Retrospective, Prospective, Perspective

Trump is to be our next president. Has the shock worn off yet? Maybe it’s beginning to, maybe not, but one week later I’m ready to offer my opinion on what happened and what everybody should do about it.

What happened is very simple: Trump won the electoral college and lost the popular vote by an amount that can vanish inside a typical rounding operation. A close race.

The polls said it wasn’t terribly close, but that, too, is very simple. Trump looks and sounds like an idiot, and his supporters are accused of racism. Plenty of people don’t want to be associated with an idiot, and plenty of people don’t want to be accused or racism: both reasons for polls to underpredict his vote share without going off into conspiracies about polling methodologies.  Yet, the possibility of this was denied by Five Thirty Eight and a project affiliated with Politico, and Vox even went so far as to say the effect ran the other way. Given the outcome, there is reason to believe that these analyses were wrong. Especially Vox.

So, it happened. The bigger question is what to do about it, and this question applies to the entire country because many Republicans and Trump supporters were also taken by surprise. As an independent, I am going to do my independent thing and offer some well-intentioned advice to both sides.

To Republicans

Congratulations!  Your party is in power.  The United States has not seen a presidency begin with such unified influence over the institutions of governance since Obama’s first term, so … not that long actually.  You may lack Obama’s super-majority, but have the opportunity to reinforce the Supreme Court. You and your party structure probably also aren’t as aligned with your President as the Democrats were with Obama, but all in all, this probably worked out pretty well for you.  So far.

I ask you, please remember how much you suffered when ACA was passed without a single Republican vote in either House or Senate.  Yes, back then, there were no pleas by the Democrats for bipartisanship. Back then, Obama’s 52.9% of the popular vote being magnified by various winner-take-all systems into a giant and admittedly mostly imaginary ‘sweeping mandate‘ of the people.  So, yes, Republicans became obstructive, because Democrats did not need and therefore mostly tried to ignore to the other 47.1% of the voting country. Later, your party took control of Congress, and then of course Obama started making pleas for bipartisanship, but you can’t easily get over that 2008-2010 period, can you?

I can’t blame you for obstruction back then, and I can’t blame you for the bad blood.  But, remember that your popular vote success in this election is worse than Obama’s.  You probably can’t squash Democrats the way they did you, between the more even split of congress and the fact that your party will be fighting with the unpredictable loud-mouth who may or may not turn out to be kind of a Democrat as far as his personal policy predilections go.  Still, please don’t try.  The country is evenly divided.  Do better than the Democrats did in 2008 and remember that going forward, despite the history and the desire to rub their faces in your new-found governmental authority.

Also remember all of your accusations of imperial presidency.  I am on record as finding these accusations to have merit, and though I would have preferred if Republicans had been on that issue back during Bush’s presidency, I will be even more upset if you forget them now that you have a chance to block some of those means – facing Trump’s presidency, the Democrats would support you in this, and then whenever the pendulum swings to the next Democrat president you’ll have less to fear.  The same fear the Democrats are currently, if belatedly, worried about (to my considerable unhappiness and complete lack of sympathy).

And, I’m sure this is obvious, but Trump really does say stupid and wrong and insulting things regularly.  Complaining about political correctness run amok is one thing, but Trump is often more than just a reaction to political correctness.  You don’t see your party as being the party of bigots and idiots and even if you feel there’s no point in trying to convince some liberals otherwise, I hope you understand just how important it is to make sure your accusers have as little as possible to work with.  I’m not saying don’t work with Trump: at minimum we all know politics is a game of alliances of convenience.  But: Populism or not, you don’t need Trump’s tendency to spew sentence fragments like heavy nucleii spew radioactive particles to become a key association of the party.  If the war against political correctness becomes nothing but a war to speak offensive maybe-truths rather than maybe-offensive truths, then the war is lost.

Politics is, after all, a long game.  I hope the party accused of being stuck in the past can understand that.

To Democrats

Yours will be a far longer section.  Losses, after all, are more informative than victories, and not only do I read far more of your side’s opinions and views, but my conclusion on this election is rather precise and requires an extensive (attempt at) clarification to get my point across with (hopefully) my intended nuance.

Right now, you’re upset. You fear Trump’s bigotry, and the bigotry of his supporters.  Not only is he a Republican, he represents everything you’ve feared about Republicans for years.  Luckily for you, I have an answer, one that can mitigate your fears and one that doesn’t even require waiting four years.  You can fix this right now, and all it takes is a little soul-searching.

