Saturday, October 29, 2016

Trump, the Russians and Wikileaks

The final Presidential debate was ten days ago, which is an eternity in the news cycle.  Nonetheless, Hillary Clinton raised the subject of Trump, Russia and Wikileaks, so I thought I should eventually address it.  At stake here is the accusation that Russia is hacking into Democratic e-mails and passing it on to Wikileaks.  Wikileaks, in turn, is publishing material calculated to harm Hillary.  The assumption is that Russia and Wikileaks are colluding to get Trump elected because they like his pro-Putin policies.  Never state but often implied is that Trump is either colluding or with the Russians, or at least their useful idiot.

So, how much truth is there to any of this?  Well, let's break this down.

Evidence that Russia is behind the hacks: Strong.  This is the opinion, not only of US intelligence  (which can always be accused of being in the tank for Obama), but of private cyber security firms and professors.  Evidence appears to include malware associated with Russian intelligence, metadata in Cyrillic, and a hacker who claims to be Romanian but does not appear to speak Romanian.  I don't pretend to understand the technical details.  But I am prepared to defer to people who do.

Evidence that Russia is the source of documents to Wikileaks: Getting stronger.  The most obvious evidence was the Russia hacked it and Wikileaks published it.  Of course, that does not disprove any sort of intermediary, acting with or without Russian approval.  As I understand it, serious tech experts did find some evidence of Russian origins on the documents Wikileaks published.  But there was room for doubt when months, maybe even a year, of lag time existed between the hack and the leak.  But by now it has gotten to the point of Russia hacks it today and Wikileaks publishes tomorrow.  At that point the source becomes hard to dispute.

Evidence that Wikileaks is acting to undermine Hillary Clinton.  Absolute rock solid.  Julian Assange, founder and leader of Wikileaks, has come right out and said so.  And I understand why Assange would hate Clinton so much.  She was, after all, Secretary of State under Assange's avowed enemy, the Obama Administration.  It is perfectly reasonable for Assange to hate Obama and anyone associated with him.  Assange knows of the brutal treatment of Private Manning for leaking information to him.  He certainly feared the same for Edward Snowden and was aware that the US was making it impossible for Snowden to seek refuge in a neutral country.  And no doubt he believes, probably with good reason, that the US is behind the accusations of rape against him in Sweden that forced him to take place in the Ecuadoran embvEhenhouse from foxes, but that is a different matter.

Evidence that Wikileaks is in the tank for Russia: Circumstantial, but at least somewhat plausible.  It doesn't publish information critical of Russia.  It often aligns itself with Russian interests.  Assange played a major role in arranging Snowden's refuge in Russia.  He has a show on a Russian propaganda network.  And so forth.  The best answer is that we don't know and probably have no way of knowing.  But for whatever reason, their interests appear to align in this case.

Evidence that Russia is in the tank for Trump: Purely speculative.  Actually wanting Donald Trump for President is a chancy matter, even for Putin.  Sure, Trump has praised Putin, called for a generally pro-Russian foreign policy, and even questioned our commitment to NATO.  But is also ignorant, volatile, thin-skinned and easily provoked.  His affection for Putin might vanish any day if Putin did something that Trump took personally.  A more common speculation is that the Russians are not so much trying to get Trump elected as to undermine confidence in our government and make it look sleazy and corrupt.  So why aren't they picking on Trump, who is as sleazy and corrupt as anyone could ask for?  Maybe because Assange won't publish anti-Trump material because of his feud with the Obama Administration.  Who knows?

Evidence that Trump is in any way involved:  None whatever.  That is getting into tinfoil hat territory.

*This is not to dispute that the women's story is true, merely to say that the decision whether to prosecute and how much priority and publicity to give it can be highly politically motivated.

More on the Same

Let's face it.  This has been a bad news cycle for Hillary.  Large increases in Obamacare premiums, embarrassing Wikileaks revelations and the latest FBI bombshell are all combining to hurt her.  Actually, the latest bombshell is starting to look more like a rather small firecracker, but the initial headlines created the impression of a bombshell, and initial impressions are not so easily erased.  Nate Silver clearly shows her lead declining, with Arizona, Iowa and Ohio moving back into Trump territory.  North Carolina, Nevada and Florida leaning toward Clinton at least for now, but reversal a very real possibility.  That being said, Hillary could lose all those states and still retain a razor-thin majority in the Electoral College.  The next-most contested states are Pennsylvania and Colorado,  with a Trump victory in either state looking most unlikely.

But a razor-thin victory in the Electoral College opens the door to greater mischief than a wider one. Trump might cite the example of Al Gore and demand a recount in whichever state goes for Clinton by the narrowest margin, even though there are no grounds whatever for such a recount, in hopes of delaying the outcome long enough to deny her a majority of electoral votes when they are counted and throw the Election into the House.  Or, if Republicans retain a majority in both houses of Congress, he may seek to persuade them to reject the votes of the state that Hillary won by the narrowest margin and, again, throw the election into the House.

I am not saying he will do either of these things. Just for what it is worth, I find the latter scenario most unlikely and the former possible but unlikely to be successful.  But the point in either case will not be to win the election, but to cast doubts on the legitimacy of the outcome and to convince his followers that they have been cheated of their due.

And, as many have observed, refusal to accept the legitimacy of an election outcome does more than anything else to undermine our democracy.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

It Ain't Over Till the Fat Lady Sings

Look, complacency is a whole lot more reasonable now than a few months ago.  With only twelve days to go till the election, it will take something fairly stunning for Trump to pull off a victory now.  And yet . . . .

Trump seems to be catching up, especially in swing states.  Arizona, Iowa and Ohio appear to be going over to him.  Clinton's lead is weakening in Florida and North Carolina.  Nate Silver shows a sharp drop in her chances.  And this is all the more remarkable in that as the election grows closer, the leading candidate's chances usually rise, even if there is no change in the polls, simply because the prospect for a future change gets less and less.

Granted, Clinton is still well ahead.  Granted, her really sudden drop is a recent phenomenon and may be short-lived.  And granted, given the overall state of the electoral college, it seems most unlikely that Trump could crack even one real Democratic stonghold, as he must to win.  But at the least, it is starting to appear that the election may be more of a nail biter and less of a route than it seemed just a week ago.

And, of course, that will make it all the easier for Trump to claim fraud and snarl things up . . . .

