The Yearly Sift 2016

The past is never where you think you left it.

Katherine Anne Porter

The opening quotes of the Weekly Sifts of 2016 are collected in “Sift Quotes of 2016

One of the things I like best about writing the Sift is that it keeps me focused in the present, with an eye to the future. But once a year I try to take a broader perspective on where we’ve been.

2016 was the most dismal year I’ve had to look back on since this blog started — leading, as it did, to the present moment, in which President-elect Trump is assembling his henchmen and deciding which aspects of the world order to screw up first. Not only was I very consistently wrong about what would happen next in 2016, but looking back at the plausible arguments and scenarios I laid out only emphasizes how many times and in how many ways events could have taken a turn for the better, but didn’t — right up to election night, when shifting a handful of votes from one state to another would have changed the outcome.

But prognostication has never been the primary purpose of the Weekly Sift. (In fact, one of my major criticisms of mainstream media is that it spends too much time on speculation, rather than telling us what is happening and why.) Primarily, I’m trying to cut through the hype and propaganda to focus my readers’ attention on what is real and give them tools to think about it effectively. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to know what will happen next, because I certainly don’t.

The themes

I’ve broken the primary theme out into its own article “The Year of This-can’t-be-happening“. It covers my repeated attempts — from the beginning of the year to the end — to understand how anyone could support Donald Trump and what could be done to persuade them not to.

A second theme of the year was also Trump-related: The decline of Truth as a political value, and a corresponding rise in propaganda. Those posts were: “No facts? What does that mean?“, “The Big Lie in Trump’s Speech“, “The Skittles Analogy“, and “Four False Things You Might Believe About Donald Trump“. (The most insightful article I linked to on this theme was David Roberts’ “The question of what Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer“.)

And finally, there were a number of posts about the Bernie/Hillary split in the Democratic Party. Early in the year, I had to decide who to vote for in the New Hampshire primary. Bernie better expressed my ideals, but I had more faith in Hillary as a candidate. (I still think Bernie’s supporters underestimate how vulnerable he would have been if Republicans had ever taken him seriously, a position I laid out in “Smearing Bernie: a preview” and “Do we still have to worry about the McGovern problem?“) My decision process — ultimately resulting in a Bernie vote — played out in “Undecided with 8 days to go” and “Imperfections“.

Late in the year, I tried to persuade Bernie supporters to unite around Hillary — a position in line with the one Bernie ultimately took himself (which I explained in “Why Bernie Backed Hillary“.)

And finally, one long-term theme of the Sift is the decline of democratic norms and institutions. In March, I updated that with “Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues“. As Democrats have to decide just how obstructionist to be during the Trump years, I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities to update it further. Another perennial theme is race and privilege, which led to  “My Racial Blind Spots“, “Sexism and the Clinton Candidacy“, “The Asterisk in the Bill of Rights“, “What Should ‘Racism’ Mean? Part II“, and “A Teaching Moment on Sexual Assault“.

Themes for 2017

In general, I never saw the Bernie/Hillary argument as being about goals. Rather, it seemed to me to revolve around methods and tactics: Is it better to push for big, revolutionary changes or to head in the same direction in incremental steps? And I was skeptical that electing a progressive president could actually bring about that revolution without a more fundamental re-education of the electorate, as I spelled out in “Say — You Want a Revolution?

That’s an argument that continues into the future, even if neither Hillary nor Bernie runs again. I’m not sure why it has been so hard for candidates to straddle the difference: This is where we want to go ultimately, and this is the next step we want to take to get there. Preserving and patching up ObamaCare is not an end in itself, but we’re also not going to pass single-payer any time soon.

A theme I announced after the election, which I hope to continue into 2017, is that liberals have to begin re-arguing issues we used to think were long decided, but which the Trump victory proves are still open. The first of those posts was “Should I Have White Pride?“.

The numbers

The blog’s traffic statistics tell two contrasting stories. On the one hand, this year the Sift had no breakout viral posts, or posts from previous years that went on a viral second run. As a result, the overall page view numbers are down: from 782,000 in 2015 and even 415K in 2014 to somewhere around 350K this year (with a few days to go).

On the other hand, all the signs of regular readership are up. The number of people following the blog (according to WordPress; I have no idea exactly what they’re counting, but I assume it’s comparable from year to year) rose from 3820 to 4269. Hits on the home page, weeklysift.com, held the gains of 2015: from 44K in 2014 to 100K in 2015 to 101K this year. (I interpret that as views from people who are not looking for any particular post, but have the site bookmarked and want to see what’s new.)

Two years ago, a 1000-view post seemed like a big deal; sometimes I’d go a whole month without one. This year, the featured post each week almost always topped 1000.

Most encouragingly, the number of comments continued its upward trend: from 879 in 2014 to 1432 in 2015 to 1751 so far in 2016.

So what happened to the total page views? In 2015, a post from 2014, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“, had a second run bigger than its original run, getting 302K views. Another golden oldie, “The Distress of the Privileged” from 2012, added 52K. 2015 had its own viral post, “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to Be a Bigot” at 102K.

