This is Not a New Year’s Resolution. It’s Bragging.

To begin with, most resolutions tend not to last beyond January 18 or thereabouts, so why pretend?  But perhaps more important, I had originally planned to start 2018 by resolving to write less about Pres. Trump, and it turns out I don’t need to.

The joke — or rationalization — was going to be that however much i wrote about Trump in 2017, it was less than most.  After all, this was your Online News:

…and this was your Online News on Trump:

From there, it’s an easy cruise to note that the ever-narcissistic Trump is likely as much or more to blame for this as the media, and that Trump is also right to note that the media has an interest in feeding his narcissism and some of his consequent political success.  I noted back during the campaign that the media helped ensure his nomination, even as he remained desperate for their respect.

But over the weekend, I did a self-audit of WHRPT for 2017 and was pleasantly surprised at how little I wrote about Trump qua Trump.  I was better than I remembered at limiting my commentary on Trump’s antics to those situations where I believed they interfered with his own political success.

I mention this humblebrag (or not-so-humblebrag) mostly because I’ve noticed that the most anti-Trump folks on the right focus primarily and increasingly on his character issues.  While I believe electing someone of Trump’s character likely has longer-term consequences, I have mostly tried to examine those issues from the perspective of their current political impact, e.g., how it affects his performance as head of state as opposed to head of government.

To be sure, Trump has appeared in the title of many of my posts, but I was more successful than I thought in keeping him the subtext of my real interests in how the GOP and the conservative movement (and occasionally even the Democrats) have adapted to his election.

In this regard, I was pretty early to the idea that a Trump administration wasn’t going to be revolutionary.  And this was the conclusion used by Trump supporters to reassure people as we ended 2017.

I was even earlier to the idea that a heterodox president like Trump would present to sort of problems for the GOP that Carter and Clinton presented to the Dems — and we’ve seen both types of issues.  We’ve seen the dysfunctional relationship between the White House and Congress (though I’ve argued that even beyond the tax bill, Congress helped more than the conventional wisdom suggests).  And we’ve seen the GOP apparat caught up in defending not only Trump at his worst moments, but also candidates like Roy Moore.

Some of my longer-term arguments likely won’t be resolved for years.  For example, I still think conservatives likely are better off working within the GOP than trying to form a third party.  And I still think the Russia probe is mostly a sideshow not worth the amount of time partisans are devoting to it.  My additional observation that partisans would ignore that last bit of advice has proven out, however, so I may write a bit more about that tomorrow.

Beyond tomorrow?  The obvious political story of the year will be the midterms.  I’ll probably be trying to come up with ways of discussing that story that aren’t rote punditry and aren’t hot takes.  And I hope you’ll stick around to see how it goes.

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The Other Problem of Grading Trump’s 2017

Yesterday, I addressed some of the problems with some of the analyses grading Pres. Trump’s 2017 as compared to a baseline of conservative expectations.  Today, I want to note that this isn’t the only baseline from which to grade Trump.

After all, Trump is a heterodox figure whose populist and nationalist impulses are often credited as major factors in his upset 2016 victory.  And it is difficult to grade Trump against that sort of baseline, in no small part because of the manner in which Trump campaigned.

It was famously said during the 2016 campaign that the media was (improperly) taking Trump literally whereas his core voters were taking him seriously.  But what did that really mean, other than that some treated Trump the way some Democrats treated Obama in 2007, as a “blank slate” upon which to project their ideal candidate?

Take immigration as an example.  During the campaign, Trump pushed the idea of a border wall to be paid for by Mexico.  Then again, he also floated proposals including everything from a mass deportation effort not seen since the Eisenhower administration to a “touchback amnesty” that would have been the worst of all worlds, disrupting lives and providing a broad amnesty for illegal immigrants.  How does one grade against something that incoherent?

Let’s assume that most of Trump’s base wanted a wall and assumed Mexico would not fund it.  It seems as though this is no longer one of Trump’s top priorities and that the proposals for enhanced border security won’t always take the form of a wall.  He also seems amenable to some sort of amnesty for so-called “Dreamers,” at least if he can get other immigration reforms in return.

Border crossings — which have been decreasing since roughly 2000, with a slight reversal during Pres. Obama’s second term — plunged during the transition period, but have been increasing since midyear.  Immigration enforcement in the interior has increased, though overall deportations are down (in part because of decreases in border crossings, in part because of backlogged immigration courts Trump is just beginning to address).

Will his base accept that record, and should that even factor into grading from a campaign baseline?

Similarly, consider Trump’s foreign policy, which has been praised recently by Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman and National Review’s David French, both conservatives and not particular fans of Trump.  Given their general dispositions, one might think that aspects of Trump’s foreign policy (from his Afghan strategy to formally recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel) should be disappointing the less hawkish parts of Trump’s base.  But you don’t hear many complaints, again raising the question of what the fuss was about last year.

