Thursday, December 8, 2016

Why Hillary Lost

If you want to know why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton as President, this story by Gallup, though written in mid-September, tells it all.  Here is Donald Trump's word cloud, based on the leading stories about him, week after week:

The word cloud does not have a single theme, but the main words, speech, immigration, convention, President, make, people and Mexico are presidential words, policy words, words you would expect to hear about a normal candidate doing presidential things and setting forth is views on the important issues facing this country. Week by week, the top words were "President," "convention," "Russia," "Obama," "family," "campaign," "immigration," "Mexico," "Mexico," and "Obama."  Other important words included "speech" and "immigration."  Certainly there is nothing here to suggest that Trump was anything other than a normal candidate, nothing to suggest his unprecedented lack of experience, his extraordinary conflicts of interest, his nature as a crook or a bully, his association with the semi-fascist Alt Right, his fondness for conspiracy theories verging on the paranoid, or any  of the countless reasons why he was not a normal candidate.






Now look at Clinton's word cloud:

What more is there to say?  With the exception of the week of the convention and the week when she collapsed with pneumonia, the leading story about Hillary Clinton every single week for two months was about her e-mails.  And after e-mails, the usual words were lie, scandal, foundation, health and pneumonia.

And let us give credit where it is due.  Trump, erratic is he may have been in some ways, maintained superb message discipline.  He hit on the e-mails over and over again, making clear that sending State Department e-mails on a private server was the most heinous offense any candidate for office had ever committed in the history of the Republic, that her missing e-mails showed she was hiding something worse, that only her status as candidate for President was keeping her out of jail, and that, if elected, he would remedy that.  In this, Trump got a lot of help for a cooperative press that breathlessly looked through every new revelation to see if there was any appearance of impropriety.  And sure enough, it turned out that as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton sometimes spoke to people who had made large donations to her foundation, and that some of them wanted special access as a result, although none seemed to have gotten any.  Trump also got an assist from the Russians hacking and Wikileaks printing DNC and campaign e-mails that had nothing to do with the State Department or national security, but by then the voters had heard the terms "Clinton," "e-mails" and "scandal" together so many times that the details scarcely even mattered.  And, of course, there was the FBI's surprise announcement eleven days before the election that they were reopening the investigation.

Things eventually reached the point where you could expect something like this:
CLINTON E-MAILS REVEAL POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST 
The latest e-mail revelations for Hillary Clinton reveal further potential conflicts of interest as growing numbers of large-scale donors to the Clinton Foundations appear to have met with her as Secretary of State.  While no evidence of any improper influence was found, and scheduling appears to been done by persons independent of the ones soliciting donations, the fact that donations did not come with a clear disclosure that making a donation meant that Clinton would never speak to the donor again raise troubling ethical issues. 
In further news today, Donald Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.
Of course, Trump had plenty of scandals, too.  The problems was not the lack of scandals, but that there were too many.  Confronted with such an embarrassment of riches, important publications like the Washington Post, USA Today and Newsweek published a new scandal a week, but none of them stuck around long enough to achieve any traction.  It would appear that leading an exemplary life with one slip is worse for a candidate than being a walking scandal because walking scandals don't allow for much focus.

The only Trump scandal that achieved any traction was the "pussy" tape.  Imagine, then, if the tape had been released in July.  Imagine if Trump promptly denied having done any of the things he bragged about on tape, and for the next two months the leading Trump story each week was a new woman coming forward to say that he had groped her.  Imagine if every interview with Trump had focused on the latest groping allegations.  Imagine if, just as things seemed to have settled down and the tapes seemed to be behind us, the mysterious woman who claims that Trump raped her when she was 13 years old came forward with her story.  And hell, suppose that two days before the election the word came out that her story had been found to be unsubstantiated.  Would it have made a difference.  Suppose that the leading words in Trump's cloud had been "pussy," "grab," "grope," "assault," and "tape."  It seems plausible that the election would have gone the other way.

