Frank Rich Lets His Freak Flag Fly, Maaan.

Maybe Frank Rich was just having one of those days and needed to take it out on Trump’s base.  Probably not.  But I am having one of those days and will work it out on Rich’s latest discharge, “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.”

Rich seems to have concluded that Democrats may well be better off allowing Trump’s base to vote for policies that kill them, and worked backwards from there.

Seriously, Rich concludes that if Trump is unsuccessful: “Maybe… they’ll keep voting against their own interests until the industrial poisons left unregulated by their favored politicians finish them off altogether.  Either way, the best course for Democrats may be to respect their right to choose.”

He considers any efforts by the Left to leave its bubble in an attempt to understand Trumpers to be “Hillbilly Chic,” which he deems “an inverted bookend to Radical Chic, the indelible rubric attached by Tom Wolfe in 1970 (in this magazine) to white elites in Manhattan then fawning over black militants.”

Rich displays no indication that he understands who Trump’s base really is, as opposed to the image portrayed Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash and J. D. Vance’s  Hillbilly Elegy, though it’s not clear from his rant that he’s read either of them.

But even if one takes the Trump base in fairly negative terms, it’s telling that Rich would compare Dems trying to understand (or condescend to) long-term unemployed, opiate addicted videogamers on Social Security disability benefits to liberal elites celebrating the Black Panthers, who were ultimately a murderous and totalitarian cult.

He also deems it a waste of time for Dems to chase these “unreachable voters.”  It’s a fairly bizarre claim to make in the face of data showing Trump won 209 counties Obama won twice and 194 counties Obama won once.  Some on the Left, such as David Leonhardt and Sean McElwee, try to downplay this demographic by looking only at 2012, instead of 2008 — the last open seat election, when Obama was still the man of Hope and Change, rather than a disappointment.

As NYT data-cruncher Nate Cohn noted after the election, millions of votes were at issue.  He also smartly observed that even Obama’s 2012 campaign worked hard to target the white working class.

To be sure, I doubt the Obama campaign thought they were going to do nearly as well with the WWC in 2012, but they understood the value of the effort.  Dems have been increasingly losing this bloc for decades, but candidates more competent than Hillary Clinton understood you couldn’t lose it too badly.

This was understood, in fact, by many of the same Dems who came up with the Emerging Democratic Majority theory to which Rich seems to subscribe, though it has been controversial among the propeller-heads for years, and has been doubted by one of its chief architects.

Even McElwee, in arguing that Obama-Trump voters may express high levels of racial resentment, is also inherently making the case that such resentment did not make Obama inaccessible to them.

Rich then manages to be schizophrenic on the state of the Democratic Party.  He notes that even a terrible candidate like Hillary (and he’s right that she was terrible) won the popular vote and narrowly lost states needed to win the the Electoral College.  But in the next paragraph, he reminds us that the party is a “wreck,” that “rules no branch of federal government, holds only 16 governorships, and controls only 14 state legislatures.”

He seems to believe that a party of Young Bernies of Color would be the answer here, but never gets around to making the argument for it.  After all, this column was not about thinking, it was about emoting.

Instead, we get the third act, in which Rich rehearses all the lame arguments about false consciousness popularized by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? and more recently rehashed in Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.  The latter managed to get called condescending even by the Washington Post, though I think the review at Forbes succinctly captures the problems in the book.

Rich, in his typically puerile partisanship, manages to display none of the nuance I’m sure he fancies himself to possess.  He wants to compare Trump’s base to Black Panthers.  He wants to be “free to loathe” them.  And if they brought about their own deaths, that would be just peachy for him.

It apparently does not occur to him that he’s displaying the sort of ignorance-leading-to-intolerance that he sees in the Rust Belt as viewed from a Manhattan office window.  Or that his mindless indulgence of his hatreds and stereotypes mirrors his indictment of them.

I wouldn’t say this is How We Got Trump.  But I would note that there’s a lot of wishful thinking involved in the theory the Dems will pick up more votes in swing states by moving further left than Obama.

Of course, it’s Frank Rich, so if I ever met him I wouldn’t even ask him about it from that angle.  What I’d really want to know is whether he thinks he’s being original here, or simply collecting a paycheck.

PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter.  Thanks for reading and sharing!

Trump’s Skinny Budget: Next Step in the GOP Death Spiral?

Possibly, though not in the way Democrats think, and the size of the step remains to be seen.

Pres. Trump presented his first-year “skinny budget” and it’s skinnier than the client roster at Trump Model Management.

So all we know so far is that Trump wants to shift $54 billion to DoD, DHS and Energy and cut that amount from the State Dept. domestic discretionary programs, including Education, EPA, NEA, NEH, NIH, LSC, LIHEAP, HUD CDBGs (which is where the Meals On Wheels kerfuffle is located) and still other combinations of letters of the alphabet.  I am probably fine with cuts of this sort, though I suspect the numbers are pretty arbitrary (pending an OMB review of agency and program effectiveness due in May).

The GOP Congress, however, is not fine with these proposals.  It simply won’t do, you see.  Very few “Harrumphs” in support of Trump.

From these accounts, it further appears there was little coordination between the White House and Congressional GOP leadership on the budget proposals.  Also, it seems that the White House is pushing back on Congressional suggestions of entitlement reform.

