on playing hardball with the shutdown

On the one hand … The recent shutdown and the threat of a second one result from the Democrats’ choices as well as Donald Trump’s. Nancy Pelosi could reflect that she previously supported legislation that expanded walls on the Southern border, that $6 billion is a mere 0.16 percent of the federal budget, and that closing the government to thwart the president’s desire for a wall causes real people real pain–above all the low-income contract workers who will never be repaid for missed work. These might be reasons for her to compromise. I might add that the shutdown gives me the satisfaction of a successful political brawl without costing me anything. (I wasn’t even inconvenienced at the various TSA inspections I crossed while the TSA workers weren’t being paid.) And there is a long, very ugly tradition of sacrificing other people’s immediate interests for political purposes, sometimes justified on the ground that you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs or that the revolution is more likely to begin if the government gets worse. This is a path to evil paved with dubious intentions.

On the other hand … The president was elected with (although not necessarily because of) racist and factually false claims: migration from the south is hurting “us,” a wall would stop it, and the republic to our south can be forced to pay for it. In a world of partisan polarization and weaponized disinformation, there are scant consequences for making such claims. A shutdown forces Trump to pay a price. For the American people and the political elites who watch the public’s reactions, it sharply clarifies what is at stake. It has reminded many voters of the value of civil servants’ work. It deters similar behavior by Trump and by his allies. Along with a few more such conflicts, it may prevent him from being reelected.

In the end, I favor playing hardball. I think the last shutdown was a good moment, and it is worth risking a second one by negotiating hard with the president.

We must be constantly attentive to the dangers of forcing conflicts when other people bear the costs, and we must resist the narcotic attractions of partisan victory. I’ve been reading a lot of Gandhi lately and can imagine him fasting or doing something self-sacrificial after having heightened tensions in this way–for the good of his soul and as a method of preventing hubris.

But he and other nonviolent political leaders do intentionally heighten tensions. When the openly racist Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham, “Bull” Connor, was defeated by a White moderate candidate, the Civil Rights Movement rushed to take advantage of his lame duck months in office. They knew that he would turn firehoses and dogs on the children and teenagers in their movement. His reaction was an opportunity for victory that they didn’t want to squander.

Just because the end does not justify the means, it doesn’t follow that you can’t strategize with goals in mind. We must not forget the contract workers who go without pay in a shutdown. Neither can we overlook the long, slow, and vast injustices of our immigration and criminal justice policies. A shutdown forces those issues onto the agenda and may increase the odds of a new coalition governing the country.

If public deliberation is a value (as I think it is), then there would be better ways to reason together about public policy. We wouldn’t have to force vulnerable people to sacrifice in the interest of clarity. But the reality is a system of unaccountable government plus partisan polarization and hypercharged misinformatibon. Under those circumstances, nothing cuts through the fog and illuminates citizens’ choices as well as a crisis. Wise leaders must be ready to force crises if they think they can win.

See also: should Democrats play constitutional hardball in 2019-20?; game theory and the shutdown; moderation, civility, and bipartisanship are not the same; Brag, Cave and Crow: a contribution to game theory; and Gandhi on the primacy of means over ends.

Brag, Cave and Crow: a contribution to game theory

Game theory models interactions by presenting the “players” as people (or organizations) who face choices, and the outcome as the result of how they each choose. In conflictual circumstances, the players can choose between the option that their opponent would prefer (cooperate) or the one that their opponent would not prefer (defect). In certain unpleasant circumstances, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, every player is better off defecting even though that outcome is worst for all.

Donald Trump has faced a set of conflictual games as president, with North Korea, Mexico and Canada, China, and Chuck & Nancy (among others) on the opposite side of the table. He has frequently applied the novel strategy of Brag, Cave, and Crow (Trump, DJ et al. 2019). It works like this: First declare very loudly that you will defect and the other side will be forced to cooperate, then cooperate, and then declare very loudly that the other side was the one that cooperated.

This is not as dumb as it sounds.

First, assume that you can convince yourself that you did win. Payers seek to achieve their own preferences or maximize their own satisfaction. If you talk yourself into the idea that you won even though someone might see you as having folded, your subjective feelings are fine. That’s a win. Meanwhile, the conflict is gone and does you no more damage.