Trump's response to the women who accused him of groping them was to say that they were all liars and paid shills of the corrupt Clinton machine.  That was a flagrant, shameless lie.  But it does seem reasonable to assume that if a new accuser had come forward each week for two months (or more) on end and accounts investigating hers story, in salacious detail, had dominated the news week after week, it would start to look as is there was a coordinated element to it.  But honestly, so what?  There is ample evidence that the Clinton e-mail revelations were also released in a calculated manner, to do most damage, by Republicans in the House Oversight Committee, the FBI, the Russians, and Wikileaks.*

For that matter, it wouldn't have to be the "pussy" tape.  Suppose litigation had been more intense on Trump University and week after week a new and embarrassing pleading was filed in court (public documents).  Or, on weeks when one wasn't filed, reporters started digging in the old pleadings in the case and revealing more and more about the Trump University had been up to.  And only after the public had been softened up by weeks and months of stories about Trump University did the story  break about the Trump Foundations illegal donation to a Florida Attorney General who was considering an investigation.  Trump's word cloud would have been more like "fraud," "lawsuit," "deception," and "bribe."  Of course, Trump could have spiked that simply by settling.  Or suppose reporters had become obsessed with his bankruptcy and how he looted the company and left shareholders holding the bag.  Or possible conflicts of interest in international relations (there are A LOT!), with a new one breaking week after week. (Instead of only noticing after he was elected). Any grand unifying theme would have been sufficient.**

The real question has to be, why did the media all play along with this?  Trump accused the media of being biased against him, as evidenced by so many leading media personalities being so dismayed when he won, and I think he is right.  Yet if the media were so biased against him, why did they focus so obsessively on Clinton's e-mails and conflicts of interest and fail to show Trump up for what he really was?  I think the only answer can be in a strange sort of way that they focused so harshly on Clinton precisely because they were biased against Trump.  One person commented that they considered Trump being a crook to be a "dog bites man" story.  But more to the point, I think they never bothered to fully expose him because it never occurred to them that he could actually win. They came down so hard on Clinton precisely because they expected her to be the next President and assumed that they should hold the next President's feet to the fire.

And look where it got us.
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*Although, to be clear, there is no evidence that any of these organizations except the Russians and Wikileaks coordinated with each other, and none whatever that they coordinated with Trump.  It is pointless to complain about Congressional Republicans.  They were simply playing politics as usual, using their powers of investigation to hurt the opposing party.  The FBI, on the other hand, is not supposed to meddle in elections, and they clearly behaved improperly in doing so.  And as for the Russians and Wikileaks -- well, I suppose they were doing what intelligence services do, but that it succeeded is troubling in the extreme.
**Though probably not Trump stiffing his contractors.  That did get a good deal of play but never bothered his supporters.  I assume the reason was that, although they did not condone his ripping off contractors, they appreciated that he knew how to drive a hard bargain and couldn't wait to see him do that to all the people ripping us off.

Further Thoughts on "Systematic Corruption"

Matt Yglesias got his ideas of "systemic corruption" from this paper, which was written in 2006, well before even Trump's first candidacy in 2012 and treats the idea of "systematic corruption" as a historical relic rather than a present-day concern.  So clearly it was not written to serve any partisan agenda.

The author defines his terms as follows:
What I define as systematic corruption is both a concrete form of political behavior and an idea. In polities plagued with systematic corruption, a group of politicians deliberately create rents by limiting entry into valuable economic activities, through grants of monopoly, restrictive corporate charters, tariffs, quotas, regulations, and the like. These rents bind the interests of the recipients to the politicians who create them. The purpose is to build a coalition that can dominate the government. Manipulating the economy for political ends is systematic corruption. Systematic corruption occurs when politics corrupts economics.  
In contrast, venal corruption denotes the pursuit of private economic interests through the political process. Venal corruption occurs when economics corrupts politics.
The author goes not to say that venal corruption is simply the result of human failing.  No structure can prevent it; the only remedy is to prosecute the offenders.  Systematic corruption, by contrast, is a form of structural corruption and can be prevented with appropriate structures and institutions.  He also argues that systematic corruption will ruin an economy in a way that venal corruption cannot.

At the time this country was founded, the author argues, one of the leading sources of systematic corruption was in corporations, which were deeply suspect.  A corporation back then did not mean what it does now.  A corporation was a quasi-governmental body, created by special act of the legislature, given a licensed monopoly and a variety of privileges that differed depending on the charter.  And how did corporations persuade the legislature to charter them?  Usually by paying for the privilege.

Most notorious of the corporations of the day was the East India Company, which was run on a for-profit basis, but exercised many governmental functions (such as fielding armies) and ended up becoming the de facto government of much of India.  The Boston Tea Party was undertaken in response to the British government granting a monopoly on tea imports to the colonies to the East India Company.  Many of the American colonies started out as for-profit corporations.*  We would presumably agree that for a for-profit corporation be be running a de facto government, or a government to be operated as a for-profit corporation, is a dangerous mixing of separate functions that cannot end well.