By contrast, “Not a Tea Party” and “Distress” put together garnered about 45K hits for 2016, and the most popular posts written in 2016 were “Why Bernie Backed Hillary” (17K), “Tick, Tick, Tick … the Augustus Countdown Continues” (11K), and last week’s “How Will They Change Their Minds?” (7K and counting).

Viral posts, as I point out every year, are unpredictable. Some years they happen, some years they don’t. Hall of Fame baseball player George Brett used to claim that most of his home runs were mistakes: He was trying to hit line drives, but sometimes he swung just slightly under a pitch and it went up and out of the park. If he tried to do that, he knew, he might hit a few more home runs, but he’d also wind up with a lot more pop-ups and strikeouts.

That’s how I feel about viral posts. Every week, I’m trying to serve the needs of my regular readers. If once in a while that intention produces something that gets the attention of a larger public, that’s great. But if I tried to swing for those home runs, I think the overall quality of the blog would decline.

The Year of “This Can’t Be Happening”

In the 2015 Yearly Sift, I wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monday Morning Teaser

By tradition, the last Sift of the year is “The Yearly Sift”, where I look back on what I’ve been writing and pick out the larger themes. Typically, that’s an enjoyable exercise for me, but not this year — not only because the year ended in the disaster of Donald Trump forming his administration, but because all year I was wrong about whether that was going to happen.

So the theme of the year is “The Year of This-can’t-be-happening”. The post on that theme will pull together everything I wrote during the year trying to understand or argue with Trump supporters. It should be out by 8:30 or so EST.

“The Yearly Sift” itself should be out shortly afterward, since all I have to do is check that the links work. It will look at a few less prominent themes: the decline of truth as a political value, the Bernie/Hillary split in the Democratic Party, the decline of the norms of democracy, and race/privilege.

The annual page collecting the year’s opening quotes is up already.

Exhaustive Methods

The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.

Garry Kasparov, Russian dissident and former world chess champion

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Hannah Arendt

This week’s featured post is “How will they change their minds?” The “they” refers to Trump supporters.

You also might be interested in the talk I gave last week.

This week everybody was talking about Russian manipulation

The FBI and CIA now seem to be in agreement: Russia hacked Democratic emails and gave them to WikiLeaks because Putin wanted Trump to win. The NYT did an extensive article about how it happened.

It’s no mystery why Putin would favor Trump. I was describing that motive already back in August. Steve Benen gives the story a broader perspective by reviewing Trump and Putin’s comments about each other over the past year. Basically, Trump has surrounded himself with pro-Russian advisers (including people like Paul Manafort who took large sums of money from the now-overthrown pro-Russian government of Ukraine), and has consistently spoken highly of Putin and defended Russia’s point of view whenever it became an issue.

The Russian interference ought to horrify any American, independent of party, but of course Democrats seem much more concerned about it than Republicans. But several Republican senators have a long history of hostility to Russia and Putin — McCain and Graham, most obviously — and they don’t seem inclined to reverse themselves that easily. So some kind of hearings will be held, and we’ll see what comes out.


Masha Gessen at The New York Review of Books has an insightful article about the stylistic similarities between Trump and Putin. For example:

Lying is the message. It’s not just that both Putin and Trump lie, it is that they lie in the same way and for the same purpose: blatantly, to assert power over truth itself.


In an interview with RT, a Russian state-funded news source, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange claimed the leaked Democratic emails did not come from the Russian government. Given the partisan role WikiLeaks played in the election — they didn’t just dump the Clinton emails on the public, they attempted to raise as much anti-Clinton buzz as possible in the way they released and tweeted about them — I have doubts about Assange’s objectivity.

and the Electoral College

It votes today. Theoretically, the electors could defect from Trump and throw the election into the House, where he might win anyway. But probably they’ll just elect him.

and the near-completion of Trump’s cabinet

CNN and the NYT are both keeping a running lists of who has been nominated. A few trends:

  • lots of white guys. Nominees for all the top positions — State, Defense, Treasury, Attorney General, and Homeland Security — are white men. Carson, Chao, and Haley are the only appointees of non-European ethnicity. Chao, Haley, DeVos, and McMahon are the only women.
  • lots of rich people. Republican cabinet choices (and some Democrats as well) are usually fairly well-to-do, but the Trump cabinet is off the scale. Betsy DeVos’ family is worth over $5 billion. Wilbur Ross has $2.5 billion. Rex Tillerson made $27 million as CEO of Exxon Mobil in 2015, and Andrew Puzder has made as much as $10 million in a year from CKE Restaurants.
  • lots of generals. Mattis at Defense, Kelly at Homeland Security, and Flynn as National Security Adviser.
  • not a lot of relevant education or experience. The poster boy for this is Rick Perry at the Department of Energy. DoE’s primary mission is overseeing everything nuclear, from power plants to nuclear weapon stockpiles to radioactive waste disposal. Obama’s energy secretaries were two distinguished Ph.D. physicists: Nobel-prize winner Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz. Perry majored in Animal Science and generally got bad grades. Similarly, Education Secretary DeVos has never studied education or worked in a school, Secretary of State Tillerson has no foreign policy experience, and neither does U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. Ben Carson is educated — he’s a doctor — but it’s not clear he knows anything about Housing and Urban Development.
  • no draining the swamp. Tillerson at State is from Exxon Mobil and Mnuchin at Treasury is from Goldman Sachs. DeVos, Ross, Puzder, and McMahon at SBA were all big donors to the Trump campaign.

