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The Battles Within the White House are Even Crazier Than You Think

A conspiracy theory that belongs on InfoWars is at the heart of a National Security Council power struggle.


By now, anyone who has been paying attention has figured out that the Trump White House is a pretty odd workplace. From Trump himself tweeting against allies like Jeff Sessions and Mitch McConnell, to Steve Bannon’s pseudo-news organization (Breitbart) attacking then-Chief-of-Staff Reince Preibus and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, to Bannon in turn being accused by the then-communications-director of “trying to suck [his] own cock“, it’s been clear that something beyond ordinary office politics is going on here.

But the memo that got Rich Higgins fired from the National Security Council staff opens up cans of crazy that go far beyond anything that’s gotten public attention so far, and illuminates how deep the conflicts within the administration go. The seven-page document explains a decades-long and largely successful plot by “cultural Marxists” to destroy America “both as an ideal and as a national and political identity”. It claims that cultural Marxist narratives are now embedded in the Deep State, the establishments of both political parties, academia, the mainstream media, and international banks — and are even promoted by Islamists, because (in some unfathomable way) the same “nihilism” that cultural Marxists are using to destroy monotheistic Christianity also prepares the ground for monotheistic Islam.

Higgins attributes the current struggles of the Trump administration to a campaign by cultural Marxists, who see Trump as a threat to their domination. They have unleashed “political warfare memes based on cultural Marxist narratives” that are “designed to first undermine, then delegitimize and ultimately remove the President”. The memo concludes:

The recent turn of events give rise to the observation that the defense of President Trump is the defense of America. In the same way President Lincoln was surrounded by political opposition both inside and outside of his wire, in both overt and covert forms, so too is President Trump. Had Lincoln failed, so too would have the Republic.

There’s a lot to unpack here. First, how did Rich Higgins ever get into the NSC to begin with? Who fired him? And is anybody taking him seriously? (Apparently yes. Somehow the memo found it’s way to Donald Trump Jr., who passed it on to the President. Trump reportedly “gushed” over it, and was upset to discover that the author had been fired.) And what the heck is “cultural Marxism” anyway?

The Flynn connection. Higgins was appointed to the NSC by Michael Flynn during his brief tenure as National Security Adviser.

Flynn is a source of crazy all his own, and is at the center of one of the deep mysteries of the Russia scandal. During the transition period between the election and the inauguration, Flynn seems to have been running his own Russia policy in competition with the Obama administration, which was still in power. During the time he was Candidate Trump’s main national-security adviser, he had been — and maybe still was after he officially joined the administration — an undeclared foreign agent of the Turkish government. (He was still carrying out his duties for the Turks as late as November 8, otherwise known as Election Day.) The extent of his connections to the Putin government is still unknown.

On January 26, acting Attorney General (and Obama holdover) Sally Yates began warning the new administration that Flynn had been lying to them about his contacts with Russian officials, and that he might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Nothing was done with this information — and Flynn continued to participate in national-security meetings at the highest level — until The Washington Post published it February 9. Flynn resigned February 13.

You have to wonder: If not for leaks to The Post (which Trump denounced as “criminal”), would Flynn still be National Security Adviser? And why did Trump — a man not known for maintaining inconvenient loyalties — stand by Flynn, to the point of improperly urging then-FBI-Director James Comey to “let this go” because Flynn is “a good guy”?

McMaster. After several people turned down a job ordinarily considered a career-crowning prize, H. R. McMaster replaced Flynn as National Security Adviser. However, his early attempts to clean house of Flynn’s appointments were stymied by Flynn allies Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner. (Kushner and Flynn, you might remember, had a strange meeting with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, during which they requested a “back channel” to Moscow that American intelligence couldn’t tap. Even Kislyak found that odd.) Recently, though, McMaster seems to have gained the upper hand; Higgins is not the only Flynnite to have been sent packing.

But McMaster, in turn, is now the target of a backlash. Politico reports that “The conservative news site Breitbart has waged a nonstop campaign against national security adviser H.R. McMaster.” A little over a week ago, “two former senior NSC officials” told The Daily Caller that “Everything the President wants to do, McMaster opposes.

Trump wants to get us out of Afghanistan — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to get us out of Syria — McMaster wants to go in. Trump wants to deal with the China issue — McMaster doesn’t. Trump wants to deal with the Islam issue — McMaster doesn’t. You know, across the board, we want to get rid of the Iran deal — McMaster doesn’t. It is incredible to watch it happening right in front of your face. Absolutely stunning.

In typical conspiratorial fashion, McMaster isn’t presented as his own man with his own beliefs, but rather as “a sycophant” of somebody else: retired General David Petraeus. Alt-right blogger Mike Cernovich has started a McMaster Leaks site to publish negative information about McMaster. (Josh Marshall provides background on Cernovich.) He illustrates one article with a cartoon depicting McMaster and Petraeus as dancing puppets of arch-nemesis billionaire George Soros, who in turn is a puppet of the Saudis.

Most disturbing of all, Salon reports:

attacks on McMaster from right-wing media figures coincide with a coordinated troll campaign, according to a newly launched website that tracks Russian propaganda. Using hashtags like #FireMcMaster and #deepstate, accounts linked to Russian-backed bot campaigns shared several anti-McMaster stories this week.

In other words: The Flynn/Bannon/Putin alliance still seems to be functioning.

Cultural Marxism. Probably I had run across this phrase before I saw it in Higgins’ memo, but if I did it didn’t make any impression. Apparently, though, it is widely discussed by right-wing conspiracy theorists. You can get an in-depth introduction to the concept, at least as it is used on the far right, from this 90-minute video.

The video’s account begins with some actual history: As World War I broke out, Communists around the world hoped that workers would refuse to fight for their own country’s capitalists against the workers of other countries. But that dream went unfulfilled; each belligerent country was able to beat the drums of patriotism and inspire incredible levels of sacrifice from even its most oppressed citizens. Assessing what went wrong, many Communists concluded that physical revolution could only happen after a considerable amount of cultural change.

But from there, the Glenn-Beck-whiteboard mindset takes over: All the cultural changes we’ve seen since the Great Depression — the end of Jim Crow, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, gay rights, etc. — originate in the 1930s with the prison notebooks of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, and continue through the Frankfurt School of social theorists who started in Germany and then escaped Hitler by coming to America. Who knew that a handful of intellectuals could wield so much influence?

The point of this conspiracy was and is to destroy the family, Christianity, western culture, the middle class, the Constitution, reverence for the Founding Fathers, and ultimately America itself. This continuing cultural Marxist conspiracy — and not anything Trump himself did or didn’t do — is the source of the administration’s difficulties.

The conspiracy-theory sidestep. Think about how believing this theory might change your mindset: Anything that was actually wrong with pre-New-Deal America, or that continues to be wrong with America today, becomes irrelevant. If you believe that an apocalyptic battle is going on between “America as an ideal and as a national and political identity” and a mysterious cabal of “cultural Marxists” who have been plotting against America since the 1930s, then anything that looks like a legitimate criticism of American traditions is just a way for the plotters to score points.

So the civil rights movement wasn’t really about lynching, segregation, or the right to vote; it was a way to divide America against itself and undermine Americans’ confidence in the righteousness of their country. Feminism wasn’t really about giving women the freedom to find their own places in the world, rather than be channeled into a small number of subservient roles; it was about destroying the male and female archetypes that God defined in the Garden of Eden. The sexual revolution wasn’t caused by improved birth control, widespread affluence, or new opportunities for women to be economically independent; it was designed by cultural Marxists to undermine Christianity and the American family. Schools now teach about the Founders’ slaves and the Native Americans who were slaughtered to make way for white settlers, not because those things are true — that’s irrelevant — but to destroy students’ American patriotism.

Similarly, current issues need not be considered on their individual merits — all those details are similarly irrelevant — but for their effects on the apocalyptic battle. Same-sex marriage has nothing to do with gays and lesbians finding a place in society; it’s about destroying marriage and the social structure that depends on it. ObamaCare isn’t about saving lives or preventing medical bankruptcies; it’s about extending dependence on government. The goal of Black Lives Matter isn’t to keep police from killing blacks on slight pretexts, but to tear down law and order. If you do anything but dismiss these issues — and especially if you get drawn into the stories of the so-called “victims”– you’re just letting cultural Marxists distract you from what’s really important.

Trump. Now look again at the Higgins memo. Attacks against Trump are not “politics as usual”,

but rather political warfare at an unprecedented level that is openly engaged in the direct targeting of a seated president through manipulation of the news cycle. It must be recognized on its own terms so that immediate action can be taken. At its core, these campaigns run on multiple lines of effort, serve as the non-violent line of effort of a wider movement, and execute political warfare agendas that reflect cultural Marxist outcomes. The campaigns operate through narratives. Because the hard left is aligned with Islamist organizations at local (ANTI FA working with Muslim Brotherhood doing business as MSA and CAIR), national (ACLU and BLM working with CAIR and MPAC) and international levels (OIC working with OSCE and the UN), recognition must given to the fact that they seamlessly interoperate at the narrative level as well. In candidate Trump, the opposition saw a threat to the “politically correct” enforcement narratives they’ve meticulously laid in over the past few decades. In President Trump, they see a latent threat to continue that effort to ruinous effect and their retaliatory response reflects this fear.

The first thing that should strike anyone engaged in actual anti-Trump action is the sheer unreality of this vision. Probably you are straining to keep Bernie Democrats and Hillary Democrats from turning on each other. The idea that you might “seamlessly interoperate at a narrative level” with the Muslim Brotherhood and the UN is absurd to a point beyond humor. (I am reminded of John Maynard Keynes’ post-Great-Depression comment on the theory of a world-spanning bankers’ conspiracy: “If only there were one.”)

But once you believe that Trump is the key roadblock to the evil plans of the cultural Marxists, and that the narratives against him are “political warfare”, whether those narratives are true or false becomes irrelevant.

Higgins identifies the anti-Trump “meta-narratives” as

  • Trump is illegitimate.
  • Trump is corrupt.
  • Trump is dishonest.

and “supporting narratives” as

  • Russia hacked the election.
  • obstruction of justice
  • hiding collusion
  • Putin puppet.

So patriotic Americans need never consider questions like: Are the things Trump says actually true? Are his companies making money from his presidency? Why won’t he release his tax returns? Why did he fire James Comey? Why won’t he criticize Putin? Why did the Russian government’s social-media assets promote so much anti-Clinton fake news just before the election? Why did it take so long to fire Flynn? Why did so many of Trump’s people meet with Russian officials and then either hide it or lie about it? How far back do his business dealings with Russian oligarchs go?

Plausible answers to such questions are not necessary, because just asking them promotes the cultural Marxist narrative. Remember: “The defense of President Trump is the defense of America.” So forget the insignificant details. Which side are you on?

