Andrew Sullivan, Intersectionality, and Donald Trump

While considering the violent mob of students that attacked author Charles Murray and Prof. Allison Stanger at Middlebury College, Andrew Sullivan asks “Is Intersectionality a Religion?”  His answer is “almost,” noting that the New New Left essentially demands conversion, puritanically controls controls language and the terms of discourse, and seeks to ban heresy.  For this, he got a lot of positive comment across the political spectrum, and I’m not sure why.

I mean, he’s correct, but the theory isn’t new to Sullivan.  As Frank Bruni notes, both John McWhorter and Jonathan Haidt have made much the same argument.

Nor is this sort of thinking new for Sullivan.  He previously referred to dismissed Mozilla exec Brendan Eich as a heretic while condemning his persecutors.  And he has in theory been good on religious liberty legislation.  I suppose Sullivan holding the same position for this long a time is notable, but c’mon.

What interests me about the piece is how it fits into his latest return to writing, which was occasioned by the ascent of then-candidate Donald Trump.

Sullivan’s initial longform piece for New York magazine begins by analyzing a passage in Plato’s Republic.  Sullivan writes that “the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become.  Its freedoms would multiply; its equality spread.  Deference to any sort of authority would wither; tolerance of any kind of inequality would come under intense threat; and multiculturalism and sexual freedom would create a city or a country like ‘a many-colored cloak decorated in all hues’.”

He continues: “As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones… when elites are despised and full license is established to do ‘whatever one wants,’ you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy.”  And it is at this point, Plato and Sullivan claim, that a tyrant can seize the moment.  You know who Sullivan casts in that role.

The problem with Sullivan’s thesis is that the erosion of authority and promotion of license in America is not entirely due to too much democracy, is it?

The erosion of authority can occur, for example, when elite colleges decide to stop requiring students to learn about the virtues of Western civilization.  It can occur when Pres. Obama decides to simply stop enforcing the law for broad classes of people on subjects including immigration and healthcare.  And it can occur when people come to believe we are ruled by judicial fiat, symbolized in the cases of Roe v. Wade (which made abortion a constitutional right) and Obergefell v. Hodges (which did the same for same-sex marriage).

Sullivan is of course best-known as one of America’s foremost advocates for same-sex marriage.  As such, he reveled in the Obergefell decision, much as he had earlier when other courts reached the same result.

The dissenting opinions in Obergefell highlight how undemocratic the decision is — and how short it is on legal authority.  The subsequent death of one of those dissenters — Justice Antonin Scalia — made the composition and activism of the Supreme Court a chief selling point for traditional Republicans and conservatives (especially evangelicals and Catholics) to hold their noses and vote for Trump, a man whose picture appears nowhere near the dictionary definition of “pious.”

In the run-up to this decision, people like Rod Dreher warned of the McCarthyism that would follow in the wake of a decision like Obergefell.  Sullivan dismissed these warnings as whining — “the hysteria and self-pity among those who, for centuries, enjoyed widespread endorsement for the horrible mistreatment of gay people.”

And yet for all his years of demonizing social conservatives as “Christianists,” who’s the one looking naive when leftist social media mobs and fanatical bureaucrats put Christians out of business for not wanting to participate in same-sex marriages?  Or when President Obama tried to force the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for birth control?  Or when academics are battered in parking lots?

It turns out the real religious threat comes from the New New Left — as Sullivan seems to be the last to discover.

While Sullivan will note that he has deplored the oppression and violence of the New New Left, also note that he finds the GOP and conservatives “loony” for holding the same position on same-sex marriage Barack Obama held less than a decade prior.  He apparently doesn’t realize how short a drive it is from that dismissal to the home of “check your privilege.”  Or from blaming the current generation of social conservatives for centuries of mistreatment to the idea of original sin.  Having missed the last slippery slope, I expect him to miss this one also.

By his own Platonic argument, Sullivan was a significant actor in creating the kind of country in which Donald Trump can become President.  Indeed, by Sullivan’s standards for causation — under which Sarah Palin could be blamed for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — he deserves a portrait in the Hall of How We Got Trump.  No wonder he started writing again: it’s penance.