We also know Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel: David Friedman, who would be considered a right-winger among Israelis. He has described the two-state solution as “a con” and wrote in 2015:

Judea and Samaria historically have deep Jewish roots and were validly captured 48 years ago in a defensive war – far more legitimately than through the atrocious acts that today dictate the borders of most countries. … As a general rule, we should expand a community in Judea and Samaria where the land is legally available and a residential or commercial need is present – just like in any other neighborhood anywhere in the world. Until that becomes the primary consideration for development, how can we expect to be taken seriously that this is our land?

In general, I worry about any ambassador who uses “we” and “our” when talking about the country he will be posted to.

and Trump’s conflicts of interest

Trump cancelled a press conference in which he was going to announce his plans for handling his businesses while in office. Originally scheduled for last Thursday, it’s been put off until some unspecified date in January. (NPR lists seven questions it would have liked to ask.) Many are speculating that it will never happen; at some point we’ll just get a statement about what the arrangements are, and he will never answer questions about them.

During the campaign, Trump proposed turning management of his businesses over to his children, who presumably would not be part of the government. Now, even that separation is becoming tenuous. Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner apparently will have roles in the Trump administration. Eric and Donald Jr. might be slated to take over the business, but they also have been involved in the transition, including the selection of the Interior Secretary. So even if there is to be some kind of line between the Trump administration and the Trump Organization, everybody seems to already be on both sides of that line.

The issue that is likely to arise first concerns the new Trump International Hotel located in D.C.’s Old Post Office building, which is owned by the U.S. government and leased to the Trump Organization. The lease explicitly prohibits “any elected official of the Government of the United States” from “any benefit that may arise” from the lease.

The Brookings Institution published a scholarly assessment of the various ways President Trump “would arrive in office as a walking, talking violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution”, which prohibits officials of the U.S. government from accepting gifts from foreign governments or making other profitable arrangements with them. The document is a clear exposition of the history motivating the Clause and how it has been interpreted. The authors (Norman Eisen, Richard Painter, and Lawrence Tribe) conclude that no solution proposed or hinted at by Trump or his campaign comes close to eliminating the conflicts of interest the Clause prohibits. Unfortunately, the only recourses they propose involve action by either the Electoral College (today) or the Republican-controlled Congress.


One silly way that Trump’s conflict-of-interests surface is how personally he takes any attack on his businesses. Recently, Vanity Fair published a damning review of Trump Grill, the steakhouse in the lobby of Trump Tower. Our President-Elect then felt compelled to tweet back an attack on how badly the magazine is doing under its current editor. And that naturally made headlines and resulted in a huge jump in Vanity Fair subscriptions. Thanks, Donald! Could you go after The New Yorker next?


Washington Monthly believes Trump will face resistance from Republicans in Congress.


Time proclaimed Trump “Person of the Year“. That really isn’t an honor, it’s an answer to the question: “Who was most central to the news this year?” They couldn’t have chosen anybody else. Trump’s story drove the campaign, which dominated the year. If you could go back in time and tell yourself who you should keep your eye on in 2016, how could it be anybody but Trump?

and you might also be interested in …

To no one’s great surprise, Dylann Roof was found guilty of killing nine members of Charleston’s Mother Emanuel Church. The death penalty is still a possibility. Most coverage of the story still makes him sound like a disturbed individual, rather than a terrorist radicalized by the white-supremacist movement. This is typical; I’ve been writing about the same phenomenon for more than four years.


Another example of the norms of fair play being tossed aside: After losing the governorship in North Carolina, Republicans in the legislature changed the law to drastically limit the power of the incoming Democratic governor. It’s entirely legal, but they’re not even pretending to respect the will of the voters any more.

I could do a long rant on the importance of norms to democracy, but I’ve already done it. Paul Waldman points out how the illegitimacy cascades:

In this closely divided swing state, Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature because of aggressively gerrymandered legislative districts that pack African-Americans together in order to dilute their power. The districts were declared unconstitutional by a federal court earlier this year, and the state has been ordered to redraw them and hold special elections next year.

So while they still have that ill-gotten supermajority, they’re using it to change the rules further in their favor.


Josh Marshall acknowledges that you can blame Hillary Clinton’s loss on Clinton herself, or that you can blame it on external factors like Russia or the FBI or the Electoral College. (Any close election has many difference-making factors.) But since neither Clinton nor Bernie Sanders is likely to run again in 2020, we could probably find a better use of our time than trying to refight the primary battle.


Fake news is a real problem. But if we don’t use the term carefully, it won’t mean anything. Already, it’s starting to become an insult rather than a description.


There was a sort-of-happy ending to an otherwise disturbing story out of the University of Minnesota: The football team backed off of its threat not to play the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on December 27. They were defending 10 of their teammates suspended after an alleged sexual assault on September 2.