Trump and Political Correctness

One of biggest sources of Donald Trump's popularity appears to be his defiance of liberal norms of "political correctness" that his supporters deeply resent.  This commentator remarks:
When I talk to Trump supporters, it’s not usually about doubting climate change, or thinking Trump will take the conservative movement in the right direction, or even immigration. It’s about the feeling that a group of arrogant, intolerant, sanctimonious elites have seized control of a lot of national culture and are using it mostly to spread falsehood and belittle anybody different than them. And Trump is both uniquely separate from these elites and uniquely repugnant to them – which makes him look pretty good to everyone else.
Likewise, this one attempts to make the case for Trump on the grounds that what we really need most now is offensiveness for the pure sake of being offensive:
The problem is this: Our society has sunk so far into sensitivity and guilt that it has relinquished the liberalism that both liberals and conservatives espouse. I mean the liberalism that gives people a bit of room to think what they want to think; that doesn’t automatically define one’s character by one’s politics or religion; that accepts human frailty and forgives people for brief lapses into racism, sexism, and any other prejudice. 
This liberalism demands of citizens a thicker skin. It accepts that an open society, religious liberty, and free speech cause individuals the occasional bump into annoying words and deeds. The bar of reaction and protest against them must remain high or else conflicts will get out of hand and we’ll regulate ourselves into a testy polity. A society filled with people easily offended ends up an illiberal one running on manners and norms of deference and guardedness. They make up an etiquette, not a doctrine. When someone violates it, we don’t argue with him. We deplore him.
Apparently we should ignore such minor matters as basic competence for the office, any idea of the public good apart from self-advancement, having an attention span long enough to listen to a briefing, basic self-control, and who should be entrusted with our nuclear codes.  The important thing is to have a President who runs around offending people.  A President who calls Mexicans criminals and rapists, who calls Muslims terrorists, and who brags about grabbing women by the pussy will really outrage the PC police and if he lets himself be baited into war with a tweet -- well, that will offend them too, so it can't be all bad.

When I read these fulminations against "political correctness," there tends to be a certain underlying assumption there.  The assumption is that the whole idea of social pressure to conform, or that there are some things one simply does not say in polite company were invented circa 1965 and are used exclusively by liberals as a way of shaming and silencing conservatives.  Before 1965, presumably everyone could let their freak flag fly.  Likewise, if conservatives ran the culture, then so long as you stopped short of threatening violence, you could say absolutely anything at all without incurring even mild social disapprobation.

A moment's though makes clear just how absurd that assumption is.  Social pressure to conform is uniform to the human condition and a major part of how any society enforces its norms.  Always and at all times, those norms have included some sort of sense of propriety -- there are some things one simply does not say in polite society.  To abandon all standards of propriety in favor of anything goes -- absolutely anything short of actual threats of bodily injury -- doesn't sound very conservative to me. Nor does it sound very attractive.

Now granted, that doesn't mean that all standards of propriety are equally good or reasonable.  If it possible for such a standard to be overly strict or fussy?  Yes, absolutely.  Victorian fussiness about sex, to the point of refusing to acknowledge that women had legs seems perfectly ridiculous to us. And beyond doubt our own society, particularly on college campuses, gets equally uptight about virtually any comment on race or gender identity even if innocently intended.  Furthermore, standards of propriety are not always the same for everyone.  It is assumed, for instance, that standards are stricter for children than adults, for women than men, or for white collar settings than blue collar.  Thus a gathering of entirely blue collar men is not considered entirely "polite" and can get away with saying things that might not fly in another context.  Or, as George Bernard Shaw said, "[I]t would be quite proper— say on a canal barge; but it would not be proper for her at a garden party."  Part of Trump's popularity, presumably, comes from men on a canal barge (or in a locker room, as Trump might say) fearing that they will be expected always to be on their best behavior, i.e., at a garden party.

But this is altogether different from saying that the PC police are the only people with standards at all.  Consider for instance, that the people who are most particular about any sort of racial, ethnic or gender identity slur are also often quite free with old-fashioned four-letter words that conservatives are more inclined to shrink from.  Or people defending Trump's general misogyny, but unwilling to actually use the word "pussy."  What is really, happening, then, is not so much that people are trying to impose a standard of propriety where non existed before, as that people are trying replace the old standard with a new standard.  And yes, the new standard really is often overly strict and fussy and can be downright silly.  But the same can often be said of the old standard as well.

Examples:  Is it ridiculous that people no longer dare say "niggardly," which has nothing whatever to do with the other N-word?  Indeed it is.  Any other avoidance of an innocent word that coincides with an ethnic slur ("a little nip in the air," etc) is silly as well.  But so is bashfulness about the other word for "rooster."  Or that men named Richard must now go by Rich or Rick rather than -- well, you know what.  Or consider trigger warnings.  When I first encountered them (reading Ana Mardoll), they seriously annoyed me.  But then I started to notice that I had used them in my ordinary life all the time.  When I want to tell a joke with four-letter words, I preface it with a warning and seeking permission.  When I showed some friends the Monty Python clip that showed the origin of the phrase My hovercraft is full of eels, I prefaced it with the warning that this was Monty Python, which meant that it was dirty.  So can we please drop the absurd assumption that mavens of political correctness are taking the outrageous and unprecedented step imposing standards of propriety and acknowledge that what they are actually doing is changing standards of propriety.  As this post puts it, "Not saying things that offend other people is “political correctness” — not saying things that offend people one knows is just “etiquette.”  Or this one:
[T]he problem with the term "political correctness" is that it does not mean anything — or rather, that it can be used to impugn whatever norms governing social discourse from which the speaker would like to be liberated. 
As it turns out, most of the norms around social discourse are good ones. 
For example, they include "don't call women 'fat pigs,'" and "don't categorize large chunks of nationalities as rapists and criminals," and "don't brag about how big your penis is on the stage at a presidential debate." But if you violate any of these norms and say you're just being "politically incorrect," tens of millions of boorish idiots will cheer you on.
There are many legitimate criticisms of the new standards they are seeking to impose, but nothing new or shocking about the bare fact of having standards.

Finally, just in case there is someone out there who thinks that there should be no standards of propriety, that absolutely anything short of threats of violence should be not only legal, but socially acceptable, consider -- seriously -- whether The Donald is the right person to achieve such a society. Granted, a Trump society would be extremely vulgar.  It would be open to all manner of open expressions of racism and misogyny.  It would probably also give considerable scope to profanity, obscenity, lewdness, gratuitous insults and maybe even threats.  But one type of speech would not be tolerated.  Anything critical of Donald Trump.  He had made clear that he wants to change libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue, and talked about using anti-trust laws to break up media companies that criticize him.  Most recently, he has threatened to sue all the women accusing him of unwanted groping and the outlets the publish their stories.  Or consider the response of Trump's cyber bullies to people who criticize him.