Spy vs. spy. The most important thing to understand about conspiracy theorists is: Whatever they imagine the conspiracy doing against them, they will be tempted to do “in response”. So if they see a battlespace where weaponized narratives compete independent of fact or truth, then that’s where they will fight.

Conspiracy theorists are prone to betray their plans through projection. Whatever they wish they could do — and would do if they had the power — they imagine that their near-omnipotent enemies are already doing.

What’s new? Conspiracy theories have been around for a very long time. (When I was in high school in the 1970s, I humored a friend by reading some of his John Birch Society paperbacks. The ideas were similar.) Such fantasies are a psychological defense against the complexity of the real world, and an opportunity to feel superior to the sheep who remain oblivious to the dark patterns behind events. As Alan Moore put it in 2003:

Conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening: Nobody is in control. The world is rudderless.

The desire for such comfort is perennial, so no one should be surprised to find conspiracy theories flourishing on the fringes of society.

The existence of an InfoWars web site, then, is not alarming. But when InfoWars-type arguments are happening at the highest levels of the American government, and when they are reaching the President and finding approval there — that is very, very disturbing.

Returning to the Well of White Resentment

As Republicans in Congress back away from Trump, he throws red meat to his base.


When things go wrong, you go back to basics. As the down-home saying has it: “I’ll dance with who brung me.”

What “brung” Donald Trump to the White House was not the support of establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, but the white resentment that had built up during the eight years of the Obama administration. And as Congressional Republicans start to back away from him, Trump is responding by going back to that well.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild started studying the Trump base years before anybody knew they’d be the Trump base. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land,  she summed up their “deep story” — the narrative of how life feels to them — like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

It’s tricky to argue with this narrative, because they’re not wrong about being stuck in an unmoving line: Middle-class wages have been stagnating for decades. The jobs you can get without a college education are going away, except for the insecure ones that don’t pay much. And college is increasingly a highly leveraged gamble: If you don’t finish your degree, or just guess wrong about where the future jobs will be, you may end up so deep in debt that you’re worse off than if you hadn’t tried.

What’s wrong with that deep story is in who it blames: Immigrants, blacks, and Muslims, not the CEOs who send jobs to Indonesia, or the tax-cutting politicians who also cut money for education and training, or the lax anti-trust enforcement that keeps monopolies from competing for workers and funnels so much of America’s economic growth to corporations that occupy a few key choke points. The story, in a nutshell is: Get angry about the real problems in your life, and then let yourself be manipulated into blaming people who are even worse off than you.

Writing in The Washington Post on Friday, Christine Emba summarized how Trump uses this deep story.

First, Trump taps into a mainstream concern, one tied to how America’s economic system is changing and how some individuals are left at the margin: Employment? Immigration? College? Take your pick. Then, instead of addressing the issue in a way that embraces both its complexity and well-established research, [administration] officials opt for simplistic talking points known to inflame an already agitated base: Immigrants are sneaking into the country and stealing your jobs! Minorities are pushing you out of college!

Misdirecting blame onto well-chosen scapegoats is the heart of the Trump technique. Two weeks ago I described how environmentalists have been scapegoated for the decline in coal-mining jobs, taking the real causes — automation and fracking — out of the conversation. This week, in the wake of TrumpCare’s failure, a brewing rebellion in Congress, and the increasing likelihood that the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia will actually get somewhere, those dastardly immigrants and minorities were front-and-center again.

Why can’t working-class kids get into Harvard? Tuesday, the NYT’s Charlie Savage reported that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is looking for lawyers interested in “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” This appears to presage an attack on affirmative action programs which disadvantage white and sometimes Asians applicants.

Such cases have been litigated for decades, with the outcome so far that affirmative action programs are OK if they are narrowly tailored to serve the goal of creating a diverse student body, which can improve the university’s educational experience for all its students. (Two examples: A history class’ discussion of slavery is going to be more real if some participants are black. And an all-white management program might be poor preparation for actual management jobs.)

Black comedian Chuck Nice lampooned the affirmative-action-is-keeping-my-kid-out-of-Harvard view Friday on MSNBC’s “The Beat”:

I am so happy this has finally come to the fore the way it should be, because whenever I walk onto an Ivy League campus, I always say to myself “Where are the white people?”

Emba’s article was more analytic:

Affirmative action is a consistent hobbyhorse on the right because it combines real anxieties with compelling falsehoods.

The real concern is how hard it is for children of the white working class to either get a top-flight education or succeed without one. Nobody’s laughing about that. But the compelling falsehood is to scapegoat blacks, who have an even smaller chance of getting ahead. The truly blameworthy people who get taken off the hook are the rich, and particularly the old-money families whose children have been going to Yale for generations. They’re the ones who are sucking up all the opportunity.

At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is between two and three times higher than the general admissions rate.

If you want to blame somebody for why your children didn’t get into their first-choice schools, consider Jared Kushner. Daniel Golden had already researched Jared’s case for his 2006 book, The Price of Admission. In November, when Trump’s win made Jared (and Golden’s book) newsworthy, Golden summarized his findings:

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

It’s not that Somali immigrants are cutting in line ahead of your kid. It’s that there’s a different line for the very rich; your kid was never allowed to get into it.

Let’s shut down immigration, especially by people who don’t speak English. Donald Trump literally loves immigrants; that’s where his mom came from, and two of his three wives. His Mom, though, came from Scotland, where they speak something closely resembling English. And while Melania has a distinct Eastern-European accent, she was what Julia Ioffe calls “the right kind of immigrant. She is a beautiful white woman from Europe, and we like those.”

Those grubby brown Spanish-speaking immigrants, though, something has to be done about them. So Wednesday Trump endorsed a plan by Republican Senators Cotton and Perdue to cut legal immigration in half, and introduce a point system that favors English-speaking, youth, wealth, and education. (Homework: Try to figure out whether your own ancestors could have made it into the country under this system. I’m not sure about mine.)

The plan has virtually no chance of becoming law. Since it was introduced in the Senate a few months ago, no new sponsors have signed on. A number of other Republican senators criticized it, and it seems unlikely even to come up for a vote.

So the point of Wednesday’s push by the White House was purely to throw some red meat to the base. It also gave White House adviser Stephen Miller (who you may remember from his chilling quote in February that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”) a chance to get in front of the cameras and repeat a number of falsehoods about immigrants and their effect on the economy.

He also got to dog whistle to white nationalists. When CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged how this plan aligns with the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free … ), Miller waved aside the poem as something that was “added later” and accused Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias”.

The added-later part is true, sort of. Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” as part of a fund-raising campaign for the statue’s base, and it has been part of the monument for only 114 of its 131 years. The idea that its addition was somehow a usurpation of the statue’s original meaning is popular on the alt-right:

We’re having this “great war of national identity” because our New York-based Jewish elite no longer has the power to control the Narrative. The fake news Lügenpresse has steadily lost its legitimacy. Thanks to the internet, the smartphone and social media, they are losing control over everything from radio to publishing to video. I now have the capability to fire an Alt-Right cruise missile of truth from rural Alabama right back at David Brooks in New York City.

The “Occidental Dissent” blog recognized that Miller was repeating its case and felt suitably validated.

Chances are, you have never heard cosmopolitan used as an insult before, either. But that’s because you travel in the wrong circles. Nationalist movements have often used it to denote fellow citizens they thought might fit in better somewhere else. Stalin used it against Jews. It also traces back to Mussolini and Hitler. American white nationalists know this kind of history, which is what makes the word a good dog whistle.

Both these incidents go with Trump’s endorsement of police violence last week, the transgender ban, and his attempt to revive anti-Hillary-Clinton animus in West Virginia Wednesday. Governing is proving to be difficult, so he is trying to relive the glory days of the campaign. We should expect to see a lot more of it.

Was TrumpCare’s Failure a Turning Point?

Republicans in Congress are still a long way from revolting against Trump. But most of them have stopped covering for him. That won’t create a sharp break in his (already small) support from the public, but it could lead to a long, slow erosion.


Right now it is hard to remember, but the story of the fall campaign and the early days of the new administration was how the various wings of the Republican Party were making peace with Trump’s leadership. Libertarians overlooked his authoritarian side. Theocrats forgave his amoral life and his complete ignorance of Christianity. Corporatists looked forward to tax cuts and deregulation, while agreeing to disagree with him about trade and immigration. NeoCons chose to listen to his belligerent rhetoric (defeat ISIS in 30 days) rather than his isolationist rhetoric (re-evaluate our commitment to NATO).

It’s hard to estimate exactly, but probably only about half of Trump’s voters were truly happy about his victory. The other half had reservations, but eventually came around to the idea that any Republican president, no matter how superficial his connection to the causes that had previously defined the party, would be better than Hillary Clinton. Even Ted Cruz, who famously refused to endorse Trump during his speech at the Republican Convention in July, and who had good reason to remember Trump’s scurrilous attacks against his wife and father, announced in September “after many months of careful consideration, of prayer and searching my own conscience” that he would vote for Trump.

Would Democrats fold? After the election, Trump benefited from a somewhat smaller version of the public goodwill that goes out to all new presidents. His favorables never reached 50% (45.5% on Inauguration Day according to 538’s weighted average), but they exceeded his unfavorables (41.3%). Americans like to give the new guy a chance, and so the transition-period talk was not about the continuing resistance of the never-Trump Republicans, but instead about whether red-state Democrats like Joe Manchin (WV) or Heidi Heitkamp (ND) could be coaxed into supporting him on specific issues. And if Trump chose to begin his administration with proposals that leaned Democratic — a Bernie-Sanders-like infrastructure program or using the government’s negotiating power to beat down drug prices (both issues he had raised during the campaign) — Democratic resistance in Congress might well crumble.

Those of us who feared Trump’s fascist leanings — contempt for democratic traditions and the rule of law, self-dealing, lack of transparency, scapegoating of racial and religious minorities, encouragement of violence, and total disregard for truth — more than his policy commitments had every reason to worry that his authoritarianism might wind up being popular.

If you were among the millions who showed up for one of the Women’s Marches on January 21, you may have wondered what you were accomplishing, beyond having a feel-good moment with like-minded people. In retrospect, the marches were pivotal: They (and the bunker-mentality response from Trump and his people) all but ended talk of Democrats giving in to Trump. That was the first turning point.

The Faustian bargain. Nonetheless, it seemed to go without saying that congressional Republicans would get in line behind him, and they did. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan muted their criticism of the clearly unconstitutional first version of Trump’s travel ban. McConnell shepherded Trump’s somewhat bizarre cabinet appointments through the Senate, and blocked the creation of an independent commission to investigate the Russia scandal. Ryan backed up Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes when he tried to subvert the House’s Russia investigation, and defended Trump’s firing of James Comey. Both of them turned a blind eye to Trump’s widespread conflicts of interest.