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The Flight 93 Presidency

Remember “The Flight 93 Election“?  This was the (in)famous essay in which “Publius Decius Mus” (now ensconced in Pres. Trump’s NSC) essentially posited the 2016 vote was between Trump and The Death of America.

What people tend to forget about the essay is that (like most of its genre) it was far more an attack on conservatives than an argument for Trump.  Publius mostly contended that if conservatives were sincere in their concerns, they must believe that America is headed off a cliff, and their failure to embrace Trump as the only viable alternative to the End Times revealed their insincerity and their lack of faith in their own philosophy.

Well, the GOP stormed the cockpit and put Trump in the pilot’s chair.  One of his first major acts as Pilot-in-Chief is throwing his weight behind the House GOP’s draft American Healthcare Act, also known as “please don’t call it Trumpcare, even though we’re calling it terrific.”

Even if it’s unfair to call it Obamacare 2.0 (there are, for example, some things to like in the Medicaid reform piece of the bill), Trumpcare is the legislation of pale pastels, not bold colors.  It does not even restore the pre-Obamacare status quo, which already had too much government distortion of the healthcare sector.

Trumpcare is nowhere near a proposal that reforms the healthcare and insurance industries in the way Republicans and conservatives have been arguing for years (even if they also argued about the details).  I also seriously doubt that “phase three” of the GOP healthcare agenda will significantly advance those goals, even if they manage to get it through the Senate.

Trumpcare is a classic case of the conservative critique of the Congressional GOP.  For years, the GOP has declared Obamacare a major step toward the death of the Republic (not an unfair point), but now has underdelived again, breeding more of the mistrust and cynicism that fueled Trump’s ascent to the White House.

The difference this time is that Trump is fully supporting this miquetoast mish-mosh.  Given his past statements that “[w]e’re going to have insurance for everybody” and “the government’s gonna pay for it,” that’s not surprising.

Trump’s endorsement of marginal tinkering, however, does put the lie to the so-called argument of Publius and those echoing his attacks.  For the Ever Trumpers, it appears that as the ground rushes upward toward the plane, pulling up five or ten degrees is perfectly acceptable, so long as Trump is in the pilot’s chair.

In fact, it’s worse than that.  Trump reportedly told leaders of conservative groups that if Trumpcare fails, his strategy will be to allow Obamacare to fail and let Democrats take the blame.  He’s apparently considered letting the plane crash, to the extent that he can get some political gain out of it.

The Ever Trumpers won’t object, because their apocalyptic pose is every bit as phony as their postmodern nihilism.  Flight 93 passengers they ain’t.

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The Trumpcare Strategy, Apparently, is Trump

I don’t know whether I’ll be spending each day on the ins and outs of the Trumpcare story.  But it is sort of nice to be reading and writing about something which resembles normal national politics, instead of a drunken rewrite of Three Days of the Condor.

The rocky rollout of the House GOP healthcare bill now seems to be looking for stabilizaion under the steady hand of… Pres. Trump.  The Donald, VP Mike Pence, Cabinet secretaries and others plan to barnstorm the country in support of the bill.

Meanwhile, House leadership is making the vote a binary choice (this is what the GOP does now) and are ready to bring in Trump as the “big gun” when needed.  Trump is said to be wooing conservative members of Congress, but the message being sent is that there will be no major changes to a draft disliked by most conservatives.

At the Washington Examiner, David Freddoso thinks the “you’re with us or against us” approach won’t work, but he doesn’t offer much in support of the assertion.  As I noted yesterday, House Republicans stand to lose if the bill fails, or if a bad bill passes.

As Ben Domenech noted yesterday in his newsletter, The Transom, the GOP will own whatever the healthcare sector looks like once they are done.  Health insurance in America has been getting dysfunctional since FDR gave unions tax-deductable employer-based coverage as a bone during WWII.  And it was made much worse in the years since Medicare was enacted.  Obamacare essentially removed the concept of insurance from health insurance.

The House GOP bill makes at least a half-step back from that quagmire, but nowhere near enough to undo what government has done.  Consequently, even before seeing CBO projections, we may well anticipate that what the GOP will own won’t be very popular.  Indeed, the complaint that the GOP should have been more interested in healthcare policy in years past fails to consider the obvious non-ideological political reality that caused GOP politicians to mostly complain at the margins.