Oh dear, I just lost some readers: “A bigot is president, and WE have to do some soul-searching?”  Yes – and this is independent of the choice to run Hillary Clinton as the candidate. Bear with me for a moment, if you can.

First, some history.  The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed with, generally speaking, union support, including by the grand old AFL, which actually appears to have considered the 1924 act a weakened compromise of their actual and rather absolutist position. Immigrants were mobile, worked for less, and lacking social ties and language skills were difficult to organize.  In short, they were often perceived by unions as being the strike-breaker stick of the powers of industry.  The 1924 Act put severe restrictions on immigration, with quotas by origin in order to ‘preserve the ideal of American homogeneity’.  My, that sounds familiar.  Thus I have reason to suspect that the racism of the poor workers is derivative of economic grievance, not from inherent, shall we call it moral, racism.  As per Bill Clinton’s strategist, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

I further note with interest that in the 1920’s, somewhere between 13% and 14% of the people in the United States had been born abroad.  What is that number today?  Somewhere above 13% again, having been rising steadily since the 1924 act was repealed in the ’60s.  The grindstone of time may have turned memories to dust, but human nature remains the same.  Today’s nativist movement appears to me to be utterly predictable, for all that Democrats seemed unprepared.[1]

Now you could argue that today’s economy is a service economy, and the rust belt jobs never are coming back.  This is not a bad argument, but manages to be irrelevant: following the news of IT workers and computer scientists, I find that H1B visas for skilled immigrants are a source of deep and indelible resentment among these skilled workers. Read Computerworld’s analysis of the candidate’s positions on H1B problems, and especially the reaction to Clinton’s statement on that subject.  The US may be a service economy, but so is enough of the world that even service and skilled laborers can feel threatened by immigration.

What I am saying here is that the Democratic Party is the party of unions, but unions and immigration are historically contentious partners at best.  To be immigration maximalist while dismissing nativist concerns as uneducated bigotry costs Democrats support among the worker demographic they argue should be theirs.

This, then, is my prescription for the Democratic Party, that with your predominance in national media you can change the narrative.  The message should be: Trump is an economic revolt by the workers who are left behind.  We, the Democrats, are sorry for having overlooked these costs in our overall successes. We, the Democrats, the party of the welfare net can help you re-enter the global economy now that we’ve realized our mistake.

The groundwork has already been laid with such elements as the Atlantic’s unofficial series (strongly recommend reading the first link) on the ignored plight of rural America.  Since the election, the Atlantic has added an interview that encourages this more empathetic approach to the Trump presidency, and the first four paragraphs of Sander’s NYTimes editorial likewise.  This approach achieves two things.  First, it regains a portion of the vote for Democrats, and second, by stressing economics the Democrats can severely limit the extent to which Trump’s presidency can be seen as a vindication of racism.

[Edit 2: Since I wrote this, the New York Times appears to have come to something parallel to my recommendation.  See: “Senate Democrats’ Surprising Strategy: Trying to Align With Trump“.  Really, half the doubts (specifically, the policy related half of doubts) Republicans have about Trump are reasons why Democrats should like him.]

You, hypothetical Democrat, are doubtful. Trump will still say racist and dog-whistle racist things that we, morally, can not ignore or downplay like this, and the Republicans don’t trust the main-stream media which means Democrats can’t change the narrative anyway.  I have one very good reason and several mediocre ones as to why Democrats can and should do this.  Mediocre ones first: Plenty of people who distrust the editorial slant of Democrat-leaning publications still read the New York Times or watch, well, anything on TV that isn’t Fox News – the opportunity is still there.  Second, those who will never be persuaded aren’t the target, so using them to excuse overall inaction isn’t convincing.

Now for the one very big reason: I find good reason to believe the Democratic Party is responsible for Trump.

Once upon a time, when Trump’s campaign was first gaining coverage for his outrageous Trump-ness, a theory was floated by certain moderate yet conspiratorially-minded Republicans: Trump, and his constant coverage by the media, was a secret sabotage effort by Clinton and the DNC, using allied media to create a brute-force name recognition that would lead to a nomination that would destroy the Republican Party’s credibility and leave Clinton to face the weakest general-election opposition in decades.  Crazy, right?

Except we NOW know that, at minimum, the Clinton campaign and DNC did believe they could pull this off.  The evidence is in the PDF attached to the by-itself very boring email in the Podesta WikiLeaks collection here.  Follow the link, click attachments tab, open it up, and start reading the list of ‘Pied Piper Candidates’ strategy as written in April 2015.  Just so we’re clear, that’s rather before the campaign had really gotten off the ground, and Trump was still, to my memory, a joke with no particular media attention.

