The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m back home again in the eastern time zone, operating on my usual schedule.

Last week I linked to some other people’s responses to the Bret Stephens’ NYT column “Climate of Complete Certainty“, in which he denounced environmental activists for making claims beyond what the underlying science justifies, but oddly named no environmental activists and specified no unjustified claims. That left his critics in the odd position of feeling like they needed to argue, but not really knowing what to argue against.

This week it dawned on me how to understand that column: as an illustration of Jason Stanley’s model of propaganda. The best propaganda, Stanley argues, doesn’t lie; it just activates false ideas that are already sitting in the minds of its target audience. I reviewed Stanley’s book How Propaganda Works a couple years ago, but his ideas are worth looking at again now that we have such an excellent current example. So the featured post this week will be “Climate of Propaganda” and should be out before 8 EDT.

A second post is a short note that outgrew its space, on the odd ceremony at the White House Thursday celebrating Trump’s executive order defending “religious liberty”, i.e., the one that is supposed to end the persecution of Christians by the IRS and other federal agencies. Since that persecution doesn’t exist, and since the order stopped well short of the unconstitutional things Trump had promised (like ending enforcement of LGBT rights), the religious leaders attending Trump’s ceremony were actually celebrating the fact that the conman they support has conned them. I’ll describe that scene in “Much Ado About Religious Liberty”, which should appear around 9.

The weekly summary has some important news to cover: France decided not to go fascist, raising the possibility that the Trump election was the peak of the global fascist momentum. The House passed TrumpCare, and House Republicans celebrated at the White House as if it had become law. One House Republican told a town hall meeting “Nobody dies because they don’t have access to health care.” I think we’ll hear that line a lot in the 2018 campaign, so I’ll examine the evidence against it. New Orleans is having a divisive and potentially violent argument about removing Confederate statues. There’s some other stuff, and I’m still looking for a closing. So that probably appears between 11 and 12.

100 Days of Stuff

Every report on [Trump’s] ‘flip-flopping’ suffers by the implication that he had some sort of position in the first place. Nope. He said stuff.

Jay Rosen

This week’s featured post is “Why cutting rich people’s taxes doesn’t create jobs“.

This week everybody was still talking about Trump’s 100 Days

Matt Yglesias disputes the conventional wisdom that Trump’s first hundred days have been a failure. It all depends on what you think he’s trying to achieve. If he’s trying to make a lot of money, he’s doing very well.

It’s certainly true that Paul Ryan’s speakership of the House is failing, arguable that Mitch McConnell’s tenure as majority leader of the Senate is failing, and indisputably true that the Koch brothers’ drive to infuse hardcore libertarian ideological zeal into the GOP is failing.

But Trump isn’t failing. He and his family appear to be making money hand over fist. It’s a spectacle the likes of which we’ve never seen in the United States, and while it may end in disaster for the Trumps someday, for now it shows no real sign of failure.

He goes on to outline the ways Trump is known to be profiting from his presidency, right down to the $35,000 the Secret Service has spent renting golf carts from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club so that they can follow him around the golf course.


The Jay Rosen tweetstorm I pulled the opening quote from is a good summary of the problems the press has faced in these hundred days.

Forced to choose between inventing a language for a presidency without precedent and distorting the picture by relying on normal terms, newswriters have frequently chosen inaccuracy by means of a received language, even though they know there’s nothing normal here.

So they’ve referred to a one-page memo as a “tax plan” for lack of anything else to call it. And they speculate about the success or failure of Trump’s “foreign policy” when it’s not clear he has any policies. To say that he faces a “steep learning curve” assumes that he is learning, or even trying to learn.


The Guardian‘s Lawrence Douglas expresses my view on Trump’s first hundred days: The institutions of American democracy held up under the initial assault. That doesn’t mean the danger is over, but it is a good time to take note of

  • our own accomplishments as protesters,
  • the independence of our judges,
  • the good work done by our embattled journalists,
  • and the commitment of government employees to the missions of their organizations rather than the whims of a flighty new president.

Finally, some credit must go to Trump himself.

In his sheer incompetence and inconstancy, Trump has emerged as our best bulwark against Trump. … [His] very craving for adulation, the need to chalk up successes, the deep, even cynical, pragmatism also predicted that Trump would have no stomach for Bannon’s reign of terror. The banishing of Bannon from the innermost precincts of power can only be viewed as a good.


Along those same lines, I recently devoted a couple hours to watching Leni Riefenstahl’s classic of Nazi propaganda, The Triumph of the Will, which was released in 1935, near the beginning of the Nazi regime. One of the things I learned is that Hitler was much better at this kind of thing than Trump has been. Hitler channeled the German people’s pride, and reflected it back to them. In the scenes we see, he wastes no time telling Germans how great he is; other people do that. Hitler accepts the crowd’s adulation and tells them how great Germany is, how great the German people are.

Trump’s make-America-great-again campaign theme played to many of those same emotions. Like 1930s Germany (but to a lesser degree), a large chunk of the American public feels humiliated by the course of recent decades, and longs to feel national pride again. But Trump is too weak and too needy to get his ego out of the way and just make himself a mirror for the nation’s self-admiration. Even when he’s surrounded by adoring fans, he has to keep talking about himself and his own wonderfulness.

So Trump has character flaws that keep him from achieving the full authoritarian potential of the moment. Thank God for that.


Quantifying the unquantifiable: The WaPo fact-checkers have identified 488 false or misleading statements made by President Trump, or just under five per day.

the pace and volume of the president’s misstatements means that we cannot possibly keep up. The president’s speeches and interviews are so chock full of false and misleading claims that The Fact Checker often must resort to roundups that offer a brief summary of the facts that the president has gotten wrong.


I’ve long been a fan of cognitive scientist George Lakoff. Here’s an instructive graphic from him.

and his self-serving one-page tax “plan”

Remember back when that black guy was president and the size of the federal debt was an existential threat to the country? Deficits were going to turn us into Greece or something?

Oh, never mind. Let’s cut taxes.

Describing a single-page memo as a “tax plan” is a bit of a stretch, but the administration wanted to get a proposal in under the 100-day window, and this was the best it could do. For example, it suggests lowering the number of tax brackets from seven to three (10%, 25%, and 35%), but doesn’t specify the income ranges those brackets apply to. So there’s no way to know exactly what the effect will be on any particular person’s taxes, like yours.

One person who clearly will pay less tax, though, is Donald Trump. He claims the opposite, because of course he would claim that. (I no longer think of Trump’s falsehoods as lies. I think he simply says whatever sounds good, and any positive or negative correlation with reality is purely incidental.) And no one can conclusively prove otherwise, because he won’t release his tax returns. But everything we know about the Trump Organization matches up well with the cuts he’s proposing on things like pass-through corporations.

He proposes eliminating most tax deductions, but keeping the deduction on mortgage interest. This also has self-serving benefits: Without that deduction, the price the Trump Organization could charge for the condos it has for sale would drop considerably.

Plus, we have two pages of Trump taxes from 2005.

That return also implied that without the alternative minimum tax, which Trump wants to repeal, he would have paid less than 3.5 percent of his income in federal income taxes. Cutting the pass-through rate while repealing the AMT would probably reduce his tax burden to roughly half that level. Instead of paying $38 million, he could’ve paid less than $3 million.