The implied agreement seemed to go like this: Whatever leaders like Ryan and McConnell thought of Trump as a man or a leader, unified Republican control of the branches of government would open the way to a long list of conservative proposals, which Ryan and McConnell would assemble. Trump, having few real policy ideas of his own, would sell those proposals to his supporters (who probably would be hurt by many of them) and then sign the bills once Congress passed them. The possibility of making Medicaid a block grant to the states and putting a hard cap on its growth, Ryan said, was something he’d been dreaming about since college. Why should he screw those dreams up by fulfilling Congress’ constitutional duty to check and balance the executive branch?

So: sweep Russia under the rug, let Trump get away with whatever scams he wants to run, and in exchange get a hard-right majority on the Supreme Court, repeal of ObamaCare, significant cuts to safety-net programs, big tax breaks for Republican special interests, and cover from the Justice Department for voter-suppression and gerrymandering efforts that could guarantee Republican domination of Congress into the indefinite future. What a deal!

ObamaCare repeal was supposed to be the easy part of that agenda. During the campaign, Trump promised “immediate” repeal. And even after things got real, when the new Congress began meeting in January, legislation was supposed to be on President Trump’s desk by February 20. But we are now in Congress’ August recess, with ObamaCare repeal in ruins and the rest of the legislative agenda still stuck on Square One.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but one problem is that Trump has proved to be a terrible salesman. Aside from occasionally tweeting about how “terrific” and “beautiful” the Republican healthcare plan was — whichever one seemed most likely to pass at the moment — he did nothing to rally public support, and little to corral reluctant Republican votes in Congress. His self-created reputation as a great deal-maker proved to be empty. He never spoke to the nation as a whole about healthcare or made a case for his administration’s vision, whatever it is. He was quick to take credit for successes and distance himself from failures. The House bill that he celebrated in May was “mean” just a few weeks later.

Worse, media attention that might have been marshaled behind the Republican agenda has again and again been diverted by Trump himself and the circus atmosphere of his White House. In addition to his personal spats and the infighting of his people, the Russia scandal that he swore was nothing keeps looking more and more like something. Again and again, his people have been forgetful or dishonest about their meetings with Russians, and Trump himself has participated in misleading the public. Even Republicans who want to cover for their party’s president have to wonder what exactly he’s covering up.

In short, congressional Republicans may not have ever liked Trump or approved of him as the leader of their party, but they would have been happy to march behind him to victory. What they’re not prepared to do is follow him off the cliff to defeat.

The second turning. So here’s what we’ve seen recently.

  • Congress overwhelmingly passed new Russia sanctions, which Trump can’t remove without congressional approval.
  • After the TrumpCare defeat, Trump demanded the Senate try again, and not consider any other legislation or leave for vacation until they passed something on healthcare. The Senate ignored him.
  • Some Republican senators are looking for a bipartisan fix for the ObamaCare exchanges (along the lines I discussed last week).
  • The Senate didn’t officially adjourn for the August recess. This prevents Trump from replacing Jeff Sessions via a recess appointment without Senate hearings, which was part of the most likely fire-Mueller scenario. This signal of distrust is something the Senate majority has never before done to a president of its own party.
  • Two bipartisan proposals are being floated to prevent Trump from firing Mueller.
  • A number of Republicans (including Mike Pence, though he denies it) are making preliminary moves in Iowa, as if they didn’t expect Trump to be a factor in 2020. John Kasich and/or Ben Sasse might be planning to challenge Trump if he does run. John McCain comments: “They see weakness in this president. Look, it’s not a nice business we’re in.”
  • Congress shows no signs of taking up the immigration plan the White House endorsed this week.

The current face of Republican resistance to Trump is Senator Jeff Flake, author of the new book Conscience of a Conservative, a section of which was published recently in Politico Magazine:

If by 2017 the conservative bargain was to go along for the very bumpy ride because with congressional hegemony and the White House we had the numbers to achieve some long-held policy goals—even as we put at risk our institutions and our values—then it was a very real question whether any such policy victories wouldn’t be Pyrrhic ones. If this was our Faustian bargain, then it was not worth it. If ultimately our principles were so malleable as to no longer be principles, then what was the point of political victories in the first place?

This isn’t how things were supposed to go. By now, Republicans were supposed to be basking in the glow not just of stealing a Supreme Court seat, but of repealing ObamaCare, awarding their donors a tax cut, and maybe even creating some jobs with an infrastructure program. If any Republicans in Congress harbored doubts about the Trump administration, they would be quiet for fear of a primary challenge from his supporters. Red-state Democrats and maybe even the party leaders would be submissive, looking for ways to argue that they could work with Trump.

If the Women’s Marches were the first turning away from that scenario, I believe we are in the middle of the second.

It would be a mistake to expect this turning to go very far very fast. Elected Republicans are not likely to join the resistance anytime soon. But we also shouldn’t underestimate the effect they can produce just by going silent and working behind the scenes.

For example, look at Trump’s effort to undermine the Mueller investigation. He has been building a witch-hunt narrative and claiming that Mueller is motivated by conflicts of interest, with the obvious intent to justify firing Mueller and shutting his investigation down. Establishment Republicans could be echoing those points. They could have left the door open for a recess-appointed attorney general who could then fire Mueller. That would have left their own hands clean, and they could have tut-tutted about the firing without doing anything.

Instead, most congressional Republicans continue to endorse Mueller’s integrity, and they closed the back door to his firing.

They will continue to support the administration when it puts forward policies that are long-term pieces of the broader Republican agenda. But as Trump continues to make bad decisions, spew outrageous misinformation, and pick fights with whoever raises his ire from moment to moment, more and more he will be defended only White House flacks like Kellyanne Conway, or dedicated Trumpists like Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani. Republicans of independent authority will stand aside.

That silence will be felt. It will not lead to a sudden crash in Trump’s approval among Republicans (which is still fairly high). But the continuing lack of credible defense will cause a slow erosion. And at some point, that erosion might make direct Republican resistance a politically viable course.

How to Fix ObamaCare

It needs a number of wonky adjustments, not a dramatic overhaul.


Other than a fairly vague “we know it’s not perfect”, elected Democrats have been reluctant to criticize ObamaCare while it was facing the prospect of a full repeal. Even fairly mild criticism, they feared, might lead to “Even Democrats Hate ObamaCare” headlines and feed the repeal movement. Worse, if Democrats settled on a fix-ObamaCare plan, McConnell and Ryan might take one or two minor ideas from it and claim that their new repeal plan was bipartisan, even as it gutted the larger purpose of ObamaCare.

But even though ObamaCare repeal keeps rising from the dead, maybe the its most recent defeat leaves an opening for an honest effort to improve the system. That will be tricky, because it means putting aside an enormous amount of widely believed lies and focusing on what the real problems are.

What ObamaCare was supposed to do. One reason all the Republican repeal-and-replace bills have been so unpopular is that no one could say exactly what they were supposed to accomplish, other than fulfill the promise to repeal ObamaCare. Repeal has become an end in itself, independent of anything it might do to help or hurt the American people.

By contrast, all Democratic healthcare plans are based on a simple principle: Sick or injured people should get the care they need, and they shouldn’t have to go bankrupt paying for it. Large majorities of Americans believe in that vision, and Democrats have been trying for decades to make it real. ObamaCare has always been an imperfect implementation, but it was a significant step in the right direction.

Why not single-payer? The most direct (and, in my opinion, the most efficient) way to implement that principle is some kind of single-payer, Medicare-for-all system like just about every other advanced country already has. It’s been tested in nations all over the world, and it works. Germany or Australia, for example, spend far less per capita than we do on healthcare, and their people live longer. [Update: See the comments for a correction. I have used “single-payer” as a synonym for “universal health insurance”, which is not accurate. In particular, Germany achieves universal coverage differently.]

I suspect that in their hearts, all the Democrats running for president in 2008 would have preferred a single-payer system, but most of them believed Congress would never pass it. So Obama and his main competitors (Hillary Clinton and John Edwards) all proposed very similar systems, roughly based on the program that Republican Governor Mitt Romney had already started in Massachusetts. Dennis Kucinich had the single-payer supporters all to himself in the New Hampshire primary, where he got 1.35% of the vote.

Single-payer advocates find this kind of timidity mysterious — or they attribute it to bribery by the big insurance companies — because if you poll single-payer by itself, it does pretty well. So why not go for it?

What makes even honest politicians nervous is that lots of things poll well until a campaign begins, when the negative ads and outright lies start to fly. HillaryCare polled well at first too, until Republicans and insurance companies started going after it. In no time it all, it morphed from an unstoppably popular proposal to the reason the Democrats lost the House in 1994.

Whenever a proposal fails, you can point to plenty of mistakes its backers made. (Supporters of successful proposals also make a lot of mistake, which are quickly forgotten.) But it also seems to be true that the American people harbor a deep well of distrust for politicians and their promises. If a negative ad tells people you’re going to take something away from them, they believe it. If you respond that you’re going to give them something better, they don’t.

Nobody wants to believe that this applies to them as well as their opponents, but it does. Republicans, I’m sure, have been shocked these last six months to discover that many of the same people who distrusted ObamaCare now distrust their replacement plans even more. (ObamaCare repeal as an abstract idea has long polled in the 40s. All the specific repeal bills discussed recently have polled in the teens.) As soon as Republicans gained enough power to implement actual changes, they became the new owners of the well of distrust.

Single-payer supporters on the Democratic left are making a similar mistake today, I believe, when they imagine that the wave of public distrust they’ve helped raise against establishment Democrats won’t wash back on them if they ever take power.

Three options. When you come down to it, there are really only three ways government can handle the problem of the uninsured.

  1. Ignore it. When the uninsured get sick, either private charity will take care of them or they’ll die.
  2. Have one system that covers everybody.
  3. Have a crazy-quilt of different programs that all have their own rules and justifications, and hope that not that many people slip through the gaps.

ObamaCare is a type-3 plan. TrumpCare failed because it could never decide whether it was a type-1 plan or just another type-3 plan with more gaps.

The ObamaCare Rube Goldberg machine. Public distrust of change is one major reason ObamaCare was designed to minimize the number of people facing significant disruption. If you got your healthcare through Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, or your employer’s group plan (like my wife and I did and do), you probably didn’t notice much difference. Obama’s “If you like your health plan you can keep it” may have been Politifact’s Lie of the Year, but it was actually more of an exaggeration than a lie. After the ACA passed, the vast majority of people with good health insurance just kept doing whatever they’d been doing.

Maintaining all those legacy programs guaranteed that covering the uninsured would be complicated. So ObamaCare covered uninsured people like this:

  • The poor continue to get Medicaid.
  • Those just above the poverty line — who presumably can manage day-to-day expenses like food and rent, but have nothing left over to insure against emergencies — get covered by extending Medicaid (though the Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of this).
  • Low-to-middle working-class people whose jobs don’t include health insurance can get a subsidy to buy individual insurance on an ObamaCare exchange. (The subsidies phase out as incomes increase.)
  • Better-off people whose jobs don’t include health insurance can buy policies on the exchanges at full price.