It’s not all the GOP’s fault, of course.  Americans have become accustomed to demanding that health insurance not follow the laws of basic economics.  This as much as anything is responsible for the GOP’s ideological retreat from the outset.  This incoherence is also at the root of not only the antipathy for the bill from conservatives, but also the general lack of enthusiasm or constituency for the bill anywhere else.

Enter Trump as enforcer and salesman for a bill which in all probability, he doesn’t understand.  He merely understands the the necessity for “winning,” which is perhaps the only problem the bill solves.

Spoiler alert:  If the product is ultimately bad, Trump isn’t going to save it or the politicians who voted for it.  Much is made of Trump’s supposed salesmanship, but when he’s strong-arming Congresspeople, I hope they remember how Trump Steaks and Trump Water dominated the market for years and…oh, wait.

I also hope they remember that Pres. Obama told Dems in 2010 that the difference between then-upcoming midterms and the party’s 1994 debacle was “you’ve got me.”  What Dems had was a President with a hardcore base of fans who did not turn out when he wasn’t on the ticket.

The GOP now has Trump.  Perhaps it will be different this time.  If it is, it will be because the economy has improved, or ISIS is defeated, not because of whatever the GOP settles for in healthcare policy.

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Trumpcare Will Likely Pass. It Won’t Be Pretty.

Let’s start with tweets, then additional thoughts.

The Federalist’s co-founder Sean Davis:

I tend to agree with this.  It is basically how Obamacare was enacted.  But not exactly.

Pres. Obama began buying off “stakeholders” (affected industry groups) before there was draft legislation. This was a key difference from the way Hillary Clinton ran her failed healthcare task force in the1990s.

Also, while Obama did not submit a draft bill for Congress to consider, he had signaled his position on key issues, e.g., exchanges, acceptance of individual and employer mandates, and a possible “public option” competing with private insurers in the exchanges.

It does not appear that the House GOP consulted insurer or hospital groups, while a tweet from Pres. Trump panicked trading in pharma stocks.  The American Hospital Association issued a letter of opposition to the bill.

The AARP supported ObamaCare because it was trading off Medicare cuts for expanded coverage that was potentially quite lucrative for AARP.  The powerful seniors’ lobby is opposed to the House GOP proposal.

Meanwhile, the lack of coordination between the White House and Congress appears to extend to this first major legislative effort.  Indeed, on Monday, Trump claimed that “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” suggesting a certain lack of engagement with the subject.

VP Mike Pence told Congress that “this is the bill,” wile being “open to improvements.”  OMB Dir. Mike Mulvaney, otoh, is stressing the latter, though it seems as if he’s telling conservatives to propose amendments and daring them to vote against the bill if those amendments fail.  Unity!

There also seems to have been no outreach to conservative groups like Heritage, Americans For Prosperity, FreedomWorks, etc., who largely blasted the draft bill.  And the communications strategy seemed non-existent, as House leadership scrambled to explain that this proposal was only the first step or “phase.”

Absent these failures, the House GOP might not be in the position it is now.  Moreover, given Tuesday’s reaction, I would not assume the draft bill resembles an “okay final deal,” even if it might have been on Monday.

In addition, the general lack of White House guidance potentially distinguishes this effort from the Obamacare effort in another way.

With eight GOP Senators raising objections to various major provisions of the House proposal, there is the risk that the bill — or some disputed positions — will die in the Senate.  Some House members will be loath to climb out on a limb that may be sawed off.

This brings us to the unstated common denominator between Obamacare, which passed, and the BTU tax which died (and Hillarycare, and the 2009 cap-and-trade plan that died in the Senate).   Now that repeal/replace/repair/whatevs is on the table, Obamacare is finally sort of popular, albeit by only a few percent. In fairness, much depends on how you ask the question:

But even if you assume that support for O-care is rising in part because the Left now feels it can’t pout over not getting a single-payer system, some of it may also be from people fatigued with disruption of their healthcare arrangements, or those who don’t trust the government to make things better after falling for past promises.

It cannot have escaped the Congressional GOP’s notice that Congressional Dems once delivered on what they promised their base, ramming through a sweeping bill that altered a broad sector of our economy, only to be defenestrated by angry midterm voters.  It’s a big part of why many of those Republicans hold office today.