All of this meant that at the time this country was founded, corporations were viewed with deep suspicion as repositories of legal privilege and economic distortion.  Yet there was a vast, undeveloped country and a great clamor for infrastructural development.  How was this to be done without the resort to corporations?  Ultimately, in the 1840's, states came up with an American invention to resolve the problem -- create a single incorporation act and allow anyone who wanted to incorporate to do so administratively.  At the same time, they forbade governments from investing in private corporations.  Governments wishing to build infrastructure directly must finance it with taxes, or with bonds that would ultimately be paid by taxes, approved by the voters.

This, in the authors view, resolved the problem of systematic corruption so well that Americans forgot all about it.  Certainly, venal corruption remained.  In fact, throughout the Gilded Age it became so rampant that it gave rise to the Progressive movement founded largely to fight such corruption.  The Progressives allowed both governments and corporations greater freedom in how they wished to be structured.  For local governments, this took the form of home rule and allowed the people to vary from the general form of chartered government.  For corporations, this meant moving away from a one-size-fits all administrative charter and allowing corporations to organize as they saw fit.  One such change was allowing corporations to buy stock in other corporations.  This lead to a great wave of mergers, and turned corporations into vast accumulations of private wealth that threatened to subvert democratic government.

Progressives sought to tame these monstrosities by governmental regulation.  The author points out that this would have been viewed with alarm by past generations as opening the door to systematic corruption:
In classic commonwealth political theory, increasing government regulation raised as many red flags as did special corporate charters. Regulation created the opportunity for creating rents, and rent creation created the possibility for political manipulation of the economy. One could see James I or Charles II supporting Progressive policies, not Whig commonwealthmen. If, on the other hand, political and economic competition limit rent creation and dissipation, they also make it safer for the government to regulate in positive and negative ways. Competition and entry create their own balanced equilibrium. This could only have happened if Americans came to trust their government more than they ever had in the colonial, revolutionary, or early national periods. . . . Giving the national government control over food and drugs would have seemed insane to the founding fathers, Federalist and Republican. Such regulation opened up vistas of rent creation beyond the imagination of James I or Charles II.
In the clear light of hindsight, that is a remarkable statement -- certainly a remarkable one to make as late as 2006.  Americans these days do not trust their government.  A large libertarian movement has arisen that absolutely sees the Progressive Era as a national fall from grace (and, by implication, the Gilded Age as our golden age).  And libertarians, it seems safe to say, would fully agree in the dangers of governmental regulation, and the risk that it would lead to "systematic corruption," Indeed, some would probably give such fears as a major reason for opposing any sort of economic regulation.  A common argument by libertarians is that the effect of Progressive Era health and safety regulations was to increase concentration and squeeze out the little guy because large companies could afford to comply and small companies could not.

Are they right?  Should be refrain from any sort of economic regulation because it can be used to limit entry and make economic success contingent on political connections?  I suppose I would answer that it is remarkable how many libertarians, or at least pseudo-libertarians, fear government only in its mommy functions and never give a thought to the dangers of its daddy functions, even though these are by far the more dangerous.  After all, armies can stage coups.  They have, indeed, done so on many occasions.  Should we therefore disband our army out of fear that it will stage a coup?  Somehow we and other advanced democracies have managed to have armies and never have a coup or anything close to one.  How is that possible?  The answer lies in what, for the lack of a better term, I would call the general culture.  Our army has never been tempted to stage a coup because such a thing is simply unthinkable.  Our military are trained from the very start in the importance of respecting civilian control.  Without knowing much about our military structure, it seems a reasonable assumption that it has institutional safeguards in place to detect and root out any such sign of disloyalty.  But in the end, these succeed because the general culture of our military does not allow a coup.

Every President from FDR to Nixon abused the U.S. surveillance system to spy on political rivals. Does that mean we shouldn't have a surveillance apparatus?  Here, too, reforms to set regular rules as to how it was used (mostly) put an end to such abuses.  Under Bush II and Obama our surveillance state has certainly grossly overreached and desperately needs paring back.  But it has not been abused against individual enemies the way it was from the 1930's to the 1970's.

So if we can keep the military and the intelligence agencies from being used corruptly to further partisan goals, why not the regulatory bureaucracy?