Gaming the system. In addition to the complexity of how you got covered, there were changes in the rules of coverage. Mostly, this is about keeping players from gaming the system.

When insurance companies compete on price and service, the public benefits. But prior to ObamaCare, a lot of insurance competition was about something else: making sure that their own insurance pool was healthier than the other companies’. So insurers got really good at figuring out who was a bad risk and cancelling their polices. That helped the company’s bottom line, but was bad for public health. (And if your wife is a cancer survivor, it’s terrifying.)

So the biggest (and most popular) rule change was that insurance companies have to offer coverage to everybody, no matter how unhealthy they are or might get. Nobody is uninsurable any more.

But that created a new opportunity to game this system: Healthy individuals might go without insurance, figuring that they could pick it up later if they ever needed it. Taking healthy people out of the insurance pool ruins the whole idea of insurance — imagine if you could put off buying fire insurance until after your house burned — so that had to be prevented somehow. That’s where the individual mandate comes in: Even if you’re healthy, you either carry insurance or pay a tax.

So

  1. no discrimination against pre-existing conditions,
  2. a mandate for individuals to carry insurance, and
  3. subsidies so that even individuals just above the poverty line can afford the insurance they’re obligated to carry

is sometimes called the “three-legged stool” of ObamaCare. The system is unstable unless you have all three.

Where there are problems. The problems with ObamaCare have been wildly exaggerated by Republican talk of a “meltdown” or “collapse” or “death spiral“. But ObamaCare has run into three main problems:

  • The Supreme Court allowed states to opt out of Medicaid expansion, and a number of the red states have, at great cost to their citizens and hospitals. Policies on the ObamaCare exchanges are not designed for households near the poverty line; the deductibles on the cheapest (bronze) plans are far too high for them, and they may not qualify for the subsidies. The Medicaid-denied people who do sign up on the exchanges tend to be the very sick, whose expenses raise premiums for everyone.
  • Not enough healthy people are signing up to keep premiums low. The original projections didn’t anticipate that HHS would use its PR budget to undermine ObamaCare [1], that private sources would launch a well-funded advertising campaign against signing up, or that refusing to sign up would become part of a political identity.
  • Not enough insurance companies are participating (particularly in rural areas [2]) to keep the exchanges competitive.

The last two should not be all that surprising. If you look at the description of ObamaCare above, it depends on inducing people to cooperate, not forcing them. (That’s why it’s ironic that it’s been attacked as an assault on “freedom”.) For the program to work smoothly, the inducements — subsidies to individuals, reinsurance for insurance companies, the income level where Medicaid expansion ends and private-sector policies begin, the tax on the uninsured — have to be calibrated right.

Healthcare experts made their best estimates when the law was written, but everyone expected to make adjustments as the real-world results started coming in. This is not unusual with big new social programs. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid all required some fine-tuning as they got off the ground, and still get re-jiggered periodically.

But no one foresaw that Republicans would immediately gain control of the House, and then take the attitude that the only acceptable adjustment was complete repeal. It’s hard to grasp now how big a change this is from all previous American history. Typically, opposition parties in America have not tried to sabotage programs they disapprove of. Until the current era, small changes that improve the working of an existing program have been uncontroversial, even among congresspeople who voted against the program originally.

The sabotage problem has gotten worse since Trump became president. He gleefully talks about letting ObamaCare implode, and creates uncertainty in the insurance markets by threatening to delay or withhold payments. Insurance is all about managing risk, so adding any new uncertainties to the system is monkey-wrenching.

How to fix them (if you want to). It should go without saying that the first step in fixing something is to stop trying to break it. But beyond that, there are some obvious things to do.

Ten House Democrats — including my NH-2 rep, Annie Kuster — have put out a plan to stabilize the individual insurance markets. The main planks are:

  • a permanent reinsurance program to protect insurers against unexpectedly high claims. This would encourage insurers to compete in more markets. ObamaCare had such a program initially, but it has expired.
  • reduce deductibles and co-pays for people with low incomes. There’s already a program in the ACA that does this: The government is supposed to make “cost sharing reduction” payments to insurance companies that keep these costs low. But there’s a dispute working its way through the courts about whether Congress has to appropriate this money year-by-year (which it hasn’t done) and Trump is threatening to withhold the payments.
  • market better. HHS needs to start spending its advertising budget to promote ObamaCare rather than denigrate it. One simple suggestion: Make the ObamaCare open enrollment period line up with the April 15 tax deadline, so that people who have just seen how the tax subsidies and the individual mandate affect them could immediately take action for next year.
  • enforce the individual mandate, which the IRS is currently not doing.
  • let people over 55 buy into Medicare. This will shift some of the most expensive people out of the ObamaCare risk pools, lowering premiums for everyone else.
  • give bigger subsidies to older people in rural areas.

Other ideas are out there as well. Saturday’s NYT listed at least two (in addition to some of the ideas already mentioned).

  • reduce drug prices. If there’s real competition, then anything that makes healthcare less expensive makes health insurance less expensive. At the very least, lower drug prices would help people who have high deductibles and co-pays. And everyone agrees that the current system — which lets drug companies with patents dictate a price which the government and insurance companies are obligated to pay — is rigged in drug companies’ favor. Part of the Democrats’ “Better Deal” proposal is a federal agency that guards against price gouging.
  • extend ObamaCare-exchange subsidies to people in the Medicaid gap. It’s crazy that many states still haven’t accepted Medicaid expansion, but that seems to be the way it is.

538 passes on something clever Nevada is doing: Insurers who offer plans on the ObamaCare exchange in Nevada are more likely to be chosen to manage the state’s Medicaid plan. A similar idea (which I didn’t invent, but can’t remember where I saw it) is to force insurers who want to compete in lucrative urban markets to also cover rural areas.

Mending is boring, but insurance ought to be boring. None of this is the kind of sweeping change that inspires people. It’s more like when a football team works on blocking and tackling better, rather than coming up with new trick plays.

But it also shouldn’t scare people. The original structure of the plan is still sound. It just needs some adjustments.

The question is whether congressional Republicans want to make those adjustments, or the Trump administration wants to implement them. They can, if they want, make ObamaCare collapse.

If they do that, though, they may convince the public that type-3 crazy-quilt plans don’t work. And if the public has to choose between a type-1 let-them-die program and a type-2 Medicare-for-all plan, I don’t think Republicans will like how that decision comes out.


[1] The Daily Beast reports:

To date, [HHS] has released 23 videos. A source familiar with the video production says that there have been nearly 30 interviews conducted in total, from which more than 130 videos have been produced.

Each testimonial has the same look, feel, and setting, with the subjects sitting before a gray backdrop and speaking directly to camera about how Obamacare has harmed their lives. They were all shot at the Department’s internal studio, according to numerous sources who worked for or continue to work at HHS.

The videos openly suggest Congress repeal ObamaCare. The one featuring Robert Dean ends like this:

I really hope that the Trump administration and the U. S. Congress, Republicans in the Senate and House, can get their act together and deliver relief to the American people.

Given this openly political — and even partisan — message, I suspect that spending public money to produce and distribute these videos is illegal. If HHS Secretary Tom Price knew about this and condoned it, he should resign.

[2] As the liberal Center for Economic Policy and Research think tank notes, lack of competitive exchanges is particularly a problem in Republican states that have done their best not to cooperate with ObamaCare. It provides the following chart:

In part this is a coincidence caused by the fact that largely rural states tend to have Republican governors. But so is the frequently cited statistic that 1/3 of counties have only one insurer: Those counties tend to be sparsely populated, so the number of people they represent is far less than 1/3 of the country.

The are lots of reasons why rural areas are especially hard hit. Most obviously: Having fewer people makes them a less robust insurance pool, increasing risk to the insurer. Also, healthy young people tend to seek opportunity in the bigger cities, leaving older, sicker people behind.

Fatherly Advice to Eric and Don Jr.

[with no apologies at all to that loser Rudyard Kipling]

If you can duck the blame when all about you
Have seen with their own eyes that it was you;
If you can demand trust when men should doubt you,
And call down vengeance for their doubting too;
If you can dodge and not be tired by dodging,
Or having lies exposed, hold to your lies,
Or being hated, hit them back with hating,
Yet always claim that you are good and wise;

If you can scheme, your schemes will make you master.
Let others think—their doubts will keep them tame.
But you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And claim them both as “winning” just the same;
If you can find a dream that men seek madly,
And tart it up to bait a trap for fools,
And take the things they worked their lives for, gladly,
And walk away as if there were no rules;

If you can get the banks to loan you billions
And risk it on a scheme you should have tossed,
And lose, and say good-bye to your pavilions,
But never pay a cent of what you’ve lost;
If you can force your wind and nerve and bluster
To serve your turn long after they’ve grown thin,
And so hold on when all that you can muster
Is just the Will that says you have to win.

If you can rouse a rabble into violence,
And cozy up to Russian oligarchs,
Intimidate good people into silence,
And not forget your fans are just your marks;
If you can jam each analytic minute
With the most relentless spinning ever spun,
Then you can grab the World and all that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Trump, my son!

Getting Through This

Since the election, I’ve been trying to get comfortable with uncertainty rather than maintain a positive mental attitude.


I spent last week vacationing on an island with almost 300 Unitarians of all ages. We listened to chautauqua-style talks, played games, flew kites, and did a great deal of staring out to sea.

Unitarians, for the most part, are liberals. And liberals, you may have noticed, can be pretty depressing people these days. In the course of the week, I had many conversations like these:

  • A minister told me he can name 30 people in his (not terribly big) town who have been “disappeared” by ICE.
  • An EPA employee is watching her agency get disassembled, and deciding whether to keep fighting or give up and take a buy-out package.
  • A mother has serious doubts about her children’s future, both in a global-warming and a where-will-the-jobs-be sense.
  • A NASA researcher described administration proposals to simply turn off instruments on functioning satellites because they might provide data documenting climate change.
  • A grandmother raged about the early warning signs of a police state.
  • A former state Democratic Party official worries that the divisions of 2016 won’t heal in time for 2018 or even 2020.

And that’s not to mention all the people who expressed shame because they can’t make themselves pay attention to the news. They are the kind of folks who until recently have prided themselves on being committed and informed, but lately they’re choosing not to know things that they believe would only make them angry or frustrated or depressed. (These news-avoiders appear to be a fairly big club, though they never hold meetings.)

But the strangest thing, at least for me personally, was the number of people I already know, who read this blog, or the columns I write for UU World magazine, and expected me to provide a hopeful vision, one in which Right and Justice must ultimately prevail.