Police had decided not to charge the players with a crime, but the University’s internal process has a lower standard of proof (preponderance-of-evidence rather than beyond-reasonable-doubt). The University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action has recommended expulsion for five of the players, and either suspension from the University or probation for the other five. A hearing on that report is scheduled for January. In the meantime, the Athletic Director has suspended all ten from the football team.

Thursday, the team assembled as a group in uniform and read a statement demanding that the players be reinstated. They wanted a private meeting with the regents (i.e., without either the athletic director or the University president) about “how to make our program great again”. (It’s hard not to interpret that as a political statement: Trump has been elected, so the country is done with all this political correctness about sexual assault.)

The players’ case is that the sex was consensual, and a 90-second video of part of the 90-minute encounter has been offered as proof. (Think about that: The players’ defense is that they were involved in a group sex act where people videoed each other, but that it was all consensual. That may be a fine legal defense, but does the University want these guys representing the school?) The team’s coaches seemed to be supporting them rather than the administration.

Big money was at stake for the University. Last year’s Holiday Bowl paid $2.83 million to the participating schools, and additional advertising and ticketing revenue is at risk, not to mention the fund-raising bump a school gets when it’s alumni watch its team on national TV.

Fortunately, the administration didn’t back down. The team got its meeting with the regents and the president and athletic director, during which “it became clear that our original request of having the 10 suspensions overturned was not going to happen.” If it had, how could anyone justify sending a daughter to the University of Minnesota?


One of the things I said I’d be watching for in the Trump administration is “Taking credit for averting dangers that never existed.” Well, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski has proclaimed victory in the War on Christmas.

Merry Christmas, which you can say again because Donald Trump is now the president. You can say it again! It’s okay to say—it’s not a pejorative word anymore.

If Trump wants to declare an imaginary victory in an imaginary war, how can you argue with him?


Wisconsin conservative talk-radio host Charlie Sykes is retiring. A never-Trump Republican to the end, Sykes’ farewell message is blistering:

We destroyed our own immunity to fake news, while empowering the worst and most reckless voices on the right.

This was not mere naïveté. It was also a moral failure, one that now lies at the heart of the conservative movement even in its moment of apparent electoral triumph. Now that the election is over, don’t expect any profiles in courage from the Republican Party pushing back against those trends; the gravitational pull of our binary politics is too strong.


I’ve been resisting covering speculation about what the Trump administration might do, because there’s just too much of it and I think reality already gives us enough to worry about. But the alternatives for repealing ObamaCare are starting to sound fairly solid, so let’s talk about them.

To start with, it seems unlikely that Republicans in the Senate can unify around eliminating the filibuster, and they have only 52 votes rather than 60, so just a straight repeal can’t pass the Senate unless they come up with a way to start rolling Democrats, which so far they’re not doing.

The way around the filibuster is a process called “reconciliation“, which is complicated, but basically requires a bill to be entirely fiscal. However, there are also non-fiscal aspects to ObamaCare, and leaving them in place while repealing the taxes and subsidies would make a huge mess:

What the health care policy experts consulting with GOP staff have been arguing is that repealing Obamacare’s subsidies and individual mandate – but leaving market regulations that require insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions (which the 2015 reconciliation model would do) – would have catastrophic effects for the insurance market.

Exactly what is and isn’t fiscal is outlined here.

The alternative would be to repeal the whole thing through reconciliation, but that requires a way to work around the Senate parliamentarian, who is likely to rule against such a move. In other words, it requires tossing aside another democratic norm: We’re the majority, so we get to say what the rules mean, even if a good-faith interpretation says they mean something else.

The one thing still missing from either approach — nearly seven years after ObamaCare became law — is the “replace” part of repeal-and-replace. There is still no official Trump administration or congressional Republican plan for replacement. Repeal-without-replace takes healthcare coverage away from about 20 million people.

and let’s close with something that goes all the way

If we’re in a post-truth world, maybe it’s flat.

How will they change their minds?

Trump voters made an enormous mistake, for their country and even for themselves. We can’t force them to see it, but maybe we can make it easier for them figure it out on their own.


In the summer of 2003, the Iraq War was popular. Sure, somewhere between a third and half of the public had been strongly against the invasion before it happened. But then it all seemed to go so well. Iraqi armies melted away in front of our brave troops. Our technology seemed invincible, and before long we were helping the liberated Baghdad residents pull down Saddam’s statue. All those pessimists who had predicted a quagmire and thousands of dead American soldiers had been proved wrong.

On May 1, President Bush had heroically landed a plane on the USS Abraham Lincoln and announced victory under a “Mission Accomplished” banner. “In the battle of Iraq,” he proclaimed, “the United States and our allies have prevailed.” There was still some minor mopping up to do — we still hadn’t captured Saddam or found his WMDs — but our forces had the run of the country, so that was bound to happen any day now.

A few people knew better. In early July I talked to my best friend from high school, a career Marine who was home already from participating in the invasion. “The real war is just starting now,” he told me. But that was a lonely point of view. Bush’s supporters were already styling him as one of the great presidents — maybe not quite in the Washington/Lincoln neighborhood, but certainly in the next tier. It was a shame there was no more space on Mount Rushmore.