An important reason our bureaucracy is able to resist the lure of systematic corruption is something that began before the Progressive Era at the federal level and continued throughout it on the state and local level -- civil service reform.  By protecting government employees from arbitrary dismissal, the civil service was able to keep them from using the regulatory apparatus for narrowly partisan purposes.  We also have rules on procurement and bidding for private contractors, again to discourage the use of government contracts in a systematically corrupt fashion.  If libertarians and the Republican establishment care about systematic corruption (and they should), maybe they should think twice about proposals to make government employees easier to fire.  What happens the first time a government employee is fired for refusing to enforce regulations in a politicized manner? What happens when you remove an important barrier against crony capitalism?

I would further ask whether we have eliminated systematic corruption as far as the author claims.  For instance, government has at least one avenue for making economic success hinge on political connections -- procurement.  That is why there are strict rules about competitive bidding and process of selection, to ensure that the choice is not made corruptly.  At the same time government regulations -- mostly written by Democrats -- often impose labor standards on all government contractors above and beyond what general regulations require.  Is this the beginning of systematic corruption?  Yet that is only a matter of policy, not politics.  And in this case, Republicans are the worst offenders.  Under Ronald Reagan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) became a patronage network,  with contracts going to the politically connected.  Something similar happened under Bush II.**  And now it is set to recap once again under Ben Carson.  Of course, HUD contracts make up an infinitesimal share of the US economy.  How many other contracts are vulnerable to that sort of political favoritism.  And then there was the Trump tweet about cancelling Boeing's contract to build Airforce One and suspicion that the threat may be retaliation against Boeing for criticizing Trump's policies.  Rush Limbaugh has suggested that the tweet was retaliation against Boeing for supporting the Clintons.  To supporters, this was to be applauded as a crack down on the old crony-ism.  But how hard is the subtext to read?  If that is so, then it is also a warning not to companies not to donate to my political opponents if you want to preserve your government contracts.  Systematic corruption, here we come. (Unless, of course, he was just being impulsive).

And finally, is the distinction between venal corruption and systematic corruption and clear-cut as the author claims?  Consider this article about the problems that occur when governments start to outsource what were once core functions.  Public goods are run on a for-profit basis.  For-profit garbage collection companies insist that cities create a certain quota of garbage and demand penalties for recycling programs.  Companies running toll roads impose penalties for car pooling, improvement to public road, or when governments suspend tolls for evacuation during natural disasters.  And contracts are often locked in place for decades, preventing technological innovations that would serve the public well.  In short, when government outsources core functions, it is effectively licensing monopolies that usurp governmental functions on a for-profit basis, and we are back to the East India Company.  Yet nothing in the article suggests that such contracts are given on the basis of political favoritism.  Under the article's taxonomy, this would not be systematic corruption, just really bad venal corruption.  Venal corruption on a Gilded Age scale.  And evidence, perhaps, that venal corruption, on a large enough scale, may be more dangerous than the author thinks.

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*At the same time, the author emphasizes the importance put on balanced government, with the proper harmony among the many, the few and the one.  This balance was seen as precarious, and the slightest upset in the balance might lead to corruption and ultimately the loss of liberty altogether.  Although he does not elaborate on it, this would seem to imply that there is only one right way to form a government or else it will go out of balance and be corrupted.  How this was compatible with the difference in government between England and the U.S. or between different U.S. states he does not address.
**But emphatically not under Bush I, who appointed the squeaky clean and committed Jack Kemp.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Trump Should Scare the Hell Out of Generic Republicans: "Systematic Corruption"

Not quite sure what I think of this, but I saw an interesting article by Matthew Yglesias on what he saw as the greatest danger from Donald Trump (assuming he doesn't start a disastrous war).  Yglesias' argument is not just that Trump is corrupt to an unprecedented degree, but that he brings an unprecedented kind of corruption to the White House.  This is not the distinction I have made, that Trump's corruption is uniquely narrow, or that he is our first President who does not seem to distinguish between the public interest and his private interest.  Rather, Yglesias relies an an article predating any Trump candidacy, that draws a distinction between what it calls "venal corruption" and "systemic" or "systematic" corruption.