I’m not sure where they got this idea. I certainly have never advertised myself as a purveyor of hope, or posted a “5 Reasons the Good Guys Have to Win” article. The best I can figure is that it’s my affect: They know I dive deeply into the news, week after week, and yet I don’t seem to be depressed or angry or in despair. How do I do it? Maybe they think the secret sauce is that I’ve seen the ending already in my rose-colored crystal ball: I know the cavalry arrives in the final reel and saves everybody. Or maybe I have some deep insight into the Platonic essence of the Universe, which tells me that the Form of the Good is eternally triumphant, and the Trumps of this world can never ultimately prevail.

That’s not it. I mean, I do have a deep belief that the Trumps can never ultimately prevail, but that’s only because nobody ever ultimately prevails. If you look far enough into the future, people die, empires fall, civilizations crumble, and species go extinct. Ultimately, the Sun blows up, and if you keep looking far enough past that, the Universe goes cold. We may or may not save the world this time, but even if we do, the world won’t stay saved. It never does.

So anybody who is looking for an everything-well-be-fine message from me is barking up the wrong tree. My grand cosmic perspective is that shit keeps happening until it stops, and then (at some point) nothing ever happens again. If you find that comforting, you’re welcome. My bill is in the mail.

But I suppose that leaves a mystery: I see the same appalling developments everyone else does. So why aren’t I depressed or angry or driven by some desperate energy?

The answer to that one is simple: I’ve been here before.

I don’t mean that in a spooky deja-vu sense. But during a life crisis many years ago, I developed some habits and attitudes that are serving me well now.


Back in 1996, my wife was diagnosed with stage-2 breast cancer. At the time, that was right on the borderline of survivability. Again and again, people told us hopeful stories of their friends or relatives who lived through breast cancer, but invariably it was the less serious stage-1 version. In the media, we found a few stage-3 or stage-4 survival stories, but they were miraculous. Stage 2 was a genuine toss-up. With the best possible treatment, maybe you’d live and maybe you wouldn’t.

The medical advice we got was to hit it hard, because you really only got one shot. Survivals of recurrence were another set of miracle stories, and not anything you wanted to count on. In other words, “saving” some treatment in case the first ones didn’t work was a bad idea. So we set up a truly arduous 9-month plan that shot all the fireworks, one after another. This was going to take over our lives for most of a year, and there was no guarantee it would even work.

There is a whole branch of the publishing industry devoted to the mental attitude you’re supposed to maintain during such a process. Most authors at the time recommended staying relentlessly positive: This is going to work. Forget the statistics, forget how you feel today, this is going to work.

We were tempted to go for that, but the more we looked into it, the more brittle such an attitude seemed. Some people maintained it all the way to recovery, but others broke. They stayed positive until they couldn’t any more, and then they crashed into despair.

So instead, we decided to try to accept the uncertainty. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and if everything went well we wouldn’t know until sometime in the distant future when we would look back and said, “I guess we got through that.” In the meantime, we would do whatever we could with the quantity and quality of life we were allowed to spend together. (It turned out to be a lot; 21 years this August.)


Like most people I know, in the aftermath of Election Day I felt overwhelmed. How could this have happened? What did it mean? What would happen to us?

And then, without recognizing it until a month or two later, I slipped back into my cancer-treatment mindset. I started doing whatever I could think to do, and tried to accept that I have no idea whether it will work.

I see lots of people around me either getting depressed, trying not to think about it, or working to maintain a positive mental attitude. The PMA folks reach for anything they can pin their hopes to: Trump will self-destruct, he’ll be impeached, his voters will realize they’ve been conned, the 2018 election will put the Democrats back on the path to power, Trump’s abuses will just make the Revolution come faster, and so on.

And who knows? Maybe one of those things will turn out to be true. But once again, PMA seems like a brittle strategy to me: It will keep you going until one day it doesn’t, and then it will fail spectacularly.

Instead, I’ll advise you to do whatever you can think to do to defend whatever you think is worth defending. Take your best shot, not because it will necessarily work, but because it’s your best shot. Enjoy the country and democracy you have for as long as you have it. Resist those moments — both positive and negative — when you think you know how it all turns out.

You don’t know. None of us do. So do whatever you can think to do, and what happens will happen. If things go well, we won’t know until someday years from now, when we look back and say, “We got through this.”

Yes, TrumpCare Will Kill People

Up until now I’ve been unwilling to make this claim,
but not because I didn’t believe it.


From the beginning, it seemed like common sense to me: Losing health insurance increases your risk of dying. Uninsured people get less care, and medical care saves lives, so lack of care logically would cost lives.

Big-picture statistics backed up that intution: Other industrialized English-speaking countries provide universal healthcare, and people live longer there. (Life-expectancy-at-birth: Australia 82.15 years, Canada 81.76, United Kingdom 80.54, United States 79.68.) None of those countries is an exact duplicate of the US, but is Canada so different that its people should live two years longer, or is their healthcare system just better than ours?

I knew that people have denied this. Back in May, Republican Congressman Raul Labrador bluntly stated “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” During his 2012 campaign, Mitt Romney pointed to emergency rooms and asserted that everyone gets life-saving care when they really need it. “If someone has a heart attack, they don’t sit in their apartment and die.”

But that argument didn’t impress me: Yes, the uninsured get life-saving care when they’re in car accidents or having heart attacks, but a lot of the treatable things that kill people more slowly, like high blood pressure or diabetes, aren’t emergencies. And while an ER might take out the tumor that’s blocking your intestine and threatening to kill you in a matter of hours, it won’t provide the follow-up chemotherapy or radiation that you’ll need if you plan to keep on living for more than a few months.

So I kept being tempted to say that TrumpCare would kill people. Other people have: Democratic politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Ruben Gallego, journalists like ThinkProgressIan Millhiser, and doctors like Christy Duan and Andrew Goldstein. They based their claims on solid scientific studies like this one and this one.

But every time I got ready to repeat that claim, I’d google “lack of health insurance kills people” and run into articles claiming to prove the opposite or just debunk the idea that we know one way or the other. Chasing the links in those articles always led me to different scientific studies, like this one or this one.

In other words, it looked like one of those my-bubble-versus-your-bubble arguments that I try to stay out of. Liberals cherry-pick the studies they want to believe, conservatives do the same, and we all talk past each other. Yes, I think of myself as a liberal, but my true allegiance is to the reality-based community. Like Fox Mulder, I believe that the truth is out there, and I would rather find it than just go on believing whatever I’m inclined to believe anyway.

So it’s been on my to-do list for months to devote some serious time to this issue, until I could feel confident that I really understood what is actually known. But given how much hard work would be involved and the possibility that I still might not arrive at a clear conclusion, that project never rose to the top of my stack. So I never boldly wrote, “TrumpCare will kill people.”

Fortunately, people better equipped than myself have taken the challenge on. Benjamin Sommers, Atul Gawande, and Katherine Baicker recently published an article in The New England Journal of Medicine acknowledging the controversy and comparing the studies quoted by each side. Weighing it all, they came to this conclusion:

The body of evidence summarized here indicates that coverage expansions significantly increase patients’ access to care and use of preventive care, primary care, chronic illness treatment, medications, and surgery. These increases appear to produce significant, multifaceted, and nuanced benefits to health. Some benefits may manifest in earlier detection of disease, some in better medication adherence and management of chronic conditions, and some in the psychological well-being born of knowing one can afford care when one gets sick. Such modest but cumulative changes — which one of us has called “the heroism of incremental care” — may not occur for everyone and may not happen quickly. But the evidence suggests that they do occur, and that some of these changes will ultimately help tens of thousands of people live longer lives. Conversely, the data suggest that policies that reduce coverage will produce significant harms to health, particularly among people with lower incomes and chronic conditions.

If the name Atul Gawande rings a bell, it’s probably because (in addition to being a doctor and public health researcher) he’s the author of popular books like Complications, Better, and Being Mortal. He also writes about health issues for The New Yorker, making him that rare researcher who’s able to popularize his own work, as he did this week in “How the Senate’s Health-Care Bill Threatens the Nation’s Health“.

To understand how the Senate Republicans’ health-care bill would affect people’s actual health, the first thing you have to understand is that incremental care — regular, ongoing care as opposed to heroic, emergency care — is the greatest source of value in modern medicine. There is clear evidence that people who get sufficient incremental care enjoy better prevention, earlier diagnosis and management of urgent conditions, better control of chronic illnesses, and longer life spans.

… Insurance expansions have made people more likely to get primary and preventive care, chronic-illness care, and needed medications — including cancer screenings, diabetes and blood-pressure medicines, depression treatment, and surgery for cancer before it is too late.

These improvements in care help explain why people who have health insurance are twenty-five per cent more likely to report being in good or excellent health. It also explains why they become less likely to die. Proper health care saves lives, and the magnitude of the reduction in deaths increases over time.

… Conservatives often take a narrow view of the value of health insurance: they focus on catastrophic events such as emergencies and sudden, high-cost illnesses. But the path of life isn’t one of steady health punctuated by brief crises. Most of us accumulate costly, often chronic health issues as we age. These issues can often be delayed, managed, and controlled if we have good health care — and can’t be if we don’t.

The incremental nature of most medical interventions — the drugs I take to keep my cholesterol low might or might not prevent a heart attack in 2030 — explains why the life-saving effect of insurance is hard to find in many studies, especially ones that only examine a few years. (Sometimes a decrease in mortality is noticed, but isn’t reported as a conclusion because the difference detectable within the time frame of the study isn’t statistically significant yet.) For the health crises that threaten to kill you in short order, Mitt Romney is right: The ER will help you whether you are insured or not. (You may have to go bankrupt when their bill comes, but that’s a different issue.)

But emergency care is far from the only way that medical care saves lives. Having watched both my parents grow old and die, I understand that many — perhaps most — deaths in this era aren’t caused by a sudden crisis out of the blue. Instead, dozens of problems that are not immediately life-threatening have a way of building on each other until people get encircled by them. A sudden crisis may kill you, but only because you have gradually lost all your room to maneuver. One problem limits your mobility, another makes it hard to sleep or enjoy food, your long-time interests and activities become hard to maintain, you become feeble, and then you get depressed and stop even trying to regain your lost abilities. Whether that encirclement happens to you at 50 or at 90 depends largely on what kind of care you get.

The difficulty of measuring these kinds of outcomes and attributing them to specific causes means that precise estimates of the number of such deaths should be taken with a grain of salt. An article in Vox on Wednesday claimed that 208,500 additional people might die over the next ten years if the Senate TrumpCare bill passes. That’s speculative, as the authors acknowledge. Maybe it will only be 50,000 people, maybe 400,000. Current research isn’t sharp enough to be precise.

But people will die, probably quite a large number of them.

Turn the Page

Since Ronald Reagan, America has lived under a regime of conservative ideas that Democrats have sometimes been able to resist, but not to overcome or replace. That aging regime is ready to fall, but Bastilles never storm themselves. The Democrats’ 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal: Bad as he is, Trump is just one example of the larger problem.