To be sure, conservatives and populists alike may credit Trump for having ousted ISIS from Mosul and Tal Afar, even if this is not quite the total victory some have proclaimed.  But the policy at issue was more in continuity with Obama administration strategy than Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  Again, on this subject Trump made neo-Jacksonian threats about “bombing the oil and taking the oil” which no one could have taken literally given that the steps should be reversed at a minimum.  Yet Trump also engaged in a seemingly isolationist critique that’s not being followed in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

This is the difficulty in grading from a baseline of word salad.  But in a basic way, this is the same problem identified yesterday, which is that Trump’s biggest supporters are mostly interested in crediting Trump with victories more than assessing his actions against any particular metrics.

Lastly, the grading attempted yesterday and today revolves around policy.  Undoubtedly, there are Trump fans who give him high marks for the culture war stuff, for attacking the NFL and the media.

I understand that reaction.  I have written about the totalitarian politicization of everything, including sports media.  And I’ve written plenty of media criticism over the past dozen years or so.  So I would understand Trump fans giving him high marks for this unique conception of the job of head of state (even if the media was already widely distrusted as an institution).

I will note, however, that these supposed victories are even more temporary than some of the regulatory rollback for which Trump is taking credit.  As I’ve noted previously, the right (or anti-left) seems destined to find out the hard way that legislating structural reform is far more long-lasting than most of what either Trump or the GOP Congress have managed to accomplish in 2017.

And with that, barring sudden inspiration I think I’ll return after the New Year.  Celebrate well, but safely.

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How to Grade Trump’s 2017

It seems like grading Pres. Trump’s 2017 is a popular topic, so I thought it might be useful to think about how he’s being graded and whether the emerging conventional wisdom might be less than 100% accurate.

The general sense seems to be that Trump has exceeded conservatives’ expectations, while the GOP-led Congress has underperformed. Many of the analyses are based around the premise (stated or unstated) that Trump has performed better where the executive has more freedom of action and that his bigger losses are mostly the fault of the legislative branch.

At the outset, given how bottom-of-the-barrel many conservatives’ expectations were, it seems to me that Trump is still being treated like a toddler even by people who have generally been supportive of him.  And the condescension ironically tends to diminish his real accomplishments.

Conversely, the CW also tends to exaggerate some of those real accomplishments, at the expense of Congress.  This doesn’t mean the basic thrust of the CW is wrong so much as that it may be a wee bit distorted.

As a prime example, take Trump’s judicial nominations, esp. the nomination of now-Justice Neil Gorsuch.  In 2017, “But Gorsuch!” was the Trump supporter’s first handy retort to any criticism of the administration.

Virtually never mentioned is that Gorsuch never would have been nominated but for a unified GOP Senate GOP caucus led by the oft-maligned Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.  Had the 2016 election ended as most — including Trump — thought it would, Trump backers would have vilified McConnell for giving Pres. Hillary Clinton her instant legacy instead of accepting Pres. Obama’s lame duck pick (which would have been withdrawn the day after the election).  The once-conservative populist radio talkers would have blamed the Kentucky RINO for having joined in the Democrats’ plot against Real ‘Merica.

Instead, McConnell & Co. gambled that blocking Obama’s pick would energize turnout for Trump and Senate GOP candidates and it paid off.  Yet the crowd that likes to blame McConnell for backing the incumbent Senate candidate in Alabama and the voters’ nomination of the execrable Roy Moore never says “But Gorsuch!” in his defense.  Funny that.

Nevertheless, the populist POTUS has worked well with the elitists at the Federalist Society and he deserves his share of the credit for understanding how important this is to conservatives. (Perhaps the partisan behavior of the lower courts toward him reinforced this impulse.)

Or consider regulatory rollback, another of the top two or three achievements cited in the upbeat assessments of the Trump administration.  This should not be understated because Republicans have always been averse to regulation, but it’s a subject on which GOP opposition has approached or exceeded decades-old high-water marks in recent years.  I suspect this is due to Obama’s environmental agenda and his decision to try to rule through regulatory fiat after losing Congress in 2010, though the reason doesn’t matter so much here as the weight Republicans have been placing on the topic.

New regulations have slowed to a relative crawl in 2017, which is to the credit of Trump and his team.  But their claims are exaggerated to the extent that they rely on proposed rules that were not under active consideration.  To date, most of the major rollbacks (as opposed to proposed rollbacks working their own way through the administrative process) are regs nullified under the Congressional Review Act.   I fully credit Trump with signing these Congressional resolutions, but the president’s cheerleaders seem to have missed the large role played by Congress on this front in 2017.

There are other rollbacks of “guidance” from the Obama administration on subjects like the kangaroo courts used to decided campus sexual assault cases.  But even here, more work will need to be done.  What we have is a good start, but it’s too soon to be putting Trump ahead of Reagan on the deregulatory front (as some have suggested).

On various issues, Trump is also getting praise for punting various issues back to Congress.  One example would be a possible immigration amnesty for so-called “Dreamers” who were brought here as children.  Another example would be the imposition of sanctions on Iran on Trump’s decertification of Obama’s nuclear deal.