Running a similar game plan now has to be unnerving.  Arms will probably have to be twisted to the breaking point at the end of the process.  Getting the policy right, and the comms strategy right, and the coordination right would be helpful to those looking for nerve at the beginning.

UpdateThe AMA opposes the House bill.  There will be people who think that interest group opposition is a feature, not a bug.  It viscerally appeals to me as well.  But the White House and Congress aren’t making passing a bill any easier.  People generally trust their doctors, who will be hearing bad things from the AMA.  This is the sort of thing that helped doom Hllarycare.

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Conservatives Still Sorting Themselves in the Trump Era

A brief recap of where the sorting among conservatives stands now, then some additional thoughts.

Tevi Troy does a fairly nice job in laying out the broad strokes.  There are the Ever Trumpers, including those who focus on criticizing Pres. Tump’s critics and those trying to build an intellectual infrastructure for Trumpism.  There are the Conservative Trump Critics, including those implacably opposed to the Trump presidency and those picking their battles over specific issues.  And there are the Safe Space Conservatives, the anti-anti-Trumpers who (for various reasons) focus on attacking or criticizing Trump’s opponents and critics, but seemingly reluctant to affirmatively defend Trump.

Jonathan V. Last proposed a largely similar framework, adding the possibility of anti-anti-anti-Trumpers.  Last argues that perhaps the media and the professional Left are not qualitatively different than they have been in the past and that “focusing on the excesses of the anti-Trump forces means focusing on a meta-issue rather than the primary issue.”

Charles C. W. Cooke took issue with JVL’s seeming limitation of anti-Trumpers to those like David Frum who are concerned about being or becoming a soft authoritarian.

Cooke’s point is well-taken, especially since — as David French, no Trump fan, has pointed out, Trump is so far less authoritarian than Pres. Obama on a number of fronts.

Yet I don’t know that Cooke is correct in describing himself as anti-Trump, either.  He has taken the position that he will criticize Trump when he’s wrong (from a conservative perspective), praise him when he’s right, and keep a tally of each.  This is why I tend to prefer Troy’s admittedly less felicitous “Conservative Trump Critics.”

Even within that category, there will be some friction, but I would reconcile Troy and Last by noting that one group is essentially implacably opposed to the Trump presidency not only because of Trump’s occasional rhetorical nods toward authoritarianism, but also out of broader concerns regarding his character, seeming indifference to corruption (or the appearance thereof), and so forth.

I understand those concerns, which is why I keep referring to the possible Clinton scenario taking hold among the GOP and the conservative movement.  The Clintons — and the norms they destroyed in our politics — opened the door for the Trump administration.  It is not irrational to recoil at the thought of which doors Trump may open for future administrations.

Yet I find myself more in the second group of critics with Cooke and John Podhoretz (Troy’s example).  Trump is the President.  I can root for him to make conservative decisions and criticize the progressive ones.  As a populist — and a narcissist — he may respond to public opinion.  The longer-term consequences of his election are largely baked into the cake now, though they may hinge somewhat on how successful he is.

That key question of success brings me to the anti-anti-Trumpers.  Although I write media criticism from time to time, I want to stay out of this camp.  Here’s why.

Trump will either succeed or fail.  If Trump is successful, the odds are that conservatism will find itself even more marginalized in the GOP and our politics generally.  If Trump fails, the odds are that he will have damaged the only political party that represents conservatives (despite not being all that conservative already), thereby marginalizing conservatism as a political force.

I’m not That Guy who thinks people should be forced to state their opinions on everything, even people who have less excuse to avoid an opinion than, say, Taylor Swift.  And I don’t expect anti-anti-Trumpers should care whether they disappoint me.

But maybe some of them have children, or nieces and nephews.  If anti-anti-Trumpers really believe conservatism will make a better future, I wonder what their explanation to those kids would be for having said little about Trump when he’s wrong.  Perhaps something about the lesser of two evils.  After all, it’s never too early for cynicism.

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Sean Connery’s Advice on Trump, Russia, and Wiretapping

No, it’s not “one ping only.”

I considered really digging in on Pres. Trump’s allegation that fmr Pres. Obama wiretapped him, based on an article at Breitbart.  Although this article was based on old news stories, it was apparently all news to Trump, who then leapt to an accusation not fully supported by it.