I keep hearing two theories about how Democrats can retake Congress in 2018 and start retaking the country. The first is to run against Donald Trump, who is an embarrassment to the nation, is historically unpopular, and may turn out to have committed impeachable offenses. The second is to run on a clear, positive agenda that can win back the working-class voters who have wandered away from the party of FDR and into the hands of the current huckster-in-chief.

Each approach has its virtues, and either would probably produce some gains in 2018, as mid-term elections usually do for the party out of power. But neither is quite right. Neither reflects the way that major change happens in America.

Beyond anti-Trump. The pure anti-Trump message is the easiest one to see through. The reason it’s not enough to run against Trump is that Trump isn’t the whole problem, not by a long shot. Yes, he’s corrupt. And yes, it’s dangerous for the country to have a president who understands so little about what presidents do. But think about the worst of what’s going on right now: trying to pay for a major tax cut for the rich by kicking millions of the working poor off Medicaid, undoing what little President Obama accomplished on climate change, and (though this isn’t getting nearly as much attention) sinking ever deeper into the quagmire conflicts of Syria and Afghanistan.

Just about any Republican president would be up to more-or-less the same stuff. A generic Republican president — picture President Pence, if you need a specific face — would also be favoring employers over their workers, letting big corporations manipulate the marketplace, looking for ways to make it harder to vote, insisting that God created exactly two totally distinct genders (and that only opposite-gender couples can form a real family), favoring Christianity over all other religions, and portraying the inner city as a war zone that needs an occupying force of militarized police (collateral damage be damned).

“Trump is bad” is not an argument against any of that stuff. If you’re an anti-Trump Republican, “Trump is bad” becomes an argument for keeping Speaker Ryan in place as adult supervision.

We saw in Tuesday’s disappointing special election in Georgia that Trump’s unpopularity isn’t necessarily contagious. In a historically Republican suburban district that nonetheless nearly went for Hillary Clinton in 2016, Jon Ossoff was a fresh young face with none of Hillary’s baggage. And yet, running against Karen Handel rather than Donald Trump, he couldn’t do quite was well as Clinton did (partly because Handel managed to reverse the demon-association playbook on him and run against Nancy Pelosi).

Major change doesn’t happen in America because the voters dislike one guy, even if that guy is the president. The root problem is the conservative worldview, the one that has been ascendant since Ronald Reagan. It won’t stop being ascendant just because Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing and can’t control himself.

Beyond our-policies-are-prettier-than-your-policies. But that raises an interesting question: How does major change happen? If you look at American history, a new national direction is never the result of a beauty contest.

If voters still more-or-less approve of the governing worldview, they never abandon it just because somebody else’s new ideas sound better. If they believe that the basic philosophy of the recent past still has promise for addressing the nation’s problems, they may occasionally choose a new face or opt for a pause while the country consolidates recent advances [1], but they won’t respond to calls for fundamental change. [2]

Big change, the kind we associate with names like Lincoln and FDR, happens because the public decisively rejects the ideas that have come before. Only then does a new way of looking at government have a chance to catch on. [3]

It’s important to understand what decisively reject really means. It doesn’t just mean that public stops buying the arguments in favor of those ideas. It means that the public loses patience with the very attempt to justify them. When a set of ideas has been decisively rejected, you don’t have argue against them any more; simply pointing out that these are the old, rejected ideas is enough.

FDR. So in 1932, the Great Depression was raging and Herbert Hoover was unpopular. Franklin Roosevelt probably could have won just on that. But if you look at Roosevelt’s speech accepting his nomination, he doesn’t mention Hoover’s name, or refer to him individually at all. He talks instead about “Republican leaders”, once mentions “the present administration in Washington” and twice more refers to “Washington” as short-hand. The case he makes is not against Hoover personally, but against the larger Republican worldview that had shaped the country since 1921, and whose roots went further back into the late 19th century.

There are two ways of viewing the Government’s duty in matters affecting economic and social life. The first sees to it that a favored few are helped and hopes that some of their prosperity will leak through, sift through, to labor, to the farmer, to the small business man. That theory belongs to the party of Toryism, and I had hoped that most of the Tories left this country in 1776.

Once elected, he didn’t reach out to the Republican Party, he destroyed it for a generation. They represented the “malefactors of great wealth” who had driven the nation into the Depression in the first place, and their worldview prevented the government from helping ordinary people.

For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent. …

We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob. Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.

What Reagan did to Great Society liberalism. The last major paradigm shift in American politics was the transition from Carter to Reagan. It was Reagan who established the defining principles of the Republican Party we know today: low taxes (especially on the wealthy), strong defense, alliance with the Religious Right (under the label “family values”), and less regulation of business. [4]

In 1980, as in 1932, the sitting president was unpopular: Inflation and unemployment were both high. (Traditional economics had said that was impossible, creating a national uneasiness that maybe nobody knew what to do.) Americans had been held hostage in Iran for a year, and Carter could neither negotiate their release nor rescue them militarily. Japan was winning the battle of international trade.

Like Roosevelt, Reagan did not just run against Jimmy Carter, but against the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decades. In his First Inaugural Address he laid out the story that conservatives are still telling: The boundless energy and creativity of American business will produce abundance for all if only government would get out of the way.

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. …  If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price. It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

After Reagan, Democrats couldn’t just be liberals. Suddenly they were tax-and-spend liberals, big-government liberals, or some other discredited species. The first and best argument against a new government program was simply that it was a new government program: Of course it wouldn’t achieve its objectives, would cost more than the wildest estimates, and would entrench yet another bloated bureaucracy. Conservatives didn’t have to make that argument; after Reagan, it made itself.

You could still hear the Reaganite echoes when ObamaCare was labeled “a government takeover of healthcare“. No evidence was needed to show that such a “takeover” would be bad. That went without saying.

Where Obama failed. In 2008, President Bush was unpopular. But more than that, his failures were deeply bound up in the failure of Reagan-era conservatism: Bush’s tax cuts built a deficit without unleashing growth. When government regulators got out of the way, Wall Street bankers turned mortgages that should never have been approved into a multi-trillion-dollar tower of worthless securities (whose AAA ratings fooled the market just long enough to crash the economy, make the banking system insolvent, and endanger the retirement savings of middle-class Americans). Our strong-but-fabulously-expensive military proved to be good at breaking countries, but not so good at putting them back together or preventing the resulting failed states from exporting terrorism.

Obama won a landslide victory and brought big majorities in Congress along with him. But he failed to charge Bush’s personal unpopularity or the crisis Bush left behind to the massively overdrawn account of the conservative worldview. He did not proclaim the end of the Reagan Era and made no attempt to chase the old orthodoxy’s defenders off the public stage, as Roosevelt and Reagan did in their day. If he had succeeded in doing so, there would be a new set of epithets that every conservative candidate or proposal would have to struggle out from under, terms like Iraq invader or bomb-everywhere Republican or sub-prime conservatism or free-the-wolves deregulation or middle-class-destroying cuts. (Those are just off the top of my head; no doubt professionals could do better.) Those labels would be as instantly disqualifying as tax-and-spend liberal was in the 1980s.

Obama’s failure to turn the page is why conservative nostrums (that events have disproved again and again) are still popping up in the ObamaCare-repeal debate: Getting government out of healthcare will unleash the creativity of the marketplace to yield better coverage and care for consumers; yet another big tax cut for the rich will create the good-paying jobs that none of the previous tax cuts did; the millions who will be thrown off of Medicaid — mostly working-poor families who are struggling to get by on minimum wage or slightly more — are Takers who are about to get a much-needed lesson in personal responsibility, giving a break to the massively overtaxed and overburdened Makers who support them.

After the horror of Bush’s Great Recession, the tax-cut-and-deregulation Great Recession, no one should be able to say such things with a straight face and without shame.

Turn the page. After nearly 40 years, American political discourse still takes place in the rhetorical universe created by Ronald Reagan. Our world is still haunted by the ghosts of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, job-killing regulations, initiative-crushing taxes, and poor people whose will to succeed has been sapped away by their dependence on government. The heroic entrepreneur still fights his eternal battle against the villainous bureaucrat. Private-sector spending on Mar-a-lago memberships and gas-guzzling jet-skis and AK-47s is productive, while public-sector spending on parks and roads and libraries is wasteful. A private-school teacher is a hard-working professional, while a public-school teacher is a blood-sucking parasite.

This rhetoric is aging badly and losing its hold. Republicans at some level know this; that’s why their ObamaCare-repeal bills in both houses have had to be jammed through quickly with as little national attention as possible. You don’t do that if you believe in what you’re doing. If you think you have a compelling argument, you make that argument in the brightest spotlight you can find.

But aging regimes don’t fall of their own weight. Somebody has to push them down. The Bastille never storms itself.

The 2018 campaign needs to be negative, but not personal. You can propose Medicare-for-everyone into this environment if you want, and if you can manage to control the narrative well enough to keep everyone calling it that — even after you get outspent 5-1 or 10-1 — you’ll probably win. But if instead your proposal gets transmuted into a bureaucracy-bloating, tax-increasing, debt-busting, big-government takeover of the economy, you’ll probably lose.

Democrats can’t shy away from conservative rhetoric, and we can’t hope that it will just slip people’s minds if we change the subject by presenting our own solutions. We have to confront it directly: We’ve been living in a conservative era for nearly 40 years, and that is what has destroyed the middle class.

That central point needs to be backed up with direct rejections of conservative nostrums: You can’t cut your way to prosperity. Nobody succeeds in a failing community. Money isn’t speech. Fear creates violence, and cruelty will always rebound; more prisons won’t make you safe, and more invasions will just cause more terrorism. More freedom for the rich and strong means more servitude for the poor and weak. The free market destroys the middle class. The environment is economic; we are part of Nature, and if we destroy Nature we destroy ourselves. (Again, these are off the top of my head and professionals could do better. The important thing is to express similar ideas in a uniform way, so that voters will know they’re hearing the same point from many voices.)

Trump’s individual outrages and the specific problems of this or that policy should always be interpreted expansively: Specifics should be presented not because they are important in themselves, but because they anchor the larger critique. Trump isn’t an aberration, he’s typical. The ObamaCare-repeal bill isn’t just a bad policy, it’s the logical product of a bad philosophy.

Party unity. A handful of Democrats will feel left out by this message, because they hope to appeal not just to people who have been voting Republican, but to people who still believe in the Reaganite worldview. That seems like a fool’s errand to me.

But the vast majority of candidates, progressive and centrist alike, should be able to work with this national message. The positive proposals they present can be tailored to their own philosophies and their own districts. (Bernie Sanders, for example, knew better than to run on gun control in Vermont. Similarly, a rural district in Kansas, full of towns where there’s one convenience store and one gas station, both struggling, is not the place to run on a $15 minimum wage. Higher, yes; $15 no.) Some will vaguely want to increase access to healthcare while others will post a detailed 50-page plan on their web sites. As candidates succeed or fail with these specifics, other candidates will or won’t imitate them.