Second, if you are Donald Trump, you are always more interested in another game, a popularity contest. You are appealing to an audience of consumers or voters. Insofar as you can persuade them that you won even though you folded, you do win what you wanted most. And in a world of echo chambers and partisan heuristics, often this is exactly what happens. For instance, settle for the substance of NAFTA with minor tweaks, but rename it with an acronym that has “US … A” in it, and you can Brag, Cave, and Crow (BCC) for the win.

In the immediate circumstances, it’s good that BCC pays off for Donald Trump. It’s much better that he should brag about having solved the North Korean nuclear standoff than convince himself that he must actually force North Korea to denuclearize. Likewise, if he can claim he built a wall on the southern border when he didn’t, that will save us all some money, preserve the Constitution, offend Mexico less than a physical wall would, and leave nature and landowners alone.

At this juncture, Trump’s choice is either to Crow or to go back to the Brag stage. In other words, he can declare that he won or else threaten to win in the future with a veto or a declaration of emergency. I don’t think he can both Brag and Crow at the same moment about the same thing, although the echo chamber may be hermetic enough to allow that to work to some degree.

Alas, the incentive to BCC is yet another blow to responsible and accountable governance and public deliberation.

See also game theory and the shutdown; the emperor’s new wall; and why learn game theory?

game theory and the shutdown

In game theory, you model a real-world situation by simplifying it to depict a finite group of “players” who are defined by preferences and choices. You predict outcomes based on how these players will choose. The structure of the choice matters, e.g., Will they decide simultaneously or in turn? Once, or several times? (Here’s my argument that game theory is useful.)

In the case of the current shutdown, it seems that at least the following six players are relevant:

  • Donald Trump: He can choose at any time between the status quo (threatening to veto a continuing resolution, or CR, unless it includes money for a wall) or folding (saying that he would sign such a resolution). His decision-making process is simple: he does what he wants to do. He could, however, renege on a promise to sign a “clean” CR. He presumably wants: 1) the wall, 2) the ability to claim a victory, 3) higher instead of lower popularity, 4) strong support among Republican voters, to head off a primary, 5) economic growth, and 6) an outcome that will satisfy the actual opponents of immigration (who know that a wall won’t really help their cause). NB: these are not in order, because I am not sure how to rank them.
  • Chuck and Nancy: They can choose at any time between the status quo (supporting only a “clean” CR) or else folding (agreeing to fund the wall). Their decision-making process is complex since they are elected by caucuses full of diverse interests and values. They presumably want: 1) no wall, 2) a victory over Trump that is popular on the center-left, 3) Trump’s popularity to fall, 4) the Republican congressional caucuses to fracture, 5) federal workers to be paid, and 6) other policies, such as DACA, to pass. Again, these are not in order–maybe they want 6) most of all.
  • Mitch McConnell: He can choose at any time to propose a “clean” CR or some kind of win/win agreement, such as the wall plus DACA. He presumably wants: 1) this whole thing to go away, 2) conservatives in Kentucky to like him, 3) Republican Senators in diverse circumstances all to be reelected in 2020, and 4) his caucus to hang together.
  • Federal workers: They can choose at any time between the status quo (showing up to work without being paid) or some kind of civil resistance: massive absenteeism, a wildcat strike. Their decision-making is very complex. For instance, the National Border Patrol Council (a union) is right behind Trump, but perhaps its members aren’t. In general, federal workers presumably want: 1) to get paid. Their other interests–such as harming or else supporting Trump–vary.
  • Right-wing personalities and organizations: They can choose to put pressure on Trump or back off. They like the wall but differ in how much they like it. Many know that it wouldn’t actually reduce immigration and are dead-set against giving up a punitive immigration law in return for a wall that doesn’t work. But their opinions on that matter vary. They need not speak in unison, and perhaps it’s necessary to model them as several players. They presumably want: 1) less immigration, 2) symbolic manifestations of white nationalism, 3) Democrats and liberals to look bad, 4) their own audiences to stay loyal.
  • The people who are sampled in opinion polls: They can each say whether they blame Trump or the Democrats. Their decision-making process is individual choice followed by a pollster’s statistical aggregation. They want lots of things, but current polls suggest that the largest group wants: 1) no wall, 2) the government to reopen, and 3) the politicians to move onto other things. This is what they say, but the partisan heuristics with which they’d assess any specific outcome cannot be discounted.

I tend to think that Tyler Cowan is right that the federal workers will end this. Of course, their ability to act is much constrained by labor law, but they still have a range of tactics available to them. Mitch McConnell is the other player with a lot of clout–but bad options, which is why he isn’t playing so far.