Sometime around then — I can’t tell you when because I hadn’t started blogging yet and haven’t been able to google up a newspaper account of it — Michael Moore gave a talk in Manchester. At the time I knew Moore only by reputation, so I was expecting to hear some angry rabble-rousing. Instead, he spoke in a compassionate tone that has stuck with me ever since.

The country had made a huge mistake, he told us. (I’m paraphrasing because I took no notes.) And sooner or later events would make that obvious. The way forward was for large numbers of Americans to recognize that mistake and change their minds about the war. How would that happen? Changing your mind about something you felt strongly about was a gut-wrenching process, and we needed to make it as easy as possible for them, so that it could happen sooner rather than later.

More or less, things played out the way he envisioned: By April, 2004, the First Battle of Fallujah made it undeniable that the war was not over, and the Abu Ghraib revelations removed the invasion’s aura of moral crusade. From then on, support for the war waned. Dick Cheney’s claims that the insurgency was in its last throes, or Thomas Friedman’s repeated predictions that everything would be fine in another six months (which became known as a “Friedman unit“), became increasingly unbelievable. The Democrats retook Congress in 2006, and a Democrat who had opposed the invasion got the nomination in 2008 and beat a more hawkish Republican in a landslide. Some public figures who supported the war early on (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry come to mind) admitted they were wrong, but lots more people (Donald Trump, for example) just rewrote history so that they had always been against the war.

At no point in that national mind-changing process was there some stunning new argument that turned everybody around. Anti-war Democrats didn’t come up with great new slogans or ads in 2006 or 2008. Demonstrations didn’t change minds in the numbers needed. Books and movies didn’t do it. Events had to do it.

I think we’re in a similar situation now: Electing Donald Trump was a huge mistake. It’s not just a mistake for the country as a whole, it’s a mistake for most of the people who did it: Working class whites are going to see their safety net shredded and power further consolidate among the wealthy, with no turnaround in the collapse of the kind of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs people could count on a generation ago. They will lose health insurance, their public schools will decline, their children will have a harder time paying for college, and many will be victims of preventable environmental or public-health disasters.

The limits of propaganda. Many of them have, up until now, been entirely taken in by Trump’s bluster and a regular diet of propaganda from Fox News, Breitbart, Alex Jones, and right-wing talk radio. They believe a lot of things that aren’t true, and are ignorant of many facts they ought to know. But propaganda can only go so far. You can’t, for example, convince a minimum-wage worker that he has a good job, or that we have the greatest healthcare system in the world when he faces a choice between bankruptcy and watching his wife die.

Reality is persistent, and propaganda that explains it away has to keep changing. Eventually people catch on, even if they don’t begin each day with The New York Times and end it with PBS Newshour. You don’t have to believe the “liberal media” when the news is happening to you and the people you love.

Moore’s speech impressed me for a couple of reasons. First, he really believed in his view of reality, so he didn’t have to be shrill about it. He didn’t need to wish misfortune on the people who disagreed with him, because misfortune was coming whether anybody wished for it or not. He was so certain that he could already feel compassion for misfortune’s victims. And second, in spite of recent events to the contrary, he retained his faith in the basic sense of the American people. They/we could be fooled for a while, but not forever.

That’s the point of view we need now. If President Trump really does “make America great again” — bring good jobs back to the middle class, fix our education system, produce opportunities for poor people in the inner cities, fix our healthcare system, avoid any further damage from the “hoax” of climate change, win the war against “radical Islam” — then liberalism is done for a generation. And it should be, because he would have proved us totally wrong.

But how likely is that?

And if he makes all those situations worse, as I think he will, how likely is it that the American people won’t notice? Or that they will support him anyway, just because?

Trumpism will fail as a political movement because the people who voted for Trump will look at their own undeniable experiences and change their minds. It’s something they will do for themselves, not something we can do to them or for them. The best we can do is to help that process along. So how?

We won’t overpower them with vehemence. Trump supporters already know that we don’t like him, that we think he’s a horrible person, and that we think everything he says is a lie. They knew that when they voted for him. Repeating all that in a louder voice is not going to turn them around.

Does that mean we should just shut up? Not at all, but it should influence the way we express ourselves. We need to think of ourselves as Avatars of Reality: persistent, implacable, but not boiling over. In terms of protests, for example, large groups of people holding a vigil are better than small groups having a riot. Publicly supporting somebody — American Muslims, the undocumented, black neighborhoods that feel terrorized by police, the working poor who depend on Medicaid or ObamaCare or Planned Parenthood, communities damaged by de-regulated pollution — is better than just being anti-Trump.

On social media, just trading insults plays into Trump’s hands, because his insults are as good as ours. His model of political discourse is two tribes of people yelling at each other; it doesn’t matter who’s right, just who is on your side. Our model is that reality exists and presents problems the public needs to deal with.

To remain true to our model, we need to keep drawing the discussion back to facts and plans and personal experiences. That doesn’t have to be complicated. (This week I saw somebody on Facebook claim that Trump had more integrity than Clinton, and I responded with a fact: Clinton has never had to pay $25 million to settle a fraud lawsuit.)

