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?

should Democrats play constitutional hardball in 2019-20?

In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use comparative evidence to argue that democracies rely on two “soft guardrails”: constitutional forbearance and mutual toleration.* Forbearance means that political actors refrain from using all the powers that the written text of the constitution affords them. Regimes rarely survive once politicians routinely honor the letter but not the spirit of the rules. Toleration means explicitly acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate place in politics, a right to its views, and a right to govern if it wins elections.

We are perilously close to losing both constraints. This won’t be the first time in our history, but then again, our history has involved major breakdowns, like a Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans.

If Republicans beat expectations in 2018 and 2020, both parties’ behavior is predictable. Republicans will remain behind Trump because their base likes him and because the whole party will be winning under his banner. Democrats will resist as aggressively as possible, but with built-in limitations.

The choices for both sides will become much harder if the Democrats do well in 2018 and then 2020, capturing at least one house of Congress and then maybe the whole federal government. The Republicans’ choices will then be:

  1. The GOP stays Trumpian. This is what their base wants. Their losses will have been concentrated in swing districts and among independent-minded incumbents who tangled with the Trump base. The remaining party will be all-in for Trump. Since this scenario assumes that they lost ground in elections, they will be even more hostile to the political system, the media, and the Democrats, now seen as clearly rigging the system against real Republicans.
  2. Or the GOP turns into a principled conservative party that is skeptical of ambitious government, resistant to both taxation and public debt, and committed to constitutional restraint, including a restrained presidency. It presents that package as attractive to younger and more diverse voters and grows less demographically distinct from the Democrats.

Meanwhile …

  1. The Democrats play what Mark Tushnet calls Constitutional Hardball. Because they lost a Supreme Court seat when the Republicans wouldn’t even consider Merrick Garland, they return the favor and refuse Trump any new appointments. They launch aggressive investigations against Trump, his family, and his cabinet, focusing on potential financial crimes. They lay the predicate for impeachments and then prosecutions. They shut down the government over budget disputes, reckoning that Trump will send undisciplined tweets that will make him look at fault. If a Democratic presidential candidate wins in 2020, they drive through political reforms that advantage them in subsequent elections. In short, they decide not to be rolled, and also that their substantive policy goals require strong action.
  2. Or the Democrats try to restore mid-20th century norms of constitutional forbearance and partisan toleration. That doesn’t mean that they seat Trump’s Supreme Court nominees or refrain from investigations, but they try to follow the traditional procedures. For example, they bring Trump’s nominees up for votes but vote nay, and they make their investigations as focused and as bipartisan as possible. Democrats look to peel off independent-minded Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump’s style and go out of their way to honor these colleagues.

Game theory is tailor-made for situations in which two players can make independent choices and the result is a single outcome. Here is a guess about how these choices would play out.

Democrats play “Constitutional Hardball” Democrats try to restore cooperative norms
Republicans stay Trumpian Democrats probably win on policy–increasingly so as the demographic trends favor them. Republicans retain 35% of the population that is overwhelmingly white and Christian and increasingly angry. The GOP still dominates some states and regions. Right-wingers give Democrats rationales for using increasingly hardball tactics. Political violence grows. Democrats are corrupted by the lack of legitimate checks. Democrats get rolled on policy. Possibly they expand their electoral power as a result of demographic trends plus a reputation for being responsible (if their forbearance is widely understood as such). Possibly they just look weak, and lose.
Republicans shift to principled conservatism Perhaps the Democrats prevail on policy and grow stronger due to demographics. Or perhaps they further erode confidence in government and thus strengthen principled conservatism, which wins elections and policy battles. The republic is safe. Democrats make incremental progress on policy, but Republicans offer a conservative alternative that sometimes prevails.

This is pretty close to a Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), with the best option for all being the bottom-right, yet both sides have strong reasons to choose the other course. It’s a little more complicated than a pure PD because it plays out over time. The options and payoffs depend on the precise circumstances of the moment–say, in 2019 with a Democratic House and a narrowly Republican Senate, or in 2021 with (hypothetically) a newly inaugurated Democratic president. But versions of the choices arise at each stage, from congressional primaries today to legislative strategies in 2021.