Nevertheless, Trump’s claim served the political purpose of getting the right to focus more on the idea that the investigation(s) of contacts between people associated with his campaign may have been politically-motivated.  After all, the Obama administration abused its administrative and investigatory powers in other cases, so why not here?

My guess is that anyone reading this is already interested enough to have an opinion and that for me to add value, I would have to get very deeply into the weeds, perhaps mind-numbingly so.  Accordingly, I will try to add value by not talking about it.

Instead, I will observe that many of the people I see raising their blood pressure over this allegation (and the larger Trump/Russia narrative) tend to be at least eight years younger than I, and frequently considerably younger.  Of course, that may just reflect that I’m down with the kids.

People of that age generally have little direct and visceral memory of the time in which many conservatives thought Clinton White House Counsel Vince Foster was murdered.  Or that Pres. Clinton had some connection to a drug-running enterprise operating from Mena, Ark., and that there were mysterious deaths connected to it.

Conservatives were inclined to believe such things not only out of partisan passions, but also because the Clintons tended to be surrounded by a cloud of scandals.  The odds that Hillary Clinton turned $10,000 into $100,000 as a novice trader of cattle futures were indeed so astronomical as to defy belief.  There was evidence to suggest Hillary was involved in the firing and smearing of White House Travel Office employees in a classic bit of cronyism, even if the independent counsel declined to prosecute.

The independent counsel, however, did convict 15 people in the Whitewater scandal, including Bill and Hillary’s business partners in the the ill-fated real estate venture.  That investigation stalled when those same business partners, even after they were convicted, refused to discuss the Clintons’ role.

And there was Bill lying under oath in a sexual harassment case, the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom, and so on and so on and scooby dooby dooby.

The point is that when people have a shady track record, whether it be Clinton, Obama or Trump, partisans may be inclined to believe even crazy things about them.  Or at least believe them enough to want them investigated.

In fact, sometimes you don’t even need the shady track record.  I’m also old enough to recall when Very Serious People investigated whether George H. W. Bush flew in an SR-71 Blackbird jet to Paris to interfere with the Iranian hostage negotiations.  They also investigated whether he was involved in drug-running with the Contras in Nicaragua.  Apparently, if you have been director of the CIA, there is no limit to your capability for evil.

I mention this not to tell so many of those excited by the allegations against Trump or Obama to get off my lawn, Eastwood-style.  It is to observe that it is far different to have lived through the events described above than to hear or read about them.

People who have not been immersed in that sort of political climate may not understand the feeling of them.  They may not understand on an emotional level how easy it is to convince yourself that that things which seem crazy now seemed so much more reasonable to consider seriously at the time.

Given the track records of Trump and Obama, it may not be crazy to consider that there may be something (even if it’s a very soft version of the hysterics now) to the allegations against either man or their associates.  But maybe we’ll look back and — with the benefit of hindsight — conclude that some or all of it was indeed crazy.

What we do know is that there are investigations that will ultimately produce findings.  Regarding those results, as Sean Connery said as Jim Malone in The Untouchables: “Don’t wait for it to happen.  Don’t even want it to happen.  Just watch what does happen.”

Not that anyone will take that advice when there is punditry to be had.

Update: If you do want to get into the weeds on this issue, Stephen Hayes lays out what we know — and what we don’t know — at TWS.

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The Sessions Sessions and the Return of Fight Club

I started this blog in part to upload (and thus mentally offload) thoughts on the news of the moment, as such pieces often aren’t amenable to the editorial process for a freelancer.  Nevertheless, the past month of news — and the public reaction to the news — has been illuminating of certain broader themes in our politics.

The latest kerfuffle over Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking to Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the campaign, specifically the accuracy of his comments to the Senate Judiciary Cmte during his confirmation as AG, further illustrates one of the underlying problems with the politics of the Trump era.

This story, largely overhyped in Big Media, is not one of Sessions perjuring himself.  Viewing his comments on his contact with the Russians in context, they seem at worst to be unintentionally misleading, distinguishing his conversations as a Senator from his lack of contact in his capacity as a Trump campaign surrogate.

Based on the known record, if he’s guilty of anything, he’s guilty of the kind of sloppiness that did in fmr national security adviser Mike Flynn, minus the element of publicly embarrassing the Vice President.