Trump, of course, will continue to assert his own facts. But fantasy lacks the stability of reality, so he will have to keep changing his story as events unfold. One by one, here and there, people will catch on.

The low-information voter. Trump himself almost never loses sight of the fact that he is speaking to the low-information voter. It’s rare for an interviewer to draw him deeper into an issue, and it never goes well for him. (Chris Matthews got him talking specifics about abortion, and his staff was walking that back for the next week.) That’s why Twitter is his primary form of public communication: It’s all about reaction, not explanation.

Feeling superior about that is too easy. I believe Trump won by beating Clinton decisively among low-information voters. (That’s hard to prove, because low-info voters aren’t as easily identifiable as racial or economic subgroups. You can use education as a proxy, but that involves some biased assumptions.) So people who only pay attention now and then are precisely the ones we need to turn around.

That was also true about Iraq. If your whole experience of the Iraq War was watching on TV as smart bombs went down smokestacks and joyful Iraqis pulled down Saddam’s statue, then nobody could convince you the invasion had been a bad idea. Eventually, though, even the most poorly informed voter started to wonder: “Why are we still losing soldiers if the war was over months ago?” and “If we’re winning, why do we have to take Fallujah again?” Thoughts like that didn’t have to be deep or complicated.

Two things to remember about low-info voters:

  • They respond to stories and experiences more than statistics. It’s important to keep bringing policy questions back to the people who are getting helped or hurt. It’s best if you can lay out a scenario where a policy will hurt the listener himself. Next best is to explain how you’re being affected. Next best is to relate things you’ve seen yourself rather than learned through the media. (So don’t just read about stuff, go places where you will see things, and then testify to what you’ve seen.)
  • They care about results more than processes. This is particularly maddening right now, when all the effects of Trump’s policies are still theoretical, but the process violations are everywhere. But while the high-info voter looks at a hole in the fence and immediately imagines the wolves getting in or the sheep getting out, the low-info voter doesn’t.

Amplifying that second point a little: People who watch politics closely are horrified that Trump hasn’t released his tax returns or put his assets into a blind trust. All other recent presidents have done that, so the sense of violation is immediate. But to a low-info voter, those sound like technicalities. So you always need to make the connection to results: His businesses are wide-open doors for pay-offs, and we know so little about his finances at the beginning of his term that at the end we won’t even know whether he has robbed us blind. Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.” We aren’t in a position to verify anything about Trump.

The importance of popularity. The darkest imagining of liberals right now is that Trump’s election heralds a descent towards fascism or some related form of non-democratic government. Trump has roused such nativist/racist passions and shows so little respect for the norms of democracy that the question “What wouldn’t he do if he could get away with it?” seems to have no answer.

Other Republican behavior — the unprecedented obstruction of President Obama, up to the point of ignoring his Supreme Court nominee; the moves to suppress minority voting in states where Republicans have power; and most recently the post-election rule-changing in North Carolina — point to a party that has lost all principles and stands only for its own power.

All that raises the questions: What if there are no more meaningful elections? Why would changing people’s minds even matter?

That fascist scenario requires President Trump to take audacious extra-constitutional action which Republicans in Congress, in the military, in the courts, and elsewhere in government either actively support or passively go along with. But Republicans at the moment are not unified behind Trump. They could become unified, if he becomes the kind of overwhelmingly popular president that it would be political suicide to oppose. But that’s not where they are now.

Trump begins his term having received only 46% of the vote, and with an unprecedented unfavorability rating, even after a post-election bump. This is before the fog around his policies resolves, as it must, into a budget proposal and a plan for healthcare.

In the next year or two, his popularity is key to avoiding the most negative scenarios. If he remains as unpopular as he is today, or gets more unpopular, then the darkest scenarios will never manifest.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m back from the West Coast, where I gave a talk to the UU Church of Palo Alto titled “Season of Darkness, Season of Hope“. It’s a Solstice sermon about the current political situation and the difference between hope (which is an attitude towards life in the present) and optimism (which is a belief about the future).

This week’s featured post, “How will they change their minds?” is an attempt to envision how we get out of the current political situation: Using the once-very-popular Iraq War as a model, I argue that events will cause the American people to change their minds about Trump, and he will become too unpopular to accomplish the worst things that liberals are currently imagining. (Bad things, yes. The worst things, no.) If you believe that model of how the current situation resolves, then the question becomes: How do we make it easier for people to change their minds? (I picked that question up from a Michael Moore talk in 2003.)

The weekly summary discusses the Russian manipulation of the election, Trump’s almost-complete cabinet, the growing controversy over the conflict between Trump’s responsibilities as president and his business interests, the North Carolina legislature’s power grab after the voters elected a Democratic governor, the University of Minnesota football team’s unsuccessful attempt to use its power to shield ten players from the consequences of a sexual assault, and the emerging ObamaCare-repeal strategies, before closing with a flat-Earth video.

I’ll be trying to get the mind-change post out by 9 EST and the weekly summary out by 11.

News War

No Sift next week. The next new articles will appear December 19.

If the president of the United States declares war on journalism, journalists are not obliged to just record his words and publish them. They are obliged to take a side – the side of freedom.