So if we apply his proposal retroactively to his 2005 taxes, Trump would pay less than a tenth of what he paid before, and save himself $35 million.

Has any previous president ever proposed legislation that would make himself richer at the rate of $35 million a year? I doubt it.


One reason we’re talking about a one-page memo rather than an actual piece of legislation Congress might vote on is that Trump has yet to appoint the person responsible for writing that bill.

For 470 of 556 key positions that require Senate confirmation, Trump has yet to announce a nominee at all, according to a tracker maintained by the Partnership for Public Service and Washington Post. In nearly half the cases where he has announced a nominee, the White House hasn’t formally sent the nominations to the Senate, awaiting clearance from the Office of Government Ethics and an FBI background check.

One of those 470 empty slots is the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Tax Policy.


I may argue with his arithmetic, but I’ll give CNBC’s Jake Novak credit for saying openly what other conservatives believe silently:

Unless Social Security, Medicare, and defense are significantly reformed and cut, not even a 100-percent tax increase will get us out of debt. And the myth that the public will not tolerate changes and cuts to those programs at all is just that — a myth.

So our budget problem, according to Novak, isn’t that so many billionaires and giant corporations pay zero tax; or that the ones that do often pay a lower rate than secretaries; our problem is that not enough old people are eating cat food or dying in the street.

And for the sake of argument, let’s say he’s right: Suppose that in the long run we really do have to cut entitlement programs. That’s no excuse for ignoring the revenue side of the equation: We’d have to cut entitlements less if the rich were paying more tax.

and Obama getting paid to speak

In September, Barack Obama is scheduled to speak at a conference on health care sponsored by Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald. He’ll receive a $400,000 speaking fee.

I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, liberals could really use a saint about now, and Obama would make a good one. I would love it if he spent the rest of his life living humbly, saying wise things, and inspiring a new generation of social justice warriors.

On the other hand, I’m always skeptical when we raise standards just in time for them to apply to the black guy. Ex-presidents command large fees on the speaking circuit, and have done so at least since Ronald Reagan’s $2 million tour of Japan. They also sell a lot of books (that goes back to Ulysses S. Grant) and make big bucks that way. Most of them haven’t really needed the money (Grant did), so foregoing these big paydays doesn’t seem like that much to ask. But why start with Obama?

Any big cash conduit could be used for bribery, so we ought to stay alert for that. But while $400K would be a huge amount of money to all but the richest Americans, it seems to be the going rate for the small number of speakers who have Obama’s level of star power. (BTW: This was also my opinion of Hillary Clinton’s speeches. Getting her on your speaking list put your conference or lecture series on the map. That was worth the price to a lot of organizations, without any assumption that they’d get favorable treatment in some future administration.)

One way conservatives like to tie liberals in knots is by building purity traps. Isn’t it hypocritical that Al Gore has a big home that uses a lot of electricity, or that Bill McKibben flies, or that Warren Buffett tries to minimize his company’s tax bill, or that all of us who claim to care about the homeless aren’t living in cardboard boxes ourselves?

We need to stop cooperating with this kind of stuff. There is no limit to how pure you could possibly be, and no one who lives inside an unjust system can be entirely untainted by that injustice. If Obama decides to go for sainthood, I’ll cheer him on. But I think that should be his decision.

but I wish I understood the infighting among Democrats and other liberals

The most important issue I haven’t been writing about is the continuing struggle between so-called “establishment” Democrats (who mostly supported Hillary in the primaries) and so-called “progressives” (who mostly supported Bernie). I haven’t written about it for a very specific reason: I don’t understand it, and I don’t want to compound the ambient cluelessness by adding my voice to it.

At a point in our political history where anyone to the left of John Kasich ought to be uniting to protect American democratic traditions against Trump, an incredible amount of vitriol is going back and forth between people who are all some distance from that line.

From the Left, Cornell West is writing:

Even as we forge a united front against Trump’s neofascist efforts, we must admit the Democratic party has failed us and we have to move on. Where? To what? When brother Nick Brana, a former Bernie campaign staffer, told me about the emerging progressive populist or social democratic party – the People’s party – that builds on the ruins of a dying Democratic party and creates new constituencies in this moment of transition and liquidation, I said count me in.

Bernie himself is on a muddled “unity tour” with newly elected DNC chair Tom Perez, in which he denies being a Democrat.

Meanwhile, Bernie is facing criticism for supporting a candidate who’s squishy on abortion rights, and for not bridging the gap that kept blacks and Hispanics from supporting him in 2016.

With the diverse Democratic base in the southern states being a major reason why Sanders lost, you’d think that his movement would make a major effort to reach out to Black voters and find a way to meet them on the issues that they care about.

Nope. Instead, we are seeing a doubling down on a focus of the white working class and hostility to identity politics.

I’m hoping to understand all this better and write something useful about it before long. But here’s where I’m starting: Everybody is talking about “the Democratic Party” is if it were a much more solid entity than it really is. The Democratic Party is nothing more or less than the sum total of the people who vote in Democratic primaries. If a unified movement of people — whether from the left or the center (or even from the far right, if they could somehow manage it) — can win those primaries, then the party is theirs.

That’s the test: Run candidates. Turn people out to vote for them. And if you lose, don’t blame other factions for running their own candidates and turning out people to vote for them. That’s just how democracy works.

and you might also be interested in

Congress has a deal to keep the government open for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends September 30. It will be voted on this week.


If you’ve read any John le Carré Cold War spy novels, you’re familiar with the subtle ways intelligence agencies set each other up: Leak this document, let that defector escape to tell some particular story, arrest somebody who otherwise would be in a position to debunk that story, and so on. One side leaves a trail of bread crumbs that they know someone on the other side will follow to a predictable result, which he will then believe because of the effort he had to invest to put all the pieces together.

In “Pathology of a Fake News Story“, Leon Derczynski claims those tactics are now being used on journalists and even on ordinary people who try to get to the bottom of things.

Imagine this. You’re an educated person with a bit of time, and you visit the doctor with a long-standing non-threatening complaint. They suggest a medicine you’ve tried before, or perhaps you’d like to try a new one. Prudently, you check out the suggested drug. You read a few articles about it, but they look like the typical marketing literature. You find four or five academic papers on the drug; most of the trials look good, with a benefit in the majority of cases. There’s one that’s inconclusive, but it’s in a less major journal, with a small sample size. You then go and check out a few review sites; most of the reviews are positive — the drug’s no panacea, but it’s better. A few of the reviews are very negative, but seem to be from people who are a little bit crazy, not using the drug right, have many other conditions, and so on. So you conclude, it looks legitimate; none of the stories look controlled, and everywhere you look, you see what you’d expect to see from a decent drug. Except it’s not. Everything you’ve read — all the end-user comments, all the peer-reviewed articles, are shills, put there by the pharma corporation to make their drug look good, and make it look good in a way that “smells” legitimate.

This astroturfing practice is well-studied; Sharyl Attkisson has a talk on it that’s worth checking out. The central idea is to place stories, evidence and so on in the locations that a knowledgeable, [skeptical] person would search, and give them the imperfections and angle that we all expect to see in genuine evidence.

The next step seems kind of clear: if you want to control the media, you can do so by astroturfing for journalists. Where will they look? What does good, genuine evidence look like for them?