All of that said, Sessions is entirely correct to recuse himself from any investigation of people who were part of a campaign for which he served as a surrogate.  This would be true even if his own contacts with Russians were not part of an investigation.

From the standpoint of legal ethics, recusal is a no-brainer.  It should be a no-brainer as a matter of politics and policy to oppose clear conflicts of interest (as the GOP rightly did in criticizing the Justice Dept’s approach to investigating Hillary Clinton).

Yet for many supposed righties on social media, and for some in Trump-friendly media, it is somehow not a no-brainer.  The sentiment from this bloc is: “Does the GOP not understand that their failure to fight is How We Got Trump?”

We’ve seen this before in the bloc of Trump primary voters who could always be found arguing asserting, “But he FIGHTS!”  We’ve seen it in the argumentum ad masculinum that elevates Donald Trump to the position of favored strongman.  It’s just metastasizing now.

The reason it is metastasizing is because the conservative movement, let alone the GOP, has become shallow and risks becoming the mirror image of the postmodern New New Left, right down to its substitution of entertainment for education and its valuation of power above all else.

The GOP’s failure to fight unwinnable battles and its treatment of politics as an exercise in making friends and influencing people — as opposed to an opportunity to punch opponents in the face — is Not How We Got Trump.

The key to Trump’s victory was in persuading people who voted once or twice for Obama.  These are people who are concerned about their financial situations and the health of their communities, not partisan food fights.  Trump won because of fatigue with the incumbent party, sluggish economic growth, concerns over terrorism, Democrats’ lack of concern for the white working class, and an awful opponent under FBI investigation.

As I also noted yesterday (and previously), Trump was was outpolled by most conventional GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate, most of whom weren’t saying inflammatory and ridiculous things, or picking fights that would disadvantage them against their opponents (most of whom weren’t as frightening to people as Hillary Clinton).

Moreover, the history of the last eight years is of an “in your face” President destroying his own party, while the supposedly cowardly opposition got as strong as it had been in almost a century.

People who don’t like CNN or the NYT were already inclined to vote Republican.  And I doubt anyone voted for Trump because they wanted Jeff Sessions to be a conflicted AG instead of Loretta Lynch being a conflicted AG.

Certainly, there are those who gravitated to Trump because of his pugnacious style and his political incorrectness.  But if GDP had been growing at 3% or better, ISIS had been routed, or Democrats had a better bench, Trump likely would have lost the Electoral College as well as the popular vote.  The narrative then would have been about how the GOP blew a fundamentally winnable race by nominating a toxic blowhard.

BTW, where was the “But he FIGHTS!” bloc after Trump’s address to Congress?  That was a speech aimed at softening his image.  Not very fighty.  Where was the criticism from the Fight Club about that speech?

The answer is that the speech went well, which gets counted as a win.  And the Fight Club is all about winning.  They often don’t much care about what they’re winning, or are reluctant to tell you what they think they’re winning, or can’t defend what they’re winning on the merits.  But contra Trump, they won’t ever tire of all the winning.

The losses, however small or however deserved, will be blamed on others, those who haven’t joined Fight Club.  It is an exercise in the Green Lanternism that infects partisans on both sides.  For those of you who are not comics nerds, the power of a Green Lantern is a manifestation of willpower.  Outside the comics, you usually don’t want to live under a system that is governed by the force of will.

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Resist the Trump Narratives

No, this is not about Russia.  It started out as a few further thoughts on Pres. Trump’s big speech and the reactions to it.  But as I realized those reactions are mostly a function of popular narratives about Trump, it became more interesting to write about narratives — Trump’s narratives in this case.

If you’re reading a political blog, I probably don’t have to tell you what a narrative is.  But if you’re young enough, you may not know the “narrative” is a concept imported from lit crit in the early oughts by some of the old school blogosphere to describe the overall framing political actors (including the media) build around the events of our times, generally to influence our perception of these events.

You are also aware that Trump’s opponents and harshest critics already have a narrative about his ascension and presidency that serves for the baseline of their continued opposition and criticism.  Conversely, Trump’s supporters — and some of the anti-anti-Trump right — have a counter-narrative that serves as their baseline.