Some candidates will want to appear with Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, while others will invite Joe Biden or Cory Booker. But very few candidates will find themselves forced to run against the national message, or to choose between the national party and the voters they hope to represent.

Old and new. It’s hard now to remember how fresh Reaganite conservatism sounded in 1980. Whether you agreed with it or not, it started new discussions and opened new possibilities for experimentation. But what was once young and supple has become old and rigid. Discussions shut down now, because powerful organizations have staked out positions that brook no debate: There can be no new taxes. Nothing can be done about gun violence. We can’t talk to Iran. Defense spending can only go up.

That’s what old regimes look like. They’re brittle and have no room to maneuver when new problems appear. New voters come of age looking for insight, and hear only dogma. It may be hard to say exactly what should come next, but it’s easy to see when it’s time for an old worldview to go.

It’s time.


[1] The new faces I have in mind are Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton, both of whom represented their party’s acknowledgement that the game had changed, and did not reverse the country’s course. Eisenhower let New Deal programs like Social Security stand, and Clinton yielded to a key point of Reaganism by announcing that “The era of big government is over.” A “New Democrat”, as Clinton sometimes called himself, was a Democrat who had learned the lessons of the Reagan Era.

[2] This a political analogy to the process Thomas Kuhn described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: As long as researchers believe that the old paradigm is still fruitful and can still lead to new solutions to important problems, new paradigms don’t get a fair hearing.

The political scientist most connected with this idea is Stephen Skowronek, who introduced the concept of “political time“. Basically, he breaks American history down into a series of multi-decade eras, each dominated by its own widely accepted view of what government is about. Each president grapples with problems within that era’s political orthodoxy, which he either promotes or resists. As the era proceeds, the ruling ideology becomes more rigid and unwieldy, until it collapses under an attack by a repudiating leader, who then “resets the political clock” and begins a new era.

[3] Lincoln is a particularly good example here, because the change he is remembered for — ending slavery — isn’t what he campaigned on. Point 4 of the 1860 Republican platform explicitly denies any intention to roll back slavery in the existing slave states, and rejects military force as a means to do so:

That the maintenance inviolate of the rights of the states, and especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively, is essential to that balance of powers on which the perfection and endurance of our political fabric depends; and we denounce the lawless invasion by armed force of the soil of any state or territory, no matter under what pretext, as among the gravest of crimes.

What the election of 1860 represented was not an endorsement of abolitionism, much less of a future where free blacks could vote and be assured the due process of law. Instead, it represented a rejection (on both sides) of the political climate that had endured since the Missouri Compromise of 1820: The country could no longer lurch from crisis to crisis as moderates like Henry Clay or Daniel Webster or Stephen Douglas worked out complicated deals to maintain the North/South balance of power.

So the America that came out of the Civil War was fundamentally different than the America of 1859, but not because Lincoln designed a new set of policies and sold them to the electorate.

[4] These ideas are so entrenched inside the GOP that even when Marco Rubio campaigned on the need for “new ideas”, he simply repeated Reaganite orthodoxy.

Why I’m Still Skeptical About the Progressive Revolution

My social media bubble has drifted well to the left of center, so I hear a lot of frustration with the Democratic Party — particularly with the centrist Clintonite wing that has dominated the DNC in recent years, during which the party has lost the White House, both houses of Congress, and vast numbers of seats in state legislatures. The solution is supposed to be for all those people to get out of the way and let the progressive Bernie-supporting wing of the party take over. Hillary Clinton in particular should just go away, and anybody involved in the DNC in 2016 should follow her. The Left is where the youth and energy of the party are, and it has the kind of bold proposals that might get disaffected voters to the polls. Look what Jeremy Corbyn just did in the UK.

I’m almost there. The critique — lost elections at all levels — is inarguable. And I long for a more visionary approach to the future. Take gun control as a neutral example that cuts across the Clinton/Sanders line: All Democrats — and most of the rest of the country — can agree that our current gun laws are stupid. The fact that we don’t even do universal background checks on gun purchasers is insane (and so are some of the people who exploit the loopholes in the system and buy guns). But in the Ideal Democratic Future, what is the relationship between American citizens and guns? Does anybody have an answer for that?

But I have to admit, on almost every other issue progressives have a clear advantage on the vision-of-the-future front. Again and again, the centrists get lost in the next-small-step argument and never get around to saying where they want to go. But conversely, while progressives are clear on the Big Idea, they’re often vague about what the next step is. (After Congress rejects his single-payer healthcare plan, does President Sanders have a Plan B, or does he just wait for the next Congress?)

So while I’m rooting for the progressives, let me tell you exactly where I get stuck. All my political life, the left wing of the Democratic Party (and the non-Democrats who reject the party for not being liberal enough) has been suffering from the delusion that it’s more popular than it actually is. Again and again, I have heard that somebody like Ralph Nader or Dennis Kucinich represented what the American people really want, and then seen them get something like 2% of the vote. And then, in the next election the same people would come back and tell me the same thing, as if the last election never happened.

Polls. Why do they think this? It’s not purely wishful thinking; there are polls that say the same thing. If you ask about specific issues, and phrase your questions right, you can get sizeable majorities of the American people to agree with liberal positions.

In early 2015, for example, 68% of Americans told pollsters that the rich don’t pay enough tax; only 11% thought the rich pay too much. This February, a 60%-38% majority said the government should “make sure that all Americans have healthcare coverage”. Last year, 63% described their response to “Medicare for all” as either “very positive” (36%) or “somewhat positive” (27%). In 2013, Gallup found 72% support for “a federal government program that would spend government money to put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs”.

Early in 2015, the Progressive Change Institute polled a wide range of issues: 71% supported letting anyone buy in to Medicare. 70% were for a “Green New Deal” to create millions of clean-energy jobs. 63% favored free community college. 70% would expand Social Security benefits. 61% wanted a special prosecutor to investigate all police killings. And more.

However, you can also get different results if you ask different questions. In 2013, a WaPo/ABC poll found 61% support for an across-the-board 5% cut in federal spending. That’s a fairly consistent pattern: As an abstract concept, government spending is unpopular, even while spending on particular programs has broad support. And while majorities always think the rich should pay more tax, nobody thinks that they themselves are rich — and hardly anybody thinks people like them should pay more tax.

So it’s naive to think that you can get those 60% or 70% majorities by running on a progressive platform. You’d get those majorities if you ran on a progressive platform, and then managed to control the narrative of the campaign so that the eventual vote turned on the issues where you have large majorities behind you.

But that never happens. Just ask Hillary; I don’t think she expected to spend the last week of the campaign answering questions about the FBI. In 1988, Dukakis had Bush nailed on the issues — so the Bush campaign invented an issue out of nothing: They were for the pledge of allegiance and Dukakis (they claimed) was against it. They won.

The 2016 primaries. Bearing that history in mind, what did 2016 really tell us? On my social media feed, I often hear the story told this way: Bernie was the people’s choice, but the Democratic establishment pushed Hillary through in spite of her unpopularity.

And here’s my problem with that story: If the people had really wanted Bernie, they could have voted for him. That’s what happened where I live in New Hampshire (where I dithered, and then voted for Bernie myself). If the power of the establishment works anywhere, it should work in the early primaries, when the upstart candidate seems most unlikely. But Hillary’s initial advantages in name recognition and money and endorsements got her only a tiny victory margin in Iowa, and then got her clobbered in New Hampshire, where Bernie got 60% of the vote and won every county.

From that point on, the race was a free-for-all. And Bernie lost that free-for-all: His total primary vote was 13.2 million, compared to Clinton’s 16.9 million. That loss can’t be attributed to some fluke of the process: He also never caught Clinton in the national polls. For a couple weeks in mid-April he got within a point or two, but then Clinton started to pull away. The late-breaking trend was entirely towards Clinton, climaxing with her 7-point win in California, a state which fits the Sanders profile as well as any.

Sanders supporters who don’t go in for a DNC-stole-the-election conspiracy theory often blame the media: Sanders couldn’t get his message out. The articles about him didn’t focus on how great his proposals were, and instead drew too much attention to stereotypes like “Bernie bros”.

But a campaign never gets the media coverage it wants. Clinton certainly didn’t. The same Harvard study that pointed out how little serious media attention Sanders got in 2015 also showed that the attention to Clinton was almost entirely negative.

Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton. Trump’s positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.

The 2016 general election. Yes, I often hear, but Clinton lost to Trump and Sanders would have won.

I don’t think that’s clear at all. Yes, Hillary would have beaten Trump if she’d gotten Jill Stein’s votes, which almost certainly would have gone to Bernie if he’d been the nominee.

But there’s another third-party possibility everybody forgets: When Bernie was surging after New Hampshire, Michael Bloomberg considered running, perhaps because he saw a big hole in the center if it came down to Trump vs. Sanders. But by early March, after the Southern primaries had given Clinton a significant delegate lead (and the day before Sanders’ surprise win in Michigan put him back in the race for a few weeks), Bloomberg backed out. So don’t compare Trump/Clinton/Stein to a Trump/Sanders race where Sanders gets all the Stein votes. Instead picture the Trump/Bloomberg/Sanders race. How many votes does Bernie lose in the center that Hillary got? More than Stein took, I’ll bet.

After a defeat, everyone sees what went wrong, so there have been a lot of articles about what a bad candidate Clinton was. But you also can’t forget this: Hillary was the only candidate in 2016 who beat Trump in a debate, and she did it all three times. That’s not a judgment call: She actually got a bump in the polls after each one. I don’t think we can just assume Sanders would have done as well.

The Tea Party parallel. When the Tea Party popped into existence in the spring of 2009, it was largely an astroturf phenomenon. Yes, there was public anger on the Right, animated by fear of what the new Obama administration might do (and also by some fairly thinly veiled racism). But the message was spread with Koch money and the early rallies given unlimited free publicity by Fox News.

But eventually it turned into a Frankenstein monster that got away from the people who hoped to control it. Rather than a simple Republican rebranding operation — it’s hard to remember now just how defeated the Republicans were after 2008 — it turned into a faction that took the Party away from its previous establishment. John Boehner rode the movement to the speakership, but then was forced out by it. Jeb Bush had all the same advantages going into 2016 that Clinton did, but got nowhere with them. The Trump presidency is the ultimate result: The Tea Party is his base.

So the Tea Party demonstrates the vulnerability of party establishments, and it also gives a road map for an insurgency to take control: win elections. In 2010, Marco Rubio was an insurgent candidate aligned with the Tea Party. He beat Florida’s sitting governor (Charlie Crist) in a primary for the Senate nomination, then won a three-way race in the fall against Crist and a Democrat. Ted Cruz had a similar path to the Senate in 2012, upsetting the sitting Republican Lieutenant Governor in a primary. In 2014, a Tea Party candidate beat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary.