The time dimension is crucial, since the status quo could be interrupted unpredictably by a disaster that needs a federal response, an economic crisis, a serious decline in Trump’s popularity, an erosion of public support for the Democrats, or a major distraction, such as a certain Special Council’s final report. Smart players must decide how to choose based on deep uncertainty about what happens next.

churchgoing and Trump

The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group has released an important new paper by Emily Ekins entitled, “Religious Trump Voters: How Faith Moderates Attitudes about Immigration, Race, and Identity.”

Ekins notes that Trump performed best in the 2016 GOP primaries among Republican voters who never attend church (getting 69% of their vote). Examining Trump voters during 2018, she finds correlations between regularity of church attendance and positive attitudes toward racial and religious minorities, acceptance of diversity, approval of immigration (and opposition to the border wall), and concern about poverty.

Here I illustrate that pattern with attitudes toward Black people as the dependent variable. The trend line controls for race, gender, income, education, and age. All the data come from Trump voters. Because the correlation between church attendance and racial attitudes among Trump voters holds with these controls, Ekins suggests that it is causal.

This might not be a case of cause-and-effect. A third factor might underlie both tolerance and church attendance. However, I posited a similar causal hypothesis early in 2017, after I’d met with a conservative Southern pastor who despised Trump’s leadership style and attitudes. This pastor blamed Trump’s support on coach-potato “Christians,” those for whom Christianity is an identity rather than an actual faith, those who get their ideas from Fox News or Breitbart, not from fellow congregants.

Some colleagues and I tried to test this hypothesis using survey data and failed to find it, which is a null result worth noting. Still, I’d like to think that Ekins is right—perhaps more so in 2018 than in 2016.

Why would this pattern hold?

First, Ekins shows that church-attending Trump supporters volunteer and trust other people much more than Trump supporters who rarely or never attend Church. It may be that people who help others and feel they can rely on others are less likely to despise and fear strangers. In turn, church-attendance may promote volunteering and trust, or it may manifest a broader form of social capital that explains both tolerance and church-attendance.

Robert Putnam introduced a distinction between “bridging” and “bonding” social capital. The bridging kind connects people who are diverse in some respects; the bonding kind may increase solidarity in opposition to outsiders. One could imagine that churches enhance bonding social capital. America is said to be most segregated on Sunday mornings, and churches distinguish insiders from outsiders. But volunteering and trusting generic others are measures of bridging, not bonding, social capital. Insofar as churches encourage volunteering, they are trying to create bridging social capital.

Another mechanism could be leadership. Real churches have leaders, both clergy and laypeople. Church leaders are expected to be responsive and responsible and to hold the group together. In contrast, Trump just says whatever comes into his mind, usually makes no effort to deliver what he promises, and is happy to divide. I have hypothesized that people who are familiar with real leadership in local voluntary associations would despise Trump’s style. Although we were unable to show that pattern using survey data, Ekins’ new results may suggest that it holds.

A third mechanism could be the content of the faith. I happen not to be religious, and I could criticize the specific content of many sermons and texts on ethical grounds. I am aware that there are mega-churches that show huge audiences jingoistic videos of American military might; there are clerics who praise Trump or cite Romans 13 to defend the administration’s policies. In my opinion, these examples are idolatrous as well as unjust, but my argument does not depend on romanticizing the content of religious expression.

I would argue, instead, that real faith is demanding. You can find passages and examples that reinforce bigotry, but you will also encounter texts that challenge you. Faith may be consistent with almost any policy position—as we can see from the enormous range of political opinions among clergy—yet participation in a deep and complex religious community is inconsistent with all simplistic attitudes about other people. Cable news and propagandistic websites reinforce what their audiences want to hear, but scripture is strange and demanding. Since religious texts are very hard to figure out by oneself, they require discussion and debate. In turn, the people in any given discussion usually turn out to have idiosyncratic and incompatible interpretations. This is why Martin Luther, despite his break with The Church, believed that we all need a church to keep us honest. Even if the content of preaching and liturgy doesn’t turn us into people who understand and care for others, the decision to attend a service may reflect a desire to become such a person.

In short, religion as a pure identity: bad. Religion as a community of people who struggle to address issues of moral and existential importance: good. Voters who actually attend church are more likely to experience the good form of religion, compared to those who identify as Christians without showing up on Sunday.

