men; their nominations should be withdrawn. These are not close calls.

Trump’s Toothless Plan to Avoid Conflicts of Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell, Mr. President

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

How Populism Goes Bad

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


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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go through that in more detail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

All Democrats have some introspecting to do

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of “This Can’t Be Happening”

In the 2015 Yearly Sift, I wrote:

I started 2015 with clear expectations about how I’d cover the campaign. But by Fall, I had to back up and try to answer a more fundamental question than the ones I ‘d been addressing: WTF? … I think I’ll be working on that question for a considerable chunk of the year to come.

That was the best prediction I made all year. For me, the continuing mystery of 2016 was why anyone was voting for Donald Trump. I believed about him then more or less what I believe about him now: He has no qualifications to be president, and no insights about America that deserve a serious person’s attention. Truth means nothing to him. His life demonstrates no interest in anyone but himself and no discernible moral code. He brings out the worst in his followers, encouraging them to be more selfish, more hateful, and less thoughtful.

So why do so many people want him to be our president?

My first post of the new year flashed back to a post I wrote about the Tea Party in 2011: Working-class voters’ rage is like the famous wrong-way touchdown Jim Marshall scored in 1965. They have a right to be angry and to want to “take our country back”, but they’re trying to take it back from the wrong people. It’s not government and bureaucrats who have been stealing their opportunities, it’s corporations and billionaires. The Tea Party’s success had in fact given power to congressional Republicans who were doing their best to empower those oppressors and keep working people down. In short: They’re running the wrong way.

The only time working people have actually succeeded in taking the country back and bettering their lot was when they got behind a liberal: FDR.

You know who is offering a program to take our country back? Bernie Sanders. Like FDR, he wants to create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure, investing money in things that produce economic growth, like roads and rail lines and airports and the electrical grid — not a wall across the middle of the desert. He has offered the only realistic plan to replace ObamaCare without cutting off millions of people’s health insurance. He’s behind a higher minimum wage. He wants everybody to be able to afford a college education. He advocates breaking up the big banks, so that they never again have the economy over a barrel like they did in 2008. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that gives Congress back the power the Supreme Court took away with the Citizens United decision: the power to keep billionaires from buying our political system.

Those plans would make a real difference in the lives of working people. But there is a downside, if you want to call it that: Rich people and corporations would have to pay more tax, and Wall Street would have to pay a tax that would discourage financial manipulations by introducing some friction into their transactions.

I didn’t really expect Trump voters to switch to Bernie, but I thought the case needed to be made.

As for what they were doing with Trump, my explanation (in February) was that Trump was an “opportunistic infection” Republicans had left themselves open to.

All the weapons another candidate might use to take Trump down have been systematically dismantled. Are his “facts” wrong? Mitt Romney already burned that bridge in 2012. Do experts say his proposals are nonsense? There are no experts any more; if you feel a need for expert support, go invent your own experts like the Koch brothers and right-wing Christians do. Are his speeches full of racist dog-whistles? Politically correct nonsense! Racism ended in the 60s, except reverse-racism against whites. And if Republicans had to expel anybody who dog-whistled about Obama, they’d have no party left. Are there echoes of fascism in his giant rallies and cult of personality? In his celebration of real and imaginary violence against hecklers? In his fear-mongering about unpopular ethnic or religious groups? In his implication that specific policies are unnecessary, because all will follow from installing a Leader with sufficient Will? More nonsense: There is no fascism any more, unless you mean liberal fascism or Islamofascism.

With all the legitimate arguments of political discourse unavailable, other candidates were left to fight each other and wait for Trump to go away. And when Marco Rubio recently decided he finally had to take Trump on, the only weapon at hand was to tease him like a third-grader, suggesting that he wet his pants during a debate.

But by early March, I thought I knew what the right anti-Trump argument was: He’s a con man. Tear down his image as a master businessman and replace it with the more accurate view that he’s a predatory parasite. The Trump supporters hadn’t been horrified by his attacks on Mexicans or Muslims or the disabled or Megan Kelly, because they didn’t identify with any of those people. But the victims of Trump U and Trump Tampa and all the other Trump business scams do look like them.

Up until now, arguing with Trump supporters has been like telling your 17-year-old daughter that her 29-year-old boyfriend is no good for her: It’s obvious to you, but everything you say just reinforces the me-and-him-against-the-world mystique that has been driving the relationship from the beginning.

… You know what finally gets through to the 17-year-old? Meeting her boyfriend’s previous three teen-age girlfriends, the ones he dumped when they got pregnant. They look just like her — or at least they used to, before the single-mom lifestyle started to drag them down. Realizing that he told them all the things he’s telling her … that starts to mean something.

And that’s the message that’s emerging: Not that Trump is crude (which he is) or racist (which he is) or a proto-fascist (which he is) or unprepared for the presidency (which he is) or any of that. But he’s a con-man, and he hasn’t been conning Mexicans or Muslims or Megyn Kelly (who is too smart to fall for his bullshit). No, his career is all about conning the kind of people who support him now.

By September, he had been nominated, and his core supporters seemed impervious to any argument, including the con-man one. So I assembled a bunch of articles about who they were and what they might be thinking (especially Arlie Russell Hochschild’s account of their “deep story”) in “Trump voters: Where they’re coming from, where they’re going“.

Trump capitalizes on that white hopelessness by offering scapegoats: Immigrants and foreigners and the other line-cutters have taken all the opportunities, and that’s why you (and your children) don’t have any. Liberals have our own story to tell here, and we need to tell it loudly, putting aside our fear of offending rich donors: You have so few opportunities because wealth has gotten over-concentrated at the top. America has had decent (if unspectacular) economic growth for seven years now, but it all flows up the pyramid, not down to people who get paid by the hour.

Ultimately, though, no matter how hard I tried to understand them, I just couldn’t respect anyone so misguided and misinformed as to want to turn the country over to an ignorant huckster like Trump. That frustration boiled over in my election-eve post “I don’t know why we’re having this conversation“.

When did avoiding political correctness become a blanket excuse for being an asshole?

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

One my many failures of foresight this year was that I did not at all foresee Trump winning. The week after the election, I was in the Midwestern town where I grew up, asking “How did my home town become Trumpland?

All those people who stayed here without a family business to inherit, how did the town look to them? The promising kids who move away and never come back. The good jobs going to foreigners and to corporate climbers who are spending a few years in the sticks in hopes of returning to headquarters at a higher level. The acres of mansions that you can’t figure out who lives in them. How do they feel about all that?

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

But as much as I might (at times) empathize or sympathize with those Trump voters who don’t fit into one of the deplorable categories (racist, sexist, homophobe, xenophobe, Islamophobe), I’m left with the belief that they’ve done something stupid for both the country and themselves. Because whether my con-man argument convinced any of them or not, it’s true. The people who voted for him are the marks, and when his presidency starts to have real effects on the country, even they will see it. As I wrote last week in “How will they change their minds?

Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters. … Eventually people catch on, even if they don’t begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don’t have to believe the “liberal media” when the news is happening to you and the people you love.

… Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It’s something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them.

That’s a story I intend to keep following in 2017: What effects are Trump’s actions having on the people who voted for him, and are any of them starting to notice?