The implications of this seem terribly nihilistic to me. The future looks like a place where, no matter how careful you are, you can’t believe anything about anything, because a disinformation AI might always be one step ahead of you. How can I be sure that Leon Derczynski even exists? How can you be sure that I do?


To no one’s great surprise, there still is no ObamaCare repeal coming out of the House.


The New York Times needs to accept that there’s no way to include a far-right columnist in its stable without becoming a conduit for disinformation. That was the lesson from Bret Stephens first NYT column “Climate of Complete Certainty“, which fits nicely into the fossil-fuel industry’s doubt-raising agenda on climate change: Don’t just sponsor outright denial, also put reasonable-sounding people out there to raise enough doubt to prevent action.

The column is full of strawman arguments against radical environmentalists who are pushing scare scenarios beyond the scientific evidence. But strangely, Stephens offers no specific examples. He raises the stereotype; that’s enough.

For a more detailed response, see Brian Kahn.

and let’s close with some cartoons

Polish cartoonist Paweł Kuczyński creates many striking images, like this one:

Why cutting rich people’s taxes doesn’t create jobs

You’ll never get a job from a rich person with no customers.


Stop me if you’ve heard this before: A Republican president is proposing to massively cut the taxes paid by rich people. But it’s all good, because they’re “job creators”. So the tax cuts will give them money to create good jobs up and down the line, and result in so much economic growth that the government won’t even lose revenue.

One way to argue against this idea is with history: Cutting taxes always cuts revenue and leads to deficits. Both Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s tax cuts led to what were then record deficit. In between, Clinton’s tax increases created a huge surplus. This may seem too obvious to bear repeating, but apparently it needs to be said: If you cut taxes you collect less tax. If you raise taxes you collect more.

And the job creation thing only works sometimes: Reagan’s job record is pretty good (though not as good as Clinton’s), but George W. Bush’s is terrible: The economy created only 2.1 million jobs during Bush’s eight years (and was shedding jobs at a record pace as he left office). But during the eight tax-increasing Clinton years, 21.5 million jobs — ten times as many — were created.

What’s more, the purpose of cutting taxes on the wealthy is supposed to be so that they’ll have more cash to create jobs with. But if that worked, we’d have been swimming in jobs for years, because the very rich currently have as large a share of the national income and national wealth as they have since just before the Depression. If the job creators were ever going to create good jobs, it seems like they’d be doing it now, and would have been doing it since the turn of the millennium.

In fact, if you look at that graph, there seems to be an inverse relationship at work: The good old days of American jobs — when a man like my father could get a factory job, support an at-home wife, buy a house, and send two kids to college — were the 1950s and 1960s, when the top 1% was receiving a record low percentage of the national income.

But if you’ve been paying attention to American politics, you know that history — especially the kind of history you need to illustrate with graphs — doesn’t convince everybody. So in spite of hard experience, talking heads on TV are still telling us that making the rich richer will make everybody richer, because the rich create jobs for the rest of us.

You can rage about that. You can complain about how gullible and stupid the American public is, that they’re still falling for this nonsense. Or you can try to understand why: What is it that makes this particular false theory seem so much like common sense that the clear evidence against it doesn’t even register?

The answer to that is that the job-creator myth is supported by a convincing appeal to personal experience: “Do you have a job? Who pays you? Is he richer than you or not?” As the saying goes: I never got a job from a poor person.

So what’s wrong with that? You get a job because a rich person hires you, so if we want the economy to produce a lot of new jobs, we should make sure there are a lot of rich people with a lot of money to hire everybody else.

Why doesn’t that work? I mean, those of us who believe in history and graphs and stuff know it doesn’t, but why not?

The answer is that it takes three characters to create a job, not just one. For the economy to add a job, you need:

  • a worker to do the job
  • a customer to buy what the worker produces
  • an entrepreneur to bring the other two together.

If any one of the three is missing, there’s no job.

At any given moment, in any particular part of the job market, the logjam might be in any of the three factors. It’s possible that entrepreneurs don’t have enough investable cash, and that a tax cut will fix the problem. But it’s also possible that workers don’t have the right skills, so the government ought to be investing in education and training. Or that customers aren’t buying, so the government either needs to subsidize them or to buy things itself on the public account.

What’s wrong with conservative economics is that it always assumes that the lack is of entrepreneurs: If more people were in a position to start or expand a business, they would.

In fact, they won’t, unless they are confident the other two roles will be easy to fill. Imagine, for example, that you run a restaurant, and that a tax cut suddenly gives you a windfall of money you could use to expand. Will you? Not if you’re having trouble filling the tables you have.

That’s what happened during the Great Recession: Rich individuals and big corporations were sitting on huge piles of cash, but they weren’t using it to hire people. Why would they? Nobody is going to spend money to expand their businesses or start new ones if existing businesses are failing for lack of customers. If you cut rich people’s taxes in that situation, they’ll add their new pile of cash to their old pile until the economic outlook gets better.

What the economy was missing in 2008 was the customer. In an atmosphere of widespread fear, we all wanted to hang onto our cash and until we felt more secure. In such a situation, how much money entrepreneurs have to invest doesn’t matter; they won’t invest it until they see unsatisfied customers looking for a product they can spend their money on.

In general, that’s the problem when the distribution of wealth gets too skewed towards the rich: the economy chronically runs short of customers. No matter how extravagantly the rich live, there are limits to what they can consume and how many people can be employed satisfying them. You can’t base a mass-employment economy on yachts and caviar.

Right now, cutting taxes on the rich is exactly the wrong thing to do until the distribution of wealth and income returns to more normal levels. Instead, the government ought to be creating jobs by creating customers — even being the customer if it has to. It ought to be raising taxes on the rich in order to buy things we all need: roads and bridges, health care, clean air and water, education, and a 21st-century energy system that doesn’t wreck the prospects for future prosperity. In an economy already too dominated by the top tenth of a percent, that’s the way to create jobs.

So sure, I’ve never gotten a job from a poor person. But I’ve also never gotten a job from a rich person with no customers.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week we made it through Trump’s hundred days, which apparently could not end without a proposal to cut the taxes of rich real estate developers.

So we’ve been treated to a reprise of one of the GOP’s oldest song-and-dance numbers: trickle-down economics: We should all be happy that the rich are getting tax cuts, because that will ignite economic growth and produce good jobs for the rest of us. You might think that the Bush administration was a decisive experiment testing that notion, and that it failed the test very badly, but apparently memories are short. Anyway, that’s the subject of this week’s featured post: “Why cutting rich people’s taxes doesn’t create jobs”. It should be out fairly soon.

The weekly summary will include further comments on the hundred days, the self-serving nature of Trump’s tax proposal, the controversy over Obama’s $400K speech, infighting among Democrats, the advanced tactics used to promote fake news, and a few other topics. I’ll predict that it posts by noon EDT.

Meanwhile on Planet A

There is no Planet B.

– popular sign at Saturday’s science marches

This week’s featured post is “What’s Our Story?“, wondering how we can raise energy to defend Western values when we no longer believe the story the West has been telling about itself.

This week everybody was talking about Trump’s first 100 days

which end next Saturday. I was tempted to write my own summary, but there are too many already. The Atlantic‘s is pretty good. (At this point, Paul Ryan will be happy if we can get through the 100th day without a government shutdown. The biggest sticking point is funding for the Wall, which — surprise! — Mexico isn’t paying for.)