See also: the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trumpthe Hollowing Out of US Democracywhy Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet); and why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)

postmodernism and Trump

In the Washington Post, Colby College English professor Aaron Hanlon argues that postmodernist theorists didn’t inspire or prepare the way for Donald Trump and other politicians who openly disparage truth. Rather, postmodernists lamented a world in which propaganda and media manipulation badly distorted our understanding and judgment. The death of truth “was a diagnosis, not a political outcome that [Lyotard] and other postmodernist theorists agitated to bring about.” Thus, as the Post’s headline puts it, “Postmodernism didn’t cause Trump. It explains him.”

I think I agree with every sentence in Hanlon’s article, which is a valuable contribution. But he seems to omit an important dimension: our changing views of journalism, science, and scholarship.

Most thoughtful people have long been concerned about political propaganda (in the narrow sense). Lippmann, Dewey, Orwell, Arendt, Hayek, and many others worried that politicians who obtained influence over the state could distort public opinion and obfuscate the truth. That concern has been a central theme in liberalism since long before postmodernism.

Hanlon makes the French postmodernists sound like liberals, in this sense:

But if we bother to understand Baudrillard’s thesis — that our impressions of the [First Gulf War] conflict have been warped by media framing and agitprop — it’s clear that the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis.

But postmodernism also treats natural science, other forms of scholarship, professional disciplines like law, and independent journalism as purveyors of propaganda rather than pursuers of truth. The validity of science, for example, was the issue in the “Science Wars.” Postmodernism is concerned about “the active distortion of truth for political purposes,” but it extends “politics” to laboratories, classrooms, and newsrooms as well as elections and governments.

In the 1980s and 1990s, people who defined themselves as postmodernists were quick to reject the pretentious of institutions like scholarly disciplines and The New York Times. Nowadays, similar people are more likely to defend the elite consensus on matters like climate change, to use findings from social science in their arguments, and to decry the failure of politicians like Donald Trump to respect the truth as presented in venues like The New York Times. On the question of whether The Times or the NSF is a source of truth, Trump sounds like the postmodernist.

Pure objectivity is a myth, almost universally acknowledged as such. However, if you don’t like what influential people are claiming to be true, you have options. First, you can decide where you stand on a spectrum from relativism (“Any claim depends entirely on who makes it”) to critical objectivity (“There are obvious truths that are being overlooked or concealed because the people in charge of knowledge are bad”). Another spectrum goes from reformist (“New people and new research agendas should be incorporated into the institutions that produce knowledge”) to separatist (“We need new institutions to produce knowledge.”) Since these questions are independent, four options result:

When French postmodernism arrived in the US, much of the academic left was reformist and somewhat relativist, or so I recall. A common view was that science and scholarship were valuable pursuits, but they needed to be substantially diversified. Humanists tended to doubt the claims of objectivity made by their colleagues in the sciences. Works like Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (1988) extended the critique to the humanities. Thus many academics found themselves in Cell A, although some self-described leftists argued that it was a fundamental mistake to undermine objectivity; they defended Cell C.

In that context, French postmodernism was strongly relativist and at least implicitly separatist. Its critique of established institutions (universities, clinics, newspapers, etc.) was radical enough to suggest the need for alternatives–whole new institutions, or perhaps anti-institutions. It made a case for Cell B that many accepted with caveats or else resisted.

At that time, most of the academic right claimed to be strongly anti-relativist and also reformist (Cell D). They viewed relativism as an insidious attack on core values. Conservatives were reformist because they thought that conservative voices were marginalized in the academy and the media and deserved more prominence. Conservatives believed in truth and wanted to change who spoke most powerfully about the truth.

However, some conservatives were separatist: Cell D. They might gravitate to the Federalist Society, the Liberty Fund, evangelical colleges, conservative think tanks–or even “Creation Science”–as alternatives because they had given up on the academy and government-funded science. They believed in objectivity but had lost faith in professors and reporters to produce or disseminate it.

I think a lot of the academic left today falls in Cell C. They believe that real knowledge is possible but that we must enhance diversity in newsrooms, laboratories, universities, and funding agencies in order to get closer to the truth. “Diversity” refers not only to the demographics of the researchers and reporters–although that is important–but also to their topics and methods. Many academics on the left are vigorous defenders of tenure, federal science funding, public radio, and other bulwarks of fairly traditional knowledge-production. Women Also Know Stuff is a perfect example of Cell C.