As a constitutionalist, I can applaud Trump for returning issues that ought to be within the purview of Congress to that branch.  As an observer of the presidency, I also note that Trump does not seem to be pushing his preferred policy positions when Congress considers these issues.  Trump would likely prefer a Dreamer amnesty but dares not say so publicly.  And neither Trump nor Congress pushed to reimpose sanctions on Iran within 60 days, thereby greatly reducing the odds that such sanctions can become law.

I have also seen Trump supporters cheer the increase in defense spending that is of course the work of Congress.  And very few Trump supporters have acknowledged that Trump’s defense budget did not even propose funding the infrastructure or training necessary to build the 350-ship Navy on which Trump campaigned.

I have further seen Trump credited with success on the tax bill and the included repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, when his primary contribution was not blowing it up (as he reportedly almost did by demanding an 18% corporate tax rate).  I would probably be more charitable here if Trump’s flacks did not insist on blaming Congress entirely for the failure of healthcare reform in 2017.  Congress deserves its share of the blame for such failures, but it also deserves its share of the credit for successes and Trump’s fans seem quite bad at this sort of accounting.

It is true that as a political matter, Trump will get the lion’s share of the credit for legislative success, because the public is used to viewing issues through the lens of the imperial presidency.  OTOH, Trump’s fans largely avoid the degree to which Trump’s 2017 is not seen as a political success, or the degree to which he is placing the GOP Congress in danger for 2018.

It is a tribute to tribalism that so many will reject the trends emerging from public opinion polling and election results suggesting that a man who sold himself as a master of deal-making and branding has proven almost completely inept in both departments.  They will dismiss as aesthetics the concerns that most Americans have over Trump’s poor performance as head of state (as opposed to head of government).  They will dismiss polling because it’s easier to be ignorant about probability than face a hostile political environment.

And if the GOP loses control of Congress, they will entirely blame Congress, not Trump… and certainly not themselves for failing to make the preparations that might have helped mitigate the damage.  Such is the danger of a conventional wisdom that underestimates how many of Trump’s successes were due in whole or part to those awful jerks in Congress.

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“I Believe in America”: Liner Notes on The Godfather

The Federalist ran my column, “We Can’t Stop Watching ‘The Godfather’ Because It’s Not Cynical About America,” as people were preparing for the holidays.  And by “people,” I mean me, so here are my usual additional thoughts and deleted tangents, however tardy.

The column was largely inspired by Kyle Smith’s retrospective at National Review.  He intentionally narrowed his focus to the notion of justice in the film.  I largely agree with it as far as it goes.  And I understand that he may have been tired of “big picture” takes on the film.

But Smith also addresses in passing this idea of left and right having different takes on The Godfather, as well as the notion that it depicts a “parody” of the American Dream.  It occurred to me that the former was in some tension with the latter (and that left-right is not the only factor that may cause people to enjoy the film differently from each other).

While directorial intent is not the be-all, end-all of film crit, Coppola’s audio commentaries of these films pointed toward the idea that he was presenting much more than a critique of American society or capitalism.  Also, in some of the documentaries in the various Godfather box sets, we see the genuine affection Italian-Americans — and those of mixed cultural heritage — have for Coppola’s other themes that had nothing to do with the mafia or social commentary.

Accordingly, I felt it was important to argue that The Godfather is a great piece of art (or entertainment at a minimum) because it touches upon deep subjects, but through a lens of human experience that necessarily does not adhere to a particular ideology.  To the extent that its themes can serve as a metaphor for the American experience, the left can judge the Corleones as having this corrupt and cynical core which will preclude them from ever “going legit.”  The right can appreciate that — mafia context aside — all humans are fallen, that “legit” may be a utopian ideal, and that the struggles and failures in trying to get there over the course of generations are what gives our lives meaning.

Moreover, it was worth looking at the film as a bit of an exercise in nostalgia, because the further we get from its initial release, the less likely we are to recognize that it was nostalgic even upon its release.  And as Don Draper once noted, nostalgia is “delicate, but potent” in a way that can create a sentimental bond with the underlying product.

This organic complexity is a significant reason The Godfather endures.  It is in this sense that Joe Fox is correct in telling Kathleen Kelly that The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom.  It may have all the answers, but they are all answers open to interpretation.

Lastly, coming full circle, I’ll note that when Smith and Ross Douthat discussed Smith’s piece during their new podcast, Projections, Douthat offered a structural reason for why the film is so compelling.  He correctly notes that for all of the other things The Godfather is, it is also a fairly relentless succession of set pieces built around action and suspense.  That the film also works so well on this level, leading to a savage climax that improves upon the book (in which the reprisals are not synchronized), only underscores how the movie’s multi-faceted nature made it a classic.

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Identity Politics Is Not Politics

One of the ugliest features on the landscape of American politics today is the increasing influence of so-called identity politics.  Yet most of the discussion of this topic merely alludes to or misses a central point: identity politics is not politics.