What I will do is quickly review what I said I would watch for out of the Trump administration:

One more thing I should say is that my worst fears haven’t manifested, and it may be too late for their most likely scenario. Last November, my biggest fear was that Trump’s first few actions would be popular. He’d be victimizing out-groups like Muslims, immigrants, and blacks, and the English-speaking white majority would love it. That popularity would set a snowball rolling that first Republicans, and then Democrats, and then the courts would be afraid to stand in front of. Before you know it, we’d have the kind of fascist populism I described in “How Populism Goes Bad“.

That didn’t happen. Trump is incredibly unpopular for a president at the 100-day mark. His approval rating is around 40%, and has never been higher than 45%. Before him, Bill Clinton was the least popular modern president at 100 days, with a 55% approval rating. Democrats are united, the courts are ruling against him, and even congressional Republicans may be starting to stand up to him.

and the Georgia congressional election

When Trump appointed congressional Republicans to his cabinet, he created a series of special elections to replace them. All the districts are in deep-red areas, so he didn’t think he was in danger of losing any of them.

Well, Trump’s general unpopularity and the corresponding mobilization of Democrats has so far made those elections surprisingly competitive. Two weeks ago in Kansas, the Republican held on to a seat that Mike Pompeo had won in 2016 by 30 points, but only by 7 this time. This week in Georgia, Democrat Jon Ossoff got 48% of the vote in a district where Republican Tom Price got 62% just a few months ago. If Ossoff had gotten 50%, he’d have won the seat. As it stands, he faces a June runoff against Karen Handel, who finished second with 20% in a divided Republican field.

538’s Harry Enten thinks the runoff looks like a coin flip. You’d think a few of the Republicans who voted for non-Handel candidates would move to Ossoff, but Republicans have a way of uniting against Democrats when the chips are down.

and the March for Science

Saturday there were marches all over the country (and even all over the world) to protest three main things

Wherever you were, there was a march nearby. I was in Santa Fe, where I marched from the downtown plaza to the state capitol with “a few thousand” other people. (I took the picture to the right while Senator Udall was speaking. The crowd behind me was at least as big.)

Marches in the bigger cities were even larger. I’ve seen estimates of 40,000 in Chicago, 50,000 in St. Paul, and so on. In D.C., the “early” crowd was estimated at 15,000, and I haven’t heard how big it eventually got.

I’m not sure where this woman was:

and Bill O’Reilly

Apparently, if you harass enough women in the workplace over a long enough period of time, and if some of them are brave and determined enough to inspire the others to come forward, and if boycotters make advertisers notice, and if The New York Times does a story about it, and if there’s a corporate parent that just doesn’t want the grief, then you might lose your job.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way.

Of course, you also might become president. There are still a few bugs in the system.

but the French election might turn out to be even more important

I wish I understood France well enough to tell you about it in detail. The headline is that someone from outside the traditional national-party structure, Emmanuel Macron, was the leading candidate in France’s presidential election, getting 24% of the vote. That will put him into a runoff in two weeks with the second-place finisher, Marine Le Pen, who got 22%.

Le Pen, who leads the party that her father founded, is not quite the anti-semitic fascist that he was, but represents France’s radical right. She is the Trump-Putin candidate: anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-EU, anti-NATO.

Polls say that supporters of the other candidates will unite around Macron in the runoff, so the disaster of a Le Pen presidency might be avoided.

and you might also be interested in

Paul Krugman has a good analogy for understanding the Republicans’ inability to come up with an ObamaCare replacement plan: trying to stuff a big balloon into a small box.

Republicans have … successfully convinced many voters that they could preserve the good stuff [of ObamaCare] — the dramatic expansion of coverage that has brought the percentage of Americans without health insurance to a record low — while reducing premiums, shrinking deductibles and, of course, doing away with the taxes on high incomes that pay for the program.

But healthcare costs money, and people who are poor or sick don’t have enough to pay for it. The government — or somebody — has to make up the difference. The repeated attempts at a Republican plan are all ways to try to hide the gap: You can’t pull out the government money — which is the main GOP goal — and keep the same level of coverage. So every time a plan gets well enough defined for the CBO to rate it, it turns out that millions of people will lose their health insurance.

The important thing to remember is that these problems don’t keep popping up because the people devising the plans are careless, and keep forgetting crucial issues. They’re popping up because the G.O.P. is trying to stuff a big balloon into a small box, and every time you squeeze it somewhere it inflates someplace else.


Matt Yglesias: If you tell working-class voters in dying communities that the mill or the mine is going to reopen and give them back their old jobs, you’re not respecting them, you’re pandering to them.


Shaun King makes a point relevant to my post last week on cold racism: There’s a simple reason that conservatives were upset by Obama’s golfing vacations, but are far less upset by Trump’s far more frequent golfing vacations: Obama’s golfing marked him as an “uppity Negro”.


Ordinarily, you don’t see a lot of stores closing unless the economy is in recession. But they are now. Possible reasons: Internet shopping has gotten big enough to hurt store traffic. Developers overbuilt malls, expecting growth that never happened. Consumers are spending less on stuff and more on experiences like vacations or meals.


Attorney General Sessions:

I really am amazed that a judge sitting on an island in the Pacific can issue an order that stops the President of the United States from what appears to be clearly his statutory and Constitutional power.

Someone needs to explain to the AG (1) how the federal court system works, and (2) that Hawaii is a state equal to any other state. This is yet another dog whistle to racists whose idea of “real America” doesn’t extend out to Hawaii.

Personally, I’m amazed that someone from Alabama has the stones to denigrate Hawaii.


When Republicans take over state government, one of the first things they do is make it harder to vote. My state of New Hampshire elected a Republican governor in November, and already had Republican control of both houses of the legislature. And so now comes an unusually insidious form of voter suppression:

According to the bill, wrongful voting/voter fraud is now considered to occur simply when a person “registers to vote on election day using an affidavit to satisfy proof of being qualified … and fails to provide a copy of the document by mail or present the document in person to the town or city clerk by the deadline.” This legitimate voter who doesn’t have documentation can now be subject to a fine of up to $5,000. He will also be removed from the voter rolls.

So if you take advantage of New Hampshire’s same-day registration, you now have to produce paperwork showing that you’re a permanent resident within 10 days, and if you don’t, you’ll be fined. So a legitimate New Hampshire resident who votes, but doesn’t get around to producing the required documentation within ten days is a criminal.

The bill has already passed the Senate on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting to criminalize legitimate voters.


The IRS is going to start using private collection agencies to get people to pay overdue taxes. What could possibly go wrong? I already get spam phone calls from boiler-room operations claiming to represent the IRS.


As you listen to your Bose headphones, they’re also listening to you. Well, not exactly, but almost. According to a new lawsuit, if you use the associated Bose app, it will tell Bose what you listen to, and Bose sells that information. Apparently, someone who knows what songs, podcasts, audiobooks, etc. you listen to can make a lot of good guesses about the rest of your life.

and let’s close with some advertising that shouldn’t work

This image off their Facebook page may look like it can’t possibly come from a real business, but while crossing Missouri on I-44 I saw a billboard with the same slogan.

What’s Our Story?

How do we defend Western values if we no longer believe the story that used to justify them?