In short, after their horrible 2008 defeat, the Republican establishment did not just step aside and surrender the party to the upstarts. The Bush dynasty, for example, did not just go away. Tea Party candidates had to win the GOP at the ballot box. Can progressives do something similar on the Democratic side?

Prove it to me. I keep hearing that the Democratic establishment is completely out of touch with the voters. It raises no enthusiasm. It has no vision for how to regain power. The progressive agenda, on the other hand — Medicare for everybody, free college, $15 minimum wage, taxing the rich, breaking up the big banks, and so forth — is where the people are. Bernie is the most popular politician in the country.* The progressives have all the energy and momentum.

If that’s all true, then it shouldn’t be hard for candidates to run on that progressive agenda, with the support of progressive heroes like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and win elections. In particular, primary elections against those tired old DNC-supported candidates should be easy victories.

So far that’s not happening. Why not?

We just had a test in Virginia, a swing state that Clinton won in 2016 by a surprisingly large 5.3%. The two candidates in the Democratic primary for governor were probably not that far apart in reality, but the race got framed as a progressive-vs-establishment contest. Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam lined up the all the big-name Virginia Democratic endorsements, while former Congressman Tom Perriello ran as an outsider with a populist message. Sanders campaigned with Perriello, and Elizabeth Warren endorsed him.

It was supposed to be close, and then it wasn’t: Northam won by 14%.

I’m still waiting for a breakthrough progressive win. So far I’m getting claims of moral victory and excuses about establishment power. A progressive candidate for Congress lost the Montana special election — but he did well in a red district and the DNC should have done more for him. (Tomorrow we’ll see an opposite test: John Ossoff is running as a centrist in a red district outside Atlanta.)

Maybe revolution is the wrong metaphor. Northam won in Virginia by adopting a lot of the progressive platform and some of its rhetoric, as politicians will do when the national mood shifts. That’s an evolution, not a revolution.

The real test will be the 2018 primaries. I hope progressives give those primaries a real Tea Party effort: Don’t just stand on the sidelines and complain that the establishment didn’t give you good candidates. Run your own candidates, and put all that youth and energy behind them.

If you do that, you might win, but you also might lose, because the Left always believes it’s more popular than it actually is. If it turns out that’s still true, then the only way to get to a majority is to find allies that you can pull partway towards your agenda. That would be evolution rather than revolution. But it would still be change.


* Getting back to my control-the-narrative theme, I wonder how Bernie’s national popularity is holding up this week, when his name keeps getting mentioned in the context of the Scalise shooting. I think it’s completely unfair to blame Bernie for something done by an obscure volunteer for his campaign, and the Scalise shooting has nothing to do with the Sanders agenda, but political narratives are unfair.

Political Violence is Our Issue Too

Political violence is a problem, we’re tempted to think, but not for us.

After all, our candidate wasn’t the one who openly agitated for violence at his rallies, excused his criminally violent supporters as “passionate“, or hinted about his opponent’s assassination. Our congresspeople don’t assault reporters. We don’t use guns as props at our demonstrations, or carry banners about the Tree of Liberty needing to be watered by the blood of tyrants. (The guy on the right was protesting outside an Obama townhall meeting in 2009.) We don’t call for our opponents to be shot for treason. Our senators aren’t encouraging us “to shoot at the government when it becomes tyrannical”.

No, no, that’s not us. We build on the nonviolent heritage of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Freedom Riders. The day after Trump’s inauguration, we brought millions of people into the streets without any violence. (I was on Boston Common with a couple hundred thousand others. The most confrontational thing I heard was Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey saying to Trump, “We’ll see you in court.”)

Yeah, those other guys need to be more careful, so that they don’t encourage Islamophobes to kill people on public transit, or promote conspiracy theories that result in gullible guys shooting up pizza places or getting into gun battles with cops on their way to shut down the heart of the Great Plot.

But not us. We’re OK.

And then shit happens.

Wednesday, James Hodgkinson started shooting at Republican congresspeople as they practiced for an annual charity baseball game against Democratic congresspeople. (In other words, while they were doing maybe the least offensive thing some of them have done all year.) House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was hit, along with a staffer and two police. He was in critical condition for a couple of days before being upgraded to serious.

Hodgkinson died after being shot by police, and so far we don’t have a note or other statement explaining his actions. But the political motivation seems obvious: He volunteered for the Sanders campaign in Iowa. He made anti-Trump comments on social media. He came all the way from Illinois, so he didn’t just happen to be in that park looking to shoot some random person. During his attack, he had a list of Republican congressmen in his pocket.

To me, as a liberal, this looks anomalous. But it doesn’t to conservatives, who blame liberals for a number of attacks we don’t identify as our own: like the shooting of five police officers in Dallas, or of two other police in New York City. The shooters appear to have been motivated by revenge against police in general for police shootings of blacks. We protested the same shootings, so they must be with us. Ditto for violence in Ferguson and Baltimore after the Michael Brown and Freddie Gray killings; liberals were also angered by those killings, so conservatives pin the violence on us.

Then there are the antifa (i.e. anti-fascist) and black bloc (named for their style of dress, not their skin color) street fighters who battle against similar right-wing hooligans. (That strikes me as a case of mutual myopia: Each side sees the thugs on the other side, and conveniently overlooks its own.) Some conservatives even blame us for attacks by Muslims. We’re the ones who stick up for Muslim rights and protest when Trump tries to get tough with them, so the killers in Orlando and San Bernadino are our people too.

If you’re a liberal like me, chances are this sounds nutty to you. And mostly it is. I have never advocated assassinating police officers or street fighting or nightclub massacres or gunning down congressional ballplayers, and I don’t consider those actions to be a rational extrapolation of anything I did advocate. I can’t see that Bernie Sanders bears any responsibility for the fact that some guy both supported his campaign and tried to kill the House majority whip. And the mere fact that you don’t want the University of California to help Milo Yiannopoulos spread his hateful message doesn’t implicate you in the Berkeley riot.

But now I do have to concede something: I need to offer other people the same kind of understanding I want for myself.

So I need to say this to conservatives: You may believe that Islam poses some unique threat to the American way of life (and I may disagree with you), but that doesn’t make you responsible for the Portland guy who yelled racial slurs at two Muslim women and then killed two guys who tried to defend them. You may interpret the 2nd Amendment differently than I do, but that doesn’t make you an accomplice to every mass shooting. You may believe abortion should be illegal, but that doesn’t equate you with the people who assassinate abortion doctors or shoot up Planned Parenthood clinics.

And yet, I don’t want to let off the hook everyone (on either side) who hasn’t actually pulled a trigger. You can’t say “somebody ought to kill that guy” and then claim innocence if somebody does. You can’t put out a wanted poster saying a doctor is “wanted by God” and then absolve yourself after someone delivers him to God. You can’t pose with a facsimile of someone’s bloody head, and express shock if someone bloodies the real head. If you invent and spread baseless conspiracy theories like Pizzagate, you are implicated if someone believes you and responds in a way that might make sense if the theory were true.

Staying involved without contributing to the problem is a tricky line to walk. It’s just as important to understand what the problem isn’t as to understand what it is.

The problem isn’t “extremism”, if that word just refers to views well outside the mainstream. The kind of libertarianism that wants to privatize the streets and zero out all anti-poverty programs is extreme. Confiscating all fortunes larger than $1 billion would be extreme. Amending the Constitution to ban all privately owned firearms or to make Christianity the official religion would be extreme. And yet, these are all proposals that people might debate rationally, without killing each other.

The problem isn’t that people are taking politics too seriously. Politics is serious. Politics is whether we go to war. It’s whether sick people get care. It’s whether your children get educated or have a shot at a job someday. It’s whether your town gets rebuilt after the hurricane, whether our food is safe to eat, or if we’ll be prepared for the next epidemic. It’s serious. It’s worth arguing about. It’s worth obsessing over, even. It’s worth getting out on the street and continuing to make your demands after the authorities say no. Taking politics seriously isn’t the problem. Serious people can have debates without killing each other.

Violence is different from seriousness or extremism. It comes out of dehumanization, out of believing that your opponents are so evil that they can’t be reasoned with, and that your side’s victory is so important that if you lose you might as well pull the Temple down on everyone. It comes from feeling cornered, like if you lose this battle you have nowhere to retreat to, no chance to find more persuasive arguments and win another day.

Lots of people in America are feeling that kind of despair. Anything you say in public, you have to figure that some desperate person is going to hear.

What goes on in those desperate minds? One of the creepiest novels I’ve ever read was John Fowles’ The Collector. It centers on a young man who wins the lottery and uses the money to pursue his fantasy: He quits his job, remodels his house to include a prison cell, kidnaps an attractive young woman, and keeps her there, hoping she will come to love him. As she get more desperate to escape, eventually she dies, and then he decides to find someone else and start the process again.

What I found most disturbing about the novel was how much I could identify with the the root fantasy: Someone who doesn’t notice you might still come to love you, if somehow circumstances could be contrived to throw you together. I’ve had that fantasy, and yet it never led to kidnapping or imprisonment or death. Probably all that would have been needed to prevent the novel’s tragedy was one good buddy, who over a beer would hear some version of the daydream before it ever hardened into a plan, appreciate it on the level of pure fantasy, and then wistfully say, “Yeah, but that would be crazy. It wouldn’t turn out well.” The Collector doesn’t have that friend and never hears that comment.

Similarly, I think many of us have, at one time or another, fantasized about being an avenging hero. That’s my best guess as to what James Hodgkinson thought he was doing: Those evil Republican congressmen would go on perpetrating their villainy, until some hero stopped them. And when he did stop them, crowds would cheer.

As we live more and more inside our separate bubbles of social media, it becomes increasingly difficult to picture people in distant bubbles as anything other than villains, and all too easy to imagine a cheering crowd. And I think we’re all just a little less likely to find ourselves having that beer with the buddy who says, “Yeah, but that would be crazy.”

I believe this new reality puts an extra responsibility on us. Not to be less serious or less intense. Not to shade our views in the direction of the Center, wherever that is. Not to stop criticizing things that are actually wrong or working to correct them. But definitely to avoid letting someone else believe that we will be in the crowd that cheers their avenging hero fantasy.

I think that means avoiding images and metaphors of violence, whether it’s Kathy Griffin’s severed-head photo or Sarah Palin’s congresspeople-in-the-crosshairs graphic. It means not dehumanizing opponents, and not exaggerating their misdeeds — or making some up out of whole cloth. It means challenging the people on our own side whose rhetoric crosses the line. And it means being, whenever we can, the sympathetic voice that keeps violent fantasy within its proper bounds, and restrains it from morphing into a plan.