So let's drop the talk about Trump as a brave rebel against political correctness and acknowledge that his supporters just want their standards of social etiquette to prevail, rather than someone else's.  And some are willing to resort to stronger measures than mere social pressure to achieve them.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What if Trump Refuses to Concede?

So, Trump appears to have been brought to the realization that he went too far in saying he might not concede defeat in the election and is partially walking that back to say that all he really meant was that he may imitate Al Gore -- that if the outcome looks extremely close and possibly fraudulent in a key state, he reserves the right to challenge it in court.  Does anyone actually believe that for a minute?  While I continue to believe that Trump's campaign staff will probably force him to concede, and that if they are not able to, they will at least shut him up and let Mike Pence concede, I do not expect him to appear to mean it, and I expect him to go on a general rant in the following days. Starting November 28 will be the Trump University fraud trial, which cannot possibly reflect well on him.  

But I was nonetheless inspired by this column by Pat Buchanan defending Trump's right to refuse to concede and saying how harmful can it be, since Trump obviously doesn't have an army to march on Washington in revolt.*  So let me game out some scenarios of what Trump might do if he doesn't want to concede defeat and what harm they might do. Hint -- plenty.

Mildest scenario, Trump merely fulminates about a stolen election.  This is the most likely, that Trump will merely rant about the biased media, lying women who said he groped them, and vote rigging in major cities, but won't actually try to do anything.  What will be the result?  Well, given that the polls pretty strongly point to a Clinton victory and the evidence that he groped women looks overwhelming, my guess is that the main effect will be to further estrange his followers from any unwelcome reality.  They will retreat more and more into their media cocoon, probably finding even Fox News to be collaborating with the enemy and that only the real conspiratorial world where Trump won and was only defeated by vote rigging and all bad stories about him are lies.  Needless to say, it is bad for any country to have a large segment of its population lose touch with reality -- perhaps a majority of voters for one of its major parties; certainly a sizable and highly motivated minority of voters for a major party.

Trump blames traitorous Republicans, sets himself up as unofficial leader of the Republican Party.  This one also seems quite probable.  Certainly he will not do any of the actual work involved in leading a major party like fund raising, building a party organization, formulating policy and the like.  He would merely issue pronouncements on high about who is and is not a proper Republican, with the usual penalty of primary challenge against any who fail him.  And, this being Trump, his main measure of loyalty will be ideological or any set of policies, but loyalty to him personally and unswerving opposition to Hillary Clinton.  This being basically what Republican primary voters seem to care about anyhow, one would expect to see an ever more hostile and confrontational Congress -- legislation becoming impossible, blanket refusals to confirm any executive or judicial nominees, government shutdowns, endless investigations of absolutely everything, probably at least one impeachment attempt, and possibly even a debt ceiling showdown. In short, Californication -- government that becomes so dysfunctional as to be non-functional. 

Protests and demonstrations.  Trump could call on his supporters to take to the streets and protest, or they could spontaneously do so themselves.  These protests would not change the outcome.  It is not appropriate for a democracy to allow an angry majority to overbear the vote of the majority, as expressed through elections.  Our tradition of democratic transitions is very strong -- strong enough to withstand large-scale demonstrations by Trump supporters.  On the other hand, demonstrations by Trump supporters will no doubt be countered with counter-demonstrations by his opponents.  The police may not be able in all cases to keep the sides apart.  Violent clashes may occur, allowing each side to see itself as martyrs.  Such a storm will blow itself out in time, but it could be ugly in the short run.  The longer-term result will be to make Trump supporters feeling even angrier and more disenfranchised, more convinced that they cannot get a corrupt system to listen, and therefore more eager to demand absolute intransigence by their representatives in Congress and punish the faintest show of cooperation with an administration they see as illegitimate.  Or worse.  (See Second Amendment Solutions below).

Attempted coup by impeachment.  Some Republicans have already said that if Hillary Clinton is elected, they will seek impeachment over the e-mails. Of course, the upshot will simply be to hand the Presidency to Timothy Kaine, so there will still be a Democrat in the White House, an intolerable situation for your average Trump supporter.  So I suppose the Republican House could impeach Clinton and Kaine both for vote rigging, or impeach Hillary for the emails and Kaine for being so criminal as to serve in her administration.  If the Senate convicts, that will mean removing both the President and Vice President from office so Paul Ryan, as Speaker of the House, will be the next President.  He can then name Donald Trump as his Vice President and resign in favor of the People's Choice.

 Of course, this won't actually happen.  The chances of Republicans having the two-thirds majority in the Senate necessary to remove both Hillary and her Vice-President are essentially zero, and if they did, Ryan would presumably prefer being President himself to turning the country over to anyone as unfit for office as Trump.  But if it did happen, it would in effect establish that being a President of the party opposite to the majority in Congress is an impeachable offense.  Can anyone doubt that the Democrats would see no alternative but to retaliate in kind next time the positions were reversed?

Over the long run, this could be taken as a sort of transition to a more parliamentary form of government -- Congress establishes its supremacy by impeaching any President of the opposing party and putting the Speaker in his/her place.  Parliamentary government has much to be said in its favor and is arguably superior to presidential government because it avoids this sort of gridlock. But our system is not well suited to be parliamentary.  Successful parliamentary governments either have unicameral legislatures, or reduce the upper house to a mostly ceremonial role.  We have two houses with real power, so that the possibility of multiple veto points and gridlock would continue. Besides, a successful parliamentary system requires members of parliament to serve terms long enough to give them some buffer being constantly up for election and allow them to get on with the business of actually governing.  The two-year term in the House of Representatives is too short.

The short run effect would be immense anger and recrimination as yet another norm gets shredded.

Al Gore, made unrecognizable by steroids.  The usual rationalization being offered is that Al Gore challenged the outcome of an election, so why shouldn't Trump.  Well, not quite.  In the case of Al Gore, the election was extremely close, with everything coming down to one state (Florida) where the vote was so close that the margin of victory was less than the margin of error in vote-counting technology.  Florida laws were a bit unclear how such a situation was to be handled.  The spectacle that followed did credit to nobody, with everyone putting partisan advantage over any sort of principle.  If the recount took too long, there was a real possibility that Florida's vote would not be decided by the deadline for the Electoral College to meet and the election would be thrown into the House.  This means that the House of Representatives, voting by states, would choose a winner among the top three contenders.  This is a spectacularly bad system.  It has been used only twice, in 1801 and 1825.  Both times, it lead to a long period of paralysis and all manner of most unedifying intrigue.  The more charitable interpretation of Bush v. Gore is that the Supreme Court halted the recount in order to spare the country such a spectacle.