I’m not usually a David Brooks fan. Too often his columns remind me of the “big thinks” of Dr. Moreau‘s upgraded ape-man; he seems far too impressed with his own ability to take on such deep subjects, and has far too little of substance to say about them. His column this Friday “The Crisis of Western Civ” raises a typically Brooksian big-think topic, and as usual provides few useful hints of where to go with it. But this time, he has at least spotlighted a question the rest of us would do well to think about: If Western society no longer feels comfortable telling the Greece-to-Rome-to-Europe story (in which progress’ forward march leads to democracy, science, and human rights), what story should we be telling?

Societies, like individuals, motivate themselves with stories. Individuals often have life crises when the stories they’ve been telling stop working: When the save-the-world or rule-the-world ambitions that got you through school become untenable in middle age, you have a mid-life crisis. The death of a child can leave a parent facing not just grief, but also a who-am-I-now question. Hitting retirement can be a crisis for someone whose story has been all about career and organizational success.

Countries and civilizations do the same thing. Soviet Communism, for example, fell for a lot of reasons, but one important one was that its idealistic story (about leading the world’s oppressed masses in a revolution that would achieve the perfect society) stopped being credible. If you couldn’t believe that any more, then the Party was just another ladder to climb to get more privileges. So who would sacrifice for it or stick by it when times got tough?

Brooks points out that western societies, and America in particular, used to have an equally compelling story: Progress. A representative democracy that respects individual rights, a wide-ranging public debate that allows people of many views to speak their minds without violence, the march of science towards an ever-broader objective truth, and a corresponding march of technology that creates an ever-expanding abundance — this was presented as more than just a trend. It was the “end of history“, the goal that humanity had been consciously or unconsciously advancing towards since it split off from the apes.

And we were the vanguard of that capital-P Progress. It was our job, in Europe and the United States, to perfect Progress and teach it to the rest of the world, much of which was still in some primitive state of ignorance.

Like all stories, Progress was true only up to a point, and got pushed well past that point. Our role as the vanguard of Progress turned into the white man’s burden, and justified the abuses of colonialism and slavery. In practice, the story often turned out to mean little more than freedom and abundance for us at the expense of everyone else. The view of the material world as something to master in our quest for abundance, and a corresponding disrespect for the complexity of the natural systems that regulated life on Earth prior to our ascendancy, has led to mass extinctions of non-human species and the looming crisis of climate change.

So the story of Progress’ triumph has, particularly in academia, gotten replaced — or at least supplemented — by the story of Progress’ tragedy. And that has resulted in a generation of well-educated potential leaders who don’t really believe in the root story of the West. Or maybe they just believe in it half-heartedly.

That’s what worries Brooks: Representative democracy, the rule of law, human rights, science, objective truth, and so on — those are still good things, they are under attack, and they need more than a half-hearted defense. As Putin-style nationalist autocracy starts spreading across the world, as fundamentalist Islam abroad and fundamentalist Christianity at home threaten to turn back the clock to less enlightened eras, defenses of Western values are disturbingly tepid. [2]

Now let me push beyond what Brooks says, into my own big-think territory. Simplifying greatly, so far societies have come up with only three basic types of motivating stories:

  • tribalism. Those of us united by blood and soil are in a zero-sum competition with everybody else. Either we dominate them or they’ll dominate us. [1]
  • transcendent religion. We worship the universal God who has told us exactly how he wants human beings to live. By adopting our ways and worshiping our God, anyone can join us.
  • humanism. We stand for universal values that apply to everyone whether they believe in them or not. Truth is objective and can be found by rational methods available to all. But our understanding of Truth is always open to improvement through exploration and the development of new ideas.

The Progress story always had elements of tribalism and religion, but at its core was a humanistic vision. As that vision loses strength, rival stories based in tribalism and religion gain.

Trump’s message, at its core, is tribalist — America first; zero-sum relationships with other nations in which we either win or lose; non-white or non-Christian immigrants may try to join us, but they’ll never be “real Americans”; and so on. Trump’s ongoing flirtation with white supremacists is not a coincidence or a marriage of political convenience; they make sense to each other because they’re both telling a tribalist story.

In The Atlantic, Peter Beinart recently made a related claim about religion: As it loses its transcendent quality, it also reverts to tribalism. The evangelical embrace of Trump — he carried white evangelical Christians by a wider margin than either Romney or McCain — may seem mysterious, given the pasted-on quality of his own Christianity and the total divergence between his agenda and the Sermon on the Mount. But Beinart digs deeper into the numbers: Trump’s earliest and most fervent supporters are evangelicals who don’t go to church.

As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between “us” and “them.” Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.

… Whatever the reason, when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the boundaries of identity, de-emphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation. Trump is both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.

So is the alt-right. … Its leaders like Christendom, an old-fashioned word for the West. But they’re suspicious of Christianity itself, because it crosses boundaries of blood and soil. [3]

What both Brooks and Beinart are pointing to are the limits of deconstruction. When you critique someone’s worldview — show him that the God of his childhood is too simple to be real, or that his “rational” and “universal” values are hypocritical and self-serving — you hope that he’ll progress towards a more advanced vision, towards a more complex and nuanced religion or a more truly universal humanism. But it’s also possible, perhaps even probable, that the opposite will happen: The failure of his story may lead him to fall back to a more primitive one. And the most primitive story of all — me and mine need to protect ourselves against a rapacious “them” — is incredibly resilient. If all other stories fail you, that one never will.

What Brooks seems to want, by the end of his column, is for critics to let up on the West, its dead-white-men literary tradition, and its unfortunate history of oppression. Beinart doesn’t make such a plea, but it’s easy to come out of his article with a feeling that maybe critics should leave churches alone: If we break them by demoralizing their members, what comes after will probably be worse.

But returning to either the Mother Church or the dead-white-male curriculum seems unlikely to solve the problem. No doubt many voices in the Soviet Union similarly called for a return to true Marxist-Leninist idealism, with less attention to the culture of corruption that was growing as revolutionary fervor faded. It didn’t work for them and a similar relaxation of criticism won’t work for us.

The recent devolutionary trends, though, should at the very least put pressure on those of us who believe in Western values to pay more attention to the positive sources of our faith. One of the many things the 2016 election proved is that our most basic assumptions can’t be taken for granted any more. The virtue of universal human rights and the evil of bigotry is no longer an of course. A belief in objective truth and the scientific method does not go without saying. Neither does democracy and the rule of law.

In the Age of Trump, returning criticism for criticism is not enough. We need to understand why we believe what we believe, why our values are worth defending, and why anybody else should agree with us. OK, the West isn’t the vanguard of History, and there is a lot to regret about our past actions. We have never fully lived by the values we profess. But they continue to be great values, and they deserve a story that explains why.


[1] Note the difference between tribal and tribalist. A tribal story is whatever story a tribe tells, and might be based on a worldview as morally sophisticated as any. A tribalist story is one saying that my tribe is the best and deserves to dominate all the others.

[2] A related problem, which Brooks doesn’t touch, is corruption from within. We tolerate unlimited money in our politics, gerrymandering of our legislatures, presidents taking office after losing the popular vote, a justice system that applies the law differently to whites and non-whites, and many other practices that would outrage us if we truly believed in Western democratic values and saw ourselves as the vanguard of Progress.

[3] American Catholic leaders, for example, understand that they represent not just the white ethnic groups Trump is appealing to, but also a large number of Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m still in the West — Santa Fe this week — so things might run a little later than usual again.