My reader may suggest that even if this were planned, the party couldn’t possibly pull it off as a practical matter.  A proposal is not a guarantor of efficacy.  Well, the party elite thought they could – who are you to disagree with some of the best campaigners and press managers in the world?  They had this strategy, and all three of their Pied Piper candidates got a lot of attention, and Trump got the nomination.

Every time I think about this, I get angrier.  That it was even discussed galling and disgusting.  This isn’t making one’s case to the American people, or even ad hominem attack ads against the opposition: this is an attempt to prevent the other side from making their policy case to the best of their ability.  This is a very dirty, very subtle, very direct attack on free expression of ideas and an even more direct assault on the concept of free and competitive electoral politics.  It is, in short, censorship, and it will be a very, very long time before I forgive the Democratic Party for this.[2]  You, hypothetical Democrat reader, should also be angry if only for practical reasons.  We now know that Clinton couldn’t beat Trump.  Wouldn’t you and a very sizable part of the country be a lot happier if Clinton could have not beat somebody else?

I conclude that the Democrats think they have the power to control the narrative in this way, and I further believe they have a responsibility to make amends for the damage they caused.  If, in the name of national inter-party dialogue and the de-escalation of vicious partisan rhetoric, that means making the Democrats should make a unilateral tactical retreat, then they should.  And if that means to some extent covering for a loudmouth with an aversion to reading in order to, in turn, prevent said loudmouth’s random statements from encouraging racists and sexists, then they should bite the bullet and do it.  It’s an unpleasant but, I think, critical choice between virtue signaling your (hardly baseless) outrage, or gritting your teeth in the name of actually making progress in minimizing the extent to which bigotry is seen as an acceptable position in the country.  Civilized hand-wringing over how Trump has ushered in a new era of bigotry does more to normalize the those views than all of Trump’s self-contradictory ramblings ever did.

[Edited to add: It occurs to me that the above seems to attack Democrats for manipulating their opposition’s politics before immediately proceeding to suggest doing the same to ‘fix’ it, which on the face of it seems deeply hypocritical.  Let me trade some of my initial circumspectness for directness: The voting demographics (see the highly credible Pew, noting that Trump, relative to Romney, marginally gained among Black and Hispanic voters and very marginally lost female voters) in addition to my own sampling of Trump supporters leads me to conclude the focus on racism and sexism is not just unhelpful (as I argued above), but exaggerated to the point of being more wrong than not.

Democrats can’t have it both ways: They can’t claim Trump’s policy statements are the free associations of an anti-literate while simultaneously taking his bigotry as a deadly serious incitement and statement of a new national policy.  To take him seriously means taking his policies seriously, which context means his anti-immigration statements read as more economic and less racist.  If one takes Trump’s words and statements less seriously, as I do, then his worst statements are much harder to read as maliciously, intentionally bigoted – more foot-in-mouth than hateful.  Thus, however one treats Trump (as long as they do so consistently) I do not believe I am suggesting ‘corrective manipulation’, but the exact opposite: greater consistency, coherence, and precision in coverage.  Some additional motivation for maintaining this position will be covered in the second paragraph down from here.]

If you’re still not convinced, let me paint a picture of the alternative narrative that I see competing with my proposal above.  The message goes like this: Trump rose on the support of a hidden and massive racism, a success that Democrats must now organize and energize to combat. Politically, this might be in many ways more effective than my prescription of appeal via sympathy: fear of Trumpian bigots already seems to be inducing a new wave of Democrat grass-roots activism and monetary support. Democrats, you could do this. You’d build your future on a coalition of minority identity politics and urban social activists as you sacrifice the wider working class your ideology claims as your own. You could do this, and it would probably work in the short term, but I would respect you far, far less if this is the route you take in response to the election. This would be the next escalation in national division, and it wouldn’t be one you could blame on the Republicans, not if there’s a practical alternative.

I can’t be certain my proposal would work, but I do know what this alternative looks like.  It looks like Clinton’s “deplorables” comment.  It looks like that time when Obama said, “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” a quote that clearly puts religion and guns on the same moral and rational (or lacks thereof) level as racism.  It looks like people abandoning your side in blog posts like this one . It looks like ignoring the perception of liberal paternalistic condescension as has been discussed at both Vox and, more respectably, at the New York Times.  It looks like more of your own party faithful, not just disconnected and naturally critical independents (like myself), creating massively popular YouTube rants like this one.  It looks like, after having every Republican candidate in my memory (and likely beyond) being called racist and sexist, Bill Maher admitting Democrats have cried wolf too often to be able to easily call out and sanction racism anymore. It looks like this protester who must take the effort to declare Trump a ‘literal racist’, suggesting that previous accused were actually, I don’t know, metaphorical racists?