I should probably start here with a definition of "corruption."  Most people tend to see corruption rather narrowly, as bribery or some other sort of illicit financial gain.  But treating corruption solely as financial is too narrow.  I would define "corruption" to mean "subversion or cooption to an improper purpose."  Most people these days think of corruption specifically as meaning powerful private actors coopting government for their own purposes instead of the public good.  Yglesias and John Wallis, the author of the pamphlet, refer to this as "venal corruption."  So far as I understand it, systemic/systematic corruption is the opposite kind -- government subverting private actors to an improper purpose.  Yglesias explains:
We are used to corruption in which the rich buy political favor. What we need to learn to fear is corruption in which political favor becomes the primary driver of economic success. . . .  To be a successful businessman in a systemically corrupt regime and to be a close supporter of the regime are one and the same thing. 
Those who support the regime will receive favorable treatment from regulators, and those who oppose it will not. Because businesses do business with each other, the network becomes self-reinforcing. Regime-friendly banks receive a light regulatory touch while their rivals are crushed. In exchange, they offer friendly lending terms to regime-friendly businesses while choking capital to rivals.
As specific examples, Yglesias suggests the use of anti-trust legislation to break up media conglomerates that criticize Trump, or a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) whose position on unions and labor disputes depends on the political leanings of the parties.  

Yglesias has discussed this sort of thing before.  His comments on the auto bailouts under Obama are revealing:
Opposition to the bailout was driven, in part, by the recognition that nationalization of an industrial enterprise is an open invitation to mismanagement and bad public policy. You could easily imagine a scenario in which the Obama administration made its partisan political objectives a key management priority at Government Motors. Alternatively, you could easily imagine a scenario in which Obama administration trade policy became dominated by the narrow interests of Government Motors rather than the broad interests of the American public. There's a good reason why sensible people don't normally recommend that the government own manufacturing companies. . . . . I think it's very understandable that Obama's political foes were not prepared at the time to simply assume that the administration was handle a post-nationalization auto industry in a responsible way. But the fact of the matter is that they did handle it in a responsible way and the skeptics were largely mistaken.
That sound very much like what he is describing as the danger from Trump, except that presumably in the case of Trump he would also own stock in GM and insist that it name its top model car after him.

But here is the thing about that type of corruption.  It is something I would expect the Republican donor class to care about.  It is the sort of government abuse I would expect them to fear the most because in this case they would be the targets.  In fact, I think it fair to say that at least one reason libertarian-esque people are so strongly opposed to economic regulation is the fear that it will be used in exactly this sort of way.   It is probably  not too much of a stretch to suspect that a lot of members of the Republican donor class would prefer a Democrat imposing what they would see as excessive and heavy-handed regulation, but doing so in an objective manner that a Trump Administration applying its regulatory powers based on political support and personal enrichment.

In short, this is something I would expect to meet with immense resistance, from extremely powerful actors in the Republican Party, including many who supported Trump in hopes that he would be their puppet.  They will let Trump get away with a great deal -- immigration, foreign trade, crazies in the Cabinet, conflicts of interest, racist appeals, sexual assault, erratic rantings, loopy foreign policy, and, for all I know, maybe even shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue -- but there are two things I do not think the Republican donor class will let Trump get away with.  One is being a Russian agent (as opposed to a mere useful idiot).  If any solid evidence were to emerge of a quid pro quo in which Trump actively sought out the support of the Russian government in the election in exchange for a pro-Russian foreign policy, then I have no doubt that he would be impeached for it.  (And just for the record, I do not believe that any such evidence exists).  The other is any attempt to use the powers of the federal government to infringe on the freedom of the Republican donor class.

Already in the case of the Carrier Air Conditioning deal, we are starting to see push-back. James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute warns, "[T]his is all terrible for a nation's economic vitality if businesses make decisions to please politicians rather than customers and shareholders. . . . Imagine business after business, year after year, making decisions based partly on pleasing the Trump White House."  Reason Magazine (a libertarian publication) warns against, "a system in which corporations succeed and fail not based on their value in the marketplace, but based on their facility at making friends in the government, and friendly deals with the political class."  Even Sarah Palin,  the very embodiment of the Republican base politician who scorns its elite, has warned that the deal smacks of "crony capitalism."

Granted, we don't know whether this is a mere speed bump or the beginning of a big fight, but my own guess is that we should be looking for a big split here.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Trump is Not a Generic Republican: Corruption

I intend to post on this subject a lot, so it is fair to ask, do I consider corruption to be Donald Trump's capital flaw?  And in the end, the answer has to be that Trump doesn't have a capital flaw.  He has so many of them and they are so severe that naming any one of them as the capital flaw is pointless.