Those trying to judge Trump’s rise and his governance on an issue-by-issue basis will receive static from both factions.  That static often plays out in a popular genre of sub-narrative titled “This is How You Got Trump.”

These narratives — including “This is How You Got Trump” — leave out a lot of fairly recent history.

We have quickly forgotten that 2016 involved the Democrats trying to retain control of the presidency for a “third term,” a feat accomplished precisely once (in 1988) since the enactment of the 22nd Amendment.

We tend to gloss over the fact that real GDP increased 1.6 percent in 2016, far below growth in 1988 and below what will generally keep a party in control of the White House. We might note in passing our foreign policy woes, but forget they’re much worse than they were in 1988, when the Reagan administration had put into place the polices that would win the Cold War.

In short, the fundamentals pointed to a classic “change” election.  Even the New York Times figured this out before the election.  And we may remember it from time to time, but it’s not part of either of the clashing Trump narratives.

We were surprised by Trump’s strength in the Rust Belt and upper Midwest; we thought much less about Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin having unified GOP governments headed into the election.  Hillary Clinton also missed that memo, despite the fact that the Democratic Party has been conceding working-class white voters since her husband first won the presidency.

Hillary decided to run as the candidate of the Obama coalition, but she was not the nation’s first black President, and not nearly as natural a campaigner.  She should have considered she might perform more like John F. Kerry in key Midwestern battlegrounds and campaigned accordingly.

Hillary’s incompetence on that point was merely the sprinkles — albeit necessary sprinkles — on her cupcake of failure.  She carried more negative baggage than any other major-party candidate in modern history, excepting Trump on some items.  But Trump, even with his myriad flaws, wasn’t under FBI investigation.

All of this was much-discussed in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s surprise outcome.  And none of it is to discount Trump’s accomplishments, his appeal to the white working class, his dogged campaigning in key states down the stretch when even his campaign doubted his chances, and so on.

But most of it does not find its way into the competing narratives about Trump, which now imagine him to be either Gozer the Destructor who will lay waste to the countryside or the Populist Colossus remaking the GOP and forever altering the trajectory of American politics.  Either one of those scenarios could come to pass, but he’s also the guy who was outpolled by most conventional GOP Senate candidates and the average GOP House candidate.

Of course, Trump does wield a great deal of power and influence as President, so the reactions are not irrational.  But even a Pres. Trump is unlikely to prove to be the Destructor or the Colossus.  Our reactions are exaggerated and distorted by our tendency to build narratives.

People subscribing to one narrative or the other would do well to acknowledge there are some elements of truth in both, and that there is much excluded from both.

I would urge people to abandon their reliance on narratives, but this would be as silly as people urging the abandonment of religion, or nationalism, or any number of things that are part of the human experience.  It would be profoundly unconservative to ignore human nature in that way.

People love telling and hearing stories.  We love it in politics as an agent of influence.  We love it in media because we understand our attraction to drama.  We love it in life because stories help us understand and organize a complex and often chaotic world.

Indeed, the story of Trump disturbs people in no small part because it challenged or seemingly disproved the narratives that many relied upon to organize and explain their politics and their world.  Conversely, those happiest with Trump’s victory are happy their narratives were confirmed, even if our complex and chaotic world might suggest those narratives are as fragile as those supposedly disproven.

There’s no chance people will abandon their love of narratives, particularly when confronted with the story of the reality TV star who becomes President.  But we can strive to remember that even compelling narratives almost inherently leave out many messy complications in favor of confirming our priors.

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My Cold Take on Trump’s Joint Session

[Given the somewhat time-sensitive nature of the subject, I thought I’d launch this posting early.]

As advertised (and predicted by me), Pres. Trump’s first address to a joint session of Congress was designed to present him as warmer and fuzzier, and thereby give his poll ratings a needed boost.  On that level, I agree with the conventional wisdom that mission was accomplished.

It was Trump’s most conventional and presidential hour by a long shot.  Clearly, he’s also been practicing with the TelePrompTer, even hitting notes outside his usual comfort zone.  That’s not a surprise.  Trump is a showman and salesman.  He is at heart the guy who cares that his hotel lobbies impress more than his financials.