When we think of politics, we tend to think along the lines of Max Weber: “Politics is the art of compromise.”  Or we tend to think along the lines of Carl von Clausewitz’s definition of war as “the continuation of policy with additional means.”  But these concepts are largely foreign to identity politics, or what might be better termed identitarianism.

Mark Lilla, author of The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, partially grasps the point in discussing the legacy of the New Left:

The real story is that the 1960s generation passed on to students a particular conception of what politics is, based on its idiosyncratic historical experience.

The experience of that era taught the New Left two lessons. The first was that movement politics was the only mode of engagement that changes things (which once was true but no longer is). The second was that political activity must have some authentic meaning for the self, making compromise seem a self-betrayal (which renders ordinary politics impossible).

That final parenthetical (missing from an earlier, similar Lilla op-ed) is the real key to understanding identitarianism and its implications.  After all, if identitarians are limited to viewing any disagreement as an expression of white supremacy, the patriarchy, and so forth, how much compromise can there be?

Moreover, the rise of identitarianism is destroying movement politics, even as it assumes the appearance of movement politics, not unlike an Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  As Lilla acknowledges, “With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self.

Why does identity politics ultimately displace movement politics?  As Anis Shivani suggests, identitarianism is a world view that runs contrary to an “Enlightenment perspective of universal human rights irrespective of one’s biological identity.”  The most successful social movements in American history built upon this universalist foundation; identitarianism rejects this foundation.

An uncompromising obsession with identity leads to the conclusion that the American experiment is irredeemably corrupt.  The results are predictably illiberal and no more visible than on the university campuses with which Lilla is primarily concerned.

For example, if your world view does not allow for compromise and those who disagree with you are simply evil (or the dupes of evil), what need is there for freedom of speech or debate?  Why should universities or the outside world tolerate ideas that are hateful, or simply uncomfortable?  And if certain ideas cannot be debated at universities, why would they be tolerated off-campus?

Moreover, as debate and compromise have no place in the identitarian toolbox, it is no surprise that identitarians begin to perceive no difference between speech and violence.  This is implicit wherever identitarians choose to replace politics with a culture “war.”  If war is politics with additional means but debate and compromise are excluded, what remains is coercion and violence.

As I am fond of noting, Adam Gopnik once observed in The New Yorker:

It is not merely that an assault on an ideology is different from a threat made to a person; it is that it is the opposite of a threat made to a person. The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.”

Gopnik was describing the Islamist reaction to and attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.  But what is radical Islamism if not an extreme, uncompromising form of identitarianism?
Conversely, as Michael Lind argues:

[I]dentitarians are reviving the preliberal, premodern religious approach to society, conceived of as a congregation of the virtuous and like-minded. Either you are a true believer or you are a heretic. There can be no compromise with wicked people, and the chief measure of wickedness is not action *** but expressing disapproved attitudes and refusing to use ritualized politically-correct language.”

People instinctively understand this, which is why, for example Andrew Sullivan’s column asking “Is Intersectionality a Religion?” went viral.  In Sullivan’s case, intersectionality attempts to supply the rituals and supporting dogma for a particular form of fundamentalism.

In short, what we call identity politics has far more in common with religion than politics, and its consequences resemble the intolerance and inquisitions of fundamentalism when allowed to run amok.

The criticisms I have linked in this column are criticisms of left-wing identitarians made by people politically left of center.  This was intentional and primarily for two reasons.

First, while identitarianism is chiefly criticized from the Right, it is important to recognize the potential for bipartisan efforts to curb the pernicious effects of so-called identity politics.

Second, if left-wing identitarianism is being criticized from the Left, the Right must be willing to face nascent identitarianism within the ranks.  Shivani, conservative theorists of How You Got Trump, and any number of political scientists have noted that the race-consciousness of left-wing identity politics has been met with a reaction of right-wing, white identity politics.

(Lind mistakenly believes that Republican litmus tests on issues like abortion are the Right’s real problem, overlooking that abortion is a de facto litmus test for both parties, but only became one after our Supreme Court effectively removed the question from the sphere of debate and compromise.  Also, his essay predates the tragic street fighting between white nationalists and the antifa in Charlottesville, an event which might have caused him to rethink his premise.)

If left unaddressed, these forms of identity politics will wind up in the same dead end of illiberalism and violence.  Such is the “logic” of identitarianism.  And if the Right cannot commit to the introspection of people like Lilla and Shivani, the odds of building coalitions to avoid that dead end will be greatly diminished.

[Note: This may be my final posting until after Christmas.  If so, enjoy the season!]

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Will Democrats Destroy Our Democracy?

That’s a clickbaity title, but no less so than “Will Donald Trump Destroy the Presidency?,” which is the title stuck on Jack Goldsmith‘s recent essay at The Atlantic.  It’s a piece that’s occasionally surprising, but ultimately depressing for reasons inside and outside its text.