At the same time, it is one that I intend to emphasize a lot because it formed so large a part of Trump's appeal.  He was the heroic outsider fighting corruption in Washington, as represented by Hillary Clinton, who sent classified e-mails on a private server and went unpunished, engaged in foundation activities that created at least the appearance of impropriety, and deleted e-mails to conceal her nefarious activities.  He bragged that he was immune to corruption because he was rich enough to fund his own campaign and wasn't dependent on donors.  Even now, he insists that he is going to drain the swamp.

So it is important to emphasize that Trump is corrupt in a narrower and more pernicious way than any other President in our history, indeed, than ever seemed possible before.  Trump gives no evidence of having any concept of the public good apart from his private interests.

Consider:  When asked how as a businessman with so many holdings he would avoid conflict of interest, Trump said he would turn his business empire over to his children to manage.  Plenty of people have pointed out why that is far from adequate.  And that was before he invited his children to serve on his transition team.  Even assuming they take over the business and tell him nothing about its doings, they will give their father advice.  Could their business interest shape that advice even if they don't tell their father about it?

Furthermore, while nepotism rules forbid Trump from allowing any of his children to hold formal posts in his Administration, Trump apparently intends to give his son-in-law,  Jared Kushner, some sort of role in the White House.  Does anyone seriously believe that Kushner can work in the White House while his wife manages Trump Enterprises and that he will never once know what his wife is doing on the business side?

And for anyone else wanting further evidence that Trump has no concept of the public good apart from his own business advancement, consider the following before he has even been sworn in:

Advertised his properties on his transition website.

Asked his appointees to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Seen foreign diplomats flock to his hotels, and handed out brochures about his other properties.

Invited his daughter, who will be running his business empire, to a meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister.

Met with his business partners from India.

Saw bureaucratic obstacles to his building permit in Argentina disappear three days after he spoke to the Argentine President. (Both men deny that the subject was ever raised, but some things can go without saying).

For more about potential conflicts of interest, see here and here.

When asked about the possibility of conflicts of interest, Trump simply said that there were no laws on the President and conflicts of interest, so anything goes.

Oh, well, Trump might say, the real problem with Hillary Clinton was not that she was corrupt, but that her sending State Department e-mails on a private server endangered national security.  Hillary was, in the most charitable reading, "extremely careless."  For anyone relieved at the thought of our national security depending on Donald Trump's carefulness, keep in mind that before even being sworn in he has talked to foreign leaders on an unsecured line, chosen a National Security Adviser who installed an unauthorized internet connection and disclosed classified information without authorization, and is considering a new Secretary of State on probation for sharing classified information.  I never thought that entrusting our national security to Donald Trump's carefulness was a good idea.

And so on and so forth.  But don't worry.  There will be plenty more to say about Trump and corruption.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Trump is Not a Generic Republican: Reality Has a Liberal Bias

Donald Trump goes on a Twitter rant about how he actually won the popular vote except for the three million votes illegally cast.  Refutations rain in.  Trump proceeds to go off on a rant against the refuters.  His source -- apparently Alex Jones' site Infowars.  This is a site that blames absolutely everything, from the latest school shooting to disease to natural disasters (and, of course, 9/11) on sinister conspiracies by the New World Order.  In other words, it is not quite a fake news site, but close enough to dismiss out of hand.

This raises two alarming possibilities.  Either Trump believes this crap, or else he doesn't.  Which one is worse?

Well, if he is tweeting what he knows perfectly well is not true, then he is playing the rest of us for fools.  He is playing his followers for fools by moving them further and further away from any sort of objective reality.  They are already primed to distrust anything that appears in the dreaded Mainstream Media (MSM) and never speak the words New York Times without a sneer.  Still, up till now the alternatives have been mere matters of emphasis, of cherry picking and spinning.  When G.W. Bush wanted his war with Iraq but couldn't find good grounds for it, he had people in the White House look through raw intelligence for anything they could find to support it, without thought to quality or context.  He spent a great deal of time investigating reports of a meeting between Al-Qaeda and Iraqi intelligence in Prague.  But it never occurred to anyone simply to make things up, or to borrow from manifestly paranoid sources.  Trump is creating an alternate reality for his followers where mere liberal reality cannot penetrate.

But it isn't just his followers he is playing for fools.  Many of his opponents are beginning to suspect he is playing them for fools as well, that there is a method to his madness.  Could it be that his tweets about Alex Jones' latest conspiracy theory are mere decoys, sent to distract us from an awkward  article about his conflicts of interest?  And that his provocations are meant, not just to distract us from important stuff, but to remind followers how persecuted he is by the liberal MSM and how they should circle the wagons in his defense?  If that is the case we must stop feeding the troll and start focusing on the real issues he wants to distract us from.  And, having been sucked into the voter fraud twitter storm all too easily, this warning applies to me no less than to anyone else.