This means that the academic left shares some of the values that animated conservatives during the 1970s-1990s. Meanwhile, there are strands of the right that now prefer Cell B. They debunk truth, doubt the value of independent scholarship, and want to create alternatives to Fake News, lying scientists, etc.

It’s in that respect that French postmodernism presaged the era of Donald Trump.

See also: Bernard Williams on truth as a virtue of the humanitiesconservative relativismteaching evolution, creationism, Intelligent Design; and media literacy and the social discovery of reality.

how not to talk about The People

Maria Bartiromo (Fox News): As the commander-in-chief, as the president of this great country, what can you do to bring us together?

Donald Trump: Our people are so incredible. …  Do you know, there’s probably never been a base in the history of politics in this country like my base. I hope the other side realizes that they better just take it easy.

As Jonathan Chait notes, Trump equates “us,” the people of America, with “the people who voted for him.”

This is the rhetorical move that Jan-Werner Müller, in his globally influential book (2016), uses as the definition of “populism.” Populists “claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people. … Elites are immoral, whereas the people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err.”

Müller has previously quoted Trump–“the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything”–as evidence that the current president is a populist, in this bad sense of the word.

I agree that the slippage between Trump’s supporters and “the people” is a very bad sign. However, it is not straightforward to define populism (meaning a problematic phenomenon) in this way. Trump says many things and is inconsistent in his appeal to “the people.” Meanwhile, a wide variety of political actors also depict the public as a homogeneous entity that is on their side.

Some of them define “the people” in racial or ethno-national terms. That tendency seems more accurately described as racism or xenophobia than as populism, especially if anti-racists like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez count as populists (as Müller would suggest).

And sometimes it is the strongest champions of democratic institutions who use rhetoric that looks populist according to Müller’s definition. For instance, Jimmy Carter presented himself as an ordinary American (a peanut farmer and a Christian, not a Washington politician) who could best reflect the values shared by all Americans (Johnstone 1978). Carter invoked a unitary public and promised to connect directly to the people, unmediated by interests and organizations. His Inaugural Address could be coded as populist rhetoric, in Müller’s sense of the word. Yet Carter was committed to constitutional limits, respected his critics and the opposition, and made the promotion of democratic freedoms a centerpiece of his agenda.

Thus it is not clear that searching for Müller-style populist language will identify actors who are hostile to democratic institutions and processes. There is an upsurge of repression around the world—and it is not limited to racists and xenophobes—but there is a better word for it than “populism.” That word is “authoritarianism.”

For the purposes of empirical research, I would dispense with “populism” in the Müller sense and look instead for authoritarianism and racism as distinct but sometimes overlapping phenomena that are ascendant in our time.

Müller is, however, right that there are pitfalls to invoking a unitary public that is on one’s side–or defining one’s side as “the people.” This is an excuse for trampling on rights, whether your opponents are demographic minorities and immigrants (the right-wing variant), or corporations and the rich (the left-wing version), or extremists (the centrist version). It’s always better to recognize the legitimacy of the actual human beings who disagree with you and who vote for the other side.

Citations: Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (Philadelphia; Universoty of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 101; Christopher Lyle Johnstone, “Electing Ourselves in 1976: Jimmy Carter and The American Faith,” Western Journal of Speech Communication, vol. 42  Issue 4, *Fall 1978), p. 241-249. See also Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrityfighting Trump’s populism with pluralist populismseparating populism from anti-intellectualism and two kinds of populism.

the prospects for an evangelical turn against Trump

Not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I met with a conservative evangelical pastor near his church in a small city in one of the most conservative of the Southern states. He told me how deeply he despised and feared the new president as a threat to his values and his community. Some of his concerns were moral, involving Trump’s sexual behavior. Some were pastoral–he worried that young people would be alienated from Christianity as the faith came to be associated with Trump. And some concerns involved leadership. He felt that he struggled to be a good leader of his church community: accountable, inclusive, a peacemaker. Trump modeled the very opposite style.

I often recall this conversation as I read about White evangelical support for Trump and the criticism he’s now receiving from some evangelical clergy.