The lack of coordination has been a consistent theme in the short period this sideblog has been open (see here, here, and here, for examples).  Yet it’s probably more important when we have a heterodox President like Trump.

Trump’s pushback on entitlement reform bothers me as a fiscal conservative.  But Trump campaigned on leaving Social Security and Medicare alone.  And as a cynic, I must note that most rank-and-file Republicans aren’t serious about it either.

It is therefore entirely possible we will get another year of borrow-and-spend, big government Republicanism.  They can’t cut the big items because they’re big; they can’t cut the small stuff because it’s a drop in the bucket.  And this on top of healthcare reform proposal that seems to excite no one.  All coming in the first year, when the GOP should have maximum momentum.

Trump may blame Congress for rejecting his domestic cuts.  The true conservatives at the grassroots will seethe.  Much of talk radio (with and without video) will once again hand out the torches and pitchforks for a hearty round of “BURN IT DOWN!”

They won’t be entirely wrong, either.  The GOP has far less excuse for timidity now that they control two branches of the federal government.  This cycle of frustration (less justified when Obama was President) gets an exhibit in the Hall of How We Got Trump.  Now we may get it again, even After We Got Trump.

Does anyone think that’s a way to ensure GOP turnout in 2018 against an energized Democratic base vote?  Of course, the economy may improve, either organically or with GOP help.  Or we may make progress against the Islamic State.  If these big things happen, perhaps the dysfunction of the GOP leadership in both branches won’t matter much.  But maybe it will matter.

PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter.  Thanks for reading and sharing!

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.

PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter.  Thanks for reading and sharing!

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.

PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter.  Thanks for reading and sharing!

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.

PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter.  Thanks for reading and sharing!

Is That How We Got Trump?

For many, “That’s How You Got Trump” has become the standard reply to dismiss criticism of the President from the left or the anti-Trump right.  Indeed, any skepticism of the idea that harsh criticism of Trump is How You Got Trump is also deemed How You Got Trump.

But was a revulsion against condescension from the elites in the MSM, DC or Hollywood or wherever really How We Got Trump?  Is a failure to listen to Trump supporters How We Got Trump?

Salena Zito, noted chronicler of Trump supporters, spoke to thousands on the campaign trail.  But in her dispatches from places like Brooke County, WV, or Charleroi or Youngstown or Moon Township in PA, Trump supporters are rarely quoted as referring to the MSM or elites in DC or Hollywood (a political scientist took issue with National Review’s Kevin Williamson).  Rather, they seem concerned about the economy and jobs (particularly ‘brown energy’ jobs), trade, immigration, and the preservation of their local communities.

During the campaign, an open-ended Pew poll of Trump supporters found the main reasons people backed him were: (a) he wasn’t Hillary Clinton; (b) he was a change agent; (c) his policy positions; (d) his “tell it like it is” personality; and (e) his support for the American people and their values.

And for all the talk about the MSM not seeking out the opinions of Trump supporters, outlets like The Atlantic (more than once), the Washington Post, The Guardian, the BBC, and the New York Times did.  The NYT also solicited comments from Trump supporters on a few occasions after the election.  And the portrait of Trump voters and their reasons remains pretty consistent.

To be sure, some of Trump’s supporters booed the press at his rallies when he encouraged them to do so.  But in general, they seem more interested in the fate of the local metal fabrication shop, the burden of filling out paperwork to operate their small businesses, or a general sense of stagnation than they care about what Katy Tur, Don Lemon or Joss Whedon are saying about them.

When you consider How We Got Trump, consider that he flipped a swath of voters who previously voted for Obama once or twice.  That’s a voter profile which is not particularly ideological and thus not particularly motivated by a revulsion for Glenn Thrush or Meryl Streep.

These crucial Trump voters seem far more concerned with the perceived (lack of) performance of elites than the condescension of elites.

Of course, there are Trump voters who are bothered by the bias of Acela media and Hollywood blather.  But most of them are likely conservatives who would have voted for the GOP nominee in any event.

And herein lies a risk for conservatives.  Many on the right were blindsided by the Trump phenomenon because they did not understand that the core Trump supporter is really not like them in a number of ways.  They projected their own strong ideological bent onto rank-and-file Republicans beyond what years of data supported. (I say “they” here because it’s been depressingly clear to me for some time.)

Now that Trump is President, the danger is that conservatives seeking common ground to support him will again project their biases onto core Trump supporters, while ironically lecturing his skeptics and critics about being in a bubble.  They also ironically feed the stereotype that Trump supporters whine and wallow in victimhood at the hands of Ben Smith and Samantha Bee.

PS: Consider subscribing to WHRPT in the sidebar (the posts come straight to your inbox; no muss no fuss). And following WHRPT on Twitter.  Thanks for reading!

PPS: On Feb. 13, Margaret Sullivan of the WaPo visited Trump-friendly Luzerne County in PA.  During the campaign, Trump led supporters in razzing the media in Wilkes-Barre.  It does not seem to have affected the media consumption habits of the locals.  Moreover, the middle-aged folks interviewed seem to have the same basic media habits as Gen Xers and Boomers generally.