But the other alternative is worse by far.  Maybe Trump actually believes the mad conspiracy theories he is peddling.  That is even more dangerous, because it means that some day he might act on those beliefs.

Trump is Not a Generic Republican: The Inevitable Crisis

Something bad will happen during a Trump Presidency.  It won't be his fault.  In fact, it will have nothing whatever to do with who is in the White House.  It's just that two inevitable constants are (1) shit happens, and (2) changing the government will not affect (1).  But it will happen on his watch. He will be held responsible for it.  He will be expected to respond.  His response may improve the situation.  It may make it worse.  Or it may be something completely beyond his power to affect, like the BP oil spill.   What Trump's first crisis will be is impossible to predict.  Equally unpredictable is how he will respond.  But his behavior to date (meaning for the first 70 years of his life) has not been encouraging.

For a while, I though that Donald Trump would be the Teflon Don and that nothing he did in a crisis could hurt him.  After all, a crisis tends to create a rally-round-the-chief effect and boost any President's approval ratings.  Americans tend to support whatever the President does in a crisis, whether it makes any sense or not, so long as he acts boldly and decisively and give an impression of "leadership."  Who can doubt Trump's ability to act boldly and decisively and reasonably impersonate a leader.  My conclusion, therefore, was that any crisis would redound to his favor.  That would be so even if he badly mishandled it and made the crisis worse, a strong possibility.  His mishandling would no doubt be forceful and create at least the impression of strength.  If he made the crisis worse, that would just increase the rally-round-the-chief effect and make him even more popular.

I offered the example of something like the BP oil spill -- something the President had no power to affect, but was still held responsible for.  No Drama Obama made speeches expressing his sympathy for the people of the Gulf Coast, but did little more because there was little more to be done.  For that he was criticized for lacking leadership.  He should get angry and yell, pundits said.  That would express the anger the American people were feeling.  And if there is one thing Donald Trump excels at, it is expressing anger.  If the BP oil spill happened on his watch, he would yell and pound the table.  It wouldn't do the slightest thing to stop the oil spill, but at least it would create the impression of doing something.  Maybe he would yell, "You're fired!" at whoever was in charge of stopping the leak.  That would probably seriously hamper efforts to contain it, but it would create the impression of bold and decisive action.  As a result, he would get credit for stopping the oil spill even though he had nothing to do with it.

Of course, it also occurred to me that milking a crisis only works for so long.  After a while, when the crisis continues that the President seems powerless to resolve it, people turn against him.  It happened with Jimmy Carter and the Iranian hostage crisis.  It happened with George W. Bush and the Iraq War.  And if a crisis drags on long enough under a Trump Presidency, it will happen to him, too.  The trouble is that he can do an immense amount of damage in the meantime.

But granting that a mismanaged crisis would eventually go against him if prolonged long enough, I wondered if there was anything Trump could do in a crisis that would not benefit him in the short run. Well, now I have the answer.  He can lock himself away and unleash a barrage of petulant, self-centered tweets about how unfair it is that he's being blamed and why does BP have to make him look bad.*

When I first contemplated the possibility of a Trump presidency, I hoped that in a crisis his staff would handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him in a closet until it passed.  I still hope they do that.  But as a second best, can they at least confiscate his Twitter account?

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*I should add here Politico's report that Authentic Real Americans everywhere love Trump's tweets and only a handful of out-of-touch liberal elitists object.  But notably his tweets did hurt him at times during the general election and he did best when his staff shut down his account.  And I can't imagine that anyone would care for really self-centered petulance in a crisis.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Trump is Not a Generic Republican: Advisers and Management

But if Trump differs from a generic Republican in having some policy disagreements, he differs far more from a generic Republican in just how little he knows or care about policy at all.  This means that on all other matters, he will be somebody's puppet -- Congressional Republicans' puppet in legislative matters, and his advisers' puppet in executive matters.  That makes his choice in advisers a matter of particular importance and one that should be watched closely.