It’s a longread, largely rehashing and often overhyping familiar concerns about Pres. Trump trampling various norms of his office; some of the concerns are more valid than others.  Goldsmith writes with some degree of relief that Trump’s impulses have often been checked by other institutions, including the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the GOP-controlled Congress, and the media.

Tucked into this thesis, however, is criticism of some of these institutions that you don’t always see at The Atlantic.  For example, in discussing the bureaucracy’s widespread and coordinated anti-Trump leaks of classified information and intelligence intercepts, Goldsmith observes:

These norm violations are an immune response to Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community. But the toll from the leaks has been significant and may outlast the Trump presidency. Although a future president likely won’t find advantage in following Trump’s example, intelligence officials who have discovered the political power of leaking secretly collected information about Americans may well continue the practice. A world without norms to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information about U.S. citizens is not just a world in which Michael Flynn is revealed as a liar and removed from office. It is also a world in which intelligence bureaucrats repeat the trick for very different political ends that they deem worthy but that might not be.

Or consider Goldsmith’s assessment of how lower-court judges handled Trump’s so-called travel ban:

The judges had many avenues to rule against Trump on many issues, especially with regard to the first order. They had plenty of reasons to be angry or defensive because of his tweeted attacks. But they neglected principles of restraint, prudence, and precedent to rule against him across the board based on what seemed to many a tacit determination that the just-elected president lacked legitimacy on immigration issues. 

If judges were to continue such behavior for four or eight years, judicial norms and trust in the judiciary might take a serious hit. But there are reasons to think this won’t happen. Federal judges sit in a hierarchical system with the Supreme Court at the top. The highest court in the land doesn’t just overrule lower-court legal decisions; it can also model proper judicial behavior. This is what the Supreme Court did in its opinion in late June announcing that it would review the lower-court decisions about Trump’s second immigration order. The nine justices rarely agree on any issue of importance. But they unanimously ruled that, at a minimum, the lower-court injunctions were too broad and had failed to take his national-security prerogatives seriously enough.”

And Goldsmith worries even more about the partisanship of the media:

[W]hile Trumpism has been good for the media business, it has not been good for overall media credibility. An Emerson College poll in February indicated that more voters found Trump to be truthful than the news media, and a Suffolk University/USA Today poll in June concluded that the historically unpopular president still had a slightly higher favorability rating than the media. Trump is not just discrediting the mainstream news, but quickening changes in right-wing media as well. Fox News Channel always leaned right, but in the past year several of its programs have become open propaganda arms for Trump. And sharply partisan outlets like Breitbart News and The Daily Caller have grown in influence among conservatives. 

‘Does it ever go back?’ chief White House correspondent Peter Baker asked his [New York] Times colleagues. ‘Have we changed something in a fundamental way in terms of the relationship between the person in the White House, people in power, and the media?’ The answers to those questions are no and yes, respectively. The media have every incentive to continue on their current trajectories. And because Trump’s extreme media-bashing is perceived to have served him relatively well, other Republicans will likely perpetuate his strategy. Many on the right increasingly agree with a point Ron Unz, the influential former publisher of The American Conservative, made in a memo last year. ‘The media is the crucial force empowering the opposition and should be regarded as a primary target of any political strategy,’ Unz wrote. ‘Discrediting the media anywhere weakens it everywhere.’

As much as I appreciate Goldsmith’s gesture toward even-handedness, I still left the essay a bit depressed for at least three reasons.  First, I doubt few regular readers of The Atlantic will take these points to heart; they’re already working on their personal articles of impeachment.  Second, I doubt few conservatives will read the essay, not least because it was published at The Atlantic.  Third, I suspect many conservatives would dismiss Goldsmith’s effort to call out Trump’s adversaries when they go too far, given that FNC and talk radio have already moved on to theories about a soft coup and the FBI being like the KGB.

In short, I suspect Goldsmith is largely preaching to no one, as the rival choirs have no interest in listening.

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Star Wars, Episode 8.5: Attack of the Rotten Tomatoes

People liked the non-spoilery thoughts on The Last Jedi, so here’s a brief follow-up.  There’s also some politics involved below, for those of you fearing I’m straying.

Some people are wondering about the seeming chasm between critical opinion and audience opinion on TLJ as registered at Rotten Tomatoes.  Currently, the topline scores are 93% from critics and 56% from the audience.  But that gap probably isn’t as large as those numbers suggest.

For starters, the topline numbers are a raw count of positive vs negative reactions.  The actual “score” from critics is 8.2/10, while the audience is at 3.3/5.  The difference between 82 and 66 is significant, but not as large as the topline suggests.

Second, some speculate that there’s some sort of concerted trolling effort afoot.  Perhaps, though with almost 100,000 audience comments it seems like an effort on that scale would have been detected.

The answer here probably doesn’t require an organized effort.  As I suggested on Friday, there seems to be the sense among some fans of the franchise that people overloved The Force Awakens and that TFA hasn’t aged well.  TLJ may be paying the price among this group.