– Dan Gillmor, “Trump, Free Speech, and Why Journalists Must Be Activists
November, 2016

This week’s featured posts are “Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit” and “No facts? What does that mean?

I’m cancelling the December 12 Sift because I’m traveling this week. If you’re anywhere near Palo Alto this Sunday, I’ll be speaking at the UU church there at 9:30 and 11 on the topic “Season of Darkness, Season of Hope”. It’s about how the symbolism of the Winter Solstice might apply to our dark political times.

This week everybody was talking about China

One of the scary things about Donald Trump as president is that when he causes an international incident, everybody’s first thought is “Did he mean to do that?” Because it’s entirely plausible that he just didn’t think about it; he so often appears not to think about the consequences of what he does.

This time, though, in spite of Trump and numerous spokespeople portraying his phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen as no big deal, it looks like it really was an attempt to begin his relationship with China with a shot across the bow. He followed up Sunday with a pair of aggressive tweets:

Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them) or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!

Actually the U.S. does tax Chinese imports, but since there are no facts anymore, who cares?

The WaPo summarizes why the call was such a big deal to the Chinese. Vox has a general exploration of Trump’s foreign policy.

and those manufacturing jobs at Carrier

One of the interesting things to watch in the early days of the Trump administration will be which conservatives stick to their previous principles, and which ones think it’s fine for Trump to do things they would have condemned Obama for.

In a nutshell, the deal Trump and Pence worked out to keep some Carrier jobs in Indiana while letting others move to Mexico is not at all the kind of thing he was describing during the campaign, and also counter to the usual Republican free-market principles.

During the campaign, Trump specifically called out Carrier’s plan to close a plant in Indianapolis and open one in Mexico. He made it sound like he would get tough with businesses like that, threatening them with tariffs until they knuckled under. Well, that’s not at all what happened. Carrier got at least $7 million in Indiana tax breaks. (Pence is still governor, remember?) Plus, who knows what else its parent company, United Technologies, was promised in terms of its defense businesses? In exchange, they agreed not to move as many jobs as they had planned, at least not right away.

Bernie Sanders wrote that the people whose jobs were saved should be happy, but “the rest of our nation’s workers should be very nervous.” In essence, the deal establishes that corporations can extort goodies from Trump by threatening to move.

Trump has endangered the jobs of workers who were previously safe in the United States. Why? Because he has signaled to every corporation in America that they can threaten to offshore jobs in exchange for business-friendly tax benefits and incentives. Even corporations that weren’t thinking of offshoring jobs will most probably be reevaluating their stance this morning. And who would pay for the high cost for tax cuts that go to the richest businessmen in America? The working class of America.

OK, you didn’t really expect Bernie to side with Trump. But a number of conservatives also raised their voices against the deal, for a different reason: It’s exactly the kind of “industrial policy” they hate when Democrats try it. Sarah Palin called it “crony capitalism“.  National Review called it “a rejection of economic reality“.

and the PizzaGate shooting

I had the bad timing to write a somewhat whimsical piece about fake news at the same time that fake news was having a serious consequence: A guy armed with an assault rifle walked into a D.C. pizza place and started shooting, because he was “investigating” a fake-news story that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child sex ring from the restaurant’s backrooms”. Because that’s so incredibly plausible, I guess.


A sidebar on that story: So a guy believes a ridiculous piece of fake news, takes an assault rifle into a crowded restaurant and fires. Police take him into custody without finding it necessary to kill him first.

He’s white, right? How did I know?

and Trump’s cabinet picks

More announcements from the High Castle (a.k.a. Trump Tower).

Mattis at Defense. I can’t decide whether to be glass-half-empty or glass-half-full about General James Mattis for Secretary of Defense. On the downside, it’s never good to have a SecDef whose nickname is “Mad Dog”. That Trump compares him to General Patton (from World War II, or maybe from the George C. Scott movie) also makes me uneasy: Patton was a tactical genius who was also a political and interpersonal loose cannon. He did well for us in World War II largely because wise, unflappable men like Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Marshall stood between him and the president, who was the masterful Franklin Roosevelt. Show me anybody in the Trump administration like those guys, and I’ll feel a lot better about having another Patton.

On the upside, he is a real general who actually knows something about military affairs. He didn’t just play a general on TV or give a bunch of defense-related speeches or something. People who know their fields are rarities in the Trump cabinet, so I don’t want to complain too much. Also, he apparently told Trump that torture doesn’t work very well, and he wants to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, so he gets credit for that.

On the downside, he pairs with National Security Advisor (and former General) Michael Flynn to virtually eliminate civilian oversight of the military. (A third general is rumored to be Trump’s choice to head Homeland Security.) By law, a general has be out of the military for seven years before taking the SecDef job, a provision that Congress would have to waive for Mattis. That opens his nomination to filibuster.

Mnuchin at Treasury. I’m trying to imagine the response if President Hillary Clinton had nominated a hedge-fund founder and former Goldman Sachs partner, who made billions off the housing crisis. Way to drain the swamp, dude.

and the protesters won one

The Army announced that it won’t allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to go under a dammed section of the Missouri River. Alternate routes are being explored.

and the ongoing corruption issue

The NYT illustrates the problems in a series of circular diagrams that include both government agencies and Trump business interests. The gist is that Trump will frequently be in the position of deciding as president whether he should make more or less money.