Speaking of financials, Amanda Carpenter had it pegged well in advance:

Amy Walter sums it up:

And Ben Domenech (publisher of The Federalist, where you can find my more formal work):

I’m of two or three minds, all of which tend to disagree with that very last point.

As someone who is primarily a fiscal conservative, it has been painfully clear to me for some time that the GOP is not very fiscally conservative.  Carpenter’s point about “compassionate conservatism” is well-taken.  Even after the Tea Party, the GOP rank and file has not been much interested in cutting any government spending, let alone actual big ticket items like entitlement programs.

Rather, it is conservative elite opinion — the editors at National Review, House Speaker Paul Ryan, etc. — which is interested in fiscal conservatism.  Limited-government conservatives within the Beltway, or the Acela corridor, got a rude awakening about where the GOP really is on these issues in 2016.  I urged people to co-opt Trump’s issues early on precisely because I have been more of a cynic about this for decades, and more critical of the GOP’s management of its base.

From my perspective, therefore, Trump’s ascension doesn’t represent much of a realignment because, when empowered, the GOP tends to be fiscally responsible only by comparison to the Democrats.

Beyond the GOP, conservative elite opinion has not realigned.  It remains split.  The talk show hosts and West Coast Straussians will look to back him.  Others will be critics in whole or in part.  Still others — the anti-anti-Trump bloc Jonah Goldberg labelled “safe space conservatives” — will avoid criticism and support of Trump in favor of criticizing his opposition.

Moreover, I have previously argued that a heterodox president like Trump does not really change the alignment of his party.  The issue is whether Trump can make the GOP more comfortable in its lack of fiscal discipline.  If he’s an otherwise successful president like Reagan, he will for a while.  If he drives the party into a ditch, as many GOPers think George W. Bush did, he will not.

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The Most Important Part of Trump’s “Not the State of the Union” Speech

Tonight, Pres. Trump delivers his first address to a joint session of Congress (tradition dictates that it is not a SotU because such speeches are ostensibly evaluating the past year, which newly-elected Presidents are discouraged from doing).  To understand the most important thing about this address, review the data presented by Charles Franklin, a co-developer of the HuffPo’s Pollster site and Director of the Marquette Law school poll:

I have seen folks on the right take heart from the latest WSJ/NBC News poll, which has relatively good numbers for the GOP, indicates that people are hopeful about the direction of the country, and even finds that a bare majority thinks the media has been too critical of Trump (here’s my prior posting on that last subject).  But that hopeful mood ultimately will wax or wane depending on Trump’s performance.

The WSJ/NBC poll numbers for Trump himself fall pretty much at the average of the current polling and he remains a few points underwater.  People will say those are good numbers… for Trump.  It’s not clear voters will be grading on a curve as we go forward.

Maybe I’m presenting an overly gloomy portrait of Trump’s political position.  But take a look at the “bullet points” the administration sent the media in advance of the speech (and compare them to the goals Trump counselor Stephen Bannon set forth at CPAC).

What you don’t see in those bullet points is much about Trump’s signature issues of immigration and trade. This despite Trump inviting families of victims of illegal immigrant felons to attend (perhaps to offset the immigrants and refugees Dems invited).

What you do see is an emphasis on basic GOP issues like tax reform and Obamacare.

What you also see promoted is a speech “that crosses the traditional lines of party, race and socioeconomic status.”  One that will emphasize “[m]aking the workplace better for working parents” and “[m]aking sure every child in America has access to a good education.”  Trump is also expected to “reach out to Americans living in the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and let them know that help is on the way.”

This is the sort of messaging the Trump camp brings out when it thinks it is in trouble.  For example, the childcare tax credit championed by Ivanka Trump was emphasized as The Donald was headed into the GOP convention, and again during the final week of the race.  The only other time it got attention was when Ivanka had a dust-up about it with Cosmopolitan magazine.

This speech, as advertised, is the soft Trump — the one ostensibly humanized by association with his kids, the one marketed when the Trump camp is trying to appeal to suburban white women.

Of course, the speech will be delivered by Trump, which means the advertised speech may get skipped in favor of another defense of the size of his Inaugural audience, an attack on the media, or his opinion of whatever stories appear on Fox & Friends this morning.

But the advance spin on the address tells us a bit about how the White House views its current political position.  And that’s the most important part of the speech.

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