Right now, if Nate Silver is to be believed,  Hillary Clinton is well ahead, but her lead is starting to soften.  Right now she is shown as favored for 339 electoral votes, well above the 270 required to win.  Her weakest support is in Iowa (six electoral votes) and Arizona (eleven votes).  These two states could very well go for Trump, bringing her total to 322.  Ohio (18 votes) may also go to Trump, reducing her total to 304.  Less plausible, but still possible, would be for her to even lose Nevada (six votes) and North Carolina (15) votes.  That would leave her with 301 votes.  Even if Florida (29 votes) went for Trump, that would leave her with a razor-thin electoral majority of 272 votes.  The loss of even one more state would be fatal to Clinton, but all remaining states appear to be quite solid for her.  Indeed, not even a Clinton victory of 339 votes would have to bother him.  He could simply challenge the vote whichever states were weakest supporters of Clinton, just enough states to deny her a majority.  He could seek to tie the whole thing up in recounts and litigation just long enough for the deadline to run out and throw the election into the House.  Recall that in such a case, voting is by state, rather than individually.  That gives an advantage to the small states.  If Republicans hold a majority of the House delegations for 26 states, the could decide the election for Trump regardless of the vote.

Here again, the precedent could be devastating.  As with impeachment, Democrats would have little choice but to retaliate in kind the first time the positions were reversed.  The result would be to make the whole election process a meaningless formality and create as the real winner the candidate whose party controls 26 or more states.  That, too, would be a move in the direction of a parliamentary system, but one with a leader chosen by states instead of by individual votes.  Everything I said above, about the obstacles to a parliamentary system in this country, and about the short-run anger and recrimination apply here as well.

And, just to add another twist, while the President is chosen by the House, the Vice President in such a case is chosen by the Senate, voting individually.  If opposite parties controlled the Senate and House, it could lead to the President and Vice President being of opposing parties, with all the complications that could result.

Coup by objection to electoral votes.  Apparently there is another alternative I had not realized.  Members of Congress can object to each state's votes, so long as the objection is in writing and signed by one member of each house.  An objection can be sustained only if both houses vote to uphold it.  But one can imagine that if both the Senate and the House remain in Republican hands, the threat of primary challenge could compel Republicans in both houses to reject enough states that went for Clinton to deny her an electoral majority throw the election into the House.  Once again, this would be a way of moving away from a Presidential and toward a parliamentary system, with all the dangers I listed above.

Second Amendment solutions.  All these approaches would be technically legal, though they would massively violate political normal and exceed what is appropriate to a loyal opposition.  But an appeal to Second Amendment solutions would be the ultimate act of disloyalty.  Don't get me wrong. I am well aware that Trump does not have an army at all, and would not be able to raise one any time soon that could challenge the electoral outcome.

But the Overton Window is at work here, with its Unthinkable -- Radical -- Acceptable -- Sensible -- Popular -- Policy distinction.  Once upon a time, long, long ago the idea that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to make violent revolution possible against the US government would have been Unthinkable.  By now, it has probably moved to somewhere between Acceptable and Sensible.  The idea that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to stockpile large arsenals and form private armies for possible armed rebellion, once even more Unthinkable, is probably somewhere between Radical and Acceptable.  That it would allow armed standoffs with the federal government when the private armies decide it is out of line remains Radical, although with the Bundy Ranch standoff there was at least some attempt by Hannity to nudge it in the direction of Acceptable.  But if more and more people respond to a Hillary Clinton victory by forming private armies, they will increasingly move toward Sensible.  And the idea that the losers of an election may reasonably engaged in armed rebellion against the winners may start moving from Unthinkable to Radical.  I have little doubt that the number of armed groups will grow in the wake of a Hillary victory.  The question is whether Trump will encourage them or not.

The good news here is that I think Trump is more likely to take the milder options than the more extreme ones.  The bad news is that even the milder options are dangerous to our body politic.

*And at the same time hinting without quite saying that violent rebellion just might be justified if Trump loses.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Worst Offense a Candidate Can Commit

It is not such a stretch to say that Donald Trump, in refusing the accept the result of an election if he loses is committing the worst offense a candidate can commit.  Worse than murder?

Well, let's just put it like this.  Andrew Jackson killed a man in a duel.  But in 1824 the campaign split four ways with four candidates.  Jackson won the largest number of both electoral and popular votes. In such a case, the House of Representative, voting by states, chooses the winner from among the top three candidates.  Speaker of the House Henry Clay, the last finishing among the four, persuaded the House to choose John Quincy Adams over Andrew Jackson.  Adams then named Clay as his Secretary of State.  It is also known that the two men met in private shortly before the vote, although owing to a mysterious eighteen and a half minute gap in JQA's journal, the exact contents of that meeting are unknown.

Jackson, rather understandably, denounced the decision as a "corrupt bargain" and believed he had been cheated of his due.  He nonetheless accepted the outcome and later had his revenge by running again in the next election and winning handily.

So come on, Donald, Jackson was a man easily provoked, and he had a whole lot more provocation than you will.  Let's see if you can live up to his example.

My General Impressions of the Final (Thank God!) Debate

Above all else, my strongest impression was that the candidates lived in entirely different universes. In one universe, Hillary Clinton has committed crimes of unprecedented severity, the Clinton Foundation is crooked to the core, the Democratic Party is a vast criminal conspiracy rigging the election, and all accusations the Trump groped women are debunked lies invented by the Clinton campaign.  In the other, the Russians are interfering in our election and treating Trump as their (presumably) unwitting puppet.  Partisans of either side have decided which universe they live in.  I have no idea what political bystanders will make of it all.

At the beginning of the debate, Trump seemed a bit Palin-esque, particularly about the Supreme Court.  It had the feeling of a debate between a candidate who knew what she was talking about and one who was spouting canned talking points, mostly about the Second Amendment.

Later on, Trump reverted to form, citing very convincing-sounding but false facts and starting to lose his temper, though interrupting less.  Clinton smiled in a superior sort of way and was sometimes worth listening to, sometimes empty blather.

Both candidates showed considerable skill about changing the subject when a question got uncomfortable.

Trump did make a few good points, most notably about the folly of backing rebels you don't know anything about.  True!  On the other hand, his overuse of superlatives gets annoying fast.  You just won't believe how annoying it is.  In fact, Trump's overuse of superlatives is the most annoying habit of any politician in the history of this country!