Trump’s business empire, and its dealings in foreign countries and with foreign governments, seems to set up clear violations of the Emoluments Clause, a part of the Constitution that you never hear about because no president previously thought he could get away with violating it:

So, for example, any loan the Trump Organization gets from the Bank of China would need to be examined to make sure its terms aren’t more favorable than it might have gotten if Donald Trump weren’t president. Otherwise the deal might include a  gift, which the Clause bans. Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, elaborates:

Even absent a quid pro quo, the Emoluments Clause bans payments to an American public official from foreign governments. Yet they will arise whenever foreign diplomats stay in Trump hotels at their governments’ expense; whenever parties are organized by foreign governments in Trump hotels (Bahrain just announced such a party in a Trump hotel this week); whenever loans are made to the company by the Bank of China or any other foreign-government-owned bank; whenever rent is paid by companies controlled by foreign governments with offices in Trump buildings; and whenever there is any other arrangement whereby foreign government money goes into the president’s businesses.

However, think about how to enforce this, if Congress decides to let it slide. Conceivably a court could step in, but courts can’t just take something up because it sounds wrong. Someone has to come to court claiming to have suffered an injury that the court has the power to correct. (That’s what’s meant by the legal term standing. You have to have standing before you can sue.)

Who could do that? Maybe a competing business that suffers from foreign-government favoritism towards the Trump Organization? Law professor Jonathan H. Adler doesn’t even offer that possibility:

the underlying controversy is almost certainly non-justiciable. It is difficult to conceive of a scenario in which someone would have standing to challenge Trump’s arrangements, and even harder to think what sort of remedy could be ordered by a court.

And Painter agrees:

The only remedy for a serious violation of the Emoluments Clause is impeachment.

and you might also be interested in

As absentee and provisional ballots get counted in various states, Hillary Clinton’s lead in the national popular vote continues to grow: currently more than 2.6 million votes, or 2%.

One thing this means is that the polls were not actually that far off. Going into election day, most pollsters were called for a 3-4% margin. She also did not run much behind Obama’s 2012 pace, when he won by 3.9%.


Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin are putting together a bipartisan effort to protect the DREAMers from deportation. We’ll see if Graham is by himself on this, or if a few other Republicans (Flake? McCain?) are willing to join. I have a hard time picturing the House backing this, but that’s a battle I really want the public to see. The DREAMers are the most sympathetic of the undocumented immigrants, because they broke no laws and most of them know no other country than the United States. If we can’t find a place for them, America really has become a hard-hearted country.


A good description of one of the big problems our democracy is facing: “Conservative media needs a scared, paranoid audience, while democracy needs reasonable voters.”


Not sure why Trump tweeted about flag-burning. I haven’t heard of anybody doing it lately; maybe he’s just anticipating that somebody will. Anyway, it’s a pretty clear First Amendment issue: The reason people object to it is that burning a flag expresses an opinion they don’t like. Nobody objects if you burn a flag that is worn out; that’s actually the preferred method of disposal. Nobody cares if you have flags on your 4th of July napkins and then throw them in the campfire. The only time people object to burning a flag is if you’re doing it to make a point.

In religious terms, laws to protect the flag from burning constitute idolatry: The symbol has been elevated above the thing it’s supposed to symbolize. The flag symbolizes our American freedom, but idolators want to protect the flag at the expense of our freedom.

and let’s close with a sex video

A very tiny one, that is. Science Alert provides video of tardigrade (a.k.a. water bear) mating, and even explains what’s kinky about it.

fertilisation actually occurs outside the female’s body – although the researchers still aren’t entirely sure how the semen gets to her eggs.

Presumably that will be in Tardigrade Mating II.

No facts? What does that mean?

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

But what does it mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then pointing out how this has changed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monday Morning Teaser

The theme of fake news and propaganda was up for me this week, so there will be two featured posts today, each looking at a different aspect of that theme. The first one is short and (I hope) amusing: “Fake news is like Jessica Rabbit”. It makes an analogy between how news stories and movie characters raise our interest, and points out that getting a response is easier when the reporters/animators aren’t required to worry about the boring constraints of reality. It gets around to arguing that we need to develop a too-good-to-be-true reflex for headlines we see on social media, similar to the reflex mature people have in other areas of their lives.

That’s just about done and should be out shortly.

The second responds to a story this week that sounded like fake news, but was actually real: The Trump surrogate who said, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, as facts.” It seems really unlikely that she meant that literally, but what did she mean? And what does that tell us about how we should be listening to what Trump says? That post will be called “No facts? What does that mean?”

I’m less certain when that will be done. Maybe around 10 EST.

The weekly summary will discuss Trump’s bizarre call to Taiwan, the deal to reward Carrier for sending fewer jobs to Mexico, more cabinet picks, the continuing issue of how Trump’s opportunities for private profit will affect his public policy, why anti-flag-burning laws constitute idolatry, and a few other things. I’m hoping to have that out by noon.