That first spring of the Trump era, I formed an empirical hypothesis. I thought that many evangelicals might vote for Trump because of abortion and a few other issues, and I could understand that. However, I thought that admiring him as a leader would correlate negatively with actual participation in a Christian community, once you controlled for demographics. In the back of my mind was the theory that being Christian can have three meanings:

  1. A set of theological beliefs that may have moral and political implications. These vary enormously. Some Christians see Jesus as a pacifist socialist; others think he would endorse capitalism and national sovereignty. But if you take theology seriously, you will assess a politician in its terms, and not just do what he says.
  2. Membership and participation in a community of believers, which may extend from a concrete local church to a denomination or even an ecumenical network of denominations. Churches vary from congregationalist to hierarchical (the word means “holy order or structure”), from traditionalist to innovative, and from homogeneous to diverse; and we would expect these differences to matter politically.
  3. An identity, something you are as well as (or even instead of) something you believe or do. It’s possible to identify as a White Christian man without believing in God or going to church, if you think of Christianity as pure identity, akin to an ethnicity.

I would expect #1 to inform attitudes toward Donald Trump, but in a complex way. Assessments would depend on the theological commitments of the specific believer and the policies of the administration. Theological seriousness would make people into critical thinkers about any politician.

I would expect #2 to teach people lessons about what kind of leadership to expect and admire. In a megachurch dominated by a charismatic and wealthy preacher, people might learn to expect leaders who act at least roughly like Trump. In a congregationalist church or a Catholic parish with empowered laity, people would learn to expect accountability and inclusivity, not to mention skills like listening and mediation; and they would despise Trump’s leadership style in contrast.

I would expect #3 to predict support for Trump because that’s what he offers. He gives no indication of actual belief but looks for all opportunities to say: This is a white Christian nation, and everyone must acknowledge that. I haven’t yet read Janelle Wong’s new book, but this seems to be her finding. It would be consistent with the theory that “Fox News evangelicals” (or “coach-potato evangelicals”)–rather than deeply committed Christians–are Trump’s base.

We had the opportunity to ask about all these topics in one survey. We asked about policy opinions, demographics, admiration for Trump as a leader, and experiences of participation in religious and secular communities. I don’t want to “publish” our findings here, because I worked with several colleagues who aren’t co-authors of this blog, and the statistical issues were somewhat complex. Our work is yet unpublished. But I will say there was no clear evidence that I was correct. The outcome was something like a null result. Once you know that someone is a White evangelical who favors abortion rights, you don’t learn anything new by asking about her personal involvement in a church community.

This is disappointing, but it may not be the end of the story. Assume that you are a serious Christian with conservative politics who actually cares about theology and the community of the living church. Christianity as an ethnic identity is a threat to everything you deeply believe in. Right now, you’re losing the struggle for your faith. It’s becoming an ethnic identity with a dangerous level of resentment, not a belief system. But you have resources to struggle back. You have moral legitimacy, cultural depth, diversity, youth support, and grassroots institutions that are shrunken but still vital. I would expect to see more and more anti-Trump organizing from the evangelical pulpit, and a widening gap between White identity “Christianity” and actual Christian faith.

See also why Trump fans aren’t holding him accountable (yet)Civic Deserts and our present crisisthe Democrats and religious Americans and the political advantages of organized religion

Trump at the confluence of populism, chauvinism, and celebrity

Donald Trump says many things. Some are innocuous and banal. Quite a few are inconsistent. And some provide evidence that he belongs in these three categories:

  1. A “populist” in the particular sense proposed by Jan-Werner Müller. (I also like to retain more positive definitions of the same word.) For Müller, a populist is someone who believes that the whole authentic people is unified behind a set of values that the populist leader explicitly expresses. Therefore, the opposition is illegitimate. Elections that favor the populist leader are sacrosanct, and anyone who criticizes or strives to reverse these results is an enemy of the people. But elections that challenge the populist must have been rigged or stolen. “A los amigos, justicia y gracia. A los enemigos, la ley a secas.”
  2. A chauvinist, meaning someone who explicitly and apologetically favors an in-group and disparages an out-group. In the United States, racism is a major variety. But in some other countries, the leading chauvinists are inspired by religion or nationality instead of race.
  3. A media personality who projects a combative personality, who disparages opponents, who cultivates “outrage,” who “seem[s] to always react to controversy and even aversion by leaning into it,” and who claims honesty or authenticity on the basis that he says things that give offense or cause pain–except not to his core audience. This style is prevalent on talk radio, certain reaches of cable news–but equally important, in supermarket tabloids, WWF, and reality TV shows like The Apprentice.

These three categories need not intersect. You can be an outrageous media personality who isn’t a populist or a chauvinist, a chauvinist who isn’t a celebrity, etc.