But by far the most important moment of this debate was when Trump was asked if he would respect the outcome of the election and he said he hadn't made up his mind yet.

Here is my prediction on that.  I doubt that Trump did anything impressive enough to create a large-scale swing in his favor tonight, so I think he will lose the election.  I am guessing that when he does, one of two things will happen.  Either his campaign staff will put a concession speech up on the teleprompter and force him to read it, at gunpoint, if necessary.  Or else he will refuse, his staff won't be able to force him, and they will have no choice but to handcuff him, stuff something in his mouth, and lock him up in the closet with Mike Pence reads the concession speech.  I am being hyperbolic here, of course, but you get the general idea.  Either way, for the next few days he will go on an unhinged rant trying to walk the speech back and convincing everyone within hailing distance of reality that this is not anyone we want anywhere near the Oval Office. How many people are not within that distance is something I fear to speculate about.

On the comforting side, we are seeing the limits of how far the Republican leadership is willing to go. They will go to a lot of appalling places, but they won't go there.  Impugning the integrity of the electoral process is a bridge too far, presumably because they know that once you impugn the electoral process, the whole democratic experiment really does face mortal danger.  The bad news is that it is far from clear how many of their followers agree.

And that, of course, is why I have included this post under my "failures of democracy" label.

Will He or Won't He

Well, the game ain't over till the fat lady sings.  While it seems most unlikely at this point that Trump will win, Hillary's bounce seems to reached its peak and perhaps be starting to decline.  After spending the last ten days in paranoid ravings about conspiracies of international bankers and rigged elections, Trump has made at least some token gestures toward proposing serious political reform. The latest revelations about Trump are starting to become old news, while Wikileaks is leaking a lot of sleazy but no more than the usual sausage making revelations about Hillary, so this last debate looks like Trump's last chance to turn it around.  A win remains an outside chance but not impossible; a respectable defeat is not too far-fetched.

I had resolved to spare myself the final debate by working late at an office with no sound on the computer, but my mouse chose this very night to give out, so I was forced to go home.  I will not be live-blogging or anything foolish, but I might as well steel myself for this last final ordeal.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Lock Her Up!

I differ from all the VSP's who say that it is particularly horrifying that Donald Trump expressed his intent to imprison Hillary Clinton if elected.  My feelings on the subject are more mixed.

We went through this once before when George Bush left the White House.  Some people were calling for him to be prosecuted as a war criminal, but the VSP's all insisted that it was out of the question, prosecuting political opponents is what banana republics do, and that such things don't happen in the US.  The same thing is happening now with Hillary Clinton.  Whether she committed any significant crime by sending State Department e-mails on a private server, or by deleting e-mails when they were subpoenaed I don't pretend to know.  But the VSP's all insist that only in a banana republic would she actually be prosecuted.

Indeed, the same even applies to Trump himself.  After all, his entire business career was based on fraud.  At least some of it is probably prosecutable.  But it will look like a partisan witch hunt if it happens.  This has led at least some VSP's (can't bother to look for link) to call for a preemptive pardon from Trump as well.

In short, only banana republics actually expect their leaders to obey the law.  In solid, working democracies, we have an ironclad principle that our leaders should be immune from prosecution and able to get away with any crimes they may commit in office and perhaps even before.  I have a serious problem with this.

Indeed, that appears to be a major reason the whole Hillary's e-mails story has legs -- not so much that Hillary's offense is particularly heinous, but that it represents all the ways in which our political class and ruling bigwigs seem to get away with everything while the little guy is punished.  I think there is some legitimacy to this complaint.

Of course, Trump is the last person who has any sort of standing to make it.  His whole career was based on fraud, on gaming the system, and on wealth and power meaning getting away with things the little guy can never get away with.  That was, after all, the real point of the "pussy" tape -- that his wealth and power allowed him to get away with manhandling women in a way that regular guys never could.  His response to all this is that yes, he made his career gaming the system, he knows more than anyone about how the system is played, and he is therefore uniquely qualified to put an end to it.  It is not, in his case, the appeal of a repentant sinner.  (Trump repent of anything?  Be real!) Rather, it is essentially the appeal of a bigger scoundrel saying that he can stop the smaller scoundrels.  And another article (don't remember where to look) suggests that every time the establishment makes clear that they oppose Trump, it simply reinforces the impression that they fear him because of his ability to shut down their crooked games.

At the same time, looking to Trump to restore the rule of law is sort of like hiring a wolf to guard the hen house from foxes.  We are talking about a man who threatens libel actions or anti-trust actions against newspapers that run stories that criticize him.  A man who threatened to use the power of his office to investigate a judge who ruled against him in the Trump University lawsuit.  A man suspected of bribing an Attorney General to drop the investigation of Trump University.  (And who definitely resorted to subterfuge to conceal the illegal donation).

Certainly it is laughable to suggest that his more rabid followers are motivated by a concern for the rule of law.  Already at a recent rally some began expanding the call to "lock her up" from Hillary Clinton to the People Magazine reporter who accused Trump of groping her.  And perhaps other accusers as well.  Indeed, one account even claims that Trump supporters are calling to lock up other critics in the press as well.  And, of course, Trump is insisting that if he loses the election, that will be proof that it is rigged.

So, the choice appears to be between letting our criminal justice system be corrupted by letting powerful bigwigs get away with breaking the law, or letting our criminal justice system be corrupted by using it for partisan witch hunts.  I am not sure which poison to pick.  But of this much I am certain.  If we want to restore the rule of law, Donald Trump is absolutely not the person to do it.

If Donald Trump Said That Pigs Can Fly

Donald Trump really does have an extraordinary ability to lie convincingly, with complete sincerity, and in a way that can be remarkably hard to refute.  But his speaking style is also remarkably easy to caricature.  So maybe a little mockery is the best way to show up his lies.

Suppose Donald Trump decided that pigs can fly.  (Some of his statements are only marginally less absurd).  He would probably say something like this:
Pigs can fly, I tell you.  You see them flying around all time time.  I get all sorts of calls from voters all over the country complaining about the pig droppings falling out of the sky.  One of them landed not two feet away from me when I was coming out of the building just a few days ago.  Nowadays I never go out without a steel umbrella.
So what do you say to that?  How do you refute it?  Proving a negative can be extraordinarily difficult, even so obvious a negative as that pigs cannot fly, that Trump has not been getting complaints from voters all over the country about flying pigs, that he was not almost hit by pig droppings any time recently (or ever) and that he does, in fact, often go out without a steel umbrella.