[Edit 3: The inimitable Slate Star Codex covered the exaggeration of Trump’s bigotry in considerable, extensive detail, agreeing with me and this post’s thesis that while Trump may have been a really bad presidential candidate, racism was not the problem.  What you’re reading is a long blog post, at over 3600 words now, but SSC spent over 8000, with charts, graphs, and a far deeper knowledge of ‘things Trump has said’ than I’ve ever felt the necessity to acquire.  I don’t know where the author of SSC finds the time, but I find myself far more confident in my thesis having read it, and anyone who has reservations about my criticism of the liberal narrative racism accusations in general and Trump in particular should try reading it.]

In short, it looks a whole lot like why the Democrats have been having problems in this election.  That hasn’t worked out real well for you.  Thus, I suggest that, going forward, that Democrats, both party and individual supporters, take steps to be the better people by choosing to de-escalate the insults, sympathize and so attract the voters they didn’t get, and treat Trump as the filter-less loudmouth he is more than the bigot he might be.

To Everyone: A Conclusion

On this blog, I have previously argued that limited federal government is necessary for the continued survival of the nation.  This threat is a long-term but high-probability one.  Trump is, at worst, a symptom of this, not a cause.  I don’t fear Trump, I fear how both parties are using the national government, when they control it, to enforce compliance and tribute to whatever petty policy or culture war issues seem most important at the time.[3]

I can’t blame someone for believing certain issues are so beyond the moral pale as to be uncompromisable (I, like most people, have my own list of uncompromisables after all). What I can blame people for believing the PEOPLE on the other side are intolerable.  And most of all, I blame everyone who thinks that the rationality, righteousness, and legitimacy of their stance can be uniformly enforced upon the country by way of government force without a cost. Government fiat, even when morally defensible, costs the country in national unity and governmental legitimacy, and both parties need to realize this and reconsider which issues (and how many) they must make such stands on.


[1] If I may briefly leave the wider question of the future of the Democratic Party behind for a minute to conclude on the immigration issue: in 1924 the nativists won.  I would thus suggest to those in favor of immigration to consider, in parallel to my conclusion on how to treat the Trump presidency, whether virtue-signaling one’s ethical stance on immigration is more important than actually allowing immigration, because I fear the lesson of history is that arguing for, defending, and protecting immigration maximalism is a shortcut to achieving a national policy of immigration minimalism.

[2] There’s something remarkably blase about the strategy presentation.  I’m tempted to suspect that this sort of project was seen or known to be a standard strategic element, that this wasn’t the first, second, or even third time a list of so-called ‘Pied Piper’ candidates had been drawn up.  Conspiratorial?  Absolutely – but that’s what I said about the original statements that Trump was a Trojan horse candidate.  Now I begin to wonder whether the decade or so of supposed Republican self-immolation that Democrat thinkers and writers have been smugly discussing could be laid at the feet of the Democrats…  I’m not going to claim that, not now; the Republican Party sure has plenty of its own problems that can’t be blamed on the Democrats in any way.  Yet – I will be keeping an eye out for further evidence.

[3] It’s such a common, insultingly obvious, and destructive theme that I am stockpiling examples for a potential future blog post on the subject.  Readers who can’t wait can stay alert for policies fixing a nonexistent problem, especially ones that are or were unenforceable, and particularly ones where the policy creates major outrage on one side or the other (or, increasingly often, both).  The first two conditions restrict the domain to policies where the only reasonable interpretation is trying to rub the opposition’s face in something – or alternatively, I must admit, that there is a distinct lack of more productive hobbies for legislators to spend time on.

2 comments to Retrospective, Prospective, Perspective

  • Occam's Safety Razor

    Thanks for a clear-headed discussion of the campaign and election. Finally, a sensible and forward-thinking analysis to counteract all the sky-is-falling panic. I am coming in off the ledge now.
    Maybe I have been watching too much tv, but I’m having trouble being shocked at the DNC Pied Piper strategy. If they had colluded with the RNC or news outlets to promote certain opponents it might count as conspiracy, but the memo looks like garden-variety spin. It’s ugly, but shouldn’t we be blaming the press instead for taking the bait, and for giving the most attention to the most eccentric candidates and outrageous behavior, instead of insisting on more substantive discussion?

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