Trump’s 100th day is Saturday, so I was tempted to write a 100-days post. But after I read about six such articles, I realized that there will be hundreds of them, so mine may not be strictly necessary. Still, though, I wrote an article last November “The Trump Administration: what I’m watching for“, so it seems like basic accountability to go back and check whether any of the things I was worried about have been happening. That didn’t take nearly so many words, though, so I tucked it into the weekly summary.

The idea for this week’s featured post ended up coming from David Brooks, of all people. I usually grind my teeth through Brooks’ columns in the NYT, and, well, I did through Friday’s “The Crisis of Western Civ” as well. But it raised an issue that I thought deserved better than Brooks was giving it: whether the collapse of the story the West used to tell about itself has something to do with the difficulty the West is having defending itself against the rise of fundamentalist religious movements on the one hand and neo-fascist nationalist movements on the other.

Once I started doing my own version of that column, it linked in with another article: Peter Beinart’s “Breaking Faith” in The Atlantic, where he noted that the Christians most vulnerable to Trump’s tribalist us-against-them message are the ones who don’t go to church any more. They retain Christianity as a tribal identity, but not as an active faith whose practice pulls them into the community. Once again, the breakdown of an old message was leading not to progress, but regress.

Naturally, my post, “What’s Our Story?”, isn’t going to solve either problem. But I hope it will get you thinking about it in a different way. That should be out sometime in the next hour.

As it has for around 100 days or so, the weekly summary suffers from an excess of news: Trump’s 100 days, the Georgia congressional election, the March for Science, Bill O’Reilly’s firing, the French election, and a few other things. I’m not sure when that will be out.

Treacherous Division

Maintaining the division between the Colony and the Nation is treacherous precisely because of the constant threat that the tools honed in the Colony will be wielded in the Nation; that tyranny and violence tolerated at the periphery will ultimately infiltrate the core.

– Chris Hayes, A Colony in a Nation

This week’s featured post is a suggestion for framing discussions about the more subtle forms of racism: “Racism, Hot and Cold“. And it’s an appropriate time to look back at my attempt in 2013 to promote a secular Easter mythology in “Wrestling with Easter“.

This week everybody was talking about rumors of war

The Syria attack got Trump such good press that many were skeptical Thursday when we dropped the Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB, a.k.a. Mother of All Bombs) in Afghanistan. But Vox thinks it was legit.

“It’s a weapon that has a narrow target set,” an Air Force official told me. “It’s primarily intended for soft to medium surface targets — targets like a cave and canyon environment.”

The area hit in Afghanistan appears to be one of the few targets that fit this profile.

All the same, it was weird to watch the chest-thumping on the Right over a big-but-mostly-meaningless explosion. Our national pride used to be based on stuff like inventing the light bulb or landing on the Moon. Now it comes from dropping really big bombs.


The more worrisome situation is North Korea, which has been ramping up both its nuclear tests and its missile tests. The Guardian reports:

There has been little doubt in recent years that the end-point of the North Korean programme is an arsenal of working ICBMs and nuclear warheads small enough to put on top of them. The dilemma of how to stop it reaching that goal is the hardest problem facing any US administration, a point that Barack Obama repeatedly made to Trump during the presidential transition.

… Trump seems to be hoping that by introducing some unpredictability into this static scenario, he can frighten the Chinese government into putting real pressure on Pyongyang. There are some signs that might be working, with hints in China’s semi-official media that Beijing could tighten oil deliveries, North Korea’s lifeline.


Trump’s reliance on China may explain why he’s reversed himself on his currency manipulation charge. Branding China a “currency manipulator” — something he was going to do “on Day 1” of his administration — would have begun a formal process that would likely have led to tariffs and a trade war. Now he’s changed his mind.


Like Syria, North Korea is a situation where no one has any really good ideas. North Korea probably already has the ability to destroy Seoul, a South Korean mega-city of about 25 million. So a preemptive war could have an enormous cost. But waiting for the North Korean regime to gain the power to similarly threaten Tokyo or Los Angeles is not a great prospect either.

Some Trump fans thought the MOAB blast was a warning to North Korea, but actually it wouldn’t be much of a threat there. Vox again:

“If you think about what a target profile might look like in either Iran or North Korea — both of those countries have air defense systems,” [University of Kentucky Professor Rob] Farley says. “This is a weapon dropped from a C-130, which is not a stealthy aircraft and not really a combat aircraft at all. This is not a weapon you can drop on someone who has an active defense of the target — fighters or any kind of surface-to-air missile.”


Fortunately, yesterday’s North Korean missile test seems to have failed.


In any international conflict, we hear the argument that “You can’t talk to [insert name of foreign leader], he’s crazy.” On occasion it might be true, but it really can’t be true every single time. Maybe it’s true about Kim Jong-Un; a lot of people certainly think so. But this article in Newsweek from last year claims not.

and the United Air Lines fiasco

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard the story and probably even seen the videos: Dr. David Dao, who was already seated, refused United’s compensation offer for leaving the plane and was dragged off my force.

Criticizing United for this incident is shooting fish in a barrel; everybody has done it already. Twitter has a #NewUnitedAirlinesMotto hashtag, with gems like: “If we can’t beat our competitors, we’ll beat our customers” and “United: Putting the hospital in hospitality”. Jimmy Kimmel created a new United commercial:

But United’s situation is even worse than it initially appeared: Early coverage assumed that the fine print of its ticket agreement gave United the legal right to do what it did, even if it obviously shouldn’t have. But now it looks like United is wrong even legally. Apparently, the contract allows United to “refuse boarding” to a passenger for just about any reason, including that they have some other use for the seat. But nothing gave them the right to remove Dao after they had boarded him, unless he was being disruptive — and he didn’t become a problem passenger until after they started trying to remove him.

Beyond that, the interesting articles are about the larger meaning of this event. Is the problem these particular United employees? United itself? Airlines in general? Capitalism? I think the quote at the top of this page, which comes from Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation (discussed last week) nails it.

Maintaining the division between the Colony and the Nation is treacherous precisely because of the constant threat that the tools honed in the Colony will be wielded in the Nation; that tyranny and violence tolerated at the periphery will ultimately infiltrate the core.

In other words: We tolerate that in poor, black neighborhoods, people who don’t do what some authority tells them are beaten and/or dragged away by police, even if the authority is overstepping. Whenever someone gets killed in such a circumstance, you will inevitably hear the argument: “Why didn’t he just do what the officer told him?”

Once that idea gets out there — that (even if you’re in the right) you do what you’re told or face violence — it’s not going to stay in its box. Socially, an airliner may seem far, far away from Ferguson or Baltimore. But when you’re sitting in your middle seat, you’re powerless too. So you’d better do what you’re told or face violence.

Once we accept this kind of violence, there’s no way to define a boundary that will keep it away from you. The only solution is to resolve that people will not be treated that way. All people, everywhere.

and the continuing retreat of liberal democracy

Turkish voters passed a referendum taking power away from its parliament and centering it in the executive. The Erdogan government has been getting increasingly autocratic for some time, and this is a big step further down that road. (The idea that a narrow majority can authorize this kind of sweeping change is scary in itself, and typical of the rise of dictators.)

A coup against Erdogan failed last year, and he has used that opportunity to rule in an “emergency” mode. International observers judged that a valid referendum could not take place under these circumstances.