Well, that last, I suppose, will be the easiest because it is not an attempt to prove a negative.  All you need is photographs of Trump going out for the last few days without a steel umbrella.  But what about the rest?  What do you do?  Ask aerodynamic experts to prove, in excruciatingly dull detail, why it would be impossible for pigs to fly?  Have the Russians or Wikileaks hack Trump's emails to prove that none of them so much as mention flying pigs?  (The Russians and Wikileaks seem uninterested in cooperating).  Interview everyone who has accompanied Trump out of a building lately to see if any of them saw any pig droppings narrowly miss him?

And doesn't the mere fact that he has people investigating any refuting anything so ridiculous mean that he has won already?

Trump, CEO Politicians, and Corruption

In 1953, President Eisenhower nominated Charlie Wilson, CEO of General Motors, as Secretary of Defense.  At his confirmation hearing, the potential for conflict of interest came up.  He assured the Senate that he had no problem going against the interests of his company, and that in any event, he did not believe a conflict would come up because, "[F]or years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.”  This got morphed by Democrats into "What's good for General Motors is good for America" -- clearly an accusation of corruption on his part.  But what kind of corruption were they accusing him of?  I have always assumed it was the broader kind, i.e., that "General Motors" meant big business in general and that they were accusing him of equating the public good with the interests of the 1%.  But I have occasionally heard it suggested that they were accusing him of the narrower kind of corruption -- of giving special primacy to his own company.

Which leads us back to Donald Trump (of course).  And once again, to the point that while we have had CEO politicians before and even one CEO President, but none of them have been anything like Donald Trump.

Herbert Hoover made his fortune in mining.  Ross Perot founded a data processing company.  Herman Cain ran various restaurant chains.  Carly Fiorina was CEO of Hewlett-Packard.  Mitt Romney worked in finance.  And, of course, Donald Trump's made his mark in real estate development.

So what, one may say?  There are many fields of business.  All provide useful services.  Why should one be any more or less honorable than any other?  Well, there is the way one conducts business.  So far as I know, there is not much to criticize on how Hoover, Perot or Cain did business.  Fiorina's tenure as HP CEO is generally regarded a failure, but an honest one.  Romney ran for President as head of a financial company at a time when finance was decidedly unpopular, and one involved in some of the less winsome aspects of finance, such as leveraged buyouts and general "vulture capitalism."  I do not pretend to know enough about finance to know if his activities served a useful purpose.  But certainly no one accused Romney of any sort of fraud or illegality, even in his less winsome business activities.

Trump, by contrast, appears to have built his entire business career essentially on fraud.

Before running for President, Romney had been Governor of Massachusetts.  Hoover had been Secretary of Commerce.  Fiorina had run for Governor of California.  Perot had never held office before, but he took a serious interest in policy and cared and had strong positions on important issues of the day.  Cain had been a lobbyist, but was ultimately ignorant of policy beyond a narrow range of matters involving business regulation.

But not even Cain was as aggressively, proudly, and utterly ignorant as Trump.  With Cain, one at least hoped that given enough time, he might learn something.  Trump appears to be incapable of focusing on anything for more than a few minutes and thus of being brought up to speed.  Besides, with Cain one could hope that he would know enough to realize his own ignorance, choose advisers who knew something, and listen to their advice.  Trump has left no grounds for hope on any of those points.

CEO's are more autocratic than US Presidents and may have difficulty adapting themselves to the give and take of democratic partisan politics.  As I understand it, there were some complaints of that sort when Romney was Governor of Massachusetts, but he learned.  And certainly there is nothing to suggest that he was ignorant of such basic concepts as the rule of law, the separation of powers, or basic democratic norms.  Hoover, though a brilliant administrator, was a poor politician and some have suggested that this was responsible for his disastrous failures.  (I disagree).  The others have not held office.  Cain appears at least a likeable guy, though how he would have behaved as President is anyone's guess.  Fiorina, as I understand it, was indeed abrasive and overly authoritarian as a CEO, traits that were part of her undoing, and that would serve her even worse in the White House.  And Perot appeared truly ignorant of our basic form of government and regarded us as a sort of elective dictatorship.  He showed plenty of signs of paranoia, which serves as an uncommonly ill omen for his future as President.

But if once I would have placed Trump marginally ahead of Perot in this regard, as Trump spirals out of control he is making even Perot's most autocratic tendencies and paranoid ravings look rational by comparison.  Perot, after all, merely wanted to be dictator.  Trump's warnings have become so apocalyptic and his promises so extravagant that it is hard to tell whether he thinks he is running for dictator or for messiah.

But above all (and this leads back to my original point), while some of these other CEO's may have believed that what is good for General Motors is good for America in the broader sense that what benefits the 1% benefits the economy as a whole, none of them ever showed any sense of adhering to that doctrine in the narrower sense, i.e., of thinking it acceptable to use the office to advance their own personal fortunes.  Trump shows no evidence of having any concept of the distinction.  And increasingly, he is losing the concept of any distinction between his political fortunes and the country's or between political opposition and criminality.

This is a very dangerous man, and he is going completely off the deep end.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Trump Goes Completely Off the Deep End

Remember how I said that Donald Trump might, after all, be preferable as President to Ross Perot because, although an ignorant blowhard, an authoritarian, and a narcissistic buffoon, at least he showed no signs of outright clinical paranoia?  I may have to retract that.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Brief Comment on the Second Debate

I guess my reaction to the second debate is similar to my reaction to the first.  Trump impersonates a wonk pretty well.  He is good at coming out with facts that sound impressive, whether true or not.  Hillary was not good enough at calling him out when he spouted nonsense.  His behavior was more restrained this time, i.e., he did not make obviously clownish faces and the like.  I actually thought he had a good point when he pointed out that there are no good guys in the Syrian civil war, and that arming rebels is not a good idea, given what they turn out to be.  Very true!

Still wouldn't make me trust him with the Presidency, though.

A Very Brief Comment on Trump and the "Pussy" Tape

The whole business about Trump and the "pussy" tape positively cries out for an Onion headline: "Donald Trump Caught on Tape Acting Like Donald Trump.  Everyone in an Uproar."

Trump and Corruption

I want to discuss a little the idea held by some people that the system is so corrupt that we should elect Donald Trump to shake it up because any change would be an improvement.

I guess that raises two questions.  First of all, just how corrupt is our present system.  And second, just how corrupt is Donald Trump.

As for corruption in our present system, there are several ways to look at it.

One interpretation of corrupt is the crudest sense of corruption, i.e., are our politicians being flat-out bribed?  Well, there was William Jefferson and his fridge full of money, but so far as I can tell, this is an unusual case.  For the most part, there isn't that much flat-out bribery going on.  Corruption in our political system is something more subtle.