None of these categories is new. White Supremacy has been near the center of American politics since the beginning. Various forms of populism and chauvinism were much more extreme around the world in 1939 than today. But there does seem to be a global boom of unapologetic chauvinist populists who use media effectively.

The right doesn’t own these categories, and the left doesn’t consistently avoid them. I know plenty of people who believe that the Tea Party is pure Astroturf, a creature of right-wing billionaires. That is a populist move in Müller’s sense: it declares a large number of actual Americans to be illegitimate participants in politics. By the way, it’s different if you hate and fear your political opponents. That is partisanship, but not populism, so long as you acknowledge that your opponents are fellow citizens and you must share politics with them.

We’ve seen plenty of examples of these categories, but we have never had a president who fits all three. The combination poses a severe threat to our institutions and world peace.

Insofar as the problem is populism (in Müller’s sense), then I think an electoral shellacking will be the best remedy. Even if Republicans lose the 2018 election badly, the strongest Trump supporters (30-40% of the population) will continue to think that he speaks for the whole genuine American public and the election was rigged. However, Trump can’t govern without conservative and business elites. I think they will abandon him if they see that he is dragging them into the minority.

By the same token, if Republicans do better than expected in ’18, and/or Trump is reelected, we are in for much more populism. And if Trump’s presidency ends for a relatively extraneous reason, such as personal criminality, then the picture will be muddy enough that populism will remain an attractive option. (I often think that we are fortunate in our populist; if he were smarter and more disciplined, we would really be in trouble.)

Apart from elections, we have two other assets in the struggle against Müller-style populism. One is pluralist populism , which portrays “the people” as highly diverse (I discuss that rich tradition here).

The other is genuine conservatism. Real conservative thought is diametrically opposed–in principle–to the idea that any government can ever be authorized by a unitary public. The left/right spectrum originated in the French Revolution, and the Jacobin left was the populist side, in Müller’s sense. Conservatism emerged in reaction to the revolutionaries’ claim to a popular mandate, and great conservative thinkers have always opposed such claims. Many Republican politicians will go along with Trumpian populism as long as it wins elections; but conservatives will denounce it from the rooftops. The question is how many conservatives actually exist.

Insofar as the problem is chauvinism (meaning, in the USA, racism, religious bigotry, and sexism), then it’s the next chapter in a basic American story. Progress is hard-won and tends to have a zigzag pattern. I am a fan of Barack Obama for other reasons than his race, but it is significant that he was the first leader of a majority-white nation to have modern African ancestors–and the first US president in modern times to have a foreign father. That was the zig; Trump is the zag. The struggle continues.

Finally, insofar as the problem is celebrity politics, I am actually optimistic. I believe that Trump came first in a crowded and splintered Republican primary field because his persona appealed to a minority of the US population. He then beat Clinton in the Electoral College because partisan polarization gave him most Republican votes in key states, and she was deeply unpopular. Compared to a generic incumbent president who enjoys a strong economy and who hasn’t actually passed any controversial legislation (other than a tax cut), Trump is remarkably unpopular. And a key reason is his style. So I think acting like a reality TV star exacts a political cost and is not likely to be replicated.

Sinclair and Bezos: media ownership and media bias

These two stories ran on the same page of the print New York Times on April 2: “Sinclair Videos Renew Debate Over Media Ownership” and “To Trump, It’s the ‘Amazon Washington Post.’ To Its Editor, That’s Baloney.”

Both articles are about possible bias in powerful, for-profit media companies. Donald Trump has opinions on each case. He thinks that Sinclair (which owns 193 local TV stations) is a “far superior” media company that is being smeared by liberals. But he suggests that the “Fake News Washington Post [is] being used as a lobbyist weapon against Congress to keep Politicians from looking into Amazon no-tax monopoly.”

I start with the opposite assumptions: Sinclair is a creepy would-be monopolist, while the Washington Post holds power accountable. I’m no fan of Amazon, but I assume that Jeff Bezos’ investments in the Post strengthen democracy by enabling the newspaper to do more investigative reporting. I see two threats to the First Amendment: Sinclair’s goal of owning more than 200 local TV stations, and a president–who sits atop a regulatory state–threatening the owner of a newspaper.

But imagine that you admired Trump rather than despising him (as I do). You might then reverse the polarity. The biggest threat might seem to be the billionaire with the national newspaper. You might be a little cynical when the Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, says, “There isn’t anybody here who is paid by Amazon … Not one penny.” Technically true, but Bezos, who makes his money from Amazon, bought the Post for $250 million, and, “Buoyed by [these] new resources, it has added more than 200 newsroom employees.”