And maybe I really should get out of my bubble here and start looking at them from other viewpoints. Is Attorney General Jeff Sessions a racist who sought to block black voting, or an unfairly maligned civil rights activist?  Is National Security Adviser Michael Flynn a brilliant general who recognized the continued threat of militant Islam when Obama thought it was defeated, or flat-out paranoid?  Even Steve Bannon has his defenders, who say he raises legitimate concerns about globalization and that his shocking comments are mere trolling -- although he may be "naive" about the racists he is admittedly cozy with.  Are Donald Trump's choices as bad as people on my side think, or am I seeing him through the eyes of bias and unfairly judging a fine team?

However, there are a few things that it seems reasonable to assume about Team Trump.  One is that, given that Trump doesn't know or care much about policy outside a few narrow areas, he will not be well qualified to decide who is well qualified.  His main options will be (1) choosing his team based on personal loyalty, (2) choosing his team based on his gut-level intuition, which will probably mean choosing people who tell him what he wants to hear, (3) choosing his team based on what insiders and loyalists recommends, and (4) choosing his team based on what the Republican establishment recommends.  Pick your poison.

But even assuming the people in my bubble are right and Trump's choices really are that bad, is even that as bad as we think?  After all, other Presidents have made bad initial picks, but they have usually washed out and been replaced by more competent professionals.  Or as this Republican adviser says:
In a normal transition to a normal administration, there’s always disorder. There are the presidential friends and second cousins, the flacks and the hangers-on who flame out in the first year or two. There are the bad choices — the abusive bosses, the angry ideologues and the sheer dullards. You accept the good with the bad and know that there will be stupid stuff going on, particularly at the beginning. Things shake out. . . . This time may be different. . . . . The administration may shake itself out in a year or two and reach out to others who have been worried about Trump. Or maybe not.
So, let us be optimistic and assume either that Trump's picks are much better than people in my bubble think, or at least that the worst ones shake out.  There will still be another serious problem.  A leader who neither knows nor care about policy is not going to offer much guidance from the top.  And when there is poor guidance from the top, various different departments act without a common direction, often at cross-purposes with each other.  I resort, again, to a quote:
What will Trump's chairman-of-the-board lack of interest in details — and susceptibility to hucksters and extremists — look like when and if he becomes leader of the free world? We have somewhat of a precedent for this, in the presidency of one George W. Bush. 
Bush was legendarily incurious about the nuts and bolts of how his administration ran. He did not have a strong grasp on the levers of power or the details of policy. 
As a result, he was shaped by the people around him — Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the old-school, industry-friendly, warmongering GOP establishment. Energy policy guidance, for instance, was in many cases literally written by fossil fuel lobbyists. Whether Bush was a full-on "puppet," as the left is prone to thinking, or merely malleable, the result was that in areas outside his personal interest (which was most areas), he followed his advisers. 
Trump is even less curious, even more uninterested in the details, than Bush. In areas outside of immigration and trade — as with energy — he too would turn policy over to advisers. 
Those advisers would either look like the dysfunctional circus he's assembled around him so far or (as Republicans hope) like the GOP establishment. The result would either be lunacy or (best-case scenario!) merely the corruption and extremism of the Bush years.
 The difference (assuming the best) is that Bush was notoriously unwilling to shout, "You're fired!" even to people who really did deserve it.  Bush favored loyalty over competence, but at least when given loyalty, he returned it.  Trump shows no real loyalty to anyone beyond a very narrow circle of family members and close friends.  Or, to quote once more:
Trump appears to be operating on a model of the presidency that looks something like the role he played on The Apprentice. He will be the king, surrounded by courtiers who make proposals of various kinds, some of which get approved. When they don't work out, he'll ostentatiously banish them from court. So long as the courtiers are the ones making the suggestions for what to do, they will constrain the possible courses of action. But serving at the pleasure of the king they will have no ability to direct it. And they will be first in line for blame when and if the proposed policy goes wrong.
Well, then, won't that mean the Trump, unlike Bush, holds his subordinates accountable, punishes the ones who mess up, and will thereby ensure competent management?  Well, the trouble is that it is a lot easier to yell, "You're fired!" than to actually fix the mess that caused the underlying problem.  And if the consequences of making a mistake become too severe, people will go to extreme lengths to conceal their mistakes.

In short, Trump differs from a generic Republican to some extent in having policy differences, but even more in simply not caring about policy at all.  This will mean much weaker supervision over his advisers and a much reduced prospect of choosing advisers well.  Or, as a number of people have said, at the very best, his administration will be more corrupt and incompetent that a generic Republican administration.

And then there is the matter of temperament, which I will address in my next post.