At the other end of the spectrum is the politiphobe definition of corruption, which basically amounts to the existence of politics at all:
[Politiphobes] believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. 
Only slightly less sweeping is the concept of corruption implied in the whole uproar over the Hillary Clinton e-mails, which roughly defines corruption as networking.  I noticed much the same thing all the way back in 1997 at the time of the Southeast Asian economic crisis.  The general consensus seemed to be that the Asian economies crashed because of corruption and "crony capitalism."  These terms were roughly defined to mean people making decisions based on their personal relationships, rather than cold-blooded calculations about the bottom line. In other words, acting like actual flesh-and-blood people, rather than the soulless Homo economicus that inhabits textbooks everywhere.

Let's face facts.  Treating one's personal relationships as primary is simply human nature.  Yes, treating important public policy decisions simply as an exchange of favors between friends is inappropriate and often corrupt.  That is why there are so many elaborate disclosure and anti-corruption rules, to keep basic human nature from asserting itself.  But in the end, such rules can only go so far.  People will network, do favors for friends, exchange one favor for another, grant access based on past association and so forth.  There is simply no way to prevent it short of taking humans out of government altogether and replacing them with computers.

Another extremely broad definition of corruption is acting on one's own private interests instead of for the public good.  Here again, given the difficulty in figuring out what the public good is and how it is best served, as well as the mind's extraordinary ability to rationalize what it wants, it seems a reasonable assumption that corruption of this kind is impossible to eliminate.  I realize that at this point libertarians would agree and say that is all the more reason to hold government to the absolute bare minimum (roughly, a criminal justice system and civil courts to enforce contracts), to prevent that sort of corruption and abuse of power.  My only response can be that I think libertarians seriously underestimate how much corruption and abuse of power can take place outside government.

My answer, instead, is that if you can't eliminate corruption of this kind, your better bet is to broaden or, if you will democratize it.  My own hypothesis is that the broader the corruption, the more people who benefit, the broader the interest being promoted, the less it differs from the public good, and the less noxious the corruption.

Consider some points of comparison.  At the time this country was founded, corruption was rife in Great Britain.  One form this corruption took was in representation in Parliament.  Representation was not in proportion to population.  Some district had only a handful of eligible voters (rotten boroughs).  Election from this district could be achieved simply by bribing a handful of electors. In other districts, one wealthy proprietor permanently had power to bribe or coerce the view eligible voters ("pocket boroughs" because they were in a proprietor's pocket) to ensure his election to Parliament.  Bribery of this crude sort was not possible in districts with large populations.  This is not to deny that bribery is possible.  A longstanding US tradition has been for representatives to bribe their constituents with "earmarks" and pork barrel projects, i.e., bringing popular public works to the district.  This, too, is a form of bribery, but it is one in which a fairly broad swath of the population benefits and therefore, I would say, a less noxious one.

The US Congress in 1995 under the leadership of Newt Gingrich is another case in point.  Republicans had denounced the Democrats as the party of special interests and taken power proudly boasting that they had no such corruption.  They then proceeded to attempt to turn Congress into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce and introduced legislation to block the introduction of modern anti-bacterial methods of food inspection, to make it easier for companies to dip into employee pension funds, to sell National Forests to mining and timber interests, and so forth. My mother commented at the time that this showed that Republicans were just as must the party of special interests as Democrats, their interests were merely narrower.  The AARP (America Association of Retired Persons) represents only a sub-portion of the population (retirees) whose interest can legitimately conflict with the interests of working age people.  But it is a much broader, and therefore less noxious, interest than the ones who wanted to dip into employee pensions and so forth.

All of which leads to a specific kind of corruption of this kind. Namely, elites the world over (the 1%, if you will) have a marked tendency to confuse their own power and privilege with the common good.  The US is no exception.  In the US, this means a tendency for our elites to believe that whatever maximizes profits maximizes the public interest.  It informs the Republican Party's insistence that cutting taxes as the top and gutting regulations should always be top priorities. Critical here is many people's belief that the 1% have captured our politics altogether and that popular voices have been completely shut out.

This is very much the fear of people on both sides of the aisle.  Followers of Bernie Sanders and followers of Donald Trump share it, though in different ways.  To Democrats (myself included) the all-consuming hegemony of the 1% is shown in the Republican obsession with cutting taxes at the top and gutting regulation, and the obsession of Very Serious People in balancing the budget by cutting entitlements.  To Republicans, the all-consuming hegemony of the 1% is shown in Republican willingness to admit more immigrants who will add cheap labor, in the Supreme Court ruling in favor of same sex marriage, and in the current atmosphere that treats people to oppose same sex marriage and giving transgenders access to the restroom of their choice as outside of all bounds of reasonable discourse.  And people on both sides of the aisle see it manifested in this endless insistence on intervening in wars in the Mideast long after such interventions have proven fruitless.

Is this true?  Well, I believe that the 1% have a much stronger grip on our body politic than before, partly be campaign donations, and partly by the decline of many interest groups that represented people outside the 1%, like labor unions.  But it would be false to say that our political class are completely unresponsive to pressure from below.  For instance, Trump supporters still act as if the Republican establishment favored unrestricted immigration, when that simply is not so.  By now securing our border and opposing any path to legalization are essential ideological tests for a Republican almost as much as tax cuts at the top.  And make no mistake, this is the result of pressure from below.  The same applies to guns.  Another basic ideological marker for Republicans is opposition to any sort of restriction on firearms ownership, also the result of pressure from the rank-and file.  The same applies to church members and abortion.

On the Democratic side, raising taxes on the top rates seems unlikely to be the result of the views of the donor class.  And while it does seem fair to say that the donor class are lock-step in favor of same sex marriage and trans-genderism, that, too, ultimately came about from pressure from below.  So, too, Black Lives Matter is a seeking to exercise influence from below.  In short, it is still possible to exert pressure from below and influence politicians; it is just more difficult than in the past.

Another aspect of our political system that is both a source of corruption and a limitation on the power of the 1% is that the 1% is by no means a monolith.  Not only do elites tend to identify their interests with the common good, but they are divided into sub-factions that each equate its own particular interests with the common good.  For instance, the finance industry identifies the common good (savers!) with maximum return on passive investments (raise interest rates); extractive industries identify the common good with repealing environmental regulations; real estate developers identify the common good with repealing land use regulations; manufacturers (often) identify the common good with protectionism, and so forth.  Furthermore, these interests are not just interests of the 1%.  Many people work in all these industries and share vertical ties with the people at the top; thus the whole industry from top to bottom shares common interests. (There are also conflicts within industries as well, of course, such as labor-management conflicts).  This might be seen as combating one form of corruption (the horizontal interest of the 1%) with another kind of corruption (the vertical interest of particular industries).