I want to control corporate influence on politics, but when people point out that newspapers also influence politics, and they are corporations (or owned by corporations), I cry “First Amendment!” When Rupert Murdoch builds Fox News, I see a billionaire colonizing the public sphere, but when Bezos expands the Post, I am grateful to him.

It’s important to be principled, not arbitrary or reflexively partisan, in making such judgments.

The economics are complex. You can make money selling news that you don’t agree with, or lose money by selling views you like. (Generations of owners of The New Republic will testify to that.) There is evidence of media effects: news companies change public opinion. But consumers also choose which news to buy and thereby affect the production of news.

The sociology is complex. Sinclair Broadcast Group is a publicly traded company that maximizes returns for its shareholders. It is also an organization with a CEO and other leaders who have leverage over the shareholders. And it employs reporters, who can be understood as members of a profession that is committed to the public good. It would be naive to ignore the corporate structure, but cynical to ignore the professionals. An anonymous anchor interviewed by Maxwell Strachan said,

most of the people who are commenting on this have never even watched our local newscast. … They see that we’re a Sinclair station. They assume what they want to assume about it. But we produce good news here. Sinclair does not tell us what to cover, who to talk to, or what to say in terms of local coverage. Our local news, it doesn’t have bias. If people are looking for it, they won’t find it. So don’t call me a zombie. I do damn good work on a daily basis and anybody in my community would tell you that.

Whether he is right or not, his point that many critics have never watched a Sinclair Station’s local newscast applies to me.

Finally, the politics is complex. I have no doubt that Donald Trump is a terrible leader, but I choose to consume news that mostly reinforces that view, and I rarely delve deeply into the other side. We should make judgments and take a stand. Forming a judgment is not a form of bias. But we must recognize our fallibility.

Ultimately, you can’t render appropriate judgments without taking a closer look at both the products of these companies (Are their stories any good?) and the detailed ways in which they work. I presume that the Post has a strong firewall between its business operations and its newsroom, but that is an empirical assumption that can be tested. I find this kind of language in Sinclair’s employee handbook disturbing: Sinclair “may monitor, intercept, and review, without further notice, every employee’s activities using Company’s electronic resources and communications systems.” But I don’t know whether anything similar applies at the Post.

All of this plays out in a marketplace. We’d like journalists to have market power over their employers. But for newspaper reporters, the market is terrible:

According to a new Knight Foundation report, “In the decade since the last recession hit, newspapers have shed 26,300 newsroom employees — 46.1 percent of total employment. … In contrast, local TV news employment is up 4.9 percent in that same time frame, and most TV newsrooms are at their highest level of staffing ever.” Many stations are hiring former newspaper reporters and editors.

Despite the rising number of employees in broadcast journalism and the generally tight labor market, Sinclair has leverage over its employees, perhaps because there are just a few TV stations in any community. The anonymous Sinclair anchor says,

These jobs? they’re very hard to come by. And if I quit, I owe the company 40 percent of my salary, plus a percentage of the [redacted] years remaining on my contract, plus any bonuses that they’ve paid to me and any reimbursements that they’ve paid to me. And they’re going to take me to court for it. And in the time that I’m in court, I’m not employable.

See also: media literacy and the social discovery of realitydon’t confuse bias and judgment.

the emperor’s new wall

Donald Trump says that his border wall is being built; yesterday, he even tweeted pictures of it. Today he added, “We started building our wall, I’m so proud of it. We started. We have $1.6 billion. You saw the pictures yesterday. I said what a thing of beauty.”

The budget he signed into law provides $341 million “to replace approximately 40 miles of existing primary pedestrian and vehicle border fencing along the southwest border using previously deployed and operationally effective designs, such as currently deployed steel bollard designs, that prioritize agent safety; and to add gates to existing barriers.”

But the President can have what he wants: a tweet about his own success. Almost 100,000 people clicked to like it. They could feel the #MAGA. Meanwhile, we don’t have to pay for a wall. It has no environmental impacts. Pronghorn antelope may still roam back and forth at will. I assume our neighbors in Mexico realize the wall is not actually taking physical form in the universe that we inhabit as corporeal creatures.

So everyone wins. Could this be the model for solving other problems in the Trump years?