Next, there are casual Star Wars fans — and ordinary moviegoers who may have enjoyed the level of fan service in the prior episode (including the triumphant ending) and like this one less by comparison, especially without Han Solo on the scene.  It’s a version of the larger “Act II” problem that originally beset The Empire Strike Back, which divided critics and fans alike initially.  TLJ is no TESB, of course.  But the principle may be the same.

Then there’s the basic dynamic of the internet and the attention economy that forces polarization.  People won’t spend time expressing their opinions on the ‘net unless they both care and believe that others need to be exposed to them (myself included).  Famed Star Wars nerd Kevin Smith understood this years ago.  The fanboi/gurl vs hater dynamic of the internet era may have finally reached what was thought to be an untouchable part of pop culture.

In this regard, note that TLJ received an “A” CinemaScore and high marks from similar survey services.  These services have a plus and a minus.  The plus is that we know these respondents — unlike those chiming in on Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic — actually saw the movie.  The minus is that these are people who wanted to see TLJ right away and invested money in enjoying themselves.  Again, TLJ is not an “A” installment in this franchise, let alone an “A” movie.

My guess would be that audiences are enjoying it more than Rotten Tomatoes suggests, but perhaps less than CinemaScore suggests once they’ve had time to reflect on it.  We really don’t know.

Furthermore, the general sort of fanboi/gurl vs hater dynamic may be getting fueled in part by politics.  Some conservatives have been tough on the movie (quasi-spoiler warning) and some progressives immediately knee-jerked their way into hot takes about the right being racist, sexist, etc.

Most of the conservative critiques of TLJ have nothing to do with identity politics.  There is some Social Justice Star Warfare going on in TLJ, primarily in the Finn and Poe plotlines.  But the problems conservatives have with these plotlines generally do not address the politics, despite the fact that they arguably are one source of the film’s weaknesses.

For example, I have seen conservatives critique the effect of Finn’s plotline on the overall narrative, rather than on the politics of that plotline.  But one wonders whether the politics are there to shore up the weakest parts of the film.  Were I progressive, I might ask why Finn gets saddled with this plotline; doesn’t he (and we) deserve better?

Similarly, in Poe’s relationship with Vice Admiral Holdo, I’ve generally seen conservatives take Poe’s side and progressives take Holdo’s.  But the nature of the drama there would largely exist regardless of the sexes of the characters (there is one scene suggesting sexism as an issue here).

Indeed, as The Federalist’s Ben Domenech suggested on Twitter, the end of Holdo’s arc would have been more meaningful if played by Admiral Ackbar.  Maybe that entire plotline would have played better with Ackbar (keeping Leia constant in this scenario), which again raises the issue of whether politics diminished the film’s drama.

Ironically, conservatives seem happiest with Rey’s plotline, despite Rey coming into TLJ as a Mary Sue.  I’d suggest that has little to do with identity politics and everything to do with it being the most compelling of the three plotlines.

As an aside to the Rey plotline, I’ve noticed that some conservatives (and perhaps other Star Wars nerds), including Sonny Bunch (spoilers), dislike the treatment of the villainous Snoke in TLJ.  I cannot bring myself to get particularly worked up about it, insofar as the treatment he gets is ultimately not all that different from that of Palpatine/Sidious in the prior installments.

However, the complaint about Snoke may raise a larger point about how questions or expectations implicitly raised in TFA get resolved in TLJ.  I don’t mind the occasional bit of surprise or heresy in my space opera, but I can see how others may view it as reflecting badly on the vision of those steering this multi-billion-dollar franchise.

I can also see why these types of issues might bother conservatives more than progressives, on balance.  Demystification and heresy generally don’t appeal to a more conservative mindset and perhaps TLJ goes too far in that direction.  As I noted on Friday, this film’s theme regarding how we address the past is “a fairly audacious subject for a multi-billion dollar franchise now thoroughly steeped in nostalgia.”

In this vein, the Cato Institute’s Aaron Ross Powell argues that TLJ betrays the original trilogy and its heroes.  I don’t buy the auxiliary points about Snoke for reasons stated above.  But if one accepts the basic argument, I’d argue TFA betrayed the original trilogy, just not overtly as TLJ does.  Powell lets TFA off the hook by writing (otherwise correctly) that movie just didn’t care about that betrayal.

Ultimately, of all of the various factors that may be turning some off TLJ, this is probably the most underestimated.  TFA was the foundation for this new trilogy.  The weaknesses of that foundation, encompassing its overall narrative and its new main characters, were going to create problems for whatever Disney tried to build on top of it, even if those weaknesses went unnoticed by some last time.  This is why my earlier non-spoilery thoughts emphasized TFA being one of my major benchmarks for TLJ.

Pre-publication update: Alyssa Rosenberg has a spoiler-loaded column up at the WaPo that agrees with much of the critique of Finn’s plotline and with some of Powell’s broader critiques.  It’s nice that Star Wars criticism can transcend ideology; I hope her friends don’t call her a bad progressive for noting some inconvenient points.