For a long time, Turkey seemed headed towards membership in the European Union, which would have exacerbated Brexit-like pressures on countries that didn’t want a large influx of poor Turks looking for jobs, but also was liberalizing Turkey internally. Now that process seems to be over.


Now all eyes turn to France, where the first round of a presidential election will be held on Sunday. It’s uncertain which two of the current 11 candidates will be in the run-off on May 7, but one of them is likely to be Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front.

but this article is also worth your time

Rick Perlstein has been writing books about the history of the American Right for many years, beginning in 2001 with Before the Storm about the Goldwater movement, and continuing with Nixonland and the most recent in the series The Invisible Bridge, which takes the story up to Ronald Reagan’s nearly successful challenge to President Ford’s renomination in 1976.

Now he recognizes that the story he and other historians of the Right have been telling doesn’t lead to Trump, and that has him re-evaluating his whole approach.

If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story, might historians have been telling that story wrong?

His article “I Thought I Understood the American Right. Trump Proved Me Wrong.” is a fascinating history of historians trying to make sense out of events whose consequences are still playing out. When the main thing they knew about Goldwater was his landslide loss to LBJ in 1964, he looked like an aberrant throwback, which is how Richard Hofstadter portrayed him in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

Then his campaign became the forerunner of Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980, and historians began telling a different story of conservatism’s march to respectability. Now the story of “modern conservatism” begins in 1955, with William F. Buckley’s National Review rejecting the conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society, the nativism and racism of the KKK, and the anti-modernism of the Scopes Monkey Trial.

But Trump, Perlstein now recognizes, has a lot more to do with the old, crazy conservatism than with Buckley-style respectable conservatism. That means that the march to respectability was always partly an illusion, the old conservatism must always have been there under the surface, and the roots of Trump go back further than Perlstein had thought.

and you might also be interested in

Apparently the attempt to raise an uproar about Susan Rice was just another Trump attempt to distract from his own Russia scandal.

After a review of the same intelligence reports brought to light by House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal, multiple sources in both parties tell CNN.


Josh Marshall reflects that few presidents arrive in office really prepared for the job, and each of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had to learn a lot in their early days. But Trump is unique in that he truly seems not to have previously understood that knowledge was possible. When he discovers something that literally everyone who pays attention to the news already knew (like that health care is complicated, or that China and Korea have a long and difficult history), he presents it as if we should all be as surprised as he is.


Having failed to repeal ObamaCare, Trump is threatening to break it. If he thinks this threat is going to get Democrats to go along with his repeal plan, he’s going to have to think again.


Thursday Trump signed a bill that allows states to deny federal grants to Planned Parenthood.

Now that the rule has been repealed, states can effectively block Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers from funds associated with the Title X Family Planning program, which was established in 1970 to subsidize organizations that offer services related to contraception, pregnancy care, fertility and cancer screenings primarily for low-income people.

This is widely misunderstood as “defunding Planned Parenthood”, as if there were a “subsidize Planned Parenthood” line somewhere in the federal budget. What the federal government in fact subsidizes are services, which people can get by going to the service-provider of their choice.

So basically, what Trump and Republicans at the state level are doing here is anti-freedom. They’re saying that you can’t get your federally subsidized cancer screening or contraception where you want to get it. You have to get it from some provider conservatives approve of.


Free college was one of Bernie Sanders’ most popular proposals. New York state is now moving in that direction. The SUNY and CUNY systems will be tuition-free to in-state students whose families make less than $100,000, if they fulfill academic requirements and stay in the state after graduation.


Jay Rosen is promoting the expansion of the Dutch news organization De Correspondent to the American market. He says De Correspondent looks as if it were built around the question: “What if news organizations optimized every part of the operation for trust?”


Conservative media outlets loved to run stories about how the Obamas were “living large” at the public expense, as if life in the White House had been spartan until 2009. But Trump’s expenses are blowing away Obama’s numbers. Vanity Fair reports:

In all eight years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, his travel, both personal and professional, amounted to a total of $97 million, according to Judicial Watch. That puts Trump on track to surpass Obama’s travel spending over the course of two terms in about one year.

Judicial Watch, it’s worth pointing out, is a conservative group that was outraged at that $97 million figure.


The sheriff’s department in Lake County, Florida made a video to try to scare drug dealers. It ought to scare pretty much everybody. I think I might rather run into drug dealers than these masked vigilantes.


Democratic strategist Jess McIntosh discovers that her Dad gets his news from alt-right web sites, and he isn’t completely sure that she doesn’t eat babies.

and let’s close with an amusing way to waste time

Fifty pictures that sum up each of the fifty states. Like North Carolina:

Racism, Hot and Cold

It’s hard for conservatives to talk about race. Maybe we could make it easier.


Liberal/conservative conversations about race often go like this one that happened on MSNBC at the end of March.

There is an incident (in this case Sean Spicer scolding a black female reporter, April Ryan) that shows lack of respect for a person of color. The liberal (in this case, Jason Johnson) places it in a larger context, a pattern of disrespect, and calls it out as racism. The conservative (Matt Schlapp) takes offense at the accusation and a shouting match ensues, ending any real exchange of ideas.

To an extent, I think this is a calculated tactic on the part of conservative pundits (or, at least, somebody calculated it at one point and others have imitated): There can be no discussion of patterns of disrespect based on race or gender. Any attempt to start such a discussion has to be shouted down.

Accordingly, any individual incident has to be presented as a unique occurrence and explained by the details of that particular situation. (Schlapp explains that Spicer “got feisty” with Ryan because he was under pressure to get through a lot of news that day.) Attempts to put a racial context around the incident have to be shut down. [1]

But whatever Schlapp or other talking heads might have in mind, it’s worthwhile to consider why their conservative viewers approve of this tactic and never see it for what it is: In conservative circles racism has a very specific meaning that usually doesn’t apply to the situation at hand. To conservatives, racism means conscious hatred, an intention to harm or humiliate a person purely because of his or her race. It isn’t that racism doesn’t exist, but it applies only to the KKK or the Nazis.

To Schlapp, then, it is absurd and outrageous to imagine that Sean Spicer is at his podium thinking “I’m tired of black reporters getting uppity with me, so I’m going to slap this one down.” That’s what Schlapp means when he says, “You don’t know what’s in Sean’s heart.”

But of course, Johnson had never claimed to know what was in Spicer’s heart, or to see conscious hatred there. He was pointing to a pattern of behavior both for Spicer and throughout the Trump administration, in which non-whites are shown less respect. There might be all kinds of reasons for such a pattern.

For example, what if Spicer simply sees blacks (or women) differently than he sees whites (or men)? [2] What if it’s his mental habit to interpret black actions more negatively, and to feel that harsher responses are appropriate? In that case, he might have been entirely unaware that he was treating April Ryan differently than a white White House correspondent like Peter Alexander or Jeff Zeleny, because even if Alexander or Zeleny had done the same thing, it would have looked different to him.

To the conservative mind, though, that’s not racism. If there is no conscious hatred involved, then it’s totally unfair to suggest comparisons to the KKK, as they feel racism does.

“So fine, then,” a liberal might say, “give me the word that applies to this situation and we’ll use it.”