So what about Donald Trump?  Well, I just finished watching his second debate, and he has definitely put emphasis on this -- that Hillary is captive to her donors, while he is too rich to buy.  And he took her to task for the fact that she had been in government for 30 years, yet the country still has problems.  If he were elected President, he would fix all of them.  That is, quite simply, an appeal to the politiphobe view of corruption, that the mere existence of politics is corruption, and that if we could set aside the failings of politicians, everything would be fixed.  It is, of course, a fantasy.

But the thing about Donald Trump is that his record indicates him to be corrupt in the narrowest possible sense, and therefore the most dangerous.  He is not a candidate who equates the public good with the interests of the 1% or the interests real estate development.  He gives no evidence of having any concept of the common good apart from his own interests.  He is a candidate who takes advantage of the Brexit to pitch for his golf courses in Scotland.  He is a candidate whose campaign routinely buys Trump products and uses Trump buildings and pays Trump enterprises inflated prices for the privilege.  He is a candidate whose concept of putting his wealth in blind trust is turning his business empire over to his children to manage.

This is, I think, what most people think of when they talk about political corruption, certainly what many fear is what our system has become.  And Trump is running as the candidate who will put an end to this type of corruption -- by embracing it whole-heartedly.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Reflections on the First Debate

OK, I know it is a bit late to be weighing in on the debate, but let me put my two cents' worth anyhow.  Which is, I don't think Trump did so badly as conventional wisdom has it.  Not that I think he did great or anything, but I didn't think he was an epic disaster.

I might as well confess my biases here.  I tend to favor debaters who appear to know what they are talking about, have a good command of facts and serious understanding of policy.  Even if I don't agree with candidates, I am inclined to cut them some slack if they make a good, evidence-based case for what they want to do.

Thus to me Ronald Reagan's performance against Carter is sort of the gold standard of debate.  A number of people have commented that, although there was pervasive discontent with how the country was doing, many people were afraid Reagan was a crazy fanatic.  The debate convinced them otherwise.  Speaking for me, I was quite impressed when he regularly countered Carter's accusations and attempts to paint him as extremist with calm facts, even to the point of chuckling and says "There you go again," after several such accusations.  Not everyone agreed with me.  My civics teacher at the time said he would never trust anyone who chuckles while talking about nuclear war.  But there you have it.

On the other hand, Sarah Palin is a sort of anti-gold standard.  Hers was the most painful debate performance I have ever seen.  My impression watching the Biden-Palin debate was that it was between two candidates, one of whom had a serious, in-depth understanding of policy, and the other one of whom was reciting canned talking points.  And, in fact, some accounts afterward say that that was exactly what she was doing.  Not everyone agreed with me.  Palin supporters thought she did great.  But a majority clearly saw Biden as the winner.  To me, it looked like a high school athlete trying to compete against pros.

Well, Trump wasn't Ronald Reagan.  But he wasn't Sarah Palin, either.  Hillary started with what sounded to me like a lot of glittering generalities without much substance behind them, while Trump came out with what sounded like facts, even if some of them actually were not true.  On the other hand, if you had turned the sound off, Hillary would look like a normal person, while Trump's facial expressions and body language were exaggerated and clownish and did not look worthy of a leader of the free world.  And as the evening wore on, Trump started shouting and showed that he could be provoked.  Clinton stayed calm.  And while the audience was told to be quiet there were some lines that got laughter and some that got applause.  Trump drew first blood on applause, saying he would release his tax returns when Hillary released her e-mails.  But I would call the most noteworthy event of the night Trump saying he had the better temperament after a rant that rather strongly proved the contrary.  That got a good laugh too, but not an intended one.

So I would say advantage Trump earlier on and advantage Clinton later.  But never a real blowout. My side, obviously, exaggerated every one of Trump's errors and failing.  But even Trump's side seems to think he should have prepared better.

The big question, of course, is now what.  There are two more debates to go.  What will happen?

The cynical take is that whoever lost the first debate will necessarily have to be declared the winner of the second, with the original winner making a comeback in the third. That is how the media always spin debates in order to maintain drama  and suspense.
My prediction for the narrative, based on every election since 2000, is that Trump will be deemed to have improved substantially in the second debate, and then Clinton will be seen as pulling off a needed comeback in the third. Note that this is my prediction for the narrative. It doesn’t matter if Trump spends the second debate yelling into his cell phone about how he won’t pay construction workers, or if Clinton suffers a stroke in the third debate. In the second debate it is necessary that Trump be seen as redeemed, so if he spends the entire debate ignoring the moderator and yelling about his refusal to pay a bill he’ll be called “bold and unconventional” for doing so. In the third debate, if doesn’t matter if Clinton goes into a coma, the narrative demands a comeback, so she’ll be seen as “incredibly graceful as she soldiered on until medical personnel intervened.”
On the other hand -- well, Trump's supporters say that he has to prepare better, but it is not clear whether he is even capable of preparing.  Remember all those comments how he has an incredibly short attention span and is incapable of focusing for more than a few minutes on subject other than his own self-aggrandizement.  That makes debate prep really hard.  And the next debate will consist of ordinary citizens asking questions.  I have seen debates of that type and don't like the format much. Ordinary citizens' questions tend to be quite narrowly focused on issues that affect them personally rather than ones of national importance.  But the result is to give a clear advantage to the wonk who had an incredibly fine-tuned knowledge of policy.*  Others (cannot find link) have suggested that the town hall format plays especially poorly for the sort of temper and dominance displays that are Trump's stock-in-trade.

And finally, there is the question of how much it matters at all.  After all, the general consensus is that debate rarely do more than briefly move the needle.  Hillary's debate bump is already looking to be smaller and shorter-lived than her convention bump.  On the other hand, we are now in the home stretch, with just over a month to go, at a time when every little flicker in opinion polls really does matter.  Complacency (or despair) is still premature.  But it is nowhere near as premature as it was a few months ago.

General forecast:  A very stressful month ahead.

*This approach also may have an inherent bias toward Democrats.  Can't find the link, but when reporters switched which side they covered, they were particularly impressed by that.  Democratic voters have specific concerns that they want the candidates to address, while Republican find the whole idea of government addressing people's problems repugnant and address ideological generalities instead.  The town hall format focuses on people with specific concerns they want the candidates to address.