Rosenberg also makes some points about Poe’s plotline at the end of her column that warrant comment.  In a spirit of comity, I agree that the end of Poe’s arc here makes little sense dramatically.  She also makes a larger, identity-related point about the Resistance that I would not make, given the state of the Resistance at the end of TLJ.  The movie stacks the deck in favor of Holdo’s decisions, which is fine for the narrative.  But the new sequels both imply that the Resistance’s intelligence ops pale in comparison to those of the old Rebellion.  As a result, the Resistance loses its primary advantage as an insurgency and suffers heavy consequences.  Leadership, regardless of identity, needs to be accountable for these failures.

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Non-Spoilery Thoughts About the Last Jedi

Something lighter for the weekend, yes?

First, regarding my personal perspective and baggage:  I am old enough that I saw the original Star Wars on opening day.  My Dad — who had loved the kitschy fun of the old Flash Gordon serials and passed that love down to me — took me to work instead of school and we saw it in a now long-gone movie palace in suburban Chicago.  It was the only time I saw it in a less than packed theater and I probably saw it somewhere between 50-100 times in its original run.  You don’t often to get to see cinematic history that fresh.

Nevertheless, while I have seen every film on or before opening day, still own a professional grade Vader mask from 1977-78, had all the original Kenner toys (and had the Christmas where you got a box of coupons because demand so far outstripped supply), and so on, I was never one of those who immersed myself in all the ancillary books that may or may not have been official canon at some point, etc.  I’m mostly about the movies themselves.

That brings us not to The Last Jedi, but to The Force Awakens, so that you know where my current benchmark was set.  I think Jonathan V. Last is basically correct in assessing that it probably hasn’t aged well with many people, that we were so glad to have a new installment that we tended to overlook its rather obvious remix qualities or to not immediately take issue with Rey as a Mary Sue so powerful that she lowered the stakes for that movie, particularly its climactic lightsaber battle.  Last was also correct to call Poe Dameron a cipher, most likely because he died early in the original script and thus didn’t have much of significance to contribute to the narrative when he was resurrected in later drafts (most likely to secure Oscar Issac for the role, which isn’t a bad reason).

I tend to agree with Last’s critiques, though perhaps less strongly, insofar as I am sympathetic to the idea that Disney wanted to play it safe and reassure people that we were going to be more in the world of the original (middle) trilogy instead of the prequels.  Moreover, Lucas always conceived of the series having its elements echo and reflect across the series.  And if Rey was a Mary Sue, you could argue that Luke Skywalker was pretty precocious in the original film, though perhaps a childhood of bullseying womp rats justified his skills.

Against those benchmarks, what can I say about The Last Jedi without spoilers?

I can say that on average, the remixing is more smooth here, drawing largely from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  Some of the lifts are still obvious, if none are as egregious as the Starkiller Base in TFA.  Some of the old tropes are deployed in ways that can be clever and surprising.  A few are actually subtle and those are the ones that perhaps work the best.

The Mary Sue problem is reduced here.  In this second act, as in TESB, the protagonist’s conflicts are more internal than external, both with Luke and with Kylo Ren (and those two also have largely internal struggles).  This isn’t to say Rey doesn’t see her share of action here; she does.  But her raw power is put into perspective, much as Luke’s was in TESB.  And her mysterious backstory, much discussed since the release of TFA, manages to surprise.

Finn is Last’s least favorite of the new generation of characters, and I guess I would say I find him the most frustrating.  There is an interesting idea or two lurking in the Finn character.  How much is he motivated by disgust with the First Order, and how much by cowardice?  It’s possible to pull off a conflicted, somewhat buffoonish hero (see Jayne in Firefly/Serenity).  But I think this film is the second time the new team has failed to execute well on those ideas.  Finn’s storyline may look better in hindsight, as some of it may be a set-up for the third act, but it is the weakest part of this second act — and particularly the second act of this second act.

Poe gets more of an arc in this film, which is a low bar to clear, for the reasons already mentioned.  It’s a bit of a strange arc and one that may leave some unsatisfied in the context of an all-ages space opera.  But I think this might be an instance where some of the text of his narrative is also to be found in the subtext of TESB.

Almost anything I could say about Princess Leia would be a spoiler, but the late Carrie Fisher’s performance is much improved over her turn in TFA, when she had not been acting for a while.

Luke Skywalker gets his due share of the spotlight, and Mark Hamill does quite well with the material (even if the rumors suggest he wasn’t thrilled with the direction it took).  One certainly may argue that this script stretches the boundaries of how we think of Luke, perhaps to cover for TFA killing off the franchise’s biggest star.  But much time has passed and events have left Luke a changed man, even if some of those changes are a little unexpected.

Speaking of time, that’s a problem in this film.  Then again, timing was a problem in the TESB script also; it just seems more obvious here.  This is a risk with a remix project; sometimes you inadvertently import weaknesses instead of strengths.