*See pp. 7-8. However, my comments are based on hearing the authors speak, not having read their whole book yet.

analyzing Donald Trump’s speech patterns

Just before the 2016 presidential election, I wrote:

Donald Trump’s speaking style is extraordinarily paratactic. That is, he utters declarative sentences without any of the explicit transitional words that can explain why sentences fit together. No “therefore’s,” “on the other hand’s,” or even “well, I think’s.” He just plunges in. Many listeners perceive the content of his various sentences to be logically unrelated. However, he is remarkably repetitive when he speaks at any length, so the unity of his speech derives from his returning to the same phrases. Finally, he uses “I” sentences overwhelmingly, plus “you” when he’s talking to someone in particular. He makes relatively rare use of the third person. We could name his style “paratactic/egocentric.”

I have no expertise in linguistics. To the extent my observations were based on any disciplined research, I was thinking of attempts to model discussions as networks of ideas. I’m interested in how different network structures may allow people to deliberate better or worse with others. I implied that Trump’s “paratactic/ egocentric” style was bad for deliberation.

Unlike me, John McWhorter is a linguist, and he has an interesting analysis in The New York Times. He confirms my observation that Trump’s speech is “paratactic,” “repetitious,” and “subjective.” He also shows that Trump’s style has changed. When he was young man, Trump was much more hypotactic (favoring subordinate clauses and logical connections), more explicitly organized, and less emotive. But McWhorter does not think this is evidence of cognitive decline. Rather, everyday spoken English is much like Trump’s public speech nowadays. Most people most of the time produce disconnected, repetitive bursts of speech, linked by body language and other emotional cues rather than logical connectives. McWhorter thinks that young-man Trump spoke in an unnatural, elevated, formal way because he still thought he had to work at being accepted. Today, Trump thinks he can talk naturally in public forums, so he does. And for some audiences, it works.

This seems plausible. I would only add a normative question: what kind of speech do we have the right to expect from public figures in public forums? Hypotaxis is artificial for all of us; it’s how schools teach us to talk and write in public, to strangers. But it could be that people should talk that way in formal settings, just because the logical connections allow the listener to assess our arguments critically. Skipping over them is normal for private speech among people with strong affective ties, but it’s a way of evading accountability among strangers.

See also: Trump’s rhetorical style and deliberationDoes Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedtracking change in a group that discusses issuesnetwork dynamics in conversation; and assessing a discussion.

Trump’s approval rating as a case study in public opinion

Donald Trump’s popularity is really quite stable. For a while, it looked as if he was losing a point or so per month, but that trend has reversed. From the perspective of January 2018, the flatness of the line is striking.

Then again, presidential popularity is usually correlated with economic performance. A strong correlate of approval for an incumbent president is satisfaction with the direction of the country. Since the economy is humming along and satisfaction with the direction of the country is modestly risingone would expect Trump’s popularity to be 7-17 percentage points higher than it is.

To be clear, I don’t think that the economy is producing fair results. But historically, measures like satisfaction and consumer optimism usually correlate with presidential approval. Trump has broken that pattern.

Also, a prevailing model in political science holds that our demographic identities come first. They lead us to affiliate with political parties that seem to represent or encompass those identities. Our attitudes toward politicians are then strongly colored by our partisan affiliations.  But party identification sometimes changes faster than the demographic composition of the country. I’ve created the following graph of party affiliation using Gallup data (moving averages over 7 months). It shows that there’s not been that much change over time–the y-axis goes from 20%-50%–but Republican identification (the red line) has fallen since Trump was elected. First Independents (gray) seemed to gain at the expense of Republicans and Democrats, but lately it’s been Democrats (blue) who have increased their share.

I’d conclude that underlying factors–demographics, economics, and partisanship–do explain most of a president’s support. But they don’t fully explain it, and Donald Trump is demonstrating that you can alienate a lot of people from yourself and your party if you really act like a jerk. This is kind of a perverse finding (doing a very bad job can cause damage), but it’s still evidence that rhetoric and intentional action matter, regardless of what else is happening in the world. It lends support to a theory I have long suspected: agency is often hard to detect because most people who lead major organizations and movements are pretty competent, and their efforts tend to cancel out. Trump is an exception that shows that intentional behavior and competence mattered all along.

If the economy continues to prosper and Trump doesn’t behave even worse, I suspect we will see some improvement in his popularity. The underlying circumstances will count more and more. On the other hand, if the economy hits some bumps, he’s vulnerable. (But that is truly not to be wished for, because too many people will suffer.)