But then you hit the root problem: There is no conservative term for the habitual and perhaps unconscious tendency to see people of another race differently, judge them more negatively, and react to them more harshly. In the absence of such a term, there is no way to point out the phenomenon and discuss it. You can’t ask about the elephant in the room, because elephant refers only to mastodons, who died out ages ago. There is no word for the big, gray animal swinging his trunk around, so any attempt to discuss him inevitably veers off in some other direction.

A conservative might respond that I’m describing an esoteric phenomenon of so little consequence that it doesn’t really need a name or a discussion. But that is completely unconvincing after eight years of the Obama administration, during which conservative media outlets repeatedly raised their audience’s outrage when Obama did things white presidents had been doing without incident for decades. I don’t claim to know what was in the hearts of the people who felt that outrage — I doubt that most of them were consciously aware they were applying different standards to Obama — but the pattern of observable behavior was clear and obvious. [3]

Likewise, this is the whole issue behind Black Lives Matter. It isn’t that people become cops because they like to kill blacks. (I mean, some small number probably do, but I doubt it’s typical, and I believe the system tries to weed those guys out.) But white guys can safely carry semi-automatic rifles through Target, while a black guy in Walmart gets gunned down for picking up a toy. Cops just see young black men differently, judge their actions more negatively, and respond more harshly. We can’t have a rational discussion of that issue because conservatives refuse to call it racism, but don’t offer any alternative term for it.

We could give them one.

I know this isn’t a new idea. In liberal circles, there is already a distinction between conscious and unconscious bigotry. We often talk about implicit bias, and there is even a test you can take for it on the internet. But every term I’ve heard smacks of some liberal bastion like psychology or academia. None of them would sound right rolling out of a conservative mouth. A conservative talking about implicit bias would impress his fellow conservatives about as much as a macho man talking to his locker-room buddies about relationships and commitment.

If we want a real discussion to start, what we need isn’t technical jargon appropriate for an academic journal, but some ten-cent words already in everyday use, taking advantage of some metaphor that ordinary people might come up with if they happened across the phenomenon on their own, without ever attending a course in racial studies.

Here’s a common metaphor that might work: Emotions have temperature. Hate and anger are hot. If you feel a vague aversion towards someone, you are cool to them, and if the aversion got stronger you might want to freeze them out.

If we apply that metaphor to racism, then the kind conservatives already acknowledge, the conscious hatred that Emmett Till‘s killers must have felt, is hot racism. When Richard Spencer calls for “ethnic cleansing” to turn American into a “white ethnostate”, that’s also hot racism.

Cold racism, on the other hand, doesn’t actively wish harm on people of color, but simply fails to factor in their interests or to weigh them as heavily as the interests of whites. Those who watched Eric Garner die saying “I can’t breathe” and felt motivated to make excuses for the police choking him — most of them probably weren’t feeling hatred or anger towards Garner, they were just failing to feel compassion for a fellow human being. The problem wasn’t their heat it was their coldness. [4]

The kind of racism that whites can live with and not notice — the kind that simply sees blacks differently and then acts in a way that feels appropriate to that harsher perception, without any awareness of personal animus — could be described as room-temperature racism. The room-temperature racist feels like he is the one acting normally, and doesn’t understand why others are getting upset with him.

That, I believe, describes Sean Spicer. An avowed white nationalist like Richard Spencer knows that race is an issue for him. But Spicer just believes he’s responding appropriately to what he sees. The details of the Holocaust (to bring up another recent example) just don’t stick in his head. Why, he probably wonders, are Jews so bent out of shape about that?

If liberals started consistently applying a temperature gauge to racism, I think most moderates would understand the metaphor without much explanation, and conservatives might eventually get it in spite of themselves. Some talking heads — the ones who are consciously looking to disrupt discussions of race — might keep reacting with outrage to any mention of racism, regardless of temperature. But part of their audience might realize that finding room-temperature racism in the patterns of Spicer’s responses isn’t the same as fitting him for a white hood. They might eventually recognize that there is a consistent phenomenon in the incidents that carry that label.

Elephants, they might come to understand, are not mastodons. Occasionally there is one in the room. Maybe there should be a conversation about it.


[1] Conservatives, in their usual pot-and-kettle way, claim that it is liberals who shut down discussions by bringing up racism. But this is true only if you begin with the premise that racism can never be discussed. Apparently, it is impossible for conservatives to respond to “That’s racist” with a skeptical “How?”.

[2] In this article I’m going to focus specifically on racism, but what I’m saying could apply to any form of bigotry. We could talk about hot and cold sexism, hot and cold nativism, and so on.

[3] In 2014, I documented a long series of examples, but two moments should stand out in everyone’s memory: State of the Union addresses have contained debatable statements for as long as I can remember, but no white president was ever interrupted by “You lie!“. And the entire Birther theory, which as late as last summer was still given credence by a majority of Republicans, demonstrated that a large number of Americans were ready to believe anything negative about Obama, regardless of evidence.

There are comparable examples of baseless conspiracy theories about white presidents — that George W. Bush was complicit in 9-11 or FDR was secretly Jewish. But all of them stayed on the fringes of public debate. None ever caught on like Birtherism or stayed viable in the face of clear evidence and repeated debunking.

Now, does that mean that Joe Wilson was consciously thinking, “I can’t let that nigger get away with saying that”? Am I implying that everyone who doubted Obama’s citizenship is a potential cross-burner? Not at all, but it is part of a long pattern of seeing blacks differently, judging them more negatively, and responding to them more harshly.

[4] When I google “cold racism”, most of the examples are of the form “stone cold racism”, which is a different thing. It’s the hardness of the stone that’s being evoked, not the temperature of the feeling.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Arizona, it turns out, doesn’t do daylight time. Here in Sedona it’s Mountain Standard Time, three hours head of my usual Eastern Daylight. So the Sift may run a little later than usual this week.

One of the themes I touch on now and then is how to talk about racism. In 2014’s “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean?” I collected a bunch of “outrages” committed by President Obama — things all presidents do, like putting their feet up on the desk in the Oval Office or letting soldiers hold umbrellas over their heads — as examples of a more subtle kind of racial bias: To many, maybe even most whites (including me, sometimes) things just look different — and usually more objectionable — when blacks do them. And I raised the question: If you don’t want to call that racism — reserving that word for extreme cases like slavery and Jim Crow — what is your name for it?

Last year I followed that up in “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean? Part II” by pointing out that two-thirds of Republicans (a group that did not include Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, among other GOP leaders) did not consider an outrageous Trump statement (that Judge Curiel couldn’t rule fairly in the Trump U lawsuit because he was “Mexican”) to be racist at all. What definition of racism did that imply?

This week I return to that subject with a positive suggestion: Let’s allow conservatives their distinction between the KKK and the more subtle kinds of racism by modifying racism with a temperature metaphor: Active racial animus is hot racism, while disregard or skewed perception of non-whites is cold racism, or even room-temperature racism. I’ll explain how that works using a recent shouting match on MSNBC as a jumping-off point in “Racism: Hot and Cold”. That should be out shortly.

In the weekly summary, there’s talk of war: The MOAB was used for the first time in Afghanistan, and Trump rattled his saber at North Korea. And by now you probably know all about the United Air Lines fiasco, but there’s been some interesting writing about its larger meaning. Rick Perlstein’s reassessment of conservative history in the wake of Trump is fascinating reading. Turkey continues moving towards dictatorship. And I’ll close with a collection of 50 photos intended to sum up each of the 50 states, like this summary of Kansas.