I guess my overall impression is a mixed one, even after accounting for the inherent difficulties of making a second-act film.  But I’ll also say that The Last Jedi is the most explicit of the series in addressing how we confront the past — and that’s a fairly audacious subject for a multi-billion dollar franchise now thoroughly steeped in nostalgia.

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What’s Wrong With the Partisan Brain?

Oh my, that’s a clickbaity title, isn’t it?  Fear not, I’ll be backing it up with some utterly trash pop psychology!

Well, not even really psychology as such.  But Freud’s theory of the psyche — whatever one thinks of it — has gained enough traction in pop culture that it makes for a handy analogy or metaphor for some pop sociology about our two major political parties, and ourselves in general.

Most adults have at least heard in passing that Freud had this model positing the human psyche was divided into three parts: Id, ego and super-ego.  The id is supposedly the unconscious source of our basic drives, particularly for pleasure.  The super-ego is the moral component that recognizes what is supposed to be the right thing to do, regardless of the circumstances.   The ego is supposed to mediate between the id and super-ego and the part generally responsible for how humans generally act.

What’s wrong with partisans now is that their supposed egos — the two major parties — have not effectively functioned as egos for some time now.

A party’s “establishment” — Congressional leadership, sometimes party leadership, the donor class, many ensconced at the think tanks and journals — know in the abstract how their party is supposed to act, including on matters of public morals.  But these folks aren’t really much by themselves.  The populists among a party’s base are the id — they often provide the party’s energy and drive, but are often more interested in gratifying themselves and have impulses that occasionally need to be suppressed.

The Republican and Democratic parties are supposed to be the institution that mediates between these two forces, which is why they are occasionally beset by denial, repression, rationalization etc.  People accept these shortcomings of political parties because we understand the overarching function of balancing an ideological agenda against more pragmatic and tribal impulses.

As Jay Cost recently observed, this mediating function has been in the process of breaking down.  In 2016, it was the GOP and now it looks to be the Democrats engaging in yet another round of reforms tilting even further in favor of the populist id.  (Lest anyone think Cost was motivated in this critique by the rise of Trump, it’s worth noting that he and Jeffrey H. Anderson were arguing after 2012 that the GOP had adopted “reforms” that were in fact designed for the Democratic Party by its most liberal activists.)

It’s not clear how this problem gets fixed, either.  The more the id is empowered, the more dangerous it becomes and lashes out against civilization.  This is (spoiler alert) the lesson of MGM’s 1956 classic, Forbidden Planet.

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Mind If I Insult the Voters For a Bit?

I’d really planned to, regardless of how the Alabama senatorial race turned out (I narrowly blew my “bet” on it, were I a bettor).  Politicians aren’t supposed to blame the voters anymore than pundits are supposed to critique their presumed audience.  Only Triumph and Don Rickles get a pass, really.

But there will be many in the GOP base (and commentariat) who blame Sen. Maj. Ldr. Mitch McConnell for his supposed meddling in this race, starting with the primaries.  And the party establishment will take their shots at Steve Bannon, Ivy League populist.

But the main fault for Roy Moore losing to Doug Jones in deep red Alabama falls mostly on the voters who nominated Moore, an unfit candidate and one who historically underperformed well before allegations of sexual misconduct emerged against him.  If they voted for Moore out of pique at McConnell (when they could have voted for Rep. Mo Brooks), well, they deserve to be ridiculed for acting like children.  And if the theory is that McConnell is an evil anti-genius, well, this sounds more like designating the demon in a religious cult than a sober political analysis.

Similarly, Steve Bannon may be a well-heeled clown, but he didn’t date those teenagers.  He aligned himself with Moore’s many faults, but they were Moore’s faults and no one in Alabama can claim those weren’t apparent before Bannon jumped on the bandwagon.

Not that the Democrats performed better in nominating Jones.  There used to be conservative Democrats in places like Alabama; now there really aren’t and there’s no effort to nominate someone who might have crossover appeal, or even the minimum sort of appeal that might have made him a desperate fallback when the GOP nominated someone like Moore.

Accordingly, it took a barrage of credible accusations of sexual misconduct against Moore for Jones to win on the backs of GOPers who wrote in someone else, or simply stayed home (along with strong turnout from the Dem base).  They elected a liberal who will likely be tossed out at the end of his half-term, in a mirror image of Scott Brown’s stunning Senate win in Massachusetts in 2010.   They won a relatively short-term victory on a gamble, much like the GOP did in electing Trump last year over the scandal-ridden Hillary Clinton.

We’re not supposed to insult the voters.  We’re supposed to pander, to flatter, to condescend.  We’re not supposed to treat them as fellow citizens whose rights carry with them a certain moral obligation to nominate solid candidates instead of engaging in political primal scream therapy.  I’m taking today off from that politesse, not least because I’m much more confident in betting on people not learning anything useful from this election than I was in predicting its outcome.

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